Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Postmodernism Final Paper, Family and Kinship in King Rat and American Gods, Summer 2005

This is the third post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I wrote this essay at the end of the Summer 2005 semester in Professor Eugene Thacker’s LCC 2216 Science, Technology, and Postmodernism class at Georgia Tech. Besides being introduced to many of the important figures in postmodern theory, Professor Thacker offered us the class opening, “What is the postmodern? The postmodern is ‘whatever.'” Our class discussions and private conferences were invaluable to forming my thinking in the years to follow about 20th- and 21st-century literature and the condition of living in postmodernity.

My final essay draft below explores kinship in China Miéville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. King Rat was one of the novels that we read as a class. American Gods was a novel that I had recently read on a recommendation from my friend James Warbington (who I worked with on two 48 Hour Film Festival projects and interviewed here. He has gone on to shoot the feature film, The Black Earth).

Below, I am including my final essay, an earlier and signficantly different draft of the essay, and notes. Professor Thacker met with me to discuss the earlier draft and said, as I recall, “This is trying to do too much. Your essay is going in too many directions.” He talked me through the  dominant ideas in my essay and offered me significant advice about focusing my argument and discussion. I offer these essays not only as explorations of China Mieville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but as an example of significant revision for my students (put another way: revision is not copyediting).

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Final Paper

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Eugene Thacker

LCC 2116 – Science, Technology, and Postmodernism

Summer 2005

Family and Kinship in Two Postmodern Fictions:  King Rat and American Gods

King Rat and American Gods are two recent postmodern fictions that explore issues of hybrid identity by looking at relationships based on family and kinship.  Family relationships are represented by father-son conflicts and kinship is illustrated by the coalitions that are formed between different people within the novels.  Family and kinship are two of the ways that we think about our identity.  For hybrids such as the protagonists, Saul and Shadow, ambiguity surrounding identity leads to questions asked but not necessarily answered.  This is what leads to conflict for these characters.  Both authors use hybrid characters to explore what it means to have a hybrid identity in postmodern fictions and how those identities interact with others.  Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg coupled with Chela Sandoval’s idea of affinity politics are two useful guides in exploring these relationships.

What is the difference between family and kinship?  For the purposes of this paper, I define family as relationships based on blood ties and kinship as relationships that are chosen or based on emotional ties.  Family is a connection that is unavoidable, but it can be ignored or unknown (e.g., a child may not know one or both parents or a male may not know that he sired a child).  Kinship is a connection that is chosen by two or more people “on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (Haraway 156).  Family and kinships figure prominently in King Rat and American Gods because both novels feature father-son relationships as well as affinity based coalitions.

The primary representation of family in King Rat involves the father-son relationship of the protagonist, Saul, and King Rat.  King Rat rapes Saul’s mother in order to conceive a child who King Rat plans on using as a tool to destroy his archenemy, The Piper.  Saul is therefore rendered as a technological artifact that is capable of evading the song played by The Piper.  According to Donna Haraway, “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149).  Saul is a cyborg because he is the fusion of human and animal (i.e., rat) and he is also the combination of reality (e.g., modern London) and the fantastic (e.g., King Rat).  When Haraway writes, “Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality,” she could as easily be talking about biotechnology.  Breeding and purposive species diversification are simple forms of biotechnology.  King Rat wanted a “secret weapon” that would be capable of occupying both the rat world and the human world (Miéville 188).  Only such a creature would be able to defeat The Piper, because, as King Rat says to Saul, “ You’re rat and human, more and less than each.  Call the rats and the person in you is deaf to it.  Call to the man and the rat’ll twitch its tail and run…He can’t play two tunes at once, Saul.  He can’t charm you” (Miéville 134).

At first, Saul’s cyborg/hybrid identity is ambiguous and mediated by his father, King Rat.  His father wants to utilize and control the actions of his son in order to arrive at the destruction of The Piper.  These issues conjure images of military command and control.  King Rat is at war with The Piper, and Saul is the military technology under his command.  Haraway writes, “The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism…But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.  Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (151).  King Rat represents “militarism” because he lusts for revenge after being humiliated by The Piper in Hamelin.  He represents “patriarchal capitalism” because he is a male monarchical ruler who, in the past, used his rat hordes to appropriate the means of production.  He, in effect, becomes the “the boss-man” or manager of the town of Hamelin (Miéville 127).  After Saul learns the truth behind King Rat’s machinations, he becomes “exceedingly unfaithful” to his origin and blood-related father, King Rat.  His father is “inessential” because he wasn’t there to raise Saul.  This further indicates King Rat’s objectification of Saul because King Rat “killed the usurper” (i.e., Saul’s human father) in order to bring about the chain reaction that supplies King Rat with his weapon (i.e., Saul) (Miéville 34).

