lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for

lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-375-70002-6

gangster 1Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.

The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).

Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.

gangster 2“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.

But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.

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Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night

Haruf, Kent (2015), Our Souls at Night, Knopf
ISBN 978-1-101-87589-6

418qIjdmtWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have not read any reviews of Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls At Night but I suspect that whatever books I can pull as reference and context for it might not be appropriate. I do know that the book has drawn quite a bit of praise and that fact alone is a bit puzzling to me. Well. I will accept: it is competently done. The quiet and orderly style has been perfected to the point of it becoming an object in and of itself in the novel. I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into writing, balancing and structuring the novel, but as I read it, I was not able to shake the feeling that what I was seeing was a too-large short story, a book that might, in the hands of Carver, Gallant or Salter turned into a sharp tale of an unusual relationship, of age and love. Too suburban and content for Richard Ford, the material could have suited Cheever’s suburban pen, too. In fact, I spent some time today browsing his collected stories, because something in the back of my head nagged me to do it, but no success. It lacks the pull, the tension between dialogue and description that a well-executed short story can provide, but it doesn’t fill up the additional space well. The style and the repetitive, overindulgent nature of the way the story is told is a bit like one of those apartments that were en vogue in the early 2000s. Big spacious lofts with nothing to fill them. Really, come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like Our Souls At Night – a book that is clearly literary, clearly well-written and carefully built. And yet it is very emphatically not a good book. A big structure – not an empty room because the story is genuinely lovely, but a room too big and angular and impersonal for the small burst of life that’s inside. There is really no reason to read or recommend this book. No matter what your preferences are in fiction, or what element of this book could conceivably appeal to you, there are numerous superior options. Anyone attracted by summaries of this book is much better served with short stories by any of the authors I named in this paragraph, as are people looking for a story of aging love. Other writers who cover similar territory in much superior fashion include John Updike, Philip Roth, late-period Grace Paley. It’s really hard not to find a writer of genteel suburbia who hasn’t written a book or story that blows Our Souls At Night out of the water. And it’s the most frustrating thing because Kent Haruf is clearly a good, extremely competent writer with total stylistic control, and his take on loneliness and the darkness of life is often powerful. So let me return to the beginning of this paragraph and add this to my critique: this just may not be for me.

The major draw of the book is not the story, it’s the writing. This may be surprising given that Haruf is a writer known for his “simple” style and not a Hemingwayesque simplicity at that. And yet, this style is quite something. There are no shadings to tone, no ambiguous phrases, vibrating with the unsaid. Everything appears to have been said just as intended. The writing is plain, but not flat. It’s not musical, but it’s also not dull. It’s a deeply functional simplicity that creates a space for the story to unfold. I gather some of Haruf’s other books are novels of space, of Midwestern landscapes and I am mildly curious about the way a writer like this would tackle it, because in Our Souls At Night, we are not offered a fullness of description as far as the environments and backgrounds are concerned. The language is all the space and room we get. There is a scene somewhere in the middle, when a dog is acquired, and a boy is asked to show it around the house. “I’ve never been in the other rooms myself,” the boy says and we might expect some kind of description of the house to happen, but it never comes. It is enough that we know it is a house. The rest is language and in it, much of the prose is dialogue, but it lacks the musicality and sharpness of real dialogue (Gaddis’ JR is my touchstone for creating a book built out of that) or the madness of dialogue in books like Nicola Barker’s underappreciated The Yips. At the same time, it also does not have the weight and accuracy of Beckett or Bernhard. In a way, the dialogue adds a second layer of description, joining the quality of the novel’s style. All of this adds up to an extraordinary stiffness. Scenes don’t move. As in a theatre, it takes the falling curtain of a chapter ending for the action to change place or direction. Some heartbreaking decisions are made, but they are made in between chapters and the chapter following the decision then plays out a scene where we try and come to terms with the situation. The sentences, fittingly, are short and declarative. Only when there is a small amount of movement, when someone enters a scene, or when a scene, rarely, requires a trip somewhere, the syntax unfurls. It’s quite impressive how disciplined Haruf deploys his writing, from the short, declarative base sentence to the longer, moving sentence of action. The book’s predilection for short sentences also has an odd effect on its dialogue. As I said, it’s not a dialogue possessed of a snappy rhythm. In fact, much of it feels like testimony, of one person testifying and the other acting as interlocutor. This effect is strongest in the chapters where the characters discuss their past, but they recur throughout. The result is a strong affirmation of the overall impression of stasis.

The story is the one of a short and unusual relationship between two widowed older citizens, living in a small town. They come together to fight loneliness. It is not about sex, although in later stages, that element enters their relationship. It is about the darkness of night that is so difficult to overcome for one person alone. In fact, in a more stressful period of their relationship, Haruf describes their insistence on the now-established patterns of their nights together like this: “They still held each other in the night when he did come over but it was more out of habit and desolation and anticipated loneliness and disheartenment[.]” Their relationship is an attempt to slowly, sneakily, do something new, something that makes them the talk of the town and something that doesn’t sit well with their adult children. Indeed, the whole writing and structure of the novel resists the mere idea of doing something new. Stasis and continuity is written into the very bones of the book. You can find it in all kinds of details. For example, in the memories. Twice, the man tells the woman a story from his life. First, he tells her of an old affair he had, and then he tells her of his love for poetry. Both times, the woman quietly listens to what he has to say and then suggests that maybe both passions may be ongoing. Not the affair or the writing and reading of poetry, but the love that powered both. “I think you still love her,” she says. Their children, similarly, are ties connecting them to their old past, as they are representative of their past relationships. Small town gossip serves a similar function. Both are known around town, known for their past, known for who they are. Striking up this new rleationship/friendship violates these old ideas and is, thus, shocking, without having to actually provide sensational content. Everything, really, is set up to promote stasis, and the only thing that pushes both of them to try and make it work despite everything is the terror of a night spent awake, alone, with no-one to talk to, no-one to hold, no-one to grab when the nights are rough. Haruf reinforces this contrast, between the stasis and the night as a force that pushes the new, by introducing the woman’s grandson, who, by dint of belonging to her ‘old’ family, first seems to drive the two apart, but it is his literal terror of the night, his night terrors, that send him crying to this unusual couple who, together, find a way to relieve the boy’s nighttime affliction.

