Monday, December 16, 2013

2013 in Shit: My Education

There are sentences in My Education that are fucking Proustian. There are declamations of love that are so terse and universalized as to be cloying. There are wrapping-ups and contrived circumstances and deliciously small twists on widely reproduced tropes. There are so many fucking characters, characters who are so well drawn even I nearly gave a shit, settings loosely sketched enough to evoke their power structures without them getting in the way, situations so broadly applicable that they become personal. There is exchange and obfuscation and machinations and misunderstanding and hopeless immanence and moving forward and there is so much fucking money.

I haven't read any of Susan Choi's other novels, and almost didn't bother with My Education based almost exclusively on how much I disliked the cover. I'm pretty glad I got over that impulse, honestly; it's one of the best books I read this year (that's a pretty competitive field), even if I can't find all that much to say about it (Dear Author, you should probably think to finish the article before you make statements like this -ed). It's one of those novels that fucking works, I think, that hits just the right note with nearly everything it does, from the sentence structure to the diversion from the general construction of the central narrative trope, that it's hard for me to articulate why it's amazing without falling into Lit 101 platitudes about craft or whatever. Which isn't the fault of this novel so much as it is that I learned quickly which things I actually gave a fuck about and pursued them, rather than developing that particular critical muscle.

The novel is basically the story of a graduate student named Regina at an East Coast school who decides to fall in love with her professor, but ends up falling in love, and having an extended affair, with his wife. The bulk of the novel follows that affair, and then its breakup and the aftermath, with a little coda for many years later when the threads sort of tie up. That part, even, is like, pretty fine, I think. It's in following Regina and Martha through their affair, melodramatics and generational drama and all, where the book is phenomenal.

But instead of that, I am most interested in writing slightly speculatively about the status of money in this book. It's one of those novels, like maybe a lot of Murakamis, where money is this increasingly legible absence in the world of the novel. It's the sort of thing that is simultaneously justified out of mind and constantly underscored by the novels setting; Regina is a graduate student in the early 90s, so, loans? But also, loans?

Nicholas and Martha (the professors), however, make less sense; they both teach at the same school and somehow can afford not only a mansion, but also hired help? Nicholas is painted as a sort of star professor, but even still, and even given that they aren't living in, say, New York City, and it's twenty years ago. It's not quite unbelievable, but neither is it ever addressed; the closest thing is Regina, after dropping out, referring to her poorly paid film review and research assistant gigs, which seem a bizarre way to set the stage for her moving into her own apartment, buying a fish tank, and slowly descending into temporary alcoholism almost exclusively via bars. Again it's likely that the economics could be totally sound, but there's a lingering unaddressed discomfort; one would imagine that a novel, even one set in the recent past, would be more attentive to the current trend of University privatization and the overt class warfare that, while based in the past forty plus years of policy, takes as its current method at least some significant amount of strategy developed in the very time period that this book takes place on precarious laborers like graduate students.

Of course, there’s always the excuse of the story; and for My Education, I’m almost willing to make it myself: these are not the sorts of concerns that a relatively well off college girl would have had, or even likely would have noticed. Especially not one in the throes of a massive, life changing love affair, which leads to her dropping out of school, completely altering all of her other relationships, and being left completely disconsolate a number of times.

But there’s still the fact that the novel as a form is fundamentally about not telling a story, in as many ways as possible, while still appearing to. Which is, generally, where things like political economy come into play. Part of what is great about the novel is that it seems to devote every inch of extra space to aesthetics and nothing else, and manages to fill packed. Granted, even if the sentences can be Proustian, it’s no In Search of Lost Time; it, like more or less everything else, doesn’t approach the breadth and depth of Proust’s investigation of aesthetics. On its own terms, though, it can feel at times as packed as one of Proust’s denser passages, and I certainly think that’s worth a hell of a lot.

Of course, if In Search of Lost Time is about any one thing, it's about figuring out what the fuck this new middle class thing is and how the fuck to operate within it. It's also very avoidant of the question of money. There's a possible suggestion here, a dichotomy borne out through literature to this point; on the one hand, Proust's investigations of aesthetics without money, and on the other, Gogol's (in Dead Souls) investigations of the way in which money changes with this new mode of production. That’s maybe outside my ambit here, though.