Before Saul’s ascension to a hybrid awareness, he maintained a kinship with several close friends.  Natasha, Fabian, and Kay are Saul’s friends and they all share a deep interest in Jungle and drum’n’bass music.  This musical core forms another layer of Saul’s hybrid identity because this musical genre is itself based on appropriation, remixing, and pulling things together into something new.  Miéville describes Jungle as “the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music” and it’s “rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop, born of Funk” (Miéville 59).  The spirit of this music and Saul’s chosen kinship with his friends is related to Sandoval’s conception of affinity politics.  Haraway discusses Sandoval’s argument surrounding the political cohesiveness of “US women of colour” thus, “This identity marks out a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (Haraway 156).  The affinity between the Saul’s friends is the musical style of Jungle.  Interconnected to that musical style are politics, movements, ideologies, and activism that connect the music to the people and the people to one another.  A hybrid musical style like Jungle is best representative of the affinity and political kinships that Haraway is writing about.  Because the music is based on different genres, naturally it represents those genres within itself.  Jungle becomes something new and representative of those different groups through the people that choose the affinity of Jungle.  Kinships form when “the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification” is not possible.  These kinships form in-between the borders of the larger groups.  Miéville writes about this when he says, “The rhythms of London are played out here, in the sprawling flat zone between suburbs and center” (15).  He is talking about a physical location, but it is representative of the in-between space.  By extension, Jungle is a type of border music that exists on the edges of other music.  Thus, it is aptly suitable for representing kinship and affinity politics.

Affinity politics and the power of kinships are embodied within the character of Saul.  Saul uses the power of Jungle embedded within himself to overcome the charms of The Piper.  Because Saul listens for the bass within the treble dominated “Wind City” song, he “rediscovered himself.  He knew who he was.  He danced again” (Miéville 300).  Saul fights back against The Piper’s flat version of drum’n’bass and he says, “One plus one equals one, motherfucker…I’m not rat plus man, get it?  I’m bigger than either one and I’m bigger than the two.  I’m a new thing.  You can’t make me dance” (Miéville 301).  Saul is making the point that he is not the addition of two separate selves.  He is the creation of something new, whole unto itself, from the human and rat biological components that came from his mother and King Rat.  His hybrid identity thus sets him apart from his family, both human and rat alike, while his hybrid identity brings him closer to those he has kinship with, such as his human friends in the Jungle scene.

The representations of family and kinship in American Gods is similar to those in King Rat in many respects.  Again, there is a father-son relationship that forms the core of the narrative.  The protagonist, Shadow, learns that he is a human-god hybrid whose father is a god called Wednesday.[1]  As in King Rat, Shadow is conceived to serve a utilitarian purpose for Wednesday’s plans.  The father envisions the son as a technological tool that will fulfill a particular task.  Wednesday is, in part, a god of war and death.  He concocts a plan whereby the new gods of credit cards, the Internet, industry, and media feel that they need to wipe out the old gods of mythologies and beliefs that are a part of our cultural history and memory.  The battle will be dedicated to Wednesday, which will give him more power.  Shadow’s purpose is to redirect attention from Wednesday’s trickery.  The cyborg analogy for Saul in King Rat does not completely apply to Shadow in American Gods.  However, there are two ways of approaching technological issues brought about in the relationship of Shadow and Wednesday.  First, the parlor tricks and coin tricks that Shadow does through out the novel are a technology because they are a type of skill.  The tricks appear to be magic, but they are in fact sleight of hand (i.e., a special effect) that he does to pass the time and impress others.  Additionally, Wednesday teaches Shadow how to use technology to pull off larger tricks in order to make money.  Using social engineering and the local Kinkos printing service, Wednesday and Shadow are able to convince many local business people to give their deposits to Wednesday instead of the ATM that they hung an “out of service” sign on (Gaiman 106-116).[2]  Thus, Shadow and Wednesday use technology for different purposes.

The relationship between Wednesday and Shadow shifts from that of employer-employee to father-son through the course of the novel.  Wednesday sets events into motion that allow his path to cross that of Shadow’s.  Because Shadow has nothing left for him after he is released from prison, he agrees to work for Wednesday.  This capitalist relationship points back to Haraway’s analysis of the framework in which cyborgs exist.  In reading Shadow as a cyborg, he is the son of the god of war, or “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” (Haraway 151).  Additionally, Wednesday doesn’t tell him that he is Shadow’s father.  Instead, he offers Shadow a job within the capitalist system.   Later, Shadow proves to act “exceeding unfaithful” to his origins (Haraway 151).  This shift takes place after Gaiman presents Shadow and Wednesday as doubles of one another.

