Tuesday, December 3, 2013

2013 in Shit: Apology

I feel bad for how little interest I felt in reading Jon Piñeda's Apology: A Novel; some of my ambivalence, I suspect, has to do with how much I disliked the reader of the audiobook. Did I mention I listened to a number of the books I'll be reviewing? Because I definitely did, and that's kind of weird to me. I kind of never listened to an audiobook until I discovered Librivox last year, which is a great resource, especially if you want to hear Fritz Leiber's The Big Time read fantastically well or get into William Hope Hodgson or M.R. James. I still feel weird about listening to books, but hey, who cares.

I mention this because it is hard to tell where my strongest complaint against the novel lies, and there's still enough of an academic in me that I am loathe to ignore the ways in which an adaptation mediates my reception of a text. Because, of all things, Apology bothered me most in that critical term which relies most heavily on the metaphorical hearing of a text; that is, the voice (or more specifically the tone).

Apology follows a migrant worker named Exequiel who has come to a town to stay with his brother, whose son Mario accidentally gives a young girl serious brain damage. Exequiel takes the fall and is imprisoned for fifteen years, while Mario grows up to be a brain surgeon. The bulk of the novel consists of digressions through the histories of the Guzman and Serafino families (the latter being the family whose daughter was hurt) and the people that surrounded them.

It’s a pretty phenomenal structure for a novel, and the lives it delves into are all interesting. This is, unfortunately, about as deep into it as I can get, given how little I remember, but I do kind of hope I know someone who has read it so that I can hear why I ought to give it a second chance.

The most egregious example of my problem with the book's tone was in its use of metaphor; every time one was used it was presented with so much self-righteous satisfaction that I couldn't help but cringe. Another issue with audiobooks is that it is much harder to find examples, so this is going to have to be largely on faith, and it is entirely possible that it is an artefact of the audiobook reader's very arch tone throughout, but I suspect that the performance only exacerbated an already existing problem. There is, if I recall correctly, a moment when someone or something is described as “like a peacock;” on top of the already uninteresting comparison, the explanation of the likeness is delivered in such a way as to belabour a point that next to nothing about the subject itself. And at the same time, it comes across in a way that leads you to believe that This Is It, this is the description you’ve been waiting for this whole time. Except that it’s not and it’s just really off putting.

One of the reasons that I wish I hadn’t run up against the tone of the novel so hard as to make it nearly impossible for me to pay attention to it in a deeper way is that I suspect that Apology is an incredible example of how the “cycles of violence” thematic genre (which I am running into the ground on this very special week) translates from film to novel. Prior to this I have only really considered it in terms of film, which is partially why I identify it so closely with the Coen Brothers; it obviously predates them and is practiced both by more prominent and more adept filmmakers, but I personally started thinking about it in relation to my resistance to their films, and the way that other films (most especially Let The Right One In) do the same things that they do without quite so much cop fetishization. Apology has all the characteristics of this quasi-genre (excepting the overwhelming whiteness, of course, which is welcome) down to the regrettable gendered focus on the men as subjects and the women as objects.

The premise of the novel makes this (where “this” means both the gendered implication in and the general posited-genre of inquiry) incredibly clear, of course; the whole thing takes off from a point of unspeakable violence at one of the few osmotic points in a relatively stratified social situation. The whole novel unravels, in one sense, as an investigation into the lived worlds of the people who are closest to this moment, and how it affects them both going forward and looking backward. And both because of and in relation to that moment, there is a certain clarity cast on all the ways that these moments of social transgression are brought about through violent actions. Sometimes by the character, and other times upon, and sometimes in the form of direct physical violence and others in more indirect modes like forgetting and ostracizing and ignoring. It’s Apology’s ability to focus on the ways in which this structuring incident moves against time, rather than exclusively forward through it, that makes the way it works so potentially interesting.

I (to make a brief detour) don’t care overly much for those arguments about literary fiction as a genre, if only because they seem mostly to be really boring. But an early scene in Apology sees Exequiel masturbating at his work site before work starts, and that shit is seriously fucking dull. It is, of course, done in a Very Literary way, and if I could just not have to deal with Very Literary Masturbation Scenes anymore I would be pretty happy with that.

And, of course, the way that the novel is structured almost exclusively through the points of view of the male characters feeds into this (where "this" is both High Literary and potentially interesting in relation to the other examples of this "genre"), even as it closes off interesting possibilities. I think? Maybe it’s just gross.

Another part of the reason that I wish I had liked Apology more than I was able is because it is clearly a novel about class, even as it refuses to hector the reader about that. And more than that, it’s about the intersection of the state, in the form of the legal and educational systems, with class, which is determined at least in part by race, nationality and generation. These are all things that tend to be absented from the “cycles of violence” narratives, and instead subsumed into the aesthetic move from the landscape mode to the portrait mode. Apology’s aesthetics, on the other hand, are mostly just High Literary self-righteousness, which exists somewhere between the Realist and the Modernist modes, which is to say between the Lukácsian exploration of objective systems and the Joyceian totalization of interiority. Which is to say that it is the completion of the Coensian movement rather than its enacting, and which is also (also also) to say that it’s kind of a muddled mess. In terms of the ideology its aesthetics presents, I mean. Which really isn’t a problem except insofar as it is realized as a tendency to, say, make really awful metaphors seem like they are meant to be incredibly deep expressions of the human condition, or something.

But it also reveals the ways in which the Cycles of Violence films movement from landscape to portraiture can be roughly mapped to the distinction between literary realism and modernist expressionism, or the exploration of objective systems to interiority. Hopefully at some point I will find the time to reread this novel and figure out if it actually offers a way through this, whether through its being better than I experienced it or through its failure to be “good.” At the moment I can only experience it, through memory, as a sort of vague set of potential mired in an overwhelmingly righteous tone, which kind of sucks.

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