Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When I wake up I'm Dead

Like Jasmine J., I too was terrified after reading Tiptree’s short stories. Her literature creates a pervasive feeling of fear born of her characters’ inability to escape historical momentum. Jasmine wonders, fairly I think, to what degree Tiptree’s depression influenced her writing:

It’s possible that the pessimism that is a major theme of her short stories was the result of her personal psychological strife, does that mean that the themes of her works should be discarded with? The word that Sheldon paints seems too real in its horror to be the product of a serotonin imbalance. Perhaps that is a testimony to the power of depression. (Dystopia and Depression)

But reading depression as a disconnection from our shared reality is a problematic rendering of the nature of the psyche. Sheldon’s depressing literature highlights characters trapped in memory, forced to negotiate a reality in which choice is limited by internal (the mind/ collective socialization) and external (aliens) forces. This does not seem like an inaccurate description of the world but rather an uncomfortable interpretation which clashes with the popular modernist progressive outlook. Tiptree’s dystopic vision may more accurately be described as an unbiased retelling of real power relations.

I was particularly struck by the fact that many of her stories end in death, something which seems uncommon in most of the literature I read. My own writing is concerned with creating open-ended literature which allows for the possibility of revision, reliving and recasting. Influenced by Japanese authors such as Harakumi who end their novels without resolution – suggesting that life continues even when the novel ends – Tiptree provides a conflicting analysis. Her novels end the way all lives do; in death. Her ill-fated characters articulate an unpleasant truth which clashes with the modernist, progressive narrative: Whatever our technological advances, our personal tragedies and triumphs, all of our lives end in death.

It was unsurprising when I read in Phillips introduction that Tiptree ended her own life. But Phillips elides Tiptree’s inability to “imagine her way out of the problems she raised” (6) with killing off her characters, as if to suggest that every problem can be resolved. I think an equally valid interpretation is that death is the answer. To believe that the human condition, what with its alienation, fear, longing, love and hate, can be ‘solved’ through an active imagination seems more fantastic than any story about aliens or time travel. Tiptree’s ‘solution’ to the human condition is quite simple; stop being human. By killing her characters off – or having them never be alive like in “Her Smoke Rises up Forver” – Tiptree offers a startling literary technique which forces the reader to recognize the inevitability of death while also suggesting that some social problems are part and parcel of human existence.


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