Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Last Samurai Week Five: Around and Around We Go

I had planned to write about risk and death this week, but I finished The Last Samurai and it now seems like it will be easier to talk about those issues next week when the group read wraps up. Briefly, that left me wondering exactly what I was going to write about this time around, simply because the current section has us in something of a holding pattern with its repetition: Ludo continues to search out and interview new potential father figures. Each one has a personal history that merges with the last at places and diverges in others. I enjoyed them all, but what to say?

Then I realized that this repetition was exactly what I should write about. One thing that strikes me about the last half of the narrative is that it highlights, simultaneously, this book’s place in a picaresque tradition that goes back to the origins of the novel and its connection to postmodernism through an emphasis on repetition and, through the overlaps and distinctions between these various men’s lives, a refusal to offer any one coherent idea of what makes a man, or father, or person (or whatever other category you want to consider here).

The role of the picaresque in the early novel is easy enough to see here: the episodic nature of the story, where each episode repeats a certain kind of plot structure, featuring a wandering narrator. The way the picaresque seeded the nineteenth-century bildungsroman likewise: each of Ludo’s encounters seems to develop his personality, or at least his sense of what would make a good father and why he might want one, a little farther, educating him in the varieties of humanity.

Nonetheless, this same repetition feels very postmodern, precisely in this last insistence on variety that perpetually undermines any settled idea about what people—or a certain type of person, like “the genius”—are like: each repetition changes our perception of the last and of the whole, destabilizing our ability to say anything with much certainty. As we go on, DeWitt refuses any easy generalizations: genius does not automatically make you crass and indifferent to other people (what people sometimes think of as the autistic model of genius), as it may seem early in this last part (I’m thinking of Yamamoto and HC, but Sibylla qualifies as well); neither does it mean you are going to do anything good for other people or even yourself (taking us back to what I discussed in my first post on risk: genius doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere). Likewise, there is not really any one thing that Ludo or anyone else could expect from a father. There are only various versions of what people might be like, versions compounded by the stories they and others tell: one of the repeated structures here is that Ludo hears/tells one version of a biography, and then hears a different version from the celebrity father figure.

These narrative recursions in Ludo’s last long chapter are not the only way repetition comes up in this novel. We have Sibylla and Ludo riding the tube endlessly on the Circle Line, and we have Yamamoto’s aesthetic theory of the necessity of repetition in order to see differently—beauty needs a background of banality. While the painter, Mr. Watkins, might seem to offer a different theory, his search for the intensity of color also draws deeply on the context in which we see color—that is the relation of specific moments of vision to many others, and the relation among the colors themselves. In the book, the various men, likewise, only mean something in relation to one another, the stories told about them, and the fictional men from the screen with whom Ludo has grown up: their differences make for meanings, but also for their startling singularities for the fascination of the reader.

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