In the midst of the James Frey affair—when Oprah was badgering the man on national television with how “duped” she felt, how he’d “betrayed” a nation of good readers by fabricating parts of his memoir—it was all fairly clear. Truth was truth, fiction was fiction, and you were not permitted to recruit fiction in service of the truth. Nor were you permitted to recruit a little bit of someone else’s fiction in service of your own. A couple of months after Oprah “annihilated” Frey, to quote Larry King, a Harvard sophomore named Kaavya Viswanathan was dragged through one of our culture’s favorite spectacles—the full-on media inquisition—after it turned out that in her 300-page debut novel she’d managed to scatter some twenty passages that resembled other people’s work. The reaction was swift: Little, Brown pulled and pulped all the copies; Viswanathan’s contract with the publisher was cancelled.
In those days you could hardly find anyone higher up on the pundit food-chain than a few intransigent bloggers to come out against the verdict leveled by the shamans of literary culture: if you steal we will find you, pulp your books, and publicly shame you until you never want to write again. And then Jonathan Lethem leapt into the fray with “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which immediately made the February 2007 issue of Harper’s a hot commodity. Here was a man openly advocating everything that had made Frey and Viswanathan literary pariahs. It started with those two little words right there on the magazine cover, “A Plagiarism,” and went on to call Bob Dylan a plagiarist before outing Disney for pillaging the creative commons while protecting its own precious copyright like a dragon’s hoard. Lethem’s ode to appropriation stirred up as much dust as that infamous Harper’s essay penned by Jonathan Franzen a decade earlier, the one where he lamented fiction’s increasing irrelevance in the contemporary world. Not only did Lethem stick up for both plagiarism and mixing fact and fiction whenever desired, he actually did just those things in his essay, then rubbed everyone’s nose in it with a lengthy coda that spelled out exactly how much of the ostensibly nonfiction work you’d just read was neither “fact” nor written by the author known as Jonathan Lethem.
It was a brilliant, rollicking rebuke that made any writer who wouldn’t admit to a little bit of appropriating now and then sound lame and old-fashioned, but it also created its own set of problems that no one seemed interested in addressing. Take, for instance, the title “The Ecstasy of Influence.” In his notes Lethem claims it’s a play on Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” but the title may just as well be an allusion to Jean Baudrillard’s 1987 essay “The Ecstasy of Communication.” One wonders if Lethem was aware of Baudrillard’s essay, and if he was why he never mentioned a piece that offers so many reproaches to projects like his own. Baudrillard predicted a time “when everything becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication,” which sounds patently like our own era, saturated by wireless devices, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and personal YouTube channels. For all its strengths, Lethem’s essay reads like an example of what Baudrillard called “the obscenity of the visible”: so in love with its sense of play, the essay lacks rigor; its many interesting sources are deployed less as individual objects with rich histories and particular messages than as gaudy units of communication compelled to dance lemming-like toward a fairly mundane point. For Baudrillard such ecstatic play for play’s sake, fun as it may be, amounted to little more than a “pornography of information.”
It is important to distinguish what Lethem was engaged in—let’s call it appropriation— from collage, which, to paraphrase Donald Barthelme, smacks more of the twentieth century than the twenty-first. To be sure, certain aspects of reuse are simply facts of the writing process that persist irrespective of time; Bacchylides remarked as early as the fourth century B.C. that “one author pilfers the best of another and calls it tradition.” Shakespeare stole his plots; Joyce did too. Creativity has always involved indebtedness to preexisting works, and collage-style writers took this fact to one possible extreme with spliced, automatic texts that called into question the very authority of the author. Literature like William S. Burroughs’ Dadaist-inspired “cut-up technique” and Gilbert Sorrentino’s recycling of cliché can be seen as fruitful responses to the idea that the author was nothing more than a lung through which the culture breathed, where mass production shattered the supremacy of the original and the world was just an incestuous collection of texts.
