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How does the narrative begin and conclude?

March 20, 2011

Genesis - Bernard Beckett

I touched on the sense of institutional repression and surveillance in Bernard Beckett’s Genesis in my blog, Institutional Watchfulness… but I want to revisit it.

Consider: How does this narrative begin and conclude?

…with the protagonist entering (and finally not exiting!) the examination room.  Not only is the protagonist confined to this room; the novel itself is structurally confined by Anaxamander’s examination.  All sense the reader has of leaving this room and exploring Adam’s world (The Republic in which our protagonist lives) is an illusion: as much of an illusion as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave (an allegory, which is hugely relevant to this text)!

There is something really interesting about the way Genesis takes place almost entirely within an examination.  The setting is a very powerful one and it manipulates the reader in so many ways…

On examinations and power…

Let me start with two theorists… When I read what Foucault wrote about examinations, I couldn’t help connecting it with this novel – and with Roberta Seelinger-Trites ideas about Young Adult literature (I’ll just quote them and let you do the rest):

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgement. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them.  That is why, in all the mechanisms of discipline, the examination is highly ritualized.  In it are combined the ceremony of power and the form of the experiment, the deployment of force and the establishment of truth.  At the heart of the procedures of discipline, it manifests the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected. The superimposition of the power relations and knowledge relations assumes in the examination all its visible brilliance.”[1]

Foucault’s statement here compliments Roberta Seelinger-Trites‘ claim that YA Literature is about curbing the adolescent’s power.  In an essay that I keep returning to, she assertion that “power is even more fundamental to the genre [of young adult literature] than growth is.”[2]  Seelinger-Trites writes that “while in children’s literature, growth is depicted as a function of what the character has learned about self, growth in adolescent literature is inevitably depicted as a function of what the adolescent has learned about how society curtails the individual’s power.  The adolescent cannot grow without experiencing gradations between power and powerlessness.”[3]

 Some thoughts about how the setting of the examination room influences the reader:

Certainly, the examination room is the perfect setting for this protagonist – and the narrative journey she takes her reader on. It is an entirely familiar setting to most readers (especially the young adult market to which this novel was originally marketed). We feel watched and increasingly powerless and dominated, even as she does:

– the examination is a ‘comprehensible’ and familiar moment and the reader empathises easily with the protagonist, which means that the author’s silence on Anaxamander’s identity is hardly noticed.  We assume she is ‘like us’ and fail to observe the possibility that she might be ‘artificially intelligent’ until the end of the novel.  

– likewise, this setting makes perfect sense of the fact that we get no information about the Examiners.  The power relationship between examiner and student is well-established and as we enter this text through the protagonist’s eyes, we think nothing of receiving no personal information about the Examiners (we get a sense of their power and position but almost no details; the Examiners are seemingly absent of feeling or individuality except that which is ‘imagined’ by Anaxamander). The Examiners’ power exists in the ambience of the examination itself – and doesn’t need to be characterised specifically.

– the examination works in perfectly with Beckett’s adoption of Plato’s Republic throughout this text.  Education/ assessment/ examination/ philosophical discussion/ history / truth/ knowledge etc… the pieces of the novel link so readily in this setting!  It all fits into a logical package and sets us up perfectly for the final twist at the end of the novel…. Anaxamander’s inability to adopt the stories of the Republic (and be a good citizen)  leads to her death (the outcome proposed in Plato’s Republic)…. BUT the consequence (her execution) of Anaxamander’s lack of conformity and inability to believe the stories fed to her by the Philosophers appears so extreme to the average reader that he/she is required to really think this conclusion over. The reader finishes the novel, then needs to revisit the text in her mind.  She wonders about the ‘extreme’ nature of Anaxamander’s execution – and then about how politically expedient and life-changing certain stories truly are… Genesis is an invitation to become critically literate!

– Our experience of Anaxamander’s story in the examination room matches Anaxamander’s experience of Adam’s story.  The social absence that surrounds the novel’s protagonist matches the absence of place (in that Anaximander’s story almost never leaves the examination room), but our minds fill in the blanks and we ignore these authorial silences without any trouble… as easily as Anaxmander ignores the gaps in Adam’s story.

Slight aside…

For a brief introduction to Genesis – and some suggested questions for approaching the novel critically, see my blog, Genesis, Bernard Beckett.  Actually, I have put out quite a few ideas, questions, thoughts, etc, on this novel (just click on the Genesis tag to the right of this page to see them).

[1] (my emphasis) 184-185 Michel Foucault (1979) Discipline and Punish; The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Penguin Books: London

[2] 473 Seelinger Trites, R. (2001). “The Harry Potter Novels as a Test Case for Adolescent Literature.” Style35(3): 472-485

[3] p473 Ibid.

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