Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps

Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. 1953. University of Minnesota P, 2001.

Summary of Work
We find the unnamed narrator in this work living in NYC and working in the advertising industry even though his talents lie in his musicology background and college degree. He is married to an actress who is part of a wildly popular yet banal play. As he is wandering the city one day, he meets an old friend, a museum curator, who talks to him about going on an expedition to find and bring back primitive musical instruments in South America. At first he refuses, but after meeting with his mistress, Mouche, and some friends and watching a film he composed the music for and finding it worthless, he determines that he will go with Mouche to South America, but go on vacation and buy forgeries to satisfy the requirement of bringing back instruments. When they arrive in a coastal city (again unnamed), he feels suddenly more at home speaking his native tongue, Spanish. As he falls in love with the culture there, Mouche starts detaching from him. Still, he searches for antiques in shops. While he is shopping a revolution breaks out, and he, Mouche, and the other hotel guests have to stay in the hotel, where they worry about food and water supply, getting shot, and getting eaten by the insects that have invaded the place. Even after the revolution ends, he is held up by snipers in the grocers. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, Mouche and the narrator leave and go to the home of a Canadian painter and friend in another town. He becomes jealous of the relationship Mouche has with the woman, and after some time spent there, he determines that he will actually take the trip to look for primitive instruments.

Mouche decides to accompany him, and they take a bus across the Andes and also take on an Indian woman who seems to embody the culture there. One evening, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio, and it brings him back to his musical heritage and European connections and his forced removal from the space by WWII. The native woman, Rosario, becomes better acquainted with them, and as they enter an oil town where prostitutes are the local entertainment, he begins to criticize Mouche for not being more like Rosario. They finally reach the City of Ruins, and when they reach Puerto Anunciacion he vehemently argues with Mouche. He also meets Adelantado, who tells him of the life of tribes in the jungle. He also witnesses the funeral of Rosario’s father and meets an herbalist who is seemingly insane but who tells of tales of El Dorado and other ancient myths. Mouche, meanwhile, tries a sexual advance on Rosario, and she beats her for it. Mouche then gets malaria, and she has to be sent back to Puerto Anunciacion for treatment. Rosario and the narrator become sexually involved. The remaining party take canoes upriver.

They head into the heart of the jungle by a hidden tributary which Adelantado finds, and they seem to start traveling back in time. The tropical atmosphere, the plant life, and the animal life in the jungle scare the narrator, and a thunderstorm nearly capsizes their canoes. However, they finally find a native village, and he is able to get some of the musical instruments he had been sent to find. He finds their customs and way of life primitive, almost Medieval, and he feels that he witnesses the birth of music while he is there watching a funereal rite. They travel further on to Santa Monica de las Venados, which is a village Adelantado settled. The narrator determines that he will live out his life there, but he is torn because he wants to write music and lacks paper, and he also has an obligation to deliver the instruments he has collected to the museum curator. He visits many primitive areas in the village, including a valley full of prehistoric plants. The rains come, and it seems they will never cease, and he comes up with a new musical composition based on The Odyssey. However, his lack of paper and ink poses problems. This whole time he stays with Rosario, and he asks her to marry him, but she refuses him. Not long after, an airplane stops in the village in search of a lost explorer, which turns out to be the narrator. Torn about going with them or staying, he finally determines that he must return to get paper and ink and deliver the instruments, and then he can come back to live in the village and with Rosario again.

When he flies back home, he is at first a celebrity, and he learns that his wife is pregnant. He sells his story, which he lies about, to a newspaper, but when Mouche sells her story, it creates a scandal, and Ruth also learns about Rosario and that he wants to leave and go back to her, but Ruth will not divorce him. NYC has lost all beauty to him and he finds it useless to him. He runs out of money while he is getting divorced, and he is forced into tiny and poor room accommodations. When he sees Mouche and spends the night with her, he is disgusted with himself about the decision. He decides to get back to writing music to earn some money, and once he sells a film score for enough money, he goes back to Puerto Anunciacion, but cannot find his way back to the tributary and the village. He meets Yannes, who was at the village, and he learns that Rosario has married Marcos, the son of Adelantado, and she is pregnant. The narrator then realizes that he can never go back and relive his previous experience.

Discussion of Work
This work could be considered a work of magical realism, in particular because of the unsurety of time and the magical regression from modernity to primitive life. The winding back of time is an important part of the novel, as it helps to display the tension between European and Latino cultures: the modernity of NYC and European culture evident there as valuable is called into question as the narrator finds his identity, culture, and home in the more “primitive” space of the village of Santa Monica de las Venados. Unlike the European image of primitive cultures, the culture of these villages is sophisticated and engaging and valuable, particularly because of how they live in harmony with the environment. That harmony is particularly tied together through music, moving from the poorly written but popular musical his wife stars in to the beauty of Beethoven, to finally the origins and harmonies of music in its usefulness for everyday life.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps puts readers in what feels like a dream state, leaving them to wonder if they read passages on previous pages correctly because the story jumps through six weeks so quickly. The main guidance tool readers have to navigate through the book are the musical performances, which cue readers to coming change and new settings for its main character. The surrealism in the novel, then, is in part created by the magical expectations that the music creates for the readers, as it guides the main character from city to jungle in search of not only music, but of himself.

We first become aware of music’s pull on the main character as he struggles to find any object that does not remind him of some musical composition he has neglected, and any music that does not remind him of pieces of his life he would rather stay buried and forgotten, and this is particularly true of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It drives him to disgust and out into the rainy weather, where he runs into an old friend, the organology curator of a museum. Forced to deal with his past and ashamed at his current state, which is much less than he had hoped it would be as a composer, the main character accepts the Curator’s job offer to obtain specific musical artifacts in the jungles of South America.