Our era offers its own twist on this old story. Just as collage helped writers respond to changes in the twentieth century, appropriative art speaks to what it means to be a human being in a post-industrial, internet-dominated society. Whereas collage bridged the territory between modernism and the early postmodern, appropriation stands astride late postmodernism and whatever comes next. It’s a form of literature for a culture that has grown entirely complacent with the idea of overproduction—those terrifying monkeys that will eventually rewrite the works of Shakespeare— and where anyone online can access an encyclopedia essentially authored by people in their free time. We’ve come to understand that successful, prime-time television shows can be shot with $500 cameras and edited with software available to any consumer. You can buy DVDs that will give you access to the entire literature of a culture; you can download virtually any non-copyright book for free; you can steal any music or movie and expect no repercussions. For a modest sum you can get more access to art and literature than you could consume in ten lifetimes.
Lethem is just one of the writers who seems to conceive of appropriative literature as a substantive response to the ethos of our times. Appropriative literature thrives in conjunction with our love of conspicuous under-consumption—perhaps our environmentalist age’s greatest contribution to capitalism—wherein it is not enough to know that the collar of a shirt was recycled, but we have to know precisely what garment the collar was stripped from so that we can evaluate the originality of the appropriative gesture. Paradoxically enough, therefore, appropriation is part of a movement to once again enshrine the original as an important—even mystical—commodity in a world saturated by copies and kitsch. Its manifestations are diverse and plentiful: DJs dig through crates of records to find the most unlikely source they can possibly loop into a catchy beat; individuals strain harder for “authentic” experiences while feeling increasingly trapped within mediated realities. Whereas collage thrived in a culture drunk with the mastery mass reproduction had finally won over the original, appropriation is part of a culture ill at ease with overproduction. We now want the original to make a comeback. We treasure it, and we wage such fierce rhetorical wars over its proper use because we link it to that sense of authenticity that we strive for in a thoroughly mediated world.
What, for instance, would Lethem’s essay have been without that coda that told the reader exactly how much of it was plagiarized? Up to that point “The Ecstasy of Influence” was a fun little riff on Eliot’s idea that lesser artists borrow and great ones steal, but with his list of sources at the end Lethem crossed into entirely different territory. Like a magician who garners more attention for revealing the secret to his greatest trick than for the trick itself, Lethem got his biggest cheers for those tidbit-like stories where he revealed that he’d duped us into taking credit for an essay he’d hardly written. But although Lethem’s whole essay was effective as a performance, the coda was by far the most compelling and original part. The surprise at discovering that Lethem had just passed off someone else’s account of, say, watching 84 Charing Cross Road was more delightful than anything in the essay itself. A sort of pastiche of scholarly attribution, first-person writing, and stream-of-fragments, it offered more to provoke new thoughts than Lethem’s plagiarized arguments in favor of plagiarism.
Three years later, David Shields’ “manifesto” Reality Hunger has taken the logical next step for appropriative writing: whereas Lethem strung together his appropriations into a coherent, digressive argument, Shields has all but done away with the argumentative aspect, leaving only the appropriation. Although the book is subtitled “A Manifesto,” Shields spends very little space actually declaring what he stands for; and even when he does, he mostly lets others do the talking for him. The bulk of Reality Hunger consists of roughly 600 quotations clustered around 26 themes, themselves all related to Shields’ core idea: artists are now appropriating more and more “reality” into their work, following an aesthetic of “deliberate unartiness” that paradoxically conveys authenticity through artifice. Unlike Lethem, who gave plenty of scaffolding so that his point was never lost, Shields offers hardly any connective tissue to fill the gaps between his appropriations: the things that link them—be they aesthetic principles, a common understanding of art, a contemporary reference point, or whatever— are left to the reader to discern. The result is a remarkably frenetic book that can hardly be read for more than a few pages without suggesting myriad possibilities.
The thrilling thing about Reality Hunger isn’t so much Shields’ worthy, if hardly revelatory, contention that we’re seeing the emergence of an aesthetic built around “breaking off chunks of reality into art”— it’s reading Coetzee, followed by Jonathan Raban, followed by John D’Agata, followed by Robbe-Grillet, all saying something brilliant and relevant to the same topic. After a few pages of this you’re guessing sources and thirsting for that next hit of information, just like a satisfying romp through the internet.
