Author: michelleshim

Hypothetical Construction of History, Memory, and Self

One of the most engrossing sections for our last reading of The Sympathizer was towards the end of Chapter 21 after the narrator finally confesses the details of the gang rape of the communist agent. After remarking, “Yes, memory was sticky” (352) after the policemen empty a bottle of coke into the agent, the narrator slips into a chain of hypotheticals that at first concern him, but soon spirals into ceaseless circles of backtracking through national, political, and religious memory spanning ages in history. In a series of rhetorical questions that arise only to dissipate without any further development or answer, the narrator rambles, “…so if you would please just turn off the lights…if history’s ship had taken a different track…if I had fallen in love with the right woman…if we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play…if you  needed no more revisions, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?” (353-354). Along the way, the narrator questions everything ranging from the Soviets, labels like “nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists” (353), Buddha, Jesus, the Bible, the Chinese using gunpowder for fireworks and not firearms, Adam and Eve, Mao, the Japanese, his own mother and father, and the concept of history itself. The way that the narrator filters through this immensely disorganized yet somehow coherent list of hypotheticals, and his attempt to thereby construct some meaning out of the series of events, random or planned, fictional or real, that have led him, his nation, and the world to this moment in time, resonate closely with his continuing attempts to construct himself. A gook? A half-gook? French or Vietnamese, Occidental or Oriental? A bastard? A spy, a Communist, a military aide, a movie advisor, an academic assistant, a prisoner, a killer, a traitor, a patriot? What forces led him here, and who has the power to write and revise his history, especially if the narrator’s own memory is simultaneously unreliable and malleable? Which of his many masks would he be donning if a single factor in his past was nudged away, the falling dominoes of construction irrevocably altered? The passage also is reminiscent of the attempted reconstruction of Alison’s father in Fun Home, the entire memoir an attempt to resuscitate him as a character by ruminating upon hypothetical explanations to memories of his words and actions. How much of character construction, and construction of the human narrative, is hypothetical? And does it matter?

Consistency/Inconsistency of Identity Construction

A particularly noteworthy aspect of the narrator, even within the very first chapter, is his attempt to escape explicit classification, a purposeful, calculated muddying of his own interior. In the first line of the novel, he proudly confesses his identity, or rather, the multiple identities that he dons like masks; he is “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds” (1). The narrator thrives on this duplicity, a variability reminiscent almost of a constantly revolving moon, half of which is always hidden from view in darkness. Even the side that is visible constantly shifts, ever-changing. The narrator remarks upon his own burgeoning obsession with inconsistency soon after in relation to Emerson’s writing, ruminating, “What had smitten me then, and strikes me now, was that the same thing could be said of our motherland, where we are nothing if not inconsistent” (12). In a land historically and currently marred by geopolitical and cultural volatility, a certain connection is evident between a narrator who refuses to cement himself into, or commit to, one identity, one pair of face and mind, and a nation that fails to stabilize itself, torn asunder by foreign and native forces alike. The inconsistency that the narrator seems to embrace within himself can be traced back to the trauma of repeatedly being called a “bastard,” and his bitterness rears its ugly head when he states, “I should have been used to that misbegotten name by now, but somehow I was not. My mother was native, my father was foreign, and strangers and acquaintances had enjoyed reminding me of this ever since my childhood, spitting on me and calling me bastard, although sometimes, for variety, they called me bastard before they spit on me” (19). From when he was young, the narrator was repulsed by the word “bastard,” a term connoting a blend of elements that should not have been blended, a combination which has resulted in a repugnant monstrosity. The narrator flees classification, a claim to a single identity, because there exists no whole, pure “self” that he can ascribe himself to. Although it may seem like he seeks different faces and minds, the inverse is true; he simply cannot bear to commit to one identity, because the identity that awaits him is one of pain, shame, and filth, an identity better left unclaimed. Therefore the narrator has and continues to construct himself haphazardly, inconsistently, refusing to dwell too long on one mask lest the mask become skin. This mindset is particularly evident when he recalls, “My mother called me her love child, but I do not like to dwell on that. In the end, my father had it right. He called me nothing at all” (21). The narrator believes that he is nothing, a void, without his inconsistency, which begs the question of whether we as readers should analyze him as one character or many. A mastermind of espionage and subterfuge?  Or an oriental “self” and occidental “other,” or perhaps oriental “other” and occidental “self,” trapped within the same tormented mind and body?

Dual Personas in Internal Monologue

Even before the reader encounters Pecola’s italicized conversation with her imaginary friend, the introductory lines at the top of the page already set this section of the book apart. Unlike for previous paragraphs, it fully ends with “…PLAYJANEPLAY” (195). This definitive ending mirrors how Pecola, in her mind, has reached her desired end: the attainment of pretty blue eyes. However, by the end of the book, Pecola has fractured into two distinct voices, a tragedy considering how she never truly had a voice to call her own in the first place. Although portrayed as a conversation between her and her imaginary friend, this part of the novel can also be read as an internal monologue that portrays Pecola’s deterioration, but also the sheer velocity with which Pecola herself drives this deterioration. Even within a conversation of her own creation, Pecola fails to stop ruminating upon her worries considering Cholly and Sammy, but especially her blue eyes and whether they are the bluest eyes of them all.  She accuses the voice of being jealous, and promptly apologizes, questioning how she never saw this friend when she was “Right before my eyes” (196), to which the friend responds, “No, honey. Right after your eyes” (196). In some ways, this dual, splintered persona is more knowledgeable than Pecola herself, almost reminiscent of Bechdel’s relationship with Alison. However, she does little to aid Pecola in reconstructing her sense of self and her narrative; rather, she further propels Pecola’s deterioration, playing the “good game.”

