LE GUIN THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST

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 

And now, some looooong raaaaaaambling thoughts about Ursula Le Guin, in four parts.

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. It lost, 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 the way it was baked into the very structure of the story’s philosophy.

In following that thought, it made me realize that, actually, its charm is very typical, and this made me realize some things about charm that I may not have otherwise verbalized—

1. A DIGRESSION ON THE QUALITY OF CHARM IN FICTION

—the first of these things is: charm in fiction is (among certain other things) the quality of being delighted in unexpected ways by the story you are reading.

The best of charming fiction surprises you with that delight, and then continues surprising you throughout. You end up trusting that the fiction will continue delivering that delight in unpredictable yet perfect ways. And it does.

Charm in fiction is a sometimes belittled quality. I think there’s this idea that fiction which is easily described as “charming” is probably incapable of doing anything but being (for example) cozy and entertaining. So when you get complex, big-idea 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!”)

Charm in fiction is 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, but without much else to it to stick in your memory.

The conception of charm-as-surface is misleading. I can think of many books and stories, chock-full of charming details in isolation, which are boring and forgettable to me on anything but the detail level.

Perhaps a charm which is genuinely just surface-deep is the quality of being twee? This is an uncertain thought.

But let’s say this: perhaps the quickest way for your story to register as “twee” is to flood it with surface-level tropes, all culled from your current decade’s cultural conception of what surely must be charming. (“Charm by committee.”) There is no internal consistency behind why these details are chosen (just like there is no internal consistency for Father Christmas showing up in Narnia). The consistency is external: aka, it is taken from the notions of charm from that day and age.

(Narnia was, at least, mostly consistent on its own terms. I think it’s why Father Christmas sticks out so badly.)

And anyway, we all know those types of stories: the one built of nothing but Father-Christmas-in-Narnia, so to speak. They age terribly. They always feel a bit condescending.

This is why I say the quality of “twee” can feel like a parody of delight.

A gilded imitation of charm.

24-karat charm is when something is baked completely through with its peculiar brand of logic and philosophy, and its own brand of warmth. The 24-karat charmers of fiction are, frankly, usually weird. And their charm—their ability to delight in surprising ways—is idiosyncratically informed by the author’s sense of delight.

Even so, it will still feel twee to certain readers. But that is just how humans work.

For example, I can immediately think of several books, such as the Alice books, or Peter Pan, or Le Petit Prince, which have that baked-through weirdness—and yes, they read as deeply charming to some people today, but they also come across as nauseatingly twee to others.

But, focusing on 24-karat charm: what is it about this hardcore quality that feels so enduringly nourishing, and loveable?

I think it is the honesty in the fictive outlook. It is the part which informs the core concerns of the story. There is often playfulness too, which is fun, and always a part of the charm, but I think the honesty is crucial. It’s a willingness to let ugly things be ugly. It is (to me) things like the bittersweet, unblinking ending of Peter Pan.

I think we believe in the nourishing parts of the charm because of that honesty when it comes to unpleasant things. I think we trust it more, because of that, and we don’t feel we’re being pandered or condescended to.

Charm is a quality that pays respect to the reader. And it includes them in its jokes.

This was a conclusion I came to after thinking a little too much about The Author of the Acacia Seeds.

2. WELL, YOU KNOW, IT IS A VERY CHARMING STORY

And 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.

CalvinHobbesStripLowHigh (thecomicage.com)

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, 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 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 and the joyful in the scientific mindset with those exact traits 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 (common traits of a trivially “charming” novel or story, in fact), and which act as the root from which the entire fiction and all its delightful details grow.

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.)

3. I DO NOT LIKE BRET EASTON ELLIS AND NEITHER DOES URSULA LE GUIN

Though I do not enjoy the writing of Bret Easton Ellis (or his type), there is a specific 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 thus 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 invented this type of thing. 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. Ellis’s worlds are 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, of looking at the world through limited and sour blinkers. The part that’s hard to swallow is when people argue that, actually, This Is Just How Things Really Are.

I’m sure Ellis would frame his writing as observation, or “social satire”, or even as “a deconstruction of society’s shallowness”. Many others frame it as such.

And again, I am not saying that Le Guin has spared a penny’s thought for Bret Easton Ellis in particular. It’s this type of writer which I do think Le Guin spared a couple of thoughts for. Enough thoughts, at least, to write a certain story…

The premise of her story Sleepwalkers is simple. It progresses, brief section by section, through the minds of the folk staying at a certain small seaside motel, during the off season. It starts first with our Ellis expy, John Felburne, and then moves 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, is that it’s not the people Ellis writes about which create his fiction’s trademark oppressive and bitter shallowness. No matter how superficial and amoral he may write them to be.

It is the way he looks at people. It is the way that he would, after all, write about his hotel maid, or about an elderly husband and wife holding hands in a park: with oppressive and bitter 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 to 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 fun 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:

LeGuinEllisTweetHaha

So, that’s that.

4. THE DISPOSSESSED, AND THAT MOST LE GUIN–ISH OF MOMENTS

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 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 the planet’s global-political mix). Meanwhile, the anarchic moon is a clear reconstructionist critique of American capitalism: a presentation of alternatives, with its own set of unique benefits and unique problems. (The whole novel is Le Guin in full-on reconstructionist mode, really.)

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 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 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 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 planet with a failed ecosystem. That all the political capital in the world becomes moot when (as the Earth ambassador puts it) forests go extinct, the sky turns gray, and your population collapses.

Le Guin gives a sense of how the mere continued existence of both her capitalist planet and its moon, for projected 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 ecological disaster has this oft-unstated necessity in its basic assumptions: any future which isn’t grappling with sheer ecological collapse (and our attempts at surviving it) must make this assumption. Le Guin makes the point, I think, 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 and 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, of course other people do it. 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 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 it truly well, and harder in terms of conviction, because the results are rarely what you expect when you 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 a reconstructionist attitude is about as genuinely “hard” sci-fi as you can get. “Hard sci-fi” is not a term I’ve 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,

ARTICHOKE

Artichoke_signature

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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One Response to LE GUIN THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST

  1. Isaac Yuen says:

    Lovely piece on so many facets of what makes Le Guin one of my favourite authors of all time. Love the look at Acacia Seeds as well – what draws me in is the humour and the charm. (I’ve done up my take on it as well: https://ekostories.com/2014/04/21/author-acacia-seeds/)

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