It is worth noting that appropriation has thus far received the majority of its attention in the essay genre— in addition to Shields and Lethem, D’Agata has also been singled out for the interesting ways he has combined appropriations into essays—which makes sense, since virtually every essayist will appropriate at some point, whereas novelists tend to appropriate sparingly, with those who make a common practice of it generally seen as belonging to a special subgenre. Yet Shields is right to stress the dissolving line between fiction and nonfiction. The emergent stages of this could be seen in a writer like Don DeLillo, who would casually transgress the unstated rules of fiction by suddenly sticking a hologram of J. Edgar Hoover into a stirring recreation of the 1951 National League pennant race, or in filmmakers like those of the Dogme 95 school, who only film on location and only incorporate music if it is ambient. Those artists insisted on the relevance of the real world to the fictive ones they created; now, with the proliferation of devices for appropriating the world around us, virtually anyone has the tools to take this concept to unprecedented places.
With a National Book Award, a prodigious output, and widespread acclaim from both the fringes and the gatekeepers, William T. Vollmann is probably the best-known appropriative novelist working today. Since his 1989 Rainbow Stories he’s been cross-pollinating between fact and fiction and openly “plagiarizing”; his Seven Dreams provides particularly rich examples of appropriating both historical narratives and source documents for fictive ends. More recently, Matthew Sharpe’s 2007 novel Jamestown mashed together narratives, characters and source documents from the second Iraq War, 9/11, and the original Jamestown colony to create what the author termed an “ahistorical fantasia.” These writers are quite consciously attempting to push the boundaries of fiction, but even decidedly unexperimental novelists like Ian McEwan have begun including lists of sources in their books in response to the dictates of the culture. They are not appropriating per se, but in enshrining the fact that their fictions are rooted in nonfiction texts, they— or perhaps their publishers— capitulate to the increasingly inexorable logic of the times.
At its best, appropriative art has started exploring the implications of information overload inherent in a super-connected age. Smart contemporary writers have picked up on the new ways in which we form our identities and represent ourselves to others. The sound effect we choose to have play whenever our phone rings is a consciously calculated disclosure of a piece of culture we find integral to our identity. Or that little photo we stick up on our Facebook page, which is of course an idealized representation of ourselves reached only after screening dozens of lesser snaps before a few trusted friends. What relevance does a Kanye West ringtone have to our understanding of who we are? Is the Facebook photo that represents us to the connected world really us? And how does everything that happens around these media contribute to the self-image of a modern, connected twenty-first-century mind? These are questions about identity in our time that appropriative art is uniquely suited to answer.
What appropriative art has been less good at is corralling all these new goodies into something that pursues any kind of insightful, penetrating discourse. Reality Hunger highlights the fact that, in our ever-widening awareness of the rich archive of texts that can be sliced and spliced at whim, juxtaposition has tended to trump interpretation. Is it significant that both the Gospels and The History of the Peloponnesian War are histories whose most important moments are in all probability invented by their authors? Shields doesn’t say, he just suggests the connection and leaves it at that. It’s impossible to tell precisely what Shields stands for, what books he disapproves of, or how he thinks this form of writing has come about. If Reality Hunger manages to survive it will be as spectacle, rather than as criticism or argument.
The problem with appropriative writers of Lethem’s and Shields’ ilk is that they want to have it both ways. They assert the importance of authorship by highly leveraging their sources— their essays are interesting precisely because of who they’re quoting— yet they want simultaneously to deny their own importance as authors, merely offering suggestions and leaving the actual thinking up to the reader. But if you’re going to say that knowing who wrote something is crucial information, then you must also take on the author’s responsibility to interpret why the passage in question is significant. What if Thucydides had written his history as a mash-up? It might have made a great piece of agitprop for the times— a bestseller, even— but would he have been able to put it forward “as a possession for all time”?
