By Liam J. L. Knight
Wayne Holloway’s Bindlestiff (2019) is a metafictional novel because it ‘self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact’ (Waugh 2). It is chiefly that novel’s formal hybridity that self-reflexively highlights its constructedness, for Bindlestiff blends prose fiction with screenplay. Consequently, the novel juxtaposes one form that typically conceals its fabrication – prose fiction – with another – screenplay – that lays bare its mechanisms. The result is jarring, for Holloway’s readers are unable to suspend their disbelief and are instead forced to confront that the novel is an artefact, something that has been intentionally authored, created, and framed. This formal hybridity manifests across Bindlestiff’s three intertwined narratives. The first, written as prose fiction, is set in modern-day Hollywood, and is centred on @waynex, a British film director. This narrative depicts his struggles as he attempts to turn his screenplay into a movie and catalogues the artistic sacrifices he must make to get it made. Alongside this are excerpts from @waynex’s draft of his screenplay, ‘Bindlestiff’. It features Frank Baptiste, an African-American marine veteran who, in the year 2036, has become homeless following a second Hurricane Katrina-style environmental disaster and the subsequent collapse of the federal government of the United States. In the original ‘Bindlestiff’ draft, Frank travels across the dystopian wasteland of a post-collapse America so that he may be reunited with his sons. Bindlestiff’s third narrative is the screenplay ‘Land of Hunger’, which is the version of ‘Bindlestiff’ eventually made by Hollywood executives and writers other than @waynex. It contains several differences from the ‘Bindlestiff’ draft, jettisons much of the backstory, and vitally changes Frank’s race: in the version of the movie that is eventually made, he is no longer African-American, but Caucasian.
Holloway repeatedly switches between each of these three stories, further drawing attention to the novel’s status as an artefact. Excerpts from both ‘Bindlestiff’ and ‘Land of Hunger’ are present within the novel in screenplay form. These dystopian narratives juxtapose the realism of the Hollywoodian narrative in terms of both content and form, resulting in a hybridity that has been called ‘mould-breaking’ (Simon), ‘bold, fresh, and […] exciting’ (Gerrard), and prompted one critic to announce that if Bindlestiff was written by the often-experimental George Saunders, it ‘would be lauded as being a masterpiece, a work that would change and challenge the creation of literature for years to come’ (Jeffries). It is this formal hybridity that will be considered in this article. I will draw upon metafiction scholarship to demonstrate that Bindlestiff’s hybrid form amounts to more than playful innovativeness and instead allows Holloway to highlight the racism that permeates Hollywoodian practices. By bringing together dystopian scholarship, cultural commentary, and an analysis of key differences between the two screenplays, I will argue that the site of Bindlestiff’s true dystopia is modern-day Hollywood, rather than the wasteland of a post-federal America. Ultimately, I will suggest that given Bindlestiff’s metafictional qualities, Holloway makes it impossible for his readers to avoid the racial injustices that characterise the dramatized and real-world Hollywoods alike, thus enabling further scrutiny of Hollywoodian practices that may begin to unpack the racism that permeates the film industry.
