Fear Is A Lost Little Boy on A Bus
Living with agoraphobia: an immersion essay
There’s a tingling in my fingers and it’s not from the alcohol. I don’t belong on this dance floor and these kids know it. What do most people do when they find themselves in the middle of a herd of sweaty, cocksure teenagers? If I were their age I suppose I’d go with it — throw my head back and just be. But I’m not their age. I’m not even from the same galaxy. They tower over me — a different species — as if anyone born after the year 2000 was endowed with superhuman height.
Must be the millennial bug.
There’s the familiar stench of body odor and frothing hormones that conjure memories: the mid 90s, football halls crammed with staggering, sloshing teens bobbing their heads to Foo Fighters. But now … here … I’m an imposter. My breathing is unsteady, my heart throbs at a staccato, racing to match the pulse of the music. Become the pulse, feel the music. The music surges skyward and I wish I were lifting with it … up and away. But instead I am shrinking and certain that some unseen, enormous hands are closing in — fingers splayed, invented for smothering.
I watch as one of the male creatures pirouettes into my space — not before glancing down to check if I’m real. He’s been baptized with Hollywood looks, vigorously gay and comfortable in his own skin. He wears a polyester blue shirt fastened with bubblegum braces and his hair’s a shock of wax chocolate.
There’s an amused expression plastered across his face, as if studying an oddity — a man out of time. And I am. I’m a time traveler.
The young man cranes his neck. From this close I can see a hint of mascara and some glitter peppered across his right cheek. Then quite suddenly, he contorts his face and gyrates around me — striking ostrich poses, his neck doing things my arms could only attempt. Ignore the cartoon, I tell myself. Ignore the dread — the true provocateur — but it’s too late, fear is out of its cage. I close my eyes.
The night had been a series of false starts. Tom had the idea we do a pub crawl. “Let’s gargle down some single malt, roam the streets like escaped mental patients,” he joked.
I hadn’t seen Tom in years, but he was still the same: half philosopher, half writer. He still had the same parted fringe and rocked the goatee. Still deceptively abstemious and reserved — yet his boyish, near impish quality had not waned. After warming up with several pints in a comfy bar called Hell’s Kitchen (a name that begged foreshadowing) we continued on to what Tom referred to as ‘the badlands.’ We strolled up and down King Street in the spitting rain, my hair falling wet and flat across my face, water dripping from my nose. Perhaps it was my appearance that sealed our fate — a drowned rat would’ve looked younger.
On our first attempt to enter a nightclub (a place called Brown Alley) we were greeted by stony glares and folded arms. A big guy dressed all in black approached me, asked if we were on the guest list, to which we replied a blatant no. Then we were informed that we were in the wrong line. “This line is for a private function. General entry is in that line,” he said, pointing to the line opposite. We course corrected and were immediately gobbled up by a crowd of teens and twenty somethings. Upon reaching the roped entrance we were scanned by yet another ominous sentry. “Not you two,” he said in a low muscular drawl.
I stood my ground. “Why not us?”
He gestured for us to leave the line. “You’re not on the guest list.”
A blatant lie.
“Well … how do we get on the guest list?” I asked, some edge in my tone.
“Invite only. You need to book, gotta be V.I.P,” he said.
I am very important I wanted to declare, but instead I came back with something just as antagonizing. “Is this because we’re not sixteen?”
All at once we found ourselves surrounded by three immovable slabs of meat. The one I was failing to parlay with told us to step out of the line, said something about us causing a scene — and I thought it was just simple discourse. Then I uttered a word that really stirred the broth: discrimination. He thrust his chest out like a gorilla marking his turf. I could almost smell the testosterone in the air — a mix of wet asphalt and pepper. “Whatcha gonna do mate, call the police? Go ahead call ’em, see if they fuckin’ care,” he barked.
I never mentioned police or intended provocation. I didn’t realize a simple conversation could evoke such hostility. I also never asked to be dragged into a back alley, howling and kicking like a fresh catch. I never asked to be beaten and tossed to the curb, the rain washing away the blood from my pummeled face, Tom desperately wiping the spit from his phone to dial an ambulance — at least that’s what was playing through my mind as Tom tugged at my arm and said: let’s go, let’s just go. I suppose it was a trigger, the cocking of a gun. It was true, I wasn’t a young man anymore. But did that denote a proverbial kick in the teeth?
Have I reached the age of the social outcast and haven’t yet realized it? Am I obsolete?
Every club after this was a similar experience (though not as hostile as Brown Alley). It was as if all the bouncers along King Street had texted through the same codes: birthday event, private function, V.I.P function, guest list, invite only. Finally one bouncer shot us a look of both pity and sympathy and suggested The Waterside Hotel — told us it doubled as a nightclub for all ages. I gave him an equivocal glare and he shot me a look that said: yes, even social outcasts can get in. Our destination was secured and my anxiety primed.
