BOOK REVIEWS

Schoolhouse Gothic by Sherry R. Truffin

Schoolhouse Gothic, Sherry R. Truffin’s first monograph, is one of the first studies to address the role of the educational system in twentieth-century Gothic fiction. The work reveals Truffin’s in-depth understanding of the Gothic genre, its origins, methodologies and implications, focussing in particular on a branch of Gothic she terms ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’.
In Schoolhouse Gothic, Truffin examines late-twentieth-century American literature by authors such as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates taking the form of Gothic narratives where the stones of age-old monasteries and castles are replaced by the concrete of school buildings and where classrooms and gyms function as prisons. Truffin focuses on those texts that express and exacerbate the increasingly uneasy relationship that Americans have with the academy and with the educational system as a whole. According to Truffin, ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the educational system through a Gothic lens with schools reifying old – and often outdated – traditions, and teachers and professors perpetuating an ‘epistemic violence’ that is ‘violence exerted against or through knowledge’ (26). Schools, within this strand of Gothic, provide the setting for race, gender and class inequities, which often result in physical and mental violence against students. Since Gothic is a genre that tends to explore subversive themes, often providing a conflicting view of our culture, it seems almost inevitable that it would turn its gaze to the country’s faltering educational system where high-schools and colleges form the backdrop to gun violence, economic inequalities, and racial and gender discriminations.
Woven throughout Truffin’s narrative are a diverse set of theories, for example, a view of institutional buildings as places designed to control and entrap individuals that echoes Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and a concept of ‘epistemic violence’ stems from Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘Power/Knowledge’ in which power is simultaneously generated by and generator of knowledge). She calls upon eminent contemporary literary theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and James A. Berlin to support her assertions about educational institutions, and references recent Gothic scholars such as Chris Baldick and David Punter when defining Gothic. Although her erudition emerges quite clearly, her arguments often seem convoluted and there is almost an excess of critical theories, which are sometimes not developed in full.
Truffin repeatedly refers to the ‘academic objectivity’ that ‘blinds scholars and educators to their own prejudices’ and stresses that academy’s ‘prerogative of definition’ is extremely damaging – above all to the students who are its primary victims: are we to assume that she considers herself exempt?
Her opening chapter begins with a personal account set during Truffin’s senior year of high school, when she first heard Pink Floyd’s ‘grim narrative’(2) in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Truffin credits this song with inspiring her to embark on her inquiry into the nature and representations of ‘shadowy educators; nightmarish schools; and traumatized students’ (2), that is, the schools and teachers that she associated with that particular song. She goes goes on to explore the ‘forbidding schools and menacing teachers’ (3) within the Gothic canon.
In this introductory chapter she provides a brief definition of Gothic as a counter-Enlightenment discourse that serves as the basis of her inquiry into what she defines as ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, which is not a genre per se but rather ‘a set of representations that articulates or embodies […] “a structure of feeling”’ (5). One of the defining characteristics of the Gothic is that it is a genre preeminently concerned with the past, yet ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the contemporary Western education system, albeit using traditional Gothic motifs and conventions to do so. Daunting family mansions and old monasteries are replaced by school buildings and college campuses. Within ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ standardized education is a means of control and indoctrination, schools are the backdrop to power inequalities, a place where students are entrapped, oppressed, and transformed into ‘psychopaths, zombies, and machines’ (5).
Truffin considers the teachers, students, and academic institutions within the ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ as correspondents to the Gothic tropes such as the monster, the curse, and the trap. The paranoia, violence and mental disintegration that takes place in ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ is such that students and teachers alike emerge from their school experience ‘so distorted as to become a kind monster […] no one remains unchanged by school, and no one changes for the better’ (27). Truffin uses the remainder of her introduction to establish the structure of her monograph, the texts she will analyse that focus on literature where the school is ‘the loci of the Gothic experiences’ (26), and the way in which she will approach these texts.