The author doubles father and son through the mythic story of Odin’s attaining the nine runes.  Early in the novel, Wednesday tells Shadow how he came in possession of nine runes which give him certain powers:

Those were the first nine charms I learned.  Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point.  I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me (Gaiman 288).

Wednesday is able to endure his “sacrifice of myself to myself” because he is a god.  Shadow’s vigil (which is a mirror of Wednesday/Odin’s “sacrifice of myself to myself”) is the galvanizing point where Gaiman doubles father and son.  Mr. Nancy, the human form of the African mythological creature, Anansi, tells Shadow what is required of him in the vigil.  He says, “The person on the vigil–gets tied to the tree.  Just like Wednesday was.  And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights.  No food, no water.  All alone.  At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived…well, it could happen.  And Wednesday will have had his vigil” (Gaiman 451).  Despite Mr. Nancy’s protests, Shadow agrees to endure the vigil.  Shadow doubles Wednesday because his being tied to the tree is “just like Wednesday was.”  Through the act, both are granted understanding which is what leads to power.  Wednesday gains the use of the nine runes, while Shadow learns his true identity[3].  Once Shadow learns that Wednesday is his father, he acts to mitigate the damage that his father wrought in order to solidify his identity as being separate from that of his father.

Shadow’s hybrid identity is also reflected in his ambiguous physical appearance as well as the kinships he makes with others in the novel.  People within the novel see certain traits in him, but when he is asked about it, he tells them that he isn’t the ethnicity in question.  For example, Shadow picks up a hitchhiker named Sam on the way to Cairo and they have this conversation:

“Mm.  You got Indian blood in you?

“Not that I know of.”

“You looked like it, was all” (Gaiman 166).

Shadow represents an amalgamation of American identities.  He is, in a sense, the prototypical American.  Sam, not-coincidentally, is part American-Indian.  Therefore, the people that Shadow encounters see themselves embodied within him.  Also, Sam represents what it means to be an American (i.e, to exist in a state of hybridity, to be American-Indian).  We are a nation of hyphenated ethnicities and nationalities.  This point is made earlier in the novel when Wednesday tells Shadow, “Nobody’s American…Not originally” (Gaiman 105).  The author’s point is that America has been a land of immigrants for a very long time.

Because people see a bit of themselves in Shadow, this allows him to connect with many different kinds of people and gods through affinity politics.  He connects with the American-Indian college girl, Sam, he works for Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, he becomes friends with the people of Lakeside (under an assumed name/identity), his dead wife, Laura, continues to help him, and he is rescued from jail by his friends, Mr. Nancy and Czernobog.  His human-god hybridity allows him to be the focus for both human and god relationships.  Shadow is able to walk in the real world and the in-between world of the gods or “backstage.”  He forms kinships with the people and gods that he meets who want what he wants–to live and not be troubled by the kind of conflict that Wednesday is brewing.  Ultimately, he reveals his father’s plans in order to achieve a peace between the old and new gods.  Shadow uses his new found powers to expose his father for the liar that he is.  Shadow stops the battle at the end of the novel and says in response to the question, “who are you?” by saying, “I am–I was–I am his [Wednesday’s] son” (Gaiman 539).  He goes on to say, “You know…I think I would rather be a man than a god.  We don’t need anyone to believe in us.  We just keep going anyhow.  It’s what we do” (Gaiman 539).   Perhaps Shadow is similar to King Rat’s Saul in that “[he’s] bigger than either one and [he’s] bigger than the two” (Miéville 301).  Clearly, Shadow has become something different than what he thought he was before he got out of prison.  He struggles through the realization that he is a hybrid of human and god and he mediates that challenge by connecting to those around him who share similar goals.  Therefore, it is his hybridity that allows him to connect with others.