My eyes are still closed, but I’m experiencing what can only be described as sleep paralysis — a suffocation that arises from the invasion of one’s personal space. The only difference is, I’m awake. In moments such as these I try to imagine holiday destinations like Thailand: basking under the balmy weather, sipping on a cocktail — but it doesn’t work. You see, fear is like an old friend, just one you don’t invite to parties. Fear is not a singular sensory experience, like a pain receptor in your finger — rather, it’s ubiquitous, like a brain full of insects; a head full of southern meat ants that devour everything in sight. When I open my eyes I’m sure everyone will be glaring at me — their hands covering their mouths, arms akimbo, shaking their heads, gasping and muttering words like: unbelievable, embarrassing, pathetic, old. So I don’t open them, not yet.
Maybe I can navigate my way to the bar, like a blind person … feeling my way through the fear.
When you have agoraphobia one thing quickly becomes apparent: you need people to be far away from you or the entire universe will collapse in on itself — your own personal Big Bang. I recall the day I had my first panic attack …
It was 1999 and I was riding a bus to the city. It was nothing out of the ordinary. I was just watching the passing scenery in a trance, like washing in a dryer — when all at once something felt wrong. It started as a gnawing in my stomach, my throat felt parched and narrow and the space around me — the meters, centimeters, millimeters — began to compress and I found myself caught between a pair of shoulder pads and a stranger’s armpit. Only then did the fear arrive. First, a stirring in the blood. Then, a series of short shallow breaths. Until finally, my heart wound up to a gallop and panic took control. Then came my screams: stop the bus, stop the bus! Passengers gawked at me, spoke words I couldn’t make out as I barged through them, my only thoughts being: where the hell is the exit and I need air. The bus finally stopped and I stumbled off gasping for breath, clutching at my chest in the middle of some imaginary suburbia.
I saw a doctor shortly after my first attack. He handed me some pamphlets and instructed me to try some breathing exercises — said it might help reduce the likelihood of another panic attack, but there was no guarantee. Is there ever?
I wanted to know how it all began, how I’d become frightened of the mundane, terrified of everyday people.
He informed me that each phobia was unique and triggered by some latent indelible fear. “When you were a child did your mother ever abandon you?” he asked. No, of course not. And then I remembered how my dad once, mistakenly, dumped me on the wrong bus. Instead of being delivered safely to school, I endured a solitary journey through the urban sprawl of the city. I was only six years old at the time and far too mousy to talk to strangers — so much so that I failed to seek help. Instead, I wandered the city alone before a group of people discovered me sobbing in the crouch position and notified the police.
I never told the doctor that story. I don’t know why. Perhaps I didn’t want to believe that my panic attacks truly stemmed from childhood. It just seemed too obvious, so ridiculously Freudian or something. He said something like: try to avoid busy crowds, things that might spike your anxiety. Nowadays they tell you to face your fears, they call it exposure — people who confront their phobias one step at a time. But even the most sensitive person can have trouble crossing an intersection.
When I open my eyes I’m immediately greeted by a young woman’s glare. She has blonde hair that falls straight to her shoulders and is dressed in what can only be described as a black faux–leather onesie — she’s just missing the devil horns. Nonetheless, she studies me like some dizzy marsupial before twirling around so her back’s facing me. It’s subtle — but clearly a rejection. I don’t blame her. I’ve made several disco faux pas since being here. It’s no wonder. I have no dance floor etiquette and move like some dysfunctional automaton — scissor hands slicing at the air, yet somehow barely kinetic. I’m the non-collectable action figure left in the center of the room that nobody wants to play with. And now the sweat is pouring from me and I’m afraid it will cause some youngster to slip and break their iPhone. There’s that word again: afraid. This emotion has clearly been overstated, fused with social blunders and indiscretions.
Suddenly a girl in a wine colored smock crashes into the back of me. ‘Sorry man … you OK?’ she winks and laughs, her eyes gleaming. Then she transforms her arms into two pythons, locking her gaze, a grin shifting across her face. She’s the kind of girl I would chat up in a parallel dimension, but in this one I’m about sixteen years older. And when squeezed between a dozen youths, anyone over the age of thirty is going to resemble some kind of parent figure — a hierarchy that doesn’t belong here, and nor should it.
I try to tell myself … this is sacred ground, equal footing, yet my brain can’t help but crunch the numbers: 18, 21, 26, 31, 36, 46 …
Perhaps it’s the presence of the girl — her devil-may-care smile, the way she shakes her head as if to say: you really need to relax dude. And so I try. Or at least I feel something shift … and my brain begins to slow. Now I can actually hear the music: the wobble of the bass, the thud of the beat rippling through my bones. I’m still in the wrong place: a man out of time, out of his depths—and so what. As soon as we’re born we’re out of our depths, doggie-paddling towards the inevitable.
But I didn’t come here to demystify the age crisis (a subsidiary fear). I came here to face my social anxiety, to see if I had what it takes. And what does it take? Surely we must reach an age when status and image cease to govern our social lives — when things like panic attacks and agoraphobia no longer take precedence over our right to simply exist. Perhaps this is the face of fear — that we never really graduate into the ideal human beings we imagine others to be.
