I’m gonna leave her a kingdom she can’t refuse

***Spoilers for The Godfather trilogy, although if you haven’t seen it yet you should stop reading anyway and go watch it***

It’s probably due to the fact that movie theaters across the nation are shut down that the Francis Ford Coppola’s new release of The Godfather: Part III did not receive much attention. Despite being released on a momentous occasion — the 30th anniversary of the original film — and receiving much higher accolades then the original release, the mafia epic that once gripped the minds of the American public seems to have remained dormant in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, the re-edit was not released without recognition, and even The New York Times felt that, perhaps out of respect of the Hollywood classic, the edit disserved some consideration.

Specifically, an article, penned by NYT culture reporter Dave Itzkoff, opens thusly:

In the final scene of “The Godfather Part III,” Michael Corleone, the aged protagonist of this epic crime drama, is left in solitude to contemplate his sins, gripped with guilt over actions that have devastated his family and the knowledge that he cannot change what he has done.

Sound familiar?

In case a retiring monarch throwing a kingdom, a daughter dying in her fathers arms, or the title The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone weren’t enough of a tip off, Coppola himself was the first to draw a connection between the two works. But even before the third film, the ghost of Shakespeare in general, and King Lear specifically, haunted the immortal cinematic masterpieces that make up The Godfather Tribology. Through the winding yet gripping tail, Coppola presents the audience with the original Don Corleone, forced to step down before his time, and with three sons in a crisis of succession. Eventually, the outsider — who tried to give up the family trade for a standard American life — is revealed as the most natural heir. The similarities between the second Don Corleone and Cordelia extend far beyond the similarity of their names.

Coppola was not the only famous filmmaker to incorporate ideas from Shakespeare into his work. The kingly position of The Bard in the western literary cannon is symptomatic of not only his genius, but also of the universal truth of the stories he spun. Romeo and Juliet not only tell the story of two households both alike in dignity but also that of two competing factions on the streets of New York. Anybody who’s dealt with politicians, bosses, teachers, parents, or others in positions of power has met their fair share of King Lears, Lady Macbeths, and King Oberons. Shakespeare’s plays are immortal because they are perfect encapsulations of immortal stories. So it’s no wonder that the pillars of the American Cinematic Pantheon are built out of marble carved from King Lear.

Once Upon a Time

John Cage is perhaps most famous in popular culture as the poster child of the avant-garde music movement, with his piece 4’33” — which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence — reaching particular notoriety. While his style of challenging common notions of aesthetics is a fun novelty for most listeners, Cage put a lot of thought and work into building a considerable repertoire of cutting edge musical ideas. After earning his chops as a traditional composer early in his career, he shifted his focus to the avant-garde, including pioneering the concept of Aleatoric Music, or music with some sort of chance-based component. Aleatoric music has quickly grown in popularity and deployment since Cage’s time, particularly in video game and film music.

One of the pieces Cage composed pretty early in his career, Living Room Music, exemplifies his transition from more common styles of performance to avant-garde ideas. The piece consists of four movements, though the third is optional. The first, third, and fourth movements all have players selects items that might be found in a typical living room (cups, tables, papers; the particular items are at the players’ discretion) and use them to create a certain rhythmic pattern. The third movement also pairs this rhythm making with a melody to be performed on a suitable pitch inducing instrument.

The second movement, however, stands out. Unlike the other movements, this one can be performed without any auxiliary items. That’s because it consists of four individuals repeating a certain set of words with a particular rhythmic pattern and occasionally pitch bend. The words are a deconstruction, reordering, and layering of the first few lines of a lesser known Gertrude Stein children’s book called The World Is Round. The way cage deconstructs and re-arranges the words has much intrigue and meaning, and even begs the question about how lyrics that are part rhythmic and part message based and spread across multiple parts should be conveyed in non-musical writing, but alas this is after all an assignment for which I will be graded and looking at those things entails a tangent this post can not afford. So for the purposes of this post, I will analyze the base set of lines Cage uses to construct the work, as he conveniently includes them at the beginning of they score for the movement (linked above):

Once upon a time the world

was round and you could go on

it around and around.

