My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite

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“All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want.” (p. 69)

There’s an idea (which I’m not sure that I totally believe but whatever) that you can only write what you know. And even if I don’t totally believe that that’s 100% true, it certainly makes sense that writers will be able to paint a clearer picture of something which they themselves have seen, describe more accurately something which they themselves have felt.

Which means, I’m afraid, that if you want to read about women’s rage, the deep, seething fury of women against men, you really ought to be reading things that women wrote.

I’m not sure that I would have described myself as wanting to read about women’s rage, but I have found that I resonate with books about it, that I recognize them and am interested in them. I resonated withDietland‘, another novel about the violence of male priorities and disproportionate female response to them. I think everyone resonated withThe Power‘, another revenge novel of female violence (actually, there have been kind a lot of these lately, huh?)

Korede and Ayoola are sisters. Korede is older: responsible, cleanly, fanatical about order and planning. She can cook and maintain a household. She is about to be made head nurse at the Lagos hospital where she works. She walks, virtuous and lonely, through her life, taking care of the sick. And she is in love, from afar, with Tade, the handsome doctor she works with. The only person in whom she feels she can confide is a coma patient in her ward.

Ayoola is beautiful. She has the kind of beauty that causes the men around her to behave like complete idiots. She has no job; rather, she designs clothing that she models on Instagram. She is the favorite of their mother, the favorite of every man in the Lagos area, the favorite. She is bright and funny and charming and brave and the world loves her.

She has also murdered her last three boyfriends.

Each time, Korede has helped her hide the body, wash away the evidence. Each time, she has believed Ayoola when her sister told her that the killing was done in self-defense. And though it has become harder to believe each time, she has continued to keep her sister’s secret.

Until, one day, Ayoola comes to visit Korede at the hospital, and snares Tade, the doctor whom Korede has loved for so long. And Korede, with her heart broken, has to decide whether Tade, whom she knows would never hurt a soul, is safe with her sister, or whether her sister might be a much different animal than she has allowed herself to admit.

I spent most of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ thinking that the story was pretty fucking obvious. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it – quite the contrary. The book is written in a wry, spare voice and parceled into short chapters with snappy titles (some of which are so short as to almost qualify as brutal prose-poems), the combined effect of which is suspenseful and almost bizarrely readable. This is the writerly voice that Bret Easton Ellis wishes he had.

But I thought I knew exactly what story I was reading, and I was wrong (this happens to me a lot, and I never, ever learn). I thought that this was a story about a woman facing the fact that her sister is a monster, about watching the evidence pile up and trying not to see it, but eventually confronting it when someone innocent, someone else she loves, is threatened. A pretty basic, totally fun story.

“Ayoola is wearing dungarees – she is the only person I know who can still pull those off – and she is licking ice cream, probably from the parlor around the corner. She pauses the licking, not because she is moved by Peju’s words, but because she is aware that it is proper to pause whatever one is doing when in the presence of someone who is grieving. I spent three hours explaining that particular etiquette to her one Sunday afternoon.” (p. 161)

That’s not what this story is. This is one of those stories where there isn’t only one monster, and the question that Korede will eventually have to answer isn’t whether or not her sister is one. It’s whether, in a monstrous system, there are any heroes. Whether men are capable of loving, really loving, a woman for who she is, and, if they aren’t, then whether they are worthy of being loved at all. And if they aren’t, if you cannot love men, who do you love? Whether, in a world where men will always objectify, use, and abandon you, the only real love that exists is the love between women. Whether the only love that lasts is family.

Ayoola is not the monster of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘, despite the fact that she is a serial killer. The monster is Tade, the kind man who, at the end of the day, can only love a woman for her beauty. Who cannot be turned from beauty even if it means saving his friendships, or his life. Who believes that his love is sincere, premised on deep connection, while it is in fact only a response to how a woman looks in a skimpy dress. Who will forgive anything (literally, anything) in the woman he loves except ugliness.

Oyinkan Braithwaite

I love stories like this, stories where the serial killer ends up not being the bad guy. Although, of course, that’s an over-simplification: Ayoola is a very bad guy. But, at the end of the day, she is all that Korede has. And, Braithwaite seems to ask, what did you expect Ayoola to become? Brutalized by her father, every man she has met since has let her get away with anything she wanted, as long as they got to treat her like a beautiful thing. Why should she treat men as though they were people, when they have never, ever, done the same for her? Just because you worship an object doesn’t mean it’s not an object.

It’s a really good question, actually. I spent most of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ rooting against Ayoola. I think I was supposed to: she’s a gorgeous, gold-digging, man-stealing serial killer. It’s pretty breath-taking that Braithwaite can take you from really hating Ayoola (the way you can only hate a man-stealer) to understanding why we will always choose her. Why we, as women, have to always choose her.

It’s especially impressive because Braithwaite accomplishes this emotional allegiance-shifting without ever declaring anything. There are no manifestos here, no pedantic speeches or feminist rah-rahing. All you as her reader experience is the world through the eyes of one woman, Korede, and you and Korede must realize together why she is angry and at whom. Korede is angry because she isn’t beautiful, you both knew that, but you must realize together that being angry at Ayoola because she is doesn’t make any sense. Because the only reason that it matters, Ayoola’s beauty, is because men are too base, too primitive, too shallow, too evil, to see anything else.

