Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s always interesting, being shown your own culture from the outside.  Depending on your inclinations, it can either be great fun, or, I sense, really not fun, irritating, wounding even.

Probably, the sense of the fun of the thing, the jolt of the change of perspective, that strange thrill of recognition of behaviors you know seen from a different angle, is directly related to your own personal distance from those behaviors: it’s neat to see your neighbors in the fun-house mirror, not yourself.

AmericanahBut that can’t be the whole story, because sometimes it’s even fun to see yourself, your own quirks and artifacts and preoccupations, examined by a mind which has not bought in to your norms, your assumptions.  It makes you uneasy, yes, but it’s still kind of mesmerizing, right?  In a slightly narcissistic way?  It’s like watching a video of yourself when you hadn’t known you were being filmed – do I really do that?  Is it that obvious?  Is that how that shirt actually looks?

Books about America are usually written by Americans (we’ve been very lucky that way).  Sure, every once and a while some acidic European will launch an attack at us from across the pond, but since they do it from a safe distance, and since their tone is always a little hysterical, it’s easy for us to ignore them.  We roll around here, enormous and convivial, and most of the culturally critical literature that we read comes from within.

And there is enormous value in criticism of Americans by Americans.  To put it plainly, we understand ourselves in a way no one else does.  But there is something bracing in reading about what we look like to transplants, immigrants, people who have come here, who have, in some senses, opted in to our systems and values, but who nonetheless see us as alien.  A good book which does that, shows us what it feels like to walk, as an outsider, among us, is really fun to read.

Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from The Guardian

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria.  She came to the United States when she was 19.  Her list of degrees and accolades is enormous – among other things, she is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient (for the record, there is almost no single award which impresses me more than this).  She spent decades living and studying in the United States, now splitting her time, apparently, between Nigeria and the US.

And that’s what ‘Americanah‘ is about: it is about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu who comes to the United States, studies, lives, becomes a writer, and returns home.  It is about what Nigeria is like, what America is like to a Nigerian, what it means to return home, how you love people who are like you, how you love people who are not like you.

And it’s about race.  Ifemelu rises to prominence in the United States as a race blogger, someone who writes about race in this country from the perspective of a non-American African, someone who is simply a person in her home country but, upon arriving in ours, discovers that she is now considered ‘black’.

Adichie is, I think, kinder to Americans than we deserve, essentially amused and frustrated by us.  White Americans (of which I am one) are, in her book, mostly well-meaning but oblivious, or irrelevant, or genteelly racist.  The incredible toxicity of the race divide in the United States, the deaths and incarcerations, shootings and violence and long economic oppression, all form the backdrop to this novel, but they are not foregrounded.  It is, at its heart, a love story, and I experienced it that way: as a story of two lives who wind around and around the world before they find their way back to each other.  Their racial otherness in other countries is part of their journeys, but ‘Americanah‘ is their story, not the story of civil rights in the United States.

One of the blurbs on my copy is from New York Magazine: “Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.”  I don’t know about everything after the colon, but the first assertion makes sense to me.  Roth’s books, though so much less humane, less lovely than ‘Americanah‘, are also about Jewish people rather than about Jewishness.  It is possible to connect with his protagonists as individuals, not merely as racial stand-ins, and their stories are wider than their categories.  Imefelu is like that – she is having a whole, complicated life, of which her blackness is but one part.

Americanah‘ is the kind of novel I really struggle to judge critically.  It comes down, I think, to the question of what novels, as an art form, are for.  Some novels, a very, very few, are Great Novels: when you read these novels, you have the constant awareness that you are in the presence of Art.  Sometimes, you enjoy them; sometimes, you don’t, but you always feel enriched, and virtuous, for having read them.  These novels have characters, but they are about Humanity.  For me, the best example of this kind of novel, the one I perhaps love the best, is ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

Then, there is another kind of novel, the kind where, as you read it, you aren’t aware of anything at all.  These novels are so absorbing that you get lost in them – you forget your own name while you read them.  I tend to fly through these novels, carry them with me everywhere, read them in line at the grocery store and in the bathroom during the work day.

But is magnetism, the ability to captivate your reader, the same thing as greatness in a novel?  These novels rarely, say, impress me with the beauty of their language (in fact, in order to be really absorbing, in some ways the language needs to not be great – if you notice a lovely sentence, you are pulled out of the narrative).  They do not employ sophisticated or subtle metaphor.  They don’t push the boundaries of the form.  They are excellent stories about fascinating characters, but maybe those specific characters are all they’re about.  Is that a Great Novel?

Jonathan Franzen is, for me, the best example of this kind of novelist.  I devour his novels, just blow through them.  I live in them while I read them – I find his world-building super thorough and effective.  But, when they’re done, they don’t stay with me at all.  I can remember only the barest outlines of the plot.  Are they Great Novels?  Or are they simply great reads?

Americanah‘ was like this for me.  I was glued to it.  I really cared about what was going to happen next; I was invested in the characters.  I loved the experience of reading it.  But there was no passage which will stay with me.  There is no beautiful description, no language to which I will refer again and again.  I don’t even remember, now, the name of the man Ifemelu loves, though I remember descriptions of him, I remember his story.

However, in some ways I expect that ‘Americanah‘ will stay with me more than other novels.  Adichie’s depiction of my country has lodged in my mind, and will tweak the boundaries of my perception a little, widen out my scope.  When someone shows you yourself from the outside, it’s almost impossible to unsee.  I guess I’m one of the people who finds getting a different glimpse of myself fun, even when it isn’t flattering.

Dust Tracks On A Road

By Zora Neale Hurston

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It is one of life’s great mercies that we are not forced to live by the opinions we held as teenagers.

Like many American teenagers, I was forced to read ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ in high school.  I hated it.  I don’t really remember why now, but I know that I developed for that book a particular antipathy that was personal and intense, and colored my view of the author.  I didn’t just hate ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, I decided; I also hated Zora Neale Hurston.

Then, a few years ago, I read the ‘The Best American Essays of the Century‘ anthology, and it included an essay by Hurston, written in 1928, called ‘How It Feels To Be Colored Me’.  It’s a short, funny little essay, and I loved it.  I loved her voice, and her point of view, and I began to wonder whether I might have been wrong to assign her a role as a literary nemesis.

About a year later, I read ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow‘, by Wade Davis, about Haitian zombies (which are real, as in real zombies, yes, zombies are real, read the book, it’ll all be explained), and he mentioned, almost out of hand, that much of the earliest work documenting the existence of zombies, and gaining access to the secret societies which produce them, had been done by an anthropologist named, you guessed it, Zora Neale Hurston.

Dust Tracks on a RoadSo, a few weeks ago, when I saw a beautiful, bright yellow copy of her memoir, ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ (honestly, it’s a jewel of an edition – you want to eat it, not read it), I decided to give Zora Neale Hurston the chance she should have gotten when I was in high school.

