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Book Review: “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders

In my recent review of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” I wrote about the apparent spectrum of respectability within literature, with “authors’ authors” occupying the more prestigious end of the spectrum. I wrote of how due to their tendencies to feature prose designed for style rather than readability and favor intellectual statements over well-structured plots, the works of “ more serious authors” can be seen as pretentious. While I did not necessarily mean this as a criticism of contemporary literary fiction, there was one book I read this year which seems to possess every quality I find to be repugnant about literature in the early Twenty-First Century: a confusing plot, contrived attempts to impart some grandiose social message, and an unwarranted need to experiment with form. This book received near universal acclaim from critics, was named on multiple best of lists, and touted by literary scholars across the country as a masterpiece. Of course the book I am talking about is George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a – and I use this word quite liberally – novel, so migraine inducing, so excruciatingly pretentious, that the rapturous reaction the literary community had to it almost made me doubt my choice to pursue writing as a career. This is not going to be a review, so much as a rant in which I will be exorcising some of the demons reading this book conjured in my soul.
To begin, I should say that there’s a bit of a story around why I read “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the details of which make publishing a scathing review of it on the internet awkward for me, as well as illustrate the importance of separating art from its creator. Earlier this year I completed undergraduate study at Rutgers University – Go Knights! – where, in my final semester, I chose to take a course in Twenty-First Century Literature with one of the assigned books being … “Lincoln in the Bardo.” Did my professor choose this novel because of its artistic merits? Possibly, but I think the larger contributing factor was the fact that Mr. Saunders was going to pay a visit to my beloved alma mater that semester, and part of my grade for the course included attendance of a talk he was to give. I listened to Mr. Saunders speak for about an hour, and found him to be humble, funny, charismatic to a fault, and overall an immensely likable human being. The fact that “Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first book I’ve ever reviewed whose author I’ve met makes me realize that, as reviewers, not meeting the artists whose works we consume is a privilege. I will admit that had Mr. Saunders been as stereotypically arrogant and condescending as I hoped he would be, ripping this book apart would be even more fun than it already is, but I would still focus on the shortcomings of his work – I started this blog to critique books and not personalities.
The book centers around Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln who, after passing away from an illness at the age of eleven, was laid to rest in Georgetown Cemetery. From there the book covers a single night, as Willie Lincoln’s spirit leaves his body, and interacts with various lost souls who, due to their refusal to acknowledge their being dead, have taken up residence in the graveyard. This premise is not a bad one. From Poe to Gaiman, literary ghost stories have been successfully done multiple times, but what makes Saunders’ book unique is the social commentary he injects into it by having the ghosts represent different groups within society: soldiers, rich, poor, slaves, slave owners. My problem with the book is not its premise, but how Saunders chooses to execute that premise.
During Saunders’ talk at Rutgers, he told an anecdote of giving his wife a draft of “Lincoln in the Bardo” to read. After reading the manuscript, Saunders’ wife asked him if this could really be called a novel. I found it absolutely uncanny that someone so close to Saunders, his wife nonetheless, made the same observation about his work as I did. This book is not a novel. Novels have plots: a series of events which build tension, eventually leading to a climax, and ending with some form of resolution. A narrative does not necessarily need to follow this formula to be successful, Melville’s “Moby Dick,” arguably the greatest novel ever written, feels more like a collection of anecdotes than a structured story. A more contemporary example, such as Diaz’s “Drown” blurs the line between novel and short story, creating a single narrative out of several small ones. However, with those works, there was an elegant flow to the fragmentary elements, bringing them together in a satisfying way. While “Moby Dick” and “Drown” feel like well-engineered pieces of machinery, the haphazard nature of “Lincoln in the Bardo” makes it feel like someone dumping a box of machine parts on your head.
The book is narrated by multiple characters, by which I mean, almost every character narrates at some point. What is more, Saunders chooses to compose each chapter of short quotes from them, constantly jumping back and forth between their points of view. In his excellent book “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” Thomas C. Foster writes that reading a novel is supposed to be like a conversation between the reader and the author. Saunders makes reading “Lincoln in the Bardo” feel more like being trapped in a room with a hundred extraordinarily pissed off people all screaming at one another. I cannot describe this haphazard narration style as anything other than frustrating and confusing. Telling a story from multiple points of view can and has been done successfully many times, most notably in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Martin’s approach is superior to Saunders for several reasons: Martin narrows his pool of narrators to a handful of characters – usually seven or eight per book – whereas Saunders, as previously stated felt the need to give every single character a chance to narrate, making it difficult to keep track of who is speaking. What is more, while Martin spends entire chapters inside his characters’ heads, providing readers with an intimate portrait of who they are, Saunders typically only gives his narrators a few lines to say their piece before moving on to the next one, never giving us a chance to establish a relationship with them. Most importantly, Saunders rarely stays with a single narrator long enough to give us a complete idea of what is happening in the plot, thus forcing exhaustive efforts on the part of the reader to gain a handle on the story. The phrase “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” kept popping up in my mind as I read this book. Now, I’m not saying artists shouldn’t experiment with new approaches to their mediums, but I honestly don’t understand how what Saunders does here is superior to a “more traditional” form.
I’ve often written of how literature’s most significant power resides in its ability to impart profound observations about the real world through fiction, and while “Lincoln in the Bardo” makes heroic attempts to do this, the grievances I have previously aired with Saunders’ book causes these attempts to fall flat. Saunders wants this book to be an exploration of race and class, but the apparatuses through which those explorations are supposed to be conducted, i.e., characters and plot, are crafted in such a convoluted way, that any profundity becomes buried.
Whenever I start a book, I make a point of keeping my expectations neutral, and even if a book proves difficult, I will always continue on, hoping it will redeem itself in some way. When I give books a chance, I usually find something I can enjoy or appreciate it. I gave “Lincoln in the Bardo” as much of a chance as any other book, tried as hard as I could to appreciate it for what it was, and all it left me with was a feeling of wasted time and energy.

