Monday, June 29, 2009

The New Yorker: "Ziggurat" by Stephan O'Connor

I’m at a loss to explain this story, although I enjoyed reading it for the suspense. So I welcome (invite!) anyone to offer an interpretation.

The best I can do is provide some background. In classical mythology, the Minotaur was a monster with a bull’s body and a human head who was kept in a labyrinth from which no one could escape unassisted. He was fed human victims. But along comes Theseus and with the help of Ariadne, daughter of the king, slays the Minotaur and also finds his way out of the labyrinth. (Thank you, Bulfinch’s Mythology.)

We also need to understand the ziggurat, the ancient temple-towers of Mesopotamia that resembled pyramids and are associated with the Tower of Babel.

So here’s O'Connor's story: the Minotaur has been hanging out in the “pine-panelled section” of the Labyrinth lately (making it sound like a bar, complete with a pool table and a beer-stocked fridge) and there’s a new girl there (new girl, as in one of the sacrifices offered to the Minotaur). She’s playing video games in the corner--Ziggurat, Panic, and U-Turn--which all turn out to be games of disappointment in which God, or the gods, frustrate human ambition. The Minotaur grows fond of “the new girl” (I like her, too, because she tries to avoid her fate by asserting her non-virgin status; it turns out, though, that the Minotaur doesn’t know what a virgin is and can’t taste the difference.) For whatever reason, the Minotaur does not eat the new girl. He also has never tried to escape—he doesn’t know there is a world outside the labyrinth until the girl tries to tell him about it. The story suggests, however, that the outside world is something that she has merely imagined, because in fact her memories are of a world inside the labyrinth.

And yet, one day the new girl disappears. The Minotaur looks for her. He builds a ziggurat, expecting that he can reach the sky. When he gets there, he discovers that the sky is made of plaster. (Did that not remind you of The Truman Show?) And he breaks through only to find himself back in familiar territory—but then it’s a labyrinth, and so that’s what we’d expect.

The Minotaur has dreams (at least I think they’re dreams). And he continues his wandering. Until he is a tiny speck.

I think we’re dealing with issues of the maze of our memories, creating worlds from which we cannot escape. Beyond that, I’m pretty much stumped here. Thoughts?

June 29, 2009: “Ziggurat” by Stephen O’Connor

15 comments:

Gay Degani said...

Okay so I read this too and as I said as a comment elsewhere, I read it grinning. I loved the first half fully and was happy to be on the ride. However, when I was finished, I had the same feeling I often have with "literary" stories. A little confused and therefore, let down. Maybe I'm just not mentally acute enough.

Of course the references to the classic Minotaur story are obvious, but I also felt a little of Sheherazade too in the way the little girl kept him from eating her. She was smart, definitely.

Then there is the Beauty and the Beast idea. He falls in love with her, but he is a beast. And she seemed to like him too--until she disappeared.

Once he broke through the ceiling (I think, he broke through and climbed out into the world), I lost the thread and began to spend brain power trying to figur out what the hell was going on rather than continuing to be swept along.

Labyrithian in structure is what it is supposed to be and perhaps having a place where the reader loses the thread is on purpose, but Theseus gets out and I'm not sure we do. Is that the point?

I haven't read it again yet. Like Borges, I suppose multiple readings improve appreciation.

Hope someone else chimes in here.

E.P. Chiew said...

Cliff, thanks so much for writing about this. It caused enough curiosity in me to go read it for myself. I was bowled over. I don't think I understood what the author was going for, and perhaps there were many literary referential themes I didn't get (although I thought the one you mentioned about labyrinthian memory was very good and spot on).

When I can't quite crack open the writer's inspiration here, I just settle in for the ride, if the ride is well executed and enjoyable, which in this case it absolutely was. The analytical side of my brain kept searching for the thread that explains the significance and meaning of this whole piece, and of course I don't really find it. That side of me got frustrated. But I thought this was the genius of this kind of fantasy fiction -- it's just as revealing about the way we are used to reading fiction. We can't just settle in for a good adventure story anymore -- if it's got suggestive thematic overtones, we spin ourselves mentally trying to unravel the threads.

