BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): Pedrosa’s (2008) Three Shadows

24 August 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Pedrosa’s (2008)[2] Three Shadows

This graphic novel, which for this author “was born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young” (dust jacket), has some very effective passages. A family (father, mother, son) find themselves being watched by three ominous horsemen and the sense of danger and threat the author generates works very well. Learning the figures have come for the son, and that the parents cannot save him, the father takes him on a journey in an attempt to escape.

It must seem cold-hearted to enter into any literary analysis about the feelings of parents who lose children, especially when the book comes from a witness to the suffering of other parents, but in the first place, I can criticize the book without impugning the kindness and good-intentions on Pedrosa’s part writing in response to what he witnessed. In fact, if the piece has an social significance, it must necessarily arise from whatever we can abstract or extract generally from the very specific circumstances he witnessed.

Beyond this, however, I would resist the terrorism of suffering. In our human desire to recognize the suffering of others—i.e., not to dismiss it—we find also a counter-narrative whereby those in pain (or sometimes their defenders) make them the unassailable centre of the world. When someone howls, “I’m in pain,” between an inhuman, “well buck up” and an anti-social “I’ll get whatever you need” we could use a better, third alternative.

Although Poe said the death of a beautiful women makes for the most compelling story, the death of a child certainly makes for one of the easiest and laziest of narrative manipulations. Mahler’s Kindertotenleider offers an especially gross and kitschy example, but the almost literally sacrosanct protective shroud wrapped around dead children—in a culture that shows a naked ugliness in its disregard for the death of children of colour—makes this veil require not puncturing but annihilation.

More precise, we may distinguish between the personal effects (and uses) of dead children as far as parents (or people who would be parents) goes compared to the structural effects and uses of dead children on the part of Power (i.e., the State, &c). In terms of controlling discourse, people, and culture, Power leverages or exploits peoples personal responses to dead children in order to coerce cooperation with or complicity in the agendas of Power.

And when a book gets published, it becomes a social gesture. And so it no longer exists as only a personal matter; it becomes a part of the structural, social world it occurs in, and thus (advertently or not) becomes complicit in or cooperates with the structural patterns that Power uses dead children for. &c.

This should strike no one as controversial. I make this distinction in order to forestall or anticipate objections that use a personal analytic, rather than considering the book in its social existence. For all books, this always remains true, and it leads down the well-worn path of “subjectivity” versus “objectivity” or “matters of taste” versus “matters of literature” or “untrained, amateur appreciation” of literature compared to “specialist, academic” analyses of literature, and the like. In its most elemental form, this simply means someone claims, “But I like the book”—bravo, who cares but you about that? Even to make the point as a matter of public opinion says nothing for anyone else, except to the extent that I do (or believe) I share tastes similar to yours and therefore might consume it myself.

And if we can blithely consign all of that to the exuberant “play” of “cultural discourse,” while we busily go on slaughtering Gazans and despoiling Afghanistan and the Congo of its “natural resources” &c., then by all means congratulate yourself for your public masturbation.

And I mention public masturbation because it stands as the opposite of the problem that a book like this presents: the public display of pain. Robin Williams’ suicide has brought out tidal waves of people personally responding to his death (understand), in some cases quite rightly demanding that their own kind of suffering that led them to contemplate suicide not go further unrecognized, but other commentators on the issue demands that the kind of suffering they experienced because of someone else’s suicide offers an argument for the further demonization of suicide as an act. You hear someone say, “My father committed suicide,” and the necessary social response to that boils down to, “I’m sorry you had that experience, but that’s no basis for a public policy on suicide.” More generally, the person who says, “I have suffered because of this or that” (in this book’s case, a dead child) does not automatically or necessarily advance a rationale for determining public policy about that suffering. And when a person acts like it does, I call that the terrorism of suffering.

Since one can hardly ignore the point, I will make clear that the behaviour of Zionist Israel offers the most cogent argument against the terrorism of suffering.

We do not pay doctors to handle our agony or suffering with kid gloves. Sometimes, we demand that they take a knife to our body, and commit atrocious violence to it (under anaesthesia preferably) in order to remedy our malady. To respond to howling suffering only or always tentatively, with kid gloves, hyper-gently, makes for (1) an unreasonable approach, especially when the person relies on the terrorism of suffering to place themselves at the centre of attention, rather than actually desiring a cure—by no means does this characterize everyone who suffers, but only a certain kind of sufferer—and (2) an ineffective means of treatment, especially in those cases where the person remains fearful of or resistant to the need for a treatment at all; once again, this by no means describes all people. Most who suffer want treatment, but not all; most who want treatment suffer, but again not all.

Because Pedrosa offers a book as a social artefact, it stands closer to something like a “proposed public policy” than a “merely personal statement”. Because the book involves a dead child, the habit of Power to elide the personal experience of dead children into forms of Power’s agendas, it becomes very difficult even to recognize this social artefact even as a social artefact. We can see a pattern of this in the dust jacket text.