We’re all on the dance floor and nobody really has the perfect move, or nonpareil fashion sense, or a first-class face, or is ever the prime age.
I think of all the years I’ve lived and I’m hit with a single truth: I’ve done this already. I was one of these kids — I was just shorter and carried a Walkman, swapped Blur and Smashing Pumpkin tapes with my friends. But no matter, I once danced like them, albeit more awkwardly and to better music. I lived my beautiful and capricious youth in a whirlwind, as they are living theirs now — in all its ephemeral charm.
There’s a place beyond the fear— where the very act of being alive is ample enough reason to careen in a crowd or catch public transport. We each have a need to belong, but that inclusion must begin with a little raw exposure. In fact, facing your fears may be a prerequisite for living a long and healthy life. I smile back at the girl in the red smock. A small connection is sometimes enough to remind us, we’re of the same stock … the same species after all. I place a finger over my wrist and count my pulse.
I’m better than fine. And the fear? Maybe it’s jumped on the wrong bus and is heading out of town. At least for the moment.
Why Haruki Murakami is so Very Japanese
by Jakob Ryce / 5th June, 2018
Haruki Murakami belongs to a new generation of contemporary authors who speak to the eclectic, progressive spirit of Japan, often communicating his theories through popular magazines and resisting traditional literary labels, such as ‘jun bungaku, pure literature, opting instead for the Anglicism fuikkushon, fiction’ (Stretcher 1998). And this indifference with the Japanese literary establishment has sparked debate if this is Murakami’s rejection ‘of literature as “art” in the contemporary period’ (Stretcher 1998).
Murakami’s writing style lives in the present and is uncluttered by hyperbolic descriptions; a minimalist who embraces the Japanese concept of Kanso – avoiding accentuation to allow room for simplicity. Comparatively, his writing often features English expressions, which are translated back into Japanese. ‘Murakami writes in Japanese, but his writing is not really Japanese. If you translate it into American English, it can be read very naturally in New York’ (Stretcher 1998).
Nonetheless, the ‘internationality’ and transparency of his writing style has created broad appeal. David Mitchell calls Murakami ‘the world’s best-known living Japanese novelist’ (Mitchell 2005). A fair statement, when considering his novels have been translated into over 50 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide, making him one of Japan’s most recognisable postmodern writers.
However, for all his Western influences, there are elements of fantasy, magical realism and Japanese mythology at work. This essay will examine the Japanese themes and influences in Kafka on the Shore, and how Shintoism acts as an important cultural anchor in Murakami’s novel.
Loners, Ghosts & Transformations
In Murakami’s stories, his first-person protagonists often experience the mundane—however, they tend to observe life with a minimalist, hyper-aware worldview. His character’s feel closer to reality (and are more relatable) than the stereotypical Hollywood heroes of Western culture. Furthermore, they are often loners who are dealing with some form of loss, or suffering from a loss of identity. A.T Lai postulates this may be ‘caused by an absence of “idealism” and any source of self-fulfilment, is further severed by a loss of connection with the past, including the nation’s cultural past’ (Lai 2007).
In Kafka on the Shore, Kafka Tamura’s motivation to run away from home – to find his sister and mother, and shake an Oedipal curse – is also a desire to transform, as he explains to Oshima: ‘I don’t like the container I’m stuck in. Never have. I hate it’ (Murakami 2006, p. 286).
Recurring themes of transformation are woven throughout the story, as are interrelated conditions – such as depression spawned from abuse, and a desire to reclaim lost innocence. ‘A lot of things were stolen from my childhood … and now I have to get them back’ (Murakami 2006, p. 343).
Furthermore, there is a fragmentation occurring within particular characters – a disassociation of self – as they come to terms with their own existential struggles and often violent natures. For instance, Nakata speaks in the third person as if he inhabits a body without a fixed character, it’s ‘as if his soul had fled but never returned’ (Wirth 2018). Hence, how Shintoism, as a sense of emptiness, is used here – not by rejecting it, but by assimilating it. ‘The body shapes the formless self in new ways, but when the body is traumatised, it can congeal into the wound of an unchanging self’ (Wirth 2018).
Likewise, the transformation can be negative. Kafka’s father (who is never explicitly seen) re-invents himself as the cat-killer and calls himself ‘Johnnie Walker,’ and by doing this he ‘transforms himself into a commercial icon, a symbol of globalisation’ (Lai 2007). And probably the most overt use of transformation is that of Oshima, a transgender who confesses: ‘I’m not crazy about the container I’m in, that’s for sure’ (Murakami 2006, p. 267). The word ‘container’ is repeated throughout – as a detachment of the body from the self.
In addition to transformation, there is also the theme of abduction surrounding the UFO incident in the rice bowl, 1944. All the children wake with no memory of the event and are unchanged, all but Nakata, being … ‘dumb ever since. Nakata can’t write or read a book …’ (Murakami 2006, p. 49).