It is music, then, which sends the main character out into the unnamed, dreamlike land in the jungles of South America, where he stays in Puerto Anunciación until, at the cue of poorly played music, a revolution breaks out, and he moves on into the jungle in search of the musical artifacts he initially did not intend to find for the Curator. And as he is sitting in an inn in the jungle, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over the radio again, this time succumbing to a dream state, remembering his past experience with his parents, and that music’s particular effect upon his father. His whole life is inherently tied to music and this symphony, ever guiding him back to song each time he comes across the composition. We see that music is inherently tied to his life and is leading his destiny, although we, as readers, are unsure of what that destiny is or how much reality is portrayed in such a fast-paced narrative, a narrative that from the second playing of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onward feels as if it moves backward in time.

The music played becomes improvised, not written down, and then even more primitive, used for religious and funereal rites rather than for pure enjoyment or artistic, aesthetic ideals. As he moves back into what he feels could pass for the Middle Ages and primitive lifestyles, the narrator discovers that he believes every Westerner has misunderstood the origins of music: music is not imitation of animal calls, as he had previously believed, but instead a connection to life and death, created for practical purposes rather than aesthetic ones. The realization drives the narrator to abandon the Western lifestyle.

But he cannot stay away from it. Becoming obsessive over composing for the first time in years, he starts a musical rendition of portions of The Odyssey, feverishly composing through the rainy season and causing his woman, Rosario, and other villagers he lives with to worry about his sanity. For them, there was no reason to write down music when it could be played. He realizes that if he wants his music to be heard, he will have to find a way to connect to the Western world to have the work performed, which leads to the beginning of the end of the dream cycle in the South American jungle. If it were not for the hysteria in New York City over his disappearance and discovery in the jungle, readers would question if the experience had been real or if he had simply slept all day in his apartment and dreamt up the experience.[1]

And as the primitive music fades, no quality music reenters the narrator’s life, signaling the downturn from prosperity to poverty for our narrator. His composition from the jungle, Threnody, left with his love Rosario, he has no muse and no piece to work on even when he makes his way back to South America, unable to find Santa Mónica de los Venados and unable to find the motivation to work on previous compositions.

By the end of the novel, the narrator’s life destroyed and hopes of reuniting with his love Rosario dashed, both the readers and the narrator believe that for these characters, there is no free will, but rather destiny that fate will bring to pass regardless of personal desires: for our narrator, this destiny is to compose music, whether or not anyone will hear it and whether or not he will find success as a composer of classical music. Individuals, then, should strive to be more aware of the external forces that drive them and to learn to ride the wave of those forces or risk being swallowed and destroyed by them.

[1] It is even arguable that we wonder if this entire story is a dream, including the stay in New York City, given that both times the narrator is living there, the scenes pass in a dreamlike blur.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory

Rabassa. Harper Perennial, 2006.

Summary of Work
This novel gives an account of the fictional, isolated town of Macondo and the Buendias, who found the town. For a great period of time, the town has no contact with the outside world except for gypsies who visit and bring fascinating trinkets and technologies, like ice and a telescope, which Jose Arcadio Buendia likes to buy or investigate, as he is both curious and impulsive. He becomes obsessed with investigating the mysteries of life, particularly through alchemy, and even though he is a leader, he isolates himself from the people of the town. Jose and his wife Ursula were the great grandchildren of survivors of a massacre. They marry, but because they are related, Ursula refuses to consummate the marriage for fear of having genetically deformed children with tails, and this leads to Jose’s ridicule by the town; one day when he is ridiculed, he murders the man, Prudencio Aguilar, and he is haunted by Aguilar from then on, which causes him to leave and found a new town. His children and grandchildren and other descendants all inherit these traits in some form from him. His eldest, Jose Arcadio, inherits his recklessness and physical strength; his youngest, Aureliano, inherits his impenetrable focus.

Jose Arcadio disappears, and his partner Pilar Ternera gives birth to their son, Arcadio. An orphan girl who suddenly appears also joins the family, and her insomnia and pica and memory loss affects first the family, and then the town, as they suffer from both insomnia and memory loss, and must put up signs to help them remember what is important. When the gypsy Melquiades returns (supposedly from the dead), he brings a cure with him and other technology. He and Aureliano coop themselves up trying to use a daguerrotype to prove the existence of God.

The town starts to come in contact with Macondo as the world grows. The foreign government tries to take over, and when Aureliano falls in love with a magistrate’s daughter and is denied, he sleeps with Pilar, who then helps him to win Remedios. Meanwhile, Amaranta and Rebeca Buendia fall in love with a stranger who comes with a pianola for their home, and he decides he wants to marry Rebeca. Both Aureliano and Rebeca get their wishes to be married, but Amaranta wants to stop Rebeca’s marriage for jealousy’s sake. Melquiades passes away, and Jose Arcadio Buendia goes crazy and he has to be tied to a tree for the rest of his life. Remedios dies soon after her marriage to Aureliano, and Rebeca’s marriage is postponed because of that and the wait while the church is built. Pilar has Aureliano’s child, and he is named Aureliano Jose. Then Jose Arcadio returns, and he starts an affair with Rebeca, and Amaranta becomes close with Crespi, the stranger who Rebeca was to marry.

Meanwhile, violence comes to the town as civil wars break out and the Buendia sons become swept up in the action. Aureliano, worried about the government, achieves fame as the leader of the Liberal rebels, becoming the famous Colonel Buendia. Macondo’s government changes many times, and is eventually taken over by Arcadio, who becomes a cruel dictator and is eventually shot by firing squad. Arcadio does have three children: Remedios the Beauty, Aureliano Segundo, and Jose Arcadio Segundo. Amaranta gets her wish for Crespi to ask for her hand in marriage, but she rejects him and he commits suicide, and in her grief she burns her hand black, covering it with a black bandage she wears until her death. Aureliano is also condemned to die since the Liberals lose the war, but is saved at the last minute by his brother. He fights many more times, but realizes that it is fruitless and starts writing poetry. After another mayor is killed in Macondo during another civil uprising, the civil war ends and a peace treaty is signed. Colonel Buendia becomes so upset that he attempts suicide, but survives, and Ursula steps in to pick up the pieces and rebuild the family.