At the end of the day, ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘ is about who deserves our care and who doesn’t. And, in a cold, dark world, we cannot afford to extend care to those who do not care for us, who do not honor our essential humanity. And in Braithwaite’s world, men, be they ever so handsome, ever so kind, be they doctors even, do not care for us. They do not honor our essential humanity if we are not beautiful, because they don’t see us. And they don’t see us if we are beautiful, because then our beauty is all they see. And if they cannot care for us, then we should not care for them. We must care then, as sisters, for each other, even if we are beautiful.

The Obelisk Gate

The Broken Earth: Book Two

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, now I’ve had some time to think.

Sometimes, when you’re flying through a book, you don’t stop to think about why you’re loving it so much. This is especially true with plotty books – you don’t need to think about why it’s working, you can just lie back and enjoy the ride.

But it’s a worthwhile exercise, once you pause for breath. And I had a busy week at work, and so was forced to spend time NOT reading ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, and so I thought about it.

I want to be clear: this pause was not voluntary. I need to work to eat; otherwise, I would have chewed all the way through the series without washing or sleeping. But, like I said, it was a busy week, so I only just now finished ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, the second book in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ series.

And I know that ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ is technically a separate book, but the entire series really reads like one book, one story, and I am only taking the time to stop and write about this installment for the sake of personal discipline. So, for coherence, I will probably refer to the trilogy as a single work, which it clearly is.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about why the trilogy is so good. And…

I don’t know.

The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about a world that is ending. And I suspect that, like all stories that are about the world ending, it is really about the evil which people do, which comes out of us naturally, inevitably, like breath. About the primitive, tribal cruelties that we perpetrate, in all times, all places, when we are frightened.

There’s a question I wonder sometimes: do you have to understand a novel to love it?

There are two ways to say what a novel is about. Let’s take an easy one: what is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ about? Well, technically, it’s about a woman being punished for adultery through sartorial intervention.

But, obviously, that’s not what it’s really about about. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is about sin, and guilt, and hypocrisy. It’s about how God is all-knowing and all-loving and we are not, and so when man’s law tries to approximate God’s law, the discrepancy will necessarily result in injustice. It’s about humility.

See what I mean? There’s about, and then there’s about about.

I know what ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about. Jemisin is a clear, effective writer, much more than most science fiction or fantasy writers. Even when she is describing things which are actually beyond description, she is never hard to follow or understand. She’s really good.

But I am not at all sure that I know what this trilogy is about about.

On the most superficial level, ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is an allegory about racism and xenophobia and otherness. It’s about human cruelty, and about whether we are capable of preserving our humanity, our ability to be kind to the other, when we are desperate, or in danger, or facing extinction. And the fact that this allegory is obvious a) doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable metaphor (it isn’t as though we’ve solved this problem, so, by all means, let’s keep working it through in prose) and b) doesn’t mean that it’s all that’s going on in these novels.

I also suspect that it is about about climate change. Bear with me: the premise of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, tectonically-speaking, is that humans, at the acme of their civilization, committed an act which so permanently destabilized the earth’s crust that it threatens the survival of everything on it. This is understood by all living human inhabitants of the earth as its revenge, that the earth is essentially, permanently, hostile to human life. That seems pretty clear to me.

But the problem with explicating allegory is that it makes the work seem preachy, or academic, or pedantic, and that is emphatically not the case here. In fact, the lack of pedantry is partly why I’m having trouble discerning the allegory.

So, am I allowed to love a story without understanding the allegory?

Obviously, the answer is yes – I can enjoy it any way I want. I can even enjoy it while totally misunderstanding the allegory. But (and honestly, this may be wrong) I think that understanding the allegory makes the experience of the books richer. And I know that this makes me sound like a complete nerd, but I am a complete nerd, and I really do enjoy a book more when I understand not only the story, but also the other stories which the story is referencing, the moral questions it is obliquely pondering, the historical events which it is recapitulating. They make me appreciate the story more, the skill of its writing, the depth of its thought.

And when you know, or suspect, that a story has these extra layers, and you aren’t quite getting them, it’s disorienting, like when you fall asleep in the middle of a movie and miss a whole bunch of plot. You might technically understand the ending, but can you say that you really understood the movie?

Not really, and so I don’t feel like I can say that I understand ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, and it’s making me feel very insecure, because I really, really like it. I want to understand it, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

N. K. Jemisin

One of the most salient threads which runs through the first two novels of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ is that our fundamental selves are revealed through our treatment of our children. This is true on the level of the society as well as on the level of the individual. Children are a major, major part of ‘The Broken Earth’ books – love for them, grief for the loss of them, rage at the people who hurt them.

And cruelty to children winds through the books. There is an idea which pervades the entire trilogy (so far) that, in health, children are loved and cherished, protected and cared for. It is only in sickness that we allow them to be tortured or mutilated, abandoned or killed.

