Novels with a “capacity to make me uncomfortable, to unnerve or challenge or confuse me”

Last week, during the day when I should’ve been working and in the wee hours when I was sleepless due to jet lag persisting after my return from a month in Australia, I feasted on Plum Rains and then The Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax. I’m now suffering withdrawal–having read Detour and Behave a year or so ago, I have no more of her novels to look ahead to. Anyway, let me use this blog post to convey a few notes of appreciation.

In various courses I have had students map the processes that come together in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. It’s a dark, violent time Butler was envisaging back when she wrote the book in the early 1990s. Butler’s fiction did not rely on fanciful future science or some catastrophic event. All the processes that came together were each already evident then–climate change with consequent droughts and fires, ethnic segregation, gated communities, widespread gun ownership, drug epidemics, fundamentalist authoritarian politics, etc. I have then challenged students to consider alternative ways that the same processes could come together in the future that would not be as bleak. In the same vein—with the same virtue of extending current processes, more than relying on fictional science—I would now include Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and Romano-Lax’s Plum Rains. But her book does something Butler and Robinson don’t, namely, it draws out the memories of the central characters, who re-view their lives. The choices they made in constrained and hazardous circumstances moved me to reflect on how, based on the elements and strands of my own life course, I would navigate the future in the United States in decline—a decline with respect to the global order and through domestic discord looking every day more like the Parable of the Sower than I could have believed just two years ago. Each week’s developments scare me–or, rather, leave me fearful about whether I have the bravery, knowledge, and community to resist, to take appropriate action.

These are questions that the central characters Feliu and Al Cerraz address often in The Spanish Bow—as does the character Aviva. At one point in reading I had to take a break because I was too stirred up in admiration for how the author was weaving together the actual history, the fictional characters, their thoughts and dialogue. I jumped ahead to the author notes at the end. I was struck by her motivation shifting from nonfiction fiction:

Like most Americans, I was jostled by the 9/11… attacks, which forced me to ask myself that clarifying doomsday question, If I could do only one more thing with my life–if I could write only one more thing–what would it be?

Where imagination promised to lead me in a fruitful direction, I followed it, becoming, to my complete surprise, a novelist in the process. In the end I chose to shelve all plans for a nonfiction book and instead write a novel about protagonists who ask themselves some of the same questions I had asked myself in 2001: Is this what I should be doing with my life? In difficult times, is art an indulgence or a necessity? Must I sacrifice my own happiness to what is going on around me? And, politics aside: Who will remember me?

When I went back to reading the novel, it was now on two levels, not only for the unfolding story but also as a lesson–a model and a nudge–in asking myself the same questions.

While in Australia I read short newspaper piece quoting the novelist Charlotte Wood warning about a trend in the literary world: “Nowhere have I been asked to rate anything on its capacity to make me uncomfortable, to unnerve or challenge or confuse me.” Charlotte is reflecting on art as well as on writing that she “doesn’t like,” but, even though I really liked both Plum Rains and The Spanish Bow, I rate them highly on their “capacity to make me uncomfortable, to unnerve or challenge or confuse me.” Brava!

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

3 Responses to Novels with a “capacity to make me uncomfortable, to unnerve or challenge or confuse me”

  1. Chris London says:

    Thanks for the recommendations. Two thoughts:

    First, in my course Citizens, States and Geography, this week we’re reading a chapter by Bertell Ollman about Marx’s method for thinking the future. One part of that sounds a lot your point about Romano-Lax: reviewing one’s past in order to project how the present came to be and past that into the future.Ollman’s ‘dance of the dialectic’ has it that we review the past to better understand how the present came to be. Along the way we discover other possible paths that weren’t taken but continue to exist in the present as possibilities, we then project forward to see what kinds of potential future there might be, then finally step back to the present to envision our praxis going forward toward possible futures but also attentive to the diverse histories and historical pathways that we are navigating. Will have to read Romano-Lax to see how she works with the past.

    Second, last summer I read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents for the first time. Like you I thought it was stunningly prescient. In the Talents the christo-fascist leader has the slogan, I shit you not, Make America Great Again. So those books are absolutely terrifying.

    For a book that has characters review their lives, but in a very different way than what Romano-Lax sounds like, there’s Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt. I’ll be invoking that book when we discuss Ollman on Wednesday.

    It’s an alter-history, premised on the idea that the Black Plague wiped out 90% of Europe’s population rather than 30%. So a history of the world without Europe as a major player. Throughout the centuries there are three primary characters and a host of secondary who relive their character types in the different historical moments, meeting again in the Bardo where there is a sort of life review that happens.

    But what I really love about the book is the speculation that so much of actual world history could very well have happened in the absence of Europeans. It underscores that Europeans (including of course Anglo-Americans and other Euro-diaspora peoples) have always been shameless appropriators, when not outright thieves. So if, say, I were to make an argument against capitalism and were to get as a rejoinder something like ‘but you couldn’t live without your cell phone so there’ my counter is, a la Robinson, that just because something came about the way it did doesn’t mean it couldn’t have come about in some other way. What this does is make open-endedness not just a feature of the present but also of the past, the past is still in the process of becoming, it’s future is still indeterminate, there is so much still that can be done.

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