While all of this is going on, the Buendia family has many events in the individual family members’ lives. Some of the Buendia sons take lovers and regularly go to brothels, and others are solitary and take after Jose in that they like to experiment and review scholarly works. The women in the family have just as much breadth in their personality types, with some, like Meme, being socialites who regularly bring large groups home, and others, like Fernanda del Carpio, who are so conservative that they will not even undress for sex, allowing her husband to consummate their marriage only if she can wear a nightgown with a special hole in the crotch during the action. However, for the women, the grandest figure of all is Ursula Iguaran, the wife of Jose Arcadio Buendia and matriarch of the family who holds the entire family together no matter the differences. Her age is uncertain, but she remains alive through the entire book, which spans an indeterminate, but long period of time (perhaps over a century).

The Segundo brothers both look so much alike that Petra, the woman they sleep with, does not realize they are different men. When Jose Arcadio Segundo is scared off by venereal disease, Aureliano Segundo stays with Petra and becomes very wealthy as their farm becomes very fertile. He is very lavish and the whole village benefits from the prosperity. When Fernanda del Carpio enters town, Aureliano Segundo falls in love with and marries her, but he also still sleeps with Petra. Meanwhile, Fernanda tries to turn the Buendia home into the old aristocratic home she grew up in and refuses to deviate from a very formal structure, making the home miserable. During this time, Colonel Buendia’s seventeen illegitimate children, all named Aureliano, come to celebrate their father and the anniversary of the founding of Macondo. They participate in Ash Wednesday and all keep the ash crosses on their heads until their deaths. Some of the children stay and start an ice factory, and others leave, while others build a railroad to Macondo, making Macondo more connected with the outside world.

After the wars, capitalism comes in and takes its toll, with a banana plantation built near Macondo. Americans own the plantation and build a fenced off town, and they force the local workers to toil for pittance wages. The 17 Aurelianos are hunted down and murdered, causing Colonel Buendia to fall into depression. Ursula realizes that time is passing more quickly than it once did; she is going blind, but no one knows because she knows the home so well. Everyone in the house becomes more miserable since the children are gone. When Amaranta dies, Ursula goes to bed and will not get up for years. The banana workers, led by Jose Arcadio Segundo, strike because of the inhumane conditions, and the US Army comes and massacres them for the plantation owners. However, after the army dumps the bodies into the sea, a 5 year rain begins, destroying the plantation and Macondo in a flood. Ursula gets out of bed and tries to put the Buendia family back together. The town and the Buendia family wish for older days, and the village once again becomes solitary, but this time it is in decline rather than thriving. The Buendia family, what remains of it, try to keep their line going through incest, and they become alienated from the world. The last Buendia, Aureliano Segundo, translates a set of prophecies from Jose Arcadio Buendia’s library with the help of Melquiades’ ghost (gifted to him by Melquiades) and finds that they predicted the rise and fall of both Macondo and the Buendia family, showing that the town and its people have simply lived out a prophetic cycle of tragedy.

Discussion of Work
A work of magical realism, time does not seem to flow or function like it would in other novels. The names of the characters overlap enough that the children of the original family members blend with the past and the future genealogical lines. The past, present, and future become combined into one great entity. Language and interpretation play a great part in this, as both the characters and the readers experience the need to interpret the, things, actions, and general goings on in Macondo, leading to a creation of meaning amongst the long narrative that does not indicate a past, present, or future in any formal sense outside of technology and books of prophecy.

Another largely important part of this book is the discussion of progress, and if progress in the Western sense is always the best for every society. Macondo goes from what might be considered a state of innocence–they believe that they are completely isolated from the world by water on all sides until Ursula discovers a pathway into another town–into one of knowledge, first from contact with the gypsies who travel to the town with technology, and then with foreign people and their governments and conflicts. While the town may progress in terms of technology and interconnection with more people and towns, it is actually in decline as first war and then capitalism ravage the town, its people, and its land. This obsession with greatness, progress, and superiority are also present in the Buendia family, who may be said to represent the same questions of progress in human evolution at a more personal level: as the family grows, they become insistent on engaging in the world in ways that make them honored or remembered, either through war or through technology and learning and government. The women of the family do similarly through their beliefs about marriage, family, and running a household. As the Buendia family progresses into later generations, the house becomes more formal and technological, and yet more rigid and unloving, more degenerate in behavior. As the city is conquered and forced to conform to Western ideals, the Buendia family ends up destroying itself in its attempt to maintain some sort of original cultural identity.

 

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Summary of Work
Cora is a slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, ran away and was never found, and she had been left alone as a young girl. Her grandmother, Ajarry, had a plot of land that she used to garden and had passed on to Mabel. Cora determined she should keep that space as well, and when a man tried to put a doghouse on it, she tore it down with a hatchet. She was considered pariah there from then on, and placed in the Hob, the lodging cabin for the women who were considered odd or wrong in some way.

On a celebration for a slave man’s birthday, a slave named Caesar approaches her and asks if she will make a run North with him. At first she thinks he’s crazy or trying to trick her, but after being beaten for protecting a slave boy from the plantation owner’s drunken brother Terrance and then learning that her master is dead and Terrance has taken over running the plantation, she agrees to go with Caesar. As they try to leave, Lovey, a young slave girl, runs after them and insists on going. They make it through the swamp and are in the woods when they are ambushed by slave catchers. Lovey is caught, but Cora and Caesar escape, critically injuring a young boy of 12. When they get to town where there is a station master for the Underground Railroad, they learn that the boy they hurt is likely to die, and there is a mob looking for them.