Earth has become a sick place, and the question which Jemisin is asking is, is it possible to be a healthy person in a sick place? Can you bring children into a sick world, raise them in a sick society, love them healthily when you cannot truly keep them safe? When the society in which they will grow up might abuse or murder them, use them or break them? When the very earth on which they walk might drive them and every one they love to extinction at any moment?

What does parental love even mean in that context? Parents love their children, ideally. Parents will do anything, risk anything, for their health and happiness – what does that mean in a world where health and happiness are impossible? What happens to love in a world like that?

It curdles, turns inward into rage, becomes destructive, deadens. Twists and becomes murderous in its turn. Even love becomes impossible, in a sick world.

Now that I think about it, this is kind of what ‘1984’ is also about. Actually, this is exactly what ‘1984’ is about: the idea that in a totalitarian society, even love, even private, romantic love, is impossible, because there is no private space for a human heart to have something normal and good, like love.

And, in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, that’s true of parents, too: on a hostile earth, where we are threatened at every turn, where constant fear and danger have made us base and mean and vicious, we can’t even love our children. Because loving children is hopeful, and hope requires a future, and in a world with no future there’s no way to love them – it’s too painful.

I know that I’m not making ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ sound fun – I’m probably making it sound like the world’s bleakest book about parenting. It is fun, in a bleak, scary way. It’s one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in years, and, as I mentioned last time, I honestly just resent the time I have to spend here, writing about it, instead of thinking about it. It’s so, so good.

The Monster of Elendhaven

By Jennifer Giesbrecht

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“Florian dipped gingerly, right at the sodden border cut by the tide, and plucked out a stone: perfectly round, an inch in diameter and opalescent in sheen. He held it aloft for Johann’s benefit. “The oldest stories of the North called these rocks Hallandrette’s Roe. She lays her clutch along the beach, and protects them from the destructive hands of mortal beings.” Florian turned on his heel and pitched the stone at the cliff-wall as hard as he could. It bounced off the slate harmlessly. “See? Hard stone. Unbreakable.”

Johann frowned. “How do you crack one open, then?”

Florian smiled, secretive. “A privilege reserved for Hallandrette’s chosen. When a wretched child, one wronged or wounded deep in the soul, throws what they love most in the ocean they may cast a roe against the stone and a hallankind will be born. Keep the stone in their pocket and the Queen sends to them one of her children.:

“A friend for the lonely soul.”

“A companion,” Florian affirmed, “made from the same dark matter that coats the bottom of the Nord Sea. A hallankind will love that wretched child as a brother or sister. They will drag whoever wronged their brother-sister-friend into the sea and wring them through the spines of their mother’s baleen until they are foam and sea particle, forgotten in the cradle of her belly.” (p. 52).

Maybe all stories are love stories.

OK, not ALL of them – it’s difficult to describe, oh, ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a love story – but it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a story that isn’t, in some way, a love story.

The trick of it is to understand that love stories sometimes come hidden in unlikely disguises. All sorts of people have love stories who don’t look like they deserve them. Broken people, evil people, sad people, rude people, angry people, all sorts of morally unphotogenic people who nevertheless occasionally find themselves looking for love, feeling love, or acting out of love.

In some ways, those are our favorite love stories. Maybe it’s because they are more suspenseful, since we aren’t sure that the characters in them will find love. Maybe it’s because they are more ambiguous, since we don’t know whether we really want them to find love. Or maybe it’s because they feel truer, since very few of us feel 100% certain that we deserve love.

The inside jacket cover of ‘The Monster of Elendhaven’

When I saw ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ in a bookstore the other day, I didn’t think it was a love story. It doesn’t look like a love story. I’m not sure why I bought it – I’m not in the habit of purchasing books of unknown provenance. But the cover was creepy and the description was even creepier, and I was on a mini-vacation, so I bought it.

Elendhaven is failing industrial city on the northern edge of the map. A hideous accident generations ago has left the ocean poisoned and black. The ancient noble families of Elendhaven have fallen into poverty and the magic that was the source of their power has been outlawed.

Johann does not know who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he used to be nameless, unloved, born of darkness, until he decided to call himself Johann. He tends to slide off people’s attention, unremarked and unremembered by anyone who meets him. And he can’t be killed, at least not permanently.

And he knows that he likes to kill people. Johann is an accomplished killer – a monster, in fact – who stalks the streets of Elendhaven taking whatever he wants and killing whomever had it.

One night, Johann chooses to rob Florian Leickenbloom, the last living member of the once-magnificant Leickenbloom family. Florian is a small, beautiful man who also happens to be, as Johann soon learns, a sorcerer. Orphaned as a child when the rest of his family was killed in a plague, Florian lives in hermitish seclusion, planning his revenge. And instead of killing him, Johann will fall in love with Florian, and help him realize his terrible plan.

I don’t know if it’s more or less beautiful when a monster loves another monster. But something I respect about Giesbrecht: her monsters are really monsters. They are ugly and evil; they hurt people and they enjoy it. They even hurt each other, and because they have lived lives characterized by pain, cruelty, and rejection, this is part of their love.

The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is gory, viscerally and explicitly gory. It’s creepy, and sexy, and kind of funny, and sad. It’s also romantic, I think?

