October 22nd, 2010 / 1:42 pm

What is the vacuum cleaner in Matt Bell’s “Hold on to Your Vacuum”?


  1. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Removal of memories also

  2. Adam Robinson

      Is it, like, the character’s sucking? Is it cumbersome, symbolically and as a device?

  3. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Removal of memories also

  4. Adam Robinson

      I thought that was what the drill was for. You mean the vacuum is also for that? It’s never explicitly used, right?

  5. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      no, not used for that, but it seems deliberate given the story’s themes that the object that maybe represents whatever weighs this character down is one that sucks shit up.

  6. Adam Robinson

      I like how it isn’t entirely clear and seamless. Like, when the game restarts, the character obviously remembers his past enough to write it out later, and can try to do things differently, like with the girl at the party. But I guess your reading makes sense.

  7. Sean

      The vacuum is the ability to empathize. To suck pain. To take in, and therefore to bloat yourself with the very filth about us, it is the eye and the memory, the snapshot of the babysitter on the toilet, the bloody deer, everyone drifting about with no real idea why they do what they do, who they are, even if their own actions or authentic or bogus, or just dust.

      Then again it might be a vacuum.

  8. Sean

      are authentic or bogus, or just dust.

      Errors. I suck


  9. Joseph Young

      sin. i don’t thiink it’s that vacuum’s suck, because it’s never used, but that vacuum’s are empty. you could put it down but you never will. because you are part of the game. and it’s yours. so god/the scientist/your dad will keep drilling into your head. you could kill christ/the deer but you won’t do that either, and the way the game is played, that’s a sin too. you are supposed to kill him. you have to, because you are alive, you have to eat him.

  10. Brad Green

      The vacuum is guilt. It’s what we all carry around each moment we’re alive.

  11. deadgod

      not perception, but rather attention ?

  12. Joseph Young

      so, i have to be disqus to fix my typos? that’s like being club card member to have cheap orange juice. it bugs on me.

  13. John Minichillo

      It’s a self-conscious metaphor. Metafiction. Like the hamster at the end of Barthelme’s “The School.” Like Lennon is the Walrus. It’s not expansive the way most metaphors are but more the sign-post in the story, the placeholder – where the metaphor is supposed to go.

      Most metaphors become reductive the more one talks about them. For example, talking about The Wasteland is always less than the experience of The Wasteland as a metaphor.

      The self-conscious metaphor, however, tends to make the reader feel a sense of doubt when talking about meaning(s). There’s slippage, an uncertainty over what is experienced. What am I supposed to get with this hamster? What am I supposed to understand about The Walrus? Talking about the self-conscious metaphor reduces the reader to uncertainty. So the more one talks, the less one is sure about the entire experience of reading. You risk popping that balloon.

      So the answer that makes the most sense is also circular. The vacuum is the referent / the thing we all know – the physical feel of an actual vacuum in the hand – there at the center of the story about the vacuum – referred to simply as “your vacuum.”

      Matt’d be wise to keep quiet on this. Or (like a Liverpudlian) go cryptic.

      The intentional fallacy should remind us metaphors and the experience of the reader is powerful stuff. Any personal meaning he may have intended is only one of many valid possibilities and it’s probably best not to translate or footnote one’s own work.

  14. Amber

      I like this and agree–it’s “where the metaphor is supposed to go.” Also, kind of the MacGuffin–because in the end it doesn’t really matter what it is.

  15. Tim Horvath

      “Cumbersome” was the right word. I think whatever meaning or non-meaning one attributes to it, it is important that vacuums in the story are unwieldy, weighty, contraptions through and through, clunky (“clunking against the doorframe”). In a vague way I am reminded of “Harrison Bergeron,” except that this story seems much more psychological in comparison to Vonnegut’s resounding social satire. But I didn’t find it cumbersome as a signifier. Just enjoyably awkward.

  16. deadgod

      “Metafiction” is a good angle; the “vacuum cleaner” itself is the attempt ‘to draw reference from a metaphor; to unlock a story by successfully figuring out what its central metaphor refers to’. (- “is” qualified by about a dozen scare quotes on either side.)

      I think, though, that reflexive metaphor, or self-referential metaphor, because it’s circular – what is ‘to solve’ about this metaphor is understanding itself – , actually engages less “slippage” than (what one could call) ‘variable metaphor’. The metaphor is like an allegory with only one ‘symbol < - > referent’.

      I’m curious about the phrase “self-conscious metaphor”. How would one explain an ‘unself-conscious metaphor’? What’s an example of an ‘unself-conscious metaphor’?

  17. John Minichillo

      w/ ‘self-conscious metaphor’ I only mean a metaphor in a self-conscious narrative. Self-conscious narrative and metafiction are generally interchangeable, though metafiction is a bit more specific.

      Either way, I don’t think you can claim any metaphor has more or less slippage than any other metaphor.

  18. deadgod

      Oh, I thought you meant, by “self-conscious metaphor”, a ‘sign referring to its capacity to represent, to its metaphoricity’ – in, say, Charlotte’s Web, the fuel in the engine of the novel’s meaning turning on “SOME PIG” being read by the humans as a sign of a ‘remarkable pig’ (and not a ‘literate spider’).

