Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Performing the Abyss: Octavia Butler's Fledgling and the Law

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Performing the Abyss: Octavia Butler's Fledgling and the Law

Article excerpt

For Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and those yet to come

The overlap between performance and the law might seem obvious in today's age of trials as public spectacles. Less obvious are the ways in which the law, facing large-scale, state-sanctioned historical injustices, has put performance to work. Catherine Cole states that "public, embodied, and performed dimensions" of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century trials, staged in front of television and radio audiences, have resulted in a subtle shift of emphasis away from judgment and punitive sentencing as the end point of legal proceedings (168). Instead, the actual public witnessing and hearings--the performative ritual of justice--have become paramount. The actual telling of legal stories "serves important legal and social functions that can pave the way for change" (Strong 28). Through a literary depiction of public legal proceedings, Octavia Butler's last novel, Fledgling, exposes the often obscured imbrications of the law and performance. Butler draws our attention to those aspects of legal proceedings that one would usually associate with theater, such as performative conventions and their subversions, the use of space and staging, and modes of address and audience. By foregrounding these performative aspects of the law, the novel critiques traditional American legal systems that repeatedly fail to address social injustices, particularly the injustice of slavery. Performance methodology becomes key to interpreting sites of the law that usually place theatricality in opposition to the truth. Legal remedy, as Donald Korobkin affirms, is "an institutionalized form of coping with irreparable loss, a way of moving through and beyond impasse to some temporary and imperfect solution" (2130). Only rites of memory that gesture towards what was lost can move us beyond this impasse where a person can never be truly compensated for her grief and suffering. Butler's novel dwells on this impasse, arguing that performative legal proceedings can function as a mechanism for (deferred) justice rather than a system of individualized remedy for a limited, state prohibited wrong. This deferral or failure of justice, when placed alongside performative acts of participation, transforms grief into grievance and foregrounds the ongoing search for redress.

Published just before Butler's unfortunate death in February 2006, Fledgling is a fast-paced and gripping vampire story. It details the attempted murder of Shori Matthews, an "Ina," the name for vampires in Butler's mythology. Shori's entire bloodline is brutally killed by a human gunman coerced by the Silk family, an aristocratic clan of Ina obsessed with blood purity. The attempt on Shori's life causes devastating physical injuries, all of which heal with the exception of her total memory loss. As a result, she no longer knows who or what she is (her name, her species, her ethics), and she cannot remember her murdered kin. Throughout the narrative, Shori reconstructs her gendered, racial, and vampire identity while attempting to bring the Silks to justice. It is through the pursuit of this ever-elusive justice that Shori learns how to deal ethically with her power as a black, female Ina, responsible for the care of her human symbionts upon whom she feeds.

The Monsters We Need to Invent

There have been many different depictions of vampires, dating from 1816 with the literary creations of Lord Byron (1) to the recent Twilight romances. The representations of vampires, whether literary, visual, or popular, change with the times, as Nina Auerbach argues. Insisting that there is no single vampire, Auerbach stresses their adaptability and versatility in order to make the crucial claim that the history of vampires is a history of political change: "...every age embraces the vampire it needs" (145). Vampires can be seen as "boundary creatures whose bodies reflect and produce cultural identity" (Goddu 127). …

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