A WEALTH OF ALLUSIONS: WEAVING THE WEB OF CULTURE

I have just read Marc Pastor’s novel L’any de la plaga (2010) and this post deals with two matters suggested by comments on this work in GoodReads. Pastor, who works as CSI for the Mossos, the Catalan police, has published so far five novels, of which I absolutely recommend La mala dona (2008). He narrates in this atmospheric book the gruesome real-life crimes of Enriqueta Martí, a dreadful woman who preyed on the children of the poor (mainly of prostitutes) to cater to the tastes of the Barcelona upper classes, both on the cosmetic and the sexual fronts. Read the novel to understand my cryptic sentence… I found Pastor’s novel Montecristo (2007) just average but I truly had a great time this summer reading his colonial thriller Bioko (2013), set, of all places, in the Spanish colony island of Fernando Poo (in the 1880s). This is what lead me to read L’any de la plaga; next, it’ll be Pastor’s last novel, Farishta (2017). Pastor, who is, no doubt, the most interesting Catalan writer together with Albert Sánchez Piñol in the field of popular fiction will be, by the way, a guest of honour at the oncoming CatCon, the first festival devoted to Catalan SF (November 24-25, Vilanova i la Geltrú).

L’any de la plaga is, plainly, an adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1955), and, in particular of the 1978 film version directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (you might be familiar with the more popular 1956 adaptation directed by Don Siegel). Pastor’s novel contains direct allusions to the Kaufman film, which the protagonist, social worker Víctor Negro, does know very well, and what I would call indirect allusions, particularly the ugly scream that the transformed individuals utter. Marc Pastor never tries to hide his inspiration and, if I am correct, his project for this novel consists of proving that Barcelona works perfectly well as the setting for horror SF. I enjoyed very much the challenge of suspending my disbelief and the invitation to replace American locations with real streets and buildings in Barcelona. Pastor indeed makes the point of only using places he knows personally and of setting many key scenes not in downtown Barcelona but in working-class neighbourhoods, like Nou Barris. An excellent choice.

Reading the comments on L’any de la plaga in GoodReads, I came across a post by a trainee doctor, Arantxa. Apart from noting that some medical terms used by Pastor are incorrect, she made an interesting observation but also a much more questionable comment. Her observation raises a complicated issue: if, as Pastor acknowledges both in the book and in diverse interviews, his novel is basically a retelling of Kaufman’s film, shouldn’t we call it fan fiction? A few chapters into L’any de la plaga I started worrying whether this was, rather, a case of plagiarism until Pastor acknowledged his source. The word ‘homage’ suggested itself next but, to be honest, I never thought of Pastor’s novel as fan fiction for the very simple reason that its is a professional novel in print and not an amateur online text.

Arantxa’s comment, however, makes us wonder at which point allusion goes too far and, of course, this has to do with our worship of originality. Young readers who know nothing about Finney or Kaufman may feel cheated by Pastor on discovering Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as I felt when finding out that John Milius’ screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! is an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. In this case, matters are much worse for Joseph Conrad is not even mentioned in the film credits. Perhaps with L’any de la plaga, Pastor is telling us that all stories worth narrating have been already told and the only thing we can do now is tell them again from a new angle. Thus, instead of the implicit homage that Bram Stoker pays in Dracula to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, his inspirational text, we have explicit homage and direct allusion.

I should check whether Pastor borrows this from Stephen King, who loves to pepper his novels with all kinds of allusions to real, ordinary life, but I always wonder why characters in fiction never ever refer to other similar fictions as existing in their world. Perhaps I am completely wrong and the trend has changed but as far as I recall most alien invasion stories fail to allude to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. To complicate matters even futher, take the 2013 version of Carrie, based on King’s novel, published in 1974 and already the object of a very popular adaptation filmed in 1976. Shouldn’t the young Carrie of 2013 know about the 1970s film and novel? Why does everyone pretend in the new film that they don’t exist? What kind of background reality is built for the main character in that way?