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reviews/analysis

The Perils of Consumption: Rand and McCarthy on Liberal Humanism

 

While to an extent true that the ideas stemming from Liberal Humanism – laissez-faire economics, individual rights, and free and open competition in all fields – have operated as a liberating force in the modern world, when left unchecked, practice of these ideas can result in disastrous consequences for the same people and institutions they are meant to benefit. Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness,” is a collection of essays in which she goes into extensive detail as to why total economic freedom is the only acceptable way of life. In contrast to this, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” presents a bleak image of Liberal Economics taken to the greatest possible extreme, damaging the world beyond recognition, and causing the Human Race to (literally) eat itself alive. This essay will use both texts to gain an understanding of the role Liberal Humanism plays in the deterioration of our society, as-well-as determine if its benefits are worth the costs.

Ayn Rand took laissez-faire economics – the idea that for a society to be truly prosperous, there should be as few restrictions and regulations as possible on that nation’s industries, and its citizens capacity to gain wealth by whatever means – to their greatest possible extreme, arguing that any attempt by the government to meddle in a person’s private economic interests is a violation of his or her’s most intimate rights. In her essay “Man’s Rights,” Rand writes:

“The right to property means that a man has the right to take the economic actions necessary to earn property, to use it and to dispose of it  … Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights. (Rand, p. 93).”

Rand is saying that economic freedom is intrinsically tied to freedom in general. The only free nations or states are the ones who employ laissez-faire capitalism to its fullest, allowing people to take whatever actions needed to acquire as much wealth as possible.  Under this ideology, achieving one’s personal and economic desires superseded everything else – any actions taken to achieve those goals are justifiable, and any actions that place others over oneself are destructive; one should only act on behalf of himself, and if something or someone cannot be of use in achieving your goals, then they are devoid of value, even our fellow human beings.

In Rand’s philosophy, individual rights supersede all forms of authority. While opposition to oppressive governments has often affected positive change throughout history – the American and French revolutions, the Civil Rights Movement – Rand’s is concerned more with self-servitude than improving the human condition.

“A society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgement … is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by gang rule (Rand, p. 102).”

Taken by themselves, these words are not inflammatory or destructive, but they become such when one considers the intent behind them. For Rand, robbing an individual of the product of his effort meant having to make a sacrifice for the sake of the collective good, attempting to limit the freedom of his mind meant acknowledging that some of his ideas may not translate to the real world, and compelling him to act against his own rational judgement meant compelling him to realize that, while beneficial to him, certain actions he takes may have negative consequences for others around him.

Rand was also a strong proponent of free and open competition within the economic sphere, believing that a landscape free of regulation from governing bodies would allow the most intelligent, creative, visionary individuals to exercise their abilities to their fullest potential. In her essay “The Monuments,” Rand uses great buildings, such as the pyramids of Egypt and the skyscrapers of today to illustrate how unencumbered competition benefits all of society:

“America’s skyscrapers were not built by public funds nor for a public purpose: they were built by the energy, initiative and wealth of private individuals for personal profit. And, instead of impoverishing the people, these skyscrapers, as they rose higher and higher, kept raising the people’s standard of living—including the inhabitants of the slums, who lead a life of luxury compared to the life of an ancient Egyptian slave or of a modern Soviet Socialist worker (Rand. p. 86).”

 

Here Rand presents an image of the world where the best and brightest have been allowed to let their talents shine, creating awe-inspiring structures which act as monuments to human greatness, and affording everyone a quality of life which would be otherwise impossible. Everyone who wins and loses in this world deserves to, either due to their talent, or lack-thereof. It is a perfectly fair world, where no outside forces are necessary to maintain order. This is Rand’s belief, now, the remainder of this essay will use McCarthy’s “The Road” to challenge its validity.

 

In “The Road,” we see a world which has endured both the destruction of civilization, and the death of all natural life on Earth: no birds flying overhead, no fish in the rivers, no animals in the forest which might be hunted. All that’s left are a few scraps of the old world. We see the remnants of Liberal Economics in how the survivors treat one another, something illustrated to horrifying effect in one particularly striking scene:

“The boy clutched at (his father’s) coat. He could see part of the stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous (McCarthy, p. 110).”   

 

We share the horror of the characters in this scene as they discover human beings held captive so that the house’s inhabitants can eat them one body part at a time. Rather than the active “naked people were huddled against the back wall,” McCarthy uses the passive “Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female,” putting us in the perspective of the boy and man. The details creep in on us, forcing us to put everything together ourselves, and making the scene especially powerful. What’s more, McCarthy uses subtlety to great effect: the captives – who are, for all intents and purposes, livestock – are clearly afraid to see and hear people coming downstairs, which means they have been down there for quite some time, and the alliteration used to describe the stumps of the man’s thighs as “blackened and burnt,” emphasizes the terrifying nature of this scene. In this world, things are defined by their capacity for usefulness, just as how in laissez-faire capitalism, things are defined by their capacity for profit. The only things of any use are other people, reduced to nothing more than the meat on their bones. This scene is a striking visualization of how the principles stemming from liberal economics can persist in a post-civilized world. These people are being kept, stored, clearly whoever is holding them wants to keep them alive and consume their body parts gradually, like the man whose legs have been cut off. Their captors are maximizing their usefulness, just as laissez-faire capitalists believe all should be done to maximize the profits to be had from a resource. That this scene takes place at a former slave owning plantation has a special significance, as it ties this potential future to a period in the past when humans were also “consumed” for profit. How fitting that a novel critiquing Liberal Economics has a key scene take place in a relic of colonialism, the era in-which Liberal Economics truly took hold? In his critical essay, Cannibalism, Consumerism, and Profanation: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the End of Capitalism,” Jordan J. Dominy explores the visible remnants of a consumer society in the post-apocalyptic landscape, such as the plantation house. Dominy believes that even in colonial days, the human cost of rampant capitalism was not lost on writers, with many comparing the consumption of luxury goods imported from the colonies—sugar, for example—with the exploitations of the enslaved bodies that toiled to produce it. The eighteenth-century social critic Jonas Hanaway went so far as to this as  “autocannibalism”(Dominy, 2015).

