Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are You Talking to Me? A Critic’s Discourse on the Pleasure of the Romance

I'll never be an evaluator of fiction determining which books are "good" and which are "bad," so this will not be a review, but it will be a series of thoughts, or fragments, on reading Alexis Hall's Glitterland

As I read Glitterland over the weekend, a romance that captures the complexity of mental health, I was struck by the ways in which the narrative explores and expresses anxiety, depression, mania. What was so striking is the seeming impossibility of putting to words the poetics of depression and anxiety. What sorts of words does one use to describe the overwhelming nature of depression, which often leaves quite as impression?

To speak about depression and anxiety is to confront a linguistic register that is at once inexpressible and entirely expressible, as Roland Barthes says about trying to “write love,” which is “to confront the muck of language: that region where language is too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of ego, by emotive submission) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it” (A Lover’s Discourse 99).

Little did I know that by the novel’s close, the depressed, anxious hero would indeed call upon Roland Barthes, by name, on a variety of occasions – indeed, more particularly, the author, Alexis Hall, quotes from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse in the novels close, as we work towards the declaration of love: "Roland Barthes argued" the hero explains, "a phrase as commonly used as the one I think we're discussing is essentially a meaningless signifier." The literary critic might well be ready to declare to the novel, "I love you!"

The novel directs its attention at the literary critic--it might well be that Glitterland is itself A Lover's Discourse between an author and reader. I had imagined a reading of Glitterland informed by Roland Barthes – this in and of itself is not terribly impressive, I’ve long felt that if Popular Romance Studies were to develop a list of “Required Reading” that Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse would be included – but what is interesting, to me, is what we do with an author who almost pre-empts his critics and explicitly tells the critic-reader about Roland Barthes.

The quotations from Roland Barthes, it must be admitted, are well known; a quick search online shows them listed on numerous websites of quotations. Hall, however, does more than merely quote Barthes. Hall provides a biography: “Barthes. French literary critic. Gay. Perhaps overly fond of his mother. Prone to nervous breakdowns.”

All of this, of course, could be found from an encyclopaedia entry on Barthes, or Wayne Koestenbaum’s introduction to A Lover’s Discourse, in which Koestenbaum speaks of Barthes’s “matrophilia.” And in A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes will speak of a wanting “maternity and genitality.” In Mourning Diary, Barthes writes, “You have never known a Woman’s body! I have know the body of my mother, sick and then dying.” 

While I can imagine any number of ways to negate the presence of Barthes, to suggest that the author of the book is not a Barthesian, I cannot help but admit that my own initial reaction was that Barthes was present. Perhaps Alexis Hall and I share a love for Barthes, and while I’ve theorized romance in terms of Barthes, Hall has written romance alongside Barthes (much like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides).

But what is a literary critic to do when an author openly names a precursor, his protagonists’s “hero” as Roland Barthes? Is Alexis Hall teasing his critic-reader? Am I now to complete a Barthesian reading of the novel? Am I over-reading the novel if I insist upon a Barthesian reading that extends far beyond A Lover’s Discourse? I am quite certain that I see much more than A Lover’s Discourse in the novel. Is there something to be said about the way Barthes speaks of “shimmer” (a word that appears a handful of times in the novel) while Hall speaks of “glitter” (a word Barthes uses in The Preparation of the Novel, “writing as a tendency means the objects of writing appear, glitter, disappear)? What about notions of fragmentation, brokenness, shattering alongside Barthesian jouissance? Or, the juxtaposition between pleasure (used 24 times in the novel) and bliss (seven times)? Or the way the novel tries to teach its reader about punctum rather than studium, or the writerly versus the readerly text (even though the novel won’t use these terms)?

If as Susan Sontag suggested, “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art,” has Alexis Hall managed to get the last laugh?

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
- - -. Mourning Diary. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
- - - . The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
- - - . The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at Collège de France (1978-1979 and 1979-1980). Ed. Nathalie Léger. Trans. Kate Briggs. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.
Hall, Alexis. Glitterland. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide Publishing, 2013.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. “Foreword: In Defense of Nuance” in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, 1966.

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