In ‘“I’m out of your filing cabinet now”: Adolescent Angst in the Schoolhouse Gothic of Stephen King’ Truffin focuses on four narratives by Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining, Apt Pupil and Rage. Truffin identifies and addresses the similar themes explored within these stories noting that within King’s ‘rather extensive boy of Schoolhouse Gothic’ schools and their teachers are compared to ‘everything from bad parenting to rape, capitalist brainwashing, and monster-making’ (34). The schools and teachers starring in these stories are sources of ‘paranoia, violence and monstrosity’ (34). What emerges from Truffin’s approach to these texts is that the rage experienced by the students in King’s narratives is a reaction to the way that they have been abused, labelled, and misunderstood by their educators. These unequal power relationships will have deadly consequences – as revealed in Truffin’s close-analysis of these stories – as the victimized students turn against their tormentors.
When discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved Truffin makes readers aware that the novel is ‘neither set in a school building nor centrally concerned with the victimizations of students at the hands of their teachers’ arguing however that ‘all of the elements of Schoolhouse Gothic find their way into the novel’ (82). While King ‘explores the effects of subjugation and entrapment on students’, Morrison’s novel considers the ‘subjugating effects of conceptualizing human beings as subject matters’ (82). Truffin details the way in which the character of Sethe, a freed slave, is viewed as ‘less than human–as in fact, an object of study’ (82). Truffin’s analysis centers on the way in which racism and slavery are ‘legitimated and perpetuated–given a (pseudo) scientific sanction’ within Beloved. Truffin views the schoolteacher – who is the primary discipliner of the slaves – as the embodiment of post-Enlightenment scientific racism. Truffin argues that his desire to study the ‘animal’ qualities of his slaves, such as when he measures Sethe’s head, instructing his pupils list her human and animal characteristics, is an ‘epistemic violation of his slaves’. His lectures and writings are accountable for the actions of his students who assault Sethe. Sethe herself is haunted by the schoolteacher’s practices. In this chapter Truffin grimly demonstrates that Beloved’s ‘critique of the history racist oppression in America’ revolves around ‘the horrible power of the academic’ (100) where students are programmed to dissect and discard human subject matter.
In her next chapter Truffin jumps from a 19th-century slave plantation to a college campus in New England during the mid-1970s. Truffin examines Joyce Carol Oates’s Beasts using the same rationale as her previous chapters, referring to the ‘monster, curse and trap’ that constitute her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’. Beasts follows Gillian, a student attending a women’s college, who is seduced by her Creative Writing professor Mr Harrow. Mr Harrow pressures Gillian into entering a sexual relationship with himself and his wife, Dorcas. Truffin describes Gillian as being enslaved by this relationship, and alongside her classmates, also implied to be fellow victims of Mr Harrow, becomes increasingly ‘jealous, paranoid, dehumanized and monstrous’ to the point of resembling ‘zombies, cadavers, dogs and […] beasts’ (107). Mr Harrow in turn exploits, humiliates and abuses his victims. Truffin observes the way in which Gillian’s college experience leads her to indulge in self-mutilation and self-flagellation and finally pushes her to kill the professor and his wife, that is, those who made her into a ‘beast’. Truffin highlights the themes and arguments she has touched upon in previous chapters, illustrating the way in which Schoolhouse Gothic narratives expose the inevitable monstrous transformation that students can experience at the hands of their teachers, who are either physically abusive or exercise ‘epistemic violence’ – wielding knowledge as a weapon – against those who are in their care.
Although many sections of Schoolhouse Gothic are highly accessible, to the point of being conversational in style, there are other passages that seem unnecessarily abstruse and fall back on awkward metaphors. The volume would have also benefited from attentive editing since the index contains several errors: the entry for ‘New Criticism’, for example, directs readers to nonexistent pages. Another serious shortcoming in my opinion is the author’s failure to address her role as a scholar and academic in her critique of the academy. Early on she briefly acknowledges the positive effects that the educational system can have but in examining those texts she identifies as being ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, she often seems critical of the academy and educational system themselves rather than critical of the way in which they are within the texts. And while her ‘monster, curse and trap’ allegory gives consistency to her analysis of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ literature this formula can be limiting since it melds together different readings and stories.
Nevertheless Truffin’s Schoolhouse Gothic proposes an interesting study, and her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ gives expression to an overlooked strand of the Gothic.


MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf — book review

7119MpKPEZL.jpgThroughout the course of my undergraduate degree I consistently and persistently avoided Virginia Woolf’s body of work as on the best of days I have little patience for stream of consciousness (especially of the Joycean variety) and modernist literature. When my lecturers mentioned Woolf they always seemed to confirm my impression of her being a pretentious snob so I didn’t feel particularly inclined to pick up her impenetrably introspective novels.

As of late, I’ve been wanting to read more essays and, for some reason or other, I ended up reading Woolf’s The Common Reader…and I’m glad I did. Yes, her worldview betrays a certain elitism but given her time period I don’t feel particularly slighted by her notion of ‘common reader’ or by the way in which she refers to cultures outside of Britain (once again Italians are referred to as a vaguely uncivilised ‘Southern race’).

Woolf’s essays are far more accessible than I’d imagined them to be. Unlike her fiction, here Woolf’s prose does not stray into the obscure, and needlessly confounding, territories of the English language. Here her lexicon is not only crystal clear but simply captivating. She writes with such eloquence and vitality, demonstrating her extensive knowledge of her subjects without giving herself airs. In fact, these essays never seem to reveal Woolf’s presence as she does not write as an “I” but as a “we”. While in clumsier hands I would have found the “we” to be patronising, Woolf’s essays are anything but. She includes us with ease, making us feel as if we were active participants in her analysis. Her subjects too are not passive figures easily relegated to the past. Her evocative descriptions have an immediacy that makes us momentarily forget that these authors are long-dead. Woolf does not waste time in recounting the entire careers and lives of her biographees. With a few carefully articulated phrases she hones in on the essence of these writers and their work. Woolf whisks away by asking us to ‘imagine’ alongside her these authors in their everyday lives, by speaking of their household, their country, and their world, with such familiarity as to convince us that she knew each one of them.

Her essays certainly demonstrate a wealth of knowledge. Woolf creates a myriad of connections, drawing upon history and philosophy in an engaging and enlightening manner. Certain historical facts went over my head, but that is probably due to my non-British schooling. Nevertheless, even when I wasn’t sure of whom she was writing about or the significance of one of her references, I still felt very much involved by what I was reading.

Woolf’s examination of the interplay between critics, readers, and writers becomes the central leitmotif of this collection. Time and again Woolf interrogates the way in which a writer is influenced by their readers and critics, and of the way in which this knowledge of a future readership shapes their writing. Woolf surveys different types of authors: fiction (such as Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë), essayists (such as Montaigne), poets, playwrights, and those historical figures who escape definition (such as the incomparable Margaret Cavendish).
In ‘On not knowing Greek’ and ‘The Russian Point of View’ Woolf turns to language and translation while in ‘Modern Fiction’, ‘The Modern Essay’, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’, and ‘How Should One Read a Book’ she considers the many faces of writing and the differences between classic and contemporary fiction/authors.

Even in those instances in which our interpretations differed, I recognised that her arguments were informative and persuasive. It is perhaps Woolf’s dialogic wit that makes her suppositions all the more compelling.

More impressive still is Woolf’s description of one of my least favourite literary styles in her much quoted essay titled ‘Modern Fiction’. Here her authorial presence is more felt as she expresses a wish to read fiction that reflects the continuous and incongruous flow of our thoughts.

I thoroughly recommend this to bibliophiles of all sorts. Whether you consider yourself a common reader or not Woolf’s essays have a lot to offer.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop — book review

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“Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves.”

Although The Anna Karenina Fix is certainly written in an engaging style, Viv Groskop’s humour, which mostly consists in her resorting to a forced comedic ‘light’ tone when discussing serious subjects, lessened my overall reading experience.
In her introduction Groskop writes that:

“But first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. […] Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again.”