So, what is this excerpt about? Some hint could come from the content of Stein’s book itself; through the book’s main character, Rose, it highlights the importance of asking questions and feeling a connection to the world. But it’s notable that Cage choses only to focus on this opening sentence from the book when he had ample musical “space” to include additional lyrics. What’s also telling is this particular movement’s title: “Story.” Much in the same way that the other movements of Living Room Music invert traditional conceptions of music by embracing the every day rhythms one might make with objects in their living room, “Story” takes the idea of a story at it’s very core, at it’s simplest form, and transmutes it into something that is halfway between narrative and song. Cage’s purpose, then, is to convey the non-story story — the archetypal stand in that captures infinite possibility because it embodies the very concept of a story.

A further examination of the phrasing in the excerpt Cage uses makes this point patently clear. Starting at the very beginning, the lyric opens with the phrase “Once upon a time.” On the one hand, this clause is serving a literal purpose — by placing the sentence in the past tense it set’s up a narrative trope of “retelling” that fits more naturally with the archetypal narrative of a story (as opposed to stories which are told in present tense, and therefore feel more like they are unfolding live than being retold). At the same time, “Once upon a time” holds an important place in popular culture as the classic opening to many children’s tales, so parroting this language here not only sets a tone of retelling but also places that tone specifically in the childhood story milieu. Finally, because the phrase does not specify a particular time beyond the ambiguous “once,” the sentence takes on a sense of timelessness (in the very same way the aforementioned children’s tales often seem timeless), allowing it to further invoke the archetypal concept of a story.

The next line is also notable in creating the sense of an archetypal story, but in a more innovative way. The use of the 2nd person in storytelling and especially children’s books is quite rare with perhaps If You Give a Mouse a Cookie being the only notable example. Yet here the use of the word “you” in “you could go on it” does not stand out as odd. This is because the “you” portrays a sort of “place holder” or “filler function” — it serves a similar purpose meaning-wise in the sentence as “one could go on it.” That is to say, it is not important who is going as much as that going can occur. However, the use of the word “you” does serve some sort of personalizing function as well by forcing the reader to place themselves in the sentence. Though the reader understands the generic function of the word “you” outlined above, the reader also can’t help but imagine themselves “going on [the world].” This serves to facilitate the reader’s understanding and relation to the story even though the story itself is fairly straightforward and uncomplicated.

Finally, the repetition of the word “around” in the last line secures the sentence’s meaning. In a literal way, the word points to the circular nature of storytelling: much like this particular story never ends but instead simply lands on the observation that one could go around, the archetypal story does not end in spirit even if it has a literal ending because it is perpetually repeated ad infinitum. Additionally, the vowel heavy sounds of the words “around and around” not only make this repetition literal (since the word around is repeated), but also by give this idea a more physical character as the round shape of one’s mouth when saying “around” and the lack of sharp stop constantans like t or p (except at the very end) give the word a circular feeling. By recognizing this innovative word construction, John Cage uses his work to convey broader ideas about not just the content but the form of stories.


In looking over recent blog posts, it seems like there are a lot of people arguing about the broader messages of Exit West and ideas it brings up. In fact, by my count there are at least 17 posts in the last few weeks who’s title includes some form of the word “other,” a word that, somewhat amusingly, appears in the actual book only 5 times. In light of this, I think it might be worthwhile to examine the book on it’s own merits — independent of broader societal or social ideas that might contextualize it. The question I intend to tackle is this; as a work of art, as a piece of fiction, is Exit West “good?”

As a prerequisite to tackling this question, I must establish a criteria by which to measure the novel’s “goodness.” While there are certainly a variety of ways to conduct such a measurement, I will use Nabokov’s standard for a good writer laid out in Good Readers and Good Writers for two reasons. First, it is a standard with which I personally agree and already has substantial arguments in its favor laid out by Nabokov in the actual essay. Second, it is the standard we established in class at the beginning of the year. The rest of this post will focus entirely on my interpretation of Nabokov’s standards and weather or not Exit West aligns with them; if you disagree with those a-priori standards then I suggest you stop reading now.

