by Ling Ma
First, an unrelated note. Someone asked at our opera night about the difference between operas and musicals. I read up a little on this and the consensus seems to be that in opera, the voices are the main attraction – you go to an opera expecting to be wowed by big, powerful, wide-ranging voices trained in vibrato etc., whereas you might go to a musical for the acting, the dancing, or the story as much as for the singing.
I thought about Leonard Bernstein in relation to this because he composed both Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957) – both in English, close to the same length, both with full symphonic scores, but Candide is almost always performed as an operetta and West Side Story as a musical. You can listen to these two tenor-soprano love duets side by side and hear the difference: ‘Oh happy we‘ (Candide) has those opera-sounding voices while ‘Tonight‘ (West Side Story) has musical-sounding voices. Here’s a more operatic version of ‘Tonight‘ that still, I think, doesn’t sound as operatic as any of the songs in Candide.
Anyway… maybe this wasn’t so unrelated after all, since we talk all the time in our group about the fuzzy boundaries between genres.
What genre does ‘Office Hours’ belong to? I’m not sure, but I would say not sci-fi. In fact, I think that’s why I was so distressed by this story: its world is extremely close to the real world – my real world! – but for the protagonist, this world is so ‘fucking impossible’ she just checks out.
‘Office Hours’ makes my/our real world look like a dystopia. The gross displays of decadence at department events, contrasted with Marie’s poverty and hunger. The way Marie has to package her life’s work as an inane commercial to serve as background noise for the donor event. The way everything that should make our lives meaningful gets relentlessly commodified and turned into a zero-sum game: community engagement –> number of committee assignments; curiosity and inquiry –> number of publications; teaching and learning –> enrollments and evaluations; time with family –> a ‘lost year.’
But I was also delighted by this story. I really liked the way it made me think of vampires as a counter-culture, a group that resists all this. Vampires are anachronistic, never changing. They’re not afraid to spend long stretches of time in utter stillness and privacy. They’re not interested in progress or advancement (the exception here being Count Dracula, who does want to expand his domain – but by invading England, the great colonizer). Vampires aren’t reflected in mirrors, which means they only ever show their authentic selves, never a pretend or fake version. Marie’s life is full of reflected and projected and performed versions of people.
Also, vampires move between worlds, but they respect the boundaries between those worlds. They venture into the human world only at specific predetermined times, and they don’t enter anyone’s private space without permission. There’s a hilarious parallel here to the rituals around office hours – the strict start and end times, the greeting and leave-taking scripts (“Okay?” “Okay”). Professors’ offices can be the entry point for ‘infecting’ a new generation of scholars, as one of you put it, and they can also serve as an interstice between the public and the private, a place where boundaries are blurred and interactions become ‘borderline.’ Marie’s cigarettes cast a literal haze over this space, and the Professor’s over-sharing and her naps are ways to flirt with transgression without quite crossing the line.
So even though this story messed me up, I also found it comically rewarding and weirdly hopeful: it lays out another pathway for resistance. Many thanks to you for recommending it and spending time talking about it with me.
On the side, I started compiling stories and films about doubled, halved and cloned selves. So far I have: ‘Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles’ (Theodore McCombs); The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin); ‘Better Versions of You’ (Ted Chiang); Us and Get Out (Jordan Peele films), ‘Unknown Number’ by Blue Neustifter… what else?
Please add your thoughts. What else did ‘Office Hours’ make you think about?