Bindlestiff’s Metafictional Hybridity
Bindlestiff’s hybrid form is essentially metafictional. This is apparent in the novel’s opening chapter, ‘Inciting Instances’ (Holloway 7-9), which begins by depicting Frank fixing a hole in the sole of an old army boot. Here, the novel adopts the language of film: the reader is told that the ‘MUSIC MIXES BACK UP’ (Holloway 7), that the scene is shot in ‘[s]low motion’ (Holloway 7), and that a ‘[c]lose-up of an old army boot fills the frame’ (Holloway 7). References to voiceover work, camera cuts, and the scene ‘FAD[ing] TO BLACK’ (Holloway 8) are likewise present and explicitly characterise the scene as belonging to a screenplay. These elements bear the quality of metafiction, for in foregrounding the ‘Bindlestiff’ screenplay’s constructedness, Holloway’s readers are placed ‘in a world which [they] are forced to acknowledge as fictional’ (Hutcheon 7). Moreover, Holloway employs paratexts to turn his opening chapter from prose to screenplay, further highlighting its constructedness. A ‘slug line’ (Bronzite) begins the chapter, ‘EXT. SEGUNDO BEACH CALIFORNIA – DAY 2036’ (Holloway 7). It is formatted in bold and written in all capitals, making it visually distinct from the novel’s later prose elements and clearly marking it as belonging to the screenplay form. Furthermore, the stage directions ‘FRANK V/O’ (Holloway 7) and ‘CUT TO:’ (Holloway 8) are centre-aligned and right-aligned, respectively, thus explicitly departing from the conventions of prose fiction. These stage directions constitute what Michael Riffaterre identifies as ‘signs whose function is to remind readers that the tale they are being told is imaginary’ (1), which they achieve by ‘suspending belief, by radically displacing verisimilitude’ (33), and so Holloway’s readers cannot escape the novel’s constructedness. Returning to Waugh’s definition of metafiction, Bindlestiff ‘draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality’ (2). This is apparent in the second half of the novel’s opening chapter as, using a pseudo-screenplay form, Holloway recreates Diamond Reynolds’s Facebook Live Video feed following the murder of her boyfriend Philando Castile by a police officer in 2016. Holloway’s inclusion of this real-world tragedy is somewhat parodic – not because he is mocking Castile’s death, but because it sees him highlight the film industry’s preoccupation with violence, death, and loss, those real-life traumas that are presented on-screen for the sake of entertaining paying customers. Furthermore, turning Reynolds’s video into a pseudo-screenplay allows Holloway to foreground that racism not only characterises the story-world of his novel, but likewise abounds in reality. As an African-American man, Castile’s murder at the hands of a law enforcement officer is by no means a statistical anomaly (Statistica). By metafictionally including this in his novel, Holloway makes it impossible for his readers to avoid the fact that African-American people are systemically discriminated against within America, and that something which constitutes popular entertainment for some people is in fact a nightmarish reality for others.
Holloway continues to use metafictional devices to highlight America’s racial injustices throughout Bindlestiff. Early in the novel’s Hollywoodian narrative, ‘The Money’ – the major financier of ‘Bindlestiff / Land of Hunger’ – asserts that it is ‘[h]ard to cast a black lead in such an indie project, in terms of finance’ (Holloway 27), scoffs at Tommy Adjacent – attached to the ‘Bindlestiff’ script as producer – when he suggests more high profile and commercially viable African-American, Black British, or Afro-Français actors to replace Forest Speaks, the fictional African-American ‘mid-budget action hero’ (Holloway 27) @waynex had in mind when he wrote Frank, and ultimately suggests that Jim Hawks – a fictional Caucasian actor – is the only viable option for Frank’s casting (Holloway 30). This discussion allows Holloway to explicitly draw attention to Frank’s constructedness, but it also metafictionally reflects on the constructedness of the Hollywoodian characters and the narrative to which they belong: ironically, by having one group of characters point out the fictiveness of another group, their own fictiveness is foregrounded.
Additionally, this metafictional moment illuminates Bindlestiff’s thematic preoccupations. The Money’s refusal to allow a Black actor to play Frank is seemingly a financially motivated choice, something Tommy Adjacent is aware of, given how he bemoans how he does not have ‘figures to back up the viability of black leads in mid to low budget movies’ (Holloway 29). However, this racial-financial concern is not unique to Bindlestiff’s story-world. Following the writings of Maryann Erigha, this financially motivated decision is typical of Hollywood, where insiders commonly ‘intertwine race with expectations about profitability and concerns about dollars and cents’ and conclude that ‘Black films and directors [are] unbankable’ (19), resulting in fewer Black actors, directors, and producers being given opportunities within the film industry. Holloway, himself a film director, is likely to be aware of this prejudice – this is apparent in @waynex’s remark that his creation of Frank ‘reflected a genuine desire to see more black characters and actors in films as leads’ (Holloway 42). Indeed, Holloway’s choice to set his Hollywoodian narrative and its racially discriminatory practices in 2016, the same year as the #OscarsSoWhite protest movement gained ‘global attention’ (Latif), is likely to be no coincidence. As such, this aspect of Bindlestiff’s metafictionality specifically forces Holloway’s readers to confront the financially driven and racially discriminatory practices that characterise the film industry in both the fictional and real Hollywoods alike, perhaps prompting them to show greater support for movies written by, made by, or starring people of colour, so as to prove the commercial viability of such movies.