They escape to South Carolina, where they are given new names and life stories, and Cora, now Bessie, first works for a family and watches the children, and then is hired to work as an actor in the museum for American History. She acts out African life, then the passage on a slave ship, and finally plantation life. She feels awkward and ashamed over it, but learns that she has the power of staring and forcing white people to realize that she can look at them just as they can look at her, but perhaps her gaze has more power. Caesar works at a factory, and they get to where they are comfortable with life and decide to stay, even though there are many trains that would take them farther north. Cora enjoys learning to read and having her own money and a bed to sleep in as well as a black community to enjoy. However, soon after making that decision, Sam, the barkeep who is also the station master, warns them that they shouldn’t get too comfortable: there is talk of forced sterilization of black people. Cora knows this, having gone to the doctor previously and felt like she was going to be forced to choose their “birth control” method.

Not long after Sam’s warning, Cora overhears that there is a slave catcher named Ridgeway searching for a pair of runaways who murdered a boy. This scares her, as she knows who Ridgeway is: he’s a famous slave catcher who wasn’t able to catch her mother, and he has a vendetta against her because of it. She runs to Sam, who is at the bar, and he tells her to go hide in the house at the platform, and he’ll try to get to Caesar. However, before Sam gets home, the slave catchers get there first and burn his house down, leaving Cora trapped. She doesn’t know how long she starves for before there is a small train coming down the line. It passes without stopping and she runs after it until it stops. It is a maintenance train, and she learns that the Georgia line is shut down and that the trains to this station have been cancelled, so he cannot help her more than drop her off at the next station, which is in North Carolina.

That station is technically closed as well, and black people are being hunted and lynched and placed on the “freedom trail” to rot in the trees for miles and miles. The station master hides her in his home for months because there is no way to get her out. She witnesses a lynching and it sickens her, and every week there is a town picnic with this ritual. Watchers regularly check houses, but she is well hidden in the attic. She spends time reading and gets better at it, and although she has read the Bible, she prefers almanacs. Then, one day, she accidentally tips over her chamber pot and she worries that the housekeeper, who is not one of the abolitionists, might have heard her. Nothing happens. Then she gets sick, and the man’s wife brings her down into a bedroom to help her get better and they send the housekeeper away, claiming that the husband has a disease that’s very communicable and they can’t have her getting it or being in the house, doctor’s orders.

That Friday when the picnic comes, the wife of the station master tells her that she can stay in the room and rest as long as she stays away from the window. She is grateful until their home is unexpectedly raided by watchers and she is discovered hiding under the bed. Ridgeway has led them. The station master and his wife are tied to the tree and presumably burned to death, and she is plunged into bondage again. They are going to Missouri to catch another slave before they head back to Georgia: Ridgeway hadn’t expected to find her but had just wanted to capture whoever was there with the Underground Railroad. He talks to her, and when they get another slave man, Jasper, they are constantly hitting him because he won’t stop singing. Ridgeway ends up shooting him and splattering Cora with his blood.

They stop in Tennessee, which has been largely destroyed by yellow fever and fires, and Ridgeway and his black freeman, Homer, make her put on a new dress and go to dinner with Ridgeway. A black man sees her in chains and in the nice dress and shoes and won’t stop staring. After they eat and she uses the outhouse, they go back and travel again, because their other companion refuses to stay where he thinks there is yellow fever. That night, the man grabs Cora out of the cart and cage in order to have sex with her, but Ridgeway is on to him and stops him. During the fight she considers running, but doesn’t. Then, three black men show up with guns and a fight ensues to set her free. Homer escapes, the other man dies, and Ridgeway is badly beaten and chained in the forest.

She escapes again on the Underground Railroad to Indiana, where she works on the Valentine plantation: Valentine is a biracial man who looks white and was able to inherit land from his father, which he sold and then moved further West to buy another plantation where he could harbor fugitive slaves and work with the Underground Railroad to ferry people further north if they desired. Cora stays there, asking people if they have seen her mother. No one has, and Cora goes on hating her mother for leaving her. She also feels guilty about all the people who have died for her: station masters, the 12-year-old boy, Lovey, Caesar, and possibly Sam. Meanwhile, she learns how to read and write much better than she had, and she lives a very free life in comparison to what she had done previously. Sam shows up one day, and she is thrilled to learn that he is alive. He is going to head West after one last job for the Underground Railroad. She falls in love with Royal, one of the men who saves her. One evening, he takes her to an old house and they go into the cellar; he shows her the old station there that is no longer in use. He doesn’t even know where it leads. He wants to show her because she has been on the railroad so much and had such a complicated journey. Royal is always helping with the Underground Railroad, and he brings her almanacs when he can. His last gift to her is the next year’s almanac. She lets him kiss her and she tells him about her life, apologizing when she gets to the part where she was gang raped. He tells her she shouldn’t be sorry for anything, but that those men who have done these things to her should.

One evening during a plantation debate meeting (they are regularly held with special guests and feasts), there is a raid. The white townspeople, who have built around the plantation, hate that there are prosperous black people next to them, and they hate them more because they know that there are fugitive slaves there. The white people combined with many slave catchers start shooting into the church and first kill the speaker whom they hate, and next Royal when he goes to aid him. Cora holds Royal in her hands as he dies, and he tells her to run to the station he showed her and live free. One of the Valentine sons tears her from Royal’s dead body to get her out of the gunfire, and when she gets out, Ridgeway and Homer catch her. Homer was dressed like a plantation worker, and had been in the meeting. She fights them but is put in chains again, and Ridgeway forces her to tell him where the Underground Railroad station is. She shows him, ashamed that she is revealing the secret to a slave catcher. Thinking of Royal’s trust in her, she grabs onto Ridgeway and shoves them both down the stairs, to the dismay of Homer. The fall breaks Ridgeway’s femur bone and has it sticking out of the leg, and his head also cracks his head open. Cora also is injured, but nowhere near as badly. Homer goes to Ridgeway and forgets about Cora as Ridgeway asks Homer to write down some things.