Romance is not my strong suit, so I might be wrong. It’s also not my favorite genre – I actually have to leave the room during proposal scenes in movies, because they make me so uncomfortable. But, as far as I understand it, romances are stories in which two elements complement each other in a way which makes each feel as though things about them which had been wrong or missing are, in fact, purposeful and right.

This is why this they are powerful for us. We’re all missing pieces, or rough along an edge or two, crumpled where we should be smooth, and romances provide a reason for those traits: those are things which make us ourselves, so if someone loves us, then the self that we are is the right self, and therefore those things are right, too. Love justifies our pain, and our mistakes – it is the forgiveness from the world we need to forgive ourselves.

Jennifer Giesbrecht

And that’s why the romances of monsters are the most revealing romances of all: they are the far-out test case, the most extreme example. They are interesting, yes, monsters are always interesting, but it’s more than that: they are the limit on the possible. And you know you fit comfortably within their limit, and so you know that your experience, your romance, your love, will fit comfortably within theirs.

I wonder if I am the only person who read ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ and thought about love the whole time. I’m definitely not the only person who noticed it was a romance, but I might be the only person who thought it was a lovely romance (rather than a horrific one). That there is something beautiful about the idea of an abandoned little boy raging at the world, calling a monster forth from the ocean who will love and avenge him and who cannot die the way his family did. Who can therefore never leave him alone. In the idea that, if we are monsters, the world might provide another monster to love us, to make us whole.

Because maybe only a monster can truly love another monster.

It’s like there’s a whole other world, full of weird, creepy people (which I definitely am), and we get a whole different, creepy literature. But just because we’re weird and dark doesn’t mean that we don’t have feelings – it just means that our feelings are creepier and weirder than other peoples. And ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a romance for us.

Maybe that’s a weird reaction. But such a weird little book deserves a weird little reaction. ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a book about revenge and hate and gruesome death, and I thought that it was super romantic, but not in the way I hate – in a way I kind of loved. It’s the most romantic murder book I’ve read.

At least this year.

The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

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I was in the Harvard Bookstore a little while ago (which, like, I know I mention it a lot, but I spend a totally normal amount of time in bookstores, not a weird, excessive amount of time, at all…), sort of wandering around the Fiction and Literature section, and I noticed a very pretty book with a bright blue cover and yellow letters.

It was called ‘The Luminaries‘, and I had never seen it before, and it was a big book, a hundreds of pages, and the weirdest part: it had won the Man Booker prize. It won the Man Booker in 2013, when I was hypothetically paying attention.

To be clear: prizes aren’t that big a deal. Prizes are merely the opinions of people, and so, like other opinions of people, they are a mixed bag. Some are better, some are worse. As prizes go, I like the Man Booker, especially since they expanded eligibility to include all English-language novels. A prize is never a sufficient reason to read a book, but I think the Man Booker people reliably choose good and interesting books – I’m almost never left scratching my head over a Man Booker winner (which is NOT something can be said of the Pulitzer).

A prize is never a sufficient reason to read a book, but a Man Booker AND a really pretty cover? Why not?

So I bought ‘The Luminaries‘.

The Luminaries‘ is a murder mystery set in a gold rush town in the 19th century. En route to strike it rich in New Zealand’s gold rush, Walter Moody sees what he can only conclude is a ghost in a the hold of his ship the night before he makes land. Having a drink to calm his nerves in the smoking room of his hotel, he finds himself in the middle of secret meeting of local prospectors who have gotten together to puzzle over several strange, recent events.

Another local prospector, Crosbie Wells, a hermit working a useless claim, is found dead in his cabin, apparently of natural causes. However, when his cabin is examined, a fortune in pressed gold is found there. The richest man in town, Emery Staines, is missing. A prostitute, Anna Wetherell, has just tried to end her own life. And a gubernatorial candidate, Alistair Lauderback, seems to be in a dispute with the man who owns the very ship that Moody sailed in on. And the men in the smoking room of Moody’s hotel believe that all these events are connected.

If that sounds ornate and gothic, it is. Eleanor Catton has written a Victorian gothic novel, and then twisted it into something modern. She is clearly a student of the form – she clearly loves it – but her perspective is contemporary, and female.

She’s also a phenomenal writer. She’s got the gift of all great storytellers, the power of telling stories that make you completely forget that you’ve been sitting in your comfy chair in your jammies for two hours without moving and you can’t remember the last time you felt your legs and you have to pee. She has a particular gift for characterization: her character descriptions rise to the level of genius. They are complex and lovely and true-feeling, characters who seem somehow familiar while at the same time seeming unlike anyone you’ve ever met, someone utterly new and yet resonant.

