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Fifth encounter

We meet Twyla and Roberta once more; this time it is in a coffee shop on Christmas Eve, years later, probably in the early 1980s. Roberta wants to discuss what she last said about Maggie. The conversation is sympathetic but ends on an unresolved note.

31. Reconsidering American history in T.Morrison's A Mercy.


In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root. Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in "flesh," he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, "with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady." Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master's house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved. There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who's spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens' mother.  A Mercy reveals what lies beneath the surface of slavery. But at its heart it is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother who casts off her daughter in order to save her, and of a daughter who may never exorcise that abandonment. 

In her novel A Mercy, set in the 17th century American wilderness, Toni Morrison again explores the interaction between woman and nature, and the juxtaposition of wilderness and civilization. As in her earlier novel Beloved, Morrison‘s female characters travel the pathways of the natural world and are transformed. Against its backdrop of early material culture among immigrants in the Americas, A Mercy can be said to predictably bring the snake of capitalism into the new Eden. However, there is much more at work in Morrison‘s wilderness. As Morrison develops characters who live in varying degrees of chattel servitude, she explores the evolution of American slavery through the creation of the slave holder. Just as the institution of slavery is an unnatural affront to nature, so the evolution of man to slave holding persona becomes an act of anti-creation. A Mercy, set in pre-revolutionary North America explores the possibilities that early settlers would have found upon their arrival in the 17th century. In a place that Morrison has called ―ad hoc,‖ a place where the ruling class often changed, but where there was always a ruling class, non-democratic systems were constructed specifically to manage large tracts of land and to exploit natural resources. The novel does not speculate on whether any of the main characters are looking to the future for any system better than the one they have. As readers, we see only the vicissitudes of everyday life, and the precariousness of life on the frontier. But in examining land, work, and property among the different classes of immigrants, A Mercy addresses the question of servitude and slavery as it evolves from custom and tradition to the law of the new land. At the end, A Mercy represents what the new nation could have done and what the maturing country could have become. Morrison shows the reader the shaky beginnings of the plantation economy that sustained and is sustained by the institution of slave labor. It seems to have been a loose recreation of old country serfdom with the addition of racism as a convenient justification Forum on Public Policy 8 for an economic system designed to be driven by free labor, designed to maintain a ruling class, designed to divide the labor classes, and destined to be oppressive. In the novel, the weakness of this economic system is shown as its dependence upon the patriarchal control of property. With the loss of Jacob Vaark, the center can no longer hold. The residents no longer answer to a master, and each in her/his own way begins to plan for a future that does not include one.

32. The idea of literature in J.Barth’s Chimera.

This was a hoot - three linked novellas each drawn from much older traditions, one from The Arabian Nights and two from Greek mythology (the careers of Perseus and Bellerophon, respectively). In Chimera, he retells 1001 Nights, the myth of Perseus, and the myth of Bellepheron with the intention of exploring why we continue to study the myths while simultaneously recasting them in a post-freudian language that tries to flesh out how such things could actually come to pass (which can't really be done) . . . and thus this becomes a comedy. I'm not all that interested in theories of narrative, texts that are aware of themselves, et cetera, and the author's occasional appearances in his own story come off as indulgent, but then again... a chimera is after all a conjunction of three animals and there are three interrelated stories here. And the grand finale does feature slaying of said creature by Bellerophon, although whether it actually exists in the story is another matter, but then again maybe the actual chimera is ontologically less significant than the myth of one, seeing as how countless people know of the story but how many have actually encountered one?

Somehow he can balance modern language with mythic settings in a way that makes the legend grow larger in the telling. I had some passing acquaintance with these stories before Chimera but now I feel like I really know them, and in this respect I really have to give kudos to Mr. Barth. In fact if you are genuinely interested in mythology than I'll call this out as a must-read.

Oh and let's not forget that Chimera is full of wild sex and laugh-out-loud humor without breaking any of its legendary context. I will never look at Amazons the same way again.

33. M.H.Kingston Tripmaster Monkey. Asian American identity.

Wittman is bothered by the perception that his culture is considered Asian, instead of Western. He repeatedly states that the culture he has as a result of his Chinese ancestry is part of Western culture. Wittman almost constantly thinks about the racism and prejudice in American society. He is angry at the discrimination faced by non-white Americans, yet he is embarrassed by the behavior of recent Chinese immigrants. He also compares the discrimination faced by Americans of Asian descent versus that faced by Latinos or Blacks. Wittman, largely without an Chinese/Asian American literary tradition, has to overcome (white) racist assumptions of "the artist" in order to produce his truly American play without it being reduced to some "exotic" or "Oriental" exercise in Asianness. Despite the seriousness of Wittman's self- and community-driven mission to be taken seriously as an artist despite the racist assumptions that attempt to stifle his creativity, the novel is extremely funny, witty and surreal. Wittman disturbs a girl he is infatuated with by proclaiming "I am really: the present-day USA incarnation of the King of the Monkeys." Tripmaster Monkey is only the beginning of an ongoing statement about such a generation, with Wittman as its impressive spokesman.