Cora gets the cart going and rides away down the line until she can go no further and has to sleep. In the morning she is too sore to maneuver the cart and so walks the rest of the way. She comes out in the woods, but she isn’t sure where she is. She cleans herself in the river and takes some water, and then sits by a road. There, three carts pass her, and a black man is in the last one. He offers to take her with him to the West, and she accepts.

This novel also has vignettes throughout it that tell about the lives of individual characters, including Mabel. Mabel made it through the swamp before she felt guilty about leaving her daughter. She knew she could make it back before the alarm sounded, and she determined to head back, happy with her little taste of freedom. But on the way back she gets bitten by a poisonous snake and dies on a patch of moss in the swamp.

Discussion of Work
This novel is a form of abolitionist narrative: a commentary on slavery and on white supremacy, but also a commentary on the courageous and honorable acts of a few white people and what good that it does. Cora, the main character, spends a lot of time wondering why white people who have good and prosperous lives would risk everything for her and other black slaves: everyone she asks tells her that she should know.

Whitehead also refuses to eliminate historically accurate language from his novel, using racial slurs and other oppressive and racist epithets in his work as dialogue: the linguistic choices may seem unnecessary to some, but it adds an important layer of authenticity to the work to display the horrors of the slave trade and plantation life as well as the extreme dangers and fears that came with being a fugitive slave. It allows for a more historically accurate novel, as this may be said to be historical fiction as well as abolitionist.

Whitehead experiments with nonlinear narrative as well, putting in biographical narratives to break up the main narrative. He often does this at times when the tension is high: when Cora has just been caught or when there is rising tension about her safety. The discussions of the white plantation owner Terrance Randall is particularly jolting, because it includes detailed descriptions of how he had slaves tortured and killed for running away. These details do not come altogether directly with the biographical narrative of the Randalls, but come as a combination of the biographical narrative and the main narrative of the story. While at first the choice to break up the narrative in this way may be frustrating for readers, what it highlights is that no matter who’s story is being told, the horrors of slavery were the same everywhere, and affected everyone it touched, white or black person.

One particularly important scene is where Cora learns the power of her gaze. It is reminiscent of bell hooks’ discussion of the black gaze on the white subject; she states that it is unnerving for white people because they never think of black people as agents that can look upon them, but objects to be looked upon. When they discover that black people can look at them, it upsets their supremacist attitudes because they are forced to realize that even enslaved or without full rights, they are capable of being active agents and of asserting their power for either agency or freedom, or both. This also happens regularly throughout the novel with dance. The slaves put on a specific dancing show for the masters, which is almost mocking in its attitudes, in order to please their owners. But when the masters are away, their dancing completely changes in its form and tone, becoming a way to express their freedom to move their bodies in some small way and to engage with their community. The black dancing body has the same power, then, that the black gaze has, but with a slight difference: white people aren’t always aware of the parody or mocking going on with the dancing, meaning that it gives a momentary power reversal where they have power over their masters, mocking them and judging them and asserting freedom and agency without ever being reprimanded or punished for it.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. Riverhead Books, 2008.

Summary of Work
Yunior, the late boyfriend of Lola de León, narrates the story of Lola’s brother Oscar, who is the victim of what Yunior calls a fukú, a curse of death or destruction in the New World. He states that the whole curse is connected directly with the Trujillo regime, particularly Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. The only way to ward of the curse is to create a zafa, and Yunior, believing the curse has passed to him, wants his storytelling to be his zafa.

When Oscar was little, his family lived in new Jersey, and they were very proud of their beautiful son. He had two girlfriends, a true Dominican boy, but soon the threesome falls apart. From then on, Oscar cannot get a girlfriend, and he descends into eating and becomes morbidly obese. He has two friends, but even they leave him out when they get girlfriends. Despite his sister Lola and his Uncle Rudolfo trying to get him to lose more weight and participate in masculine activities so he can get a girlfriend, Oscar decides to focus on science fiction and writing, and he goes to Santo Domingo to be with his Nena Inca for a time.

When he gets home from his visit, he meets Ana Obregón, a smart girl in his SAT prep class. He immediately falls in love, but they never date. They grow to be good friends, but when her boyfriend Manny gets back from the Army, their relationship ends. Oscar gets into Rutgers, and he hopes that he will be able to turn his life around when he is in college. However, he quickly finds out that since he didn’t change anything about himself, life is still miserable and he is still a loser.

The story then turns to Lola’s past, and she narrates. Lola always felt controlled by her mother and then always made a point to find ways to be defiant, but after her mother Belicia is diagnosed with cancer, Lola feels powerless. To regain a feeling of power, she cuts off her hair and she runs away to be with her boyfriend Aldo, and she loses her virginity to him. She finds that living with Aldo and his father is not any better than her previous situation, and when she calls Oscar to meet with him, he brings the entire family. She is caught, and she is forced to go to Santo Domingo and live with La Inca. There, she is able to feel free and happy after awhile, and she joins the high school track team and starts dating someone. She also gets to learn about her family’s past, and this helps her to find some relief from the bruja feeling that she regularly encounters.

