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Jacob Vaark's Ghost

Jacob Vaark's Ghost

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Published by justinpickard
6000-word final essay for an MA-level course on Twenty-First Century American Fiction.
6000-word final essay for an MA-level course on Twenty-First Century American Fiction.

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Published by: justinpickard on May 08, 2010
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01/23/2013

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Twenty-First Century American Fiction Justin Pickar
'The uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted. The uncanny is ghostly. It is concerned with the strange, weird andmysterious, with a flickering sense (but not conviction) of something supernatural.(…) But the uncanny is not simply an experience of strangeness or alienation. Morespecifically, it is a peculiar commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar. (…) It canconsist in a sense of homeliness uprooted, the revelation of something unhomely atthe heart of hearth and home.' (Royle, 2003: 1)
Discuss the significance of the uncanny inone or more twenty-first century American novels
 With its literary origins in Freud's 1919 essay of the same name, the uncanny has proved as tenaciousa concept as it is difficult to define. Posited as a subset of the frightening or unsettling, Freud's initial analysistackled the uncanny as a phenomenology; a state which incited a specific emotional or psychologicalresponse. In the essay, pitched somewhere between 'strange conceptual shopping list'
1
 and 'a sort of theme-index'
2
. Freud says
this
is uncanny, as is
this
; and (on closer examination)
this
also. Unable to reduce theconcept to a clear set of characteristics, he can only approach the concept obliquely. His beginning is anattempted reverse-engineering of the definition through an indexing of phenomena – all that couldconceivably shelter beneath the heading 'uncanny':
[W]e can collect all those properties of persons, things, sense-impressions, experiences andsituations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness, and then infer the unknown natureof the uncanny from what all these examples have in common.
3
The weakness of this approach is highlighted by Royle, who claims that – for Freud – 'every attempt toisolate and analyse a specific case of the uncanny seems to generate an at least minor epidemic.'
4
An open
1Nicholas Royle,
The Uncanny
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 13.2Terry Castle,
The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny
(New York:Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 4-5.3Sigmund Freud, 'The Uncanny' (1919), Part I, <http://people.emich.edu/acoykenda/uncanny1.htm> [accessed09/02/2010]4Nicholas Royle,
The Uncanny
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 13.
1
 
Twenty-First Century American Fiction Justin Pickar
category, the uncanny is is not something that can be preempted: though certain examples will persist,nothing can predict nor preclude the emergence of new manifestations. Rather, by virtue of its subject, thelist must remain open, an 'obsessional inventory'
5
trapped in a perpetual state of becoming. Without someattempt to circumscribe the concept, this essay could easily become lost in that which Royle describes as the'maddening logic of the supplement'
6
. In an attempt to forestall such disorientation, I will begin by limitingmy analysis to a single item from the cascading index – specifically, the haunted house.Having born witness to many an approximate translation of the German
ünheimlich
into English as'haunted', rather than the preferable 'uncanny', Freud is peculiarly wary of the haunted house. As an exampleof the uncanny, it is 'perhaps the most striking of all'
7
,and it is this prototypicality which makes it dangerous.Though Freud may have wanted to focus on the specific effects of the haunted house, its uncanny elements were 'too much intermixed with what is purely gruesome and (...) in part overlaid by it'
8
.Seeking a definitionor analysis of the concept as a whole, it would have been of insurmountable difficulty to unpick the subject'suncanny response from the fear of which it was a subset. Whatever the weaknesses of his text, in which stretches the definition and potential applications of the uncanny into translucency, in his capacity as Freud's interlocutor, Royle does not lose sight (site) of theuncanny's origins as the
ünheimlich
, fundamentally entangled in – albeit primarily as a perverse outgrowth –notions of the domestic and the homely. Here,
heimlich
has a double meaning, described by Tatar asdesignating both 'that which is familiar and congenial [and] that which is concealed or kept from sight, andhence sinister.'
9
Reflecting the twin practices of containment and concealment,
heimlich
encapsulates theambiguous heritage of the house – ubiquitous, but far from neutral; a domain whose native form is equally aslikely to be grandmother as serial killer; Martha Stewart as Josef Fritzl.
5Terry Castle,
The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny
(New York:Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 4-5.6Nicholas Royle,
The Uncanny
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 8.7Sigmund Freud, 'The Uncanny' (1919), Part I, <http://people.emich.edu/acoykenda/uncanny1.htm> [accessed09/02/2010]8Ibid.9Maria Tatar, 'The Houses of Fiction: Toward a Definition of the Uncanny', Comparative Literature 33 (2), (1981),p. 169.
2
 
Twenty-First Century American Fiction Justin Pickar
 With his claim that the uncanny 'can consist in a sense of homeliness uprooted, the revelation of something unhomely at the heart of hearth and home'
, Royle appears to be suggesting that – whateverFreud's concerns – the haunted house provides as strong a starting point for an analysis of the uncanny asany. Indeed, in a world where automata have been normalised as vacuum-cleaning trilobites, cremationincreasingly supplants burial, and most people would not know where to
begin
looking for a waxwork to feeluncanny at, the (haunted) house remains a highly potent signifier. As Mieville explains;
'The house is sanctuary. The house is despot. The house is the repository of all that is socialand human. The house is animate, alienated dead labour, a product which spins forth'grotesque ideas'. These opposed conceptions coincide in one particular. The house is
 powerful 
.'
Linking the 'the familial household to the nation'
,the concept of the domestic constitutes both in'opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home.'
Kaplan highlights theorigins of American domestic discourse, seeing it as fundamentally linked to the formulation of ideas of Manifest Destiny; a reverse-side to the coin of imperial assimilation. The home was to be a 'bounded andrigidly ordered interior (...) [existing in opposition] to the boundless and undifferentiated space of aninfinitely expanding nation.'
In the twenty-first century, notions of domestic insecurity, terrorism, andunchecked immigration are endemic to an America chafing against its own boundaries. Here, the hauntedmansions of the gothic novel unfold in all directions; metastasising their brethren in the cities, suburbia, andon the American frontier. Wherever we look, from
 Desperate Housewives
to the Department of HomelandSecurity, our gaze reconstitutes the domestic as tragic, culpable; heavy with secrets and ticking bombs.In this essay, I intend to interrogate the motif of the 'haunted domestic'. The heart of my thesis restsa close reading of a specific instance of haunting taken from Toni Morrison's 2008 novel,
 A Mercy.
To bolstermy argument, I will also be attempting to link the key case study with comparable examples from DeLillo's
 Falling Man
and Ellis'
 Lunar Park
. Taken as a composite, the uncanny – or uncanny-ish – elements of these
10Nicholas Royle,
The Uncanny
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 8.11China Mieville, 'The Conspiracy of Architecture: Notes on a Modern Anxiety',
 Historical Materialism
2 (1998), pp.25-26.12Amy Kaplan, 'Manifest Domesticity ',
 American Literature
70 (3) (1998), p. 582.13Ibid.14Ibid, p. 583.
3

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