Ultimately, the big empty rooms of the story reflect the echoing feelings of loneliness, of emotional need (or neediness). Really, any stylistic aspect of the novel appears to serve a function within the symbolic or emotional structure of the narrative. It is quite the impressive achievement, but a dull sentence is still a dull sentence when it serves to illustrate dullness. There is so much redundancy in the novel which, like a middle aged man, has gotten a bit flabby around the middle. The beginning is sharp and raises all the themes of the novel with precision and urgency. The ending, meanwhile, is much more dense with emotion. The way the book ends is with a few effective and emotionally striking brushstrokes that any reader would recognize from a certain kind of American short story. Even after rereading the book, I still fail to understand why this story had to be of novel-length. Nothing in it justifies its size. And all the dullness of certain parts is only striking because of the amount of time we as readers spend cooped up with that style. If you want a reason to read this book, read it for the devastation of loneliness and the way a deep need for companionship arises from that. There are many fancy ways to phrase love or affection, but what Haruf offers, in way too many (or too few) pages, is the simple, unadorned horror of being alone at night. It hasn’t often been expressed quite so directly, and with so much stylistic craftsmanship leveraged specifically for that effect and that effect only. And yet, maybe it is just this discipline and care in the way the writing works that makes for such a dull read. It’s a sense of functionality, of stylistic practicality. Haruf wrote this book as he was dying, from the precipice of that final night. A last look back at companionship, at the things between people that endure and the pressures we face. At some point, the man in the story says “[s]o life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected, he said.” and it is not a tragic moment. Things we can’t change we accept. The only things weighing us down are guilt, love and loneliness. These three endure.

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Fran Ross: Oreo

Ross, Fran (2015 [1974]), Oreo, New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-2322-5

oreo coverLet me apologize in advance if this review is a bit odd, I have not had sleep in quite a while. On the other hand, this likely leads to a shorter review. That said, I hope I’ll still manage to convey to you that Oreo, Fran Ross’ first and only novel, is an absolute masterpiece. A book that should rank among the classics of 20th century American fiction and it’s regrettable that it does not. Originally published in 1974, it appears to have sunk like a stone in the waters of literary attention. In 2000 it was republished by Northeastern University Press (by the way: the series “Northeastern Library of Black Literature,” published by Northeastern University Press, cannot be praised highly enough for bringing excellent and unusual books back into print that have not fared well upon the sea of canonicity. I want to point particularly to their reprints of George Schuyler’s strange and important oeuvre), and then again in 2015 by New Directions, which is the edition that I finally encountered the book. Oreo is a book that feeds off several traditions, and cannot be easily labeled, which may have contributed to its lack of canonical durability. Written at the height of afrocentric literature (and a contemporary of Alex Haley’s Roots), the book rejects the expectations that come with a first novel by a black author. Her book borrows from a Jewish tradition as well as a black one, and it comments on misogyny as well as racism. It is kin to the behemoths of ludic postmodernism such as John Barth, of mythical modernism such as Joyce and Eliot and it is related to older books about the African American experience as well, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig comes to mind. But more than books preceding Oreo – it’s a newer generation of writers that best shows the power and fascination of Fran Ross’ only book. Black writers like Zadie Smith (Autograph Man) and Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle) (as well as slightly earlier examples like Trey Ellis (Platitudes)) offer us novels about the black experience that break with stereotypes and expectations. If Ross’s novel was published today, it would be seen as primus inter pares, as the first among many equals. Back in 1974, however, the novel’s innovative writing and its rejection of simple identity politics impeded its immediate cultural impact.

oreo renaultThe story of the book is quickly summarized: it is a story that’s both old fashioned family history and quest narrative. Following the myth of Theseus (the reference is made plain both by chapter titles and by the author’s afterword), it offers us Oreo, a girl of mixed heritage: her father, an aspiring actor from a Jewish family, left her mother, Helen, who was a similarly culturally talented woman from a black family. Both Helen as well as Oreo’s father left Oreo, so that the young woman grew up with her black grandmother, Louise, who had never found a dish that she didn’t like. Eventually, Helen informs her daughter, that her father had left her a series of clues that would lead her to discover the secret of her birth. She then embarks on that adventure (which, really, is just a trip to New York), encountering many odd characters. All of this fits, in one way or another, the template from Greek myth, up until the catastrophe, which, at this point, we expect. The early 70s is an interesting time to engage not just greek myths but this one particularly. Fran Ross is not the only writer to tackle the topic. Most well known, at that time, I suppose, is Mary Renault’s two volume take on the Theseus myth, the first of which, The King Must Die, is a steaming, passionate retelling of history. Despite Renault’s stated claim of trying to write a more realistic story, it’s full of magic and odd superstitions, including oracles and witches. The Theseus story and various stories surrounding it, has long been a tale of the advent of a new age, a story of rising masculinity (a crucial part of the story takes place in matriarchal Crete) and a fresh Athenian democracy. Theseus’ is a founding myth and if you want to unsettle expectations regarding narrative and history, it’s a fantastic place to start. A good example of how this era of history/myth is used in literature are André Gide and Christa Wolf. Gide, in the 1946 novel Thésée, emphasizes the masculinity, the epochal power of the story, more than Renault, even. Christa Wolf, writing in 1996, only peripherally touches the story of Theseus. Her focus is Medea (the novel is simply called Medea, published in English by Nan A Talese) and her encounter with Jason (Medea is also part of the Theseus story). Wolf takes on a story with a female villain and reverses it, showing, in her use of sources and narrative, to be a patriarchal treatment of a strong female mythical character. Fran Ross, more than two decades earlier, does something similar, but her literary approach couldn’t be more different.

beatty white boy

An underrated, excellent novel on black male identity in our time.

So now I spent a paragraph vaguely contextualizing the book and another one on its story and connection to myth and I haven’t even mentioned the book’s best quality: its incredibly multifaceted and complex writing. In many ways, I think it’s fair to say that Fran Ross’ novel is primarily about language – about the joy of using it, using it to shape stories and silly games. Oreo is a profoundly funny, endlessly quotable book. It contains charts and tables, a large amount of puns, and references that are equal parts clever and silly. Much of it offers us a plea to read the world the way we want to and not the way cultural signposts and expectations want us to read it. The novel comes as close to explaining this point as you can in a novel without becoming just too obnoxious for your own good. It starts with a fictive Wittgenstein quote as an epigraph (“Burp!” is the quote, used because, as the author remarks, “Anything this profound philosopher ever said bears repeating”). There is a list with clues that will lead the protagonist to a secret she is seeking and early on, she decides to read the clues based on her understanding of reality as she engages with it and not the other way around. In other words, contra genre expectations, Oreo, the protagonist of Oreo, does not interpret the note or map and then collect similarities or clues in the real world around her. Instead, she interprets and engages reality and then decided on which clue to connect to it. The linguistic playfulness moves from small observations to linguistic games that pervade the book. Sometimes she plays with the expected gender of words and names, sometimes with the ambiguity of geographical names, sometimes with the tension between story and cultural narratives interwoven with said story. The whole book is also enormously interested in speech and dialect. Early on, we are told that Oreo’s mother Louise speaks in a thick Philadelphia accent, really, so thick and unusual that people generally have trouble understanding her. The author mostly renders it understandable and, early on, even gives us a metafictional aside:

From time to time, her dialogue will be rendered in ordinary English, which Louise does not speak. To do full justice to her speech would require a ladder of footnotes and glosses, a tic of ostrophes (aphaeresis, hypherisis, apocope) and a Louise-ese/ English dictionary of phonetic spellings. A compromise has been struck. Since Louise can work miracles of compression through syncope, it is only fair that a few such condensations be shared with the reader. However, the substitution of an apostrophe for every dropped g, missing r, and absent t would be tantamount to tic douloureux of movable type. To avoid this, some sentences in Louise-ese have been disguised so that they are indistinguishable from English.