So, what does Nabokov demand of a good writer? For clarity’s sake, I will follow the chronological order of Nabokov’s work in outlining each standard. The first such standard for good writing appears at the beginning of the 4th paragraph of Nabokov’s essay but is most poetically summarized near the end of that paragraph; “The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts.” Nabokov is arguing that a good writer does not simply take the world as it exists and modify it or mold it to illustrate a point; a good writer, through the artistic process, completely reconceptualizes the meaning of the universe and uses the novel as a lens to provide insight into that new world.

So, where does Exit West fall in all of this? Well, the most notable “recombination” in the world of the novel — one which generally mirrors ours — is the inclusion of doors between different parts of the world. And what is the relevance of these doors from a literary perspective? Hamid answers this question directly during a book talk in 2017, explaining how “the doors in a way allowed me to focus on the sorrow of the departure and also the radical change that happens in a new place, while not having to spend so much time on how we get from place to place. Because so often we think of migrants and we think of refugees and we think how did they cross the Rio Grande…so different from me” (13:50). This is a tacit if not explicit admissions that the doors as a world-building tool serve a particular message based purpose. They allow Hamid to focus less on some details of our reality and more on others in service of making a particular political point about the world around us. This goes directly against the Nabokovian ethos of creating a new world, because Nabokov’s conception of writing is one of pure art — an expression of aesthetic mastery that might have political implications but transcends them in particularity. Hamid’s message, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of “ornamentation of the commonplace” Nabokov describes — a tool to serve a purpose.

In paragraph 9 of his essay, Nabokov brings up another trait of food writing: the ability to evoke an order of imagination deeper then the reader simply “relating” to a character or feeling a connection to one. Nabokov contrasts this lower level of imagination with a model of “impersonal imagination and artistic delight” where the reader maintains a level of “aloofness” and enjoys the “inner weave” of a masterpiece. While there are many respectable things about Hamid’s literary skill and “inner weave” in Exit West, any interpretation that is faithful to the true construction of the novel — explicitly outlined by the author — must utilize the first, lower order of imagination. Hamid does not attempt to hide that this is a novel about migration, explicitly saying this in countless interviews and going to great lengths throughout the novel to demonstrate it (I won’t go much further into examples in the novel here but suffice it to say the name of the novel alone is a strong indication). The ability to understand migration in a different way, to, as a non-migrant reader, attempt to understand migration at all is inherently an empathetic one because only through empathy can the experience provide political impetus. Put another way, ask yourself this; would the message of the novel be nearly as meaningful if you weren’t able to “see the world” through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Would the book be so impactful in uprooting common western notions of migrants if you couldn’t see the world through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Can you even coherently read the novel without seeing the world through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Hamid’s explicit political message forces the reader to use an empathetic level of imagination that falls exactly into the literary pattern Nabokov critiques.

Though distinct, both the points I made above draw from a common well: because Hamid’s message is trying to serve a political point, it undermines the work as an independent artistic endeavor. This is not to say that works that make a political point are all necessarily bad. Indeed, as the son of migrants, I happen to agree with the political point Hamid is making and think he makes this point effectively and eloquently. Many people enjoy fiction with a political message, and feel it helps them better understand the world. And even Charles Dickens himself, one of the author’s cited by Nabokov in his essay, was a strong believer in ethical and political fiction, using his works to draw attention to some of the social and economic problems of British urban life. But in Nabokov’s view, the effectiveness and eloquence of the political message behind a novel is distinct from the “goodness” of the work artistically, as demonstrated by the boy who cried wolf example he gives near the end of his essay. Nabokov reasons that the lesson of the boy who cried wolf story — the fact that the boy was eaten — is “quite incidental.” Instead, this is what he says is important: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” Hamid’s novel, while effective in making a point about migration, is an embrace of the “moral,” the “lesson” of the story, be it about migration literally or other concepts that interact with it, like, as many of my classmates have observed, western notions of “the other.” And as Nabokov points out, this comes at the cost of the novel as a work of art.

Life Is a Highway

With all these posts about what life is/is not (life is a prize, life is not a gift, life is different) I just wanted to remind everyone that life is a highway.

