Tuesday, May 13, 2014
May 13, 2014: Spring 2014 Recaps: The Post-War Novel
[It’s exam week, the final act of the Spring 2014 semester! So in this week’s series, I’ll recap some of the best of my semester’s courses and conversations, leading up to a weekend post on my summer plans. Add your semester recaps, summer plans, or whatever else you want to share in comments, please!]
On two provocative questions raised in a course’s compelling conversations.
In the semester preview post on my American Novel Since WWII course, I focused on questions of likability, and on a couple narrator/protagonists (Sylvia Plath’s Esther and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Calliope) whom my prior section of the course hadn’t found likeable. For whatever reason, this time around the class responded very well to both of those novels, and were similarly willing and able to give an entirely non-traditional and very challenging novel like Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo their time and effort. Indeed, the whole semester with this great group was successful, and I mostly just had to stay out of the way of their voices and conversations. And no series of conversations were more communally engaged, nor more provocative, than those focused on Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
If you know either the novel or the relatively close film adaptation, you know that one of the central questions about American Psycho is whether its narrator/protagonist Patrick Bateman is actually carrying out his brutal serial killings or simply imagining or hallucinating them. The question goes to literary issues (such as narrator reliability), genre issues (whether the novel is horror or social satire, for example), and social issues (including whether Bateman represents an extreme or a norm within his 1980s yuppie culture), among other ramifications. The students engaged with all those issues, using evidence from the novel very effectively to support their perspectives, but they also came to a very strong communal perspective on an even more complex and crucial point: that the existence of the uncertainties and ambiguities is itself an analytical point, a way to understand what Ellis is doing and how his novel works.
Those issues are at least somewhat specific and unique to Ellis’ novel, but in the course of our conversations about American Psycho the students also raised another, broader and equally provocative question about how we define the work. Compared to the three books we had read before it (Plath’s, Reed’s, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five), Ellis’ novel was far more mainstream and popular, a massmarket bestseller by an author with an established reputation for such hits. In fact, as I mentioned in class, it is likely one of the few such truly bestselling, popular works I’ve taught—even works like The Great Gatsby that are very well-known today did not sell particularly well in their own era. And that sense of popularity, rather than simply identifying Ellis’ novel as something different from our other readings, provoked the students to a series of strong and evolving discussions about topics like audience and expectations, author’s purpose and intention, and the roles literature and art can play in reflecting, contributing to, and challenging their societies. Just one more layer to this course’s very compelling communal conversations.
Next recap tomorrow,
BenPS. Thoughts on this topic? How was your spring semester?