Hurston published ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ in 1942, when she was 51 (she would die in 1960, at the age of 69).  It is her telling of her own life, sometimes chronologically, sometimes thematically.  It was an interesting life, and would make for interesting telling regardless, but Hurston doesn’t spend as much time on the plotty parts (her two marriages, her time in Haiti and Bermuda and driving around the Deep South) as she does on the things which she felt gave her life meaning and texture.  She spends a lot of time in childhood; she grew in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first Negro town to be incorporated in the United States.  And she spends a lot of time describing the things that gave her life joy: music, friends, school.  She does not milk her life for its extraordinariness – rather, she describes the world as she saw it.

This may sound like a disappointing emphasis, since she did have such a remarkable life.  But ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ is a real pleasure, and not because you get to read much about her adventures.  Rather, Hurston’s memoir is such a joyful read because you get to spend it in her company, and she is outstanding.

Zora Neale Hurston, Class of 1928, Chicago, Ill., November 9, 1934
Zora Neale Hurston

First of all, Zora Neale Hurston is an amazing writer.  I’m talking an off-the-charts, batshit-nanners beast of prose composition.  She has a distinct writerly voice, a sort of folksy twang which is meant to disarm and which will make you think that she is less sophisticated than you.  You will be wrong.  She is so, so good at writing – I really don’t know how to say it better than that.  If the task of a writer is to communicate an idea, or a scene, or a sight, clearly, beautifully, and originally, then Zora Neale Hurston is one of the best American writers I’ve ever read.  Full stop.

Let me give you an example.  Here is a passage that Hurston wrote about her stepmother, the woman her father married when her mother died and whom she hated:

“Not every skunk in the world rates a first-class killing.  Hanging it too good for some folks.  They just need their behinds kicked.  And that is all that woman rated.”  (p. 96)

There are words in that passage, ‘skunk’, ‘folks’, behinds’, which are meant to sound conversational, demotic and casual.  That is not a passage which would, at first glance, impress you with the learning and precision of its author.  But consider that the same author will, only a few pages later, write this:

“There is something about poverty that smells like death.  Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves.  The soul lives in a sickly air.  People can be slave-ships in shoes.”  (p. 107)

And you will see that you’re in the hands of a master, someone who deploys colloquialism not because she is herself unsophisticated, but because she has decided that wisdom is best expressed in simple language.

But her incredible facility with language is only part of what makes Hurston so much fun to read.  She was also possessed of a genuinely original outlook.  I can’t think of another writer with a voice at all like hers; there is no part of this book which could have been mistaken for the work of another person.

This distinction doesn’t just reveal itself in the language that she uses; it also comes through in the things she chooses to say.  She’s funny, and wise, and brave, and even though she wears these qualities lightly, they shine through all the time.  In her very framing of the problems of her life, you see a point of view which is novel and charming and courageous, really winning and really admirable.

I know I sound totally gaga about this, but let me give you a few examples, passages that I think are both beautiful and wise, and which I think only she could have written:

“People seldom see themselves changing.  It is like going out in the morning, or in the springtime to pick flowers.  You pick and you wander till suddenly you find that the light is gone and the flowers are withered in your hand.  Then, you say that you must turn back home.  But you have wandered into a place and the gates are closed.  There is no more sharp sunlight.  Gray meadows are all about you where blooms only the asphodel.  You look back through the immutable gates to where the sun still shines on the flowered fields with nostalgic longing, but God pointed men’s toes in one direction.  One is surprised by the passage of time and the distance travelled, but one may not go back.” (p. 65)

“I found out too that you are bound to be jostled in the “crowded street of life.”  That in itself need not be dangerous unless you have the open razors of personal vanity in your pants pockets.  The passers-by don’t hurt you, but if you go around like that, they make you hurt yourself.” (p. 148)

Or this, which was my favorite passage in the whole book, and which I would like to have printed on little leaflets that I can just give to people when I break up with them:

“No two moments are any more alike than two snowflakes.  Like snowflakes, they get that same look from being so plentiful and falling so close together.  But examine them closely and see the multiple differences between them.  Each moment has its own task and capacity, and doesn’t melt down like snow and form again.  It keeps its character forever.  So the great difficulty lies in trying to transpose last night’s moment to a day which has no knowledge of it.  That look, that tender touch, was issued by the mint of the richest of all kingdoms.  That same expression of today is utter counterfeit, or at best the wildest of inflation.  What could be more zestless than passing out cancelled checks?  It is wrong to be called faithless under circumstances like that.  What to do?

I have a strong suspicion, but I can’t be sure that much that passes for constant love is a golded-up moment walking in its sleep.  Some people know that it is the walk of the dead, but in desperation and desolation, they have staked everything on life after death and the resurrection, so they haunt the graveyard.  They build an altar on the tomb and wait there like faithful Mary for the stone to roll away.  So the moment has authority over all of their lives.  They pray constantly for the miracle of the moment to burst its bonds and spread out over time.” (p. 265)

Zora Neale
This is my favorite picture of her.

Sometimes, in reading as in life, you just fall in love with someone.  An author can compel your heart the way a lover can: they’re just right for you, they draw you to them and everything they do amazes you.

And you sound like a dummy about them for a while, the same way that you do when you’re in love.  You talk about them too much, people around you get bored listening to you.  That’s how I feel about Zora Neale Hurston, having read this book.  I’m blown away by how good she is – I want to tell everyone I meet about her.  I want to read everything she’s ever written.  I want to get her words tattooed on my back.

I won’t do that last thing, but I will go back and reread ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘.  I can’t wait.

.

Kill All Normies

Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

By Angela Nagle

Have you been feeling too good lately?  When you look around at the world, does it seem too happy, safe, and congenial a place for your liking?  Would you like to feel more dismal about the state of your country, your fellow man?  Have you been trying to quit the Internet, looking to be driven offline, perhaps in despair?

Then, boy, do I have the book for you!  It’s not long, just a svelte 120 pages, but don’t worry!  There is enough disgusting human behavior in those 120 pages to fuel your misanthropy for the rest of your life.

Kill All NormiesKill All Normies‘ is Angela Nagle’s brief exploration of the once-fringe Internet subcultures which came to play significant roles in the 2016 United States presidential election.  Nagle frames these broadly as extensions of a broader culture war, starting in the 1960s, which saw the transgression against normal social mores as a goal, rather than as a tool, of social change.

More granularly, ‘Kill All Normies‘ is a summary history of the online evolutions of the alt-right and identitarian far left movements in the United States.  She covers personalities, fora (Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, &c), and specific events (Gamergate, Harambe).  She also explicates these phenomena within the cultural history of the United States, looks at how they relate to the political system in this country, and briefly discusses the critical texts which influenced them.  It is part history, part anthropology, part semiotics text.