      (If I can quarrel semantically without arousing dismissive frustration: when a metaphor refers to its own function as a representer, it’s a matter of self-reference, not of a sign that is ‘conscious’ of itself. Most figures that are used as metaphors are used, by their writers, ‘self-consciously’, no?)

      I guess I also misunderstood your use of “slippage”.

      In an allegory, a sign stands for a particular referent; there might be some diversity in readers/viewers interpreting that referent in itself, but the symbol is locked into (practical) interchangeability with the referent within the economy of the allegory.

      For example, in Book III of The Faerie Queene, when jealousy is personified/dramatized, the (fictive) person Malbecco loses Hellinore (his wife) to the interloping rogue Paridell, and, in (to me) a horrible transformation, Malbecco turns into Jealousy: “Gealousie [itself] is hight.” He isn’t merely jealous; through the power of fiction, the character Malbecco “is” jealousy itself. One might think, ‘when I’m sexually jealous, it doesn’t really feel like these images look’. But every reasonable reader will suppose that, within the terms of Britomart’s adventure, this character Malbecco becomes, instead of a fictive person, what he is: ‘Jealousy’.

      On the other hand, when Dickinson’s poem starts: “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -“, the question ‘how is a life “like” a loaded gun’ has at least a few responses that, while some particular reader will prefer/insist on one, co-exist with the others. The meaning of the image slips between the possible meanings. Is the poem about Dickinson’s relation to a man? or a woman? to her sexuality? to God? to her own mortality, the smallness of her life? to her talent, her interest in being a poet? Is “I” necessarily ‘Dickinson’? There’s a finite, but infinitely slipping, variety in the referring of the “I” to her (?) “Life” being a “Loaded Gun”.

      – which is what I thought you meant by “slippage”, which latter case surely does admit of “more or less”.

  19. Kyle Minor

      I’m enjoying the hell out of this thread.

  20. John Minichillo

      I’m sure you are aware none of your examples are from metafiction or really even self-conscious narratives. It would make more sense to distinguish between the use of metaphor in realist vs. Nonrealist fiction. But here goes…

      That’s kind of your take on the Faerie, right? Maybe it’s the standard reading, maybe strongly supported, but there’s never one reading. If one is jealous or one is jealousy – that’s metaphor.

      The three examples compare abstract ideas to abstract nouns. How does the example change if Dickinson says her love us an Uzi? It means the same thing but there’s the trick of magic realism. The place of the metaphor is the same, but I’m spellbound by the realistic convention. There is still slippage. The symbol is not what it represents. There are two or three removes.

      A narrative can be self-conscious. It shows me what it is. It doesn’t pretend the game is real. As a reader I’m shown the workings under the clockface. Here is metaphor, see it unwind and tick and spin. I can still be moved by this narrative, but I’m made aware I was moved by narrative and not some semblance of the real.

  21. John Minichillo

      Coincidentally, vacuum is a word that happens to be both object and idea. Object and absence. Handle and it’s opposite. So there’s likely intended slippage.

  22. Adam Robinson

      Clunky and impossible, or perhaps self-conscious as John has termed it, in the sense that the reader isn’t meant to ever really think of the characters with these vacuum cleaners. Just like in Mary Hamilton’s story here, we aren’t meant to imagine subcutaneous lanterns. The detail ONLY works or is intended for some other effect.

  23. John Lennon

      Well here’s another clue for you all,
      The walrus was Paul.

  24. Joseph Young

      I felt very viscerally that the vacuum was actually there. And although I can’t say for sure what they are meant to signify and we might not ever agree on what they are, it seems to me to rob them of their weight to say they are only a stand in for the spot of metaphor or a McGuffin. They are a thing of nightmarish physicality, were for me, and thus have the power of specificity even if not singular interpretation.

  25. deadgod

      [a response to your “reply”, John, not my own – to avoid ending up, if we continue, with one-syllable ‘lines’]


      ?? I wasn’t drawing examples to illustrate the category “metafiction”, but rather – and as I say – , first, to give an example of a self-referential metaphor, which would ‘stand for’ metaphoricity itself – what I’d thought you meant by “self-conscious” – , and then, to show how there’d be “more or less slippage” between, respectively, a metaphor that’s ambiguous in its reference and a metaphor that’s a symbol in an allegory. But ok:

      none of your examples

      Charlotte’s Web is a metafiction: it’s a story about changing reality by using language to influence action. (One might argue that the words “SOME PIG” aren’t fictive, but rather true – ‘metareportage’? But no: the pig is pretty ordinary; the message of the message that the farm family doesn’t get, in reading the message, is that ‘it’s SOME SPIDER’.)