What do these two novels have to say about one another?  Both feature a father-son relationship that is based on deception on the part of the father.  The father lies to the son about his origin in order to lead the son on a path of the father’s design.  Additionally, the son is conceived to be a technological tool for the father’s use.  The fathers, King Rat and Wednesday, are not concerned about the welfare of their sons.  Their sons are made to be objects that fulfill a particular purpose and once that purpose is fulfilled, they may be discarded.  The father and son relationship is, from a psychoanalytical perspective, based on competition and conflict where the son, at an early age, desires to kill the father and assume the father’s role with the mother.  The father-son conflicts in King Rat and American Gods is not delineated along those lines.  Instead, the conflict arises out of the fact that the son gains awareness of his hybrid identity.  The son’s question of “who am I” leads to conflict because the father in these two examples is trying to mediate the son’s hybridity as a technological artifact instead of as a hybrid identity.  The fathers want to objectify the son completely because if the son becomes a subjective hybrid identity, the son will become a threat to the power of the father over the son.  The family blood-ties therefore is a weak link for the son, once the awareness of hybrid identity is awakened.  It is kinships shared by the son that offer salvation, as well as understanding of what it means to have a hybrid identity.  Kinships are interstitial connections built of different identities who share a common political affinity.  Therefore kinships offer a character with a hybrid identity a community for mediating the growing awareness of what it means to be a hybrid.  These two examples show that Haraway’s connecting cyborg identities with feminist awareness is equally applicable to other hybrid identities.

In conclusion, King Rat and American Gods are two novels that explore identity by investigating father-son conflicts and the kinships that form in response to the familial conflict.  These father-son conflicts can be viewed using Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as representing a person with layered, non-inclusive identities such as “US women of colour” (156).  Hybrid identities can serve to exclude one from the group identities that make up one’s whole identity, but Sandoval’s conception of kinship through political affinity allows the hybrid to form new groups around the intersection of goals and ideologies.  Therefore, these two novels represent hybrid identities in postmodern fiction while engaging the ideas of cyborg identities and affinity politics.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil.  American Gods.  New York:  HarperTorch-HarperCollins, 2001.

Haraway, Donna J..  Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:  The Reinvention of Nature.  New York:  Routledge, 1991.

Miéville, China.  King Rat.  New York:  Tor, 1998.


[1] Wednesday is actually the Norse god, Odin, but I will refer to him as Wednesday unless I am quoting a passage that directly references Odin.

[2] Another approach to technology in American Gods surrounds the new gods.  The new gods are all based on modern technologies ranging from industrialization to information systems.  Gaiman is commenting on where our beliefs are placed in the here and now with these forms of technology being held in the same realm as our beliefs in gods and mythologies.

[3] Shadow, who is neither completely god nor completely man, must decide how to approach the problem at hand.  In a sense, he becomes a problem solver (i.e., an engineer).  Shadow’s problem solving is analogous to that of the lone inventor who experiments by trial-and-error.  Shadow uses his tools of dreams, questions, and insight for better understanding.  However, it is his vigil for the dead Wednesday that leads to his great break-through.

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Draft Paper

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Eugene Thacker

LCC 2116 – Science, Technology, and Postmodernism

Summer 2005

A Comparison of Two Postmodern Fictions:  King Rat and American Gods

China Miéville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods are two recent postmodern fictions that speak to one another because they each feature a hybrid protagonist who is caught up in an appropriated mythic framework.  The authors of these two books use postmodern literary techniques to appropriate and reinvent those myths in their own narratives.  Both authors explore questions of identity by utilizing postmodern characteristics in these two novels.

Because both novels feature a mythic character based on the spider semi-deity from African mythology known as Anansi, let’s begin by examining this connection.  Anansi from King Rat and Mr. Nancy from American Gods, serve as a bridge connecting the two novels because they are both drawn from the same African myths.    Edward Parrinder gives the following description of this mythic figure in his book, African Mythology.  He writes, “In West Africa, where the Spider is called Anansi, the Annancy of America, he is the cleverest of animals and often appears in a mythology where he is the chief official of God though at first he has no name.”  The appropriation of Anansi by Miéville and Gaiman is best described using the terminology of Fredric Jameson who formulated two kinds of literary appropriation:  parody and pastiche.  These are defined thus, “Parody, according to Jameson, has a critical edge:  it challenges and subverts that which it mimics.  Pastiche, on the other hand, is concerned only with the superficial appropriation of different modes and genres for the generation of its own performative style” (Malpas 25).   Neither work is challenging the myths of Anansi by mimicking them.  However, they are appropriating the character and his stories in order to reinvent, remix, and recreate Anansi as is required by their narrative.

Miéville’s Anansi and Gaiman’s Mr. Nancy are based on the same source material, but they are represented in different ways in the two works.  Miéville describes Anansi as “a tall, fat man” with “very dark skin and a massive belly jutting over his belt, but arms and legs that were ridiculously long and thin” who speaks “to himself in patois” (114, 116-117).  Some of these descriptions are distinctly spider-like.  For example, he writes that he has “ridiculously long and thin” limbs, a “massive belly jutting over his belt” that reminds the reader of a spider’s abdomen, and Anansi’s unending supply of “rope” is reminiscent of spider’s silk.  Gaiman uses a different tact in describing Mr. Nancy at the beginning of chapter six in American Gods.  First, Mr. Nancy is introduced as an “old black man” with “a faint twang in his voice, a hint of a patois that might have been West Indian” (Gaiman 124-125).  Then, Shadow observes the multifaceted reality of Mr. Nancy as they are traveling to a meeting of gods.  The narrator reports Shadow’s observations thus:

He was looking at Mr. Nancy, an old black man with a pencil mustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-colored skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast’s mane; and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with blackflies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ocher leaf.

