Murder Madness Mayhem

I'm teaching a section of a course next semester called "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem" at Plymouth State, and since a passionate minority of the readership here seems interested in my syllabi and the (so-called) thinking behind them, here are the texts I've settled on using:I don't entirely know what I'm doing with all these texts yet (the order was due at the bookstore last week, but the class won't begin till the end of January), but I chose them because I think they will illuminate different things about each other.

The only text that I've been settled on using since the moment I learned I'd be teaching a section of the class is The Dark Descent, an anthology I admire enormously for its generous selection of stories from all sorts of different traditions (contents listed here), and getting to explore it with students will be great fun.

The other books I chose bit by bit as I developed some focus for the course -- the course description I was given is pretty general, and the course goals are mostly just that the students will learn to write and read better, will develop some critical thinking skills, and will have some sort of interdisciplinary experience (the class is, like my current Outsider course, mostly for first-year students).

As with any class, my first step was to decide what to give up. For a while, I was thinking of including both Titus Andronicus and King Lear, but then I realized that, much as I might find the comparison scintillating, it was likely to be quite difficult to drag the students through two Shakespeare plays in one term -- I taught Shakespeare every year for 10 years in high school, sometimes with success and sometimes not, but it seemed like too much of a risk for this particular class, partly because I just don't know how to teach Shakespeare when the class doesn't meet every day, and the time and effort it would eat up could be used more productively, I thought, with other texts.

Next, I gave up on trying to represent the world. For a while, I kept things like Bolaño's By Night in Chile, Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales, and Zoe Wicomb's Playing in the Light on the possibles list, but they came off one by one for different reasons (Tanizaki because I wanted novels rather than more stories, Wicomb because I find the shifting viewpoints of the novel annoying and didn't really look forward to rereading it [and though I adore her You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, I once included it in a class and it was just too subtle for the students to appreciate], the Bolaño because it requires a certain kind of readerly sophistication that I just don't know how to teach to kids who've just come from high school and, more often than not, don't like reading). I also wanted to include some plays by Euripedes and maybe John Webster, but then had to remind myself that it's not a course in dramatic lit.

Finally, I decided to let the course be about the intersections of murder, madness, and mayhem, and to take a particularly socio-political approach, one that might make it a bit less of a struggle for students who aren't English majors (few, if any of them, will be). Thus, a certain focus on war -- all of the texts other than The Dark Descent explore some aspect of war or combat.

Sarah Kane's Blasted, which is currently playing in New York (I'll be seeing it with Rick Bowes in a couple days, in fact), presents a brutal and hallucinatory version of war and its effects on people, while Chris Shinn's play Dying City offers a rich and subtle exploration of the Iraq war and the homefront. I thought that Blasted would make a bit more sense to students if they read a realistic account of the Bosnian war, and I thought about including a book of nonfiction (even Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde or The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo), but settled on Drakulic's S. because though it has a certain documentary feel, it will still allow us to continue thinking and talking about how people respond to real horrors through fictional writing. Mother Night is a favorite of mine, a wonderful book to teach because its accessible surface lures students into thinking it is less complex than it is, and when they discover its complexities they tend to get excited by and passionate about the book. Daughters of the North and Liberation will be the final books, ones that get us talking about, I expect, how and why writers extrapolate from present trends, and if murder, madness, and mayhem must always be aligned during times of political crisis.

In amidst all this, I'll toss some essays and, I hope, a bunch of poems. We'll see. It's a tight schedule just with these books, and I could change my mind about a lot of things between now and the end of January...