Additionally, there is a completely invented dialect, spoken by Oreo’s little brother, as well as the lilt of various Jewish inflections of American English (without falling into the traps of the goy-authored “jewish novel”, as exposed by Cynthia Ozick’s famous takedown of John Updike’s faux-Jewish Bech: A Book), not to count all the other iterations of nonstandard language. The effect is not only magnetic for the reader, who is immediately drawn into the music and rhythm of the book, it also offers an alternate position between the ribald postmodernism of John Barth, where nonstandard speech is usually on display as odd and humorous, but unconnected to the commitments of the work (such as they are with Barth), and the more straightlaced identiy politics of the afrocentric novel, where nonstandard speech expressed identity and difference. A commitment to a different experience and historiography as we have, so far, seen it in novels. Toni Morrison’s scintillating work is an example of that écriture.

medeaI find it important to stress just how innovative and exciting Fran Ross’s enterprise is in Oreo. In what could be read as a thoughtful encounter with Johan Huizinga’s theory of games an playfulness, Ross is engaged in cultural and political criticism without falling into sincerity and seriousness. She clearly assumes that this topic is best tackled with playful engagement and subversion. Replacements and indirect speech mark much of this book’s language and imagery. In fact, the author foregrounds her method: young Oreo has a teacher of English who is obsessed with etymology and will at times only speak indirectly to his student who keeps hunting for words in dictionaries, but

Oreo became adept at instantaneous translations of the professor’s rhizomorphs. “Mr. Benton is worn out by childbearing. Of course, his paper was an ill-starred bottle. I don’t wonder he threatened to sprinkle himself with sacrificial meal.” “You mean,” said Oreo, “that Benton is effete, his paper was a fiasco, and he wanted to immolate himself.”

A few things come to mind. One that, in keeping with the professor’s method, it’s hard not to see the whole episode as an aside referencing the cultural obsession with “roots” among her fellow black writers (which would, two years later, lead to Haley’s blockbuster success Roots). And two, it offers a template for reading the book as using two levels of language (or multiple levels of anything, really; after all, the Theseus intertext also fits in here). Finally, it stresses the role of the reader in assembling and figuring out all the texts sometimes very disparate elements. In this, there are simililary to the Eliotic “mythical method,” but Ross actively undermines the myth, just as she criticises the present. For a black female novelist, the past, mythical or not, does not offer solace or order. The past is mediated by the same cultural tools of oppression as the present, and Ross resists both. This is a book that declines to be part of any group, no matter how tempting or easy it is to attack oneself to a movement. It’s a novel by a writer with a critical eye that asks its reader to look at words and narratives, to look at them and examine their roots. This exceeds simple swaps, even though Ross replaces the virile Theseus with the female Oreo. The book contains violence, deception, an attempted (though hilariously thwarted) rape, but it coats all of it in extraordinarily humorous language.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

The cover of the Northeastern edition.

For Huizinga, myth-making is, if I remember correctly, a form of play, and play has the power to change, to move things. In the case of Oreo, the challenge is to question everything. Diderot once wrote that “[i]l existoit un homme naturel: on a introduit au dedans de cet homme un homme artificiel, et il s’est elevé dans la caverge une guerre civile qui dure toute la vie.” In a way, and if we stretch the image a bit, a similar war can be said to take place in mid-20th century postmodernism. There are people who are happy to deal with the artificial human inside, some of them using the “mythical method,” which, according to Eliot, is “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.“ They question authority and narrative, but they don’t have anything to put in its place in terms of commitments. On the other side are those writers, like Morrison, who offer a more earnest version of postmodern critical writing. They replace one historical certainty with another, and frequently succeed at establishing tremendous counternarratives. Oreo (and Oreo) declines both possibilities. It is a playful, funny novel that is at the same time deeply cognizant of narrative and oppression. It’s just that Fran Ross appears to believe that playful interrogation is the best way to deal with it. But as the careers of many writers have shown (say, Delmore Schwartz): resisting the siren call of literary movements by being just o so slightly ahead of your time can lead to a quick exit from the memory of literary history. The aforementioned George Schuyler is another frustrating example of this. Look, look, I don’t know whether I made sense 100%, but if you need a tl,dr, it is this: Oreo is an excellent masterpiece. It should have become a classic and we are all fortunate that New Directions decided to bring it back into wide circulation. Now is the time to make up for earlier neglect. Go forth and read Oreo. It is very good.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan

Russell, Ray (2015 [1962]), The Case Against Satan, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-31727-9

satan 3In a study of French Romantic poetry, John Porter Houston declared in 1969 that “[Baudelaire’s] diabolical Catholicism is […] a mode of sensibility which neither shocks nor has morbid appeal.” It is odd, then, that the same time period saw a big resurgence of fiction and movies on demons and possession, starting with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the move version (1968), and continuing with William Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and its 1973 movie adaptation. Other texts include the 1976 classic The Omen and many more. So what is it that Houston felt was so out of place in Baudelaire’s poetry? The answer has to be that Baudelaire’s sense of evil wasn’t as much religious as it was personal. A sense of guilt, anxiety and fear that made Baudelaire into the “essential modern man,” as Verlaine put it. His demons are far from the ghoulish devil that haunts Blatty’s 12 year old girl. As Edward Kaplan said, the “mal” in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal may not mean “evil” as much as it means afflicted, suffering, fallible and people are not evil but “depraved only in potential and thus responsible for their actions.” In The Case Against Satan, Ray Russell’s 1962 classic novel of demonic possession, we are closer to a Baudelairean sensibility than to the Catholic fetish of all the books and movies that followed in its wake, which were offering demons at best as an allegory for human failures and at worst, as in the work of Catholic conservative Blatty, as an ugly form of literal horror. Ray Russell’s book is, despite having a very weak ending, an exceptional effort, a true masterpiece and the best book I have read this year thus far. There are a couple of weaknesses, as far as some aspects of the writing are concerned, and the final chapter is a full disappointment, but along the way, Russell creates an elegant, smart, ambiguous book about the devil and about the evils that we harbor in ourselves as people and among ourselves as a society.

