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Mapping the roads of the American nightmare
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Mapping the roads of the American nightmare: 05/21/17

Mapping the American nightmare through the darkest of road narratives.

Turning my attention back to literary analysis, I've started reading American Road Narratives by Ann Brigham (2015). The book was published the year I decided to jumpstart my research from 1995. This book has made a few important points for my research: first, my reading in the last two year's has been on track. Although I'm no longer part of academia, I was able to navigate my way through current trends in road narrative analysis. Second, I am getting a better sense of what I want to focus on.

With the road narrative genre it is tempting to divide things into to clear cut binaries. I spent much of my first six months diagraming a crazy spider web of binaries. It quickly became too complex to track and too unfocused. But the exercise game me a few binaries I was interested in pursuing further. I pared them down to seven — rather like a color wheel of tropes or sub-genres.

The sub-genres mapped out as a color wheel

    They are:
  • Urban vs Rural
  • Utopia vs Dystopia
  • On the road vs There and Back Again
  • Driving While...
  • All Roads Lead to vs the Road Not Taken
  • Crossing the Cornfield (either to escape or to incarcerate)
  • Autokind vs Mankind

Brigham's introduction, though, offers an insight into the genre that has made me rethink my focus. She contends that "this genre has primarily been read in terms of familiar binaries: home/away, domesticity/mobility, conformity/rebellion, stasis/movement, confinement/liberation." (p. 8). She goes on to add that her reading of the genre is one of interaction with society, and one of transgression of social mores, "...because because so many road scholars understand mobility as an inherently positive and liberating form of transgression that subverts and transcends social order." (p. 9). What her thesis seems to ignore is horrific, the dangers, the monsters lurking off the beaten path — the threat to standing still — basically all the things that fall into the "crossing the cornfield" trope.

What this means for my research, is that while I continue to read through the road narrative analysis books I have on hand, I should continue to explore the paranormal aspects of the genre — the places where the road narrative intersects with urban fantasy and horror. That means beginning a close rewatching of Supernatural, a closer re-reading of the Oz books, and things in between. We're talking crossroad demons, ghostly hitchhikers, urban myths, snake oil salesmen, and so forth.

It does mean that my research is taking a metaphorical turn and is completely removed from my original project (semantics of real world urban design influencing our ontological understanding of road narratives).

My reason for this tangent is that I'm not particularly interested in yet another reading of road trip as an expression of being American — or as Brigham suggests, a way of becoming more American. Although I agree with her that the road trip part of the road narrative is a quintessentially American genre, I believe the genre is more nuanced that just being a reaffirmation of American values, or a discussion across physical space of those values, or even a transgression of said values. The road has become such a part of the North American psyche to be part our nightmares. I am saying "North American" because my readings include examples from both Canada and Mexico as well as the United States.

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