Castoffs, Colonels, and Cockroaches: Abjection in Kings of Infinite Space
The title Kings of Infinite Space is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The ill-fated prince melodramatically remarks that Denmark is a prison. When prodded, he elaborates: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.’ Hamlet’s moodiness and inaction bring the entire royal household to a bloody end.
In a similar vein, the main character in James Hynes’ novel, Paul Trilby, is living in a self-inflicted ‘bad dream.’ Due to his philandering, he loses a prestigious job as an English professor. He crash-lands in Lamar, Texas, and settles at last for a temp job at the General Services Division of the Texas Department of General Services, or TxDoGS. This grubby-carpeted, fluorescent-lit demi-hell is populated by a cast of castoffs ranging from the pathetically annoying to the potentially deadly. Throughout the novel, Paul struggles variously against his inertia, his bad luck, and a hive of living-dead state employees to reclaim his old self-respect, reverse his fortunes, and, of course, get the girl.
Julia Kristeva defines abjection as a demeaning and casting off of the non-self in an effort to define the boundaries of the self: the abject ‘is what does not respect boundaries’ (McAfee, p. 46). At the very beginning of Kings of Infinite Space, Hynes characterizes Paul Trilby as an ‘ex-husband, temp typist, cat murderer…’ (Hynes, p. 1). Add ex-professor, tech writer, philanderer, displaced Midwesterner, and resident of the ‘Angry Loner Motel’ and the picture grows clearer: Paul’s bad decisions and bad luck have destabilized his identity (Hynes, pp. 5-48). Paul is very uncomfortable living with his unstable identity. He has nowhere to go – his home, his office, and even his car are barely habitable and highly unpleasant. He has nobody to talk to either – the people from his ‘old’ life hate him, and he looks down on the people in his office. Paul abjects Olivia, the Colonel and the Texdog zombies in an effort to construct his own identity.
Paul watches Olivia torture Dennis the Dying Tech Writer and realizes that his ‘worst nightmare was that he…would end up working for her’ (Hynes, p. 14). She terrifies Paul with her constant passive-aggressive attacks. Paul notices Olivia’s ‘not unattractive bottom and her coarse, middle-aged elbows, as creased as an elephant’s knees,’ and Nolene reveals that Olivia started at TxDoGS as a temp and survived layoffs because of her ‘twitching cheerleader ass,’ and she calls Olivia ‘La Cucaracha … because she won’t die’ (Hynes, pp. 12-13). Paul notices that Olivia dyes her hair, and he mocks her Texas drawl when she says ‘pee aitch dee’ for PhD (Hynes, p. 78). At the climax of the story, Olivia appears as some sort of hellish homecoming queen, squeezed into a worn-out red velvet dress made for someone younger, literally recapturing her younger days in a creepy way (Hynes, p. 297). Olivia breaks nearly as many categories as Paul. She is a not-unattractive-middle aged-cheerleader-bleach-blonde-Texan-temp-elephant-cockroach. Both Paul and Olivia made the transition from temp to permanent employee, and both of them are cogs in the same stifling state office. Yet when he makes fun of her Texan drawl, Paul demeans Olivia and asserts his own identity as a university-educated intellectual and a non-Texan. When Paul looks on Olivia’s body with disgust and fascination, he constructs her as the other: female, and a ‘cheerleader,’ in contrast to his projected male, indifferent identity. Paul identifies Olivia as self-but-not-self and abjects her by professing his disgust: he calls her a ‘space vampire’ and he avoids talking to her whenever he can (Hynes., p. 23).