I admit: when I started coveting the book, I knew nothing about it apart from its title and the beautiful cover design by Penguin Classics. The ghoulish fetish of devils and demons that was launched by Levin and Blatty is one of my favorite genres. A ‘guilty pleasure’ as they say. I was completely surprised by the nuanced and careful book that it turned out to be. This is no fresh or agnostic take on the subject, mind you. The very first sentence, not without some levity and irony, remarks that religion has become “a pious bonbon, so nice, so sweet, so soporific” that it has forgotten about the elements of “dread, blood, awe […] and the element of terror.” There is a fairly serious (and riveting to read) theological argument in the middle of the book (where Baudelaire is invoked), and an almost soppy, mildly dubious final chapter that reduces some of the interesting complexities of the novel in favor of “a pious bonbon” of sorts, which feels more like a cheap narrative solution rather than a statement of faith. Apart from that first sentence, however, the novel isn’t much interested in decrying modern man and his objections to God. Rather, it insists on looking at the spaces where the two intersect, modern man, and the abyss of faith and despair. At its center is not empty demon puppetry, it is the tragedy of a human being and the search for truth. In fact, in many ways, Russell’s sharp way with dialogue and description would not be amiss in a crime novel, nor would you have to change much about the structure. The Case Against Satan does not read like a Catholic novel per se (although I know nothing about the author), merely the novel of a writer not hostile to religion, who uses the traditions, emotions and literary effects that come with this setting. The theological discussion in the middle, centering around the idea of evil and whether one should profess belief in evil as well as good is as much about theology as it is about the faith we have in people around us.

satan 2This is not different from a crime novel: having to gouge whether or not we would believe someone’s account of someone else’s guilt. Can a person really be this depraved or should we think the best of everyone? In the theological discussion, a Bishop lectures a priest on his worldly library, citing Baudelaire’s claim in a prose poem [Le Joueur Généreux] that the devil’s finest trick is to persuade us that he doesn’t exist. What’s interesting about that particular citation is that it turns up here and there in Baudelaire’s prose. As with many other ideas, he kept prodding at them throughout his notes and essays. One instance of it surfacing is in the various notes of Mon cœur mis à nu, some of which attack novelist George Sand for not believing in hell, for offering a “God of the Good People,” a God for those who live well and behave well, where there’s no room for the “triste monde engourdi” of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. Now here’s where it gets (more?) interesting: Baudelaire describes Sand as being “possessed,” as having been convinced by the devil to offer this vision of a clean and lovely religion where nothing bad happens as long as you do well and behave well. Yet this is exactly what happens in The Case Against Satan. And the reason for bad thing happening to good people is not Satan’s sulphuric influence, it’s human depravity. In a way, all Satan does, both in Baudelaire as well as in the novel, is hide the truth from people of clear conscience and higher standing. If it doesn’t affect us, we don’t have to think about it that hard. All of this, minus Satan and God, would also have happened in a Gothic crime novel, where it would be the insistence of a conscientious detective to really take a long hard look at the facts and at the people involved that breaks a case wide open. And much as in a Gothic mystery, it’s bigotry, and religious, sexual and traditional expectations that bar clear sight. This makes the book to be not just a sibling to mystery novels, but to classic episcopal texts like André Gide’s dramatic La Symphonie Pastorale, which is also a text about blindness, devotion and power.

This case begins with a young priest, Father Gregory Sargent, who takes over a parish. He is visited by a friend, Bishop Crimmings, just as the troubling and mysterious events break loose. These events all center around Susan Garth, a local teenager, who declines to go to Church, and has mysterious seizures, or rather “fits.” Early on, we are made aware of how this vocabulary and this attitude, these basic explanations, how they tie into a social attitude towards women.

Gregory smiled inwardly. It was such a quaint, old-fashioned word, “fits.” In young women, they were often rooted in sexual hysteria.

But unlike the word “hysteria” may lead you to believe, what follows is not a condemnation of women or sex, but rather a celebration of the “wonderful, wild, untamed force” that is sexuality. In fact, Father Gregory sees this permissive attitude towards sexuality as profoundly Catholic – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the hundreds of accounts of ecstatic faith and visions. Indeed it is Gregory himself who makes that connection in a magazine article that he writes on the topic, which contains the assertion that “[a]t the supreme moment, at the highest peak, sexual artistic and religious ecstasy are surprisingly similar.” Gregory is a “heterodox,” young, troubled priest who has a bit of a problem with alcoholism and free thinking. His faith in God is unshakeable, but it is a faith, like that of George Sand, in “le Dieu des bonnes gens,” as the syphilitic French poet put it. The novel (or Satan) does not end up punishing him for his free thinking or his worldliness and his broad reading. All he does is regain a sense of evil. At no point does the book really go into the pageantry of Catholicism. The style is never ornate, the thoughts and descriptions are never ponderous or solemn. This is maybe the biggest surprise: how frequently crisp and sharp the prose is, despite some trappings of genre writing. Russell is incredibly good at using two lines of dialogue to elevate a situation beyond the necessities of plot. When the teenage girl’s father turns to her in anger and says “Now you listen to the Father here. He’ll tell you I’m right.” Russell has the daughter look the priest in the eyes and ask “Is he right, Father?” This simple turn immediately establishes the character of the girl, and introduces the topic: figuring out who’s right, what happened and who to trust.

satan 1Not on the shortlist of people to trust? Men. Her father beats the girl (“a little slap across the mouth, that’s all”) for infractions, he has the village bigot’s hate for “filth.” his village friend, an anti-Catholic pamphleteer is less interested in the girl’s fate as in his lurid tales of Catholic depravity, where he ties rumors of Catholic pedophilia to medieval torture and the idea of a Black Mass. In fact, this anti-Catholic activist has a surprisingly similar view of Catholicism as The Exorcist’s author Blatty, who is enough of a conservative catholic to have recently petitioned the Pope to force Georgetown University to comply with a set of Catholic rules instated by John Paul II. Ray Russell’s priest and Bishop are not rulebound or insistent on such rules or on a proper catholic appearance. In fact, it is the congregation that raises a bit of a stink in the book when, preoccupied by an exorcism, Father Gregory fails to uphold local customs even for one Sunday. The pressure to conform to rules and regulations is viewed as a burden, unconnected to real faith. In a moment of crisis, overcome by various forces and pressures, Father Gregory breaks down and exclaims “Is it such a sin to have a mind?” And it’s not, the Bishop (and the book) assure him and us. The true darkness in the book is not Satanic, it’s human, and Russell makes excellent use of ambiguities and his sparse but precise descriptions to uphold that ambiguity. While the final chapter is a bit reminiscent of Beyond Belief-style gestures towards the reader, it barely diminishes the skill and achievement of this book. This book is a joy to read and reread, a pleasure far from “guilty.” A tough, smart little book, and a compelling read.