The world of the novel is a lawless one, all the structures which oppressed people in the old world are gone, but so are those which maintained order, forcing survivors to rely only on themselves. The individual is more important than ever, with the only right left being the right to fight for one’s life. While the father knows that the only way to survive is through selfishness, the boy still maintains that there is room for altruism in this landscape, as seen in their interaction with the traveler Ely:

“(The boy) reached with his scrawny claws and took (the can of fruit) and held it to his chest. Eat it, the boy said. The old man looked down at the tin. He took a fresh grip and lifted it, his nose wrinkling …

“I know what the question is, the man said. The answer is no.

“What’s the question?

“Can we keep him. We can’t (McCarthy, p. 164).”

Within Rand’s version of Liberal Humanism, the right’s of the individual supercede the collective good – one must do what is best for one’s self regardless of how it may affects others. In “The road,” we see this attitude is able to manifest itself to its greatest possible extreme, where the concept of a collective good does not exist – in a world with rampant scarcity, everyone must fight for whatever they can get, and generosity makes no sense. What’s more, where laws once enforced human rights, people must defend themselves from oppressive forces in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Thus, only way possible for one to express their individual rights in this world is to make conscious decisions that will ensure their survival. While the father is not inherently a selfish person, he keeps the meager resources he has acquired for himself and his son because to do otherwise would put themselves at risk. The conversation above illustrates how the father’s self-interest conflicts with the boy’s innocent sense of generosity. In their current environment, sympathy such as the boy’s is a liability, and while it is certainly not in line with Randian ideas of free will and individual rights, it does point out a fallacy in the self-centered philosophies of Liberal Humanism. Liberal Humanism preaches that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he or she wishes with their wealth, most who subscribe to this philosophy interpret this to mean that they should not have to expend resources on anything that doesn’t benefit themselves, but if one truly does have the right to use their wealth in whatever way pleases them, and one wants to use their wealth to help others, then Liberal Humanism does support altruism. McCarthy connects the concept of free will to altruism by emphasizing the boy’s hands in this passage: hands are a universal symbol of generosity, but they also symbolize the ability to take action and exercise one’s will. What is more, the boy is giving Ely fruit, a symbol fertility and prosperity – the fruits of one’s labors, be fruitful and multiply, etc. – but it is canned, a leftover from the the pre-apocalyptic world, just like the boy’s spirit of giving – in a world where nothing grows, this canned fruit is the only fruit which will ever exist; in a world where altruism is obsolete, generosity will only come from someone too innocent to understand the new selfish reality.  

Though the concept of an economy has been relegated to nothing more than a memory in the world of “The Road,” the remnants of free and open competition are strong enough in the minds of survivors for them execute them to absolutely horrifying effect, as seen in the man and boy’s observation of a cannibalistic blood cult:  

 “An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings … some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon … Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled high with goods of war, and after that the women, a dozen or more, some of them pregnant …  (McCarthy, pp. 91 – 92).”

In this stretch of narration, there is no idea given to us of what the man or boy are doing, no descriptions of what they are thinking or feeling. Indeed, this scene has an almost detached quality to it, presenting itself  through some omniscient authority, whose cold and methodical description grant an extra weight of omniscience to the blood cult’s presence. What’s more, notice how objective the above passage feels, there are no adjectives adding any layer of emotional terror, nor is there any need to, McCarthy lets the scene speak for itself, letting us discern for ourselves the cult’s role in this world, and placing us side-by-side with the father and son, watching the absolute worst this world has to offer parade by us. We know that the men at the front, carrying weapons, are the leaders, the strongest, and therefore the most well equipped to lead this cult. In Randian logic, they occupy the same place as an inventive artist or CEO, whose natural talents have granted them a position of great prestige. Of course, the flaw in this mentality is that if there is nothing restraining just what such individuals are allowed to do in competition, then they will be allowed to empower themselves to the point where they can eliminate all other competitors and take everything for themselves. McCarthy is aware of this and chocks this scene full of imagery to communicate it. Consider the crude weapons the leaders carry, a product of their own sadistic imagination, and which are now used to augment their brute strength, and coerce others into subservience. Also, the slaves: while the man and boy carry their goods themselves, expending the meager energy they have in the process, the cult leaders let the slaves bare that burden, freeing them to use their energy solely for inflicting violence on all who stand in their way. Then we have the women, who could be seen as wives of the cult leaders, until one considers that the purpose of the cult is to amass as many resources as possible for the leaders’ use, resources which would be wasted caring for helpless children, therefore, we should conclude that these women are being kept by the cult leaders to breed babies which will later be cannibalized. Here we see laid out before us the post-apocalyptic ghost of unencumbered competition, an entity designed solely for the purpose of consumption, with nothing limiting how much it is able to consume, or what methods it is able to employ to grow its capacity for consumption. Like the corporations of the pre-apocalyptic world, the cult has reached a level of power that makes it impossible for other groups or individuals to challenge them, allowing them to consume until there is nothing left, and even they starve.

Ayn Rand would have us believe that there is a natural order to Capitalist societies and that all would be well if we were allowed to earn, compete, and consume as much as we want, in whatever way we want. McCarthy is concerned with a much harsher reality, presenting a world where Capitalism has collapsed under its own grotesque weight, leaving little of the world we knew behind. Rand’s writing deals with hope, while “The Road” deals with fear, the fear that we have conditioned the act of consumption so deeply into our nature, that when there is nothing left to consume, we will consume ourselves.

reviews/analysis

A Postmodern Adolescence: “The Virgin Suicides,” by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Though there is some debate as to precisely when the Postmodern period of literature ended, if it ended at all, it is generally agreed upon that Postmodernism’s peak lasted from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. Published in 1992, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel “The Virgin Suicides” should fit firmly in that window. Taking place in the 1970s, in an unspecified upper middle class suburb in Michigan, Eugenides’ novel is narrated by the collective the voice of the community’s teenage boys, now grown men, recalling their fascination with the five beautiful Lisbon sisters – Lux, Cecilia, Mary, Bonnie, and Therese – and how they all committed suicide over the course of a year. Eugenides’ novel mythologizes the fragility of suburban youth and examines the darkness that resides within the cracks of the American family. Of course, just because a book is published during a certain literary movement’s peak, does not necessarily mean it’s part of it. In this essay, we will determine if “The Virgin Suicides” can genuinely be considered a Postmodern novel, by dissecting specific scenes in the texts and comparing them to other books and films to determine how they deal with aesthetics, identity, and sexuality.  