…which is fair enough. However I don’t entirely agree with her claim that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. Of course different people will have different opinions or impressions of a book’s subjects and themes but the way she phrases struck me as both vaguely patronising and equivocal.
Groskop interweaves her own personal experiences when discussing her chosen authors and their work. The parallels she draws between herself and these writers seemed for the most part fitting. She doesn’t paint herself as the hero or heroine of the anecdotes she writes of, and uses a self-deprecating sort of humour to make light of her struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that is not her own. By drawing on her time as a student in Russia and by examining her relationship to the Russian language, Russian traditions, and Russian people, Groskop does present us with an intimate and compelling depiction of this country.
Complementing her ‘outsider’ perspective of Russia are the biographies of various Russian authors. While she sprinkles quite a few fun anecdotes from their lives, she seems to focus on their individual relationships to Russian and the values that emerge from their works (which as she remarks can go at odds to their own way of life).
Readers who have only read a few of these Russian authors (for example I’ve only read Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky) might find The Anna Karenina Fix more entertaining than those who are already well acquainted with these classics of the Russian literature. Had I been better versed in the works and lives of these writers I’m not sure I would have found The Anna Karenina Fix very informative or insightful. As it is, Groskop did spark my interest in the works of Gogol, Akhmatova, and Turgenev.
Part of me wishes that Groskop had not revolved her analysis/discussions of these books on these novel’s alleged ‘life lessons’. The ‘self-help’ aspect of The Anna Karenina Fix seemed a bit unnecessary. In a certain way Groskop seems to be moralising these books in a way that almost goes against her initial claims (that these books can be appreciated without attributing to them clever messages and such things).
The ‘life lessons’ themselves were rather obvious:
Anna Karenina = “life is, essentially, unknowable”
Eugene Onegin = “Avoid hubris. Stay humble. Keep an eye out for self-defeating behaviours. Don’t duel.”
From chapter six she also begins to talk in terms of hedgehogs and foxes (from Isaiah Berlin’s essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox) which didn’t strike me as being an incredibly profound analogy and she returns to this hedgehog/fox problem time and again…
Groskop’s humour was very hit or miss. At times her digressions, which usually appeared in brackets, were spot on funny. For the most part however these asides seemed out of place and forced (“I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard […] Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.”). Also this happens to be the second self-proclaimed work of ‘light’ unpretentious criticism that mentions popular culture one too many times (I am so sick and tired of the Kardashians).
At times she seems to play into this role of ‘amateur’ critic when in actuality she happens to have two university degrees in Russian and can speak fluent Russian. Lastly her constant digs against Nabokov were childish. We get it, the man was punctilious and big headed…can we move on?
All in all I would recommend this only to those who are thinking of reading more Russian literature but have yet to read the classics as The Anna Karenina Fix makes for a readable and quick introduction to prominent Russian authors.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Coventry by Rachel Cusk — review

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I have rather mixed thoughts about Rachel Cusk’s Coventry: Essays. Maybe I’m just not the right ‘reader’ for her work…I previously read, and was rather underwhelmed by, Outline…a book that has won quite a few literary awards and is thought of by many as a modern classic.

This collection by Cusk is divided in three sections: the first consists of autobiographical essays (“Driving as Metaphor”,“Coventry”, “On Rudeness”, “Making Home”, “Lions on Leashes”, “Aftermath”) in which she makes various speculations regarding notions of motherhood, home, and agency, often using her personal history—for example with divorce—as a springing board for later suppositions. The other two sections include essays in which she mainly speaks of artists and authors (a few being “Louise Bourgeois: Suites on Fabric”, “Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence”, “Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy”, “Eat, Pray, Love”, “Never Let Me Go”, “On Natalia Ginzburg”).
I much preferred the essays included in these last two sections of this collections. Even if I didn’t entirely agree with some of her readings I thought that Cusk’s ‘critical’ essays were well articulated and interesting. Sadly, I found her autobiographical essays to be rather obnoxious.

At times I had the distinctive impression that the Cusk that emerges from these autobiographical essays seems to have undergone a processes of self-fashioning. Cusk presents herself as a sphinx-like figure, a seer of sorts, capable of discerning the universal truths from personal experiences and opinions. The weight she seems to give to her own mental meanderings seems rather unjustified.
I was also discomfited by the impassive manner in which she would methodically dissect the people around her, coldly pointing out their flaws without ever rendering with clarity a sense of their personality or their shared history with her.
This reticence to let ‘us in’ that manifests itself throughout her biographical essays was detrimental to my reading experience. She seems unconcerned by ideas of privacy as she speaks of very personal subject matters (her divorce for example) yet provides so little context when describing certain episodes and events in her life that made it difficult it for me to relate to her experiences or viewpoint. For example in “Coventry”, the essay which has become the title of this whole collection and therefore one might assume that it has some importance, she doesn’t really make it clear to her readers why her parents “send her to coventry” or what is the exact nature of their relationship. In another essay she examines the way in which divorce has changed the reality and shape of her family in a rather metaphysical way, so that it seems almost as if she wasn’t writing of her own personal experiences presenting her personal experience as some sort of universal one.
She skirts around the edges of possibly complex and fraught relationships without ever delving into the ‘thick of it’
. Because of this, the comments she made about the people in her life struck me as somewhat callous and even uncalled for as I wasn’t made privy to the reason behind her words.
I acknowledge that autobiographical essays are a tricky feat but there are many writers who manage to give an outline of their relationships with their family without revealing everything about them (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage). If an essay examines something that is specifically connected to a certain episode or person from its author’s life one might expect a ‘personal’ element to supplement this exploration of this certain event/individual. For instance, in an essay in which Cusk writes of being repeatedly “send her to coventry” by her parents would, in theory, give us at least a vague impression of the dynamics between them (it doesn’t).
In her philosophising Cusk shows a tendency for issuing rather banal dictums (cars=people, airports=places of transport, children=extension of their parents, homes=reflecting those who inhabit them). At times these rather predictable statements could lead into more profound observations, such as when Cusk expands her vision of airports as places of convergence or how a visit to a clothing shop leads into a discussion regarding the falsity of the customer service industry.

