Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Relegation and Rebellion: The Queer, the Grotesque, and the Silent in the Fiction of Carson McCullers

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Relegation and Rebellion: The Queer, the Grotesque, and the Silent in the Fiction of Carson McCullers

Article excerpt

The grotesque demands attention. A contorted doll, a nail-pierced hand, a nipple-shorn bosom, a gouged-out eye: these are aggressive images that insert themselves into the mind's eye and linger. Such startling word-pictures punctuate the fiction of Carson McCullers so that when we think of her writing, we think of that which makes us shudder: we think of the grotesque.

Equally characteristic of McCullers's work are lonely, alienated, queer characters whose feelings, fears, and desires are conveyed through silence and exemplified by the figure of the mute, the central character of and the author's intended title for her first novel, published at its editors' suggestion as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). Though silent, the mute "speaks" to those characters in Heart who believe that he recognizes and affirms their own differences, which they feel but cannot name as queer: "His eyes made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before" (Heart 24). The visual and the aurai are often linked in McCullers, andjust as the mute seems to hear with his eyes, careful readers can discern the silent in her fiction speaking in image as the grotesque.

This synesthesia is a result of the relationship between the queer and the grotesque, an association that generates a picture of the destructive effects of queer silencing. The grotesque as McCullers uses it appears not so much as the fully embodied, (1) but in a wide range of imagery and vividly illustrated behaviors. Spectacularly, politically metonymic rather than metaphoric, the grotesque registers not the queer but the distortion produced by its relegation to silence, and in so doing, resists this practice.

To fully appreciate McCullers's visual rebellion, we must contextualize the queer. We must ask, in other words, what it might have meant to McCullers. In mid-century America the word, broadly speaking, signified oddity-a kind of negative exceptionalism. More specifically, it often designated that which deviated from the heterosexual and/or traditionally gendered, sometimes as a "shaming appellation" (Adams 55) and sometimes as "a code word known to many 'in the life' but few outside.... As an effective cover, it fully retained its root meaning of 'odd,' 'strange,' 'off-beat'" (Kenschaft 221). (2) Gender deviancy was deemed queer precisely because of its suspected proximity to--its supposed reliability as an indicator of--homosexuality. Thus the queer included homosexual desire and identity but stretched beyond these factors--precisely because of society's fears of them--suggesting the possibility of difference that was sexual in nature. In short, queerness signaled difference in a derogatory way, with the underlying implication that that which was most queer--the nastiest difference--was sexual deviance.

I have chosen to engage with the word queer--to interpret and to employ it--on the simple terms outlined above, though without, of course, any derision. I do so, first, because this is how McCullers most likely understood, and so utilized, "queer." Second, I see its contemporary, enormously encompassing usage as problematic. In the desire to draw attention to and, more importantly, to make available and acceptable a range of practices, identifications, and ways of being, current queer theory has begun to "detach queerness from sexual identity" and gender deviance (Halberstam 1), thus framing the non-normative as queer, and threatening, inadvertently perhaps, to collapse queerness and difference completely. (3) Popular journalism and queer activism reflect this academic trend. The Week magazine, for instance, offering a summary of Gregory Rodriguez's late 2007 Los Angeles Times article, "Gay--the new straight," quipped, "it's not queer to be gay anymore" (18). On the overtly political front, the same appears to be true: "the queer of contemporary queer politics is conceived not in opposition to heterosexuality per se but as a broader defiance of all kinds of oppressive social norms" (Adams 556). …

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