J.M Wirth believes this has a historical connection to Japanese ghost stories, rather than aliens. ‘In addition to the ghosts of the dead, the shiryō, there is a history, going back at least to the early 11th century and Genji Monogatari, of ikiryō, living ghosts’ (Wirth 2018). This theory can be reinterpreted in Kafka’s eventual Shugendō journey into the forest of ghosts, as ‘Murakami allows us to distinguish the traumatised hollow character from the healing emptiness of the self’ (Wirth 2018).
Shintoism and Guides
Murakami’s work is said to have more comparisons to Raymond Carver and Jack Kerouac than his Japanese predecessors, and C. W Barr even believes his characters are devoid of traditional roots. ‘Mr. Murakami’s characters, culturally at least, are citizens of the world. They may be Japanese, but … these characters remove themselves from Japan, in spirit if not in body’ (Barr 2009).
While Murakami’s western influences are certainly apparent, I believe they are at their root, postmodern aesthetics (repurposing names like Johnny Walker, music of the Archduke Trio, etc) and his murder mysteries unfold more like Lynchian dreamworlds … ‘even when he clearly appropriates the hard-boiled detective framework. The postmodern landscape that Murakami creates is rich with questionable realities, and rests upon the superimposition of a fantasy world onto a more mimetic one’ (Stretcher 1998).
Throughout Kafka on the Shore, there is a deeply consistent flow of Japanese beliefs, practices and mythology, that derive from Shintoism. And not surprisingly, Murakami’s father was the son of a Buddhist priest and both his parents taught Japanese literature. ‘Murakami has often spoken of the theme of two dimensions, or realities, in his work: a normal, beautifully evoked everyday world, and a weirder supernatural realm’ (Poole 2014, para. 7).
However, the supernatural elements in Murakami’s works seem to serve the extraordinary in ordinary people, offering readers a personal perspective. ‘Shinto does not strictly divide the world between material and spiritual, nor between this world and an alternative perfect realm, but instead emphasises that intuitive spirituality facilitates the fusion and equilibrium of all realms’ (Wright, Clode 2005).
The communication with animals and spirit guides also connect back to early Shinto roots. However ‘Murakami uses animals as an emblem of selfhood, human-animal hybrids as manifestations of the fragmented self’ (Lai 2007). This supernatural alliance is well illustrated in ‘the boy named Crow’ who is really Kafka’s metaphysical alter-ego. ‘Crow’ acts as a guide in his journey, providing rationale during critical moments in the story. ‘This storm isn’t something that blew in from far away … this storm is you. Something inside you’ (Murakami 2006, p. 3).
The theme of self-knowledge is integral to characters within stories of Shintoism, both in Murakami’s novels and the films of anime director, Hayao Miyazaki, where young (often strong female) characters are guided by forest spirits, such as in My Neighbour Totoro (1988) where we see the altruistic relationship between two young girls and a furry woodland kami (Totoro) who offers guidance and a tangible experience with nature, while their mother is ill. ‘Shinto is deeply connected to the Japanese landscape. Awe-inspiring aspects of the natural world are seen to possess kami, or gods’ (Wright, Clode 2005).
Cats also play an important role in Japanese culture and are known to bring good luck. Niigata Prefecture is a mythical cat-like creature from Japanese folktales, and there are a number of shrines and temples dedicated to cats throughout the country (Japan Today 2014, para. 6).
Moreover, cats are featured throughout anime as supernatural, Shinto inspired, guides (The Cat Returns 2002, Kiki’s Delivery Service 1989) further annealing the ‘hybrid Japanese modern myth’ (Wright, Clode 2005).
In the novel, Nakata has the extraordinary ability to talk to cats – and just as Otsuka acts as his guide, he acts as their finder and protector. ‘He’d stabbed Johnny Walker – the cat killer – to death … he could still feel the knife in his hands. It wasn’t a dream’ (Murakami 2006, p. 176).
In closing, Haruki Murakami derives many influences from Western culture, philosophy and literature, but is not bound by them, and while he may not openly admit it, his writing is deeply rooted in Japanese mythology and Shintoism. His stories include portals to other realms, animal and human metamorphosis, which Lai describes as ‘becoming-animal’ (Lai 2007), and his characters must often overcome ‘spiritual’ conquests.
Nevertheless, I don’t believe Murakami consciously sets out to create a mythos. ‘I don’t think I worried about whether existing types of works would go on existing, so long as I could write what I wanted, how I wanted’ (Stretcher 1998).
Murakami openly admits that Kafka on the Shore contains riddles and no solutions (Wirth 2018). Is Mrs Saeki really Kafka’s mother? Is Sakura really his sister? It’s a novel full of mythic motifs and symbolism that requires the reader’s own interpretation, and the author seems to thrive on both tantalising and bewildering his audience. ‘If a certain kind of secret stays secret, it’s a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it’ (Poole 2014, para. 2).
Perhaps Murakami’s global popularity can be attributed to the fact that he has found a symmetry between Western and Eastern literary traditions, and more importantly, his characters wrestle with the human condition; the Murakami paradigm of sex, violence, loss and the nature of self – all concocted in the mind of a writer who ‘enables us to see that this edge—precariously practiced, always risky—is the source of mindful self-awareness’ (Wirth 2018).
