The breakdown of communication in The Ravickians

   We’ve been discussing in class the ways in which The Ravickians eludes our comprehension and plays with the structure of communication. By the middle of the book, the prose is almost poetry, and by the end, it’s a simple dialogue with no traditional indication of who is speaking. I think Gladman is purposely creating an elusive text to focus our attention on the ways we can’t understand her. This translating relationship, between reader and author, is even more complex than the relationships between the characters in the novel trying to understand one another. Even if we speak the same language as the book we’re reading, there is an inevitable translation from author-speak (constructed prose) to the book’s meaning in the reader’s mind; what we connect to and create as meaningful as we read.

   Despite the odd breakdown in form towards the end of the book, there are passages in the Ravickians that are simple and seem easy to understand; one example is Amini’s description of going out into a city to get somewhere and hoping you have an adventure before you even arrive at the planned destination (20).

   Other passages are completely confusing. For example, from a passage about being on a bus: “We are surrounded and we are alone. This state goes on and on until something breaks, until there is no more lonely left, until we are so full and extended with emptiness that there is no place to go with it. And then out of the dark, someone shows up and gets through” (18-19). What is the “something” and how does it “break”? How would someone “get though” the emptiness? And why would that wording be necessary here? Lots of questions for one small passage. It’s so elusive it’s almost poetry.

   Later phrases from the “dialogue” section are just as odd. Presumably someone interjects things like “My shoes conforming around my feet” (125) into a conversation otherwise about a performance earlier that evening. 

   In general, I think Gladman’s intentions here can be clarified through a quote from page 25. The narrator is discussing Ana Patova’s writings, and how they tend to erase meaning as sentences go on. This novel seems to be erasing our access to clear meaning as it nears its end. Gladman is using this method of writing, while acknowledging in the text that it’s “interesting for creative or theoretical work” but bad for “everyday communication” (25). Is this work no longer interested in actual communication by the end? It’s true that sometimes poetry is more interested in sounds than meaning. The final passages of this novel make me think of that concept. But why write something early in a novel that appears so complex, only to break down into sentences that sound interesting but potentially have no meaning? I’m pretty confused about why Gladman would make that choice.

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Exploration of the Sentence–and How it Means

    From interviews with Gladman and the summary on the back of the book, it seems safe to assume that Event Factory is about sentences and garnering meaning from sentences. I even take the title to be a wry description of a sentence; it is a place where happening and meanings are formed together, an “event factory”. This book is interested in critical theory and how words “mean” what they mean.

   Searching for proof of this in the book, I’ve found several places where the author directly speaks to the difficulty of extracting meaning from a set of words. She often refers to words and sentences metaphorically; she calls them “constructions ” and “structures”. On page 93, she says: “I look at a shape, then look out into the world for the contents to fill it, but the thing I bring back does not fit–it more than not-fits, it destroys the shape altogether,” (emphasis not mine). This reminds me of Lacan’s theory, which is classified as post-structuralist; these theories posit that humanity is so complex and words are so tied to humanity that it is difficult to escape the “structure” of the sentence in order to fully comprehend it (Foucault’s theories about power structures in society and government are post-structuralist, for example). 

   So Gladman is in the post-structuralist camp. Further proof of this can be found in the many places in the novel in which the narrator “communicates” but does not fully understand what is happening. She often guesses what movement might come next, and throws a few “Hello”s in for good measure. She is in the process of trying to understand Ravicka, while immersed in its culture and communication. I think this is exactly the way a post-structuralist would think about approaching a sentence and trying to discover its meaning. The narrator cannot escape the confusing culture around her (referring to the complexities of language and how culture has shaped it and is connected to it), but tries to extract meaning anyway. 

The grotesque in In the House

   It seems like there are endless examples of bodily mutilation and incredibly gross descriptions in In the House. During the scene in which the narrator dives in the lake, and later when he goes down into the deep house with the bear, I realized that disgusting actions (the narrator eating the fetus, for example) are not the only element of the story that are disturbing. We already talked about how the text might be a horror story in that it acknowledges violent and brutal elements we’d rather keep repressed, but I think the descriptions of the narrator’s aging, the bear’s broken body, and dead animals are an important element (ha) of the novel.