The Colonel’s hypocrisy problematizes his identity. He calls himself an intellectual, and demonstrates some keen interpersonal sensitivity towards Paul, but he also exhibits the militaristic behaviour stereotypical of manly men and Texans. He drives a giant SUV that Paul describes as ‘the beast’ and takes the Texdogs to Headlights, a sports bar staffed by scantily clad women (Hynes, pp 157-168). These two details speak loudly about him: he cares a lot about projecting a manly image, and he is OK with objectifying women. When the Texdogs get to Headlights, Colonel tells Paul that it’s his ‘TxDoGS bar mitzvah… today (Paul is) a man’ (Hynes, p. 158). Paul says that ‘the Colonel was…annoyingly close to right’ when he sees Paul trying to allay his discomfort at ogling the waitresses (Hynes, p. 162). He refers to Callie as ‘that little Oklahoma gal’ instead of acknowledging her by name (Hynes, p. 173, etc). He wears military-style khakis and a military buzz-cut, even though he’s never seen combat and has been out of the army since Korea (Hynes, p. 18). Colonel uses his pushy type-A personality to appoint himself the (aboveground) ringleader of the Texdogs (Hynes, p. 32). He lives in a huge house in the suburbs and tames nature in his yard, but he has also written a thick manuscript in his spare time (Hynes, pp. 228, 240). This is where Colonel’s identity becomes a little confusing. He buddies up to Paul and shows off his manuscript, as if he were seeking validation as an intellectual. Paul thinks ‘Don’t say it…’ right before Colonel says, ‘We’re exactly the same, you and I’ (Hynes, p. 240). Even his self-constructed identity is problematic: he carries delicate Japanese lunches to the noisy office cafeteria, and he was not actually an army Colonel but rather a baker whose parents named him Colonel (Hynes, pp. 83, 239). Despite all of his insensitive posturing and scheming, he shows an uncanny level of sensitivity in reading people’s unspoken motives. For example, he reads Paul perfectly when he guesses which John Wayne era Paul favours (Hynes, p. 83). This means that Colonel is an SUV driving/womanizing/delicate Japanese food eating/ manuscript writing/boorish/sensitive/domineering/military/imposter/government employee. The Colonel’s ‘one-intellectual-to-another’ attitude offends Paul throughout the story. Paul reacts with disgust to the idea that the Colonel sees himself as an intellectual equal, because Paul thinks he’s more sophisticated than the Colonel. Still, there is a moment in Headlights when Paul almost agrees with the Colonel’s discourse on women. Paul thinks ‘Dear God … what if the Colonel is right?’ in spite of eight years of graduate school involving gender and literature (Hynes, p. 167). In this way, the Colonel cuts too close. Paul identifies him as self-but-not-self and abjects him.
A tinge of abjection runs through all of Paul’s experiences with Stanley Tulendij. Specifically, the word ‘excrement’ appears several times in the language Paul uses to describe Tulendij’s smell. Paul describes his smell as ‘thrift store disinfectant – an odour Paul knew well – and beneath it … something both sharp and sour, like the smell of excrement’ (Hynes, p. 73). Julia Kristeva states that excrement is a prime example of abject material, because it was once part of the self but becomes untouchable and disgusting after it leaves the body (McAfee, p. 46). Also, Olivia describes Tulendij as being ‘tossed … away like he was just trash’ and being put in the ‘shitcan’ (Hynes, p. 77). Paul describes Tulendij’s ‘preternatural paleness’, which resonates, because by all means he should be underground – dead, with the rest of the laid-off workers from the unfortunate ‘retirement’ party he threw (Hynes, pp. 73-80). Tulendij and the zombies exist in a space between life and death. Kristeva states that, in the presence of a corpse, ‘the very border between life and death has been broken, with death seeming to infect the body’ (McAfee, p. 47). This means that Tulendij and the zombies are prime candidates for abjection. Also, geographically, they are abject. Paul worries about their omnipresence in the TxDoGS office – he looks constantly for cracks in the ceiling tiles, ‘inhuman sigh(s)’ from the recycling bin, odd scurrying noises and smudgy post it notes (Hynes, p. 149). Paul experiences a similar kind of geographical abjection – he lives in the wrong part of Lamar, his apartment is dingy and haunted, zombies move above and below his office, his coworkers make him miserable, and even his car is uncomfortable, barely hanging on by a thread. The fact that the zombies intrude on Paul’s life outside the office troubles him. They turn up at a book sale (Hynes, p. 106). They sneak into his apartment and clean it (Hynes, pp. 189-190). When they come into his apartment with Bob Weir to take him underground into their world, Paul convinces himself that he’s having a crazy dream (Hynes, p. 284). In a crucial scene, Paul realizes that the zombies have kidnapped Callie and they intend to eat her in a ritual sacrifice (Hynes, p. 302). The phrase ‘Are we not men?’ shows up often, and as they get ready for the main course, they continually chant it, as though they cling to manliness to bolster their damaged identities (Hynes, pp. 56, 299). Tulendij and the zombies break fewer categories than Paul or Colonel, but they are big categories: living/dead/subterranean/cannibal/horrific/banal/state employees. Paul expresses disgust, and abjects them by rescuing Callie and refusing initiation into the Texdogs.
