Favourite Thinkers VI: Michael Chabon

Is a blog, which this is, by an academic, which I am, necessarily an ‘academic blog’? I’m not sure, and I kind of hope not.

Anyway, I came across this little essay by Michael Chabon, on why dreams are over-rated. It’s typical of how he writes about grand things by locating them in the mundane stream of ordinary living. Chabon has accidentally become one my favourite thinkers recently, even though I have only ever read one of his books – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, obviously, almost a quarter of a century ago (I keep trying to read Wonderboys, and we have a couple of his other novels kicking around the house, but they are so thick it’s off-putting).

But his non-fiction is great. He has a collection of ‘criticism’, Maps and Legends, which is  all about being a fan of genre fiction, and how all literature is really genre fiction, that I picked up in a wonderful book shop in Greenwich village a couple of years ago. This was shortly after the film adaptation of The Road had been released, and lots of the discussion about it presumed it was an allegory for environmental catastrophe. Chabon’s essay, written before the film, puts the novel into the perspective of the whole sweep of Cormac McCarthy’s work, and specifically, presents it as working the line between two genres, those of epic and horror.

The horror, for Chabon, derives from the way in which The Road works as “a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears”:

“The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with”.

And some other fears too. I liked this account not least because it captured something of my own experience of reading the novel (I haven’t been able to find time, or face up, to watching the film) – it really did interpellate me as a parent, provoked a series of anxieties that I don’t think it would have done before then.

More lightheartedly, the other collection of Chabon’s that I have read, more recently, is Manhood for Amateurs, a book about being a dad, husband, boyfriend, son, and other assorted manly roles. It sounds like one of those ‘guides to being a dad’ books, I know, but it really isn’t. I bought it for 1.99 at The Works in Swindon’s Outlet Village (second best bookshop in town, in the best public space). It contains a series of little pieces on all sorts of topics, some of which don’t quite translate for an American context, some of which do – a wonderful account of the guilt inducing struggle to manage the mountain of pictures and drawings that one’s children bring home every day from nursery or school without succumbing to the sense that you are destroying the archive of your, and their, future memories; why the introduction of human mini-figures by Lego was indicative of a larger shift in contemporary toy culture that shrinks the scope of the imagination (it’s more fun than that makes it sound); the importance of pockets in men’s lives, and the difficulties of finding appropriate bags-which-are-not-purses – and the search for the perfect “murse”.

Chabon also writes abuot how he suffers from the ‘delusion’  that, despite knowing he’ll never see grandparents again, or dead dogs, or 1976, that he will return to these times and places and people sometime in the future:

“always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind is the unshakeable, even foundational knowledge – for which certainty is too conscious a term – that at some unspecified future date, by unspecified means, I will return to those people and to those locales. That I am going back”.

Again, this strikes a chord with me, it’s a constant feature of how I process memories. So does Chabon’s wider point about the delusion of yearning for the return of ‘normal time’ – a time in life when it seems that the rhythm of everyday life is not interrupted or imperilled by rain pouring through the bedroom ceiling, cats with urinary tract infections, children with conjunctivitis, having to look after the neighbours chickens.

Anyway, I have nothing profound to say about any of this, other than to recommend Chabon’s writing on the ordinary aspects of growing up and growing old.

The Femicide Machine: new book by Sergio González Rodríguez

I have just read a little book, an essay really, by the Mexican writer Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine. He is one of a number of writers and journalists who have campaigned for justice for the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez over the last two decades, or more. This is a subject that the geographer Melissa Wright has written extensively about, for example. Rodríguez’s book does not provide a load of background to this phenomenon – others, like Charles Bowden and Diana Washington Valdez do that – but it does provide a lite-touch theoretical contextualisation of what at first appears to be an almost incomprehensible level of misogynistic violence, and in particular, of the almost systematic failure of Mexican authorities to address the murders effectively. The language is Deleuzian, providing a sense in which ‘the femicide machine’ thrives in the spaces opened up by the concatenation between ‘the war machine’ (Mexico’s enrollment in ‘the war on drugs’) and ‘the criminal machine’, all in the context of the longer history of maquiladora-based industrial and urban development in northern Mexico (I think he might miss a theoretical trick by not connecting ‘assembly’-based manufacturing with ‘assemblages’, but that might not be the main point of the book). This is the ‘trasnlineal’ space of the US/Mexico ‘transborder’ zone, a space which  Rodríguez characterises by quoting Cormac McCarthy’s line that it is here that ‘the probability of the actual is absolute’.

I’m interested in this issue because 7 years ago now (7 years? Where did they go?), I was involved with some filming for an OU course which used the campaigns against femicide in Juárez as a case study for teaching students about the geographies of global responsibility. This was actually before things got really bad, since 2006, with the ratcheting up of militarised anti-drug trafficking on both sides of the border. It was at the time that Amnesty, the UN, Eve Ensler, and others were actively making the Juárez murders into an international issue – this is the issue that we focussed on (along with other issues, such as control of water along the border, the movements of people over the border, and work in the maquiladora – it’s not too late to sign up for the course). It was both a fascinating experience, and at times a very uncomfortable one, not least interviewing women involved in the femicide campaigns; and being detained by the Mexican army, for wandering across the Rio Grande (there was no water in it at the time; technically, we were trying to get into the USA, the U.S. Border Patrol just told us to go back, the Army weren’t pleased).

Actually, I think the most important part of Rodríguez’s book is not the analysis, interesting as it is, so much as the Epilogue, titled ‘Instructions for Taking Textual Photographs’. This consists of a ‘photographic mise-en-scene’ in which he narrates, in the first person voice of one mother, the circumstances surrounding the abduction, murder, and (non-)investigation of her daughter. The narrative here reaffirms the line of the preceding chapters, about how the perpetrators are known and hide in plain sight. This is followed by 20 pages of ‘photographs’; only, there are no photographs – just the captions, a line or a few sentences each, re-iterating the ‘scenes’ from the first person narrative, including ‘photos’ incriminating the perpetrators. It’s an interesting device with which to raise the question about the politics of representation of femicide and it’s victims, certainly. But by presenting the ‘photos’ (which presumably are both real and imagined, judging from their listed content) in this way, he is making the same point about the degree to which the real mystery here is not ‘who did it’ but why so little has been done to address the murders and the demands of victims’ families. The captions indicate the ‘truth’ of the case, the absence of the photos stand as a kind of accusation about a culture of institutionalised impunity – the book is, after all, a manifesto, an intervention.

Either that, or Semiotext(e) just can’t afford to reproduce photos in their books.