The unstated lesson one takes away from reading books like Reality Hunger and essays like “The Ecstasy of Influence” is that narratives aren’t important nowadays. Just toss enough appropriative chunks together in a frenzy of blissful play and something good will come of it. But writing, of all media, has the potential to make sense of the diffuse chunks of information that saturate our daily lives. In Shields and Lethem, however, the conversation does not last long enough, nor is the interaction rich enough, to move beyond the mere linking of factoids. They do not substantively engage with their sources, and thus cannot offer the kind of communication that goes beyond mere chatter. And without that, well, what is writing?
In my accounting, the trends that brought us to this point started in the late 1960s, when people were beginning to view all forms of human endeavor as “texts” operating inside an immense network. Whereas someone like William Empson could look so closely at a line of Keats as to find a whole essay in it, a structuralist like Barthes went in exactly the opposite direction: his criticism sought to read not into the work but out of it. Barthes showed how each line in a narrative connected to the piece as a whole, and then how that whole connected to a cultural superstructure that existed around it.
The novelists of that era picked up on this, big time, beginning to see the coffee beans and rock’n’roll songs and television sets shipped all around the world as little pieces of meaning within an immense network of signs. Just as a Roland Barthes could deconstruct a work of fiction and show its place in a tradition, a Don DeLillo might deconstruct a cultural object like Bob Dylan and show its place in globalized Western culture. This meant that in the postmodernists’ art at least two (and frequently more) conversations were always happening at once: the story itself and the commentary on that story. In a splendid inversion, the latter generally grew to be of far more importance to the work than the former, which is how the best postmodern writing managed to convey the feel of a world where one always sensed that one’s own story was ineluctably caught up in— indeed often dictated by— the much larger story of a globalized world.
One postmodernist who expressed this sense in virtually everything he wrote was Manuel Puig, who crafted some of the best Argentinian novels of the late 1960s and 1970s, just as postmodern ideas about story and structure were catching on. Though Puig was born and raised in Argentina’s rural pampas, he became engrossed with American cinema at a young age, and this seems to have shaped his distinct approach to narrative. Puig was such a movie buff that in an interview he was hard-pressed to name even one writer who influenced him (finally he offered Faulkner and Kafka).
It seems likely that Puig’s early affinity for the cinema— a form far better suited to quick jumps, fragmentation and meta-narrative than the novel— helped push his storytelling in a prototypically postmodern direction. For a writer as interested as Puig in how essential pop culture is to our lives today, there was no better candidate for appropriation than film. Cinema also allowed Puig to explore his love of mediation: obsessed with surfaces and the telling details that they can reveal, Puig always gave the sense that the context surrounding information was an essential part of the information itself. His books are full of camera eyes that set scenes with mock objectivity; found objects (again mock-objective) such as letters and news reports that smuggle in cultural data; and pages of unattributed dialogue that reveal how much is communicated during the average “meaningless” conversation.
Just as Puig’s style is informed by film, many of his most successful novels absorb large chunks of American film culture, connecting their American contexts to a South American reality seen from an idiosyncratically Puigian perspective. For instance, the title of Puig’s first novel is Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, with the actress and her movies playing a substantial role. His third novel, The Buenos Aires Affair, deconstructs a quintessentially American genre— film noir— showing its relevance to Argentine artists. In the words of Suzanne Jill Levine, Puig’s primary English translator, biographer and close personal friend, the author “is not merely demythicizing but remythicizing [Hollywood cinema], he is not merely calling attention to false or alienating models but paying homage to those movie stars who stimulated his imaginary life, giving a second life to sounds and images he finds worthy of salvation.”
Whereas the appropriated texts in the works of Shields, Lethem and, to a lesser extent, D’Agata have a superficial feel to them—like a clever lawyer quoting a line of scripture to add moral credibility to his argument—Puig’s appropriations cut far deeper. His novels are brilliant deconstructions of the role image plays in a modern nation built on a large, prosperous middle class. Puig knew the power that a star like Rita Hayworth could hold over the mind of your average young bourgeois woman, how a virtual life glimpsed in film could give rise to desire. By incorporating new mass forms into his novels, Puig demonstrated that literature still had a role to play in making sense of identity-formation in an era increasingly entranced by cinema, television and radio soaps. The characters in Puig’s novels want to—need to—talk about film, which offers them a way to try on different personas as they strive to become new people.
