While deconstructions often end up darker, edgier, sadder, and more cynical than the normal version, there is no reason they have to be.
-TVTropes article on Deconstruction
The difference between reconstruction and deconstruction depends largely by what the end goal becomes. A deconstruction is about demonstrating the flaws of a trope or genre, and leaving it at that. It is a situation that has no easy out. A reconstruction offers a solution on how to fix the situation… Some works, naturally, will try to do both at the same time…
-TVTropes article on Not A Deconstruction
In 1974, Ursula Le Guin published her story The Author of the Acacia Seeds (which is available online here). It was nominated in 1975 for the Locus Award for Best Short Story – losing, ironically, to a different Le Guin story that had been published in the same year.
It is light-handed, humorous, and an incredibly charming piece of fiction. And (as Google revealed to me) I am not alone in liking it very much. There are many reasons for liking it – but, for whatever reason, I’ve been most intrigued by its charm. For a while, you see, I thought that there was something unusual in how the charm of this story operates. In following that thought, it made me realize some things I may not have otherwise.
Charm in fiction is a sometimes belittled quality (usually belittled, I’m sure, by the sort of people who hide their copies of P.G. Wodehouse under their mattresses and read them only in the privacy of their bathrooms at midnight). I think there’s this idea that charming fiction isn’t really capable of doing anything but entertaining. So when you get indisputably good fiction that is also charming, there’s a scrabble to point to qualities other than charm to justify its merit. The charm, if possible, should be classifiable as a secondary, arbitrary characteristic.
(I can just picture someone like Jonathan Franzen making a sour lemon face at the thought of a reader closing his book and exclaiming “but my goodness, that was so charming!”)
I think often of the extraordinarily charming chapters in Kafka’s The Castle – and also, of that common assertion that academia has only recently “discovered” that Kafka is, after all, quite funny! It is almost as if mentioning this fact about his fiction earlier on would have been as tasteless as going to an Agatha Christie convention and asking loud innocent questions about her bigotry.
Charm in fiction is an element most commonly associated with surface. A charming prose style; a charming sense of humor. A book whose primary description is “charming” is probably understood as comforting to read, in a nourishing and satisfying sort of way. It is probably what you might call a “rainy day book”. I might think, for example, of this list of books provided by Goodreads.
After some thought, I’ve decided that the conception of charm-as-surface is misleading. I can think of an enormous quantity of books and stories, chock-full of charming details in isolation, which are boring and forgettable on anything but the detail level.
I would say that a charm which is merely surface-deep is the quality of being twee. By which I mean, there is a whiff of condescension-to-the-reader in the whole project, along with a degree of self-consciousness. My personal understanding of twee fiction is that it tends to have a feeling of being written with someone’s idea of what other people might find charming, at that particular decade, rather than guided by the writer’s own idiosyncratic sense of delight.
“Twee” often feels like a parody of delight.
Possibly for this reason, I have noticed that self-consciously twee fiction tends to age very poorly, especially compared to the enduring charmers of literature. (I mean, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are charming as heck to this day, and so is Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince; and both of these examples are also extremely weird books. They also feel like they could not have been written by any other person than the one who did. The things that make them charming – their idiosyncrasies, their strong personalities, their beliefs and their outlooks on life – are present within them to their core.)
Charm – true, successful charm – is inevitably built into the structure, and into the fundamental concerns, of the story. It emanates from the philosophy and the thought that was put into the story’s heart, and from the author’s own peculiar sense of delight. It also pays respect to the reader; it includes them on the jokes. This was a conclusion I came to after thinking maybe a little too much about The Author of the Acacia Seeds.
It is a story constructed in the language of academia which – in direct contradiction to the culture of academia, and the whole notion of “the ivory tower” – is profoundly inclusive, not exclusive. I mean this in every sense of the word. The inclusiveness appears in the smallest of details, such as the perfect little ending to the second section, where the careful analysis of Emperor penguins is concluded with a sudden welcoming call for all and any readers to join this exciting scientific expedition into Antarctica. “If anyone wants to come along, welcome!” But this inclusiveness also runs deep and is baked into how the story does what it does: the opposite of what most academia is so often perceived as doing.
This is a story, not about the elitist categorizational exclusionary tactics which academia is unfortunately famous for, but about broadening and expanding definitions, until they seem nearly useless for aforementioned traditional academic purposes.