The narrative center of “The  Virgin Suicides” is the neighborhood boys’ obsessive desire to explain why the Lisbon sisters ended their lives. In their quest, they steal the diary of Cecilia, the youngest sister, and the first to commit suicide, to gain insight into her mental state leading to her death. However, in attempting to explore who Cecilia was as a person, our narrators come up with more questions than answers, including ones about the nature of identity. Eugenides writes:       

“The diary is an unusual document of adolescence in that it rarely depicts the emergence of an unformed ego. The standard insecurities, laments, crushes, and daydreams are nowhere in evidence. Instead, Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity. It’s often difficult to identify which sister she’s talking about, and many strange sentences conjure in the reader’s mind an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food, or suffering visits from affectionate aunts (Eugenides, pp. 38 – 39).”

 

Unlike the Victorians, who viewed identity as dependent upon one’s relations with others, or Modernists, who saw it as something outside social norms, Postmodernists maintain that the self is something entirely shallow, nothing beyond social constructs, and drawn from predetermined roles within society. In the case of the Lisbon sisters, that predetermined role is that of the American teenage girl, forced upon them by a patriarchal, conservative society. The narrators note how Cecilia’s journal is lacking in any ego, and that she seems to view herself and her sisters as indistinct from one another, as though she seems to have no sense of identity beyond being “a Lisbon sister.” Our narrators also notice the lack of any imagination or romantic desire in Cecilia’s writing, as though she is incapable of abstract thought, or thinking beyond herself, and since Cecilia views herself as inseparable from her sisters, we can conclude that the other girls may be the same. The Lisbon sisters’ apparent lack of individuality is due to their being raised by strict Christian parents, who forced them into a cloistered existence, in which they were allowed very little exposure to the outside world, and denied chances to connect with anyone outside their family. Thusly, the girls connected with the only people available, one another. That said, however specific the girls’ unique psychological state is, their lack of individuality should be viewed as exemplary of how Twentieth and Twenty-first-century culture trains teenage girls to conduct themselves. American culture forces women and girls to adopt a constellation of accepted behaviors so as to function. In doing so, they allow themselves to become a homogenous mass, rather than a collection of individuals, similar to how the Lisbons are described as “an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food … ” When we consider our culture’s dehumanizing treatment of girls, we begin to notice that the neighborhood boys’ concern with the Lisbon’s and their deaths seems to be derived less from any sort of empathy, and more a voyeuristic fascination. The boys look at the Lisbons as curiosities to be understood, rather than people to be helped, and their investigation into their deaths feels primarily motivated by the need to satisfy their own interest, rather than possibly help anyone who may be going through similar strife.  

A postmodern work which parallels “The Virgin Suicides” take on identity is Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours,” specifically in the arc of Mrs. Brown, who struggles with her less than privileged role as a woman in 1950s America, as illustrated in the scene in which we are introduced to her:

   “She should not be permitting herself to read, not this morning of all mornings; not on Dan’s birthday. She should be showered and dressed, fixing breakfast for Dan and Richie. She can hear them downstairs, her husband making his own breakfast … (Cunningham, p. 38).”

 

Here Mrs. Brown feels anxiety at slacking in her duties as a wife and mother; she feels embarrassment at the knowledge that her husband has to make his own breakfast. These negative feelings are drawn less from the need to make her family happy, and more from fear of what society may think of her not fulfilling the role assigned for her. Her personality at this point in the novel is wrapped entirely in the shallow, predetermined set of tasks she must fulfill, and not in any internal desire for spiritual or intellectual growth. Like the Lisbon sisters, Mrs. Brown’s is not an identity she has chosen for herself, but one the world has thrust upon her.

A novel entitled “The Virgin Suicides” should be deeply concerned about the sexuality of its characters. Indeed, part of the reason the boys are so infatuated with the Lisbon’s is their sexual purity. However, as the boys and the readers eventually realize, this purity has been imposed upon them by their family, eventually causing one of them, Lux, to rebel through promiscuity – it should be said that Lux’s behavior renders the book’s title somewhat ironic, as she is not a virgin when she commits suicide. Lux’s sexual escapades become legendary among the boys, and their reaction to them grants an opportunity to explore Postmodernism’s take on human sexuality.     

 

“A cellophane body swept its arms back and forth against the slate tiles like a child drawing an angel in the snow; then another darker body could be discerned, sometimes in a fast food restaurant uniform … once in the drab gray suit of an accountant … Lux and her partners enjoyed relative safety, but there was the unavoidable prior noise of sneaking down to let boys and men in … the men sweating, risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce … For our own part, we learned a great deal about the techniques of love … Years later, when we lost our own virginities, we resorted in our panic to pantomiming Lux’s gyrations on the roof … We received reports of her erotic adventures … the acidic taste of her saliva … but none of these signs of malnourishment or illness or grief … detracted from Lux’s overwhelming impression of being a carnal angel (Eugenides, pp. 140 – 143).”  

 

The above passage is highly indicative of the postmodern idea of sexuality as having no privileged role within perceptions of identity, as well as the belief that any importance placed upon sexuality are illusions. Note how the narrators begin by referring to Lux in this scene only as a body, this choice of words communicates to us that the image of Lux engaging in the act of sex is divorced from any picture of her as a human being with a personality. The layperson traditionally views sex as an act of bonding, in which lovers can come to know each other, but Postmodernism maintains that sex is a purely physical act, with no profundity to be found therein. Lux is a body, nothing more than a  mass of flesh and bone into which someone may insert his penis. Postmodern ideas about the deprivatization of sex are apparent in the line which refers to the older men Lux seduces as “ … risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce,” thus illustrating the constant scrutiny of, and ubiquitous concern with, other people’s sex lives, which is highly indicative of the Postmodern era. While works from other eras also contain this motif – Rochester experiences public humiliation for his attempted bigamy – it is it’s unabashed and uncoded approach to portraying the public reaction to people’s sexuality that makes postmodernism unique. Part of what is supposed to make sex special is that it is supposed to be a private act, but here sex is a matter of public knowledge, and the boys draw upon it for their own use. By definition, something cannot be personal if it’s shared by the public, and if something is not personal, it has no special meaning to you as an individual.