To be sure, Puig didn’t miss a chance to satirize the disingenuous ways in which celebrities seduce us, but he was also sensitive to how valuable this seduction can be. He dramatized the frequently pathetic but sometimes inspirational things that can happen when we are moved to ape a celebrity. His second novel, Heartbreak Tango—whose mass appeal made it Puig’s first bestseller, easily moving over 100,000 copies in its first year—is a satire of rural Argentines who integrate the values and beliefs of radio soap operas and American films into their identities. Lacking viable role models, the young men and women in Puig’s book yearn to take on the characteristics of the individuals they idolize. As with all of Puig’s characters, they are constantly in the process of either telling themselves stories meant to explain who they are or fitting themselves into narratives meant to make them who they want to be. True, they are often self-deceived—but their self-deceptions get them through the difficult adolescent years. We should all be so fortunate.
Puig’s characters are people who, consciously or not, understand the potential inherent in the act of appropriation, its potential for communication, subversion and creativity. It’s expressed quite forcefully in Puig’s later novel Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, in which a young caretaker wheels around an elderly refugee from the Argentine dictatorship of the late Seventies and early Eighties. As the two men grow to know one another, the young man begins to role-play various personalities from the older man’s past, bringing about trips into each man’s repressed psyche that end sometimes in catharsis and sometimes in violent outbursts. As their relationship evolves, they come to respect the power that appropriation can offer. It becomes a way of experiencing otherness and entering into conversations not otherwise possible.
Puig’s fourth novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, reveals how artistic appropriation can inspire a writer to make a prolonged exploration of both the source and the text into which it is fitted. The story— which in one of Puig’s signature flourishes is told almost completely in unattributed dialogue—concerns two Argentine men locked up in jail during the 1970s, one of Argentina’s darkest periods of political and civil turmoil. One of the men, Molina, has been incarcerated for being gay. Molina is what we would now call a “fem” male: before he was arrested he worked as a window-dresser at a women’s boutique, and he talks openly about marrying a man and living his life as a woman. Molina’s cellmate Valentin could hardly be more different: a red-blooded revolutionary in the mold of Che Guevara, he was arrested as a dissident agitating for the violent overthrow of the Argentine government.
To counter the boredom of sitting for days on end in a tiny cell, Molina ends up retelling the plots of movies to Valentin. It is in and through the telling of these movies that these diametrically opposed men are able to confront and discuss topics impossible to approach by other means. There is nothing new in people absorbing prefabricated narratives into their discourses and using them for their own ends, yet it is no coincidence that these two men rely on film in particular—a mass medium so widespread that virtually all levels of society have solid knowledge of it, one that forces the viewer to empathize with the protagonist, requires a tight plot arc, and leaves viewers with immense interpretive leeway.
The novel starts in medias res with Molina (who is always the storyteller) telling Valentin the plot of a movie that is quite clearly the real-life B horror flick Cat People, released in 1942 and directed by Jacques Tourneur. The fact that Cat People, a pro-nativist, anti-feminist movie that trades heavily in Christian ideology, can be made applicable to a homosexual and a Marxist, both Latino, gives some idea of the potential for seduction and subversion inherent in a creative appropriation. The America seen in Tourneur’s movie is very white and very patriarchal; his Americans are wary of becoming entangled in the war engulfing Europe, and they indulge in a fear-mongering about Eastern Europeans that would seem ridiculous today. The plot begins when a sweet, all-American architect named Oliver suddenly falls in love with a mysterious Serbian immigrant named Irena. It soon becomes clear that Irena is harboring a secret, and after some suggestive wordplay and cat imagery (in one scene, a store full of pet birds becomes agitated when Irena walks in) we realize that Irena believes she’s something like a were-cat. Nevertheless, Oliver marries her and takes her into his well-furnished apartment, wherein she won’t let him so much as kiss her, warning of dire consequences over even the most perfunctory of carnal relations. Finally Oliver outs Irena’s secret. In hopes that he can cure her of this irrational fear of sex, Oliver convinces Irena to talk to a psychiatrist, portrayed in the movie as a Freudian caricature: coldly analytical and manipulative, the analyst finally attempts to force Irena into a catharsis by kissing her himself and is promptly mauled.
