After reading Zunshine’s essay “Cognitive alternatives to interiority”, I was quite interested in how this historical contextualization of “mind-reading” relates to the identity of immigrants in Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. In describing a particular dinner scene with the Congressman and an English professor, the narrator describes most immigrants as “the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people” as they “know white people better then they knew themselves” (258). In Zunshine’s essay, this literary phenomenon is known as “third-level cognitive embedment” (153) and involves a fictional character’s ability to represent their own interiority as well as another character’s perception of their interiority. For the unnamed protagonist in The Sympathizer, this ability manifests itself as a survival technique for immigrants who are forced to decipher and present that which is most desirable for the white American, whether it be laughing at their jokes or refraining from talking in a foreign language while in their presence.
This particular moment of the text is a clear reflection of Zunshine’s belief that a character’s decision of whose mind should be reflected is an “ideological, culture-specific choice” (160). With that being said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the reader’s involvement the process. Now confronted with a character whose representation of himself and other fictional characters is somewhat distorted or altered, it makes the reader’s job even more difficult in grasping (and trusting) the interiority of a particular character. It’s possible that this is another literary device used to reflect the post-Vietnam war era and shifting American identity, but the narrator’s inclusion that family members read their “anthropology notes” with “hilarity, confusion, and awe” (258) seems to suggest something else. Much like 18th-century fictional characters who used third-level cognitive embedment to elevate their social status, it seems like the protagonist views this ability as a source of power and subversion within the typical parameters of a Vietnamese immigrant living in the United States.
I was most intrigued by Tyrell’s belief that if you gift a replicant with memories, you “create a cushion or pillow for their emotions” which allows for these androids to be more easily controlled. This statement, of course, becomes more complicated as Rachael slowly realizes that the majority of her memories are artificially planted into her consciousness, and actually belong to Tyrell’s niece. As she plays the piano, she can’t remember if the piano lessons are her own, or if her ability to play is merely a byproduct of another’s experience. What I find so fascinating is the assertion that memory and control are linked through their development of a character, as the existence of one allows for the exertion of another. While these memories create an interiority and independence for the characters, they also reveal an artificiality behind this construction. This got me thinking about how the development of any fictional character is similar to that of the replicant, as memories and experiences are projected onto a character via a second-party. It also seems that the presence of these “memories” within a character allows for a more genuine, controlled relationship between reader and character, much like the way in which memories within a replicant provide a “cushion or pillow” through which emotion can be understood.
During my reading of The Bluest Eye, I was struck by a particular observation made by Claudia. In describing the situation of Pecola, her newly acquainted foster sister, Claudia mentions that she moves about “on the hem of life”, attempting to “creep singly up into the major folds of the garment” (17). She references this state as a peripheral existence, and one that is best dealt with in the abstract. I found this particular passage quite interesting, as much of the novel seems interested with the abstract as it relates to both the literary form and the character’s existence. The beginning of the novel, for example, presents a picturesque view of family life, detailing a house that’s filled with a happy, complete family. This presentation, however, becomes increasingly disjointed, eventually transforming into a mass of words that lacks any sense of logic or cohesion. Even more interesting is the occasional injection of these passages before a chapter, reminding the reader of the abstract way in which the novel is constructed.
What’s more intriguing to me, however, is the way in which this abstract method of writing relates to Pecola’s characterization. In addition to living on the fringes of society, she’s described as “concealed, veiled, eclipsed”, only occasionally peering out from “behind the shroud” (39). It’s interesting, and perhaps a little strange, to consider how Pecola’s own abstract, enigmatic characterization is the best way in which to understand her character. Much like Morrison’s introduction, Pecola’s own interiority can come across as simultaneously mysterious and revealing, developing the ways in which her character’s inferiority complex is constructed and displayed.
Throughout my reading of Fun Home, I was interested in the ways in which the format of a memoir would impact the development of fictional character. Despite the fact that Alison Bechdel is afforded the freedom to develop her character and the character of her father in a way that feels natural to her, I was also struck by the lack of agency/sense of lack of agency within the graphic memoir. When Alison discovers that her father had been having affairs with other men, for example, she describes the revelation as being “demoted from protagonist…to comic relief” (58). Not only does this news upend the way in which Alison views herself as a character, but it’s also viewed as an “abrupt and wholesale revision” (79) of Bechdel’s history, as if the rug had been pulled out from underneath the character. With that being said, I think the concept of agency is a complicated one, especially because Fun Home is a memoir that is told through flashbacks and memories. Is it fair to say that Bechdel’s character lacks agency even though her counterpart in the real world is responsible for telling her story? And how exactly does a memoir, or the idea that the author is recreating themselves in the fictional form, change the way we look at the characters?
After reading the first four chapters of The Crying of Lot 49, I find myself most drawn to Oedipa’s fascination with the play and how certain elements of the story, including names and events, seem to correlate to things happening in Oedipa’s own life. Three men dressed in black, for example, attacked a dozen Wells, Fargo men, similar to the three assassins featured in The Courier’s Tragedy. During a conversation with the director of the play, however, he states that the play exists not in a physical form but within the minds of those who have experienced the narrative (62). This doesn’t seem to be entirely the case, as certain elements from the story bleed out into the real world, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Oedipa’s personal reaction further complicates the matter, stating that she occasionally feels “the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, jut perceptibly out of focus, that the projectionist refused to fix” (10). It’s interesting to consider how the tension between Oedipa’s fictional reality and the reality of the play impact her character, and whether a state of self-awareness is an appropriate term to describe her character’s ability to recognize the uncanny nature of reality within The Crying of Lot 49.
Throughout the reading for today’s class, I was struck by the number of times in which the Invisible Man recognizes his own shifting values and ideas. Following the revelation that Clifton has gone missing, the Invisible Man comments that it “was as though” he “had been suddenly awakened from a deep sleep” (422). This newly realized state is echoed later on, as the protagonist mentions that he feels as if he’s “been asleep, dreaming” (444), unaware of the impact that his involvement in the Brotherhood and Harlem would have. These particular moments of character revelation are strange, mainly because a future Invisible Man, and likely a much different character than the current one, is narrating the story. In this way, the reader is forced to juggle a variety of different invisible men, beginning with the “completed version” of the prologue and then transitioning with him from college to New York City to the Brotherhood, etc. I’m interested in how this complicated method of unfolding used by Ellison impacts the relationship between reader and character, if at all. In addition, I think it’s interesting to consider the factors that cause these character changes, as the majority seem to be external factors (like leaving college, joining the Brotherhood) that incite internal revelations.
Beginning with Ralph Ellison’s introduction to Invisible Man, I was struck by the unique relationship between character and plot. Describing his method of constructing the novel, Ellison states that as he “began to structure the movement” of the plot, the character of the invisible man “began to merge with…more specialized concerns” (xix). When discussing the unfolding narrative, the invisible man cautions himself not to get “too far ahead of the story”, even if “the end is in the beginning and lies ahead” (6). Even as the story shifts through time and place, the invisible man remains at the center, possibly providing the momentum that was described by Ellison as a merging of character and plot. It’s interesting to consider the significance of plot in relation to the development of fictional character, and how this relationship might be categorized: does one’s development drive the development of another, or do they work in unison?