Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt

When you were a kid, did you ever feel as though you belonged to a completely different species than everyone around you?  As though you were totally alien, a tiny island of strangeness in a vast sea of normality?  That there was no one like you, no one who would ever understand why you liked the things that you liked, dressed the way the you did, wanted the things you wanted?

I did.  When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was the weirdest person on the planet, humanity’s outlier, doomed never to do the right things and never to have companions in my own, odd interests.

CannibalismI was wrong, though.  There are other weirdos like me, and I can tell because otherwise there would be no market for books like ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘.

Some books are about exactly what you think they’re about. ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is both a history, and a natural history, of cannibalism.  It describes the circumstances in the animal kingdom in which cannibalism reliably occurs (in what species, in what conditions).  What animals eat their own young, and why?  What animals eat other peoples’ young, and why?  What animals eat other adults, and why?

And it’s a history of human cannibalism.  Schutt, on principle, doesn’t spend time on so-called Cannibal Killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, aberrant individuals who happened to eat other people.  Instead, he is interested in institutions of cannibalism in human society, either rituals in which humans construct meaning around the eating of other humans, or circumstances in which humans semi-reliably eat other humans (like mass starvations).

He does spend a chapter on the Donner Party, the incident of human cannibalism with which most of his readership will be familiar.  But he also devotes a chapter to, for example, the practice of placenta-eating, which he describes (defensibly) as cannibalism.

I can see already that I am going to have difficulty describing how happy it makes me that this book exists.  ‘Cannibalism‘ isn’t literature, for sure, and it probably won’t go down as one of the all-time most beautifully written scientific texts.  But it’s an entire book about cannibalism!  It’s 300 pages of well-articulated information about the myths and facts of cannibalism – I really can’t offer praise much higher than that.

I think that there are two essential relationships that people can have to the grotesque.  Some people have a basic disinclination to the weird and the gross.  They find it aversive, or boring.  They have no interest in learning, say, which insects can lay eggs under your skin, or how to get a lightbulb out of a human rectum (or why someone would even put a lightbulb in a human rectum, for that matter), or what an infection of flesh-eating bacteria looks like, or any of the other creepy information lurking at the corners of the human world.

And then there are people like me.  It’s not that we like learning about serial killers, or bloodworms, or disturbing sexual perversions, not exactly.  It’s that, as soon as we learned that the knowledge existed, we needed to have it.  We were drawn to it.  The gruesome has an irresistible fascination for us; say to us, “Don’t look at that – it’s disgusting, or wrong, or forbidden”, and you have only assured that we will look.

If you are the sort of person who is not attracted to the strange, then ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is not for you, and it will help not at all if I tell you that, for example, there is an entire chapter on sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (though, of course, that was an immense selling point for me).  It’s called ‘Sexual Cannibalism, or Size Matters’.

Which chapter heading also usefully describes the writing style of ‘Cannibalism’.  Although Schutt is a professor of biology, ‘Cannibalism’ is meant for a popular audience, and is written in a jokey, approachable style.

Bill Schutt.jpeg
Bill Schutt

I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment.  Popular science is difficult to write.  You never make everyone happy: you’re either too dense for the layman, or too dumb for the scientist.  Schutt isn’t quite able to make up his mind on which way he’d like to err, so he sort of tries to disguise a lot of the actual science by surrounding it with dramatic description and dad-jokes:

“Insects undergoing pupation, the quiescent stage of metamorphosis associated with the production of a chrysalis or cocoon, are also vulnerable to attack from younger conspecifics.  The ravenous larva of the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites) not only consumes conspecific pupae, but also embarks on a killing frenzy, slaying but not eating anything unlucky enough to cross its path.” (p. 23)

“All caecilians do share one characteristic unique to the amphibians: internal fertilization, and during this process, sperm is deposited into the female’s cloaca with the aid of a penis-like structure called a phallodeum…But as interesting as the concept of legless caecilians wielding their penises underground might be (admittedly, it disturbed some of my older Italian relatives until I explained the spelling differences)…” (p. 80)

But there is a lot of science, and that I do mean that as a compliment.  I learned a lot about cannibalism, both in humans and in animals  (I think my all-time favorite fun fact (soon to be deployed at parties, I can tell), is from the chapter on Christopher Columbus and the alleged cannibals he encountered in the New World:

“But whether or not these strange savages had tails (and even if they were supported by trained fish and Amazonian girlfriends), plans were soon being formulated to pacify the Caribs, who were now being referred to as Canibs.  According to scholars, the transition from Carib to Canib apparently resulted from a mispronunciation, although in light of stories describing locals as having canine faces, I agree with Yale professor Claude Rawson that “Canib” may also be a degenerate form of canis, Latin for “dog”.  Eventually, canib became the root of “cannibal,” which replaced anthropophagi, the ancient Greek mouthful previously used to describe people-eaters.” (p. 102)).