Nabokov and Camus

It is no secret that Vladimir Nabokov was a controversial figure. Nabokov famously said inflammatory things about many authors who are in high regard in the literary cannon. For instance, on Gogol, Nabokov said “I was careful not to learn anything from him. As a teacher, he is dubious and dangerous. At his worst, as in his Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best, he is incomparable and inimitable.” On Hemingway, Nabokov proclaimed, “[He is] a writer of books for boys. Certainly better than Conrad. Has at least a voice of his own. Nothing I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, hopelessly juvenile.”

One possible explanation for this is that unlike many authors, Nabokov writes for the art of writing. Nabokov’s vision of a good writer as presented in his essay on good readers and good writers is a person who does not take the world that exists and morph it to convey their own message but instead embraces a new world for it’s own inherent artistic value. Nabokov is dissatisfied with authors, including many literary giants, who he perceives as trying to push some sort of agenda or philosophy through their works. This is something of which Camus is undeniably guilty, as Camus’s work serves largely as a vehicle to demonstrate Absurdist and Existentialist principals in practice. It’s no surprise then that when asked his thoughts on Camus, Nabokov responded “Dislike him. Second-rate, ephemeral, puffed-up. A nonentity, means absolutely nothing to me. Awful.”

Perhaps all is not lost, however, for the Nabokovian reading Camus. Some have pointed out the similarities the writers have in their contemplation of the absurd, despite their vast differences in style. Further, it is definitely possible to employ the technique of “reading with the spine” when reading Camus’s masterpiece The Stranger as the novel is neither cerebral nor submerged in emotion but rather a curious in-between (something that can also be said of Absurdity as a philosophy). In the end, it’s important to remember that while comparing these author’s philosophies may be a fun exercise, they are still just that — philosophies. And philosophies are only useful in as far as they can help us make sense of the world, as opposed to make it more convoluted.

The Cyborg in the Spiderhead

The horizon of technology has plagued humanity throughout all modernity. Though the idea of human augmentation is a multifaceted one, it can be useful to think of it as a spectrum; on the one end, the helpful, empowering, and often even life saving augmentations of Pacemakers, Cochlear Implants, or Insulin Pumps, on the other end, the abhorrent practices of genomic editing, human breeding, and other eugenic techniques. As long as this spectrum has existed, authors of the western cannon have employed their artistry to warn against moving too far with technology that alters what it means to be human.

George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead” is no different — it offers a broad condemnation of chemical influence on human consciousness. While this commentary is not quite literal — Saunders does not at all make it seem like he is commenting on modern society’s use of augmentation — it is still a running battle between morality and the “pursuit of science” that defines “Spiderhead.” Saunders paints the world of chemical augmentation as corporatized, such as through the use of trademark symbols by chemical names (as in 45, 46, 54, 55, etc.). He also has his characters follow a blind, almost comical “pursuit of science” over morality, as when Absenti — the story’s main protagonist — insists that the tortures experiment on which the story centers was in the name of “the mandates of science” (74).

While this condemnation might be a useful thought experiment about human morality, it poorly reflects the possibilities of human existence. As long as medical science has existed, bio-ethical standards, practices, and procedures have been shaped with the finest precision to make medicine as morally acceptable to broader members of society as possible. For example, in contrast to the story, not only is human chemical augmentation carefully controlled in modern society, it is also useful and even possibly life saving for people with severe mental health conditions. While it is obvious that Saunders is not trying to comment on a world that currently exists per say, Saunders is still making a commentary on the ability of technology to shape human morals in a way that, as outlined above, has never been reflective of reality.

The decades to come will be filled with medical advances — bionic suits, AI, mental chemical enhancements, etc. — that will bring what it means to be human up for debate. How we understand both ourselves and the rest of humanity will evolve, and so will our sense of morality. However, these changes will happen under public scrutiny, and guided by the strict scruples that define western scientific development. Therefore, while it can be appealing to let fiction play out various though experiments on the intersection of science and morality, we should not let this preclude discovering new horizons of medicine and science that revolutionize what it means to be human.