And, from a humanist point of view, it’s gruesome.  If I didn’t think the end was nigh before I read this, I certainly do now.  Nagle covers, cursorily, the Manosphere, the Alt-Right and ethno-nationalism, Trump’s toxic Twitter army, Tumblr’s witch-hunty call-out culture, and the porny, hostile, insular world of 4chan.  I challenge anyone to read about those cultural infestations and still feel good about us as a species.

Angela Nagle
Angela Nagle

Nagle, it should be said, does not treat all these things as morally equivalent, and a denizen of, say, the Manosphere might take issue with her relative treatments (if he deigned to read books written by ‘holes’, that is).  She has a point of view, and she’s pretty upfront about it.  When she thinks something is revolting, she says so.  She openly deplores misogyny, racist rhetoric and attacks, threats, suicide encouragement, and homophobia.  She identifies as a feminist.

For all that, though, she is more even-handed than one might have expected her to be.  She faults both the left and the right for viciousness in the culture war.  She devotes an entire chapter to campus witch hunts from the left.

“At first, self-righteously or snarkily denouncing others for racism, sexism or homophobia was the most instantaneous and certain way to achieve social media fame.  Something about public social media platforms, it turned out, was conducive to the vanity of morally righteous politics and the irresistible draw of the culture wars.  But soon the secret was out and everyone was doing it.  The value of the currency of virtue that those who had made their social media culture capital on was in danger of being suddenly devalued.  As a result, I believe, a culture of purging had to take place, largely targeting those in competition for this precious currency.  Thus, the attacks increasingly focused on other liberals and leftists often with seemingly pristine progressive credentials, instead of those who engaged in any actual racism.” (p. 77)

“I often think the brain drain out of the left during this period because of the Tumblrization of left politics has done damage that will prove long-lasting.” (p. 80)

That Nagle has enormous contempt for this kind of hysterical, self-cannibalizing virtue-signaling is clear.  What is equally clear (in fact, explicit) is that she considers “actual racism” and misogyny much more dangerous.

“The alt-light figures that became celebrities during this period made their careers exposing the absurdities of online identity politics and the culture of lightly thrown claims of misogyny, racism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia and so on.  However, offine, only one side saw their guy take the office of US president and only one side has in their midst faux-ironic Sieg Heil saluting, open white segregationists and genuinely hate-filled, occasionally murderous, misogynists and racists.” (p. 9)

I was at least passingly familiar almost all of the cultural phenomena Nagle references, and, when I wasn’t, she gives enough of a sketch that I was able to place the reference in context.  I also have some experience reading criticism, and so I was able to grapple with some of the unwieldy and vague critical concepts that Nagle handles pretty casually.  In general, though, ‘Kill All Normies’ favors breadth over depth, and readers who don’t have a passing familiarity with famous Twitter flame wars or Nietzsche might find the pacing of the text a little difficult to follow.

Another problem is that Nagle writes like a journalist.  She’s great when it comes to shorter, declarative sentences, but when she’s handling more complicated material, she over-clauses and under-punctuates, which can make it hard to trace her antecedents and follow her argument.  ‘Kill All Normies’ is a book you’ll read for content, not for style (although some of her dry asides are really great, like this:

“The left’s best critic of this disease of the left had just died and dancing on his grave was a woman who once blogged about baking bread using her own vaginal yeast as a feminist act.” (p. 117)

Or this:

“The Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement is a straight male separatist group whose members have chosen (ahem) to avoid romantic relationships with women in protest against a culture destroyed by feminism” (p. 94))

But content is a excellent reason to read, and this is important material.  I appreciated ‘Kill All Normies’ mainly for two reasons:

  1.  Though I have managed to glean much of this information myself over the years, by being a relatively plugged-in person, I have not seen so much of it collected in one place, or organized at all well.  This is a reasonable, if not comprehensive, glossary of the culture wars raging around us all the time, and now that they have impinged on our political lives so dramatically, it is time to start thinking about them as a single phenomenon.
  2. I am, though leftist myself, happy to see Nagle approach the fringes of the left and the right as though they might be understand as part of single cultural battle.  Because we in the trenches think of ourselves as value-driven, we don’t tend to step back and look at trends of the battlefield itself, the way our weapons influence their weapons and vice versa.  Nagle’s book does this, and it was helpful to me.  I think her criticisms of both sides were fair, and proportionate to their sins.

However, appreciating a book and enjoying a book are two different things.  I learned something from ‘Kill All Normies‘, but it also ruined my week.  It is, at its heart, an exploration of a facet of my culture, a side of humanity in my time, which I find demoralizing: rancid, mean-spirited, venomous, and evil.  Even though it is a short text, an minute spent among the sort of bottom-dwellers who sent Anita Sarkeesian rape threats during Gamergate is like a year among the morally normal.  And one of the very frightening lessons of ‘Kill All Normies’ is that there are more people inhabiting the vile fringes of both sides than I, and perhaps you, had expected.

So it’s not a cheerful read.  It will probably make you feel worse about the world, about the people around you.  It’s the sort of book that makes you more suspicious, less trusting, and, in that way, perhaps a less good person for having read it.  This is not the fault of the author, obviously, but a logical result of the information that she is presenting.  And I believe that it is always better to confront the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and if that upset us, well, bummer.  So I would recommend reading ‘Kill All Normies‘, especially if you are interested in understanding the cultural or political moment a little better.

But brace yourself, ’cause it’s ugly.

Shrill

By Lindy West

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to rave about another book.

I apologize – I know that this has been happening a lot lately.  I’m very suspicious of people that like everything, or only have nice things to say about the content they are consuming.  To my mind, positivity is a sure sign of thoughtlessness.

A reader who loves every book they read is a reader who isn’t thinking very hard about books, and therefore has no business writing about them.  But I would like to promise, before I get about the business of loving this book, that I hate plenty of books.  I’m sure I’ll hate the very next book I read.  I’ve just been on a lucky streak lately, batting way above my normal average (although, in fairness to myself, I do think I had some critical things to say about Jane Austen recently…).

And I will make one more small point in my own defense: I thought that I was going to hate ‘Shrill‘.  I did not pick it – it was a gift – and it was chosen for reasons which were not persuasive to me.  This happens not infrequently: someone will give me the work of a female author, usually a funny or acerbic one, with the explanation, “She’s sharp, and you’re sharp, so I thought that you might like her.”  Unfortunately, that both Lindy West and I are a) female and b) smart, is not enough to make me like her book.  So I picked up ‘Shrill’ anticipating a hate-read.

ShrillShrill‘ is a collection of personal essays, and the personal essay is a difficult form.  When it’s good, it’s sublime, but to work it needs an author who is a good writer with a distinct worldview, who has experience worth writing about (or a gift for making any experience into a story), and who possesses a basic humanity.  This last attribute is the most important, and hard to define.  To write an entire book about yourself is an act of narcissism; in order to avoid becoming insufferable, the author of that book must possess grace, must show more forgiveness of others than they do of themselves, must not grovel and play at false humility, but also must not brag.  We must be able to trust them on their own strengths, and therefore they must show their weaknesses.