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David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl

Ebershoff, David (2000), The Danish Girl, Penguin
ISBN 9-780143-108399

danish 1

I didn’t have time to take a picture of my copy but it has the same ugly movie-style cover.:/

Usually, the advantage of a novel dealing with a real life character vis-à-vis a nonfiction work, say a biography or a historical study, is the ability to gain vividness, color, excitement. To get a unique, in-depth take on someone’s psychology or the cultural context. Dealing with facts alone – and the unreliability of sources and witnesses – tends to make nonfiction a bit more spry and their narrative a bit more formulaic, given the reliance on historiographical method. That’s why books like William Vollmann’s exploration of Shostakovich’s life are so powerful, or Pynchon’s masterpiece, the sprawling Mason & Dixon. I cannot, however, imagine any nonfiction treatment of Lili Elbe, the pioneering transsexual figure, and her wife, the painter Gerda Wegener (“Greta” in the novel), be more formulaic and overall dull than David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl, which has recently been turned into a movie. I have never regretted my habit of reading a book before watching a movie based on that book as much as during the time I spent reading this book. I’ll say this: it’s not all bad. Ebershoff is a clever, talented author, and he uses the devices of fiction to interesting effect sometimes. Sometimes, his treatment of Lili’s point of view leads to stunning results, frequently, it does not. Ebershoff’s apparent fascination with the way art intersects with gender presentation is interesting, and his clear decision to forgo garish scenes of confrontation and scandal, which must have happened at various points in the real Lili Elbe’s life, is commendable. His treatment of Lili (both before transition, when she was known as “Einar Wegener”, and after) is tender and careful, which becomes nowhere as clear as in the final scenes of the book where he renders her final moments with delicacy and beauty. Ebershoff departs from the historical facts in many places (and he admits as much in his author’s note), but his main alteration leads to the book’s most emotionally powerful creation: the enduring love not just between Lili and her wife, but also between the larger family of brothers, former lovers and friends. There is a pastel tenderness to the whole book, which is something that is hard to keep up over more than a short story. Regrettably, Ebershoff lacks the tools to imbue this emotional vagueness with a literary precision and a keen sense of history. Too often, the author settles for the easy emotional punchlines, preferring to tell a nice story rather than a good one. Horrible similes and awkward descriptions crowd the book’s syntax, which is repetitive and imprecise to begin with. Although I have yet to see Tobe Hooper’s movie version of the book, it’s easy to see how the material as presented in The Danish Girl would make for a lovely and emotionally engaging movie. The novel’s prose is its biggest weakness and that kind of book tends to do well on the silver screen.

danish-girl-posters-redmayne-vikander-triplet

To be clear, Ebershoff does some very interesting things that wouldn’t be captured by a study of biography. One is his constant insistence on the difficulties of exact representation through art. Both Lili, when she presented as Einar, as well as her wife Greta are painters, although their styles (and their relationship to the outside world) couldn’t be more different. Einar is a painter of “quaint” pictures of a bog somewhere in the Danish province, whereas Greta paints portraits of people who sit for her. The bog is the one in Einar’s home village and he paints it from memory. The memory of his youth as a boy is so strong that the mere thought is enough to paint pictures of it. As Einar transitions to Lili, his memory, and his ability (or wish) to paint the bog fades away, a pretty way of Ebershoff connecting the increasing freedom Lili feels as she unmoors from tradition and expectations. Similarly, Greta’s portraits are also representative of her role in the novel. She is the first to paint good/moving pictures of Lili, and in the novel, for a long time, she is our only outside view of Einar’s transformation. As she loses a sense of who Lili is and her connection to him fades from the book, so do her pictures. Regrettably, as Ebershoff also removes the clarity of her outside view from the last third of the novel, he does not replace it with anything, not even with a clearer voice for Lili. If we look at the novel as a construction of representations and mirrors, this is the gravest instance of the author maybe trapping himself in his own clever construction. The vagueness and hurried nature of the final chapters fits into the construction of the novel, it does not make for good reading, however. Other instances of mirrors and changed representations are the way opera is used, through songs, physical buildings and actresses, as well as the fact that Ebershoff gave Greta a twin brother. Whether or not that twin brother is supported by historical records, in the novel he serves as an example of the insufficiency of doubles. At some point, towards the end of the novel, Greta remarks that she does not recognize herself in her brother, and her brothers physical disabilities correspond to his role in the novel as he becomes the most vocal advocate for dangerous surgical measures. There are other examples involving former lovers, but suffice to say that Ebershoff uses the characters in his drama carefully, as well as the tropes of art and representation. The results of this can be dubious, however.

The_Danish_Girl_novelOne odd result is the way that Ebershoff uses the gaze. Greta, as he writes her, is imbued with a sometimes close to predatory gaze, an adjective I use because in some scenes, her erotically charged gaze appears to frighten or intimidate Lili, especially at the time when she presented exclusively as Einar. As a portrait artist, of course, the novel assigns the gaze as an uncomplicated, successful act, to her, but it does some odd things in order to achieve this. One is the fact that Ebershoff turns Greta from a Danish woman, which she was historically, to an American woman with an outsider’s fascination for Denmark. And not just any American woman: a rich heiress from California. Instead of offering us a psychologically plausible portrait of a Danish artist who falls in love with a wisp of a man who ends up transitioning to a woman, Ebershoff appears to have constructed his Greta from literary readymades. Henry James’ Isabel Archer probably looming largest, Greta, as we meet her in the novel, owes less to the historical character and more to the trope of the wild American woman who goes to Europe and gets into some kind of trouble there. It’s as if all the work and empathy that went into Lili meant that Ebershoff had to cut corners when it came to writing Greta. What’s more, the fact that Greta’s gaze is so strong, and so supported by wealth and social status, is balanced by a lack of confidence when it comes to Lili’s gaze. Not only is she the object of Greta’s sometimes irritatingly sexual regard (irritating because it plays on a long exploitative tradition), but she consistently fails to be able to establish one of her own. Mirrors are difficult, and even a mid-novel expedition to a real peep show ends in disgrace and expulsion. Now, this difference could be used productively, one remembers, for example, Heiner Müller’s remarks on the way the peep show is a trope for the way capitalist society functions. But Ebershoff never really does anything with this. These things happen almost in the background. Ebershoff deals with his material and, really, with his own novel, as if it was a translation of sorts and he was just trying to get the basic beats right. Honestly, that would explain the prose, as well. There is so much potential in the material that Ebershoff’s quick treatment of it is sometimes genuinely upsetting. The book is both bloated and oddly bare bones.