Yunior discusses the history of the de León family, starting with Belicia. La Inca took Beli in after having lived a terrible life with an adoptive family. La Inca strives to give her a better life than what she had experienced as a child, and sends her to a private school. Her behavior causes all the children to be afraid of her, and Beli makes no friends. However, when she becomes a teenager, she starts to develop a body that men go crazy for. She decides that she will use this as a way to attract attention from her crush Jack Pujols, and they have sex in a broom closet and get caught. It comes out that Pujols is already engaged to a girl from a wealthy family, and Beli is crushed when Pujols is sent to the army. Pujols was also closely connected to the Trujillo regime, placing her in a dangerous spot even if she didn’t realize it.

After that affair, she refuses to go to school and she gets a job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Beli has a couple of men interested in her at that time, but she doesn’t get involved with either of them. Then, out dancing one night, Beli meets the Gangster, another person with direct contact to Trujillo and influence in his regime. She falls in love with him and becomes pregnant, but because the Gangster is married to Trujillo’s sister and Beli is only the mistress, the pregnancy causes his wife to take revenge by beating her near to death and causing a miscarriage. Nearly dead in the cane field she was beaten in, Beli sees a Mongoose with lion’s eyes and it leads her out to the road. When she gets well enough to travel, La Inca sends her to New York City, knowing that if Beli stays, she will most likely be killed by the Trujillos. On the airplane, she meets the man who will be the father of her children.

While at Rutgers, Oscar has tried to commit suicide, and Lola ask Yunior to look after him while at college, and he shares a dorm room with him. At first he has little interest in Oscar because he is far too busy with dating multiple women, but when his girlfriend dumps him over infidelity, he puts a lot of effort into helping Oscar. At first Oscar tries to work out and do what Yunior suggests so he can get fit and get a girlfriend, but because he is constantly made fun of, he quits. Yunior is angry and leaves Oscar alone. But then Oscar falls inlove with a Puerto Rican girl, and they start spending a lot of time together. But when she finds a boyfriend, she stops spending time with her. Oscar gets so angry that he rips things off her walls and yells at her for leaving him, and then he tries to commit suicide again by jumping off a bridge onto the freeway. However, he is saved by the same Golden Mongoose that his mother saw, and he hits the median of the road rather than the road itself. The next year, Yunior leaves, but after he starts dating Lola, he moves back in with Oscar for the Spring semester. Lola left Santo Domingo and in her pain over having to leave, broke contact with her boyfriend and all friends, slept with an older man for $2000, and then when her boyfriend died in an accident, gave the money to his family before she left.

Yunior then tells the story of Abelard Luis Cabral, Belicia’s father. He was a successful doctor, and he had two daughters with his wife. They are rich and socialize with the Trujillos. But when his oldest daughter Jacquelyn hits puberty and becomes a beautiful woman, Abelard worries that Trujillo will want to sleep with her, as he had done that with many other girls from prominent families. He decides they will stop going to parties and social occasions, at least leaving Jacquelyn behind. His wife, his mistress, and his friend all give their opinions, but he doesn’t act on them. Then, when Trujillo asks Abelard to bring Jacquelyn to a party and Abelard outright disobeys the order, Trujillo has Abelard arrested for speaking ill of him. Abelard is sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, and it is there that he finds out that his wife is pregnant with another daughter. When Beli is born, her mother dies in an accident and she is adopted by her mother’s relatives, only to then be sent to be a slave to another family. Her two other sisters die mysteriously, and her father dies in prison. La Inca, Abelard’s sister, finds Beli living in a chicken coop with a horrible burn on her back, given to her when she disobeyed an order.

All of the de León family goes to visit La Inca in La Capital, and Oscar loves it. He stays a month longer than the rest of his family, and he falls in love with a prostitute. He is good friends with her but never gets to have sex with her, just like all his other relationships. Ybón, the prostitute, has a boyfriend, the head of the police force. When he gets pulled over with Ybón drunk in the car one night, Ybón kisses him in front of her boyfriend; he takes Oscar to a cane field and nearly beats him to death. When Oscar is healing, Ybón, who had been beaten as well, tells him that she will be marrying the Captain, and Beli books a flight for Oscar so he can get out of Santo Domingo. However, when Oscar gets back, he borrows money from Yunior and flies back to the Dominican Republic. He spends another month pursuing Ybón, and he also does research about his family and the Trujillos and writes a book about it. he sends the manuscript off before he is murdered in a cane field by the Captain’s men.

Yunior and Lola break up after Oscar dies, and within a year Beli also dies of cancer. Nearly a year after Oscar’s death, Lola receives a package. It contains a manuscript and a letter: the manuscript is a space opera, and the letter tells Lola that she should expect another manuscript in the mail that will detail how to rid the family of the fukú that forever haunts them. However, the package never arrives in the mail. For Yunior, the only bright note in the end of Oscar’s long and sad life is that he eventually sleeps with Ybón and finally gets the romantic relationship he always wanted before he died.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is a diasporic novel and a work of magical realism. Díaz mixes US pop culture with Latin American pop culture, creating a world that is mixed culturally and through genre: things that might happen only in the world of fiction and pop culture, such as the mongoose episodes, make their way into reality, blurring the line between reality and the mystical, a perfect example of magical realism. Díaz also explicitly references works such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is a work of magical realism. The characters in Díaz’s novel also parallel those in Márquez’s novel, with the children not being able to break free from the curses of the parents. Storytelling to rebuild the past plays a large part of the magical realism, as Yunior makes up events that he does not have information for. It also allows for a larger discussion of the terror of the Trujillo regime during its years of power in the Dominican Republic.

Human sexuality, particularly sexual roles in Dominican culture, runs throughout the book. Dominican men are supposed to be hypermasculine, sleeping with many women and being unfaithful to their wives, always having a mistress or another woman to run after. Trujillo, in a place of power, becomes the most virile Dominican man, sleeping with the most beautiful women in the country whenever he wants to. Women are then characterized as objects of sexual desire, but their sexuality is also a freeing power for them, as when they use their sexuality to defy the societal expectation and standard, they gain freedom and agency. Similarly, love and family life play a large part of this story: love for people seems to bring about the violence of the curse, and the two seem to regularly work against each other, although it might also be argued that it is the combination of the two things that leads to a zafa to ward off the family curse by the end of the novel.