And Schutt deals properly and respectfully with the problem that many of the “facts” of human cannibalism, the famous stories from Papua New Guinea and of the Aztecs, among others, are probably exaggerated or fabricated.  Even the so-called eye-witness reports were often racially biased, and accusing a tribe or a people of cannibalism was often just the easiest moral justification for enslaving them and confiscating their property.

I also want to put a small plug in for the illustrations, which are weird and charming and chosen without rationale that I can understand.  Some are deeply helpful and clearly scientifically apropos, but some are bizarre and seem to be there just to amuse, which they do.

For example, the first is a useful one from the chapter on the Donner Party, which shows their trail.  Next is one of dubious, but potential, utility, from the chapter on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, of the structure of a ‘hypothetical prion’.  The third is stranger still, an illustration of ‘skull moss’, which is, as you might have expected, moss grown on a human skull (preferably that of a hanged man), and which was used to treat bleeding.  And, perhaps most confusingly, and also from the chapter on Mad Cow Disease, is a drawing of a hamburger, in case you didn’t know what one looked like.

As, I said, charming, about as charming as a book on cannibalism could possibly be.  And, if you are anything like me, that’s pretty charming.

The Power

By Naomi Alderman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

The PowerHere’s an unusual event: I’ve actually read the book of the moment within a calendar year of the moment itself!

I’m not a trendy soul, not in anything really.  My tastes have never been fashionable, not in music, not in clothes, certainly not in books.  My favorite authors are all dead: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, writers who chronicled different times in old-fashioned language.

I tend to cast a leery eye on contemporary fiction.  To my mind, it has not yet been vetted, polished smooth by years of beloved readers, safely endorsed by generations.  It is risky, it has a too-high likelihood of wasting your time, and with so much to read in this world, I am loathe to waste my reading time on books which may turn out bad.

But every once and a while, (and quite a bit lately, it feels like) I end up picking up a new and trendy book.  And every once and a rarer while, I pick it up when it is still trendy.  And so it has turned out with ‘The Power‘, which I grabbed in the airport in a panic, worried that I was going through my other books too quickly and wasn’t going to make it through my vacation with enough to read (this is a particularly bad way to choose a book: airport reading, like airport eating, is almost always junky).

The Power‘ supposes that women a power.  It starts with young women, girls really, but young women can teach it to older women, and soon all women will have it.  This power, which originates in a new organ, a string of muscular tissue between their shoulder blades, allows them to send electrical current out from their hands, injuring and even killing other people with it.

This power will completely reorder the world.

First will come liberation, freedom from the restraints and authorities of men.

Then will come revenge: riots, gangs of women will swarm through cities, finding male offenders and brutalizing them.

Then, finally, will come control.  Women will take possession of a state, in Eastern Europe, and impose a set of state sanctions on men: all men must have an official female guardian, they will not have freedom of travel, they will have curfews.

I was deeply skeptical about ‘The Power‘ going in, and not just because it’s modern.  I don’t usually go for gender war stories – I tend to find them over-simplifying.  And ‘The Power’ threatened to simplify gender dynamics to the point of cretinousness: throngs of newly empowered women finding out men who traffic in sex slaves and roasting them alive.

But ‘The Power‘ is more than a novel of vengeance, more than just a imaginative bloodletting (although it does feel like that sometimes).  It is a meditation on power, and on gender.  It asks, and answers, the question, ‘Do men act brutally because they are men, or do they act brutally because they have power?’

Or, to put it another way, ‘Are men and women intrinsically different?  Are their differences differences of morals, or differences of strength?”

Or, “Are women really any better than men?”

The Power‘ answers this question clearly and emphatically in the negative.  Women in ‘The Power’ are no better than men, and, as they come to understand and coordinate their power, they will do to men, in short order, all the terrible things that men have done to them.

It’s always pleasant to read a book which agrees with your worldview.  This is not less true for me just because my worldview is dark, nihilistic and grim.  I like having my prejudices confirmed just as much as the next guy.  And so I enjoyed ‘The Power’ the way one enjoys seeing one’s own dire predictions played out in fiction.

As I mentioned, ‘The Power‘ isn’t subtle.  The metaphor is, well, it isn’t really a metaphor, is it?  It’s a parable, crystal clear and morally direct.  And I was prepared to be offended by the obviousness of the parable – I don’t like being talked down to by books.

Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman.  By the way, the Guardian has the best author photos.