“Walter Moody was not superstitious, though he derived great enjoyment from the superstitions of others, and he was not easily deceived by impression, though he took great care in designing his own. This owed less to his intelligence, however, than to his experience – which, prior to his departure for New Zealand, could be termed neither broad nor varied in its character. In his life so far he had known only the kind of doubt that is calculated and secure. He had known only suspicion, cynicism, probability – never the fearful unraveling that comes with one ceasing to trust in one’s own trusting power; never the dread panic that follows this unraveling; never the dull void that follows last of all.” (p. 18)

Eleanor Catton

“Shepard’s autobiography (a document which, if ever penned, would be rigid, admonishing, and frugal) did not possess that necessary chapter wherein the young hero sows his oats and strays; since his marriage, his imagination had conjured nothing beyond the squarish figure of Mrs. [Shepard], whose measures were so familiar, and so regular, that he might have set his pocket watch by the rhythm of her days. He had always been irreproachable in his conduct, and as a consequence, his capacity for empathy was small.” (p. 135)

“Quee Long was a barrel-chested man of capable proportions and a practical strength…The gaps in his smile tended to put one in mind of a child whose milk teeth were falling away – a comparison that Quee Long might well have made himself, for he had a critical eye, a quick wit, and a flair for caustic deprecation, most especially when that deprecation was self-imposed. He painted a very feeble picture whenever he spoke about himself, a practice that was humorously meant, but that belied, nevertheless, an excessively vulnerable self-conception. For Quee Long measured all his actions by a private standard of perfection, and labored in service of this standard: as a consequence he was never really satisfied with any of his efforts, or with their results, and tended, in general, toward defeatism.” (p. 258)

Maybe you didn’t think that the world needed an 800-odd page modern satire of a Victorian gothic murder mystery set in New Zealand and peopled with breathtakingly well-written characters – you were wrong. And here’s why:

Those old stories had one great virtue: they were entertaining. They were fantastically entertaining, which is perhaps the greatest virtue a story can have. But Eleanor Catton understands something about them: that underneath the entertainment they provided, those old stories missed so much about what was important about the world which was their setting.

They missed the lives of all the invisible people: all the poor people, the immigrants, the slaves, the ill, the whores, the women and children. All those people who just provide texture, color, to those old stories, who are just scenery. And that, even though those people never starred in those stories which we love, they were real, they had lives and feelings and hopes and griefs. And that, in any real world, they would also have stories.

And so she has written them in, not in an obnoxious, heavy-handed. PC sort of way, but the way the ought to be written: as a true and proper part of the world. And then, in the end, she reveals the whole point: that under the labyrinthine twistings of the plot, under the mechanisms and mysteries and villains and ghosts and buried treasures (and all those things are there, in this story), those humans, their human stories, were the point all along.

The Luminaries‘ is a love story which you don’t know is a love story until the very end. It’s a novel that reminds you that murders and thefts and betrayals and winfalls are all events that might happen in a life, but that the life is all that really matters. It’s engrossing through out, gorgeously written, sharp and funny, but, in the end, it’s beautiful, and I loved it.

Normal People

By Sally Rooney

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“If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: It is ok if I come in your mouth?” (p. 28)

There’s a well-worn bit of folk wisdom, that the body knows what it needs. That if you’re iron-deficient, you’ll develop a sudden, strong hankering for, like, kale. Or if a cold is about to come on and you need the immune boost that vitamin C provides, you’ll suddenly crave oranges. That your body can sense its own mineral needs, and translate these needs into food desires below the level of your consciousness.

Ok, sure. Why not? The body is smart.

I wonder, though, whether there is a similar process to address emotional deficiencies. Whether, when we are hurting, or in deep need of solace or wisdom of a particular kind, our psyches know to reach out and get it, even before we have understood the trouble we are in.

I noticed recently that I have been reading novels. I have been reading basically nothing except novels. This is unusual for me: normally, my non-fiction to fiction ratio is about 1:1.

Weirder still, the novels I am reading are changing. My bookshelves reveal a historical preference: I am, as we have discussed many times, a bit of a traditionalist, and so my shelves are dominated by dead, old, white men (which is coincident with, rather than representative of, my literary values: I don’t think white men are intrinsically better than anyone else – I think they gave themselves an unfair lead). If I were asked to list my favorite authors, not a single living author would crack the top…ten*?

*(Although, in the spirit of answering the query honestly: one of the authors I love the most in world, David Foster Wallace, ought to be alive)

And yet, lately, I have been reading almost exclusively contemporary fiction. Weirdest still, I have been reading almost exclusively fiction written by women.

This is enormously out of character for me, but sometimes the heart knows what it needs better than the head. And I have learned that, when the body craves something, it is probably best to consume it. So I’ve been leaning into my emotional needs and reading whatever strikes my fancy, no matter how contemporary, unvetted, or estrogenic it may be.

A few weeks ago I read Sally Rooney’s debut novel, ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I liked it – I thought it was a strong piece of work, but I didn’t feel nourished by it, particularly. I appreciated it, as an intellectual accomplishment, but I didn’t think that I connected with it, emotionally, at the time.

But I have felt the need to read her second novel, ‘Normal People‘, fairly urgently ever since. Like ‘Conversations with Friends‘, ‘Normal People’ made all the important literary people pee their pants, which of course made me not want to read it, but there was something that kept nagging at me. And so, this week, like someone with an iron-deficiency and a kale salad, I sat down and read ‘Normal People’ in one sitting.