At the end of the story, Paul does not assimilate to Texas or the TxDoGS. He does not accept a bargain with the Colonel and his zombie/cannibals. He will not work for Olivia. One of the only affirmative parts of his identity is that he cares enough about Callie to leave town and search for her. Paul builds an identity for himself, defined mostly by what he is not, and that is the nature of abjection.
and Emotional Cues in Pan’s Labyrinth
Del Toro reconstructs traditional monster mythology and still teases the audience with typical monster imagery in his film, Pan’s Labyrinth. Led by the interstitial Ofelia, the audience moves from the horror of 1944 fascist Spain to the anything-goes fantastical world of El Fauno and his fairy friends. Throughout the film, the audience is guided by a fantasy-hungry bookworm in both worlds, and quickly learns, through her reactions to the characters around her, with whom its sympathies and fears should lie. This is a phenomenon that Noel Carroll applies specifically to the genre of horror: ‘the emotive responses of the audience run parallel to the emotions of characters....the responses of characters often seem to cue the emotional responses of the audience’ (p. 52).
In the beginning of the film, the audience follows Ofelia and her sick mother, Carmen, en route to Ofelia’s stepfather’s home. Immediately, having been given cues by Ofelia, the audience sympathizes with Carmen. It relates to the mother-daughter bond between the characters and latches on to their overall goodness. Upon Ofelia and Carmen’s arrival, the audience meets Capitan Vidal, Ofelia’s stepfather. Ofelia is frightened by the Capitan; his tight, tyrannical presence strikes an uncomfortable chord in the audience, and it recoils from his frigid demeanour, along with Ofelia.
The Capitan’s physical presence differs from those characteristics that constitute a traditional monster. According to Carroll, monsters ‘are identified as impure and unclean. They are putrid or mouldering things, or they hail from oozing places, or they are made of dead or rotting flesh...’ (p. 54). As envisioned by Del Toro, Capitan Vidal is a good-looking, well-dressed man. The evil inside of him is not visible in his appearance. Regardless of this invisibility, the audience takes a dislike to him immediately, before any of his evilness is evident on the screen. It develops an immediate distrust in Capitan Vidal because of Ofelia’s distrust of him. Her reactions to him cue the audience to view him as a monster, despite his human appearance. She regards him as a character would regard a typical monster, ‘not only with fear but also with loathing, with a combination of terror and disgust’ (Carroll, p. 54). Only later in the film, when witness to his actions, will the audience see evidence of the monster lurking behind Capitan Vidal’s human disguise.
Soon the universe of the film flips and the audience travels underground with Ofelia to meet El Fauno, Pan. The transition from the cruel reality of 1944 Spain to the world of fantasy is quick and difficult to accept. Through Ofelia, the audience breaks through its uneasiness and allows her reactions to guide it into comfort. Upon first introduction, Pan appears to be a monster. His movements are awkward and seemingly threatening, and his body angles defy what the audience is familiar with in terms of a typical talking, emotional, bipedal creature. His voice is too deep; his words rumble in the dark. He is ageless. The audience does not have a frame of reference with which to define him. His physical strangeness would, according to traditional monster mythology, evoke fear in the audience, if not for Ofelia’s reaction to him. Though at first she is startled, she soon seems comfortable with this new reality; her books have prepared her for it.