However, sometimes the simpler a fictional moral problem is, the greater the force it has, and that is the case with ‘The Power‘ (this is also the case with the most rudimentary and effective moral tale of our time: ‘Star Wars’).  The truth is, despite my initial skepticism and my sense of being insulted, ‘The Power’ landed on me like a ton of bricks.  I didn’t even really notice how affected I was until I finished, until I put the book down and realized that I felt unsettled, implicated and guilty, contaminated by the things I had seen in the pages I just read.

I mean this as a compliment, an extremely high compliment.  The ability to elicit an emotional reaction from your reader is one of the reasons for a novel existing, and not all novels wish to make you feel good.  I feel pretty confident that Naomi Aldermen didn’t want me to feel good, maybe about anything, maybe ever again.

This is not a reason not to read her book!  On the contrary, it is a reason to read it right away!  Most grim-natured books don’t get it quite right, they aren’t emotionally effective somehow.  They either swing too hard at your fear, or yank too hard at your heart strings, or build a world too bleak, marked by violence too frenzied.

IMG_0014
One of the book’s rare illustrations (p. 180).  ‘The Power’ is science fiction, and part of the story takes place thousands of years in the future.

The Power‘ doesn’t do this.  It rarely over-plays its hand – there were only one or two moments in the entire book when I thought, ‘That might have been a little much’.  Mostly, the book communicates not through violence but through a sense of building dread, of disaster rolling inexorably toward you, a hope that humanity will save itself and a sure knowledge in the pit of your stomach that the hope is vain.  And when the storm finally breaks, you feel the confirmation as a low blow, not painful exactly, but dreadful.

Partly, Alderman does this through her use of spare, direct language.  The ridiculous blurbs on the back of the book say garbage things like, “gorgeously written” (Ayelet Waldman) and “Will knock your socks off!” (Margaret Atwood, to whom Alderman is being compared – I suppose the comparison to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘, which is facile, is too easy to resist).  This is nonsense – it is not gorgeously written – it is bleak, and effectively written, and that is much, much better:

“They start by rounding up the young man.  They go tent to tent, pulling them down or setting them on fire so the occupants have to run out or burn.  They’re not neat about it, not methodical.  They’re looking for any halfway-decent-looking young man.  She was right to send Tunde into the forest.  A wife, or perhaps a sister, tries to stop them from taking the pale-skinned, curly-haired man who’s with her.  She fights off two of them with precise and well-timed jolts to the chin and the temple.  They overwhelm her easily, and kill her with a particular brutality.  One of them grabs the woman by the hair and the other delivers a bolt directly through the woman’s eyes.  Finger and thumb pressed against her eyeballs, the very liquid of them scrambled to a milky white.  Even Roxy has to look away for a moment.” (p. 315)

As you can see, there is no hiding from prose like this.  It’s unrelenting, and at the end you feel as though you’ve been chased down and forced to look at something ugly, and real, and all the uglier for being real.

But it’s highly worth doing – I’m glad that I did it.  If there weren’t ugliness in the world, books like ‘The Power‘ wouldn’t have any effect at all.  And as long as they are effective, that is a sure sign that we should be reading them.

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I’m beginning to suspect that all Margaret Atwood’s books are really just about how terrible men are.

Certainly, that’s what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ is about.  It’s pretty much what ‘Oryx and Crake‘ is about.  It’s kind of what ‘The Blind Assassin‘ is about, although I’ll grant that is a fuzzier case.

But it’s definitely what ‘Alias Grace‘ is about.

Alias GraceNot superficially, of course.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is the story of Grace Marks, convicted at the age of 16 of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his head of household (and lover), Nancy Montgomery.  She allegedly commits this murder with the help of her lover, James McDermott, who is hanged for the crime.  Grace, in view of her youth, is given a life sentence.

Most of the novel takes place many years into her imprisonment, during her extended examination by Dr. Simon Jordan, who is a specialist in diseases of the mind.  It is the story of her life (from her questionable perspective), of her relationship with this doctor, of his obsession with her, and of the murders themselves.  It is a mystery of guilt or innocence.

But, really, it’s a long indictment of men, of male power and the abuses it rains down upon women who are powerless.  It is about doctors who grope during examinations, employers who rape their servants, institutions which incarcerate women who do not conform, men who defame women who will not sleep with them, abortionists who kill women without consequence.

It about the fact that, in a society where men alone are powerful, women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

I’m not exaggerating this theme, and it is not subtle.  Take, for example, this discussion of quilts, which Grace is forever sewing and on which she is forever discoursing:

“…when we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on a line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.