Normal People‘ is the story of Connell and Marianne. Connell and Marianne know each other from school – Marianne is rich and unpopular; intensely smart and traumatized by a deeply fucked up family, she moves through the world almost totally alone. Connell is the son of her family’s housekeeper. He is popular and handsome; also smart, he is kind and everyone likes him.

In the afternoons when Connell comes to pick up his mother from Marianne’s house, he and Marianne will form a relationship that is both intense and secret. Her profound unpopularity makes Connell ashamed of her, an unkindness he will not really understand until they go off to Trinity together. There, as Marianne becomes popular and sought-after, and Connell is handicapped for the first time by his shyness and working-class background, both of them will try to discover if they love each other and whether they can be happy.

Conversations with Friends‘ is, at the end of the day, a story about friendship. It is a love story, but it’s about how love hides in friendship. ‘Normal People‘ is a love story, a story about great and transformative love. But it is written in the same spare-and-yet-unsparing style as ‘Conversations with Friends’, which makes it feel disorienting and scary and painful, sort of like being in love.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I find Rooney’s writing extremely effective. I thought at first that her severe lack of style was a little over-stylized (if that makes sense), but I’m completely on board now. The lack of authorial voice forces you into the perspective of the character, right up against them. It’s forgiving and present. Which is a particular accomplishment because ‘Normal People‘ alternately takes the perspective of both of its main characters.

I think it really comes down to why people read novels in the first place.

There are many valid reasons to read novels. People read them to be entertained, or because they are assigned them in school, or to make themselves seem smart.

But why do people read novels like this, as adults, when no one is watching? I think, and maybe I am only speaking for myself, that people read novels to learn about how other people feel, to understand their own feelings, to learn whether their own feelings are normal, to make sense of the world around them, to try to see the world through other people’s eyes and to see whether they are, in fact, part of a common humanity. They read them to see the great range of human emotional possibility, and to fit themselves within that range. They are maps for our hearts.

Sally Rooney

Which doesn’t mean that goodness doesn’t matter. I’m not sure that writerly skill necessarily makes a novel more emotionally effective – in fact, it’s often inversely correlated (Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Dickens, so many of the great writers leave people cold) – but when a well-written novel is emotionally effective, the two qualities become greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s what happened with ‘Normal People‘. The brutal bluntness of the prose, the unflinching eye Rooney uses to examine her characters, the keen ear she has for the subtleties of complex and contradictory human emotions, all combine to make her novels an immersive and moving experience.

I think I understand why I needed to read ‘Normal People‘ right now. ‘Normal People’ is about whether or not broken people can be loved, and that is a question I’ve spent a lot of my life asking. And it is the question I’ve spent most of the last year obsessing over.

I think that ‘Normal People‘ is a probably a great novel, but I’m not really in a position to judge because the only thing that I can think about is how it was exactly what I needed. I’m used to thinking about whether or not books are good; I am used to connecting with them intellectually. I don’t usually just let novels happen to me.

And, of course, ‘Normal People‘ didn’t answer any questions, and didn’t solve any problems. I don’t think that was the point. And I didn’t feel better per se, but I did feel more connected. More normal.

The Incendiaries

By R. O. Kwon

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Have you ever eaten french fries for dinner?

Do you know that feeling you get, after? When you’re technically full, but you haven’t eaten anything of substance, so your blood feels both thick and empty? Like, your stomach knows that it’s extended, but not satisfied? And you feel heavy, but not strong? Not healthy? And you can feel the grease working its way out through your pores and somehow you know that you haven’t eaten one single nutrient? And even though you know you’ll be fine, it also sort of feels as though you’re having a medical emergency?

And you’re not sure why the situation feels so dire, because potatoes aren’t that bad for you, right? It’s not like you ate gummy bears for dinner (I’ve done this, too, several times, and if you haven’t, trust me: it feels different, even worse, than fries). Potatoes have some value as food, right? And maybe you had ketchup, and that’s technically a fruit but also kind of a vegetable? And so maybe you kind of had a salad? So why do you feel…like you didn’t eat a salad?

Also, french fries are delicious! You loved every bite; you experienced, in those first fries in particular, a sense of happiness which approached pure joy – that’s why you ate so many fries that you can’t eat anything else now. So many that you sort of don’t want to eat anything ever again.

That’s how I feel about ‘The Incendiaries‘. I feel like I just flew through a book, devoured it, and it felt, at the time, as though there must have been substance in there somewhere, but that substance is eluding me now that the book is over. Now, I just feel weirdly mentally bloated.

Will and Phoebe meet their first year at a prestigious New York university. They each come weighted down with significant baggage. Will is a former born-again Christian who has had a crisis of faith. From a less prosperous background than most of his classmates, Will hides the fact that he must work several jobs in order support himself.

Phoebe is a former piano prodigy. She has spent her entire childhood in brutal pursuit of excellence. When she realizes one day that while technical perfection may be within her grasp, she will always lack intrinsic artistic greatness, she retires from piano. She delivers this information to her single mother during a drive; in the ensuing emotional scene, she crashes the car and her mother is killed.

Will and Phoebe fall in love and begin a relationship. Phoebe becomes Will’s whole world, the focus of an all-consuming love. During their first year, however, Phoebe meets a man named John Leal.

