Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Josh's Just-for-the-Hell-of-It Shred-Your-Mind Syllabus

There was a moment while reading Geek Love, after something totally insane and totally brilliant happened, when I thought to myself something along the lines of “Wouldn't it be fucking nuts to read this with The Lord of the Barnyard? It might shred your fucking mind.” From the title of this post, you can see I ran with the idea.

Designing a syllabus (well, one you actually plan on teaching) might be one of the most difficult critical and interpretive acts. Not only do you need a professional understanding of the works under consideration, you also have to array them in a way that creates a particular kind of conversation among them. You have to meticulously extrapolate the amount of time students will need to read and understand the works. And then, you have to balance your specific goals against a wider conversation with literature in general at the world at large, creating something specific enough to get your point across, but inclusive enough to reflect the diversity of human life and expression. And, depending on where you're teaching, you've probably also got to cram in some works mandated.

A syllabus is a cascade of impossible decisions resulting in something that is going to be inherently unsatisfying to the person creating it, whilst and at the same time, presenting to the world for rigorous scrutiny a profound statement on your ideas, your priorities, your pedagogy, and, ultimately, the core of your very being.

Unless, you're just fucking around with a thought experiment. Then it's a ton'o'fun. So from that initial moment, I tried to remember other books that created that particular feeling of productive violence on my intellect, that sensation of incisions made in my brain by other people's words, that feeling that new eyes have been cut into my forehead that, for a moment at least, let me look into unimagined dimensions of twisted physics and warped logic. And then there is the sense of being ragged afterward, but in a satisfying way. Once I had a list, incomplete, of course, prose-centric, but not exclusive, I tried to imagine how to build from one work to the next and how that building would play out over the course of a semester or a year. Here's what I came up with.

Ban En Banlieu: Ban is about a lot of things; gender, race, violence, all that good stuff, but it is also about the act of creating, how we create and what we create with. Even the acknowledgments is part of the text. It is all fluid boundaries and permeable borders. At the bookstore, I recommend this specifically as a book for writers and artists because of how it incorporates its own process and I think this syllabus is best read from the perspective that you are an artist of your own consciousness.

The Beauty Salon: Short. Weird. Semi-post-apoacalyptic. What struck me about this bizarre, but compelling book, in particular was that its images didn't seem to work the way images usually work in literature. They resisted metaphor. They resisted interpretation. They didn't play the game of literature the way I was used to playing.

Philosophy of Composition: Poe's work tends to hide its truly subversive insanity beneath a layer of obvious insanity. Whatever madness he depicts, almost certainly hides a more nuanced, more complex, more troubling madness connected to narration, storytelling, perception, and psychology. But this, “essay,” ostensibly on his writing process for the "The Raven," might be the most insane. The least-insane interpretation is that it is a beautifully nuanced, whilst and at the same time, viciously scathing satire on currents in literary criticism at the time. The most-insane is that he actually means what he says and actually composed "The Raven" in the loony-tunes manner he described. Or, he's just fucking with us.

Lord of the Barnyard: As much as American culture likes to celebrate the “self-made man,” there is nothing society hates more than a person who doesn't need it. Starting with the epic and beautiful first sentence, Lord of the Barnyard maintains a frenetic pace through a story of agriculture, racism, small-town politics, garbage collection, and genius. The protagonist, John Kaltenbrunner is a different kind of American hero, but I think he is another vital incarnation of Huck Finn.

Duplex: How would you tell the story of the malignant death-denial pulsing at the center of American suburbia? With robots, wizards, and perhaps four apocalypses. Duh.

Beloved: Your body is not a body so much as it is a focal point for the forces of history that both sculpt your humanity/insanity while at the same time haunting your soul and oppressing your present. There's a reason why Toni Morrison is a Nobel Laureate and a reason why all those “Is Jonathan Franzen our great living American novelist?” discussions are racist, sexist bullshit. Morrison is a genius and Beloved tore me to bits.

We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders: For me, as a reader, problematic juxtapositions and radical changes in narrative trajectory create powerful reading experiences, and so, one goes from Beloved, to Davis's parody/homage/other of academic sociological writing. Can analysis be a story? Do emotions “find a way,” even when the prose style is intended to eschew emotions? What does diction reveal about ourselves? What is it like to get a bunch of barely sincere letters from your classmates while you're clearly having a very shitty Christmas? Much like "A Philosophy of Composition," Davis's short story practically dares you to tear it to pieces, while baffling your attempts to tear it to pieces.

Ghosts: Really any Cesar Aira novel could've gone here. In some ways, How I Became a Nun is even more mind-shreddy, given that it involves manslaughter by arsenic-poisoned ice cream, and The Literary Conference involves giant mutant silkworms, and Conversations is top-to-bottom seated madness, but there is a prose beauty in Ghosts that I think distinguishes it from the rest of Aira's brilliant oeuvre. There is something sneaky about Ghosts that I think makes it fit with this list more seamlessly than his other works. (Though, you should read his other works, too.)

Our Lady of the Flowers: There's nothing sneaky about the beauty in Our Lady of the Flowers. Genet's explicit goals are to reveal (or imbue) the craven, wretched, betraying, criminal with angelic beauty. Genet was a small time crook himself, something of a drama queen in many ways and an absolute trainwreck in all the others; he also was a successful poet, novelist, and playwright in distinct, delineated chunks of his life. I don't think Our Lady will convince anybody that it's beautiful to be criminal, but the book is beautiful and beautiful in a way that makes you wonder how much you can trust your eyes and how much you can trust in words.

Thrown: I've written about Thrown before, focusing on how it considered sports, but there is a ton of other crazy shit going on in this book; about narrative, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, how we use literature to grapple with philosophy, how philosophy can be employed to live and view one's life, but even if you leave all the heady topics aside, there is still the balls-to-the-wall prose. Howley writes with an intellectual bravado I've only ever seen in Foucault.

Geek Love: The book that started this whole thought experiment. There are lots of reasons why Geek Love would go in a syllabus like this, but I think the most important thing I've encountered about it, to date, is that every time I feel like I start to get a handle on what the book is about it completely throws me. This probably says a lot about me as a reader, but, often the books I most enjoy and the books I feel I get the most out of, I also feel like I have absolutely no fucking clue what is going on.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: I know this one doesn't seem like belongs with the others, but trust, me, after all of these other books, I think you'd seen O'Connor's masterpiece in a new light. I mean, there isn't a decent character in the whole story and there was a point, at least for me, when you kinda empathize with The Misfit. How fragile are our morals and ethics when they are susceptible to annoying kids and a whiny mother-in-law?

Satantango: “Wait, magic spiders. What the fuck?” Satantango is absolutely relentless. Grim. Dark. Soggy. Moldering. Miserable. And yet, Krasznahorkai might be the most beautiful prose-stylist in the world alive. And I think he's clearly perfectly comfortable totally fucking with us. I put Satantango here at the end, because I suspect that, after all the other shit one's brain has been through in the previous books, an odd, perhaps even angelic beauty might arise from this book. There's a chance you might be somewhat inoculated to what would otherwise be shocking or disturbing about Satantango allowing you to focus on the prose itself. Or you'll never recover from the scene with the cat. Probably both.

It has it's problems, as all syllabi do and even over the few weeks I've been working on this I've encountered works that might belong, but it was fun to put together, and fun to imagine how I'd feel when I got to the end of that course. What would you add and where?