   Treatment of sex as a resource or commodity is also seen in Michael Gundry’s film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” in which Joel (played by Jim Carrey), heartbroken after his breakup with his girlfriend, Clementine (played by Kate Winslet), pays for a medical procedure to have his memories of their relationship removed from his mind, including memories of their sex life. The company in the film treats erasing people’s memories like a service, not unlike tuning up a person’s car, or debugging their computer, and they approach their work with the same casual professionalism as a mechanic removing a worn out engine part, or a programmer deleting a piece of outdated software – the technicians who perform this service show no reverence for the intimate moments they are destroying, they are only there to do a job and get paid. If your memories and experiences of sexual intimacy become, not only disposable but something that can be disposed of as a means of making a profit, then do they mean anything?  

Among other things, Eugenides’ novel is an examination of how Americans react to tragedy, a key part of which, especially in a work set in Twentieth or Twenty-First century, should be the role of the mass media – television, radio, and in this case, newspapers.

“The newspaper, later writing about what they termed a suicide pact, treated the girls as automatons, creatures so barely alive that their deaths came as little change … boiled two or three months and the suffering of four individuals into a paragraph with a heading “When Youth Sees No Future” … often quoted rock lyrics that alluded to death or suicide. (The reporter) befriended a local deejay and spent an entire night listening to the records that Lux’s schoolmates listed among her favorites … a song of the band Cruel crux entitled “Virgin Suicide” … Virgin suicide/ What was that she cried?/ No use in staying’/ On this Holocaust ride/ she gave her cherry/  She’s my virgin suicide (Eugenides, pp. 170 – 171).”\

 

Part of the Postmodern aesthetic is a reverence for mass culture, and a celebration of the ordinary, this may be the one area in which “The Virgin Suicides” is subversive of Postmodern ideas, for while mass-produced cultural properties are a significant presence in the novel, Eugenides frames these elements of the story in a less humorous or ironic light than some of his contemporaries would. Indeed, there is a palpably seething critique of the dehumanizing nature of the public’s relationship to media. The narrators criticize the reporters for presenting the girls as having no life in them, then trivializing their anguish into the something as common as a newspaper headline. These were people whom the boys knew, to whom they felt almost mystical, albeit objectifying attraction, and yet the media crassly use them as bait for readers and viewers. While most Postmodern works would shagrinely shrug their shoulders at the idea of a person’s life being reduced to a series of mundane details, Eugenides’ characters react with subtle fury. The mention of the reporter listening to Lux’s favorite rock records gets to the heart of Postmodern aesthetics, namely, an emphasis on the idea that people not only relate to the world through the media they consume but that a person’s entire sense of identity is composed of their consumption habits. It is here we can detect a possible attempt by Eugenides to satirize Postmodernism, with the journalist filling the role of a Postmodernist, reducing Lux’s favorite things to their something she can use for professional gain, while Lux and the boys represent the masses, who feel a great loss at seeing the things they love robbed of any transcendent value.   

Postmodern literature can feel a bit soul-crushing at times, telling us that our sense of identity is shallow, and created for us by forces outside of our control, that our sexuality isn’t as important as we may like to think it is, and that the individuality we think we are creating for ourselves through consumption, only makes us more like everybody else. Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” presents these ideas to us in a way that is palatable to readers, that empathizes with the frustration we may feel at wondering if the things we love and experience have any value. And the end of it we see a bit of the Lisbon sisters in ourselves, and a bit of ourselves in them.  

writing

Fairy Folk of Lewes

I.

 

Of all England’s towns, none are so beloved by the country’s fairies as Lewes in Sussex. The streets which wind and slope around the closely spaced houses provide many a hiding spot for magical folk, as-well-as ample opportunities to play nasty pranks on the humans who live and visit there. One evening, while stumbling from the Rights of Man pub, Roger Forster, a young man on holiday from London, found himself in the presence of a strikingly beautiful young lady, who had long, silky hair that flowed down her hair in honey-coloured waves, an angular face like a fox’s, and large, almond-shaped eyes that   seemed to glow electric blue in the darkness of midnight. In-spite of his intoxication, Roger heard the young lady with perfect clarity when she said: “Would you like some company for the night?” in a breathy, sensual voice. Roger nodded as a goofy smile spread across his face. The lady sauntered off into the night without another word, only smiling over her shoulder to beckon Roger along after her. He followed the woman through the twisting streets and dark corners, always at a distance, never quite able to catch up to her. Eventually, they came to the bridge, where the young woman stopped to lean against the railing. “Give us a kiss,” she smiled as Roger approached. He leaned in, but as he was just about to touch her lips, the young woman ceased to be solid, and Roger fell through her, plummeting some ten feet or so, landing in the river with a crash. He managed to break the surface, and as he floated there stunned, he heard the young woman’s voice shout “You’ll find plenty of fish down there.”  

 

II.

 

The old-growth forests of the surrounding area are a popular place for non-magical folk to explore … during the daytime. In 1874, a story appeared in several newspapers across the country, reporting how two girls – aged 15 and 17 – had gone into the woods on the night of the Summer Solstice, intending to perform a contrived variation of an ancient Celtic ritual. The next morning, they were found wandering the streets in hysterics, their neighbors attempted to coerce the girls inside to eat and rest, but they refused to let anyone touch them. They eventually had to be taken in by force, and once the local physician had a chance to examine them, he found the girls to be free of anyone physical trauma. A few days later, when the girls appeared to have calmed down, they were asked what happened to them, and reported many strange things: childish laughter echoing through the treetops, a large black shape with glowing red eyes that chased them through the footpaths, vines springing up from the ground and wrapping themselves around the girl’s’ ankles, as though trying to stop them from escaping. The next night, a dozen of Lewes’ strongest men armed themselves with axes and shotguns and organized a hunting party to flush out the evil within. The men were gone all night, and when the sun rose the next morning, only one emerged from the woods, face frozen in a mask of shock, hair turned pure white. When asked what had happened, he responded: “We found what it was that scared those girls.” When questioned further, he said: “I can’t tell you anything’ more, they only let me go if I promised I wouldn’t tell ya.” The man then burst into tears. For decades after that, the people of Lewes took great caution to not venture into the woods after dark, and it became something of a game among the town’s children to see who could stand closest to the tree line in the minutes before dusk. As the years passed, and those alive to remember the story of the girls and the hunting party grew old and died, people stopped fearing what lurk among the trees, and the local legend became nothing more than a pub tale, used to scare tourists.