I've read a few 'modern re-interpretations' of mythology, and other than those that recalibrated Snow White or Cinderella in a dark feminist way (which is very Angela Carter, she did it best), all the ones I've read so far were just disappointing. They simply rewrote the mythology and anthropomorphized them with emotions.

But here, what Stephen O'Connor did was just brilliant, I thought. He wrote a story that was just a story with a mythological character yet filled with evocations of "it could be about this, it could be about that", and you take from it what you will. To carry on with the contemporary metaphor, it's a bit like watching a collagist music video, where the artist tours around in a car visiting ideas and history and cultural landmarks (or in this case fictional or metafictional landmarks). It's not everyone's cup of tea certainly. But I absolutely loved it.

Anonymous said...

My college Comp II class analyzed this story as part of their final exam. My favorite focused on "the new girl"'s character, her detachment and apparently flat, self-centered, commodity-driven worldview. My student wrote: "She sees the Minotaur not as a scary monster but as a new interesting thing that makes her life a little bit less bored than usual. To her, the Minotaur can be a new friend, or just a new toy. It doesn't really matter." My own interpretation involves comparing this story to Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho. The Minotaur is a lonely, soul-sick, violent-minded man who is much uglier than Ellis' protagonist Patrick. For this reason, others abuse and flee him rather than suck up to him. But the real connection lies in the question: are any of the Minotaur's killings real? Or is all of this just the elaborate fantasy of an alienated pariah watching a girl play on the computer somewhere?

Clifford Garstang said...

I love the idea of having my College Comp II students take a stab at this story, and I might just do that this fall.

I like your students interpretation, and yours too, but your last sentence about the pariah watching the girl playing video games unlocked this story for me.

It is a video game. Even the ending with the figure shrinking to a blip might fit that interpretation, and the labyrinth is all very video game-like.

Anonymous said...

By jove, I think you've got it! Seriously, the video game interpretation is very tempting but brings the problem of "everything as metafiction"--or that unresolvable philosophical (empiricist) question of, is there anything outside of the perceiving mind? Of course, the postmodern version of this question is, is there anything outside of "game"? Now, for another literary tag--have you read Alain Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy? If you like "Ziggurat," you will love Jealousy. Fifty years ago this Frenchman was bold to go, formally, where the Americans still prefer to go only thematically...

cassandra said...

I "understand" this story only to the extent that i understand myself--and I am still a surprise to me often!

I disagree with categorizing "the new girl" as consumer-driven and so bored with life that she enjoyed dallying with Death. To me she was more a life-force--trying to find a sense in existence--pleasure, joy,
interest--in spite of the world's habit of tearing down our good works, and the inevitability of death.

We all must acknowledge humanity's penchant for violence and
destruction--in a recent New Yorker, there was a piece on Rwanda, and the attempts to stitch back together the killers and their communities. An
interesting observation was that, no matter which side of the fight the men were on, they all showed a nostalgia for the clean rewards of destruction.
One man says, and i paraphrase from memory--one never knows if their works of creation and preservation will survive, but something that is destroyed
stays destroyed.

The sea here seems the only image in our life sufficient to overwhelm the hungry ego--hungry id, hungry life. (Eating--blood bone and gristle--whether pig or man).

The only escape from that hunger is death. but can that hunger die? Hamlet's question.

noontide said...

I think the Minotaur is an anology of time. Time has a linear existence, in the sense that it eventually kills everyone it encounters. And the labyrinth signifies memories. It makes sense in the part where he took the girl to see her family's remain.
Eventually the girl died, of old age presumably, so in a sense the Minotaur killed her too. There is a line that says the Minotaur wonder if he ate the girl in a moment of thoughtless

Also, somehow the labyrinth is overlaid or interwined with the real world, it can be explained that the real world is a labyrinth for time, a place that holds memories which is the remain of what time has killed, in which Time itself is trapped. The part where he built a Babel tower and found himself ended up in the same room is a significance of the cicular nature of time, samsara sort of thing.