Frank’s altered race and the discriminatory ideologies that inform that change become prominent in an explicitly metafictional moment in the novel’s final third. In a chapter called ‘Sticks and Stones’ (Holloway 222-237), Holloway presents two versions of the same scene, one from ‘Bindlestiff’, and the other from ‘Land of Hunger’. The scene features Frank and Sally Ann, a young Indigenous woman with whom he has become acquainted. In both screenplays, the scene begins with music loudly playing, which Frank turns off. Sally Ann asks Frank if he does not like the music, and in the ‘Bindlestiff’ screenplay, he replies, ‘Was a time I lived my life to a soundtrack. R’n’B, Hip Hop, house, all that. Now I don’t’ (Holloway 222), whereas in ‘Land of Hunger’, he states, ‘Used to, never listen to it anymore. Was a time I lived my life to a soundtrack. Country, soul music, house, all that. Now I don’t’ (Holloway 234). Although subtle, the changes made to Frank’s musical preferences rely on stereotypes to indicate his altered race. In presenting two versions of the same scene whose differences tend to hinge on the change made to Frank’s race, Holloway foregrounds how characters are portrayed differently by the film industry because of the colour of their skin.
This is increasingly evident as the scene progresses. In the ‘Bindlestiff’ screenplay, Sally Ann, drunk, makes sexual advances on Frank, which he refuses, stating, ‘I’m old enough to be your father’ (Holloway 224). This upsets her, and she reveals that she is insecure about her appearance, prompting Frank to reassure her that she is a ‘pretty young woman’ (Holloway 224) and the two then bond over a shared appreciation of the rapper Bushwick Bill. Sally Ann then smokes methamphetamine, threatens to scream rape, and the two argue (Holloway 226). Frank leaves her trailer to sleep outside. In the morning, the two make up and discuss their troubled family lives and their experiences of racial oppression. They hug and Frank leaves. Contrastingly, when Sally Ann – who is high after smoking methamphetamine with Frank – makes sexual advances on Frank in ‘Land of Hunger’, he is initially reluctant to accept them, but then ‘relaxes, gets into it’ (Holloway 235), paying no attention to the large age difference that exists between them. Sally Ann reveals that she is insecure about her appearance as they sleep together and smoke methamphetamine, but Frank reassures her that she is pretty (Holloway 236) and then proceeds to make sexual advances on her, ignoring her drugged state of mind and inability to give consent. Later, Frank ignores Sally Ann as she discloses that her ‘mother was raped, nobody gave a shit’ (Holloway 237), focusing instead on having sex with her.
