Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  1

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Subversion:  Teaching a Blue Novel in a Red State


Jesse Kavadlo, Maryville University of St. Louis


Jesse Kavadlo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English and the author of Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief.



In an increasingly conservative climate, teachers may need to recognize that the potentially objectionable language and possibility of moral uncertainty in some novels contradict the clarity and conviction that some students expect from novels.  This essay focuses on the lessons that both I and my students learned about expectations, ethos, and ambiguity when we discussed and analyzed several contentious novels in a recent Honors course.



In the 1950s, when the State Department was investigated for closet “subversives,” the word suggested not just rebellion but sedition.  Today, English Departments also look for closet subversives, although the word’s connotation has been, perhaps appropriately, subverted—from high crime to high praise.  From stalwarts of subversion like J.D. Salinger and to secret subversives like Jane Austen, any author can—indeed, should—be read as subversive.  If it’s worth reading, it must be subversive.  If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing subversively.  But subversion can be complicated.


In 2000, as a doctoral candidate in English at a research institution in New York City, I taught my first course for literature majors, “Fiction: 1940-Present,” which I subtitled “Literature, Culture, Technology.”  “Technology” was used loosely, anything from bombs to the media, techno-consumer capitalism, and Western reason.  This was all exciting, heady, and of course, subversive stuff, with fiction ranging from Kurt Vonnegut and Don DeLillo to Octavia Butler and Kathy Acker.  We watched the films Blade Runner and the still-recent Fight Club, read Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, and Donna Haraway, and a charmingly subversive time was had by all.  In 2005, beginning a new job at a small, private school in a conservative Midwestern suburb, I got the chance to teach the course for a second time.  Five years later and a thousand miles over, despite the friendlier faces and warmer weather, I found that the political and academic climate far chillier.


Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, paired with the film Dr. Strangelove, went well enough, although a few students noted anti-American—did they mean “subversive”?—sentiments.  It wasn’t a compliment.  Instead of pursuing the point, though, we moved on to Vonnegut’s own witness of the firebombing of Dresden, the book’s Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis context, the remarkable and ironic invention of a lexicon, religion, history, and people, the Judeo-Christian imagery (coupled with a reading of the biblical Book of Jonah), the unreliable narration, and the original prose style and organization.  All in all, a job well done, I congratulated myself.


But then we read J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, which turned out to be an apt description of where the course went.  After the questions about Cat’s Cradle, I began with preemptive criticism, reading Martin Amis’s denunciation that Crash is “possibly the most extreme example in modern fiction of how beautifully and lovingly someone can write 70,000 words of vicious nonsense” (101).  But even if many students appreciated Ballard’s linguistic manipulations, his syntax as exquisite as his characters and conditions ugly, clearly some were upset.  In a response paper, one wrote that she could not finish the book and that it had affected her relationship with her husband.  Another could not read the book at all because he found it “morally offensive”—did he mean “subversive”?—but also because a relative had died in a head-on collision a few weeks earlier.[1] Still, much of our discussion was, in fact, riveting, maybe even more so than the first time I taught the course to like-minded, tough-minded urban sophisticates such as myself.  This time, I didn’t move on.  Instead, the book forced us to confront the uncomfortable, to ask questions that have grown remarkably unfashionable in our subversive literary culture, even more so than when Amis and others dismissed Crash upon publication: is the book immoral? Amoral?  What does the question even mean?  We trotted out Oscar Wilde’s old conversation ender from the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all” (3).  But that was not all: this dictum didn’t help the students, for clearly Crash is well written, superbly written, as each of its detractors has pointed out; however, even more clearly, its depictions are so graphic, so vivid, so disturbing, that it is also on shaky moral ground, and deliberately so.


And then, I realized, why would I want to avoid this discussion?  Instead, we used Wilde to consider how such a sexual, and violent, and sexually violent book could somehow be aesthetically competent, even disarmingly lovely.  What does the book say about the nightmarish (a recurring word in Crash), stylized (another favorite) marriage (ditto) between our cars and our scars—between the real, the simulation, and the hallucination?  In discussing (and, for me, defending) the book, we needed to swap its subversion for moderation: the book is a warning, an ironic urge to forgo the dual urges to mechanize the self and eroticize the auto. Even Amis came around to this position, albeit thirty-three years later.


Yet at the same time, I had never really noticed how disgusting, how gratuitous, Crash actually could be.  A typical sentence: “This pool of vomit with its clots of blood like liquid rubies, as viscous and discreet as everything produced by Catherine, still contains for me the erotic delirium of the car-crash, more exciting than her own rectal and vaginal mucus, as refined as the excrement of a fairy queen, or the miniscule globes of liquid that formed beside the bubbles of her contact lenses” (16).  Ultimately, I had to question my motives, because my students did, asking why I assigned the book.  They asked: How did I even come to read it?  Did I actually like it?