   The first word I thought of to describe these phrases was grotesque. Some quick research revealed that this term means many things in the literary sense, including mutilation, ugliness, and twisted or somehow deviant appearances. 

   Interestingly, Wikipedia provides several other definitions of grotesque. It can apparently also refer to “doubleness”, “hybridity”, or “metamorphosis”. These elements tie in nicely with the narrator’s shifting from human to bear and back, and the mother bear’s initial life as a woman. Although I did not find these revelations to be grotesque, they do fit the definition. Wikipedia also notes that the origin of “grotesque” is derived from the latin root “krypte”, which refers to “a hidden place”, namely a cave. Was this intentional on Bell’s part?

    So how is grotesque language working in the novel? My initial theory was that it added to the fantasy of the story; the narrator cannot really be just skin wagging on bones, like a flag on a flagpole. It also added to the feeling of suffering and general misery in the text. Now, it seems like these “gross” phrases may be tied to the ways that the characters cross boundaries and switch forms, and potentially to the cave of the bear, and the deep “hidden place” of the deep house. Perhaps grotesque-ness is simply the aesthetic of the novel, and Bell is using many of its tropes to create an environment where doubles and hybrids are taken as par for the course and ugliness and suffering is part of the atmosphere.

Domains of the family

   As the book progresses I’m very interested in how each character is associated with different “domains” or “elements” in the book. Clearly these domains are important to the story, as the title of the book includes the environmental ones.

   The gender embodiment in the text is very interesting in that it is stereotypical in an eerily old-fashioned way; we don’t know when the book takes place, but clearly the husband feels he is responsible for building a home, protecting his wife and child, and “owning” them both. The wife does the laundry, the mothering, the cooking, and a lot of graphic bleeding associated with miscarriage (the way the male narrator describes it seems almost like an invasion of her privacy–he speaks about it very intimately, which conflicts with the fact that the two seem completely non-intimate). 

   To apply these gender roles to the placement of the characters in the evironment, the wife is almost always in the house, or in the “deep house”, and the husband is almost always outside. Bell might be examining how a man can feel exiled from the home in the ways that he is forced out of the domestic in the family relationship, or in the ways he is sent to do the hunting, the outdoor-building and maintenance. He is locked out of rooms in his “own” house. The anxiety resulting from this seems to cause his mutilation and half-burial of animals, a sort of assertion of his control over the outdoor environment, if not the indoors.

   To bring this to a semi-gross level, it is also possible that this outdoor exile is reflected in the wife’s miscarriages and the supposed failures of her body. The husband feels that despite his efforts, he cannot create or help maintain a baby within her: he is powerless, watching from the outside. Perhaps this frustration is the central one, and Bell is making the statement that man is always forced to be outside the realms of family and creation, and this is why the narrator is so troubled.

“Signifier” and “Signified” (and a bit on Barthes)

   On Steinberg’s use of “signifier” and “signified”: I’m still not entirely sure of the significance of the names of these chapters, but given the themes of performance of gender occurring in the book, I might guess that the chapter called “signifier” is named to draw out attention to the outward representations in the chapter. What meaning do we derive from the representations she gives us? She discusses her tendency to be a pretty little thing, always garnering adoration from her father’s female companions. Perhaps this is what we are supposed to read as her signifier: she is a girl, performing her expected performance.

   In the chapter “Signified”, the narrator continuously brings in the idea of needing a man, and a child, and these are things that make a woman happy. She describes the ridiculous idea of turning to a coffee barista to complete this domestic trinity. I think she’s really getting at the idea that women are meant to look like, and consequently represent, our conventional idea of “women” all day long, and this conflicts with the fact that the narrator has no “signified” underneath: her performance of woman is an empty act, and she is reluctant to follow through beyond her outer performance. To briefly get into semiotics (based in Saussure’s theories), the narrator is a sign for something, but the link is broken: she represents something she actually isn’t.

   Clearly Steinberg is playing with language in a way that both gives us deeper understanding and alienates us. She uses vague words to demonstrate gender stereotypes, and then makes it clear that she both is and is not a good representation, or signifier: she’s a nice girl–but she’s not a nice girl.

