Paratext, Narrative Expectations, and the Pleasures of Violence

A few of our classmates have blogged about their narrative expectations and/or disappointment with the prospect of Doro’s return, or lack thereof.  John’s post “Doro Aint Dead“, and Andre’s post, “Victories in the Web” come to mind. I too struggled with an unfulfilled narrative expectation in Clay’s Ark and Patternmaster—an expectation molded by the paratext of The Patternist Series, specifically the back cover. Paratext, as defined by literary theorist Gérard Genette in his book, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, is “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that … is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” As I understand Genette, paratext includes images on the covers of books, footnotes, prefaces, and other parts of the text that are not the literary text written by the author, yet still have a profound effect on one’s reading of a literary text.

In class I stated my disappointment with my narrative expectation that was shaped by the description of the series on the back cover. The cover reads:

In ancient Africa, a female demigod of nurture and fertility mates with a powerful, destructive male entity. Together they birth a race of madmen, visionaries, and psychics who cling to civilization’s margins and back alleys for millennia, coming together in a telepathic Pattern just as Earth is consumed by a cosmic invasion. Now these new beings—no longer merely human—will battle to rule the transfigured world…

What I hoped would be something like “The Avengers”—which I didn’t think was out of the question, especially because “The Avengers” comic books started in 1963 and continued well throughout Butler’s career as a writer—ended up being what I called “a microbe that turned everybody into cats.” I was excited for what I thought the paratext told me would be a “cosmic invasion,” and a “battle to rule the transfigured world,” but my expectations were based on my conceptions of cosmic invasion and battles to rule the world. If you didn’t click the link, my idea of a cosmic invasion looks a lot like the trailer for Marvel’s The Avengers at 2:16.

My notions of cosmic invasions and my disappointment with the “cat disease” illuminate how large of a cultural space for violence exists in our society, and how easily people are subjected to the ideologies and expectations set forth by this space. While I like to think of myself as a very non-violent person, it’s too late for me to hide the fact that I was disappointed that there wasn’t an all out war in the Patternist series. Of course, this doesn’t mean I enjoy violence in real life—I don’t. But I, like many other members of our society, have succumbed to the fetishized carnage of pop culture.

Problematically, the line between fictionalized violence in popular culture and real-life violence is becoming blurred. We all probably recognize the trope of superheroes on their way to save the day when some elderly citizen (usually a woman) asks them to save her cat from a tree. Saving the animal serves to humanize the superhero before they beat the crap out of the bad guy. One example of this rescue scene is found in Pixar’s The Incredibles; while Mr. Incredible doesn’t perform the most humane rescue (start 1:00), the cat still acts as an agent to humanize Mr. Incredible. Similarly, in the post “Devastation in Meatspace,” the second image from the bottom uses a puppy to humanize a man dressed like a soldier. Not only does the puppy serve as a derailing strategy to distract viewers from the violence and war that the soldier uniform symbolizes, but the uniform also illustrates the fetishization and commoditization of the military/war. The trope of the animal in distress is no longer simply a fictional device to humanize the violence of superheroes, but has taken on a new cultural significance in that the trope now “obscures the dynamics of the very real human cost of war.”

I sincerely regret feeling disappointed at the Patternist series, and I think my regret can be partly attributed to the “pleasures of violence” that result from the blurring of lines between fictional violence and real life bloodshed.  In other words, it would be a lot easier for me to brush off my initial reaction if there wasn’t such a strong connection between violence in fiction and violence in real life. Yet, this situation (feeling disappointment with the narrative, and then regretting my disappointment) feels a lot like one of Butler’s traps; it seems unlikely, however, that Butler had anything to do with the back cover—from my research, marketing and advertising employees generally create the paratext on the back cover. Regardless, I found the relation between my reading of the paratext and my narrative expectations/disappointments to illuminate just how much popular culture can affect one’s “pleasures”—no matter how non/anti-violence the person is.

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