Genres, Genres Everywhere

Genre Quartet

One of these authors is not like the others.
Can you guess which one?

That’s right: the correct answer is Agatha Christie – the only female of the group.

One thing all four do have in common, however, is that they’re all masters of genre fiction, especially James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses explores countless genres – some of which hadn’t even been invented yet when Ulysses was first published. Here are just a few examples:

Zombie Apocalypse:

(Stephen’s mother, emaciated, rises stark through the floor, in leper grey with a wreath of faded orangeblossoms and a torn bridal veil, her face worn and noseless, green with gravemould. Her hair is scant and lank. She fixes her bluecircled hollow eyesockets on Stephen and opens her toothless mouth uttering a silent word.)

-‘Circe’ chapter

Superhero Goth:

The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.

-‘Cyclpos’ chapter

Steam-Punk Science Fiction:

The disk shot down the groove, wobbled a while, ceased and ogled them: six.

‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter

Teen Vampire Romance:

Should a girl tell? No, a thousand times no. That was their secret, only theirs, alone in the hiding twilight and there was none to know or tell save the little bat that flew so softly through the evening to and fro and little bats don’t tell.

‘Nausicaa’ chapter

Any of the given quotes would work just fine within the genres I gave them, especially that last one. It’s kind of spooky, really, and it’s enough to convince me that a close watching of HBO’s True Blood might yield some overt references to ‘Nausicaa.’ After all, True Blood executive producer Alan Ball is said to have configured both American Beauty and Six Feet Under around Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, respectively. This is only conjecture, however. I tried watching True Blood not long ago, and just couldn’t get into it – probably never will.

My point, however, is that Joyce’s influence on our present culture might best be localized in our our genre-based storytelling. Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey and the Cohens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? both shamelessly ape Joyce’s use of Homer’s Odyssey, and the recent release of the Australian horror movie The Babadook has me strongly suspecting a Joycean influence in its title. It’s an amazingly well-made film, and I highly recommend it to anyone who can stomach the horror genre. I would put it up there with The Shining and Blue Velvet. Frightening, yes, but masterful, genuinely moving, and highly thought-provoking.

Anyway, “Babadook” is basically a nonsense word meaning “bogey-man” (or “boogy-man” as we Yanks would have it), and it appears in the film as both title and main character of a strangely satanic children’s pop-up book; here’s a link to a New York Times article about the book’s design. The video clip included in that article (which I would have embedded here had it been possible) shows a mother and child reading out loud from the book, which explains Mister Babadook’s name like so:

A rumbling sound and 3 sharp knocks
ba Ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!
That’s when you’ll know when he’s around
You’ll see him if you look.

It could be my 20-plus years of Joyce-geekery informing the following observation, but I’ll make it anyway. The above quote – particularly the second line – has an uncanny resemblance to the “Black Liz” passage in Ulysses, which could easily be included in my genre list at the top like so:

Children’s Pop-Up Book:

     Ga Ga Gara. Klook Klook Klook. Black Liz is our hen. She lays eggs for us. When she lays her egg she is so glad. Gara. Klook Klook Klook. Then comes good uncle Leo. He puts his hand under black Liz and takes her fresh egg. Ga ga ga ga Gara. Klook Klook Klook.

-‘Cyclops’ chapter

Add to this the nearly identical resemblance Mister Babadook’s knock has to the opening syllables of thunderword #1 in Finnegans Wake, and you’ve got yourself a seriously Joycean echo, whether filmmaker Jennifer Kent intended it or not.

Of course then the question arises: Is hearing a mere echo really enough to justify a full blog entry? What if “Babadook” really is just nonsense? For that matter, what if Kubrick and the Cohens had their own ideas about Homer’s Odyssey, utterly independent of what Joyce did?  And what if Alan Ball had never even heard of Joyce? What if James Joyce didn’t influence any of these filmmakers, who haven’t attributed any influence to him anyway? What are we Joyce-champions to do then?

Answer: Celebrate!

What an amazing author is James Joyce – to somehow prefigure whole aesthetic movements even down to the smallest details, so that whole volumes the size of Gifford’s annotations could be filled detailing all the amazing, uncanny corollaries with the post-Joycean world. Nobody dares attempt such a compilation for fear of morphing Joyce into some kind of art-prophet, but I think a happy middle ground can be reached:

Joyce went to mind-blogglingly meticulous lengths to demonstrate his vast knowledge of the great works of literature that preceded and influenced him. What if this wasn’t just to show off? What if he was attempting to demonstrate something? The evolution of artistic movements is not, as many would argue, particularly linear. “Modernism” has been around since at least the middle-ages, and even post-modernism isn’t exclusively bound to our day and age – just look at Laurence Sterne, Thomas Carlyle, etc.

So by allowing his language to exhibit enough elasticity to travel seamlessly from genre to genre, movement to movement, style to style etc, Joyce also allows a connection to be made from era to era. Given the tremendous elasticity of the language in Finnegans Wake in particular, it should naturally stand to reason that movements, words, and even events from the post-Joycean era would occasionally – and uncannily – be referenced, even if only by accident.

Believe me, it happens more often than you might imagine with Joyce.

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