The audience is delighted as Ofelia learns there are three steps to take to prove she is the lost Princess Moanna, destined to rule underground alongside the King and Queen. This quest functions as an escape from the cold world above, heavy with Carmen’s sickness and Capitan Vidal’s tyranny. Ofelia eagerly accepts Pan’s challenge, and her first test takes the audience into a large, gnarled and knotted tree, whose existence in both realms qualifies it as another interstitial character in the film. The tree stands in Ofelia’s reality while simultaneously harbouring her colourful fantasy. Its omniscient presence in the film keeps the audience grounded, always aware of a reality waiting outside fantasy’s door.
Beneath the tree, Ofelia crawls through dirt and mud, pushing away large insects that scuttle across the skin of her arms and legs. The audience is instinctively disgusted by the many-legged, quick-moving insects. This instinctual fear is interesting, considering its contrast to the audience’s acceptance of Pan’s fairy, who introduces herself first as an insect in the beginning of the film. This particular fairy invaded Ofelia’s reality, and her reaction to it gave the audience a hint at what fantasy was to come later in the film. The beetles and millipedes beneath the tree are symbolic of ugly reality invading Ofelia’s fantasy. While Ofelia accepted the insect-fairy with excitement, her rejection of the tree’s insects cues the audience to brush off reality in favour of fantasy, despite the similarities between the insects and insect-fairy. Noel Carroll explains that monsters ‘are associated with vermin, disease, or crawling things’ (p. 54). The insects beneath the tree cue the audience to prepare for the monster ahead. Ofelia’s first challenge brings her face to face with a giant bullfrog, whose characteristics are typical of a traditional monster. His bubbled flesh is brown and oozing; his noises are offensive. Ofelia reacts to him as she does to Capitan Vidal, with disgust. Her reaction cues the audience to regard the bullfrog as a monster. Again, the audience’s reaction is dictated by Ofelia’s reaction. Both the bullfrog’s and Pan’s appearances qualify as those of a traditional monster, but only the bullfrog is regarded as such.
Ofelia’s second test brings the audience through her room’s wall and into the Pale Man’s dining hall. The Pale Man guards an abundant, enticing feast, but his own appearance is unsettling for the audience. While the bullfrog is clearly hyper-exaggerated in size and appearance, the Pale Man resembles a human being, which serves as a focus of high tension for the audience. The audience’s instincts warn it to fear the Pale Man, but Ofelia is distracted by the feast, and so leaves the audience to search for clues elsewhere. When Ofelia gives in to the temptation, and steals a forbidden grape from the Pale Man’s table, her fairy-guides react with anxious, quick movements. Carroll explains this reaction, the expression of a ‘fear of severe physical harm’, as a typical reaction to a traditional monster (p. 53). The audience is fearful of what physical harm this monster can cause, and is anxious along with the fairies for Ofelia to escape the dining hall quickly. Though both the Pale Man’s and Pan’s appearances are frightfully awkward, and their body structures uncomfortably similar to a human’s, the audience regards only the Pale Man as a monster because of the fairies’ cues.
The bullfrog’s existence beneath the tree, and the Pale Man’s existence beyond Ofelia’s room wall, proves that Ofelia’s fantasy is not a clear opposite to her evil reality. Monsters, as well as allies, exist in both Ofelia’s reality and fantasy. To locate and define each, the audience must take cues from Ofelia’s reactions to the characters around her. Her demeanour is different in each world. The audience gains or loses confidence with Ofelia. Ofelia is better able to confront and defeat the monsters in her fantasy than those in her reality. Her courage is strong in Spain below because she is validated by Pan, the driving force of her fantasy. She is fearful in Spain above because she is debased by Capitan Vidal, the driving force of her reality. There is more at stake in her above reality, as she fears for her mother’s and brother’s fate with the Capitan. The audience experiences this fear through Ofelia’s reactions. Her reactions instruct the audience to fear the Capitan (reality) most, although the construct of reality is more familiar for the audience than fantasy. The audience’s fear of reality and comfort with fantasy prove what Noel Carroll explains: ‘the characters of works of horror exemplify for us the way in which to react to the monsters in the fiction. Our emotions are supposed to mirror those of the positive human characters’ (p. 53).
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Dir. Guillermo Del Toro,
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