gay berlinIt’s strange, really, how this book feels both very detailed and very broad. There is a lot of detail on Lili’s epiphanies and important moments. They are dealt with well, although, as with every other aspect of the novel, the last chapters offer only an extremely skimmed summary of events. At the same time, as mentioned, Greta is dealt with very broadly, and her many comments and monologues feel bloated because they are never part of a plausible character. Outside of the descriptions of Lili, they are chock full with sentimental bloat. And at the same time, Ebershoff barely grazes the social and political context. We get, in a very rough Foucauldian sketch, a quick recap of the various medical opinions which doctors of the time may have held regarding Lili’s physical and mental health. Yet the period, the late 1920s and 1930s, was very interesting, especially in Western Europe. Robert Beachy has given us a great account of the period in his study Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, an extremely readable and interesting book on the way opinions towards gay and transsexual identities developed in the Weimar years. Beachy’s book itself isn’t as detailed as one could wish, but it’s in pursuit of a thesis and that it does genuinely well. In The Danish Girl, by contrast, we feel no real sense of this kind of historical context. For what I assume are reasons of readability, the book is set, despite its use of accurate dates for its events, in a kind of vague time and place where unique qualities of places or years barely dent the fabric of the story. Clearly, the author’s main interest was in Lili, and the rest of the book was assembled around a series of psychological sketches of Lili, sketches moreover that are not interested in Lili’s agency or free will (she is a helpless toy in the hands of other for most of the novel), but in some interest in transsexualism that’s equal parts prurient and sentimental.

danish girl 3I would be tempted to say that Ebershoff would have been better served had he restricted himself to just that – a series of pared down sketches, highlighting the poignancy of certain situations and emotions – if not for the fact that he does manage to add something to the book which is genuinely interesting and affecting: the marriage of Greta and Lili. Greta, towards the end of the book, as she has lost Einar, and as she is about to lose Lili, describes marriage as “liv[ing] in that small dark space between two people where a marriage exists.” Deviating from historical record, Ebershoff paints a picture of marriage as the ultimate loyalty. To be clear, in the novel, the heterosexual woman is the one who is loyal, while Einar/Lili is merely helpless and lost, and that is obviously a problem. That said, the love and closeness between the couple was deeply affecting. Through all of Lili’s travails, Greta is the only one who consistently believes her and in her, who helps her, supports her. She is never repulsed or really disturbed. In fact, as the novel’s opening sentence tells us, Lili’s “wife knew first.” She knew her husband well enough to see that something was wrong, and she loved him enough to find out what it is and help him, even though he is never really able to articulate his feelings. In many ways, the book is just as much a paean to the strength and support and trust that a marriage can provide as it is a retelling of Lili Elbe’s life. One wishes Ebershoff had a harsh and talented editor because a sharper, clearer version of this novel could really have been impressive. Instead, we get a warm, sad, sentimental story in pastel that’s both too long and too short. Don’t read this book. Find some good scholarship on Lili Elbe. Read the Beachy book. I’m willing to bet that the success of the movie will lead to at least one big biography that will do the material justice. Apart from the portrait of a marriage, Ebershoff has nothing to add. Limited empathy, limited literary skills do not make up for the cuts in context and urgency. Lili Elbe was a pioneer. Her life and death are significant. She deserves better than this.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto

Chapman, Maile (2010), Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-09042-1

Suvanto1Intentionally or not, several of my recently reviewed books on this blog have had this in common: they were well constructed intellectually and sometimes lacking in narrative or emotional power. Yet in all those cases, there was something that saved these books from being tiresome exercises in postmodern mastery. Not so with Maile Chapman’s debut novel Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, which is a dull, cold example of everything that people dislike about MFA produced literature. And when I say people, I mean me. In some ways, Chapman’s novel is the polar opposite of the other MFA novel that I reviewed negatively on this blog. Instead of fake emotion and ornate sentimentality, Chapman offers us the other extreme, smooth, cool surfaces, an impartial narrator, trained, if I read her acknowledgments correctly, on the Greek chorus (there’s a terrible novel by Blake Butler that has similar aspirations), and a disaffected, alienated set of protagonists who hurtle slowly (yes) towards a dark catastrophe, which, of course, is never really illuminated so as not to lose the oppressive air hanging over the story. This kind of writing is enormously hard to pull off, and only few novelists I have come across have managed to do so successfully. Maile Chapman is not one of them. The book is both dull and too busy, bland and overdetermined. It’s setting is both historical and set in a world seemingly outside of history. The main reference of the book appears to be Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, as well as Euripides play The Bacchae, although the first one is something I infer from the text itself, the latter is explicitly mentioned in paratextual artefacts. The former is a common reference in these kinds of settings, the latter is a bit puzzling, and in connection to the book would require some serious interpretative work, which this book does not deserve in any way. I regret paying money for this book and you shouldn’t invest money or time on a book that writes about illness and disability with the eye of the panoptikum. The plot centers around a sanatorium in Finland, and I am willing to wager that any novel you’ve read set in a sanatorium or Finland blows this disappointing, flat, almost unreadable book out of the water. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a bad book.

Suvanto2Why, you may ask, did I persevere and finish it, if it’s so obviously bad? For one thing, I always finish books, even if it takes a while. The other thing is that the novel is so oddly bad that I kept hoping for later sections of the book to redeem earlier ones. It’s not until the book’s denouement follows the most expected lines possible that I gave up on it. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a novel about women. Women in a Finnish sanatorium somewhere in the mountains to be more precise. The main interest for the narrator and the reader is the wing containing rich women, many of them American. One of the focal characters, and ultimately the tool employed by the author to pull off the reveal/hide trick at the novel’s end, is also American, a nurse that is increasingly overwhelmed by her duties, the Finnish winter and her colleagues as the novel progresses. The book is set in the 1920s, but it stands at an odd angle to history. It’s the 1920s, so any reader will assume a connection to the 1920s novel Magic Mountain that is set in the years before WWI in a sanatorium in the mountains. But Thomas Mann connects his book to the broader flow of history, ending his book with the thunderstrike of the breakout of WWI. Chapman’s book could have been set in a different period or on a different planet or even just an unmarked hospital space. Instead, it’s eerily specific, but doesn’t really use that specificity except for color. And then there’s the book itself, the object ‘book’, I mean. There are gorgeous photographs on the front and the back and on the inside of the cover page, as well. They are not however of the sanatorium described in the book. They are, I think, of the Paimio Sanatorium, built by Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, who, according to Wiki, was driven by “a concern for design as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art; whereby he […] would design not just the building, but give special treatments to the interior surfaces and design furniture, lamps, and furnishings and glassware.” That the pictures are of that hospital is probable given that the copyright of the photos is held by the Alvar Aalto Museum, and that Chapman mentions, in her acknowledgments, that she had “extensive tours of Paimio Sanatorium.” If you followed the link above, however, you’ll have discovered that Paimio wasn’t finished until the 1930s (a historically much more interesting time).