 

III.

 

While fairy folk can be quite malicious in their dealings with human adults, they enjoy a      warm relationship with children, as they are open to a more colorful view of the world. In 1954, Matthew and Mary Thatcher noticed their daughter Matilda had been acting quite bizarrely, leaving plates of biscuits next to the rose bushes at night, performing silly dances where she would wiggle her arms over patches of mushrooms in the grass, and making squiggly chalk drawings like ancient runes all over the rocks on their property. When her parents asked Matilda what she was doing, she answered: “the fairies told me to.” Confused, Matthew and Mary equated Matilda’s behavior to an overactive imagination. Then, the family cat turned up dead, when asked if she knew what happened, Matilda said the fairies told her to poison the cat because he had been killing the mice and frogs the fairies had as friends. After that, Matthew and Mary hid the biscuits, washed the chalk runes from the rocks, tore up any mushrooms they found on the property, and refused to let their daughter out of the house, all the while, Matilda complained to them: “you can’t do that, you’ll make the fairies mad.” Suddenly, many bizarre and terrifying things began to happen to Matilda’s parents: birds, a dozen or more at a time, descended from the sky without provocation to chase them whenever they left the house, whenever they turned on the tap, a swarm of slimy, wriggling worms flooded out into the sink, causing them to scream in horror, and worst of all, their cows began producing sour milk – every single one of them. While Matthew and Mary were deep in discussion as to what they were going to do about their plight, Matilda came in and told them: “it’s the fairies, I told you, they’re mad at you.” Matilda’s parents shooed her away, but later that night, put a plate of biscuits near the roses. The next day, no birds flew out of the sky to chase them, no worms wriggled out of the faucet, and the cow’s milk was as fresh as it had ever been. From then on, Matilda was free to perform her silly rituals as much as she pleased, and the Thatcher family home never had a cat again.

 

IV.

 

One popular myth about fairy folk among humans, is that of the changeling, how fairies would steal infants from their beds, and replace them with inanimate objects bewitched to resemble children. This is a misconception, the truth is that fairies would take the form of a human woman’s husband, and impregnate her, thus creating a hybrid-child of sorts. These children, being of mixed heritage, tend to have curious attributes. Though outwardly human, changelings are more neurologically similar to fairy folk, while this can grant them proficiencies which exceed those of normal people – such as in the sciences or arts – it can also hinder their ability to interact with the non-magical. Lewes was home to one such child, a boy named Tyler Johnson, who, from the time he was a baby, would refuse to make eye contact with people, and spoke very little. Loud noises bothered Tyler, so-much-so, that his parents avoided taking him out in public, to the store, or to parties, for fear that he would be overwhelmed, and crumble to the ground, holding his ears shut, moaning like a wounded animal. Doctors diagnosed Tyler as being autistic, a label commonly applied to the misidentified changeling. Tyler found comfort in art, spending hours at a time scribbling abstract, geometric patterns onto paper – little did he, or anybody else know, that this was the language of the fairies, which entered his mind through mystical communications with his brethren.  One day, Tyler was in his front yard, examining a spider web in the grass, when Joshua, the stocky red-haired boy who lived down the street, approached him from behind. “Hey nutter,” Joshua shouted at Tyler, who did not respond. Frustrated, Joshua picked up a fresh pile of dog droppings, and threw at the back of Tyler’s head, as Tyler scrambled to remove the filth from his hair, Joshua pounced, pinning Tyler to the ground by his throat, fortunately, Tyler’s mother came rushing out of the house to chase Joshua away. Tyler went to bed that night with his head full of bitter thoughts at Joshua, unbeknownst to him, someone was listening. A few days later, Joshua went to the park to play football with his friends, a bad kick sent the ball flying into the bushes, and he went in to retrieve it, after waiting for Joshua for some time, his friends went into the bushes to discover he had virtually disappeared. Police from as far as two towns over were called in to look for him, alerts were posted throughout the country, but there was not a single trace of Joshua to be found.

reviews/analysis

Book Review: “Prep,” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Americans have a contradictory view of preparatory schools, most of us view them as little more than holding pens, where over-privileged children bide their time until they’re old enough to take their parents’ places among the elites. However, it is these same qualities that have caused us to mythologize prep school. There is an undeniable mystique about spending our most formative years cloistered off from the real world. Who among us didn’t fantasize about packing our bags and being spirited away from our families to be a part of a hidden world, where we will be free to indulge in whatever decadent fantasies we choose? What makes Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Prep” such a beautiful piece of literature, is how elegantly it subverts this trope, favoring a sense of melancholy and isolation over glamorous escapism. “Prep” chronicles Lee Fiora’s journey as she leaves her simple, but loving family in South Bend Indiana to attend the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. Over the next four years, we witness Lee receive a formal education in literature and arithmetic, as well as an informal one in the difference between those who have money, and those who don’t. We see and feel every cringe-inducing moment Lee experiences as she tries and fails to navigate the social politics of sex and friendship and feel her heartbreak as she inadvertently alienates herself from he family in her quest for something better.