Shadow saw all these things, and he knew they were the same thing (131).

Whereas Miéville strips Anansi of most of his cultural connections and reinvents him for the purposes of his novel, Gaiman is showing the multifaceted reality of Mr. Nancy.  Mr. Nancy is the composite of “an old black man,” “a jeweled spider,” “an extraordinarily tall man,” “a young black boy,” and “a tiny brown spider.”  The mythic character of Anansi exists as Mr. Nancy for Gaiman, but the author is also pointing to the many other faces that are that character also.  He is showing that Mr. Nancy has a history beyond that which the author has concocted, but he is not crossing over into parody because he is not subverting Anansi.  Both authors are building and adding to Anansi’s mythic history.[1]  Therefore, Miéville and Gaiman appropriate the mythic Anansi in order to invent their own imagining of Anansi based on that character’s history along with their own creative vision.[2]

Connected to the authors’ appropriation of cultural mythologies is the way that they situate their narratives within culture by linking to culture outside the novel itself.  This postmodern characteristic is called referentiality.  Miéville and Gaiman reference culture throughout these two novels.  One literary reference in King Rat appears at the final battle when Saul enters the warehouse.  Miéville writes, “The rats and Saul left the relative safety of London’s night lands and entered the warehouse, the frenzied jaws of Drum and Bass, the domain of smoke and strobe lights and Hardcore, the Piper’s lair, the heart of Darkness, deep in the Jungle” (281-282).  “The heart of Darkness” is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness.  Conrad’s novel takes place in a literal jungle whereas Miéville is referring to the Jungle music.  American Gods is also peppered with literary references.  For example, after the beginning of the novel, Shadow is speaking with one of Odin’s ravens.  Gaiman writes:

“Hey,” said Shadow.  “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”

The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.

“Say ‘Nevermore,’” said Shadow.

“Fuck you,” said the raven (158-159).

Odin’s raven does not appreciate Shadow’s reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven.”  The literary references that Gaiman employs points to a sort of American mythology because they integrate into the characters of the novel such as one of Odin’s ravens (i.e., an American poetic work connected to a Norse/imported myth).  These cultural references integrate these works into a web of relationships beyond the work itself.  Building these connections not only positions the novel in relation to culture, but it also helps the reader orientate their own relationship to the novel.

Both authors also utilize referentiality in constructing the hybrid identity of their respective protagonists.  The postmodern usage of hybridity involves the mixing of two dissimilar things into something new.  Miéville, in particular, combines a thesis (human/political awareness-Marxism) and an antithesis (rat/monarchy) in order to construct a synthesis (human-rat hybrid/“Citizen Rat”).  He also does this on multiple layers of a character’s identity in King Rat.  On a biological level, Saul is a human-rat hybrid.  His biological mother is human and his biological father is King Rat.  Additionally, he was conceived because of King Rat’s desire to have a hybrid child who would be capable of defeating the Piper.  King Rat reasons to Saul, “You’re rat and human, more and less than each.  Call the rats and the person in you is deaf to it.  Call to the man and the rat’ll twitch its tail and run…He can’t play two tunes at once, Saul.  He can’t charm you” (Miéville 134).  Saul’s dual biological identity empowers him against the unrelenting force of the Piper.  Layered on top of Saul’s biological self, he is a hybrid of two worlds with different experiences and teachings.  He grew up in the human world of London where his human father taught him about Marxist ideology in an industrialized world.  Then, Saul finds himself separated from the human world by choice, but it was a decision brought about by events outside his knowledge.  He finds himself in a “new world” that King Rat describes as, “This is the city where I live.  It shares all the points of yours and theirs [i.e., human], but none of its properties.  I go where I want.  And I’m here to tell you how it is with you.  Welcome to my home” (Miéville 32).  King Rat later adds, “You can’t go back now, can you” (Miéville 43)?  Once he makes the decision to follow King Rat, he cannot return to his former identity and orientation in the human world.  Then, King Rat goes about teaching Saul how to be rat.  He says, “You’ve an awful lot to learn, matey, and you’re looking at the teacher, like it or not” (Miéville 48).  As the novel progresses, Saul become more and more rat-like and it becomes apparent that King Rat and Saul are doppelgangers, or doubles of one another.  Saul “was shedding his humanity like an old snakeskin, scratching it off in great swathes.  It was so fast, this assumption of a new form inside” (Miéville 83).  Later in the novel, Saul even begins to look like King Rat with his face hidden in shadow.  But at the end of the novel, Saul recaptures his past and decides to found a revolution in the rat world based on his understanding of his human father’s teachings.  Instead of telling the rats that he was the new King Rat, he breaks up the hierarchical monarchy system and he says, “I’m just one of you…I’m Citizen Rat” (Miéville 318).  Thus, Saul ends the novel by choosing to be both rat and human which is his formulation of being “Citizen Rat.”  Therefore, Saul becomes a hybrid of his human self and experience and of his new, rat self and experience.[3]