There is a basic fan-like progression in the story’s academic consideration of poetry. First, the clearly marked and notated seeds, as left by a decapitated ant: they are deliberate and recognizable in their semblance as poetry, even by our current academic standards. Then, the sudden (yet so convincing) inclusion of the everyday movements and swoops of penguins (and many other animals!) in water – a thing which we can see in our everyday lives, the visual movement vocabulary of fauna, but which the story now imbues with significance as poetry through rigorous academic attention. And then, finally, the broadening even further of the story’s scope to include the idea of vegetation as poet – even mineral as poet, even rock.
The language of exclusion – this is not what academia should to be synonymous with, in an ideal world.
But in my lived experience, this is the case much more than it should be.
And from an academic perspective, there is something almost terrifying about The Author of the Acacia Seeds. There is an idea, in academia, behind limiting and restricting what “can be” poetry and what “can’t be” – for example – so that you can more easily judge, quantify, sort, and talk about the concept of poetry. It is a way to attempt objectivity, at what is fundamentally subjective. And the idea of a canon – for example – is also (or at least, I think this to often be the case) a way to not feel guilty about never having read a massive amount of interesting and exceptionally well-written writing from a myriad of cultures, languages, centuries, and perspectives. So long as you’ve read the canon, you have read what matters. Anyone who hasn’t read the canon and doesn’t acknowledge its centrality and does not work from it as a basis: they can, of course, be safely ignored.
I like to think that this is not the idea on which the canon was founded.
It’s simply how it has been used too frequently, I think, in terms of practical purpose.
So a story which takes the tools of academia to do the precise opposite, and which expands definitions into the direction of infinity – is of course both an incredibly joyful approach to academia, and completely in key with the most fundamental ideas behind science and poetry and academic rigor. Curiosity! Joy in discovery! Delight in the natural world! And also, a unity in science and art – science paying as much attention to poetry as to any other aspect of the natural world – a synthesis of the curious, joyous scientific mindset with the exact same in the poetic mindset – seeing no reason to mark a difference between the two.
And the charm of the story is in these basic premises – which are nourishing, satisfying, and generous of mind – the traits of a “charming” novel or story, in fact – and which act as the root from which the entire fiction, and all its delightful details, grow. And I think that this generosity is at least one reason why this story is so very easy to love.
It is somehow typical of Le Guin to phrase a scathing take-down of academia by co-opting its own language into expansion, and viable alternatives of thought. This is one of the lasting pleasures of her story, and I think one reason it sticks in so many people’s minds, and seems to mean a lot to them. This is also often how Le Guin does her best things in general. Straightforward deconstructions have a fun to them, and they are often thrilling despite an inevitably bitter tone. Le Guin prefers to critique through alternatives, and by elaborating upon the myopia of opposing views. She uses her talents and skills to do the sort of thing an opponent might do, but better, and often from an opposite moral direction. This is maybe nowhere as obvious as in her short story Sleepwalkers (which is online here), where she essentially skewers writers like Bret Easton Ellis and his ilk.
(By the way, I will from now on continue to refer only to Bret Easton Ellis – but as a shorthand for an entire swath of writers of a certain type. These writers range in talent and regard, from Pulitzer-prize winners to the lowliest of hacks. So why choose Ellis as my poster boy instead of any of the others? Because I know Ellis’s fiction on a more consistent basis than the others; I can feel confident talking about his entire oeuvre in a way I don’t feel confident when talking about, say, Jay McInerney or Don DeLilo or Chuck Palahniuk or Tao Lin, or any of the many others mining this particular brand of nihilistic post-modern cynicism in at least some of their writing… I might only know one novel by the non-Ellis authors, after all, and who knows, their other work could be very different in style. With Ellis, unfortunately, I was exposed to a lot of his books in my late teens. I know he is very consistent. So that is why he shall be my poster boy. Let it be understood that though I’m talking specifically about Ellis, I am thinking also of a large number of writers, standing in the shadows close behind him.)
Though I do not enjoy the writing of Bret Easton Ellis (or his type), there is one particular thing he is very good at. I only really noticed it as his particular skill when I saw another novelist trying to do it, but lazily and badly and (consequently) unsuccessfully. Ellis excels at creating a closed and claustrophobic world. His suffocating bubbles of nihilistic shallowness are never interrupted by a single dissenting comment from any character (nor a single observation from the narrative voice). They are never interrupted by anything which might imply there is an alternative style of thought in existence – that lack of interruption is what can make them almost contagious in their convictions. There’s this very amusing parody of Ellis’s style as imposed upon the characters from The Babysitter’s Club, but while it gets the characterization pretty spot-on, it manages to interrupt its own effect because the writer is clearly on the side of Mary-Anne – and so are we, the reader. Ellis does not slip up by creating someone who is in any way likeable, or not an “asshole victim”, and just plainly Not A Douche. The success of his fiction’s effects relies on being so consistently air-tight/airless.
