Azteks (HUM225/ HUM455)

I uploaded a pdf version of The Aztecs on the Free Books page.

We might think about Atomik Aztex in terms of its formal aspects. In Foster’s prefatory note he warns us that the novel is essentially plotless– i.e. that it doesn’t meet the conventions of a 19th century text such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. AA thus represents a kind of break with our expectations of how a novel works (though perhaps these have already been undermined by Fuentes). In this regard– and in conjunction with various other formal peculiarities– AA is a postmodern work.

Those other formal quirks include the use of catalogs. Foster litters AA with lists, a technique that enables him to gather and juxtapose what appear to be, at least initially, disparate phenomena. The effect of the catalog is to suggest continuities between, for example, Spanish colonialism and the pressures of capitalism, and to assert– at times tacitly, at others explicitly– the violence of these historical processes.

We might ask whether AA constitutes a symptom and/or a critique. Surely we can infer a project here: the criticism of a domineering Western ethos and epistemology that routinizes work and rationalizes interior life even as it explodes into irrational violence. Yet we can also view AA’s apparent incoherence– for example the not-always-obvious narrative choices (why tell us about the prostitutes?) or the illogical leaps in Zenzon’s discourse (his utterances and internal monologues)– as symptomatic of the postmodern.

One of Jameson’s central observations in his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” concerns the difficulty of representing history. According to this line of argument postmodern writers approach history indirectly via images or stereotypes about the past (as signifiers stripped of their signifieds). Foster’s alternate history– the two realities that eventually converge at the end of the novel– could be read as the effort to interrupt this false strategy, this simulation of history, by pushing the already-present tendency to assemble disconnected, decontextualized fragments to its extreme.

Significantly, Foster establishes connections between historical epochs and events that bear no necessary relationship to one another according to the accepted (“common sense”) version of history, and thereby troubles our understanding not only of the content of history (“the story” history tells) but its form (the plot of history, including the mechanisms of historical cause and effect). The two key dates in AA are of course 1492 and 1942. A simple substitution in number order, flipping the 4 and the 9, links the inaugural event of Western colonialism in the Americas with one of the most brutal military campaigns in human history, the Battle of Stalingrad. Both of these moments are pivotal insofar as they are linked to genocide, and they partake of the rationality/irrationality dialectic that characterizes Western civilization.

This last point might give us some insight into the reason why Foster burlesques Yeats’s “Second Coming.” HUM225 students might ponder to what extent AA participates in the kind of pastiche Jameson references in his essay. The jumble of images, signs, bits and pieces of information include advertising jingles, pop lyrics, the writings of VI Lenin, slang, Aztec mythology, and modernist poetry. What is the effect of heaping together all of these styles and bytes? Does it obliterate distinctions between them in terms of high/low culture?