Lindy West is well-known at this point; if you’re a feminist, an active misogynist, or a reader of the New York Times, you’ve probably heard of her. She is most famous as a feminist writer: she has written about high-controversy issues such as whether or not rape jokes are funny, and what it’s like being a fat woman.

[An aside, West refers to herself as a fat woman, and since this one of the subjects on which she is the most moving and effective as a writer, I am going to use her terminology, and not employ any of the euphemisms which she decries in her own text.]

A lot of the writing in this book revolves around what it is like to be a fat woman, and to be a fat woman who lives in the public eye, who writes about being fat and rape jokes and about the treatment of women broadly.  West records the volume and tenor of the abuse she receives, but she also writes about the less conspicuous humiliations and indifferences that she suffers, and has suffered her entire life.

And she writes about them well.  ‘Shrill‘ isn’t a cri de coeur; it isn’t a harangue about the treatment of women, or fat people.  It is a simple, effective plea for decency.  Sometimes this plea takes the form of polemic, but mostly it takes the form of memoir: West shows you that she is a person, and leaves it to you to imagine what it might feel like for a person, say, to receive a message which said:

“No one would want to rape that fat, disgusting mess.” (p. 197)

Or

“What a fucking cunt.  Kill yourself, dumb bitch.” (p. 199)

Or

“Holes like this make me want commit rape out of anger, I don’t even find her attractive, at all, she’s a fat idiot, I just want to rape her with a traffic cone” (p. 202)

[If you, like me, find this level of abuse frankly astonishing, it’s worth watching the video West filmed of herself simply reading the Twitter comments she gets: If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?]

Because her writing is clear, and her voice is so direct, you can’t, as her reader, avoid making an empathic connection with her.  She is extremely reasonable, especially when she is presenting her own experience, and so you often end up suffering for her sake, with her, at the things which she has gone through:

“It felt alien to be confronted so vocally and so publicly (and for such an arbitrary reason), but it also felt familiar.  People say the same kind of thing to me with their eyes on nearly every flight – this guy just chose to say it with his mouth.

This is the subtext of my life: “You’re bigger than I’d like you to be.” “I dread being near you.” “Your body itself is a breach of etiquette.” “You are clearly a fucking fool who thinks that cheesecake is a vegetable.” “I know that you will fart on me.”

No one wants to sit next to a fat person on a plane.  Don’t think we don’t know. (p. 141)

giggle
Lindy West

That essay, ‘The Day I Didn’t Fit‘, was incredibly moving for me.  It cut right to heart of me, made me think carefully about my own behavior and beliefs, made me ashamed.  It’s an unusual essay which, all by itself, will be responsible for an entire reallignment of your moral priorities towards a whole group of people – that essay has done that for me.

But this book came to mean the most to me as woman.  The simplicity of West’s declaration of her own humanity, and therefore of mine, felt profound to me.  It wasn’t dense, or theory-laden; quite the opposite.  It was the clear and unmistakable declaration: we are women, we are people, these are the things that hurt us, we wish not to be hurt.  And, at a time in my own culture where feminism, femininity, masculinity, and power are all such complicated and murky topics, that declaration sounded to me like the ringing of a bell.

I really don’t want to make this book sound grim – it emphatically isn’t.  It is extremely funny.  I laughed loudly enough that I drew looks when I read it in public; I made a small scene on the subway on the way to the hair salon when I read this:

“What is the point of sexualizing a fish-person?  It’s not like you could really have sex with King Triton, because FISH PENIS.  I don’t think fish even have penises anyway.  Don’t they just have, like, floppy anal fins that squirt out ambient sperms in the hope that lady-fishes will swim through their oops-cloud? Is that what you really want from your love-making, ladies!?  To inadvertently swim through a miasma of fin-jizz and then call it a night?  A merman is only a hottie with a naughty body if you are half attracted to fish.  In conclusion, IT’S A FUCKING FISH-MAN TRYING TO DRAG YOU TO THE OCEAN FLOOR, WHERE IT PLANS TO USE YOUR DEAD BODY SEXUALLY.  KILL IT.  IT HAS A FORK.”  (p. 8)

I made a small scene in my hair salon when I read this passage:

“Those two contradictory approaches (periods are the best! and we must never ever speak of them), made me feel like I was the only not-brainwashed one in a culty dystopian novel.  ‘Oh, yes, you can’t imagine the joy readings in your subjectivity port when the Administration gifts you your woman’s flow!  SPEAKING OF THE FLOW OUTSIDE OF THE MENARCHE BUNKER WILL RESULT IN DEACTIVATION.'” (p. 25)

West is merciful enough to break up even her most exposed, wrenching passages with humor; it is her most salient and excellent characteristic.  It also heightens the impact of her rhetoric.  Because she is so funny, because her humor seems so effortless and natural, when she tells you something seriously, you believe her.  ‘Shrill‘ is a red-herring of a title: West is not shrill.  She is measured, witty, reasonable, and convincing.

I don’t like to extol books.  I don’t like full-throated praise; it makes me feel uncritical and unsophisticated.  But, to be perfectly frank, this book moved me, and along more than one axis.  It had tremendous meaning for me as a women: West’s writing about feminist issues is brave, and kind, and true.  It will change, dramatically, how I think about issues of body weight going forward.  And it made me laugh, a lot.

Mostly, though, I feel grateful to have gotten to know her a little.  Lindy West, the author, was really fun to spend time with, and I’m better for it.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I – The Bad Beginning

II – The Reptile Room

III – The Wide Window

By Lemony Snicket

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“If you are interested in reading a story filled with thrillingly good times, I am sorry to inform you that you are most certainly reading the wrong book, because the Baudelaires experience very few good times over the course of their gloomy and miserable lives.  It is a terrible thing, their misfortune, so terrible that I can scarcely bring myself to write about it.  So if you do not want to read a story of tragedy and sadness, this is your very last chance to put this book down, because the misery of the Baudelaire orphans begins in the very next paragraph.” (‘The Wide Window‘, p. 2)

Children’s stories should be twisted.

I believed this when I was a child, and I believe it now: children’s stories should be dark, and troubling.  They should deal with the frightening and dismal, the grotesque and the foul.  Children have a need for this subject matter, and a particular aptitude for it.  They inhabit a world full of menace over which they have no control, and their literature must help them confront and name this.  Children’s literature which ignores the monsters that lurk in the night is pointless and, worse, insulting.  I love, and have always loved, the books for children which belly up to the reality of a world of which death and terror are immutable characteristics.