And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the the tops of beds?  For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room.  And then I have thought, it’s for warning.  Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep.  But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed.  It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last.  And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.” (p. 161)

Check your privilege, Sir.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Of course, Margaret Atwood is a marvelous storyteller; she always has been.  She has an eye for detail, for immersion.  It’s easy to lose yourself in her books: I sat down and read ‘Alias Grace‘ in one long layover in Tokyo, and I was honestly in more danger of developing thrombosis from reading this book than I was in the 12 hour flight that followed it.  That’s a strong recommendation for any novel.

But there is something about Atwood which always makes my teeth hurt a little, something irritating right at the edge of her writing.  Perhaps it is a lack of irony.  There is a lyrical quality to her prose, a sort of sing-songing free association in her descriptions, which can be enormously effective, but which more often annoys me badly.

Here, for example, is a passage where I think that writing style works really well:

“The season has now officially changed: Lydia has burst into bloom.  Layers of pale floral ruffling have sprouted all over her, and wave from her shoulders like diaphanous wings.  Simon eats his fish – overdone, but no one on this continent can poach a fish properly – and admires the smooth white contours of her throat, and what can be seen of her bosom.  It’s as if she is sculpted of whipped cream.  She should be on the platter, instead of the fish.  He’s heard stories of a famous Parisian courtesan who had herself presented at a banquet in this way; naked, of course.” (p. 193)

Here, though, is an example of that writing style which makes me want to run screaming from the room:

“It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour.  Soon it will be daybreak.  Soon the day will break.  I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around like clockwork.  It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and it’s the day itself.  A Saturday.  The breaking day.”  (p. 295)

I understand that this passage is supposed to communicate the maddening monotony of an imprisoned life, but I’ve never really liked expression by reader-punishment like this – just because my protagonist is suffering should not mean that I must, too.

Or, perhaps, what annoys me is the vague sense of female grievance that lurks behind Atwood’s stories.  Yes, men can be terrible, but there is something flat, two-dimensional, to a world in which everything is explained by the fact that men are terrible, to a world in which all men are terrible in some way, a world in which you cannot have both a good nature and a penis.

And then there is the problem of the resolution.

[Warning: what follows is a very spoilery spoiler.  Very, very spoilery].

It’s always disappointing when endings and books don’t match, when a well-developed and richly imagined book purchases its end with implausible plot theatrics.

A general rule of mine: there are, I think, a few plot mechanisms which, if you find yourself using them, always mean that you need to re-think your storyline.  They signal lazy craft – they are cheap.

These plot developments include (but are not limited to): secret brother-sister incest (I’m looking at you, ‘August: Osage County‘, and you, ‘Crimson Peak‘), a secret twin (excusing ‘The Prestige‘, which pulls it off and (little known fact) is a book!), and a protagonist with undiagnosed Multiple Personality Disorder.

Alias Grace‘ strongly implies that Grace Marks, at the time of the murders, is under the control of an alternate personality, that of her dead friend, Mary Whitney, whose death (at the hands of a back-alley abortionist, of course) was traumatic for Grace.  And, just to add fuel to the trashy fire, this fact is brought to light while she is under hypnosis.

Resolving a murder mystery via multiple personalities is, in my opinion, totally bogus.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is a subtle, thorough story, based on a real person who almost certainly did not have multiple personalities.  Until that session of hypnosis, it was a complex novel about power, and rage, and friendship, and love, what it means to be guilty and whether we can ever see how the world looks through another person’s eyes and how slippery the truth can be.

And then it resolves all that lovely moral ambiguity with the sort of plot device that you expect to see in an episode of Criminal Minds.  It was very disappointing.

None of which, obviously, kept me from turning its pages like it was the last book on Earth.  That’s Atwood for you – whatever your complaints about her, she’s tough to put down.

Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

By Ron Rosenbaum

‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed.  I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.

Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.

[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412)  I totally agree.]

Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale.  Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.

Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’).  So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.

But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.

Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories.  It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler.  It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.

Explaining HitlerIt’s about why we need to explain Hitler.  It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him.  It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world.  It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.

It is exactly my kind of book.

To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:

‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.

‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.

‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.

‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.

‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.

‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.

‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen?  Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler?  When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?

Ron_Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum (looking, I think, unnecessarily ferocious for a journalist)

Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one.  I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would.  Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives.  He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing.  He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose.  It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.

“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism.  Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”.  Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature.  Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)

“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him.  And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy.  Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from?  Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler?  Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)

If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.

But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going.  I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!

What is evil?  Are people evil, or just actions?  Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic?  Was Hitler evil?  Does it matter?  Was the entire Nazi leadership evil?  At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians?  Can a whole nation be evil?  How about a species?

Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust?  What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil?  It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?

Is it wrong to even ask these questions?  By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him?  Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?

I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before.  Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.

But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler.  There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture.  Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil.  We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.

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 is 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.