The novel itself, representing diaspora, shows the embodiment of immigration: Belicia is the first generation, Beli doubly so because she is first placed in a school where she doesn’t fit in with the culture, and then again when she moves to New York City and must remake herself again. She is outside of her home country, and has escaped from death, and yet has lost a space to belong. Similarly, Oscar is an outsider because he does not fit cultural standards from either culture he belongs to, US or Dominican culture. He stands in a liminal space between cultures and also stands as an intermediary between family members, and he regularly fails at achieving any success in either sphere. Lola experiences similar troubles, especially as she is torn from the US, only to not long later be torn from the Dominican Republic, where she feels much more at home, back to the US, where she feels less connected to an identity or culture.

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Viking P, 1949.

Summary of Work
Salesman Willy Loman comes back to his home after struggling to drive to Boston. He tells his wife Linda that he is just too distracted on the road and cannot go to Boston that evening, and that he will try again tomorrow. He inquires after his boys, who are visiting. Linda says they went out together and are now asleep in their old room. Linda asks him if he is hungry or would like to go to bed, but he says he will go downstairs himself and take care of it. He starts talking to himself downstairs, and it wakes his boys, Happy and Biff. Happy tells Biff it has been going on for a long time, and that it gets worse when Biff comes into town. Biff is worried his father is going crazy.

Willy’s neighbor Charley is also awoken, and comes over to play cards with him. Willy, however, is still talking to his dead brother Ben, who struck riches in Africa, so Charley leaves. When the boys come down and start making worried comments and say things against their father, Linda tells the boys that Willie has lost his salary and works solely on commission, and hasn’t been making any money, but actually borrowing it from Charley. Biff determines that evening that he will stick around in New York City even though he doesn’t want to (he’s a bum who goes from job to job out West), and he talks with Happy about meeting an old boss to invest in a sports company they have an idea for. Willie gets very excited, getting more delusions in his head about the grandiose things his eldest sone will do. When they finally get Willie up into bed, Linda tells her sons that their father has been trying to kill himself for some time now by crashing his car, and he has a rubber pipe in the cellar that he’s used to try and kill himself. Biff is so furious that he goes down to the cellar and gets the rubber pipe, putting it in his pocket.

The next morning the boys leave early, and Willie determines he will go to the office and demand a job in New York City rather than having to travel for work. And Linda tells Willie that the boys are planning on having him at a restaurant for a fancy dinner. Upon going into the office, he is made to listen to a dictation device recording that his boss, Howard, has used the night previously with his family. When he finally gets around to having the job change discussion with Howard, he fires him despite the over three decades Willie has spent with the company. This throws Willie into another fit of delusion, and he remembers back to the football game his son Biff played and all the colleges that were after him. He wanders over to Charley’s office and talks to Charley’s son Bernard about the past, asking why his son never made anything of himself. Bernard talks about Biff flunking math and not making it up in summer school, and asks him about what happened when Biff went to see him in Boston. This throws Willie into even deeper fits of delusion and he fights with Bernard, saying that nothing happened and he can’t help that his boy just rolled over and failed.

Bernard leaves when his father Charley comes in to talk with Willie. Charley tells him that his son is now leaving to go try a court case before the Supreme Court, and Willie is sick with jealousy. He asks Charley for another hundred or so dollars to make the insurance payments, and Charley asks him why he doesn’t just take the job he offered him for 50 a week. Willie gets mad and admits that he lost his job but he just can’t work for Charley. Charley angrily hands him the money, and as Willie is leaving, he admits to Charley that he’s the only friend he has. He meets his sons for dinner, and Biff tries and fails to tell his father that he didn’t get in to see Oliver and did not get the money. Upon several failed attempts, Biff leaves the restaurant in a fury. Happy, the whole time, has been courting two women and trying to sweep the family drama under the rug. Willie wanders into the interior of the restaurant toward the stairs, and Happy states that Willie isn’t his father, pays the check, and leaves with the women.

Willie goes into another flashback where he is in Boston with his mistress and Biff unexpectedly comes knocking at the door. He hides her in the bathroom and opens the door, talking with Biff about the failed math class. While he is talking with his son, his mistress comes out and Biff is horrified and will not do anything his dad says after that, calling him a phony and a fake. The waiter Stanley helps him out of the restaurant and gets him on his way home. When the boys return home, their mother is furious, stating that they should get out and never come back because they left their father in the restaurant. Biff goes out to his father, who is planting a garden in the middle of the night and talking to his dead brother Ben about killing himself to give his family the insurance money. Biff tells his father that he’s never been anyone and that no one in the family ever has; they’ve all lied about themselves and their goings on their entire lives. He explains that over the last few months he’s been in jail for stealing a suit, and he stole his way out of every single job he ever worked. He determines he will leave and never come back because it will be better for everyone involved, especially his Dad. He grabs his father and starts crying, and his father comes to realize that his son does love him, but Willie is unable to get rid of his delusions of grandeur about his son. With the reassurance that his son loves him and the thoughts that he will one day be a great man, Willie goes through with his suicide plan and crashes his car.

The family goes to his funeral, but no one else attends. Linda doesn’t understand why she can’t cry about her husband’s death. Biff feels like his father never knew who he really was, which is why he ended up killing himself. And Charley feels that he died the true death of a salesman.