   To bring Barthes in, the thing that’s crucial about his philosophy is that it’s essentially a paradox. He argues for the impossibility of gaining the intended meaning from language–but does so in the form of language. He tells us we can’t understand him, or any author–but we read his philosophy, and we do. Thus, the paradox.

   For Barthes, words have so many meanings that it’s impossible to whittle down the possibilities and find the author’s intentions in a phrase. Consequently, we can’t express ourselves and expect we are being understood (if you said to Barthes, “I understand and agree with you”, he would say “No, you don’t”).  “Love” is incredibly complicated, but “I” before it and “you” after do not clarify anything for Barthes; it only makes the misunderstanding worse. To compare him to a linguist who argues against this, Derrida would claim that the addition of “I” and “you” to the sentence are crucial, as the relationships between the words is where we, the readers, build meaning.

   In using “adorable” and other female-oriented phrases, Steinberg seems to be telling us she is not the signifier: she is not really adorable, but on the surface, she lets people think she is. Barthes might say in using “adorable”, the narrator only limits and obscures herself in endless definitions and meanings; I think the narrator uses “adorable” to tell us exactly who she is by who she isn’t. Don’t we know more about the author as she uses more and more words that she tells us don’t represent her? It’s like a character sketch built on what the character should be, but isn’t–which is exactly what most women feel they are reduced to by social pressures.

A case for a single narrator in Spectacle

   After reading the first eight chapters of Spectacle, I think a case can be made for a single narrator of the entire book (unless some wayward chapter later ruins my argument). Taking into account the two brief essays we read from Steinberg, I’m beginning to think the novel is not only narrated by one woman, but that it is slightly autobiographical. She is from Baltimore, and several students from her art school died in a plane crash. She speaks about this in “On Craft”. She also describes her troubled home life.

   The narrator of almost every single story has several things in common, and where one theme is absent, others are there to indicate similarities.

The first point we’ve been considering in class is whether the narrator is female. Evidence for this is in almost every story: “I was just a certain type of girl”, Underfed, “They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed”, Cowboys, “At some point you become something other than girl”, Signifier, “I was not a girl who did girl things”, Underthings, “One’s man was supposed to be there, helping to pull one’s underwear one” (after an ultrasound), Universe, “the older kid, the only girl”, Cowgirl.

   Many of the stories contain evidence of the narrator’s previous trauma with one specific plane crash. Stories that are situated at a time before the crash, of course, do not reference it. The narrator many of the stories (Underfed, Cowboys, Supernova, Signifier, Underthings, Cowgirl) has issues with her father; in some he was abusive during her childhood, and in others it is hinted that he wasn’t a model father, and is now dead because the narrator “pulled the plug”.

   Other themes, like spiders in corners, indignant brothers, abused mothers, windows, alcohol dependency, emphasis on metaphors and meaning, cliches, and palling around with questionable college friends reappear in many of the stories. While it is possible that each narrator is different, they would have to be very similar people for this to be the case. It makes more sense to assume that, according to plot, the narrators are the same.

   The only discontinuity is the form of each story. Steinberg herself has said she is attempting to experiment with the form of prose, and with punctuation. I think that her narrators are, like Steinberg, the same woman, expressing her history in different forms of prose.

Narrative style and revelations

   As the book progresses, I am increasingly interested in the style of narration Novy employs in The Avian Gospels. It’s a comma-splice party–barely a sentence goes by in which he doesn’t use some unconventional grammatical structure. It makes the whole novel seem conversational, almost like stream-of-consciousness. This style seems like a deliberate way to signal to the reader that they’re not reading a formal telling of events (despite the biblical physicality of the book), but more of a past-tense diary kept by some unknown and slightly incoherent city resident.

   I think this narrative choice relates to the initial flatness, and now slight rounding, of our main characters. As more information is revealed about Morgan and the tutor, specifically, I’m getting the sense that there’s no way the narrator could possibly know the details that they are revealing. This descent into inner-monologue territory for characters whom the narrator could not possibly know personally suggests to me that the narrator is slipping into lies and fanciful assumptions–and with this change, the text is finally starting to seem a little more biblical, at least in terms of its unreliable content and impossibly omniscient narrator.