Let me return to Arantxa’s comments on L’any de la plaga. Pastor chose to use Víctor Negro as a first person narrator, which means that he speaks as ordinary people do speak in the early 21st century: constantly alluding to popular texts. At one point when he is risking his life, Negro decides to ‘play a Jedi mind trick’ to persuade his opponent to let him go; at another, he complains of a headache which feels like being the bad guy in Hellraiser (that’s Pinhead…). For most readers in GoodReads, and for the author of this post, the very many allusions that pepper Negro’s speech are part of the charm of Pastor’s novel because they make it real. Besides, the shared allusions work very well in building complicity with the reader and ballasting our sympathy.

There is, however, a major snag: as another reader notes, the allusions may be lost on anyone under 30. And, well, Arantxa complains that the many references to films, series, music and books are just a constant obstacle in the reading. Funnily, she makes her point by using an allusion: “Every time something like that surfaced, I felt like Tawny in Sunny entre estrellas (Sonnie with a Chance) when she’s told something she doesn’t know and doesn’t care for”. I have used Wikipedia to learn that Sonnie with a Chance is a Disney Channel teen sitcom, broadcast 2009-11, which proves my point: allusions are essential to weave the web of culture. Now I know something I didn’t know five minutes ago, which is good. Arantxa feels annoyed because Pastor’s allusions are not for her but for his generation and upwards, those born in the 1970s and 1960s. I, however, felt curious about her allusion, for I don’t belong to her age group and I always feel anxious about the time when I might not understand any stories produced by Arantxa’s generation (born late 1980s, I guess).

Allusions, then, in all texts, from James Joyce to Marc Pastor, should never be taken as an obstacle but, rather, as an invitation to learn more. As Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock, the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion (2001), explain, allusions “can be used as a kind of shorthand, evoking instantly a complex human experience embedded within a story or dramatic event”, or “to entertaining effect”; also, obviously, to show off (I suspect this was Joyce’s case…). The problem with the ‘entertaining effect’ is that it excludes audiences who are not into the joke, which can be very annoying to them. In Pixar’s Zootopia (2016) there is a delicious allusion to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) which only adults can catch. This is a great strategy to interest adults in taking kids to cinemas; yet, it frustrates children to spot jokes in films intended for them from which they are excluded. And this is the irritant: the sense of exclusion, which makes you feel ignorant and, at worse, mortified.

Age and the passage of time combine in strange ways regarding allusions. To begin with, it would have been absurd for Pastor to have his protagonist use allusions that only teens could get, for he is an adult man born in the 1970s (like the author). However, YA writers, obviously, need to make sure that their readers understand their allusions–if you don’t get the references to Greek mythology in Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2005-9), then much of the fun is lost, though I would agree that readers are also schooled as they read. Allusions, logically, always have an educational value and this is why the better educated persons enjoy them best. That is to say: the older you are, the more allusions you recognise (um, except those that come from younger age groups…).

Other kinds of allusions risk being lost in time. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion surely is no help to read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Glamorama (2000), an extremely violent, angry novel narrated by a male model, Victor Ward, and full of allusions to his celebrity-studded 1990s universe. On a first name basis… I recall in particular a reviewer wondering whether in ten years time anyone would recognise Victor’s allusions to Johnny and Kate, that is to say, actor Johnny Depp and top model Kate Moss, the hottest couple on Earth between 1994 and 1997. Glamorama plays, then, with the fine line dividing allusion to topical issues from plain gossip, and while fun to read at the time of publication (in this gossipy sense, not in others), this is a novel that must sound positively ancient today. Better stick to the Bible and the classics…

Returning to L’any de la plaga, I must thank Pastor for revealing how absurdly empty most characters are in fiction for, unlike his Víctor Negro, they never refer to the music, books, films, series that are an essential part of our lives. And when they do so, this is mainly restricted to, well, the Bible and the classics, not to the popular. Arantxa teaches us in her post that allusions can also be a powerful generational barrier but, believe me, the bafflement and the sense of exclusion are mutual. Inevitably, each generation has its main referents.

Fortunately, Wikipedia, that immense wealth of allusions, can help. Look at how beautiful the English idiom is: what are many allusions if not wealth?

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