What price would you pay to save your child?

For the parents in this powerful, visually stunning novel, the threat to their son is both real and frighteningly vague. Three shadows loom, and wherever the family flees, the shadows follow. Is escape impossible? Are parents even meant to try? …

[For Pedrosa] Three Shadows was born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young.

It begins with a direct address to “you” but couched in economic terms—that there might exist some “price” we could set on saving “your” child. But then it proposes, as a matter of public policy, that escape might remain impossible or, even if possible, “Are parents even meant to try?” Having proposed this public policy question—for if parents shouldn’t try, then we might make laws against any such attempts and/or we may certainly not bother wasting any public funds on those parents who do try, even though they should not.

I’d rather put it in a footnote, but that seems politically non-astute. Amongst those with vast enough financial wherewithal to do so (and sometimes for those who don’t have such resources), the “price” they pay may indeed prove enormous—and heavily subsidized by everyone who pays into the insurance system they access (for however long they can or do). I say this simply not to lose sight of the fact that asking what “price” “you” would pay may very well not involve only “you” in who that “price” gets met.

I say again, whatever “good” the personal reaction may bring this does not automatically protect us from the schemes of Power. Certainly, one of the more disappointing turns in this book involves the reveal that the three shadows consist of three quite benevolent (and pretty) females. They may have specific identities (one goes by the name Fortune, and they do not seem incarnations of the three Fates) but whatever threat and horror they inspired earlier gets wholly dispelled. They tell the (dead) boy that simply his time has come; no big deal—someday the three women will return for his father.

Blah, blah, blah … why were you afraid of death, &c. I reject this sardonically because the whole thing comes out far too partly. Why, for instance, did they terrorise the family for months? The principal answer: because Pedrosa wanted suspense in his book. But a much more obnoxious development in this: at the end of the book, we see the father and mother with two happy daughters, and as the father and mother hug, they share a moment of grief over their departed son.

I doubt it would have happened this way had they lost a daughter. But more, in this tidy replacement of the dead son with two daughters, I detect the grotesqueness of the book of Job, who received one hundred fold all of the wives and children slaughtered by שָּׂטָן (Satan) as part of his lost bet with יהוה (Yahweh).

We can see here very precisely how the personal and the structural can conflate. The lived, historical experience of these two human beings (to whom a reader might readily respond) includes their grief for the dead son, however much their lives now seem blessed or joyful in the presence of their daughters. But on a structural level, the unambiguous message that two daughters do not equal the “price” of one son rings loudly and clearly. And I say this certain that Pedrosa would hastily deny the point.

Readers may want to defend Pedrosa’s narrative choice (imagine, instead, had he provided the couple with another son), because parents do remember grief and because no amount of more children can wholly replace the one lost, which of course falls flat on its face, as any number of couples who keep having children until finally a son gets born attest.

But this crass sexism remains a minor offense compared to the larger one that (necessarily, helpfully) answers the despair of parental loss by invoking a metaphysical fantasy about the afterlife as a consolation. I mean, again, that our own “horror” or “terror” of death—as ably portrayed at the beginning of Pedrosa’s book—gets “answered” by the reveal: “death is not scary; relax.” That may do all well and good for us personally, but upon this myth will (and has) Power sent men to murder other men in other countries (or in Ferguson, MO). The “personal solution” to the problem of dead children (or death generally) re-inscribes itself as an even greater problem when Power takes hold of it and uses it to dignify (or excuse) its murderous rampages domestically and abroad.

This already seems heinous enough but on aesthetic grounds as well Pedrosa unnecessarily distorts his text further. Over the course of the book, it moves from something more or less realistic, albeit with the intrusion of the ominous horsemen, to a metaphysically magical world. Having (miraculously?) survived a storm “at sea”,[3] the father and son end up in the hut of something that soon enough reveals itself as something like a demon or spirit and imbues the father with gigantic proportions and strength (in exchange for his heart). Later, he gets beset by ghostly hordes and dies—though why his strength finally fails never gets answered.

All of this seems merely to set up a pointless digression in which the three women, now shown as pretty sweethearts, seek out a scumbag who has cheated death. Elaborately, though for no apparent good reason, they try to play a trick on him to deceive him, which goes off poorly, but he ends up dead anyway. And a vial he’d worn with some life essence or whatnot in it gets given to the dead boy, who uses it to bring his father back to life.

So besides this weak fifth-act introduction of a wholly new plot element—the three women could simply have had the necessary vial of life essence for reinvigorating the father; or he might not have passed out or lost his strength in the first place, &c—this episode raises a host of other dubious proposals. While the father and his boy have attempted to flee death (unsuccessfully), once it catches up with them, the happy news that death offers nothing scary after all doesn’t get the same reception from the man who cheated death. He does not happily assent and resists, though futilely. So, when Power tells us, “death is inevitable” (so let’s not waste public funds trying to keep it at bay), Pedrosa also adds, “and it is futile to resist it.”