Jacob Russell said...

The Minotaur is... ????

Jacob Russell said...

Why assume this fictive verbal Minataur 'is' something else?

Or rather, why not ask the same question about any character or object in "realist" fiction? The latter are every bit as "unreal' as the minataur. Both are contructs of language worked over my mind.

cassandra said...

Curtis White's essay, "The Barbaric Heart" (in this month's Orion), could be a dialectic sister to "Ziggurat":

"THE BARBARIC HEART is a pure emptiness, an emptiness that doesn’t know itself as empty. It is an emptiness that has turned upon itself. It is a mouth that chews. It is a permanent state of war against all others but also, most profoundly, against itself. One part violence, one part plunder, and eventual anguish and regret."

White claims the Barbaric Heart can only be neutered by thoughtfulness:

"In the end, the one important task of thoughtfulness is to invent a spiritual principle, a logos of its own, that can contest the energies (and tyrannies) of the Barbaric Heart. But thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is not its ability to provide a superior Truth or an irrefutable logic. Thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is aesthetic. That is, what thoughtfulness proposes as an alternative to the self-serving violence of the Barbaric is beauty."

In other words, the New Girl?

White's full essay, well worth a read, can be found online at Orion .com

Warren Criswell said...

Several sources are referenced in the story--the tower of Babel from the Torah, the labyrinth from Greek myth, video games and maybe gnosticism-- because I think the sad blue faced man is not so much God but the demiugrge, or just existential nature itself, the creator of games of ambition and disappointment. The game the new girl is playing is a microcosm of the world, at least in her mind. She imagines the story from the POV of the minotaur. The tower she's trying to build in the game is not exactly a Tower of Babel, because it's being built by angels and torn down by devils, agents of the Demiurge, but it amounts to the same thing--frustration of drsire. Whether you are the beast or the prey, you can't escape the labyrinth.

After he lost the girl, the Minotaur built his own tower, a ziggurat that took centuries and new technology. It went all the way up to the "sky", the roof of the labyrinth, but when he broke through ceiling he found himself back in the labyrinth, the room where he first met the new girl. He tried to ask God where she was, but God said, "Leave me alone." No way out and no one to answer questions. But here's the tip-off that the minotaur is being manipulated by the girl:

"... the Minotaur would start to run. Every time. He couldn't help himself.
"'Oof!'"

--Which is the sound the girl makes as she plays. Very complicated story, worlds nested within worlds. The end is especially powerful, I thought, and poignant . "He grew smaller and smaller. Every now and then he would vanish, only to reappear on a lower incline of the dune ... A wavering speck. Then smaller. Ever smaller." I know the feeling.

One of the best and certainly the strangest story I've ever read in the New Yorker.

Warren

James J. said...

I see I'm not the only comp teacher who googled this short story. I plan to use this story to teach active reading skills to my first semester writing courses.

D.J. Rees said...

What about his comment that reads something about, living to be destroyed. He thought it, could only say it when the new girl slept or when he turned his head. Isn't that what happened to him as he became more human with advanced vocabulary and starting with the new girl's question, "what's your favorite part of the labyrinth?"

Annie nimity said...

The story is anot explanation and metaphor for humans understanding and interpretation of the cosmos. The minotaur represents superstition, plague, suffering, attributed to God's or powerful forces before science was discerned. So the new girl is the incipient scientific theory displacing old mythology and reducing it to smallness and revealing it's force and power to nothing compared to real scoence.

Annie nimity said...

The story is anot explanation and metaphor for humans understanding and interpretation of the cosmos. The minotaur represents superstition, plague, suffering, attributed to God's or powerful forces before science was discerned. So the new girl is the incipient scientific theory displacing old mythology and reducing it to smallness and revealing it's force and power to nothing compared to real scoence.