The differences between the ‘Bindlestiff’ and ‘Land of Hunger’ versions of this scene make it clear to Holloway’s readers how racial politics are enacted within Hollywoodian practices. This is particularly evident in the changes made to Frank and Sally Ann’s relationship and how Sally Ann is presented. In the ‘Bindlestiff’ screenplay, Holloway presents two people of colour as complex individuals who form a genuinely meaningful connection over music, family troubles, and racism, of which they are victims. These nuances are lost in ‘Land of Hunger’, for the reference to Bushwick Bill is absent, Frank ignores Sally Ann’s attempt to discuss her mother, and, as a Caucasian character, Frank does not share the same experience of racism as Sally Ann. Instead, Frank’s treatment of Sally Ann in the ‘Land of Hunger’ screenplay dramatizes many of Hollywood’s problematic practices. First, in depicting the middle-aged Frank ignoring the age difference that exists between himself and the much younger Sally Ann, Holloway draws attention to the widespread Hollywoodian practice of casting young actresses to play the love interests of middle-aged actors. When coupled with Frank overlooking Sally Ann’s inability to consent due to her drugged state of mind, Holloway exemplifies in ‘Land of Hunger’ how ignoring consent and committing sexual assault are not only glorified on screen by the film industry, but are also exercised within it behind the scenes, as has been widely demonstrated by the #MeToo movement of the late 2010s (Chuck). Second, the characterisation of Sally Ann and Frank’s treatment of her in ‘Land of Hunger’ perpetuates racist stereotypes. By having Frank not engage with Sally Ann on a personal level, and instead depicting him treating her as a sexual object, ‘Land of Hunger’ falls on the reductive stereotype of ‘Indigenous women as […] objects of sexual desire for White men’ (Nittle), a harmful stereotype that contributes to ‘Indigenous women suffer[ing] from high rates of sexual assaults, often perpetrated by non-Indigenous men’ (Nittle). Furthermore, by featuring Sally Ann ‘expertly [emphasis added] filling the bowl of her meth bong’ (Holloway 233) and including greater references to her smoking methamphetamine and encouraging Frank to join her than in the ‘Bindlestiff’ screenplay, ‘Land of Hunger’ not only stereotypes Sally Ann as an Indigenous temptress, but also makes use of the stereotype of Indigenous people indulging in substance abuse (Arzt). Such stereotypes scandalise and sensationalise Indigenous people and suggest that the film industry reduces people of colour to racist caricatures so that their movies are more provocative and entertaining, and subsequently more profitable.
‘Land of Hunger’ demonstrates Hollywood’s racist practices, but these are made all the more apparent to Holloway’s readers because the screenplay is juxtaposed by ‘Bindlestiff’. This metafictional turn exposes readers to the discriminatory practices that underpin not only Holloway’s dramatized Hollywood, given that the changes evident in the ‘Land of Hunger’ screenplay are enforced by film industry executives, but Hollywood as we know it in real life. It is Bindlestiff’s formal hybridity that renders such a reading possible, and yet in order to reach such a conclusion, a reader must navigate three narratives and make sense of their points of connection and disparity to create meaning. This is another reason why Bindlestiff is a textbook example of metafiction, for it makes reading ‘no longer easy, no longer a comfortable controlled experience; the reader [is] forced to control, to organise, to interpret’ (Hutcheon 26). By engaging with the novel so actively, readers of Bindlestiff are forced to confront the racial injustices perpetuated by Hollywoodian practices and consider how they might counteract them.
Conclusion: The Hollywoodian Dystopia
Dystopias, writes Gregory Claeys, ‘imagine regimes characterized by extreme suffering, fear, and oppression’, which he calls ‘the cruelties imposed by people upon other people’ (270). Following this definition, racism is dystopian, for it is oppressive, causes suffering, and is inflicted by people upon other people. As discussed above, racism is evident in each of Bindlestiff’s three narratives, but it is at its most extreme in the Hollywoodian strand. By refusing to cast Forest Speaks as Frank, insisting that the character be rewritten as Caucasian, and reducing Sally Ann to a harmful caricature of an Indigenous woman, The Money perpetuates what Nancy Wang Yuen describes as racism ‘in the form of job exclusion and racially stereotyped roles’ (qtd. in Schacht), something Hollywood has been doing ‘for its entire history’ (Jóhann). Tommy Adjacent likewise perpetuates these injustices by coercing @waynex into accepting the alterations demanded by The Money, and, by accepting a payoff and allowing his screenplay to be rewritten by other writers, @waynex is similarly culpable. Together, these characters bear varying degrees of responsibility for creating a movie that sensationalises and glorifies racist tropes, thus depicting racial oppression on-screen and presenting it as something that is somehow entertaining, while also upholding exclusionary practices and denying a Black actor work simply because of the colour of his skin.