Miéville further develops Saul’s hybrid identity by connecting it to the musical genre of Jungle or drum’n’bass.  Jungle is a hybrid style of music that the author describes thus:

This was Jungle.

The child of House, the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music, the Drum and Bass soundtrack for a London of council estates and dirty walls, black youth and white youth, Armenian girls.

The music was uncompromising.  The rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop, born of Funk…

And above the bassline was the high end of Jungle:  the treble.  Stolen chords and shouts that rode the waves of bass like surfers.  They were fleeting and teasing, snatches of sound winking into existence and sliding over the beat, tracing it, then winking away (Miéville 59).

He reveals that Jungle is a “child” of various other musical styles and it’s “rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop.”  Jungle is created by taking from these many other styles and remixing them into something new.  It is a style based on appropriation of other musical forms of expression.  Saul and his friends are a part of the Jungle scene, but it is ultimately only Saul who is capable of using Jungle to his advantage during the final battle with the Piper.  Saul knows that the treble in Jungle should be “fleeting and teasing, snatches of sound.”  The Piper inundates his controlling Jungle song, “Wind City” with more flute than a real Jungle song would have.  He says, “Your friend Natasha…showed me how to make my flute multiply” (Miéville 297).  This allows the Piper to play to both the rat and human within Saul.  But Saul realizes as “the flutelines swirled around him…urging him to dance, teasing his rat-mind and his humanity in turn…But something inside him had hardened.  Saul was straining for something else.  He was listening for the bass” (Miéville 299).  This breakthrough allows Saul to seize his own identity and to dance his own dance (Miéville 300).  Therefore, Jungle, as a hybrid musical genre, is the keystone that allows Saul to connect his separate selves into a hybrid whole.

Gaiman’s protagonist in American Gods, Shadow Moon, is also a hybrid character.  First, the story is about gods that travel to America with the people that brought them along through faith and belief.  Being American is itself a state of hybridity.  We are a nation of hyphenated ethnicities and nationalities.  Wednesday tells Shadow, “Nobody’s American…Not originally” (Gaiman 105).  Taking hybridity to another level, Shadow is the child of his human mother and the god, Odin (who is masquerading as Wednesday).  Shadow, and probably his mother, did not know that Shadow’s father was the physical manifestation of the god Odin.  Like King Rat, Odin wanted a child that would serve a particular purpose that only a hybrid could accomplish.  Shadow is never really described other than being a big guy.  People see things in him, but when he is asked about it, he tells them that he isn’t the ethnicity in question.  For example, Shadow picks up a hitchhiker named Sam on the way to Cairo and they have this conversation:

“Mm.  You got Indian blood in you?

“Not that I know of.”

“You looked like it, was all” (Gaiman 166).

Shadow represents an amalgamation of American identities.  He is, in a sense, the prototypical American.  As the conversation continues, Shadow is revealed to be a double of Wednesday/Odin.  Shadow tells Sam what she is doing in school when he says, “I figure you’re at school…Where you are undoubtedly studying art history, women’s studies, and probably casting your own bronzes.  And you probably work in a coffeehouse to help cover the rent” (Gaiman 167).  Sam’s response is to “put down her fork, nostrils flaring, eyes wide” and she says, “How the fuck did you do that” (Gaiman 167)?  This is similar to the first conversation between Shadow and Wednesday when the god begins telling Shadow things that a complete stranger should not know.  There are also numerous examples of Shadow being a trickster (usually for good) like Wednesday (usually for selfish reasons or evil) (Gaiman 36-37, 110-116, 166-167, 587).  Additionally, the doubling is symbolized by the fortune that Shadow receives early in the novel at the House on the Rock.  It said, “EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING…Motto:  LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON” (Gaiman 121).  At that time, Shadow did not know that Wednesday/Odin is his father and the “EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING” phrase points to the Shadow’s vigil for Wednesday.  This relates to one of Odin’s mythic exploits, “involves his self-sacrifice on Yggdrasill.  He hangs on the tree for nine nights and wounds himself, an offering of “myself to myself,” as he says.  His reward is a draft of mead — creative insight” (Stitt, par. 4).  Mr. Nancy describes the vigil to Shadow when he says, “The person on the vigil–gets tied to the tree.  Just like Wednesday was.  And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights.  No food, no water.  All alone.  At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived…well, it could happen.  And Wednesday will have had his vigil” (Gaiman 451).  Shadow agrees to go through with Wednesday’s request for him to hold the vigil.  Wednesday doesn’t anticipate Shadow surviving the vigil and Shadow being granted understanding of what is actually taking place in the narrative.  This mirrors Wednesday’s own self-sacrifice that he endured to gain new wisdom.  Earlier in the novel, when Shadow and Wednesday are discussion Shadow’s dead wife, Wednesday says:

