canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Would You Hide Me?
by J.J. Steinfield
Gaspereau Press, 2003

Reviewed by Anthony Metivier

Read TDR's interview with J.J. Steinfeld

One story in particular from Would You Hide Me? by J.J. Steinfield intrigues me. For personal and professional reasons. The story, titled "The Sociology of Personalized License Plates," involves an academic who ruins his career at the university where he teaches by writing and publishing an article regarding the phenomenon of the vanity plate in North American culture. 

Steinfield’s book came across my desk at a time when I myself was preparing a very similar article. Unlike Gerald Zilber, however, I am not pining for tenure – at the time I hadn’t even finished my master’s degree. Zilber, a sociology professor, finds himself dismissed from his teaching appointment despite the fact that his article appeared in "an alternative magazine, not a scholarly journal." In fact, Zilber’s pathetic list of publications after years of teaching courses on pop culture disguised as prerequisite Sociology courses, contributes more to his downfall than his flaky subject matter.

But I share Zilber’s intrigue. There’s nothing flaky about license plates. 

Steinfield draws a subtle connection between the possibilities of personal expression made available by the vanity plate and the delimiting force of the serial numbers tattooed against the arms of holocaust victims in Auschwitz. "One scholar’s fluff is another’s reliable, wearable fabric," a colleague reassures Zilber. This was my premise when I initiated my own license plate project, but I did not anticipate Steinfield’s horrendously compelling linkage between the overthrow of serialization in corporate culture and the meticulous design of the Nazis. It is an illusion that the vanity plate leads to "more personal expression in the world." We purchase our designations from a localized source, whether we personalize them or not. It is the rule of a deterministic government, a society compelled to organize, to label, to indicate itself by external signs. To combat this, Zilber decides that – if he were ever to own a vanity plate – "yentz" would suit him perfectly. Yiddish for what adults do in the bedroom, "yentz" represents the ultimate mission in meaning: it is a word that communicates nothing to so many (despite its intimacy), something terribly specific to so few (despite its intimacy).

Unlike Zilber, I earned an ‘A’ on my paper. It was a struggle to get the project off the ground. The director of my program – despite his own interest – was concerned that the subject matter would not fulfill the criteria of a committee I will never speak to or see. Zilber takes a clerical job as a result of his academic misstep. I’m starting my first year of the Ph. D. No doubt it has always been dangerous to outline the ties that bind, let alone wag your nose at the authorities performing the bondage.

In terms of the holocaust and its aftermath, Steinfield also examines the role of the victim in the process of their own victimization. In another story, "A Room of Pure Remembrance," a group therapy session unearths the continuing agitation of the repression doled out by negative history. Reenacting old tragedies and their roles within the drama proves counterproductive:

The members of the group are reluctant to assume their roles but the Old Doctor coaxes them on. "We are in a concentration camp, under a cold Polish sky," he says halfheartedly. "It is the middle of winter –"

"This is to much for me tonight," the Social Worker interrupts.

"I’m not up to it either," the Poet says.

"I’m all acted out tonight, Doc," the Comedian says.

"We’re not really in the mood, are we?" the Art Gallery Owner sums up the despair of the patients.

"Does no one want to continue with the role-playing?"

The members of the group all shake their heads no.

As with the originality seemingly adopted by the conceptual personalized license plates analyzed by Zilber, the emblematic Doctor, Social Worker, Comedian, and Poet are forced to adopt guises of identification regardless of their will in order to register themselves in the text of the world. Like the work- camp tattoos, identity is accumulated in the skin, memory is performed by the body. The mind merely consents and tags along. 

The cover art of Steinfeld’s book serves us with the perfect visual metaphor. The title of the book and the authors name are hidden in a flurry of random alphabet. Performing their function only when spotted amidst the fray, they tell the same story every time. A break in consensual meaning occurs only when you shake your head. Not that driving an unlicensed vehicle is ever recommended. 

Anthony Metivier is a PhD student at York University.







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