Actually, the example that I always prefer to bring up as “typical Ellis” is how he would describe an elderly couple holding hands as they sit on a bench in a park. It would probably go something like this:
There’s nowhere to sit in the park, all the benches are taken by squads of senior citizens. These elderly couples, who have locked themselves to each other’s sides so firmly that they no longer register the other’s presence. He could die, and she wouldn’t notice, would continue walking with his atrophied body hanging faithfully from her arm. I stretch my hamstrings and take a swig from my water bottle. I’m watching one couple as they sit on a bench by the lilac. She’s talking a mile. He looks like he’s dozed off. Probably tuning her out in favor of a thirty-year-old masturbation fantasy. After this, they’ll go home and eat microwave dinners for lunch. What a life.
The point being that it’s not the actual events and people of Ellis’s narratives which lend them his trademark “charm”. It is the way he chooses to frame them – what he reads into things, what he obsesses over, and most importantly what he completely omits or never notices.
It is not as though Ellis has invented this type of thing, of course – many people have pointed out that Sherlock Holmes, for example, can only exist in a world where coincidences never happen, and where his sometimes-arbitrary deductions are never wrong. All it would take to puncture the world of Sherlock Holmes would be someone whose actions and thinking don’t conform to Holmes’ understanding of the world and of human behavior – and Ellis’s worlds are truly just as easy to puncture. The art of their existence is within the careful balance of never permitting that puncture to happen.
So Ellis is not the inventor – but he is a particularly dedicated practitioner of this technique, as used to look at the world through extremely limited and sour blinkers, while arguing that This Is Just How Things Really Are. He would frame it as “social satire” I think, or even as “a deconstruction of society’s shallowness” – and many others frame it as such, or as commentary on consumerism, or the vapidity and hypocrisy of modern culture and “people these days”, or what-have-you – the asserted reasons behind his type of style all begin to run together for me, honestly.
And again, I am not saying that Le Guin has spared a penny’s thought for Bret Easton Ellis in particular. He just happens to be my own personal poster boy for this entire school of writerly practice – and that school is something which I do think Le Guin spared a couple of thoughts for. Enough thoughts, at least, to write a certain story…
The premise of Sleepwalkers is very simple. The story progresses, brief section by section, through the minds of the folk staying at a certain small seaside motel, during the off season – starting first with our Ellis expy, John Felburne, and then moving outward to include an additional four people. In the process, Le Guin reveals the story of the motel’s maid Ava (like slowly prying open the petals of a lotus, one by one) without ever once entering Ava’s perspective.
The point made by Le Guin, as it turns out – made with claws, may I add! – is that it is not the people that Ellis writes about which create his fiction’s trademark oppressive and bitter shallowness.
It is the way he looks at people – the way that he would, after all, write about his hotel maid, or about an elderly husband and wife holding hands in a park – that is oppressive and bitter in its shallowness.
And when stated that way, Ellis’s purported role as “social satirist/deconstructionist” collapses. His role even as “social observer” collapses, I think.
(I think, also, that perhaps his fiction collapses – that this type of fiction collapses. You are left, after all, not with a document of a shallow society, but a shallow documentarian who can take any subject and reduce it into a solipsistic reflection of himself. The writer as non-observer. Oh well, I guess maybe I am biased against his fiction so I should probably stop while I am ahead.)
On a highly amusing side note, I googled “ursula le guin bret easton ellis” to see if either had ever mentioned the other in an interview – which I don’t think they ever did – and the main relevant thing that came up in the first page of results was this tweet:
So, that’s that.
There is, I think, a reconstructionist urge in Le Guin’s writing even just in terms of her own fiction – I mean, she will comment on and reconstruct her own damn self. She’s done this throughout her career, sure, using her more recent fiction to comment on her stories past (the most obvious example probably being Tehanu, in its place within the Earthsea cycle, but there are very many examples you could choose from). But I also mean she will literally do this within the same work. Like in her novel, The Dispossessed, which contains that most Le Guin-ish of moments, occurring somewhere near the ending. Up till then, the novel has been alternating its chapters between a semi-utopian colonized moon, on which flourishes a communal-anarchic society, and the highly capitalist, consumerist planet which that moon orbits. The two celestial bodies coexist in an uneasy political relationship, and the planet is so obviously a metaphor for our own world during the time of the novel’s writing – even to the point of having an American superpower expy and a Soviet superpower expy in planet’s global-political mix – whereas the anarchic moon is very clearly a reconsructionist critique of American capitalism: a presentation of alternatives, with its own set of unique benefits and unique problems. (The whole novel after all is Le Guin in full-on reconstructionist mode.)
