Author: dlastres

Memoir and Confession in The Sympathizer

When The Sympathizer breaks from the memoir form in Chapter 19, it opens by framing the Commandant, to whom the “confession” has been addressed, as an editor, “Like Stalin, the commandant was a diligent editor, always ready to note my many errata and digressions and always urging me to delete, excise, reword, or add” (309). This dry comment makes it plain that the commandant (a literal authority) has authority over the text we have been reading this whole time and it retroactively frames the “confession” as more of a memoir. This also begins the shift towards his confinement and torture in order to produce a true confession, one that fits Foucault’s definition from Discipline and Punish, “Through the confession, the accused himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth” (38).  While the rupture in narratological structure and the ambiguity of truth it produces are not necessarily unique to The Sympathizer, the novel manages to problematize both the memoir and the confession as reliable vessels of truth. When the nature of one’s character is on trial, the novel suggests,  form is more important than function.

Ultimately, the narrator returns to himself following his successful confession and relates the experience of recovering himself through his manuscript. Yet that process represents another attempt to edit the manuscript and add to it, further distorting or at least concealing the truth value of chapters 1-18. No novel is ever perfectly clear about what is true, but The Sympathizer deserves a lot of credit for forcing its reader to confront and reexamine the problems of authority and the cultural, ideological, and narrative valences that shape what is true, what a character consists of, and their particularities.

Attribution and Motivation in The Sympathizer

Nguyen’s book seems to be encouraging us to think a lot about the way we interpret motivation/ attribute people’s actions to their character. In general he seems to be pointing to a psychological bias (the fundamental attribution error) whereby people selectively attribute  a person’s actions to their character or circumstances based on the extent to which we understand/trust them. The list of oriental/occidental attributes presented in chapter 4 exemplifies this insofar as the out-group (orientals) are presumed to be culturally set in stone where as the occidental attributes are conditional, framed with words like “occasionally,” “somewhat,” and “once in a while.” The occidental in group is given much more freedom to be influenced by its circumstances whereas the out-group is characterized directly.

In order to subvert this bias, Nguyen places his narrator in a position where he literally sympathizes (or empathizes) with people on either side of the Vietnamese civil war such that he attributes the actions of everyone involved to their circumstances. Even ideology is framed as circumstantial when he discusses his three childhood friends  and how they ended up divided by the conflict. So why shape the main character as a sympathetic reader of character and motivation who doesn’t attribute people’s actions to their character? Perhaps we can attribute his predisposition to understanding and sympathy as a natural out-growth of the dual-life he lives, at the very least we can be certain that Nguyen wants us to see how someone incapable of cleanly siding with one group over another has greater occasion to be sympathetic  in a way that those divided by conflict can not be.

Relative Desire and Character Relationships

While Bluest Eye is seriously concerned with how gender, race, and class can effect a the self-esteem of someone in Pecola’s situation, it also depicts a parallel process whereby she becomes a foil for other people’s self-esteem. Indeed, we can read self esteem as an interpretation of one’s own desirability (or ugliness as Pecola sees it) as mediated through their social, or in this case, narrative world. During one of the narrator’s few moments of earnest self-reflection she says, “We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength” (205). Morrison makes this interplay of desire among social relations a focus of her narrative but I think it’s fair to say that this matrix of status, desire, and esteem can be identified in most of the novels we have read. Even if characters do not expressly orient themselves towards one another as Claudia and Freda do, we can determine their politics of desire from how they are individually characterized and how they interact as and towards each other’s characters. In the afterward, Morrsion tells us her process  began with Pecola and then she added friends to build the world around her and this shows in the novel’s relatively hands off (or outside in) perspective which simultaneously characterizes several narrators, their desires, and their relationships and develops Pecola’s through interplay and description mediated by these character’s relationships.