Other dystopian qualities are at their most extreme in Bindlestiff’s Hollywoodian narrative. One such quality relates to how suffering interacts with privilege and poverty. Claeys suggests that there are two types of dystopia: the internal dystopia and the external dystopia. The former is a place where ‘the privileged as well as the rest of society’ equally suffer (Claeys 56), whereas the latter is a place where ‘outsiders suffer the brunt of repression’ (Claeys 56). Arguably, the post-federal wasteland of America as portrayed in ‘Bindlestiff’ and ‘Land of Hunger’ is an internal dystopia, for as much as Frank’s experience as a homeless person is characterised by suffering, scarcity, and dilapidation, he encounters similar conditions on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho when he stumbles upon a town composed of ‘[r]ows of mostly derelict houses, boarded up’ (Holloway 166), within which people live in a state of ruin. Contrastingly, suffering is shown to not be universal in the Hollywoodian narrative. @waynex reflects on the absurd wealth of the Hollywood elite, imagining that Kiera Knightley’s boyfriend’s well-thumbed copy of the collected works of Samuel Beckett was in fact pre-thumbed in ‘Chinese or Taiwanese sweatshops full of thumbers’ (Holloway 40), the implication being that this is a luxury good sought after for its aesthetic. Less financially secure is @waynex’s producer, Tommy Adjacent, a ‘[o]netime TV actor in a big network show’ (Holloway 18) who, through circumstances out of his control, now lives from paycheck to paycheck, at near-permanent risk of, as Holloway writes, ‘sucking dick to pay the bills’ (20). In this sense, Holloway makes it clear that Hollywood is an external dystopia, for there are characters who suffer, struggle, and toil, whereas there are others whose wealth allows them to live in relative comfort. Furthermore, Bindlestiff’s characters are all too aware of this fact. When manipulating Tommy Adjacent to have @waynex rewrite Frank as Caucasian, The Money comments, ‘It’s a great story is what I’m trying to say Tommy, it’ll make your career, pay a few bills’ (Holloway 39-40), taking advantage of the wealth disparity that exists between the two of them to force through the rewrites The Money desires.
The site of Bindlestiff’s true dystopia is therefore modern-day Hollywood. Suffering and racial discrimination may characterise the post-federal wasteland of America in 2036 to an extent, but these characteristics are at their most extreme and most insidious in Bindlestiff’s Hollywoodian narrative. This conclusion has only been reached by considering Bindlestiff’s formal hybridity and the metafictional qualities contained therein, for in interweaving prose fiction and screenplay forms, Holloway alerts his readers not only to the racist ideologies that dominate his dystopian dramatization of Hollywood, but to those that likewise characterise Hollywood in reality. Confronted with this perhaps uncomfortable truth, Holloway’s readers cannot help but reflect on how their own viewing habits and consequent financial support of the film industry may in fact encourage Hollywood’s discriminatory practices. With this in mind, Bindlestiff’s readers are posed with a final question: do they choose to actively support movies that are made by and feature people of colour in prominent, non-stereotyped roles, or do they instead choose to be complicit in the Hollywoodian dystopia?
Liam J. L. Knight. “Reading Hybridity: Metafiction and Dystopia in Wayne Holloway’s Bindlestiff,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 6 (2021): n.pag. Web 13 December 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.6.03
About the Author
Liam J. L. Knight is a third-year English Literature PhD student at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the manifestation of what we would today recognise as post-truth anxieties in the literary dystopias of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He locates these anxieties in the ‘endotexts’ (additional fictional texts contained by works of fiction) of the dystopian genre and draws on theories of transtextuality, metafiction, and reader response to account for how post-truth functions in fictional worlds, and how fictional examples of post-truth can help readers to combat the intensified post-truth condition of the twenty-first century. He is a co-organiser of the ‘Pandemic Perspectives’ collective and can be found posting video essays, book reviews, and educational content on his YouTube channel, ‘DystopiaJunkie’.
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Feature Image: Alexis Balinoff