Pedrosa humanly uses the hopelessness of this situation to quote, “Three lines that give me solace: in this our springtime there is no better, there is no worse. Blossoming branches burgeon as they must. Some are long, some are short.” And then adds (on the next page), “Stay upright. Stay with life” It seems the reference to “upright” links to the image of the tree on the page, and thus also the short and long branches. I also have to note that the sentiment of the poem quoted doesn’t (necessarily) accord with the metaphysical conceits of the book. By granting agency to death, and especially by invoking some notion of justice whereby someone who has attempted to cheat death gets put in his place (he also represents a morally reprehensible person who suffers in his afterlife), Pedrosa inserts a culpability for the occurrence of death that the poem does not (seem to) require or presuppose. The poem offers sheer happenstance that some (lives) are long, some short.

The clear message—appreciate what you have while you have it—finds support in the father’s own realization that he erred terribly by running away with his son, cheating his wife out of her interactions with him. This human message—appreciate who you have while you have them—rings less obnoxiously than the undesirable consequences involved in invoking (happy) afterlives, but it still wholly lacks any will to political action. Pedrosa (inadvertently) warns us, “Resistance is futile” and he protects that message—by protects, I mean how the fact that he has written a story about dead children such that it seems utterly non sequitur for me to object as I do here—by wrapping it in the sacrosanct zone of dead children. And by children, we should understand that as dead sons.

Lastly, one could write a piece about the unhappy androcentric bias in this piece. The mother goes to a witch (who inexplicably later commits suicide to no purpose), who tells her it the situation has no solution. The mother wholly assents to this, and the father alone sets out to defy death.[4] So when the book jacket says, “and wherever the family flees, the shadows follow” this “is” factually false; the mother gets left behind. And Pedrosa tells the whole narrative from the father’s point of view. Even so, one easily keeps thinking it is the boy speaking; the opening paragraph for instance runs:

Back then, life was simple and sweet. The taste of cherries, the cool shade, the fresh smell of the river … That was how we lived, in a vale among the hills—sheltered from storms, ignorant of the world, as though on an island, peaceful and untroubled. And then … everything changed.

This doesn’t sound much like a father, but also “And then … everything” changed not only has a kitschy ring to it, it doesn’t accord with the facts. We know that adolescents love to overstate things “(everything sucks”), and this kind of “everything changed” certainly reeks of such overstatement and, again, doesn’t generally denote how adults deal with the world. In fact, the house did not burn down; the father’s wife does not turn into a tree or a frog or a newt; his son doesn’t sprout wings; the horse doesn’t keel over, &c.

Rather, almost nothing changed, and certainly not at the very beginning. Initially, three ominous horsemen appear on the hill. The word “ignorant” in that first paragraph almost seems like an admission on Pedrosa’s part—ignorance providing a self-inflicted wound rather than a necessary one. The family deserves what happens to them because of this wilful ignorance and isolation—this adolescent, read childish, refusal to engage with life in its actuality. And life, especially, where death remains a blunt fact.

However, Pedrosa gives me no good reason to believe I should read “ignorant” not as “innocent” here. And the fact that the father claims, at the very outset, that “everything changed” must necessarily hinge on the fact that the son became “marked for death”. But the son does not constitute “everything” (again, that Pedrosa responds to the death of a son this way and not a daughter doesn’t seem accidental.) Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975)[5] cogently object to a (literary) criticism that proceeds as if texts about males stand in for texts about human beings generally. They find nothing wrong with texts that dramatize artfully the male or masculine experience, when it does not arrogate to itself a claim to speak for all people (i.e., men and women alike). Pedrosa’s text fails this test, insofar as it offers a father’s response to the death of a son as if it can or should stand in for a parent’s response to the death of a child (much less a mother’s response to the death of a son or daughter).

The fact that the writer of the dust jacket of this book permitted himself (or herself) to say that the father and son journeying together equals “wherever the family goes” specifically writes the mother out of the picture. We see here a case of the terrorism of suffering, that a father’s agony over the death of a son should allow him such license that the mother’s voice gets seen only through his lens (a typical problem of patriarchy) or that we may write her out entirely.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Pedrosa, C. (2008). Three shadows. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–268.

[3] I put this in quotation marks because in the book supposedly the journey crosses a river and should take three days, but for all narrative purposes, the river seems to transform into an endless expanse of water, and thus a sea. It seems like a continuity error.

[4] Some might say I overstate the mother’s acceptance of the witch’s decree. Whatever support she offers her husband’s desire to attempt to run away with the son, she also most vocally insists that the father should just accept fate.

[5] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

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