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Stalker Demon Guy (maybe) Meets Clueless (certainly) Meets Joyce Carol Oates (thankfully): The Fantastic in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”

Where Are You Going, Where Have You BeenI love it when an author can make you start out a story by hating their main character, and in the end, make you pity, or even admire them. This is but one reason that I teach Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” in my class on the grotesque. [editor's note: you can find the full text of the story here] The other reason is that it falls into the realm of the fantastic and uncanny, and stirs up a whirl of debate during our short class hour. When I ask my students if Arnold Friend is a supernatural being or psychotic stalker, the class is usually split fifty-fifty. That’s some powerful fantastic at work.

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Teaching in Breach

The City and The CityWhen I began the semester, it was Catherynne M. Valente’s book about a sexually transmitted city, Palimpsest, that I was worried about teaching. Well, worried is maybe too strong of a word, but there are some texts that require tighter classroom management than others, and I was prepared for Palimpsest to be one of those. Still, after explicating all the quaint sexual punning in The Canterbury Tales and teaching a law school seminar on the speech clause of the first amendment that included a lecture on the constitutional necessity of wearing g-strings and pasties while dancing nude, I was sure I could handle it. More importantly, the book was too perfect for the course – The Fantastic as Place – to leave it off the syllabus out of cowardice.

Palimpsest, as it turned out, wasn’t a problem. No, the book that almost broke my class was China Miéville’s The City and the City.

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Teaching Lev Grossman's The Magicians

The MagiciansLast spring in an honors seminar on modern fantasy literature, I had the opportunity to teach Lev Grossman's The Magicians.  Overall, it was a very positive experience, with many of my students later telling me how they had recommended the novel to others.  We spent three 75-minutes class periods on the novel, and while I certainly felt like we could have continued the discussion even further, this amount of time was enough to cover the main issues at stake in the novel. 

Instead of providing a detailed account of everything that we did during those three days of class, I will focus on one of my main strategies for teaching the novel, as well as one of the major challenges that presented itself during our discussions. [note: the rest of this article will contain potential spoilers]  I then hope that others who have taught this novel will post their own experiences in the comments!

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The Ever Fantastic Kafka

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other StoriesIn a letter to a friend, Kafka once wrote: “I believe that we should only read those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it? What we need are books that affect us like some really grievous misfortune, like the death of one whom we loved more than ourselves, as if we were banished to distant forests, away from everybody, like a suicide; a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us” (qtd. in Koelb 72).

This quote is but one reason that I love teaching Kafka—no other author confounds, frustrates, and dazzles my students the way he does, whether it is with a tattoo machine that takes on a life of its own or a bucket that one can fly in desperate times, or a salesman that suddenly wakes up one day a “monstrous vermin.” And hidden within these fantastic tales are deeper issues about justice, faith, power dynamics, use value, and yes, even about writing itself. Take the tortuous machine in In the Penal Colony, which is rendered with such meticulous description while still defying reality. My students know the machine looks like, sort of. Same with the giant bug poor Gregor Samsa finds himself morphed into—my students have a hazy idea of what it looks like, but get them to draw it, and they find themselves at a loss (some just go for a standard cockroach to make it easy). This, to me, is the fantastic at its most powerful—it feels real on some level that we cannot rationalize.

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Falling Down the Wrong Rabbit Hole: The Fantastic in Kanai Mieko’s “Rabbits”

Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.There are few stories that can render my students practically speechless the way that Kanai’s surreal, Alice in Wonderland tale gone wrong can. At first told from the viewpoint of a nameless “frame” narrator who struggles with writing, the story slowly descends into the realm of psychological madness once he/she encounters a rabbit. Not just any rabbit, mind you, but a human bunny, a girl named Lily who wears real rabbit fur from head to toe and a rabbit head, complete with pink glass eyes. Lily leads the narrator back to her dilapidated house, which the narrator describes as “rabbit hutch” since “the floor had wall-to-wall carpet of rabbit fur and on the walls were nailed fresh rabbit pelts” (4). Lily says there must be a reason that she ended up in such a state, and so begins to tell her story to the narrator, and to us.

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