Gabbler Recommends: ‘Crafting with Ursula : Lidia Yuknavitch on The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ from Between the Covers Podcast

A Between the Covers Podcast episode from TinHouse.

I liked what Yuknavitch had to say about her polyvocal story, about objects as characters. Particularly as someone who has a polyvocal narrative and objects (no matter how anthropomorphized) as characters in their own novel.


GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Why Family Isn’t Everything—And How We Can Create More Liberatory Alternatives by Sophie Lewis

Tolstoy famously opened his magnum opus with the truthy formula “All happy families are alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.” It sounds good, concedes Ursula K. Le Guin: “It’s a great first sentence.” So many families are extremely unhappy! And this extreme unhappiness feels unique, because its structural character—like the structure of capitalism—is cunningly obscured from view.

In fact, Le Guin suggests, the reverse of Tolstoy’s apothegm is ultimately closer to the truth. She knows of what she speaks, having herself grown up “in a family that on the whole seems to have been happier than most.” She finds it “false—an intolerable cheapening of reality—simply to describe it as happy.” To her, the very phrase “happy families” bespeaks a fundamental incuriosity about the nature of happiness, which—under capitalism especially—comes with enormous costs.

Genres of family critique other than the bourgeois novel do exist, but they aren’t necessarily pretty. I’m thinking of the medium crawling with moms turned murderers, blood-spattered dining-rooms, incest revenges, and homes set ablaze: Hereditary, The Shining, Society, Goodnight Mommy, Psycho, The Stepfather, Us. Critical cinema scholars have long identified a latently insurrectionary desire at play in horror movies, especially those that depict attacks (often from within) on the propertied white family, the patriarchal regime of housework, or the colonial homestead. Books like Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film argue that violent and scary movie-making is, more often than not, a popular vehicle for mass anti-family desire.

Think of the menacing domestic interiors, hostile kitchen appliances, creepy children, murderous kin, and claustrophobic hellscapes of your favorite horror flick. In slasher, home-invasion, and feminist horror canons, the narrative pretends to worry nationalistically about external threats to the family while, in fact, indulging every conceivable fantasy of dismembering and setting fire to it from within. From gore to so-called “psychological” horror, diverse genres openly implicate the family-form in the tortures it is enduring. In these movies, the suppressed, disavowed violence of the home is returning home. The monster is coming from inside the house.

Wow, who am I calling monsters—dads and moms and great-aunt Trish? No: family abolition is not “puerile” politics (albeit children must be on the front lines of imagining it). Family abolition does not expect a state of perfect, uninterrupted, universal happiness. Rather, I would ask you to flip the script and consider that it is the family that is unrealistic and utopian. The family, right now, is supposed to make everybody happy. We are all supposed to be avatars of our little biological team of competitive social reproduction. When we are delinquent, we are a burden on the family: an experience which, ideally, reforms us by making us remember (like it’s a good thing) that family is all we’ve got. Even when we are exceptional, we are, in a sense, chips off our biogenetic clan’s block; something for blood relations to be proud of.

I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the lottery that drops a neonate arbitrarily among one or two or three or four individuals (of a particular class) and keeps her there for the best part of two decades without her consent, making her wholly beholden to them for her physical survival, legal existence, and economic identity, and forcing her to be the reason they give away their lives in work. I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the norm that makes a prison for adults—especially women—out of their own commitment to children they love.


To regender the monomyth:

“Le Guin believes in the ‘necessity of myth for culture’ – for our culture – yet she recognized that traditional myth and traditional definitions of myth, such as Jung’s and Campbell’s, have excluded women as speaking subjects, as heroes, as active – and that this exclusion has failed us. Her ow ‘poetic fabulations’ she offers as ‘part of the process of developing a new mythology for the future.’…Le Guin says myth uses her to reveal its truth, and through her own revisioning and reimagining she revitalizes myth to contain its essential truths and the contemporary reinterpretations of such truths. Her use of myth becomes rhetorical as she argues for an alternative way of seeing, thinking and being that connects rather than separates, includes rather than excludes, gives voice rather than silences.

It is worth noting here that the language used by both Jung and Campbell indicates the universality of the myth and its psychological parallel. Gender is not mentioned, but as Le Guin notes in Earthsea Revisioned, the hero-tale, a human universal, is male-gendered: ‘The hero is a man.’ After all, until farily recently, when a writer wrote of anything that was meant to be a human universal, the gender pronoun used to include everyone was male. And as the hero’s quest is typically a public event and on a large scale, little attention, if any, was paid to the small and the personal and the feminine.” …As an ideal, the quest becomes an assumed truth about the human experience of coming of age. Le Guin questions this assumption in her examination of the myth and expands its paradigm to include other kinds of quests, other ways to come of age, particularly female ways.

And it is the language of fantasy and myth – expressed in the monomyth – that gives us the exterior shape to these journeys. But Le Guin is not simply retelling – she is reimagining the monomyth: by asserting that gender is a force in the quest, by making the personal and the public connect, by giving value to the small, the private, the feminine. The essential elements are all there, the journey, the quest and the hero, but as her reimagining subverts and inverts these elements, the monomyth becomes rhetorical. Or, in other words, to regender the myth, to leave it open-ended and to give value to both personal and private deeds as well as public ones, is to argue what has been changed is a s much of worth as what has been taken out.”

Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin by Warren G. Rochelle

Ursula K. Le Guin on Philip Pullman:

“Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a long, richly imagined, and deeply incoherent work, in which I’ll try only to trace the part animals play. Despite appearances, it is a small part. The two cats in the story, who have a minor but important role, do what cats have often done in myth and fable: they cross between worlds. Otherwise they’re just cats, realistically drawn. Animals are otherwise absent from the books, except for a tribe of polar bears who talk and build forts and use weapons, as humans do, but who don’t have daemons, as humans do.

But I think Pullman overloads the concept and then confuses it. He implies strongly that the daemon is a kind of visible soul, that to be severed from it is fatal, and his plot hinges on the cruelty and horror of this separation. But then he begins changing the rules: we find that witches can live apart from their daemons; in the second voume we are in our world, where nobody has visible or tangible daemons; back in her world, the heroine Lyra leaves her daemon on the wharves of hell, and though she misses him, she lives on perfectly competently, and in fact saves the universe, without him. Their reunion seems almost perfunctory.

In fantasy, to change or break your own rules is to make the story literally inconsequential. If the daemons are meant to show that we are part animal and must not be severed from our animality, they can’t do it, since the essence of animality is the body, the living body with all its brainless needs and embarrassing functions—exactly what the daemons do not have.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Beast in the Book.’

Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin and The Lathe of Heaven