The new semester’s here, so it’s time to put away the summer reading & turn to class prep. In the past few months I’ve been reading postmodern (mostly 21c) novels that in various ways respond to The Tempest, & I thought I’d jot down some thoughts.
Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (1997): The utopian fantasia becomes a “Visto through the Wilderness,” as Englightenment rationality does for Pynchon what humanism did for Shakespeare, though Pynchon is more overtly skeptical. But I wonder if the deep ambivalence that’s M&D wears on its sleeve isn’t the underlying anxiety that clouds Shakespeare’s play: the sense that, at the end, Prospero’s brave new world isn’t as “brave” (in the early modern sense of decked out, dressed up) so much as it is costly, both morally and economically.
Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger (1992): The two cousins both want to be the princely heir, and the great thing about this book is that the multiracial utopian section, in which the proto-Darwinist doctor enters into a matriarchal mixed marriage with a former slave, isn’t cloying or overdone. Instead it’s a version of that old feminist plea about Caliban and Miranda forming an alliance, even if it doesn’t end up working out any better than it might in the play.
Marina Warner, Indigo (1992): What does Miranda want? She, too, gets her Caliban (in the 20c frame tale), and Warner’s novel presents the various Prospero-ish men as the fuller opacity than the fertile Caribbean. Great stuff about sports & sporting culture — perhaps an oblique way of thinking again about the theater, another profession that runs on sanguy or physical charisma?
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004): In the end more Melvillean than Shakeseparean (if that’s a distinction with a difference), Mitchell’s high-wire act of stylistic change mirrors, on the level of the phrase, the experience of radical cultural change that the novel describes (and that we’re all experiencing). Perhaps a bit sentimental on the last page? How can you reconcile the novel’s deep fear of corporate power structures with a humane plea for abolition? Need to re-read Benito Cereno..
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