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Fiction's Come a Long Way, Baby

The development of fiction from its nascent stages until today's contemporary works is a storied one. Many features mark contemporary fiction and differentiate it from the classics of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries: For one, modern writers use different perspectives to narrate: In some works, the narrator switches from third-person omniscient to first person, and in some contemporary works, even the challenging second-person. Experimentation in styles also marks contemporary fiction: Nabokov, perhaps fiction's greatest ever stylist, has written one novel penned to ladies and gentlemen of the jury, and another as literary criticism on a purposefully mediocre poem. (Nabokov: Lolita and Pale Fire).

But one of the most pronounced shifts in fiction over these centuries has been the move from stuffy, high art to a fixation on and immersion in pop culture. George Eliot, for instance, in "Daniel Deronda," interspersed a very staid narrative with her own philosophical musings, dealing with such grand issues as religion, love, metaphysics and gender roles. (Eliot: Daniel Deronda).

The new trend, perhaps inspired by Andy Warhol's work in the visual arts, is fiction interspersed with and indeed dependent on pop culture as a crutch and as a vehicle. Contemporary fiction not only uses pop culture to demonstrate images and ideas, but it leans on pop culture for minor revelations that actually have tremendous overarching implications.

Sandra Cisneros is a prime example of a contemporary author who uses pop culture -- especially television and movies -- to not only illustrate a point in her fiction, but actually as a vehicle for her ideas. Her revelations arrive at the doorstep of the reader's imagination through linkages to movies, television and even Barbie dolls. The result is short fiction that fixates so much on the pop culture and the low, that it subtly rises to the level of profound without so much as a squeak.

A prime example of the tremendous pop culture usage in Cisneros is found in "Woman Hollering Creek." The protagonist, Cleofilas, lives through telenovelas, or Spanish soap operas, and finally finds freedom through the same. At the very beginning of the story, Cisneros sets the tone for what will be the most important lynchpin in Cleofilas' development and the reader's understanding: the cliched, hackneyed Spanish soap opera:

"Tu or Nadie. "You or No One." The title of the current favorite telenovela. The beautiful Lucia Mendez having to put up with all kinds of hardships of the heart, separation and betrayal, and loving, always loving no matter what, because that is the most important thing, and did you see Lucia Mendez on the Bayer aspirin commercials -- wasn't she lovely? Does she dye her hair do you think? Cleofilas is going to go to the farmacia and buy a hair rinse; her girlfriend Chela will apply it -- its not that difficult at all." (Cisneros, 44).

Here, the quintessentially pop-culture soap opera character foreshadows exactly what Cleofilas herself undergoes. Cleofilas too puts up with "all kinds of hardships of the heart." After all, Cisneros' setup makes it quite obvious that Cleofilas' naive perceptions of her husband's wealth are just that: naive. Plus, when the revelations of her husband's domestic abuse are aired, we as readers are not surprised, because we've already lived those fears through Lucia Mendez.

Lucia Mendez perhaps is not abused domestically, but she acts as a pop-culture vehicle for Cleofilas' deepest emotions and revelations. Lucia and the telenovela represent Cleofilas' conscience and thought processes. Even though Cleofilas leads us to believe that she had no foreshadowing of some of her struggles, she is thrust into a horrible situation and survives. How?

In other words, though Cleofilas is not from an ideal family, she has never been abused, and presumably had enough to pay for medical bills and had at least the support of her friends in Mexico. Suddenly, in Texas, she is thrust into a violent world of abuse, poverty, threatened pregnancies, boredom, embarrassment, helplessness and loneliness. She survives because she has already dealt with such pain and anguish through Lucia's character on the telenovela.

After all, Lucia has put up with separation and betrayal as well. Cleofilas deals with the ultimate separation in moving away from her home and everything she knows -- including the telenovela, of course, since in her new home she enjoys no television. And when the hints and allegation of her husband's cheating -- via the crushed cigarette evidence, among other bits -- waft up from the pages of Cisneros' fiction to the reader's understanding, both reader and Cleofilas are prepared: Lucia faced betrayal herself in the telenovela.

Pop culture via the telenovelas is so important to Cleofilas that she lists her husband's lack of interest in the soap operas as one of the reasons her marriage is much less than the ideal she'd always envisioned:

"He is not very tall, no, and he doesn't look like the men on the telenovelas. His face still scarred from acne. And he has a bit of a belly from all the beer he drinks. Well, he's always been husky. The man who farts and belches and snores as well as laughs and kisses and holds her. Somehow this husband whose whiskers she finds each morning in the sink, whose shoes she must air each evening on the porch, this husband who cuts his fingernails in public, laughs loudly, curses like a man, and demands each course of inner be served on a separate plate like at his mother's, as soon as he gets home, on time or late, and who doesn't care at all for music or telenovelas or romance or roses or the moon floating pearly over the arroyo, or through the bedroom window for that matter, shut the blinds and go back to sleep, this man, this father, this rival, this keeper, this lord, this master, this husband till kingdom next." (Cisneros, 49)

Cleofilas' husband is nothing at all like she'd dreamed: But of course, her dreams are intertwined inseparably from the telenovelas of her youth. Her husband does not measure up at all in any way, but the coup de grace of disappointment is the fact that he does not even brook telenovelas. In a brilliant stroke of metafiction, Cisneros depicts Cleofilas as realizing that her husband is so far away from the one she had always considered ideal that he does not even speak the same language; in other words, he does not even know what his wife's ideal is, as he has no interest in Spanish soap operas, he has no interest in Lucia's interests in the telenovela.

This immersion in pop culture, therefore, both alerts Cleofilas to the imperfections in her life, and also allows her to survive them. She perhaps would never have known that anything better than her husband -- or her current state of affairs -- was even possible without the telenovelas, but the telenovelas also provided her with a survivor model in Lucia: If Lucia can survive, so can Cleofilas.

This immersion in pop culture permeates Cisneros' other short stories as well. The best analogy in contemporary American fiction comes to us via Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. In that seminal 1980s novel, the main character is simply fascinated by the latest reports from New York's tabloids: He reads about "coma baby," a baby allegedly born in a coma, and his life mirrors that baby's existence, as well as the other fictional stories he picks up not in a reputable paper like the New York Times, but in the pop culture tabloids. (McInerney, Bright Lights Big City).

Compare McInerney's situation to Cisneros' construction in "Mexican Movies." The entire short story is a recollection of the experience of watching movies with her family. And in the experience, in which she details certain movie plots and scenes that definitely suggest a B-movie or at least a very popular romance without much literary merit, Cisneros' narrator infuses herself into the character through the pop culture vehicle yet again:

"We like Mexican movies. Even if it's one with too much talking. We just roll ourselves up like a doughnut and sleep, the armrest hard against our head until Mama puts her sweater there. But then the movie ends. The lights go on. Somebody picks us up -- our shoes and legs heavy and dangling like dead people -- carries us I the cold to the car that smells like ashtrays. Black and white, black and white lights behind our closed eyelids, until by now we're awake but it's nice to go on pretending with our eyes shut because here's the best part. Mama and Papa life us out of the backseat and carry us upstairs to the third-floor front where we live, take off our shoes and clothes, and cover us, so when we wake up, it's Sunday already, and we're in our beds and happy." (Cisneros, 13).

This short snippet shows so many insights into the narrator's storyline, but a bit differently than…[continue]

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