Topic: In a close and systematic reading of William Gibson’s “Marly and the Boxmaker,” a long selection from his 1986 novel Count Zero, analyze how Gibson’s linguistic style creates a specific and sustained tone in the narrative—both in the reading experience and the level of ideas and themes. Furthermore, discuss how this tone, this emotional and intellectual accent of the narrative, works by a process of description, metaphor, and irony. Description is that linguistic mode of sentences whereby a reader is shown the world in cascades of intricate detail. Metaphor is that process where by figures of speech (terms, phrases, even whole sentences) create vivid comparisons between known and unknown things in order to extend the reader’s understanding of deep and complex processes, contexts, and roles. And irony is that strategy of saying the apparent opposite of what one intends, which creates an instant of contradictory variation in a reader’s understanding, all in order to suggest a strong and sustained critique of some state of affairs contrary to one’s desires, expectations, beliefs, and requirements. Reveal how Gibson’s style, as he unfolds and interrogates his subject matter, offers the careful reader a specific critique of late twentieth century high-technology societies, as well as the forms and roles which individual identities take and the way those identities are battered or soothed by a society comprised of weak governments, rapacious and unstoppable global corporations, and fragmented social networks.
In your core analysis, it will be important to address the following questions as you unfold and trace Gibson’s style through his lush and intricate text:
1) What kind of a social, cultural world does he give us to contemplate?
2) How does it relate to our world? Where does it match and where vary?
3) What kind of human being is Marly? What universals does she represent? What particularities?
4) What kind of person is Virek? What roles and patterns does he symbolize? Who in our world is he meant to evoke?
5) What is Marly’s central dilemma? What is her crisis? What imbalance shadows her effort to live on her own terms?
6) What is the nature of her central choice? What aspect(s) of herself does she
transform through that choice?
7) How is Marly defined by the choices she makes? What is the cost to her of such decision-making? What is the treasure of those choices?
8) What, exactly, the ‘boxmaker’? What is the purpose of the Boxmaker? What version of ‘artist’ does it exemplify? How is this version postmodern in nature, texture, and effect?
9) What do the Cornell boxes symbolize? What values, what aesthetics?
10) How can these boxes be read as both general and particular models for society, for culture, even for individual psyches?
11) What argument(s) does Gibson maintain with the world in his fiction?
12) What cultural patterns and social connections does Gibson’s style reveal?
In your placing of Gibson’s work within the post-modern debate about the qualities of life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you should address the following concerns:
13) How has Gibson’s career as a writer unfolded in the last thirty-five years?
14) What cultural effects has his work produced, evoked?
15) According to knowledgeable critics, how accurate a picture of the world we inhabit has his work captured?
16) What other writers is he ‘kin’ to and what vision of our world do they share?
17) What is the ultimate critique of our world such a ‘school’ of writers makes?
You may find it helpful to read all of the Gibson fictions in The Dreamstation before you work through “Marly and the Boxmaker” in intricate detail. The other short works may seem mysterious, but if read with eyes sensitive to poetry, one can see the working of description and metaphor, with an often ironic accent, to reveal deep and abiding dimensions of human being. Careful research on Gibson’s style (early and late), and social impact as a post-modern writer and cultural observer can only deepen your appreciation of his work. Especially interesting is the commentary on his most recent, non-science-fiction novels Pattern Recognition (2004), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010). These three works most succinctly present Gibson’s greatest concerns about our hyper-digitized, globalized, asynchronous culture and what it means for us to shape ‘livable’ lives within such a world. Recently Gibson release a collection of incidental essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012), which wonderfully and interestingly reveal his philosophy of life, his aesthetic sense and history, and his sense of what he’s up to as a literary artist. As you frame your analysis of “Marly and the Boxmaker” with a discussion of how that work sits within the pattern of Gibson’s literary concerns, and how he himself sits in the wider framework of literary investigations of post-modern life, it is important that you define key critical terms (for example, ‘post-modernism,’ ‘globalization,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘digital,’ ‘culture,’ ‘virtual reality’) in several fashions, from basic dictionary consultation to more refined reflection in a specialty encyclopedia and even monographs devoted to literary style, theories of contemporary cultures. The campus library—in its real-world guise and its virtual presence—will be a great aid to you on this point.
Format: Please format your essay in MLA-2009 guidelines (see the Playbook “MLA Presentation Guidelines” document and the “Student Sample Essay” for direct models). The essay should be accomplished in 5 to 8 full pages, plus end-notes and works cited/consulted listings. That is, the primary analysis is 5 to 6 pages long (figure about 300 words per page, for a word range of 1500 to 1800 words). The essay can exceed the five-paragraph structure I have insisted upon in the past assignments, but each paragraph beyond the traditional core three of development should be well-developed (15 to 30 sentences or more long) and balanced by the others—no tiny paragraphs sandwiched between larger ones, creating an uneven analysis and reading flow. Clearly, end-notes will be required to succinctly touch on the framing concerns of Gibson’s career and the structure and process of postmodernism in cultural critique. Also, your Works Cited listing must contain at least fifteen separate sources (in addition to the four Gibson texts in The Dreamstation PDF), though–clearly–you may find and decide to use many more than ten qualitative sources of information. You may exceed this limit of resources (and add more than four internet sources, but the base number should be respected first). It will undoubtedly be necessary to create a parallel Works Consulted listing to show how far and deep your research went to prepare you for your analysis of Gibson’s short tale.
This EP topic and task will require you to do serious research to amend your understanding of Gibson’s text, his aesthetics, his effect, and his argument about the world. The Additional Readings page of the class site contains two book-length studies of Gibson (one on his works, and one on the theme of post-modernism in science fiction) which you should read carefully: they will give you very specific ideas, offer wonderful passages to quote and cite and unfold through analysis, and their lists of references are gold–you could easily follow such pointers to other, equally rich and impressive resources. You should also expect to make great use of JSTOR (see, especially Science Fiction Studies journal), EBSCOHost and ProQuest for recent and historical articles, and the GVRL for backgrounders on science-fiction, postmodernism, and various literary themes evident in Gibson’s work. Gibson has a big internet footprint: his own website and blog, a series of Youtube presentations (interviews of various stripe and the entirety of the documentary film on him, No Maps for These Territories)–so using these materials will truly sensitize and deepen your understanding of this artist’s intentions, accomplishments, and effects on readers. And don’t forget the Paris review interview with him in the “Art of Fiction” interview channel. Finally, even a brief survey of his other novels, short-story collection, and recent collection of essays (Distrust That Particular Flavor) will add great particularity to your study.
With this project you can show your command of the essay form, your significant use of researched material and scholarly structures, and your emerging and sophisticated understanding of how literature creates artifacts not just for entertainment and informative experience, but also for critique and the reformulation of knowledge about the dynamic and often baffling, as well as wonderful and supportive world we live within.