A figure of some mysteriousness, Leal is, like Phoebe herself, of Korean ancestry. According to local legend, he has spent time in a North Korean prison camp. Once freed, he returned to North America and has since taken to wandering upstate New York barefoot, recruiting local college students to his prayer group, which he calls Jejah.

As Phoebe becomes more involved in Jejah, Will becomes concerned that it is a cult. When Will sets himself against Jejah, he will risk losing Phoebe, and these three troubled people will become melodramatically tangled in a web of love and guilt and anger.

I know what ‘The Incendiaries‘ wants to be about. ‘The Incendiaries’ believes that it is a nutritious novel. It doesn’t think it’s french fries – ‘The Incendiaries’ definitely thinks it has some vegetables in it. It thinks it’s about, well, love and grief and guilt and anger. It thinks it’s about how, in a weird way, those are all the same thing. Not exactly the same, obviously: there are meaningful differences between love and grief and guilt and anger. But they are the great forces which shape or, in adverse circumstances, warp us. They braid together and bleed into each other. And they are so, so powerful that when they combine, they can drive us into states so extreme we would not even recognize ourselves.

That all sounds pretty deep, doesn’t? Those are heavy themes; these plot elements (cults, terrorism, rape), these are varsity-level plot elements. They should add up to something substantial, but they weirdly don’t.

R. O. Kwon

Or, at least, they don’t for me.

One of the differences between good novels and Great Novels is that great novels transcend their plot. Like all novels, they are about some people doing some things, sure, but, in Great Novels, those people and those things have meanings which relate to the greater concerns of humanity. Great Novels, through their plot, teach us something about ourselves. Goods novel might be beautifully written, enthralling, moving, but they are only about the exact people and things that they are about. They are limited by their plots, for better or worse.

The Incendiaries‘ is not a Great Novel. Sure, it’s an absorbing story – I did mention that I chewed through it, right? It’s not boring, at all. The characters are interesting (well, Will is. Phoebe isn’t, and John Leal is barely a character). But Will is an interesting character! Maybe not a deep one, not an illuminating one, but interesting, fun to read.

But I don’t think this novel goes any deeper (allowing, always, for the possibility that it went way deeper and I missed it). And that would be fine – the world needs great stories that don’t go any deeper – but I have the distinct impression that ‘The Incendiaries‘ thinks it’s pretty deep.

It’s this discrepancy that I find hard to cope with. I don’t like it when a novel’s ambitions show, and I find it extra-cringy when they show all those ambitions and then don’t realize them. It makes me uncomfortable.

This is probably my hang-up. You know how some people can’t watch ‘The Office’ because the humor makes them so uncomfortable? And the rest of us think those people are complete wussies who are missing out? This is probably my version of that. When I read novels that are aiming way higher than they land, my teeth hurt.

And it’s a shame, because good novels are good, and if this isn’t a good novel, it’s definitely a fun one. It’s about stuff I enjoy reading about, like terrorism and cults and relationship drama. It’s right in my sweet spot.

But I think that we should be judging books the way they want to be judged. Put differently: we should be taking books at their word. If a book claims to be a Great Novel, if it takes aim at grand themes, then it has picked the standard by which it should be judged. And when a book sets its sights on love and grief and guilt and anger, then I am allowed to say that it is not enough for it to be merely fun to read. That even if I had fun, I didn’t learn anything, or a grow at all. And that, therefore, it failed.

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth: Book One

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that prejudices must be a little like guns: just as likely to hurt their owner as they are to hurt anyone else.

I’m just going to say this, straight-out: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel. I’m not defending this position – I know that this is shallow – I’m admitting this as the shortcoming is it.

But there it is: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel.

Because they look bad. I’m not saying that they are bad; certainly, they aren’t all bad. But they all look bad. For some reason, the marketing for fantasy novels has evolved certain universals (thin covers, big, serif-fonted, foreboding titles with moody, dramatic art behind them) that signal badness. The books all look cheap, interchangeable, and plotty.

See?

Which, fine. Nothing wrong with cheap, interchangeable, and plotty, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. But it’s not ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, is it? And it always gives my vanity a little twinge, to be caught reading one. It makes me feel defensive, like I want to announce to everyone on the red line train with me, ‘I just finished ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, and so I’m just taking a little break!’

Which is vain and insecure, yes, and emphatically my own problem (no one on the red line gives a flying fuck what I’m reading, I promise). There’s a reason we have that old expression, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, and even though that expression usually applies to people, turns out it applies just as well to actual books! Because if you avoid books just because they have fantasy-looking covers, sometimes you miss really good books.

I’m trying to explain how it is that I came to be the last person alive to have discovered ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy by N. K. Jemisin: I ignored it because it looks like a bad fantasy novel. I’m sure that I have walked by it in bookstores a thousand times, sorting it pre-consciously into “garbage” into my head and moving on. Even if I picked it up and looked at the back, I would have immediately put it down and walked away, because the back cover makes ‘The Fifth Season‘ look like a garbage book.