Those were the first nine charms I learned.  Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point.  I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me (Gaiman 288).

Shadow and Wednesday endure similar trials on the “World Tree.”  Shadow’s sacrifice is really for himself because they are doubles of one another (i.e., if the vigil is intended for Wednesday it reflects back onto Shadow).  Shadow’s self-sacrifice leads to knowledge that allows him to act to the end the battle brought about by Wednesday’s selfishness.  Therefore, Shadow and Wednesday are doubles of one another, but Shadow’s hybrid identity, like Saul’s in King Rat, leads him to make different choices than his father.

These novels can be described as fantastic because they feature mythic and almost unbelievable elements.  Because they are considered fantastic, they require a suspension of disbelief from the audience in order for the narrative to unfold.  This characteristic is defined as an awareness that is projected by the work to the audience that indicates that the work knows what it is and it is also aware that the audience knows what it is.  It is employed to a great extent in American Gods, but to a lesser extent in King Rat.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the concept of the “suspension of disbelief” when he wrote in Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria, “it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (par. 3).  He is talking about making something fantastic believable enough that a reader will be able to enjoy it without immediately balking at how unbelievable the story really is.  Most fiction works because of the suspension of disbelief.  The audience has to “buy into” the story otherwise the story doesn’t work.  The suspension of disbelief is linked to the postmodern characteristic of reflexivity.  Postmodern reflexivity, however, casts aside the need for the suspension of disbelief.  Of the two works, American Gods presents the most bald-faced example of reflexivity.  Gaiman writes near the end of American Gods, “None of this can actually be happening.  If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor.  Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all…So none of this is happening.  Such things could not occur.  Never a word of it is literally true.  Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this” (508).  What follows is the climax and denouement of the novel.  Before that point, he relied on the suspension of disbelief for approximately five-hundred pages to tell his story about gods and how they came to be in America.  By doing this, Gaiman is engaging the reader to think about the story in more than the literal presentation of the narrative.  He is asking the reader to consider the other implications he has brought up during the course of the book.  One can argue that it is his statement that “None of this can actually be happening” is really the climax of the book.  That is the flag signaling that there he hopes the reader will consider the novel in a new way (i.e., metaphorically, not literally).

Miéville, on the other hand, never pulls back the curtain in King Rat in the same way that Gaiman does in American Gods.  He does, however, drop reflexive hints throughout the narrative.  One example takes place during Saul’s jailbreak at the beginning of the novel.  Saul thinks to himself, “Here be monsters…and [he] felt ridiculously close to giggling” (Miéville 37).  The idea of monsters in the real world is almost funny to him.  Another example is when he first encounters the homeless woman, Deborah.  Saul says, “Listen to me.  You won’t understand this, but don’t worry…They won’t hurt you, do you understand” (Miéville 165)?  He begins with telling her that she won’t understand, but then he asks her if she does understand.  Granted, Saul knows he is talking to someone with mental problems, but at the same time, the author chose to write this passage like this.  Miéville is indicating to the reader that it is okay to both understand and to not understand what is going on.  The author is reinforcing the (sometimes) necessity of the suspension of disbelief with this passage.  Therefore, in regard to reflexivity, American Gods is the more postmodern of the two novels because Gaiman relies on reflexivity to make a point about his novel whereas Miéville uses it teasingly to reinforce the traditional usage of the suspension of disbelief.

King Rat and American Gods are examples of postmodern fiction that closely relate to one another because the authors employ shared postmodern characteristics to develop a hybrid protagonist who must grow into and mast his “synthesized” identity.  Both novels appropriate myth, reference culture, investigate hybrid identities through doubling, and pull back the curtain with reflexivity.  Thus, King Rat and American Gods are connected to one another through appropriated mythologies and postmodern investigations of identity.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Biographia Literaria.  1817.  24 July 2005 <http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/biographia.html&gt;.