Finally, if Kafka on the Shore can teach us anything, it is the importance of the transformation of self, for ‘when nothing can change, imagination is impossible—there will be no new forms’ (Wirth 2018).
Murakami, Haruki, 2014, Kafka on the Shore, Vintage/Random House, London, United Kingdom
Strecher, M. (1998). Beyond “Pure” Literature: Mimesis, Formula, and the Postmodern in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki. The Journal of Asian Studies,57(2), 354-378. doi:10.2307/2658828
Barr, C. W. (1997, Jul 09). An author’s midlife search for self and nation haruki murakami, japan’s most famous expatriate novelist, comes home.The Christian Science Monitor Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/405626011?accountid=14205
Takagi, C. (2010). Third space wonderland and the end of the modern: representation of Tokyo in the works of Murakami Haruki. Southeast Review of Asian Studies, 32, 193+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/apps/doc/A293544446/AONE?u=swinburne1&sid=AONE&xid=b840164c
Lai, A. T. (2007). Memory, hybridity, and creative alliance in haruki murakami’s fiction.Mosaic : A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 40(1), 163-179. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/205370469?accountid=14205
Wirth, J. M. (2018). The Self without Character: Melville’s The Confidence-Man and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore: Humanities, 01 March 2018, Vol.7(1), p.25. Retrieved from https://doaj.org/article/6f4a5604ff6048269735c866f559cbd0
Wright, L, Clode, J, 2005, ‘The Animated Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki: Filmic Representations of Shinto’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no. 143, pp. 46-51
My Neighbour Totoro, 1988, animated film, Studio Ghibli, Tokyo, Japan
Steven Poole, 2014, Haruki Murakami: ‘I’m an outcast of the Japanese literary world’, The Guardian, 13th September 2014, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/13/haruki-murakami-interview-colorless-tsukur-tazaki-and-his-years-of-pilgrimage>.
David Mitchell, 2005, Kill me or the cat gets it, The Guardian, 8th January 2005, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jan/08/fiction.harukimurakami>.
Casey Baseel, 2014, 9 places where cat lovers in Japan can step up their devotion to worship, Japan Today, 3rd February 2014, <http://www.japantoday.com/category/arts-culture/view/9-places-where-cat-lovers-in-japan-can-step-up-their-devotion-to-worship>.
Fahrenheit 451 & Bradbury’s Foresight of Fire
by Jakob Ryce / 28th April 2018
In Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury creates a hedonistic society that thrives on ignorance, is dependent on technology and constantly distracted by ‘TV parlours’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 31). It’s a novel that’s shockingly prophetic and its concepts go far beyond the author’s own imaginings.
Free-thinkers, or individuals in possession of literature, are seen as a threat to peace, as books ‘… are thought only to lead to political and social idealism, which in turn leads to dissent, unrest and unhappiness’ (Rutten, Kris 2011).
But what can we learn about our contemporary society from novels such as Fahrenheit 451? Do our social values and cultural practices mimic literature or is it the other way around? ‘Who is predicting this future? From what perspective is this future imagined?’ (Rutten, Soetaert & Vandermeersche 2011). This essay will attempt to analyse how digital distractions connect to social and cultural commentaries found in Bradbury’s classic story.
One crucial issue in the novel is society’s dependency and obsession with television – a foresight and a warning that has gone relatively unnoticed, as we rocket towards digital oblivion and endless streaming.
In the novel, Montag’s wife seems to be void of free will. Millie reflects our entire modern culture: obsessed with her ‘three-wall television’, reality TV, known as ‘The Family’ and dependent on her devices; going to bed wearing her Bluetooth ear-buds, described as ‘Seashell ear thimbles’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 30). She is caught in a perpetual loop of digital distraction – ignorant to her surroundings, even when her husband begins hiding books in their home. Moreover, there is a sickness at the root of Millie that she’s not aware of – she self medicates and is completely nescient to the cause of her self destruction. In addition, Millie represents the superficiality of modern culture, as she avoids any real issues, escaping to her TV parlour – a mirror that our own solipsist society is so drawn to: our screens.
What Millie and the rest of society is distracted by is equally important. Bradbury may have been inspired by post-war Nazi Germany (burning of books by the Third Reich), the McCarthy period, censorship and the rise of television (a cultural phenomenon in the 1950s), but it’s possible his novel is even more culturally appropriate today than ever before (Bradbury, Ray 1953 [Afterword] p. 180, 183).
How does a writer forecast reality TV in 1953? In the ‘Golden Age of Television’ producers looked to radio shows and plays to inspire them and viewers were treated to situation comedies and variety shows. Perhaps it was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a sitcom that stared the ‘real life’ Nelson family that inspired Bradbury—however, ‘The Family’ feels far more like a contemporary distraction. ‘He saw her leaning toward the great shimmering walls of colour and motion where the family talked to her … prattled and chatted and said her name and smiled at her and said nothing of the bomb …’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 168).