And children themselves are not at all the precious, immaculate angels that forgetful adults like to imagine.  The same troubles obsess them that obsess us: death, destruction, mutilation and violence.  They are creepy little beings who, like adults, need literature to speak to them as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

Trouble BeginsBy this measure, willingness to tell darkness plainly, Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ might be the finest children’s books ever written.  They tell the story of the three Baudelaire children, Violent (age 14), Klaus (“a little older than twelve”), and Sunny (age 1).  The children of loving and wealthy parents, the Baudelaires are orphaned one day in a fire which destroys their family and their home, and put into the temporary care of Mr. Poe, a well-meaning banker and the executor of their parents’ will.

“”Your parents,” Mr. Poe said, “have perished in a terrible fire.”

The children didn’t say anything.

“They perished,” Mr. Poe said, “in a fire that destroyed the entire house.  I’m very, very sorry to tell you this, my dears.”

Violet took her eyes off Mr. Poe and stared out at the ocean.  Mr. Poe had never called the Baudelaire children “my dears” before.  She understood the words he was saying but thought he must be joking, playing a terrible joke on her and her brother and sister.

“Perished,” Mr Poe said, “means ‘killed.'””(‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 8)

Count Olaf.jpg
Count Olaf’s shiny eyes.

That will states that they should be raised by a “relative”, and the relative that Mr. Poe first chooses is, disastrously for the Baudelaire orphans, one Count Olaf, a stage actor and thorough-going villain, whose only intention is to acquire the Baudelaire fortune for himself.  When his first plan, to force Violet into an under-age marriage and thus take possession of her inheritance, fails, Olaf goes on the lam.  In each successive book, he will hunt down the children, murder their new guardian, and attempt once again to seize their money.

Leeches.jpg
The leeches by whom Aunt Josephine is devoured

And these are not mild, child-friendly deaths.  They are grisly, terrible ends, often coming to characters to whom the reader has become attached, like Uncle Monty, who is injected with snake venom, or Aunt Josephine, who is fed to carnivorous leeches.  Although the orphans themselves are not killed, they are subjected to terrible threats and ordeals, such as being imprisoned in a birdcage and dangled from an open window, or held at knife point, or forced to eat food to which they are allergic.  These children suffer.

I have a good reason for endorsing darkness in children’s books – I’m not just a terrible, child-hating sadist.  The world is a large and frightening place, full of dangers, and children are particularly vulnerable.  They are small, and naive, and powerless within the systems which govern human lives.  Children’s literature should prepare them for this, warn them about danger, and give them a way of understanding misfortune.  The sorrows of good children’s books have morals.

And the moral of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ is: Do not trust adults.  Count on your wits; count on each other.  Read, think, be brave, because no one is coming to save you.    Don’t count on adults.  They will fail you, either through corruption, or incompetence, or mortality.  Even the kind ones, the well-meaning ones, will not be able to save you when wickedness comes.  And wickedness will always come.

What a great moral!

One of the measures of a really good book is whether it can get you wound up even if you know what’s going to happen.  Each of the ‘Series of Unfortunate Events‘ that I have read so far (The Trouble Begins) adheres to a basic formula: meet a new guardian, lose the guardian to Count Olaf, escape Olaf’s clutches at the very last.

Zombie Snowman.jpgBut, despite my perfect certainty about what was going to happen, I found myself getting emotional, angry and scared, during each book.  Partly, this is because the consistent failure of the adults around the Baudelaires is hard to read about.  Each time that the children identify Count Olaf in disguise, and each time they are disregarded by their caretakers, you suffer with them a little.  You feel the rage of the child; you do not sympathize with the adults.  And the structures which bind them, like the law, like their parents’ will, which were designed to keep them safe, instead trap them and their guardians again and again.  These books are the best indictment of adulthood I’ve ever seen.

Most importantly, though: they are funny.  They are really funny, and weird.  They are studded all over with strange asides and examples, presented in the wry voice of an unknown narrator.

“Unless you are a lawyer, it will probably strike you as odd that Count Olaf’s plan was defeated by Violet signing with her left hand instead of her right.  But the law is an odd thing.  For instance, one country in Europe has a law that requires all its bakers to sell bread at the exact same price.  A certain island has a law that forbids anyone from removing its fruit.  And a town not too far from where you live has a law that bars me from coming within five miles of its border.” (‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 153)

Series

“Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.

As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony.  This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, or when you are snug in bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there.  For no matter how safe and happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.” (‘The Reptile Room‘, p. 32)

I loved these books.  I wish they had existed when I was a kid – I would have loved them then, too.  Dark, funny, weird: these are hard things to do well in children’s literature.  To do all three well at once is remarkable.

Homage to Daniel Shays

Collected Essays

By Gore Vidal

Homage to Daniel ShaysSome writers possess a quality which, as you read them, makes you long more than anything else to speak to them.

This is not the same as admiring them.  These will not necessarily be your favorite writers, or the writers of your favorite books.  These are writers who shine through their own words, whose force of personality is so clear and so strong that they essentially read their own books to you.  Grappling with them is so like being talked to by them that you want, sometimes quite desperately, to be able to answer.

Sometimes, of course, you do admire them.  Sometimes they are funny, or good – for me personally, David Foster Wallace has always had this distinction.  He is never far from his own work, even his fiction, and when I read him, I always wish I could just put the book down and query directly the mind which produced it.

But sometimes the writers are not admirable, not as a men at least, no matter their skills as writers.  Sometimes they are arrogant, or supercilious, off-putting in some way, and your desire to speak to them is essentially antagonistic: you want to be able to argue back.

And sometimes they are both: vain, haughty, but brilliant too, and if an author can win you over in this case, if their brilliance overwhelms their obnoxiousness, they are among the most joyful authors to read, because you feel as though you are indulging in a guilty pleasure: I know he’s an ass, but he’s just so good.

Gore VIdal
Gore Vidal when he was young and dreamy

H.L. Mencken is this sort of author.  Christopher Hitchens is this sort of author.  But, for me personally, the apotheosis of this category, writers whom you read for the sheer joy of agreeing with their meanness, is Gore Vidal.

Homage to Daniel Shays‘ is a collection of Vidal’s essays, published between 1952 and 1972.  These essays range enormously in content, but themes emerge: the future of the novel, other writers, politics, and sex all recur with some frequency.  Most of the essays are engaging and educating; a few are excruciatingly boring (‘French Letters: Theories of the New Novel’ is torture in written form).

Vidal is probably best remembered as a novelist (he certainly thought of himself as one), but I love him for his essays, his criticisms and his cultural commentary (he is a little like Orwell this way: remembered as a novelist, loved as a critic).  He had an excellent mind; he was brilliant, capable, especially, of summing up people or situations with devastating clarity and pith.

It’s rare that self-important men are also funny; he is an exception to this rule.  He is hilarious, usually in attack but not always.  He is crisp and can cut through hypocrisy as through butter.  More than that, the topic of the essay does not predict when humor will strike, so his wit is both amusing and surprising.  In fact, he is likelier to be funny on unfunny topics (‘Satire in the 1950’s’) than in essays in which one expects jokes (say, ‘Love Love Love’), which makes for lively reading.