Suvanto4So Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is set in a hospital like Paimio Sanatorium, but not in it. So it’s a hospital with a bit of history and reputation, not a brand new place, but we’re supposed to imagine it in the style of a later period? Look, it’s entirely possible that I overlooked something, but details like this are all over the book. Chapman both commits to and sells out on specifics. The book is set in Finland, and the difficulty of learning Finnish, or at least Swedish is foregrounded a few times, and Finnish words crop up all over the novel. Yet the author never makes any real use of the linguistic distance between most of its American protagonists and the Finnish people around them. It could be any language and any region, as far as I can tell. It could be a fantastical science fictional language for all that it makes a difference. It appears that the main reason for all the Finnish in the book is the Fulbright year the author spent in Finland, and the MFA-sanctioned idea that the use of other languages provides an interesting element for the dynamics of a novel. At least we don’t get that other MFA idea of making that ‘other’ language an Asian or African one. A recent, well-crafted, but MFA-bred German novel by Andreas Stichmann, Das Große Leuchten, appears to give in to that specific unpleasant instinct. So this is not politically or culturally dubious as simply baffling. Almost everything in the book, including setting and languages and culture, is used primarily to provide an interesting surface, but as a reader, one tires enormously fast of this. Do something with this, is what one is tempted to yell at the author. Don’t just paint the walls, put something into the rooms. The worst of all the surface games is the book’s use of female physicality and illness. Part of the book’s literary heritage is the Gothic novel. The hospital is large, some goings-on are unexplained and the vastness of the house and its events leads some inhabitants, at a late point in the book, to expect ghosts. But part of the Gothic novel has always, in my opinion, been a confrontation with the Other, and that Other often manifested itself in physical ways. Lust, hate, greed and their impacts on the human body is a constant topic, as is the use of the female body as a malleable object in all of this. There is a whole range of literature on the Gothic as a a genre negitiating masculinity and feminity. Patriarchal violence is common in these texts.

So, theoretically, the fact that Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is centered around various female discourses could be interesting; similarly, the constant presence of the female body here is intriguing. While Gothic novels often contain a veiled hostility towards feminity, engaging discourses of decadence, and various female engineered threats against masulinity. I think Chapman very carefully and intelligently engages these discourses. There is a woman with gonorrhea, a nod to the topic of (sexual) decadence, but in the context of the novel, where it’s mostly stripped of men, it becomes a question of personal injury and shame. Chapman doesn’t shy away from all the levels of female corporeality, although most of the time it’s some variety of able bodied corporeality. Still, within that limit, we get discussions of pregnancy, of bodily fluids, of the changes in women’s bodies as they age. We get frank discussions of the fear of women to be exposed to their husbands, exposed in frint of male doctors or just plain exposed. Compliance, the central issue of the last book I reviewed, is important here as well. Since it’s the 1920s, there’s an even higher premium on compliance, and the final catastrophe breaks out because of bottled up fears and frustration. The book teases its readers with all the possibilities of these constructions. It just adds one after the other and this is the main point that kept me reading – I expected, I waited for the writer to really do something with all this material, to make everything add up to something, to use one of the forms she kept piling up to break out of the traditions. After all, both the Magic Mountain (with its inversion and continuation of the Bildungsroman), as well as the Gothic novel are more or less ideologically clear, they wouldn’t fit this sympathetic use of female bodily functions. And yet. And yet, the final twist, the last part of the book where the plot picks up the pace a bit and all the various threads of the novel are combined into a brutal and mysterious ending – it is exactly what you expect to happen after reading about a third of the book.

Suvanto3This is really the oddest feeling – in a book that appears to be so invested in so many potentially incisive cultural, sexual and political areas, there’s ultimately nothing really at stake. As a reader you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the writer to connect it, to do something. And it never happens. Here is another example: the novel is written by someone who appears to be clearly cognizant of some contemporary theoretical ideas. Much of the book can work as a riff on some ideas in Michel Foucault’s work, especially those where he discusses institutions of exclusion and inclusion, where he writes on hospitals and prisons, for example. At the same time, it shares none of the self critical, politically trenchant insights. In Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, everything is decoration. Well, who knows, that might be part of Alvar Aalto’s design philosophy. What really, ultimately, sinks the book, however, is not the flatness and inconclusive nature of its ruminations. It’s the terribly bland writing that transports all of it. Written in present tense, maybe to mimic the narrative choruses of Greek drama, the style is simple. Clearly aiming for distanced elegance and clarity, the writing is, instead, flat like the drywall behind my desk. A whole bunch of uninspired, declarative sentences without any real sense for rhythm, urgency and compression. This is depressingly common, and all too often, it’s being read as beautiful. What happened to us as readers? Is this a very late impact of Gordon Lish’s inspired work on Carver that has, in lesser hands, turned into trite declarativeness? Why is it always the Hemingways and the Lishes of the world that inspire authors to copy their methods with less inspiration and understanding? Why doesn’t a writer with a baroque style get copied by lesser writers who try to write ornate prose? I suppose this also connects to my misgivings to the MFA style. It’s almost as if it’s a genre now, this kind of writing. Simplicity without condensation is just dull. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is the worst book I have finished this year and the only one I regret reading.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Kelly Sue Deconnick et al.: Bitch Planet