And while we may not live in a ‘utopian’ society that completely avoids (or denies) reality, we are encouraged to do just that. Individuals are streaming more content than ever before. According to Statista, Netflix reached 125 million subscribers by March 2018 and plans to create 80 movies in 2018 (Statista 2018). Society is subjected to an overflow of information (and misinformation) on a daily basis – the act of making a choice seems almost futile – and it is this same fear that drives Captain Beatty. ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him… give him one. Better yet, give him none … cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed … then they’ll feel they’re thinking’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 73).
Furthermore, Millie is oblivious of the impending war and defends her TV obsession to her husband. ‘My family is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colours!’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 83). We depend on our TV shows just as much as Millie depends on The Family and live telecasts. According to Nielsen data (Business Insider 2017) Game of Thrones, Season 7 finale set a ratings record of 16.5 million viewers. These characters are family – we know them, we love them, we never want them to die—and if they do, they must be resurrected.
And the colours … Ultra HD 4K TV manufactures now pride themselves on ‘colour realism’. The word realistic has become a marketing pitch. With each generation device (smart-TV, smartphone, tablet) we expect X-times more pixels … X-times more ‘reality’.
Another theme Bradbury raises is one of control. In such a digitally dependent society, where more than 2 billion people own smartphones, with the average user checking their phone up to 85 times a day … who has control: the device or the user? (Andrews, et al. 2015).
Recent studies suggest young people are at risk of obsessive-like behaviours and have a lack of impulse control, often experiencing severe anxiety if they’re unable to access their smartphone. Sociologist Hugh Mackay defines this as ‘social fragmentation’. ‘We are a society in the grip of epidemics of anxiety, obesity and depression — 20% of Australians experience some form of mental illness’ (The Conversation 2017, para 8).
In the novel, the character Faber admits that books aren’t real, but they do offer us the element of control, whereas digital media devices do not. ‘You can shut them, say “hold on a moment”. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlour? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 166).
Video games have become so real that to many gamers, they are ‘the truth’ – and as virtual reality looms, we might stop to consider if it will one day become homologous with the real world around us. Will people prefer to strap on their VR goggles than actually visit Paris; will the virtual world trump the real one? And if so, will we have the power to free ourselves from its claws? ‘You’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall televisor. Why? The televisor is real, it is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think … your mind hasn’t time to protest’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 94).
And yet, the writer hints at a way out of the cycle. His message is clear: all things must return to reality, to their natural order, as the character Faber points out: ‘Somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 165).
More importantly, Bradbury asks us to look at our true selves: ‘Build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors … and take a long look in them’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p. 164). And this metaphorical mirror serves a thematic purpose throughout the novel as McGiveron suggests: ‘Through the self-examination it makes possible can people recognise their own shortcomings’ (McGiveron, Rafeeq O. 2010).
Comparatively, our society is being reconditioned through social media – perhaps the most distorted mirror of all. ‘The increasing reliance on, and interaction with, a digital interface … is rewriting our brains’ (Jalt 2013). We see ourselves (and others) through a mirror every time we post a photo on Instagram or browse a Facebook profile. We project an image of consistent fabrication – perpetuated by the capitalist motives of corporations, thriving on the exploitation of private data and monitoring consumer habits. ‘Users and their data become commodities, characterised by alienation (users do not own the platform, the contents or the profits)’ (Bekken, Jon 2017).
Moreover, Bradbury clearly acknowledges the dangers of digital distraction: ‘You don’t have to burn books … if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners …’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953 [Afterword] p. 183).
At the same time, social media is used as a protest tool. A tweet is now synonymous with having a ‘voice’, and Twitter has allowed movements such as #metoo to exist; topics (such as sexual harassment, pay equality and other civil rights movements) have become buzzwords that quickly gain traction.
In the novel, Captain Beatty is in denial of his own truth – he reads books, memorises quotes and even resents the system he’s a part of, and yet his single-mindedness prevents him from joining Montag and the ‘book people’ in their plight—nonetheless, Beatty is inadvertently rebelling. ‘Reading literature is presented as a protest, a revolutionary act or even a way of life’ (Rutten, Kris 2011).
Fahrenheit 451 asks us to look at society and consider the dangers we may face as we allow technology to consume our lives. And as Sunjoo Lee points out: it is a book that ‘… seeks to rescue the senses as a vital organ for thinking’ (Lee, Sunjoo 2014).
Ultimately, it is a novel that forces us to consider the virtues of creation and the temptations of erasing and replacing. Perhaps it is fire that has always been society’s pandora’s box, as Beatty points out: ‘… the one thing man wanted to invent but never did … if you let it go on, it’d burn our entire lifetimes out … it’s real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953, p.138). We have stolen fire from the Gods and perhaps we are flying a little too close to the sun. But Bradbury does offer hope – we must stay informed. ‘All is not lost. There is time … if we truly test teachers, students and parents … if we make everyone responsible for quality’ (Bradbury, Ray 1953 [Afterword] p. 184).