 

If I could describe the plot structure of “Prep” in one word, it would be efficient: the book is divided into four sections – one for each year of Lee’s time at Ault – with each chapter in those sections centering around one or two key events. This approach both makes the novel feel much more streamlined than it would had Sittenfeld tried to cram as many of Lee’s experiences as she could, as well as allow for the situations in-which Lee finds herself to have their maximum emotional impact. The best example of this, and my favorite section of the novel, is when Lee’s parents visit Ault for parents’ weekend, an extremely important scene from a thematic standpoint, in that it is one of the few times when Lee’s old life, and her life at Ault, are forced to occupy the same space. Sittenfeld devotes a full forty pages to just one day, and in doing so, can thoroughly explore every nuance of Lee’s interaction with her parents, thus experience the pain and anguish they feel at the growing rift between them.    

 

“‘I don’t know what’s happened to you Lee, but I can tell you this much. You’re a disappointment. You’re selfish and you’re shallow and you have no respect for your mother and I, and I’m ashamed of you … When you started at Ault,’ my father continued, ‘I said to myself, I’ll bet there are a lot of kids who’d think really highly of themselves going to a place. And I thought, but I’m glad Lee has a good head on her shoulders. Well, I was wrong’ … And then – I don’t remember any anticipation or foreknowledge of this, only a stunned awareness that it had already happened – he raised his right hand and slapped me across the face (Sittenfeld, pp. 202 – 203).”   

 

Many readers will complain that this novel is pointless and that it wastes chances to make clear statements about life, but those who do, miss that that may, in fact, be the point. We’ve come to expect coming of age stories to be profound, for every element of their plot to propel the protagonist towards some life-affirming revelation. Stories like this are fun to read, but they can also be pandering and unrealistic. Our lives don’t come with built-in lessons, we have experiences, sometimes those experiences teach us things, and sometimes they don’t. As the novel’s narrator, Lee makes many insightful observations about being a teenager, but she does so as an adult, years after the events of the novel occur. This quieter, more cerebral brand of insight doesn’t make the story boring, it makes it realistic, and I find that realism refreshing.    

 

One frequent complaint regarding Lee’s character I have read in other reviews is that she lacks any discernible talents or ambition, and while I agree with this observation, I don’t see it as a discredit to the novel, but rather, as another reason why Lee is so relatable as a character. Not everyone is a superstar in high school: we can’t all be head cheerleaders, get elected Prom Queen, and get full scholarships to Yale where we graduate Summa Cum Laude – the overwhelming majority of us don’t, we just do what we can to get through, then move on to the next stage in our lives. One area in which I feel “Prep” excels is in how it portrays disappointment with life. Lee goes to Ault expecting it to be her gateway to a brighter world, only to discover that her difficulties do not leave her, they just change form: once she was a star pupil, Lee struggles just to catch up with the knowledge her more privileged classmates take for granted, eventually having to resort to cheating just to avoid being expelled. Prior to applying to Ault, Lee was seduced by fantasies of being romanced by handsome young boys in sweaters, but those fantasies are quickly shattered, and while she does eventually stumble into a relationship, Lee finds him indifferent, and his interest in her to be purely physical. Lee’s slow and begrudging realization that reality is not compatible with fantasy, draws a heartbreakingly honest parallel with to the emotional journey upon which we all find ourselves at that age. It is possible to find happiness and fulfillment in life, but they usually come from different sources than those we imagined. At some point, we have to accept the fact that life isn’t always going to turn out the way we hope it will.

 

Literature and popular culture have ingrained in our collective imagination the image of high school (and college) is an idyllic period in our lives, packed with beautiful friendships that last a lifetime, transformative adventures we remember fondly years later, and tremendous spiritual and intellectual growth. In writing “Prep,” Sittenfeld demonstrates a clear understanding that this candy-coated image of our teenage years is nothing more than a fantasy. Most of us forget how nerve-wracking our teenage years can be, Sittenfeld hasn’t.

 

 

reviews/analysis

Book Review: “American Gods,” by Neil Gaiman

There is a spectrum of respectability in contemporary literature: on one end are what one would call “author’s authors,” or authors of literary fiction, such as George Saunders, Ian McEwan, and Junot Diaz, writers who are deemed “more serious,” and whose work tends to emphasize style and intellectual merit over enjoyability – these writers are often accused of pretentiousness, as-well-as having weak instincts for storytelling. On the opposite end of the respectability spectrum are authors of genre fiction – horror, sci-fi, and fantasy – such as Stephen King, Victoria Schwabe, and Sarah J. Maas, authors who display admirable skill in world-building and crafting entertaining, well-structured stories, but whose works can be lacking in psychological or philosophical heft. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, however, is Neil Gaiman, an author who consistently displays a sharp ear for both craft and reader appeal. Gaiman not only crafts well-structured, entertaining stories, but he uses exquisite prose to both build captivating, fantastical worlds, and unpretentiously communicate profound and complex ideas. Without question, no other work of his is a better display of his immense skill than his magnum opus “American Gods,” in which Gaiman draws from a huge wealth of knowledge, blending the great myths of dozens of cultures to create what is both a tale of inexhaustible entertainment value and a thought-provoking social critique of the highest intellectual calibre.

After a brief, but intense stay in a state penitentiary, Shadow Moon is looking forward to finally regaining his freedom, and restarting his life with his wife Laura, but a few days before he is to be released, Shadow learns that Laura and his best friend have been killed in a car crash, with no other options, Shadow reluctantly leaves prison. On the plane ride to Laura’s funeral, Shadow finds himself seated next to the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, a self-proclaimed King of America, who offers Shadow a job as his right-hand man on a mission of supreme importance. Shadow accepts and finds himself accompanying Wednesday as he travels across the United States, communing with individuals as bizarre as him, all the while being pursued by mysterious goons. Shadow quickly learns the truth: Wednesday is an incarnation of the Norse god Odin, and that he, like the strange people with which he has been associating, is a manifestation of the belief immigrants to America had in their native gods. As Centuries roll by, and belief in them wanes, the old gods find themselves replaced by the new gods of media, industry, and technology, who, by the time Shadow finds himself involved, have set out to destroy the old gods once and for all.

