“Straddling” Between Genres

The other day in class, we were asked to form small groups and discuss The Last Angel of History in conjunction with our course readings and concepts. Even though I had scribbled down several notes and quotes during our viewing of the film, I was not sure where to start or what to say. I had a bit of trouble following the film’s trajectory, but have since been actively trying to ground myself in any way I can.

One thing that I was able to pick out of the film was one of the interviewees talking about the genre of science fiction as “not so much a re-imagining of the future,” but rather, noticing what is already happening around us, now, in the present. (Here, my memory fails me in that I am unable to recall the quote verbatim or attribute it to the person who spoke it. I apologize.)

I instantly related this sentiment to Big Machine, but probably not in the way that I was meant to. I have been trying to find ways in which Lavalle’s novel “fits” the science fiction genre, or, at least contains elements of it. Victor Lavalle seems to blur the line between fiction and reality quite a bit in the novel, in that some of what happens to Ricky defies our understanding of reality, yet the story itself still remains grounded in realistic setting. Does that make sense?

I suppose this starts to happen when Ricky is impregnated after he gets injected in the sewer supposedly by The Devils of the Marsh. Here he is trying to “understand why his diagnosis felt oddly, impossibly, possible” (227). And that brings us to the Devils of the Marsh, or the “Swamp Angels” and Adele’s experience with them (265). The Devils Wells is a series of chambers or tunnels (?) that Adele, Snooky Washburn, and Solomon Clay navigate full of murky water, “swamp gas,” (281) and what Lavalle describes as “an impossible kind of night, the last night. The way it’ll look when every star goes extinct” (276). What already seems like sort of a different dimension, Adele seems to be in disbelief when she sees the Devils. “They had two arms each, a head, a torso, two legs, and the skin looked sea-green in the dark chamber…” “…A yellow radiance seemed to emanate from their bellies” (281) Imagining the Devils feels difficult to me. They seem have some “human” qualities (I put “human” in quotes, because I already feel strange assuming something or someone as human after reading “Bloodchild”), but at the same time, what or who are they? Adele later describes them as being similar to “scattered birds” (282).

With all of these examples noted, I cannot say I know or understand how to bridge the gap between the quote about science fiction in the film and Big Machine. It all did, however, get me thinking about genre. Is this novel science-fiction? I certainly did not think so for a majority of the novel. In fact, I would have pinned it as mystery, horror, supernatural, psychological fiction, really many different things. It does not bother me so much as it fascinates me that a novel can be many things and many genres, without having to be confined to one single idea. Because I have been so deeply impressed and in awe of the writing in Big Machine, I read an interview given by Lavalle regarding his other works. In this one, author Christine Alderman asks Lavalle about genre writing, and he describes his experience with previously sticking to one genre as displeasing. Rather, he feels “writing things straddling the path between realistic and horror/supernatural made me happier.” This reference speaks to Bernice Johnson Reagon’s thoughts on attempting to straddle between two systems, or two worlds. Similarly, genre does not have to limit or categorically define itself as one thing, even though we often pressure it to do so. Lavalle’s novel can be balancing or straddling between horror, supernatural, AND science fiction all at the same time, and this is ok.

So, if we can accept that, why is genre still so important?

*Also, if anyone has any comments on The Last Angel of History I would really appreciate your thoughts. I realize I started and ended in two entirely different places, but it can be difficult to focus on one thing when there are concepts and connections everywhere.

**Update: In the time that it took me to finish writing this and then post this, I realized Analiese also just tackled the possibility of genre a bit in her blog post. I just read it and I would recommend you to do the same!

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