Bradbury, Ray 1953, Fahrenheit 451, Harper Collins, London
Rutten, Kris; Soetaert, Ronald; and Vandermeersche, Geert. “Science Fiction and a Rhetorical Analysis of the ‘Literature Myth’.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 13.1 (2011): <https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.1709>
Sunjoo Lee (2014) To Be Shocked to Life Again: Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451, The Explicator, 72:2, 142-145, DOI: 10.1080/00144940.2014.905433
Rafeeq O. McGiveron (2010) “To Build a Mirror Factory”: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 39:3, 282-287, DOI: 10.1080/00111619809599536
Bekken, Jon (2017 Book Review: Critique, Social Media and the Information Society by Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval, eds
Andrews, Sally & A Ellis, David & Shaw, Heather & Piwek, Lukasz. (2015). Beyond Self-Report: Tools to Compare Estimated and Real-World Smartphone Use. PloS one. 10. e0139004. 10.1371/journal.pone.0139004.
Richter, Felix 2018 <www.statista.com/chart/10311/netflix-subscriptions-usa-international>.
Sherman, Kristen 2013, Plenary Speaker: *How Social Media Changes Our thinking* <www.jalt-publications.org/tlt>.
Lynch, John 2017 <www.businessinsider.com.au/game-of-thrones-season-7-finale-broke-ratings-record-2017-8?r=US&IR=T>.
The Mirror of Young Adult Fiction
by Jakob Ryce
by Jakob Ryce / 24rd October, 2017
Young Adult literature has become synonymous with young heroes or heroines. Stories of young people forced into a quest to overcome the odds or face tyrannical forces, often to achieve some form of liberation from the confines of their society or environment. The origins of the genre are still debatable. Novels written for young people could arguably date back to the 1800s – when Sarah Trimmer defined ‘young adulthood’ as between the ages of 14 – 21 (Wikipedia, 2017). Books, such as ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838) or ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884) all had the hallmarks of books written for young people, yet were really about young people. According to Michael Cart ‘ … a case could be made that the first young adult novel was actually Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer, published in 1942 …’ Cart goes on to explain that this was an era when America began recognising adolescents as a separate generation (Cart, Michael 2001, p. 95). J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is often said to be the first true Young Adult classic, and perhaps was partially responsible for the genre gaining momentum in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, it was in the 1960s when the Young Adult Library Services Association decided to market novels of the era (considered suitable for ages between 12-18) and the Young Adult genre found its solidity (Strickland, Ashley 2015). In the The Outsiders, S. E Hinton gives readers a peek into the hardened life of a social outcast. It connected to young people in a direct, authentic way: with its adolescent tones and gritty themes. Moreover, many readers were unaware that Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the book during high school, or that she was even a woman. Caren J. Town states ‘ … the novel retains the capacity to speak to young adults about masculinity, identity, and the economic forces that drive our society.’ Town describes the book as a ‘landmark event’ that captured audiences with its poignancy, rogue characters and desolation (Town, Caren J. 2015, p. 15). Over the next decade YA novels branched out to become more direct: tackling mature themes of love, betrayal, alienation and desolation. If we consider the natural evolution of society and culture since the early twentieth century, including environmental shifts, then the metamorphosis of archetypes within literature is simply a part of that change. Therefore, each young generation (of the time) can look to Young Adult literature as a mirror of their own lives, and thus, help establish a sense of identity within society.
Quite often Young Adult fiction will depict a character’s journey from deprivation, or hegemonic oppression, to resolution. The result can be either overly dystopian or naturalistic – conveying a series of complex emotions or modes. Independence and maternal instincts play a large role in The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen has been thrust into adulthood by her environment – having to fend for her broken mother and little sister Prim. The roles have been reversed here, and perhaps for the best. ‘It is the women’s daughters, in fact, who are perceived to be more successful at retaining female agency in the face of social oppression …’ (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 96). We can see this reflected in real-life circumstances – the teenage child forced to become the patriarchal nurse, or the child-become-mother scenario: providing for their young siblings within divorces. Nonetheless, Katniss’ resentment at her mother’s depression is also indicative of her anger towards her own seceded and resigned District – a disembodied social hierarchy imposed by the Capitol (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 96). ‘All I can see is the woman who sat by, blank and unreadable, while her children turned to skin and bones’ (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 16).
Furthermore, it is irrelevant if Katniss is oblivious (or not) as to where her repressed anger towards her mother truly stems from, because it is in turn a vehicle for her eventual quest, as Alice Curry points out: ‘Katniss can more successfully undertake her heroic quest if she herself remains unmarred by any inclination towards care-giving’ (Curry, Alice 2013, p. 97). One could argue, that her mother represents her own maternal failure as a woman, and she must reshape society in order to reclaim her own humanity. A maternal overtone lingers in her inner dialogue: ‘They’re not our kids of course, but they might as well be … and you may as well throw in our mothers … how would they live without us?’ Nevertheless, Katniss tells Gale that she never wants children, and the idea that he does seems to embitter her (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 17,18). This is another highlight by the author that Katniss (although has repressed maternal desires) begins powerless and resentful: an archetype of the angst-ridden teen on the edge of rebellion against their own indoctrination – school, family, society or media-glossed (false) role models.