 

Brief Note on Themes
This play goes a long way in exploring the heart of the American Dream and what its real value is, as well as what a failure to reach that dream does to people as they age. The structure of the play experiments with the idea of life as a series of memories, and what happens when there is no growth or improvement: people live in the past to live with themselves, and when it brings regrets, brings bitterness. In order for these people to live with themselves, they create mythologies or legends surrounding their family members and themselves; it is hard to know if Ben actually struck rich or if it is a story that Willie made up to feel better about his family.  The whole of their family’s identity is based on performance, on presenting a likable image to the world with the idea that image alone will get you ahead. The American West is an escape for Biff, although Biff realizes that the dreams of making it big in the frontier are far flung.

John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000.

Summary of Work
This novel follows six characters through their lives in the first two decades of the twentieth century, ending just as World War I breaks out. The novel is structured with these different narratives stopping, starting, and intertwining with other characters’ narratives, even if they do not come in direct contact with one another. The novel is also broken up by newsreels, which are headlines and bits of news stories pulled from the Chicago Tribune during those years. The other section type is camera eye, which are autobiographical shots of Dos Passos’ life. The newsreels and camera eye sections do not follow any particular chronological order, and the stories of the lives of the characters also do not follow strict chronological time. Because of this, I am structuring this summary entry around the six characters rather than trying to chronologically summarize.

Mac, also known as Fainy McCreary, is from an immigrant family and is trained to work a printing press. He is a wanderer who won’t stick with one job for long, particularly because he is attracted to the ideologies of the Industrial Workers of the World and their leader, Big Bill Haywood. When he is in California and meets a woman and marries her, he settles down for a time and has two kids, but he feels like he is suffocating under the weight of poverty, work, and family responsibilities. When he hears about opportunities to help with the revolution in Mexico, he abandons his family and moves to Mexico to help where he can.

Janey Williams is from a poor working class family, and though she does well in school, she struggles in the working world as a secretary. She keeps trying to date different men to find love and finding that she dates rather terrible men. The firm that she finally gets a decent job at is pro-German, and although the pay is good, she cannot stand their anti-American statements and beliefs, so she quits the firm. Looking for work, she heads to New York City, and with some help she slips into what is first a temporary job to be a stenographer to J. Ward Moorehouse, and she does such a good job that she becomes his secretary. She takes trips with him all over the country, even down to Mexico.

Joe Williams, Janey’s brother, is a dropout and a fighter. He wanders from place to place intent on going to see new things around the world. He joins the Navy hoping to accomplish this goal further, and he sends Janey occasional letters and gifts from his travels. The Navy doesn’t work out so well for Joe, however, and he goes AWOL and goes back to his fighting, drifting ways.

J. Ward Moorehouse ties nearly all the characters in the story together in some way or another, even if it is just the other characters being in the same area. He is from a middle class family and well educated, but he aspires to be much more than a middle class working man. A writer, while he is working he meets and marries into a wealthy American family (the girl is pregnant), but upon his honeymoon trip to Paris, he realizes that she wants nothing to do with regular family life. She gets an abortion, and he quickly separates from her. He does make some contacts in Paris, and when he returns to the US, he begins a journalism career in Pittsburgh. From there, he marries again and starts his own public relations business with capital from his wife’s family.

Eleanor Stoddard is from Georgetown and part of a successful upper middle class family. She has artistic talent, particularly as an interior designer. She and her friend Eveline Hutchins, who have lived and worked together, quit their jobs and start up a decorator business of their own. They have the opportunity to do a costuming and design job for a play in New York, and eventually Eleanor decides to move there. She starts up her business there again, and J. Ward Moorehouse becomes one of her biggest clients. She also starts to become very close friends with Moorehouse, which even though a non-sexual relationship, angers Mrs. Moorehouse.

The final character introduced is Charley Anderson. He is a boy in Minnesota who ends up in Minneapolis as a mechanic. He falls in love with a girl about his age, and he has dreams of settling down to domestic life with her. However, when his best friend gets her pregnant, he is disenchanted with his dreams of domesticity and decides to leave and wander the nation to find something new to want. He gets stranded down in New Orleans and is lucky to not be beaten or killed from his terrible instrument playing, and he meets Doc William H Rogers, who buys the instrument off of him. They end up going to New York together on a ship and enlist in the ambulance corps for World War I. They are heading out to the front when the novel ends.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is unique in the way it deals with chronology and period representation through a mix of historical record and fiction. The book, as part of the USA Trilogy, is meant to give a picture or representation of the US during the early part of the twentieth century. The work itself deals heavily with attitudes about economics and racism during the time period, with racist sentiments abounding about Asians, African Americans, and Mexicans as well as immigrants. The narrative contains a lot of travel within it, ranging from the East Coast to the South to the Midwest to California and the West, all the way back down to Mexico. The idea of the American Dream seems embodied in the character of J. Ward Moorehouse.

Questions

  1. From Fainian making disastrous decisions time and time again to join in the communist movement and leave decent-paying jobs to Moorhouse’s consistent attempts to succeed through capitalism which leave him in debt or full of worry over risk, John Dos Passos’s work holds a healthy skepticism for both economic situations and economic “solutions.” Is there any indication in his work that he has a way out of the vicious cycle of economic ruin he illustrates throughout the novel?
  2. How does text placement and stylization affect the way we read the newsreel portions of this text? For example:

    TITANIC LARGEST SHIP IN THE WORLD SINKING
    Personally I am not sure that the twelvehour day is bad for employees
    especially when they insist on working that long in order to make more
    money

    Still all my song shall be
    Nearer My God to thee
    Nearer to thee
    (118)

    Those who know that the band on the Titanic played the song “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship sunk can pull the importance of the connection to the music there, both for time period and beliefs. The text in between headline and song is almost like text from a different article out of the newspaper on the same day or the same year. When looked at in this way, is sound being captured in the sense that we’re getting the “noise” from the time period?