Transgressive Fiction is "a genre of literature that focuses on characters that feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of Transgressive Fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social or nihilistic." (Wikipedia)
From this definition, we understand that author's such as Burroughs, Shelby, Genet, Miller, Ginsberg belong to the genre, and inculcated as we all are from birth, it is understandable that what we easily recognize as "transgressive" is a kind of game of whack-a-mole, wherein our hero rebels poke their rebellious heads up only to, sooner or later, have them whacked back down by society. It's a game the house always wins because it sets the parameters. But what if we step beyond easy recognition? What might we find there to inform us about literature and about life?
Last month I reviewed Never Anyone But You (discovered on the terrific site transgressivefiction) and concluded, "It is an interesting choice to include in the "transgressive fiction" tent. It contains little of the usual canon; this is not a story of rebellion via drugs, criminality, nihilism or self-destructive decadence. Claude and Marcel defy oppressive norms by creating a happy and long life together, by not internalizing the normative paradigm but designing and defining their own."
I think we take too narrow a view of transgression when we see only "drugs, sexual activity, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime," to quote goodreads. Not that there's anything wrong with those things in fiction of course, but what I mean is this: if the bloated center of a bell curve represents society ("everywhere in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members," as Emerson tells us), then transgression extends in many directions.
It is these heretofore unrecognized directions, and the fiction that explores them, that is the subject of this month's Censorable Ideas.
From The Atlantic Monthly: "Transgressional fiction shares similarities with splatterpunk, noir and erotic fiction in its willingness to portray forbidden behaviors and shock readers. But it differs in that protagonists often pursue means to better themselves and their surroundings—albeit unusual and extreme ones. Much transgressional fiction deals with searches for self-identity, inner peace and/or personal freedom. Unbound by usual restrictions of taste and literary convention, its proponents claim that transgressional fiction is capable of pungent social commentary."
This description begins to take us somewhere interesting. Can fiction be transgressive in a positive direction?
I offer in the affirmative the following examples:
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes,
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino,
The Benaroya Chronicles trilogy by Jody Scott,
Headhunters from Outer Space by Bret McCormick
Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson
The characters in these novels subvert & disobey the imperatives of their society, not in the easily recognized transgressional fiction modality, but critically, to my point here, for the same reasons. These protagonists SEE the normative paradigm, with all the banal hypocrisies and suppressions thereof, but reject it by flourishing in a paradigm of their own making.
"Resistance is futile," warn the species-gobbling Borg in Star Trek, and we've all heard the truism, "what you resist, persists," so perhaps they make a good point. Perhaps it's a problem with our understanding of transgression as synonymous with rebellion.
When we look to the dictionary definition of rebellion ("An act of violent or open resistance to an established government or ruler. The action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention"), we begin to see how the game of whack-a-mole rebellion cedes society victory from the start. Maybe what's needed is a broader concept of transgression, something that doesn't accede that society's paradigm is the benchmark, against which we can only rebel.
Like Claude and Marcel in Never, Scott's characters Benaroya and Sterling O'Blivion, Calvino's protagonist in Baron, McCormick's Headhunters and Don Quixote are examples of "transgressors" who defy societal norms by the more evolutionary and difficult task of not internalizing the dominant paradigm. Easier said than done (but not impossible) in life, of course, but these are fictional heroes who transcend the "games condition" of poking their heads up for society to take a whack at.
As imagined by these and other authors, characters "who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines" in positive directions can and do make critical points about society, may "portray forbidden behaviors and shock readers," but most importantly these protagonists "pursue means to better themselves and their surroundings." They give us permission and inspiration to imagine better, bigger, richer, freer than the world would have us believe is possible. And what is more transgressive than that?
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