“Every schoolboy has a pretty good idea of what the situation was down at Sodom but what went on in Gommorah is as mysterious to us as the name Achilles took when he went among women.” (‘Women’s Liberation Meets Miller-Mailer-Manson Man’)

“From the beginning of the United States, writers of a certain kind, and not all bad, have been bursting with some terrible truth that they can never quite articulate.  Most often it has to do with the virtue of feeling as opposed to the vice of thinking.  Those who try to think out matters are arid, sterile, anti-life, while those who float about in a daffy daze enjoy copious orgasms and the happy knowledge that they are the salt of the earth.” (‘The Sexus of Henry Miller’)

“A profound tolerance is in the land, a tolerance so profound that is it not unlike terror.  One dare not raise one’s voice against any religion, idea, or even delinquency if it is explicable by a therapist.” (‘Satire in the 1950’s’)

“It is well known that the Soviet has always had a somewhat mystical attitude toward that sine qua non of the machine age: the interchangeable part.” (‘Nasser’s Egypt’)

A large proportion of these essays are reviews of other works, and thank god: one of the best joys to be had in this collection, from the point of view of a book nerd, is reading Vidal’s opinions of other writers.  He is capable of summing up other artists in lethal epigrams which leave them not even a shred of dignity, but which are also inarguably (to my mind, at least) true.

About D.H. Lawrence:

“I have often thought that much of D.H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come from some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

About Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh:

“Then there are the writers to whom neither sea nor boat exists.  They have accepted some huge fantasy wherein they need never drown, where death is life, and the doings of human beings on a social and ethical level are of much consequence to some brooding source of creation who dispenses his justice along strictly party lines at the end of a gloomy day.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“…F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose chief attraction is that he exploded before he could be great, providing a grim lesson in failure that, in its completeness, must be awfully heartening when contemplated on the safe green campus of some secluded school.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About Anaïs Nin:

“There are two kinds of narcissist: objective and subjective.  The objective looks into the mirror and sees the lines, sees death upon the brow, and records it.  The subjective stares with rapture into the mirror, sees a vision no one else can see and, if he lacks great art, fails entirely to communicate it.” (‘The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin’)

Old Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal when he was older and still dreamy

Of course, an author’s greatness lies not just in language, but also in ideas.  Meanness aside, it slowly emerges from these pages that Vidal was also wise, and when he turns his mind from the petty to the existential, he produces material which is beautiful.  In these moments, his writing is so artful, so skillful and elegant, that I would stop and reread the same sentence several times, trying to understand exactly how he did it.  A few of the passages in this book, I could die happy if I had written even one of them:

“While it is perfectly true that any instant in human history is one of transition, ours more than most seems to be marked by a startling variety of conflicting absolutes, none sufficiently great at this moment to impose itself upon the majority whose lives are acted out within an unhuman universe which some still prefer to fill with a vast manlike shadow containing stars, while others behold only a luminous dust which is stars, and us as well.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

“It is natural for men to want power.  But to seek power actively takes a temperament baffling to both the simple and the wise.” (‘Barry Goldwater: A Chat’)

“Nor is it unnatural when contemplating extinction to want, in sudden raging moments, to take the light with one.  But it is a sign of wisdom to recognize one’s own pettiness and not only to surrender vanity to death, which means to take it anyway, but to do so with deliberate grace as exemplar to the young upon whom our race’s fragile continuity, which is all there is, depends.  I should have thought that that was why one wrote – to make something useful for the survivors, to say: I was and now you are, and leave you as good a map as I could make of my own traveling.” (‘John Dos Passos at Midcentury’)

“And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to the terrified man but disastrous for an artist.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

You may not always agree with his conclusions (I didn’t), but he’s never, ever stupid, and he turns his critical eye on himself not infrequently.  In these essays, Vidal proves to be ahead of his time on many of issues which remain contentious today: feminism, gay rights, taxes, personal liberty, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence of the electorate.  I wish he were still here – he died in 2012, before I had really discovered him as a writer, and I wish that I had been quicker off the mark.  I need his eye now, to help me understand the world, as I need George Orwell’s.  In fact, this is the highest complement I can give a writer: I am lost without you.

But he’s gone, can’t be questioned, so all I can do is go back with him, rewind the tape, and watch his world through his eyes.

The Interrogative Mood

A Novel?

By Padgett Powell

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Some ideas sound better than they are.  I think we’ve all encountered this: some concepts, full of promise, fail in execution.

And some ideas are exactly the opposite: terrible sounding, but weirdly great in reality.  Sometimes, a premise which promises to be awful when described turns out to be persuasive in practice.

The Interrogative MoodThe Interrogative Mood‘ is a ‘novel’ composed entirely of questions.

And I do not mean that it is a novel with a plot which is expressed entirely in questions: Why did Jane choose today to go to the store?  If she had not, would she have ever seen Dick again?  And why, today, did she find him so oddly attractive?

The Interrogative Mood‘ is a “novel” only in so far as it imparts no factual information to the reader, and makes no argument.  It is, in fact, 164 pages of disjointed and unanswered questions.  It sounds like a terrible ordeal, but it is so much fun to read.

I am, in practice if not in principle, very much against novels which experiment with form.  I understand that artists must extend the boundaries of the possible, but I’m something of a traditionalist where literature is concerned.  I would not have picked up ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ for the world if it had not been for the recommendation of Nick Hornby, Traditional Novelist, who spoke highly enough of it in ‘Ten Years in the Tub‘ (a great source of book recommendations, by the way) that I decided to try it.

I loved it.

powell
Padgett Powell

It was a crazy fun read.  I read it all the way through, as though it were a traditional novel, but, really, one needn’t.  The questions are strange and funny and serious.  Some are mundane and some are simple and some are specific and some are convoluted.  Some are obvious and unmemorable, but some are laugh-out-loud funny and many, to borrow a regrettable and hackneyed expression, will make you think.