      But, as I say, my point wasn’t the metafictional story, but rather the device: a figure that refers to figuration – a self-referring metaphor.

      the Faerie

      My take on The Faerie Queene – here – is that the process of Malbecco becoming Gealousie is the narrative of a symbol in a (much) larger allegory. It’s pretty static, pretty fixed: “Gealousie [itelf] is hight”; the sexual jealousy you feel is discovered here, in this poetry. Yes, there’s “slippage” in that ‘jealousy’ means something different to each person, but to the extent that different people can use the same word and recognize (provisionally) what others (provisionally) mean by it, that (particularly sexual) ‘jealousy’ is here: Malbecco.

      There is still slippage.

      Indeed! – I reached for an example where, to me, there’s great “slippage”, where the ambiguity of a metaphoric reference is as plain as can be. “My Life” is not a literal “Loaded Gun” – but to say it is is to focus on what about a life is like a loaded gun.

      I agree – I say – that “[t]here’s a finite, but infinitely slipping, variety” in the connotations of “Loaded Gun” in Dickinson’s poem. On the other hand, in book III, cantos ix-x, of The Faerie Queene, the story of how “Gealousie” becomes present has, despite the many personal meanings of ‘jealousy’, the one symbolic association: Malbecco turns into “Gealousie”. The latter authorial claim of representation slips much less than the former, where I’d say it ‘resonates’ between its meanings. (A term of Gadamer’s that I also like for this oscillating ambiguity (of “Loaded Gun”) is “shimmering”.)


      Yes, some metafictions announce themselves stylistically and thematically: the narrated city of Invisible Cities. But there are lots of metafictional texts that don’t explain to their audiences that (one thing) they’re about is ‘themselves as texts’: Blow-Up, Persona, The Draughtsman’s Contract. To me, these movies are metafictions because they thematize storytelling itself, despite not ‘showing us that they are, after all, “just” movies’ – a conclusion, as it were, that one can impose on any movie.

      Your category of “self-conscious narrative”, ‘superficially, as well as deeply, about itself as a narrative’, is, to me, a kind of metafiction, and not interchangeable with, say, ‘metaphors about metaphoricity’.

  26. John Minichillo

      I didn’t mean to be flippant in my response, though maybe that’s how I came across. I was typing on a phone and you can lose sight of what’s in the text box, it can be a one-shot draft, depending how well discus cooperates with the phone, and it seems variable.

      But I think we are disagreeing on the terms here.

      First, I think metaphors have different effects in poetry and prose and it’s not quite right to compare them. Granted, the FQ is a narrative poem, but it’s a poem nonetheless–condensed, more abstract, in this case an allegory.

      I also think metaphors in realistic and nonrealistic prose are quite different, and that’s what I was trying to articulate with respect to Matt Bell’s story.

      Additionally, I think that metafiction is necessarily a self-conscious narrative, that metafiction is a subset of self-conscious narratives. Drawing attention to the text or to narrative is, by definition, self-conscious.

      My knowledge of Charlotte’s Web, the book, is distant. I would have to look at it, but I don’t think it qualifies as metafiction. Lots and lots of novels, realistic coming of age novels in particular, have themes of literacy in them, and I don’t think that is enough to make the story metafictional. Nor do I think panels or illustrations in the book of webbed words is quite enough, though that’s probably a better argument, since it does draw attention to the page.

      I guess I feel that if Charlotte’s Web were metafictional those self-conscious moments would call into question the whole world of the book. Maybe they do and I’m wrong on this. But I have a sense that the imaginative world that is created (nonrealist though it may be with talking farm animals and writing with webs) is never really pierced or exposed with the story itself.

      I would see a self-conscious narrative as one that shows an awareness of itself as story. This could be anything from a heavily footnoted story, a story with direct address of reader, a story that intentionally breaks with convention, a story that breaks the 4th wall, a story that makes use of speech or text genres outside the realm of story, a story with the visual aspect of the text emphasized, or any combination. I think what qualifies as metafiction is a smaller list.

  27. deadgod

      [again, in ‘reply’ to John]

      Yes, the dispute is somewhat terminological – we’re defining “metafiction” and “self-conscious narrative” close to oppositely. That is, I’d call all thematizing of narrative or medium “metafictional”, and “self-referentiality” I’d reserve for the subset of metafictional texts that narrow that thematizing down to, as it were, ‘this text as “text”; an interrogation of this text’.

      (So, on the one hand, the anthropomorphized animals in Charlotte’s Web, as you point out, are never unveiled as, themselves, fabulous or untrustworthily fictional, while the fact of storytelling is raised as an occasion for thought: “metafiction”. On the other, when The Waste Land refers to “a heap of broken images”, it’s (I think: plainly) referring to itself, as well as to other ‘heaps of images’ and other ‘brokennesses’ that the poem registers and takes part in: “self-reference”. Charlotte’s Web doesn’t make its readers question storytelling (or that story) as a vehicle for ‘truth’, just the acuity of the family’s deeper reading comprehension. The Waste Land compels one to ask in what way(s) it’s readable at all.)

      I’m not sure how your distinction between metaphor in prose and in poetry would be successful. That a symbol with one referent and an image referring to several possible referents would be a useful contrast seems to me pretty routine – the “vacuum” clearly being diverse in its representational suggestiveness.