Gaiman, Neil.  American Gods.  New York:  HarperTorch-HarperCollins, 2001.

Malpas, Simon.  The Postmodern.  New York:  Routledge, 2005.

Miéville, China.  King Rat.  New York:  Tor, 1998.

Parrinder, Edward Geoffrey.  African Mythology.  London:  Hamlyn, 1967.

Stitt, J. Michael.  “The Norse Pantheon:  Óðinn.”   English 480 Mythology.  Course home page.  Dept. of English, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  July 24, 2005 <http://www.unlv.edu/faculty/jmstitt/Eng480/odin.html&gt;.


[1] In fact, Anansi exists in many different stories that have different origins and those stories have changed over time.  Some of the many stories that come from Africa about Anansi include, “Anansi and the Corn Cob,” “How Anansi Tricked God,” “Anansi and the Chameleon,” “How Anansi Became a Spider,” and “Tales of Spider and Hare” (Parrinder, 128-131, 136-139).  Gaiman relies on Anansi’s past in order to create his present while Miéville loosely bases his character on Anansi for the purposes of his story.  One representation of Anansi is not more accurate or essential than another.

[2] It should be noted that others have appropriated the Anansi stories.  The stories originally come out of an oral tradition which lends to embellishment and reinvention due to the creative capacities of the human mind as well as the fallibility of memory.  A popular retelling of the Anansi stories are those by Uncle Remus.  Parrinder writes, “All across Africa fables are told of the cleverness, deceit, and triumph of the Spider or the Hare, called by various names according to the language.  These yarns were taken to America by slaves and became the Brer Rabbit tales related by Uncle Remus” (128).  Uncle Remus’ tales are not verbatim retellings of the original African stories.  The stories have been added to and subtracted from due to differences in language, personal experiences, and setting.  This reflects the fact that postmodern devices can be found historically outside of the postmodern era that is typically identified as occurring since the end of World War II.  Reinvention and appropriation are tried and true tools of storytellers both in oral and literary traditions.

[3] The novel can be considered a bildungsroman story because Saul builds a new, hybrid identity after he learns that there is more to his identity than he could have possibly imagined.  In a sense, it is a coming of age story or, more accurately, a building of identity story.

——————————

Notes

In the same vein that “no one lives in a vacuum,” no work of literature exists in a vacuum.  These authors embrace the interconnections because they add to their work by allowing the reader to build connections between the work being read and works the reader may have already read or knows of.  Referentiality only works when the reader has a certain cultural knowledge or historical awareness of what has come before, but it is effective in situating a work within that which is familiar to the reader.

Another reference made in King Rat features the musical genre of Drum’n’Bass or Jungle. 

The author’s choice of using Drum’n’Bass is important not only because he is employing referentiality, but because he is also using it to highlight another postexists almost as a separate character within the story.  The reason that it is so important to the story is that it represents remixing, resampling, and reinventing by taking two different things and putting them together to form something new.  Saul, the protagonist of the novel, is a hybrid himself. 

It is that kind of music, that at first seems to be the way the Piper will subdue Saul, but it actually sets Saul free.  At the climax of King Rat, Saul thinks to himself, “fuck the treble, he thought, because when you dance to Jungle what you follow is the bass…Saul rediscovered himself.  He knew who he was.  He danced again” (300).

Another form of hybridity that relates to appropriation is Fredric Jameson’s conceptions of parody and pastiche.   Miéville employs pastiche when he created the character of Loplop because he appropriates.  Loplop isn’t derived from a mythic creature like Anansi.  Loplop is described as the alter-ego of the German painter, Max Ernst.

Gaiman is presenting Mr. Nancy as the synthesis of all of the Anansi stories and myths.  Mr. Nancy represents all of these things simultaneously in this reserved space where gods are able to reveal themselves in ways that they cannot in the modern world.

These characters represent the epitome of the postmodern.  They are reinvented and remixed into something new while at the same time they remain connected to their past representations.

Referentiality

Reflexivity

Another interesting postmodern element that both novels exhibit is reflexivity.  Reflexivity is the awareness exhibited by the work that it knows what it is.  The author is essentially winking at the reader.

Postmodern fictions provide a space for authors to explore contemporary issues by reinventing and reinterpreting mythologies and religions.

The novel is a bildungsroman in that from the point that Saul is rescued from jail by King Rat, Saul must come into his own based on the circumstances that he finds himself in.  In a sense, it is a coming of age story or, more accurately, a building of identity story.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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