Adolescents internalising their thoughts, feelings or fears – to then eventually find their voice – is one of the most important aspects of growing up, and is masterfully executed in The Hunger Games. Fear is a state of being that all teenagers can identify with. The lack of self expression – a young person being whittled down to polite small talk, head arched over their dinner plate, for fear of their father’s (or mother’s) wrath – is immediately relatable. Collins understands this, yet instead of the disciplinary parent figure or a democratic government, we have the Capitol. The Capitol will do all it can to control the Districts, and the foreboding games represent that authority. Furthermore, history teaches us that fear tactics are effective: from Nazi Germany, where people lived and died under the Third Reich, to Stalin and his Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. Could the totalitarian Government of Panem be a chance for the author to re-educate a new generation of young readers? Perhaps, and consequently more accessible (education as entertainment) for mild academics. The Capitol are not hiding the fact that they use fear tactics, and this media manipulation keeps the masses in line. Collins is aware of her audience, and that nowadays, teenagers no longer receive or respond to the corporal punishments of the past. In today’s world, young people fear online (public) humiliation – for instance: teenage suicides in relation to cyber bullying (via social media) have become common knowledge. The Capitol exploits this fear, through the manipulation and sacrifice of teenage lives, as it attempts to stamp out rebellious autonomy.
The author also uses boundaries as a device. For example, the fences are only electrified at certain points of the day, when they are given the luxury of electricity. But the price of survival seems barely worth it: ‘District 12. Where you can starve to death in safety …’ Katniss says, and checks if she has been overheard (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 12). Additionally, when considering the nature of control, there are some comparisons to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four — and although the citizens of Panem are not forced to adapt their language, like Newspeak, they have certainly lost their free will. Winston is arrested for thoughtcrime; whereas Katniss is silenced through the suffering of others – especially the more she becomes a symbol of freedom for the districts. Katniss initially expresses this oppression internally, and young readers may secretly begin to conspire with her – owing to the first-person style of the narrative, which allows for a more intimate experience. Collins uses this close lens effectively – so we can glimpse into the character’s past, and consider the consequences that can come from ‘blurting out’ the truth. ‘I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts’ (Collins, Susanne 2008, p. 13).
The Capitol also takes advantage of technology (and adjusts the rules at their leisure), both in the games and real life (guards with machine guns, ships, weapons, monitoring) to enforce their trepidation. In the era of contemporary dystopian fiction, it is technology that we should really fear, as Lisa Kerr points out: ‘As technology allows for a vast number of scientific advances, the literature of our world continues to ponder the dangers inherent in our ever increasing ability to play god’ (Kerr, Lisa 2013, p. 1). It is only when the Capitol lose their dominion over technology, that the rebellion can begin to flourish.
Overall, The Hunger Games offers a postmodern look at media manipulation, Government oppression, and an enforced diversion from childhood into adulthood – and the emotional turmoil such an evolution encompasses. Iris G. Shepard states: ‘Children hold a unique position as a marginalised group because unlike other marginalised populations like racial minorities and women, children literally grow out of their marginalised status into adulthood’ (Iris G, Shepard 2012, p. 2). Shepard raises an interesting point, and when reflecting on Katniss’ character arc in the story, we see this clearly at work. An array of themes, such as: devotion, trust, courage, self discipline, alienation, survival and unconditional love, are all at the heart of the story— nevertheless, the abolition of childhood could be the most profound theme at work here (consider Rue, who is killed at age 12). The adolescent reader is also Katniss, and they are learning to survive in a world which is simply an inversion of Panem. There are no wars being fought on their doorsteps, however, there are internal battles raging away on a daily basis (and within the family unit) – something that Susanne Collins profoundly acknowledges, respects and executes precisely within her novel.
Collins, Susanne, 2008, The Hunger Games, Scholastic, U.S.A
Kerr, L. (2009). Frankenstein’s children: Ethics, experimentation, and free will in futuristic young adult fiction. ALAN Review, 36(3), 28-34. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/212202870?accountid=14205
Strickland, Ashley, 2015, a brief history of adult literature, CNN, April 15, 2015, <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/15/living/young-adult-fiction-evolution>.
Cart, M. (2001). From insider to outsider: The evolution of young adult literature. Voices from the Middle, 9(2), 95-97. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/213935081?accountid=14205
Town, Caren J.. Unsuitable Books: Young Adult Fiction and Censorship, 15-16, McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/swin/detail.action?docID=1743808.
Curry, Alice: Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction, 96-97, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature book series (CRACL), Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013. Springer Link, https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/10.1057/9781137270115
Shepard, Iris Grace, ‘Ideology in Popular Late Twentieth and Twenty-. First Century Children’s and Young Adult. Literature and Film’ (2012), p 2. Theses and Dissertations. 557. http://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/557
Originally sourced through ProQuest (via Swinburne library) and now unavailable
Wikipedia contributors, ‘Young adult fiction’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 October 2017, 23:29 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Young_adult_fiction&oldid=806584317>