Some are odd, precise and beguiling:

“Do you quite credit that there are burrowing owls?” (p. 13)

Some are wise:

“Is it fair to say that the world comprises those who are politicians, those who are movie stars, those who get by, and criminals?” (p. 157)

Some are really just little vignette’s of the quirky way Padgett Powell’s mind works:

“If Jimi Hendrix walked into your room and said, ‘Sit tight there, popo, I shall play you one’ and affected to get out his guitar, what would you do?  Would you say, ‘Wait, Jimi.  You’re dead lo these forty years,’ or ‘Wait, Jimi, let me call up a friend or two – not a big party, mind you, but this is a special thing for me and I want to share it with others if it’s okay with you – is that all right?’ or ‘God, no, Mr. Hendrix, that shit would split my head open right now,’ or ‘Lay some weed on me before you rip it, bro,’ or ‘Okay, Jimi, but if the police come, please do not call them goofballs please’? (p. 160)

The questions are arranged, seemingly without order or reason, into paragraphs, and some of these flights of questions are so charming that they should really be taken as whole:

“Provided you were given assurances that you would not be harmed by the products of either, would you rather spend time with a terrorist or with a manufacturer of breakfast cereal?  What in your view is the ideal complexion for a cow?  Is there a natural law that draws a plastic bag to an infant similar to the law that draws a tornado to a mobile home?  Do you understand exactly what is meant by custard?  Would it be better if things were better, and worse if things were worse, or better if things were worse and worse if things were better?” (p. 6)

The questions make no over-arching point.  They tell no story.  ‘The Interrogative Mood’ really is just a long string of queries, but its effect is engaging and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.  It’s like the most interesting, varied personality test you’ve ever taken, but without answers, where the responses, highly personal and often significant, are unscored and unscorable and will never be known to anyone but you.

Perhaps what makes ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ so beguiling is that a question doesn’t have the same effect as its equivalent in statement form.  Questions make us complicit in their reasoning and conclusions.  They don’t set us up as recipients of wisdom; rather, they invite us to derive it with the questioner.  And so a novel made up entirely of questions can shape your thoughts in a way that a plot can only paint pictures for you.  It elicits a totally different kind of engagement, and when, as in ‘The Interrogative Mood’, the questions are creative and off-the-wall, so varied and well-mixed, the effect is sparkling.

Sparkling, and often surprisingly emotionally compelling:

“Do you trust or mistrust people who say “Candy is too sweet for me?” (p. 121)

“Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable, or irretrievably lost?” (p. 101)

‘What today would make you cry?” (p. 126)

If you are like me, you have spent a great deal of time thinking about yourself over the years; however, I, for one, have never thought about myself in these particular ways.  These questions invite me to think about myself, or about the world, along new lines, sometimes specific, sometimes general, sometimes both.

And just because the invitation to thought takes the form of questions does not mean that you cannot be guided along to conclusions.  Powell makes what I came to think of as micro-arguments, a series of questions which end with your consideration of a conclusion, stated in question form.  Take this paragraph, for example:Interrogative Mood

“Are you curious to know what I’ll do with the answers you’ve given me?  Do you think I can make some sort of meaningful “profile” of you?  Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I’ve asked you?  If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation?  Isn’t it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives?  Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain, dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty?  Is it in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise?  And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow?” (p. 70)

That is a great question!  Many of them are great questions, which means that ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ ends up being more interesting and more thought-provoking than most novels, which is bananas because it has no plot, and no characters (except ‘You’ and ‘I’, technically).  I can’t believe I’m recommending it, this book which is just questions, but I am.  It was more fun than it had any right to be, and I loved every page.

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

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There are times in one’s life which call for Jane Austen.

It’s a little difficult to define these times with precision (paradoxical, given that one of the great gifts of the author in question is precision).  They are the times in one’s life when things feel as though they might not work out, as though the world is not abiding by rules, when people feel coarse or evil, or when you are lonely, and the world feels large and empty around you.

In those times, this reader often turns to Jane Austen, to her small, orderly world with its essential kindness and small stakes.  Her attention is so fine that she justifies yours, and you feel completely vindicated in devoting emotional energy to courtships, and small slights of manners, and hattery.

Northanger AbbeyI should have read ‘Northanger Abbey‘ long ago.  I’ve read all the others, twice at least.  ‘Northanger Abbey’, Austen’s first complete novel and not published until after her death, has been a nagging hole in my education, and as the winter and the news and my own life converge to feel onerous, it felt like the right time to complete my relationship with her, and read her earliest work.

Northanger Abbey‘ is the story of Catherine Moreland, a young, good-natured, but otherwise totally unremarkable woman, her predilection for novels, and her courtship with one Henry Tilney.

Catherine meets Henry on a trip to Bath with her family friends, the Allens; he is assigned to her as a dance partner.  Normal Austenian hijinks ensue: Catherine’s brother will be thrown over by Catherine’s socially ambitious friend, who will in turn be thrown over by Henry’s caddish brother.  Catherine will befriend Henry’s saintly sister Eleanor, and there will be much muttering and misunderstanding about family incomes and marriage settlements.  All will come right for everyone who deserves it.

But ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is really a novel about novels, about our love of them, what they bring to our lives, the ways in which they affect our thinking, and why we publicly scorn the plotty ones that we secretly love best.  Catherine loves novels, particularly the chest-heaving Gothic romances, and her determination to find novelistic adventures in her own life leads her into one or two small scrapes (including the brief conviction that her future father-in-law has his late wife imprisoned in a wing of Northanger Abbey).  The whole novel is a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels, for even while Catherine fails to achieve Gothic adventure, she is, in fact, meeting and contending with villains, falling in love, and showing loyalty to friends and loved ones, the grand tropes of romance writ small.

Which, I think, is part of Austen’s point: novels are meaningful to us not because we are going to achieve the exact adventures which they portray, but because the emotions which animate their characters are the same emotions which animate us, and, within the literary arts, emotions are the special territory of novels.  Other forms may acknowledge or portray them, but only novels explicate them.

And this little conceit is charming.  But, let’s just be honest and upfront: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best work.  Which is fine, I mean, look at the competition: she wrote at least two novels of manners which are essentially perfect, and there’s nowhere to go from ‘perfect’ but down.  And this was, as stated earlier, her first attempt, so it’s not surprising that the learning curve should be visible.

Lismore Castle.jpg
In the 2007 PBS adaptation, the scenes in at Northanger Abbey itself were filmed in Lismore Castle, in Ireland.

But it is visible.  There are a few structural problems with ‘Northanger Abbey‘.  First of all, the pacing is odd.  Only about two fifths of the novel are even spent at Northanger Abbey itself.  Too much time is spent in Bath, with the Allens, and much of the later action is dispatched too quickly.  Significant characters, like the odious suitor John Thorpe, are dealt with off-screen, and one of the main characters, Eleanor Tilney, triumphantly marries a Viscount who is not only completely unknown, he is never even named!

A bigger problem is Catherine herself.  Some characters, it is true, do not age well, and the traits of heroines tend to be era-specific, but I suspect that Catherine was a complete drip even in Austen’s day.  She is, by the admission of her narrator, not very smart, only kind of good-looking, and lazy.  Certainly, she’s got all the social sense of a parsnip.  Even her eventual husband finds her lackluster:

“For though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” (p. 168)

This is not the denouement of a romantic heroine, which, obviously, is Austen’s point.  But, alas, it also not the denouement of a particularly interesting heroine, and this presents something of a difficulty for the reader who wishes to be sympathetic with, or at all invested in, their protagonist.