Concurrent with this plot, the remarkably wholesome Alice, who’s just as white-bread American as Oliver, has been watching over the proceedings and offering her advice. It would be unfair to call someone as sweet as Alice scheming, but it’s clear that she wouldn’t mind having Oliver all to herself, if only she could push aside that weird, troublesome Serbian woman. Suffice to say, by the time the credits roll Irena’s unfortunate end has reaffirmed the wisdom of America’s isolation from otherness while clearing the path—both practically and morally—for Oliver and Alice to get married and indulge in proper, procreative sex.
Puig so consummately harnesses Cat People to his narrative intentions, while so thoroughly appropriating and subverting the original themes of the movie, that it’s no exaggeration to call it an instance of reverse cultural imperialism. (In a neat bit of irony demonstrating that appropriation can cut both ways, Spider Woman was then itself remade into a Hollywood movie starring Raúl Juliá and William Hurt.) On a purely functional level, Puig— ever-sensitive to the pleasures of genre— uses the movie’s central mystery to draw readers in. The first few pages of Spider Woman blatantly steal the opening to Cat People because Puig knows how genre flicks intrigue people. Yet in transposing this stolen opening to a Seventies Argentina jail cell, Puig obscures his thievery and begins to hint to readers that much more is afoot.
With the audience thus engaged, Puig is free to use the retelling of Cat People to define Molina and Valentin as characters. Right away he begins to characterize Molina through the details he recalls about Irena’s clothes, high heels and fingernail polish. Whereas Valentin is caught up in typically heterosexual male fetishes, such as neckline and skirt length, Molina picks up on details that would more commonly be the province of women.
—Yes, she’s beautiful [says Molina]. And from the strange outfit it’s obvious she’s European, her hair fixed in a sausage roll.
— What’s a sausage roll?
—Like a … how can I explain it to you? A chignon … a coil of hair something like a tube that goes around the head, over the forehead and all the way around in back.
— Doesn’t matter, go on.
— But come to think of it maybe I’m wrong, I think she had more of a braid around her head …
Filtering the movie through Molina’s conscience is a brilliant way for Puig himself to reshape the movie’s form, to emphasize what he likes and ignore what he doesn’t. The first big difference is that, rather than identify with Oliver and Alice, as the film wants the viewer to, Molina sympathizes most with Irena— and in his retelling she is a far more sympathetic character than in the original. Molina’s account also emphasizes the movie’s treatment of gender relations at the expense of its Christian and nativist themes. (In one telling scene, Molina clearly forgets a key Christian plot point, then dismisses it as unimportant.)
Once Cat People’s plot has been laid out, Puig further subverts the film by having Valentin frequently interrupt Molina and interject his own interpretation. In one exchange, Molina’s narration of the on-screen triangle between Oliver, Irena and Alice quickly turns into a debate on gender roles. Revealingly, Valentin voices his certitude that Oliver’s problems go back to his mother:
—Okay, the reason he likes Irena is because she’s frigid and he doesn’t have to make her, that’s why he looks after her and takes her home where the mother’s all over the place. Even if she’s dead she’s there, in every stick of furniture, and the curtains and all that junk, didn’t you say so yourself?
Molina’s reply underlines just how far they’ve departed from the original film:
—But that’s all your own concoction. How do I know if the house was the mother’s? I told you that because I liked the apartment a lot, and since it was decorated with antiques I said it could be the mother’s, but that’s all. Maybe he rents the place furnished.
— Then you’re inventing half the picture.