What Wittman has achieved in the novel has great symbolic significance for many Chinese Americans. Combining two kinds of wisdoms culled from two cultures, Wittman has put the history of America into the perspective of the Cantonese operas that once sustained the communities of Chinese pioneers who helped to develop the frontiers of the United States. By involving the community in reviving the Chinese theater, Wittman has fulfilled his personal quest as well as given a new life to an old tradition. Above all, through Wittman, Kingston has added an indelible historical dimension to the myth of the American Dream.

Wittman also addresses issues that concern the United States as a whole. As Kingston suggests, nothing in modern life is immune to Wittman’s cornucopian if cynical commentaries. Impulsive as he is, Wittman is actually quite systematic in his protest against the dehumanizing condition of modern society, which at its worst moments has given rise to the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and the Vietnam War. Through his cross-cultural and trans-temporal play, Wittman is stating that war and its propaganda ought to stop, that history has proven how even the best of warriors with the best tactics and the best weapons have invariably lost, and that peace, not war, is the real revolution of the modern world.

34. Psychology of violence in J.C.Oates’ Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

You can read Oates's story as a crime story: a fictionalized account of a historical character (Charles Schmid, the Pied Piper of Tucson), or as moral parable: a cautionary tale for young girls, or as a cultural document of the 1960's, in which the innocence of America was giving way to the more hard-edged, troublesome, turbulent, violent and unpredictable times. So, The victimization of women is explored, and how men act as predators in our society. The story intensifies the fear and suspense associated with this power differential by putting Connie in an untenable, vulnerable situation from which she has no choice but to leave the house with Arnold Friend. So this story heightens our awareness of this problem.

Finally, we might also interpret "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as a classic example of a "coming of age" story, also known as an initiation story. In such stories, the protagonist undergoes an important rite of passage, transformation, an experience of transition, usually from childhood to adulthood, or from innocence to experience. The story focuses on that turning point, that trial, or the passage from one state to the other. Reading the last page of Joyce Carol Oates's story, one can't miss the coming of age happening before our very eyes. Connie splits into two persons: one (the childhood Connie) watches the other (the grown woman) depart with Arnold Friend. 

35. Versions of American minimalism. R.Carver Cathedral.

Raymond Carver is generally considered the leading writer of the school of fiction called minimalism, which—as its name implies—eliminates all but the most important details. Minimalists are noted for using simple language and focusing on factual statements, implying rather than attempting to explain precisely what is going on inside their characters. The reader of a minimalist story is forced to make inferences from what the characters do and say. For example, it can be inferred that the narrator of "Cathedral" and his wife are not getting along well and might be on the verge of divorce. Indeed, the most striking thing about "Cathedral" is its simplicity of language. This type of narration from the viewpoint of a simple, uneducated man creates an impression of truthfulness, as the narrator seems too naive to be dishonest or evasive.Characteristically, Carver neither names nor describes the two principal characters and does not even reveal where the story takes place. Like other minimalist fiction writers, such as Ann Beattie, Carver deletes every word that he possibly can and even deletes punctuation marks whenever possible. The effect of minimalism is to engage one’s imagination, forcing the reader to make guesses and assumptions and thereby participate in the creative process. In "Cathedral," as in many of his other stories, Carver uses a narrator who is a faux naif, like the narrators of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Such "naive" narrators supposedly do not understand the full import of what they are telling. This narrative device enhances verisimilitude, characterizes and creates sympathy for the narrator, and provides a basis for humor. The typical point of stories involving faux naif narrator-protagonists is that they experience events that teach them something about life or about themselves, thereby making them less naпve. In identifying with the narrator, the reader vicariously experiences the learning event and feels changed by the story.

Minimalist short-story writers often write about seemingly trivial domestic incidents and tend to avoid what James Joyce called "epiphanies"—sudden intuitive perceptions of a higher spiritual meaning to life. Minimalists have been attacked as having nothing to say because they do not offer solutions to the existential problems they dramatize in their stories. In a typical Carver story, little changes; his endings might be called "mini-epiphanies." This is characteristic of minimalists, who usually display a nihilistic outlook and do not believe there are answers to life’s larger questions, such as Who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going? Carver’s "downbeat" endings tend to leave the reader depressed or perplexed—and this is the intention. Carver tried to capture the feelings of alienation and frustration that are so much a part of modern life. Raymond Carver has been credited with single-handedly reviving interest in the short story, a genre which had been perfected by American authors beginning with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe but had been rapidly declining in popularity and social influence with the advent of television after World War II. Some readers dislike Carver’s stories because they seem depressing or pointless. Others appreciate them because they are so truthful. He writes about working-class folk who lead lives of quiet desperation, are chronically in debt, and often drown their sorrows in drink.

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