Deconnick, Kelly Sue and Valentine de Landron (2015), Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781632-153661

bitch coverI don’t usually review comics after reading only one trade paperback because the first trade tends to be a mere introduction to story and characters, despite generally containing 4-6 issues of the comic. As a side note, there’s, for me, a sense of comics having loosened a bit these past years, with narration much more slowed down. I mean, the whole story of X-Men: Days of Future Past is narrated in two issues. That would have to be at least a miniseries today. That’s just not how it’s done today. And in a way this is true of this first trade of Bitch Planet as well. The plot has barely begun to get off the ground as we leaf through the last pages of the book. But the book itself is so interesting, so unique, that I decided to review it here anyway, in part because I have been slow with reviewing comics these past years and Kelly Sue Deconnick, with the help of various artists, has carved out quite the interesting body of work that now contains an exciting and inspiring Marvel character that she made completely her own, a mystical and engrossing Western, which she financed through kickstarter, as well as various work done on Marvel and Dark Horse characters, work that’s always bright and interesting. I have lost track of some of her Marvel work in the past year or so, as Marvel ditched its new-found order created through the “Marvel Now” slate of books in favor of several events that I find impossible to keep track of. Meanwhile, she keeps writing creator-owned books for Image Comics and the one that’s come out in paperback most recently, Bitch Planet, is quite something. It’s a faux-1970s (60s? 80S?) dystopian comic that imagines an uber-patriarchal future where female criminals are shipped off to a prison planet. But being obese and disobedient is already reason enough to find yourself on a ship out to the “Bitch Planet” and Deconnick does not hold back in describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of this odd dictatorship. The book is clearly and thoroughly didactic, and if that bothers you, don’t read this. Everybody else will find something to enjoy about this book. In a way, Kelly Sue Deconnick has made a career out of working on characters and stories that help to tell stories about female experience. Bitch Planet reads in many ways like a summary of her career so far. Its density shows the importance and interconnection of her themes. Plus, it’s a coiled-up ball of fun.

bitch 2The plot itself is, as I suggested in the first paragraph, a magnificent smorgasbord of 1970s science fiction tropes and topics, from prison planets to mass surveillance, to sport-as-deadly-spectacle, a scenario that has most recently been revived by the spectacularly successful Hunger Games franchise. As a matter of fact, a vast variety of these recent YA franchises that started with badly written books (the nicely done Hunger Games books are an exception to a sometimes confoundingly incompetent rule – Divergent is a particularly disheartening example of this) also lean on these same 70s texts and films. It almost feels as if there’s a checklist. Suzanne Collins’ career is maybe a good example of this shift – her first series of books tell a highly imaginative story of an underground rat kingdom where a boy becomes hero and antihero in an epic (and bloody) fight for subterranean supremacy. It follows traditions in a broader sense. Hunger Games, in contrast, owes a debt to a much more narrow, concentrated tradition, the 70s dystopian fiction/film. But in stark contrast to those forebears, most of these franchises, with, again, Collins’ books being a bit of an exception, eschew politics and complexities of representation, by turning all the earlier text into a mush that is nothing more than an elaborate allegory for teenage angst. In this respect, they follow the tendency of many pop-cultural revivals of texts from the 70s and 80s that used to have a political bent, and are now cleansed of relevancy. One example in the realm of comic books is certainly Green Arrow. Once, when he shared a book with Green Lantern, Green Arrow was aware of racial tensions and social disparities; these days, the new revivals of the Green Lantern books are but a shadow of that earlier writing. In contrast to all of that, Kelly Sue Deconnick’s book connects in more than style with the earlier tradition. Bitch Planet is happily political. In fact, the trade contains a didactic “discussion guide,” aimed at explaining the book’s politics to those not as well versed in recent readings in feminism and intersectionality. As far as I can tell, individual issues also and additionally contained short essays on topics in feminism. If anything, Deconnick has taken the politics of the 70s and dragged them into the present time, heightening and commenting on the issues. The term intersectionality itself has not been coined until the late 1980s and has not gotten traction in popular debates on political theory until this past decade.

bitch 3To be clear, Deconnick and De Landro didn’t create a modern story, inspired by the 1970s. They aimed and succeeded at creating a fantastically entertaining pastiche of 1970s comics, although I suppose it might be more the idea of 1970s comics rather than a specific example of one. The nature of the pastiche becomes clear in more ways than just the gorgeous artwork that smells of nostalgia. When we get dates and periods, the timing appears to be a bit off. When discussion Hall of Fame players of the futuristic sport of the book, we are offered years like 2012 and 2018. Speaking as someone who, for some reason, has a pretty solid grasp on the world’s major sports, I am fairly certain that sport, a more brutal version of American Football, does not exist right now. The year 2012 is, I think, supposed to signal the time estimations common in texts from the 60s and 70s that assumed a much more rapid progress in technology (and a much more rapid dissolution of constitutional democracies). The result of this method is the creation of a critical nostalgia, but not one that’s inherently critical of the texts it references, only of the social and cultural contexts that produced this text. In fact, by lacing the issues with obviously racist and sexist ads, some of which, in a final metatextual twist, reference the book’s characters, the genre itself, the science fictional blaxploitation (if that is a genre) is highlighted as a medium that resists and comments upon a social context. This, in turn (stay with me) makes the text a stand-in for the same non-compliance that is a marker of the women in the book. Indeed, much of this book appears to loop back on itself, and could end up in some kind of vapid postmodern loop, if all of it wasn’t anchored in angry and explicit politics. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s feminism, as rendered in this book (and others) is a brand that’s not all that common today, one that critically comments on the male gaze, and how that gaze comes with expectancies: most importantly, expecting women to comply. Ariel Levy, a few years ago, has written a clear and pretty sharp critique of how that compliance to the patriarchal gaze might look like in Female Chauvinist Pigs, a book I strongly recommend. Non-compliance, the “offense” of women on the “Bitch Planet” is a rallying cry for the book and Deconnick’s work in general.

DSC_1937Her other extraordinary book for Image Comics, the kickstarter-financed Pretty Deadly, also offers a female resistance to a male myth of the frontier and death (compare/contrast Jonathan Hickman’s recent series of books on a a resistant Rider of the Apocalypse, a very openly male figure of Death, and how this impacts Hickman’s discussions of narrative and myth). Superbly illustrated by Emma Rios, this is a book that’s not so much simple commentary on the frontier myth, as an imaginative reworking of those myths. In more direct terms, we find in Bitch Planet also a book that discusses female experience, although I would hope for more examples of that in later issues. Women of all shapes and sizes, of various backgrounds, resistant to men, discarded by men, non-compliant women, we also find them in the book(s) Deconnick is likely most well known for, her run on Captain Marvel that, so far, spans at least four Captain Marvel trades, two Avengers Assemble trades and god knows how many “event” books. She uses these books, apart from handing out action packed stories of superheroics, to discuss questions of personal identity, of alcoholism, of representation. Personally, I would have preferred these books to be less tied into larger Marvel Universe narratives, but these books are an excellent example of the powerful stories you can write despite being locked into a fairly restrictive narrative box, one that was assembled using a majority of Marvel’s current titles. What’s certainly true is that, through all her books, we can see a theme emerging, and the clearest it’s been stated so far is the excellent Bitch Planet. I have no idea where Deconnick’s writing is leading her next, but I do know that I cannot wait to find out. She is one of my favorite active writers in comics, and her influence and impact on a growing community around her is admirable and amazing. Please read her books.

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