Cusk also demonstrated a propensity for unfortunate analogies: she is “a self-hating transvestite” because she earned the money in her household and did her share of the house-chores . She and her husband were “two transvestites, a transvestite couple” because he was a stay at home dad. She also compares her changing notions “of a woman’s beauty” to “an immigrant’s notion of home”, that is “theoretical”: “My mother may have been my place of birth, but my adopted nationality was my father’s”. This seemed a somewhat dramatic comparison…then again she goes to equate being ignored to being at war so yes, Cusk has a tendency to dramatise some of her so-called ‘struggles’. After her divorce she feels that “my children and I […] we are like a Gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary” . Another clumsy comparison she makes is that of feminist to alcoholics: feminists stay away from “the kitchen, the maternity ward – like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Some alcoholics have a fantasy of modest social drinking: they just haven’t been through enough cycles of failure yet. The woman who thinks she can choose femininity, can toy with it like the social drinker toys with wine”.
Speaking of feminism, I didn’t entirely agree, or cared to agree, with her vision of feminisms which seems to present feminism at its most radical: “ The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation” and “what I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed me – the cross-dressing values of my father, and the anti-feminine values of my mother ”. For Cusk a feminist “does not propitiate: she objects. She’s a woman turned inside out”. Feminists hate feminine values and notions of domesticity…and some sure do but isn’t a bit of a generalisation to imply that all feminists will inadvertently fall into this trap of hating other women?
Cusk’s notion of male and female values seemed outdated. In each of this autobiographical essays she seems a bit too concerned with bringing different episodes or topics back to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, definitions of womanhood and manhood which weren’t as ‘mind-blowing’ as the author herself seemed to think. Cusk’s speculations seemed to clearly stem from the mind of someone…shall I say intellectual? Of a certain class? Because of this she seems unaware of making quite a few unfortunate analogies that made me wonder whether a reality check was needed.
Yet, in spite of my criticism towards Cusk’s essays I still thought that does manage to make some interesting speculations regarding things such as rudeness and her portrayal of the polarisation in post-Brexit Britain ‘hits’ right on the nail as she shrewdly describes her country’s current political climate.
Woven throughout Cusk’s essays are a set of theories and concepts such as “suspension of disbelief” and “story vs. reality” yet, in spite of her assertion that as a writer she is values “objectivity” she shows a predilection for self-dramatisation and for conflating notions of subjectivity and objectivity.
However I also have to concede that one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to relate to Cusk’s autobiographical essays might be due to generational, if not cultural, differences. My mother, unlike me, seems to have appreciated most of these essays and doesn’t seem to think that Cusk’s speculations about feminism and domesticity are quite as obsolete as I claim they are.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, arid underneath our sofa, and on. top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a delightful and uplifting ode to bibliophiles.
Anne Fadiman’s collection of charmingly written essays examine the way in which much of her life was (and is still) shaped by books.
Fadiman pays attention to the physical spaces they occupy. For example, in her first essay,“Marrying Libraries”, she tells us of how she and her husband became truly married when they almost reluctantly ‘merged’ their collections). In “Never Do That to a Book” she presents us with the many ways books are and can be handled (there are those who *ahem* like me *ahem* are somewhat strict about the ‘correct’ handling of their books….and there are the scribblers and benders of spines, such as Fadiman’s brother and father, who will happily leave their books laying open or facedown). Fadiman also details the seemingly invisible ways in which books can influence us, our worldview, our sense of self, and the relationships we have with other people (books play a dominant role in Fadiman’s marriage and family) becoming something akin to a language or a means of communication.

This love letter to books is written in a diverting prose. Fadiman’s style is amusingly anachronistic, and offers a wide range of humour that can swiftly switch from cheerful to ironic.
Fadiman’s witty observations combined with her knowledge and enthusiasm for her subjects (books, bibliophilia, grammar), make for a very interesting book on books, one that I would happily read again.

“This model of readers as consumers—one I have abetted in many a book review myself—neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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