"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Eng. 252: Wrapping up Star of the Sea

It's a rainy Saturday morning in Lincoln and we've got one week left to go in our semester.  I'm not sure which of these makes my Assam taste better, putting me back in Galway on a day when the air is so wet but not raining.  I have a lot to do this weekend, with my own rhetoric class as well as the classes that I'm teaching, but right now, I'm wrapped in all kinds of things that are just more fun.

It's been an exciting 24-hours in terms of our collaborative wiki project (click here to see what's going on!).  My fiction class finished talking about the novel last week and this week, we've been working on putting together the master document for the wiki (ours will be posted tonight; Dawn's class will post tomorrow).  Dawn's class finished talking about the novel yesterday.  But in addition to the really cool things that our students have been posting, two other major things happened:  Joseph O'Connor, the author, wrote yesterday to answer the questions that my students had posted for him (I confess that I was very worried that he would not do so (or do so in time), after agreeing to earlier in the semester)--but he did and I can't wait to talk to my students about what he said.  Click here for that "interview."  But here's a sampling:

Q: What was the hardest part about writing the novel?
A: Finding an architecture that would work. I think the challenge of art is to make what is difficult look easy. I wanted to make Star of the Sea, which is a very complicated story, a page turner. To that end, I used some of the techniques of Victorian fiction: cliff-hangers, chapter headings, illustrations, melodrama. My hope was that it would be a book that would work by a kind of osmosis, that the reader would absorb whatever it has to say about politics and history and sexuality without even noticing. One of my most beloved novels, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (mentioned in Star of the Sea) has a structure that is in fact extremely complicated, but the reader doesn’t notice. That book was a kind of household god to me when writing Star of the Sea.

Q: What made you decide to reveal both the murderer and his victim immediately, in terms of creating suspense and momentum? So, if the plot is no longer "who gets killed" and "who is the murderer," what do you see as driving the plot and the story?
A: The momentum of the ship’s journey. Some of my favorite novels are stories about journeys: As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, even The Catcher in the Rye. A journey always infuses a story with a kind of investment because we want to know at some fundamental level if the protagonist(s) ever make it to the destination. Think about some of the oldest and most lasting stories our culture possesses: the Greek myths, the bible stories, the Canterbury Tales, the Native American folktales. Life itself is a journey, a metaphor acknowledged by every form of storytelling from high literature to the popular song. 

Q: Pius Mulvey very much embodies music in this story. Are you yourself musically inclined, or did you seek music out to help develop his character?
A: I thought of each of the characters as having a sort of private sound track. It’s something I always do when constructing a character. I believe music is the highest art form, the only truly international language, and all prose should have musicality.

But this morning, the inimitable Dawan Duncan answered the questions that my students had posted for her (click here for that) and she gave some terrific insights into how she and her class approached the novel, what they talked about in terms of postmodernism, post colonialism, the role of the artist in society, and more.  Here's a sampling:

Q:  Are there any unusual observations your class is making in discussion that we aren't seeing on the wiki?
A:  Hmmm...probably quite a few. I have the advantage of reading their longer think pieces, which in the future might be what we want to place on the wiki. In class they make many more ties to what they have learned about postcolonialism (especially the ontological struggles) and to the hallmarks of postmodernism. I suppose the paragraphs get to these main points in some measure. We have also discussed the recurring theme in our class of the role of the artist, including what happens to the artistic nature that is kept from its true vocation (Pius Mulvey and David Merridith, perhaps even Dixon, though we question his artistry).

Q:  How do you find the reading experience differs from someone with an extensive knowledge on the time period and history within the novel, versus a new coming to Irish lit who has little to no knowledge of the historical background? And do you feel as though this difference is significant enough that it takes away from the story itself?
A:  While I recognize that the difference is significant, I do not think it takes away from the story. Rather, I would say that when I or Karen point something out in the text (how much land the Kingscourt's have, given the extended title; that the preacher at Verity's service is actually WB Yeats' grandfather, etc.), then the text gains richness. The novel is already so beautifully constructed and subtly layered that someone coming to it without extensive background knowledge can be pulled into the story and learn to want to understand even more about the characters. I would hope that a curious reader would also be drawn to do a bit of research into the context and certain aspects that interest them most.

Q:  In Ch 14, Dixon covers his hardships concerning his own writing and in this chapter there is a lot of mention of the aesthetic movement. On p. 120, Dixon makes reference to John Ruskin's "Modern Painter" as the ideal definition of art for the purpose of beauty and pleasure, and p. 127, there's mention of Laura as a love of the "aesthetics." I also noticed on our wiki page, under Duncan Class Essentials, you term postmodernism as "an attempt to retying a number of concepts held dear to Enlightenment humanism; also refers to the aesthetic/cultural products that treat and often critique aspects of postmodernity." I'm wondering how these specific references to the aesthetic movement reflects a postmodernism ideal?
A: This question is much tougher to answer without a deep study, or at least lecture, of artistic theory. I will say that I think there is irony at work here. The aesthetes, like Pater and Wilde, thought the goal of art should be to bring beauty to the world, that any message cannot be the motivating force for an artist (which is not to say that their work is devoid of such). Laura believes she can judge true artistry, yet the two men she marries are both flawed artists (David is good at landscape but idealizes the human portrait; Dixon wants to write fiction but writes more like a journalist) and both construct false images that they portray to the world. So how good can she be at judging truth and beauty? On the other hand, when we hear O'Connor speak of his work, we do hear hints of the aesthetic preference for beauty before message. He wants to write a ripping good story, first and foremost. But I cannot help but be fascinated by the embedded social commentary that comes through the story. I think he succeeds on the second point too, giving us something that rings true.

Q: What do you think the most interesting aspect of this novel is? (And what do your students think is most interesting, most fascinating, etc?) There is so much going on in my mind as I'm reading--it would be interesting to see what stands out for you as you, personally, are reading it.
A:  I cannot speak for my students since their own responses would vary. For me the most interesting aspect it its utter humanity. O'Connor has given us flawed characters but made us enter into their lives in such a way that we feel their pain and understand their motivations. He has also subtly shown how we are all responsible for caring for one another. I think the humanity of his vision, of this work, is remarkable.

Dawn and I are going to Skype later today and debrief each other, talk about the project, things that went well, things we'd change, and I'm just excited to talk to her about it in general.  Technology has proven to be an awesome thing for this project.  As I said, you'll want to check out the full interviews--and keep an eye on the wiki today and tomorrow for what our students will be posting as their final master documents.  And then by Friday, our students will be posting their reflections on the project and reflections are always fascinating to me.

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