So, no need to spell out the metaphor.
Except, near the very end, we meet someone who is actually an ambassador from our Earth, which exists quietly several solar systems away. Because, as it turns out, our good ol’ Earth does exist in this story, most un-metaphorically; these events take place just several centuries into our future. And, while the capitalist planet of The Dispossessed may seem like a horrific dystopia to the communal-anarchic protagonist from the moon… to the Earth ambassador from our future, is it a paradise – because it still has an operational ecosystem.
And there it is: that sudden moment of reframing, of expanding the view outward. Subtle little things in the novel, which previously indicated that the capitalist planet is at least somewhat ecologically conscious, loom suddenly huge, become abruptly relevant. For all its sins, there is at least one thing over which this planet is a little careful. So the message that the book is giving us takes on an additional nuance of tone. Certain book-length squabbles shrink in relevance when confronted with that nuance – that this is the metaphor for our Earth: the one with a failed ecosystem. That all the political capital in the world becomes moot when (as the ambassador puts it) forests go extinct, the sky turns gray, and your population collapses utterly.
Le Guin gives a sense of how the mere continued existence of both her planet and its moon, for centuries of advanced-technology civilization, is contingent on both societies paying close attention to their global ecology. She gives the sense of how any sci-fi future that isn’t an utter disaster has this oft-unstated necessity in its basic assumptions – that any future which isn’t grappling with sheer ecological collapse (and our attempts at surviving it) is making this assumption. Le Guin makes the point that even the futuristic sci-fi novels of folk who are otherwise reactionary, and who might personally deny the reality of climate change for political reasons, still require this assumption when they write their books, regardless of whether they believe in it or not.
And thus Le Guin’s capitalist planet along with its anarchic moon become yet another reconstructionist “alternative”. Together they give a sharp, quiet commentary on a complex issue, in just a couple of pages that act almost like an aside.
Nothing like a candid ecological extinction of Earth to frame a political metaphor in a fuller context.
I can think of a few other writers, and works, which reconstruct on the level that Le Guin will regularly reconstruct. (For example, one of the best current-running ones which pops instantly to my mind is Strong Female Protagonist: it is maybe the only superhero comic in existence that is genuinely interested in the idea of how superheroes could make lasting societal change, and it explores genuine alternatives and asks the real hard questions, and despite some rough edges is fascinating and so smart and such an overlooked and under-discussed reconstruction of that whole genre… but I digress.) So yes, other people do it, of course – but I can’t think of anyone besides Le Guin who is so consistently reconstructionist in their tendencies.
Le Guin is interested, always, in looking outward and beyond, inclusively. She is a writer whom I value as a reader in different ways, and on different levels, depending on what piece of writing I’m looking at during the given moment – because she has written so much, and in so many different approaches, and on different scopes, and with differing levels of success. But whether I am excited by the poetry in some of her best fiction, or thrilled by the genuine sci-fi-ness of “making the familiar seem strange and the strange familiar” in some of her best work, I am always grateful for her commitment to empathy. To the hard work she engages in, for the sake of empathy. And to the alternatives it proposes.
In the end, it is easier to deconstruct. You are not risking anything.
To build up is much harder. Much harder to do truly well, first off, and harder in terms of conviction, because the results are rarely what we expect when we start out. It takes, I think, a certain kind of bravery. You cannot ever really know how it will end. “To boldly go where no man has gone before…”
And, you know, I think that a reconstructionist attitude is about as genuinely “hard” sci-fi as you can get. “Hard sci-fi” is not a term I have ever been particularly invested in, but genuine reconstruction, in fiction, is an attitude that seems to me to mirror those values, goals, and ideals which are baked into the founding motors of the sci-fi genre, and the motors of scientific thought. Regardless of how the term “hard sci-fi” is ordinarily used.
Ursula Le Guin, you will probably never read this, but this is the closest thing I’ll ever be able to do in terms of writing you a love letter. I’m not very good at love letters, so maybe it’s good that you will never read this – but thank you.
Onward and outward,