Duality and Inverse Unfolding of Character

In Chapter 4, Alison compares the interplay between her narrative arc and her father’s with the ambiguous archetype of the serpent. While quite clearly a phallus, it is also an ancient symbol of femininity and fertility. It is interesting, then, how Alison remarks that “perhaps this undifferentiation, this nonduality, is the point…maybe that’s what’s so unsettling about snakes” (116). She then remarks that “my father’s end was my beginning…the end of his life coincided with the beginning of my truth” (117). This passage precisely captures a question I grapple with in Fun Home: does Alison’s character and her father’s character unfold together throughout the tragicomic? Is this unfolding cyclical, the fleshing out of one character directly feeding back into the development of the other? Or perhaps an inverse duality more accurately characterizes the mapping of the two characters; in attempting to piece together her memories of her father to form a more complete picture of him after his death through this, Alison in fact effectively charts her own character while only further blurring the terrain of her father’s character. Such an inverse relationship can be seen in the horribly static, drawn-out spread (220-221) when Alison’s father, at the crux of a potential moment of true emotional connection and understanding, still resists interpretation, or by the sheer amount of times Alison attempts to fill in the gaps her father left behind and form a more coherent narrative with hypotheticals of “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “what if” throughout her memoir. Do her revelations about herself come at the expense of muddying her memories of her father by creating infinite possibilities, explanations, and justifications for his past actions? Is it possible for a reader’s (and narrator’s) understanding of a character not to expand, but to disintegrate throughout a work of fiction?

Dual Isolation of Oedipa and the Reader

In Chapters 5 and 6 of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa becomes increasingly isolated from her friends and family. Mucho is lost to LSD, Dr. Hilarius goes mad, and Metzger elopes, and Driblette commits suicide, to name a few specific instances. Oedipa’s world, both the “real” domain as well as the one concerning Tristero and Thurn and Taxi, is spiraling out of control. This growing feeling of isolation is hinted earlier on at the beginning of Chapter 5 when the narrator observes, “Oedipa sat, feeling as alone as she ever had, now the only woman, she saw, in a room full of drunken male homosexuals…Despair came over her, as it will when nobody around has any sexual relevance to you” (94). In a scene reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” parallels can be drawn between Oedipa and the typist, especially with relation to the young man carbuncular in an automatic, emotionally empty sexual encounter in “The Fire Sermon.” The level of dissonance in Pynchon’s amalgamation of multiple cultural,  geographical, and chronological spaces also relates closely with the cacophonous melding that erupts in The Waste Land.

The sheer lack of communication and genuine human interaction between characters, further worsened by the protagonist’s growing retreat into herself and conspiracy theories, also cuts ties between the reader and the world of The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa is the main lens through which readers can explore the novel’s fictional world, and this lens becomes increasingly clouded or fractured as Oedipa cuts her ties, either intentionally or not, to this world. The third person limited point of view also contributes to this growing sense of loss and isolation on both the part of Oedipa and the reader. Even as Oedipa learns more about Tristero, only more questions follow, and as she begins to doubt whether her entire voyage might be a foolish wild-goose chase orchestrated by Pierce and becomes suspicious of the acquaintances that are still alive and relatively sane, the reader faces a repeating dilemma of who to trust as options exponentially narrow as the novel races towards an inconclusive end.

Inevitability of Fate vs. Narrative Agency

In the Epilogue of Invisible Man, an intriguing tension arises; was the invisible man fated to end up invisible and underground, and does his acceptance of his own invisibility signify that he stakes certain narrative agency? In the very beginning of the section, the invisible man makes somewhat of a concession concerning his current situation, “I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole — or showed me the hole I was in, if you will — and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done?” (572). The invisible man seems to accept the course of events that led him through the manhole and to physically live a life of invisibility that he had already been experiencing within, ruminating on how there most likely was no alternative course.  He asks what he could have done to prevent this irresistible version of fate. However, on the very next page, he fully embraces his invisibility, but a different version of it. He proclaims, “So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled” (573). The invisible man identifies with a rebellious invisibility through which he will carve out the space to be his complex self in a world that denies complexity, anything other than the stark distinction of black and white. At the end of the Epilogue, he pledges to finally leave his hole, still maintaining that invisibility, but to fulfill his responsibility of playing a role role in society, invisible or not, to have stakes in the racial tangle raging above. Does this mean that the invisible man has reversed a fate that has burrowed him below, raging a war against it by claiming an active role in his own awakening, transformation, and rise?

The Self-Deceptive Internal Logic of Dr. Bledsoe

One of the most perplexing characters thus far in Invisible Man is Dr. Bledsoe, who seems to toe the line between self-awareness and self-deception. Dr. Bledsoe revels in his own personal belief that he pulls the strings; he is the masked puppeteer, the ultimate ruler dominating the school, “the king down here” (142). He seems so self-assured of his own power, a power that imbues him with a confidence in his own selfhood, differentiating him from other blacks and placing him at the top of the white power structure. Ironically, Dr. Bledsoe does exactly what the invisible man’s grandfather advised: he confesses, “I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. I had to wait and plan and lick around . . . Yes, I had to act the nigger!” (143). However, rather than utilizing deceit to rebel against the racist system, he only further perpetuates it by fooling both white and black people in order to propel himself into what he conceives as his own free power space, but is actually a crevice of self-deception he has carved out for himself. He warns, “When you buck against me, you’re bucking against power,  rich white folk’s power, the nation’s power” (142), failing to see that he is as much a victim of racism as other blacks and that his consistent two-faced actions that dictate his life only further embed him into the power structure that he believes he has escaped.