In the hands of a less skilled artist, an idea such as “American Gods” would be reduced to mindless pulp entertainment, but Gaiman’s novel is able to transcend the tacky trappings of genre fiction, due to his subtle ability to inject profundity into the story, as well as his excellent characterization skills. The novel’s success is due in large part to how effectively the narrative  is grounded around people. Gaiman makes Shadow an easy character with which to empathize: he loses his freedom, then once his freedom has been restored, the one thing he has desired for years, his wife, is taken away from him, leaving him adrift, desperate, with no choice but to take Wednesday up on his offer. Shadow is an everyman, he’s certainly not what could be considered a hero, in that, he doesn’t feel himself guided by some higher purpose, but he’s not an evil person either – true, Shadow is a convicted felon, but the crime he committed was a result of poor judgement, and not a desire to cause harm – he is simply a person, doing the best he can with what life has dealt him, something to which we can all relate. It is through our identification with Shadow that we can best understand the novel’s premise, for he is, in a sense, a representation of how America is portrayed in the novel. As Mr. Wednesday says, “This is the one country in the world … that worries about what it is … the rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique (Gaiman, p. 150).'” Unlike the countries from which immigrants originate, America has no national lore, no common mythology which unites her citizens and gives them grounding in the past, and it is because of this, Gaiman seems to be saying to us, that America has never been comfortable with itself. Shadow lost his mother when he was a teenager, and never knew his father, so for most of his life, he has no clear narrative about who he is, no notion of what his roots are, and nothing to bind him to any place of security. Shadow’s travels across America, therefore, become a spiritual journey for him: in experiencing an aspect of American life of which he was previously unaware, he gains a newly found appreciation for the complexity of his country and is better equipped to move forward in his life.    

Most of Gaiman’s works are, at their heart, stories about stories, and “American Gods” is the purest example of this sentiment. The novel understands that America is not a single story, but rather one synthesized from countless other stories, all intertwining, overlapping, and branching off of one another only to come crashing back together. Gaiman illustrates this beautifully in the short stories entitled “Coming to America,” which Gaiman places in between chapters, explaining how some of the deities which populate America came to the country. These are some of my favorite parts of the novel, as they add a delicious richness to the narrative; they make the world of the novel feel more complete, showing the reader that there is more to this story than what’s going on with Shadow. Such immersive and multi-dimensional storytelling is enlightening as well as entertaining, in that, it communicates the grander intellectual themes of the novel in a way that could not be done through Shadow’s travels with Wednesday. The relationship between the world in-which Shadow grew up, and the parallel world Wednesday introduces him to, is similar to that between the sanitized version of our history, and the oft-overlooked truth. One story begins: “The important thing to understand about American history … is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children or the easily bored … the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape, a forgetting place (Gaiman, p. 121)” This specific passage is taken from a story about a young Irish woman, who is credited for bringing Celtic legends about fairy folk to America, as she travels back and forth between the Old and New worlds, trying to outrun her criminal past. This tale is meant as a subversion of the traditional narrative of how the original British colonies evolved into the United States. We like to think that the first European settlers to our country were heroic explorers, godly, industrious people, bringing civilization to an uncivilized continent, and while many of them were, a large number of them came here because they had no choice: criminals seeking forgiveness for their crimes, refugees with nowhere else to call home, misfits who had been rejected by their home country. Then, of course, there are those who were brought here as property. In another, much more grim story, we learn of the journey of twin slaves, who, through a lifetime of suffering, reminds us that our nation, no matter how great it is, cost us an immense human price to build. In these tales and the larger narrative of the novel, we come to the startling realization, that the accepted version of our history is nothing but a watered down concoction we force ourselves to swallow, so as to spare ourselves from confronting the ugly truth about our country.

Neil Gaiman achieves the kind of balance that most authors can only dream of, his works are entertaining, but not pandering, thoughtful and intelligent, but not overly intellectual, experimental, but not inaccessible. “American Gods” is a masterpiece of modern popular literature, capable of enlightening us about the true nature of our country, and well deserving of its status as a modern classic.

writing

Reading Experiment: Gaiman in the style of Shelley

For this reading experiment, I have decided to rewrite an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods” as a piece of poetry in the style of Percy Byron Shelley’s Ozymandius. Here is Gaiman’s original text: 

“A precise voice, fussy and exact, was speaking to him, but he could see no one. ‘these are the gods who have been forgotten, and now might a well be dead. they can be found only in dry histories … ‘ The voice spoke once more as if it were addressing a class, ‘These are the gods who have passed out of memory. Even their names are lost. The people who worshipped them are as forgotten as their gods. The totems are long since broken and cast down. Their last priests died without passing on their secrets (Gaiman, 78).'”

Here is Shelley’s original poem:

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

Here is my interpretation:

 

While walking in a dream, I heard a voice,

It said – “Here are statues of the ancient gods,

The ones discarded by coercion and choice,

Relegated to text, stricken from thought.

We know their names but reserve no rejoice,

The images remain, but that is all.

Here are the gods whose names have eroded,

Lucky to be hanging in musty halls,

Little more than crumbs of the distant past.

The rest are shattered, buried, and faded,

No more devotees to offer tribute,

Nor priests left to polish their totems.

Here they shall lie, divine but destitute.      

A god cannot live without devotion.”

I read “Ozymandias” for a poetry course at around the same time I was rereading “American Gods,” and couldn’t help but notice the similarities in their respective messages: the Pharoah Ozymandius creates a massive statue of himself so that humanity will remember his power and greatness for all of time, but this eventually proves to be nothing but hollow arrogance, as his monument to himself falls with the civilization that created it, only to be rediscovered in passing as a crumbling ruin. The premise of Gaiman’s novel is that as immigrants come to America, their traditional beliefs cause their native gods to manifest in physical, human form, but as they and their descendants become Americanized, they stop believing, causing their gods to lose their power, eventually being replaced by the new gods of technology and industry. Both works are concerned with the idea that power, or a person or concept’s capacity to exert influence on a society, is intrinsically tied to their relevance. The Pharoah in Shelley’s poem and the gods in Gaiman’s novel have power because people believe in, and pay attention to them, but as generations are born and die, the significance of these powerful figures wanes, causing them to fade from the collective consciousness and eventually be replaced. As such, these two beautiful pieces of literature should serve as sobering reminders to us that permanence is an illusion, and that no one’s beliefs are too sacred to fade into irrelevance.