The entire discussion of Cat People happens in the first fifty pages of Kiss of the Spider Woman; there are five more reconstructed movies to come, two with real-world sources and three without. But Puig doesn’t merely cut and paste these films: his characters engage deeply with Cat People, inhabiting its premise and metaphors to such an extent that it makes it possible for them to try on different roles and thereby communicate afresh. Thus Puig not only appropriates the aesthetics of film in his novel; he appropriates the medium’s role in society, dramatizing how it has helped redefine an activity humans have engaged in since the first recorded stories. The fact that Puig’s novel went on to become a successful movie means that Puig’s critique of cinema succeeded in completing the conversation: it boomeranged back into the cinematic discourse that had spawned it.
Something else important also happens: while it’s true that Puig exploits Cat People for his own ends, his engagement is so thorough that the reverse occurs too. Puig makes several of the metaphors and themes raised by Cat People into leitmotifs that he will return to again and again throughout Kiss of the Spider Woman—among them repressed sexuality, personal transformation and the authorities’ ability to define normality—but in drawing these motifs from Cat People, Puig allows the movie’s world and sensibility to elbow its way into his book. Puig will subvert Cat People, but all the while Cat People will be trying to subvert him right back. This blowback is a necessary danger—and an opportunity—that is always present when a writer engages with a source text enough to creatively reuse it. It’s a sign that the writer has gone beyond a superficial mashing into genuine communication, and it is something notably missing in a book like Reality Hunger, where Shields so tightly circumscribes his sources’ participation that one feels the authors he quotes are speaking more in his voice than their own.
In many ways our experience of cultural appropriation far surpasses Puig’s. But Puig offers today’s remixers a reminder of the subversive, elegant power that appropriation once promised. His books take malicious pleasure in upsetting dominant beliefs by using their very own devices against them, yet Puig was so debonair in his use of stolen goods that whole orthodoxies could be slipped right past the reader’s eyes. His novels resemble today’s mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in that they continually bring together irreconcilables— and the transgressive mixtures Puig traded on certainly brought him notoriety, making him both a bestselling author and a feared subversive who eventually had to flee his homeland. But his transgressions were never ends in themselves, but rather explorations in communication between diverse fields that brought out the hidden resonances embedded in each. At their best, Puig’s novels open up a space that allows us to reflect on the complexities of contemporary identity formation.
In an essay on the pianist Glenn Gould, Edward Said looked back to the roots of the word invention to explain what Gould did when he played Bach. He wrote that
[Gould’s music] depends on invention as something that involves venturing beyond system into the negation (which is Gould’s way of describing the world outside music), then coming back into system as represented by music. … Gould is doing the difficult and surprisingly ambitious task of stating a credo about striving for coherence, system, and invention in thinking about music as an art of expression and interpretation.
Said goes on to explain that before Gould, Bach’s music was not considered a serious part of the repertoire of great pianists; Gould took this centuries-old music out of the hands of scholars and harpsichordists and brought it alive by making each performance an opportunity for contemporary re-invention. In effect, Gould appropriated Bach for a modern audience. Though Gould did not change a note of Bach’s music, his performance of the Goldberg Variations was so compelling that it overturned orthodoxies, creating a thoroughly contemporary version of Bach that immediately became both a classic and a popular sensation.
What we need now are writers who can reinvent, in the manner of Gould, the forms left to us in this century. True, the experience of being alive now is one of frenzy and acceleration, one in which the gates of culture are being stormed by eager amateurs whose main asset is passion. But the lasting narratives have always been built by authors who not only reproduce the cultural zeitgeist on the page but also interpret and even define it. They are the individuals who can embrace multiple subjectivities, who can venture out from their own self-knowledge to comprehend someone not like themselves, then make that “other” meaningful for a reader.
The understanding of appropriation bequeathed to us by collage, internet culture and musical sampling frequently runs contrary to this kind of invention, yet there is fertile territory here for writers willing to work it. There is the promise of explaining what communication means in the era of the 140-character missive and the Facebook status update. The promise of understanding identity in a culture where a major component of identity— consumption— is being rethought. The promise of explaining how we go about building our self-consciousnesses when life is splintered into a million little pieces. The writer who turns this into great literature will be, like Puig, one who tells us something essential about ourselves and our appropriative culture. It is a challenge worthy of a generation of writers, one that must be heeded if literature is to survive the internet age.