I began the semester believing my students to be naïve.  Instead I realize how perfectly naïve I was, and how naïve many of us in the humanities are, when we use words like “subversive,” “transgressive,” and even “challenging” without prudence.  Most of the students had the kind of dangerous fun, the urgent play, that I hoped we would have.  And thanks to the literature, many continue to read the culture in ways that they had not before, one student observing how her friends watch NASCAR for the crashes, another telling me how a school in her neighborhood was torn down, a new school erected, and the new school subsequently torn down so a new-but-old-fashioned-looking school could be built out of cheap, modern materials: “It’s a simulacrum!,” she said, in keeping with theorist Jean Baudrillard’s discussion of Crash and his observations about Disney World and American culture in general.


But I should not have been surprised that a few had trouble with some of the books; I should not have been even more surprised that they were genuinely wounded by them.  And I am beginning to understand that like many teachers, I must have wanted to shock my students, although that was never a conscious motive.  I did want to engage in discussion of literary, technological, cultural, and bodily taboos.  I did want students to see the darkness and energy beneath what many perceive as the stodgy obsolescence of print.  I did want them to see that the word can be as powerful, indeed, perhaps more powerful, than the moving image, their precious pixels.  I did want students to read closely, to think and feel, to alter and challenge their middle-class assumptions, their unchallenged collective consumerist auto-enthusiast fuel-addicted rubbernecking car-crash watching SUV-driving genophobic mysophobic thanatophobic suburban bourgeois beliefs.


But I didn’t mean to upset them.


While these challenges caused me to question and reflect, they ultimately reinforced, rather than refuted, my sense that these books were worth reading carefully.  Our discussion of the books’ equivocal endings became a case in point: even though my students were again frustrated, the consistent ambiguity did not compound our discussion of morality as much as illuminate it.  Vonnegut does not end his novel with the destruction of world (ostensibly a good place to end), but after, with the narrator’s attempt to create an account of the survivors’ plight, to “write a history of human stupidity” and use it as a symbol before lying on his “back, grinning horribly, and thumbing [his] nose at You Know Who” (287).  In Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, the reader does not know if its narrator, Offred, is being whisked away to her salvation or her doom; what is more confusing, Atwood adds a pseudo-academic “Historical Notes” section, set in the future of a novel already set in the future.  Here, we learn that misogynist totalitarianism is gone, but its neo-liberal replacement engages in its own sexist practices and refuses to condemn Gilead’s oppression: “Our job,” the academic of the future says, “is not to censure but to understand. (Applause)” (302). Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor seems a story of murder, suicide, and dangerous simulation, including a narrator who sets up a fake suicide hotline to tell callers how best to kill themselves (“Try barbiturates and alcohol with your head inside a dry cleaning bag” [282]).  But its title—a theme for the course despite the dystopias—betrays its initial hopefulness, and, after a series of alternately depraved and decent scenes (the narrator cries, sincerely, over his goldfish’s death), its ending reveals its downright wholesomeness : “The sun is total and burning and just right there, and today is a beautiful day” (1). [2]  In the end, we can’t be sure whether the narrator survives, but, as he says, “my story will survive” (1).  Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” presents a world where language has all but disappeared, but the few fluent survivors, recalling Palahniuk’s title but also Vonnegut’s and Atwood’s characters, indeed find each other.  Even Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless, for those students who made it (or skipped) to the end, saw Abhor, “part robot and part black” (3), attempt to write her own story.  Empire of the Senseless, appropriately, has little plot, but it ends, rather suddenly, this way: “And then I thought that, one day, there’ld [sic] be a human society in a world which was beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (227).


All this subversive fiction, even when it seems wholly nihilistic, even as its plots meander and end ambiguously, even at Ballard’s violent best or Acker’s senseless worst, thus seems inherently optimistic: it presupposes a reader for whom writing still matters, and a world that has the capacities and technologies of reading and writing, because in the novels, mysterious and malevolent abuses have eradicated just such a world.  It is a veiled optimism, certainly, one drenched in blood (the ink in which Acker’s Abhor writes her story), but it is an optimism nonetheless.  The technological, teleological, and gendered conspiracies of the novels do not end in utter uncertainty, but instead end with the possibilities of hope, even of belief.  Yes, their dangerous language labels them subversive.  But it is also that language’s inextricable link to subverted morality, through worlds where machines act like people and people act like machines, subverted taboos, subverted biology or subverted culture, that makes them, in the end, moral.


Other academics can suggest that writers who eschew explicit sex, violence, or politics are really closet subversives.  Without meaning to, my class has reaffirmed for me that the opposite is also true: that our most subversive writers are our closet moralists, and that this reversal needs immediate attention.  In a time when a select few seek to monopolize morality, novelists like Vonnegut, DeLillo, Atwood, Palahniuk, and Butler, but especially egregious writers like Acker and Ballard, need outing.



[1] Both students granted permission to be quoted in this essay.

[2] Survivor is paginated in reverse, so that page “282” is equivalent to page 8, and page 298 appears as page “1” on the book’s last page.


Works Cited

Acker, Kathy.  Empire of the Senseless.  New York:  Grove, 1988.

Amis, Martin.  The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000.  New York: 

            Hyperion, 2001.

Atwood, Margaret.  The Handmaid’s Tale.  New York:  Anchor, 1986.

Ballard, J.G.  Crash.  New York:  Noonday, 1973.

Vonnegut, Kurt.  Cat’s Cradle.  New York:  Delta, 1963.

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  1891.  New York:  Norton: 1988.