Monday, 13 March 2017

Review: Sebastian Barry, Days Without End

This novel belongs to the Stiff Drink school of writing. You adopt your voice, you start in the middle of things and you keep going until, ninety thousand words later, you bring it all to a close. You provide the reader with no more than a small geographical map of Civil War America and you offer no Acknowledgements to anyone for anything. I guess when it’s all over, you pour another stiff drink.

So you begin with the sentence, “The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake” and, starting from that, introduce your two main characters, John Cole and the narrator Thomas McNulty – who start out as two teenage boys saving themselves from famine and disease, lost in the frontiers of frontier America. They make shift as improvising stage artists, join the army to fight the Indians, join again to fight the Confederate rebels and along the way of killing for their supper, acquire a child - an orphaned Indian Sioux to whom they give the name, Winona.

Winona is not much more than a cypher. She is young, traumatised, pretty, clever and determined. In a world which has not yet replaced brute force with bureaucracy, she easily becomes their daughter and more precious to John and Thomas than their own lives. The reader is led to agree. Nothing bad must happen to Winona, absolutely nothing.

On this foundation, Sebastian Barry is able to carry off John and Thomas as gay men and Thomas as a cross-dresser when opportunity demands and with a taste for continuing that way anyway. In a society no more regulated by convention than bureaucracy, John and Thomas also carry off their difference, indulged by the black members of the household they eventually join, and enjoying Winona’s uncurious love.

Inevitably, there is a whiff of opportunism in this gay men and cross dresser casting but the Stiff  Drink approach allows Sebastian Barry to carry it off. But not only that; it is the rootedness of a story of violence and suffering in some very simple values which carries us along. At one point, I felt that all was revealed when at page 136, John occupies himself trying to soothe a restless, troubled Winona to sleep. He succeeds. “Got her sleeping” he says, “You sure do” says Thomas and adds for the reader one of his short, characteristic lines of laconic wisdom, “Not much more than that needed to make men happy”. All’s well in a world where grown men can soothe troubled children to sleep. If they can do that, who’s gonna care if they’re gay?

Friday, 10 March 2017

Social Text two decades on from the Sokal Affair

Social Text covers a broad spectrum of social and cultural phenomena, applying the latest interpretive methods to the world at large. A daring and controversial leader in the field of cultural studies, the journal consistently focuses attention on questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment, publishing key works by the most influential social and cultural theorists. As a journal at the forefront of cultural theory, Social Text seeks provocative interviews and challenging articles from emerging critical voices. Each issue breaks new ground in the debates about postcolonialism, postmodernism, and popular culture.
In 1996, the academic journal Social Text was hoaxed by an academic physicist, Alan Sokal, who submitted a deliberately absurd, ridiculous and partly unintelligible article - but laced with “Right On” references. A pre-Twitter furore and debate ensued. In connection with something I am writing now, I wanted to check what happened to Social Text. Well, surprisingly, it didn’t fold and above I quote from its initial self-presentation on its current website page.

I found myself thinking, What would a tutor say if this little bit of text was submitted in fulfilment of the requirement for a course in Writing Publicity Blurbs? Would the tutor wonder, Does this student want to fail the course? Or would they confine themselves to a Comment, Too many adjectives? Or Well, I suppose at least you avoided the ultimate cliché, "cutting edge".

The idea of reading and interpreting the “world at large” as if it was a literary text is not absurd and has a long pedigree, starting I suppose with the idea of the “Open Book of the World”. So we are already into centuries of effort. But in post-modernist / post-structuralist or simply low-grade academic writing, the genre has been much abused. You can try to get away with anything and you will probably be applauded if you provide enough Right On signalling.

The really idiotic part of this PR blurb is in the last sentence in which the breaking of new ground is confidently  programmed according to the requirements of a publishing schedule. Oh vanity! I thought that intellectual discoveries came along at ten or twenty year intervals and that then three came along all at once. But, no, your Subscription to Social Text  will guarantee Order.