Austen will, of course, perfect the heroine later, and the hero.  In the meantime, the other reason she is read, her razor-sharp prose, is the one part of this novel that does not suffer much by comparison.  She is almost as fine a writer of prose here as elsewhere; you never go wrong reading Jane Austen for language.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Indeed, Austen is one the few writers who is so excellent at prose-craft that she is both beautiful and funny, high-minded and devastatingly mean, with equal comfort.  But she is most loved for her arch observations of manners, the subtle and inescapable attention with which she observes her fellow man, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ contains some really sick Jane Austen burns.

For example, demolishing the social falseness of Catherine’s friend Isabella:

“It was ages since she had had a moment’s conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on.” (p. 45)

Or pointing out the silliness of fretting too much about what to wear for a man one hopes to impress:

“This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.” (p. 49)

Or, my personal favorite, gently reminding us all that women are thinking beings:

‘She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.  To come with a well-formed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” (p. 76)

I suppose, in summary, that the truth is this: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best, but Austen is a comfort even when she is under-performing.  Her excellent language, her wit, and her easy humanity all make reading her rather like coming home, and this is the last Jane Austen I will ever read for the first time.  I wish it had been better, but it was like enough to her great works that it gave me comfort, which is what I was looking for in the first place.

Mating in Captivity

Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Esther Perel

God, I hated this book.

I shouldn’t even have read it. I don’t like self-help books, and I don’t like books written by therapists, and I don’t like people who use the word ‘erotic’ – this obviously wasn’t the book for me.

But my mother gave it to me (which is worrisome in of itself, and I am not going to unpack it here) and asked me what I thought, and it’s just a short little book and I figured: eh, how bad can it be?  Just blow through it, tell Mom what’s what, move on.

Mating in CaptivityI was right about one thing: it is short.  But since it was excruciating to read, it didn’t feel short.  And since (as I have mentioned before) I have a rule about finishing books once I’ve started them, I couldn’t move on once I’d begun, and so I became sort of mired in ‘Mating in Captivity‘, (captive to it, if you will) thrashing and miserable and unable to get free.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that ‘Mating in Captivity‘ isn’t about sex – it’s about intimacy.  This is a book about relationships, about how to maintain a sexual connection in the context of a long-term relationship.  But it isn’t exactly a self-help book.  It’s more a series of case studies: different couples, the way in which their sex life is guttering, the advice that she gave that couple, why she gave it.  How she understands the problem, why she believes that problem arises.

Now, I really hate talking about intimacy.  Not sex – I love talking about sex.  But talking about intimacy makes me uncomfortable.  And, yes, I am aware that makes me a poor audience for this book (or perhaps the perfect audience, hard to say).  And, yes, I went in skeptical – I did not have an open mind.  I tried, but when I know that intimacy is going to be the subject, people talking about feelings and connecting and closeness, then I just cringe away instinctively.

Esther Perel.jpg
This is the image of Esther Perel from her book jacket, and, you have to admit, she looks super cool.

Let’s start with the positive: ‘Mating in Captivity‘ is probably not a bad book.  And Perel is probably a great therapist.  She comes across as wise, and gentle, unjudgmental but also unfoolish.  She managed to write an entire book about sex and intimacy without once making me wonder what her own sex life is like, and that’s a serious accomplishment.  In fact, that’s a major therapeutic credential, and I’m honestly impressed.

I’ll also say this: she is open-minded about decisions, mistakes, and lifestyle choices which other therapists would pathologize, and I’ll bet that makes her a more effective counselor for struggling couples.

The book is clear and well-organized.  The argument is lucid and evenly applied.  I’ve never read any book in this genre at all, so I can’t say whether the thinking is totally novel, but I can say it is not conventional, and it’s probably often useful.

But I hated it.  I hated it a lot.

First of all, I hated the narrative voice.  Perel adopts a tone which is confidential and sexy: part cool aunt, part girlfriend, part romance novelist.  I feel almost bad dinging her for this, because I think I know why she’s doing it: one of the projects of her book is to remind people that sex is supposed to be fun, and so she tries to inject that fun into her language.  But you can’t force fun.  Maybe it works well in person, but on the page, you sound like you’re trying too hard.  Her writing bristles with flirtatious little locutions:

“luscious sexual life” (p. 24)

“with whom he lay in a languorous paradise” (p. 28)

“get their groove back” (p. 142)

“feeling free to express the bawdiness of his lust with her” (p. 116)

Language like this feels self-conscious to me; it makes me wince.  When I feel as though she’s trying to spice up her prose like this, I pull away from the argument.  Forget intimacy – this kind of language makes me want to avoid sex.

But, if we’re being completely honest, the more fundamental problem is that I don’t buy into the project of this book.  I don’t really understand, having read it, what it was meant to accomplish.  Was it supposed to help couples who are having problems like these?  Are you supposed to identify a couple whose problems resemble your own, and then take the advice given to them?  Are you meant to sort of wallow in the general, intimate atmosphere of the book, picking up good tips for relationship hygiene?  Was it meant to get a conversation going, encourage people to think about their own relationships a little bit more?

I don’t think intimacy works this way.  It’s not that I’m a therapy-skeptic, not at all.  On the contrary, I believe that therapy, including couples therapy, can really help people.  I’m just not convinced that reading about other peoples‘ couples therapy is as helpful.  And so this books starts to feel like Perel just…musing about relationships, laying out her general ideas about how intimate couples should and do work.

And, while she is a licensed and practicing couples therapist, I’m not sure why I’m reading that book.  While I agree with her basic values, and each chapter is coherent, I don’t feel like I really know anything now that I didn’t know before.  She is not presenting a unified theory of intimacy, and she is discussing the problems of a very narrow slice of the population.  This is a book about the normal marital depressions that affect the affluent, via specific case studies of people who are often quite obnoxious, and I wouldn’t have read that book if I had known what it was.

I really want to give Perel credit where she is due it: despite the fact that I think most of her advice is generic, on some things she is unusually open-minded, and these chapters are the most interesting.  Her stance on infidelity, which is pretty radically unjudgmental, is the best example of this, and, because she isn’t spending time blaming anyone for adultery or adulterous urges, she manages to write about those things with genuine wisdom and humanity.  And the things she says about them are interesting; I have not read them before, and I have not thought about them that way before.

The State of Affairs.jpg(It’s also worth noting: I was apparently not the only person who thought that Perel was at her best when writing about infidelity.  Someone at Harper must have agreed with me, because her next book, which I have not read, is called ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity‘.  I would actually, despite my aversive reaction to ‘Mating in Captivity‘, be kind of interested to read this book, which is probably the best recommendation that I can give Perel).

I think that my conclusion is this: given that the subject matter makes me want to jump out of my own skin, and that I don’t really endorse the project, it would have been a mistake for me to expect to enjoy this book.  The best that Perel was going to get out of me was a grudging respect, and this she did get.  Probably a great read for anyone who likes reading about relational difficulties, but for the intimacy-avoidant among us, ‘Mating in Captivity‘ should be avoided.