There's an image, (and) a thing, in My Education that I suspect carries the weight of this avoidance more than anything else; but even I feel myself stretching here, and so. Regina, after she moves into a new apartment on her own, enlists Dutra, her until-then housemate and former lover and best (as far as we can tell, mostly only) friend, to populate an aquarium.

To reference the amount of space that this aquarium takes up, in the narrative itself, doesn't begin to do justice to how overwhelming this totally unimportant detail of the narrative somehow becomes, for me at least, the defining feature of the novel. So much more than its narrative or its philosophizing proclamations or its anything else, the way that this stupid aquarium becomes a symbol of the refusal of the narrative to acknowledge its own political economy.

I mean by this, of course, not just the way that the budgeting works. That's just what makes the whole thing confusing, at a narrative, existing-world level. What this absence reveals, all the way back to Proust and all the way through Murakami to Choi, is how the realistic modernist novel works, that it is predicated on a naturalized fiction of how it is possible to get by in this awful new world of ours. It is the case that exchange value overdetermines everything; the question is how to represent that.

And, obscure as it may seem, long, tortorous sentences are, in there way, an answer. That is: an obsessive focus on aesthetics is never an opting out of the question of engaging with the mode of production; it can only ever be a means of (detached) engagement. To focus, for instance, on the logistics of which fish would be the best decision to be the first to occupy Regina's new tank, and to decide, based on rational dialogue, as Dutra does, on a member of the class of Pioneer Fish, is never really a disengagement, and to see it as such is to deny the ways in which capitalism's movement between the universal and the particular is totalizing.

Neither is it, though, necessarily an Absolute Statement; that these fish are valorized in terms that relate to the settler-colonialist terms on which the country was founded is not an excuse to obviate the narrative function of naming a real class of fish in the terms on which the logic of the narrative dictates. I am probably only arguing with myself here, but the point remains that My Education is, for all its seeming hermeticism, engaged in ways that go beyond affective descriptions of immiseration, and are primarily accessible at the level of interrogating the form itself. Which, ultimately, is to say that this is a novel deeply concerned with aesthetics.

The way that the novel is concerned, for instance, with not just the inversion of the professor/graduate student affair on the terms of gender and sexuality, but, overwhelmingly, with the subject of domesticity, is as much a way of moving this supposedly-literary drama away from the sorts of valorizations of heterosexuality that even allegedly "hard hitting," bleak depictions like Coetzee's Disgrace crib from the romance novel genre as it is a clear political move. That is, My Education takes the aesthetic concern of how to represent this mode of sexual relationship, which itself could probably be codified into a genre, without relying on aesthetic means developed for representing other modes of being together with entirely different values. The means Choi employs are undeniably political, even as they aren't acknowledged as such within the text, but there remains a sneaking suspicion that the ultimate (or, at least, more foundational) concern is aesthetic. Probably a better critical theorist would have her Benjamin handy, but fuck that.

There's a certain way in which the absence of concern about money becomes a structural principle for discussing class, and not just in the sense of indicating that the characters are rich. Taking capitalism as a totalizing mode of production is not just to say that it spreads everywhere, but that it is the organizing principle of the social. That's the bit that scientistic sociologies like neuroscience or evolutionary psychology gloss over: it is an explanation as to why these, largely able to be reduced to quasi-biological, claims are the ones that are operative within the world we live in, which largely provides for their obsolescence.

For My Education, then, the focus on aesthetics is always necessarily a focus on the way that, as in the example of the question of representation regarding the student-professor affair, also if not only a question of how this organization is achieved not just through previous aesthetic models but through the social itself. And, as it refocuses on the concerns of the domestic and how two very similar people who are barely a decade a part in age can find their modes of living completely incompatible, both with each other and in the context of the world, the aesthetic desire to represent becomes implicated in the social imperative to reproduce. That the text itself spends more anxiety on aphoristic declamations of what Love truly is reflects only the characters' (but most especially Regina's) desire to move outside of this dialectic, and the absolute impossibility of doing so. The absence of money or an exploration of the dynamic development of capital is not an avoidance but an indication of a particular lens, one which, as I am, is often more concerned with the question of reproductive, rather than productive, labor. Also it's a gorgeous book, which helps, except for the cover, which is just awful.

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