Synchronicities and Intertexuality

Of all the “synchronicities” (154) popping up in the summer described throughout chapter 6, Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest is deployed to make sense of Alisons’ parents’ marriage and to provide a narrative reframing of Fun Home as a whole. The Importance  is a  play directed (albeit snickeringly) against the social conventions of the late victorian era that begins with two main characters revealing their double lives and ends with them realizing that their fictionalized personas were actually factual. Surely, it’s no coincidence that Fun Home is labeled a “tragicomic” while Wilde subtitled his play “a trivial play for serious people”.  The novel as a whole exists along a tension between the parts of her past that strike her as tragedy or “old catastrophe” and her impulse to identify comedic ironies along with the dramatic ones; ultimately, these two poles are distinguished as such through chronological reordering and thematization within chapters and it is impossible to situate it within either camp definitively. It is especially worth noting that Bechdel’s own narrational style and sense of narrative evolve or re-focus depending on what writer or work of fiction she is in conversation with. Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald brought out a dour and apt comparison to her father’s frustrated double life, so does the engagement with Wilde draw out a more light-hearted and humorous approach to her own family’s contradictions and subjection to social morays (See the not so subtle innuendo in the first panel of 167). Is it fair to say, then, that authors engaging in  in conversation with other works (even just at the level of allusion?) can be influenced and refocused in the same way that characters and narratives-shape one another reciprocally?

Epistemological Crisis

I’m really fascinated by Todoov’s idea that characters are parallel readers of the narrative world and the way that Pynchon’s postmodern approach deliberately frustrates and complicates both the character’s and our own ability to discern what’s going on here. On page 124, Oedipa experiences another distressing episode of uncertainty, confusion, and paranoia that seems to be speaking to a much broader crisis of epistemology: “The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was.” Here, her confusion may stem from a distrust of her own senses and memory but it is not so much a loss of epistemological certainty so much as an acceptance that any ideas or knowledge she generates will be subjective and impossible to confirm definitively.

If, as was suggested at the end of class on Monday, we are to read Oedipa as a modernist figure learning to live in a post modern world, then this moment is a key step in that process.For Oedipa, this crisis of knowledge production and interpretation is a key moment in her agency panic. I think a reasonable reader stops trusting Oedipa as an authority  early on. At this moment, she not only comes to distrust herself as well, but also loses faith in metaphor itself -a building block of narrative description and, research suggests, cognition and reason. That is a fundamental crisis of epistemology.  Characters like Oedipa and the invisible man certainly experience agency panic, but their epistemological relationship to the narrative world is an essential part of their character that underpins our experience as a reader.

Futurity and Hindsight in The Invisible Man

I approached this novel thinking about how fate, destiny, or even social progress can shape a character by orienting them towards the future, but am now considering the role of hindsight in the crafting of a fictional character. Not only is this because the action of the novel from prologue to epilogue is told in hindsight, but because there is a distinct shift in the epilogue where it seems that the narrative exercise of retelling his origins has given the Invisible Man a certain comfort with his past and acceptance of the future’s unpredictability. The Invisible Man claims he does not know whether coming to understand his status as such places him “in the rear or in the avant-garde” (572), and goes on to honestly endorse the merits and dangers of self-reflection. I think it’s fair to say that Ellison is demonstrating the interconnectedness of past an present in the making of one’s self; indeed the past is all we have to go on when looking toward the future, thus imagining one’s future, fate, or destiny always has an element of pastness in it. The Invisible Man has clarified his character to us and to himself (an example of Todorov’s parallel interpretation process)  by showing us his past and it reorients him towards the future: “I carried my sickness and though for a long time I tried to place it in the outside world, the attempt to write it down shows me that at least half of it lay within me” (575).


Losing or Discovering a Sense of Self

When the narrator leaves the hospital, he is certainly distressed by everything he just went through, but as he teases out this strange feeling he starts to regard it as a positive development. Not only does he wonder about the words and affect he has just expressed in his final conversation with the factory official/doctor, but he is also convinced that he no longer fears important men. To be frank, I was really puzzled by this portion because it seems to represent a distinct shift in his psychology as a character: “We, he, him—my mind and I—were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either” (249), yet I am having trouble pinning down exactly how he changed, other than these paragraphs expressing his sense of confusion and dissociation. His fear of important men is certainly diminished as we can see from the spittoon incident at the boarding house and his general distrust of authority within the brotherhood, but why did the fight in the boiler room and the subsequent accident and electroshock therapy precipitate this shift in his attitude? In a novel that seems to be seriously concerned with the formation of one’s identity, what are we to make of his brief but nearly total loss of identity and the way it seems to reorient him?