But the other day, I was with a friend in Trident Bookstore and she spotted ‘The Fifth Season‘ on the Staff Recommendations rack and said, ‘You’ve read that, right?’

And I said, ‘No, I haven’t even heard of it.’ Which, given the look she then gave me, is clearly much more embarrassing than reading a fantasy book on the red line.

I now know, of course, that ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy has made N. K. Jemisin the only author ever to win Hugo awards three years in a row. The third installment, ‘The Stone Sky‘, also won a Locus and a Nebula. The praise for ‘The Fifth Season‘ is so over-the-top it sounds sarcastic (“These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture,” says The Guardian – seriously?).

I’m not sure even how to describe ‘The Fifth Season‘ in a way that is going to do it justice. I’m worried that a description of the plot mechanics is going to make it sound…generic? And I don’t think that ‘The Fifth Season’ is generic. To be completely honest, I finished it about fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t had time to digest it yet.

I know I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m feeling frankly kind of resentful that I have to be here, writing about it instead of just starting the next book in the series, ‘The Obelisk Gate‘.

I don’t know whether I loved it because it was “good” – I’m way, way past caring. I just know it’s a great story, an absolutely phenomenal story, set in a world which is complex and well-imagined and dark.

Fantasy is like any genre: it has threads that it can pull, values it can adjust, which are known to its readers, and which refer to the genre as a whole while still belonging to the story specifically. Part of what you admire when you admire a piece of genre fiction is the way that this particular story has used those conventions, has toggled those toggles. It’s a form of creativity within limits, and when it’s done well, the limits make the creativity even more impressive.

And so ‘The Fifth Season‘ plays with some ideas that will be very familiar to even casual readers of fantasy (or even just to people who have seen ‘Game of Thrones’). It takes place on an Earth subject to terrible seismic upheaval; severe tectonic activity causes global catastrophe every few centuries, periods of darkness and apocalyptic death: these are the fifth seasons.

Human civilization has learned to weather these periods of mass extinction through community stability and the careful husbanding of resources. However, planning alone has not saved them – magic is also necessary. For there have evolved among them humans capable of channeling and controlling seismic activity: the orogenes. Orogenes are very powerful and very dangerous, and normal people revile them. It is more common than not for young orogene children to be killed upon discovery in rural areas.

But, whenever possible, the forces of empire gather young orogenes and bring them to be trained in the capital. There, they are taught through brutal lesson to control their powers and put it to good use.

The Fifth Season‘ tells the story of three orogenes, all women. One is a child, just discovered and nearly destroyed. Another is a young woman, advanced in her training, as she is given for mentorship to the most powerful orogene alive. And the third is a mother, trying to live in secret, in hiding, after she discovers that her husband has just discovered the gift in one of her children, and so has killed him.

N. K. Jemisin

I’m making it sound kind of garbage, I know. It’s difficult to write about some of these things without sounding silly, and I’m just not a good enough writer to throw around made-up words for magical beings convincingly.

But, and this is all that really matters, N. K. Jemisin is. I made it through this entire novel without rolling my eyes once. That’s astonishing. There is something about the word ‘fantasy’ that sounds soft; it makes people (maybe just me?) think of Tolkieny shit, of mages and dragons and Chosen Ones, where the deepest and darkest metaphor is racism between dwarves and elves.

There’s nothing silly or soft in ‘The Fifth Season‘. Quite the contrary – this novel is dark, brutal, mean. It is violent, even wrenching. It’s characters don’t find relief anywhere, and neither will you. I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for anything (again, it really has been only fifteen minutes – I’m still sitting in the same chair, for fuck’s sake); sometimes a dark story is just a story about darkness.

But what a story it is.

Conversations with Friends

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

One of my small narcissisms: I disdain book fads.

Every year, there are It books, authors the literary cognoscenti have their panties all twisted up about, the new novel that the New York Review of Books declares a Must Read, that every independent bookstore has on it’s Staff Recommendations table (in hardcover), whose author Terry Gross just interviewed last week.

I try to avoid these books.

It’s not that I think they’re all bad books, not at all. Many of them are celebrated quite appropriately (you can count me, for example, among the legions of frothing Elena Ferrante fans).

However, they aren’t all great: some are merely well-publicized. Some are highly experimental, a novel written in all questions, or a novel in one long sentence (these are real things*, and I’ve actually read and loved one of them). Some are more timely than good. Some are fine, but no one will, or should, remember them in five years.

*’The Interrogative Mood‘, Padgett Powell; ‘Ducks, Newburyport‘, by Lucy Ellman

I’m a snob for the Literary Canon – we’ve talked about this before – and, the truth is, if I spent my time reading every contemporary novel that Michiko Kakutani thought I needed to, I wouldn’t have time to read anything else. So I like to give a book twenty years or so, see how it ages, see whether it’s a flash in the pan or whether anyone remembers it a decade later.

But I make exceptions, for all sorts of valid or stupid reasons. Sometimes a book comes recommended by someone I trust; sometimes it catches my eye; sometimes I have already learned to love the author, or the author keeps being compared to someone else I love (careful with this one – it pretty much never turns out the way you want it to).

And, a few weeks ago, I was going through my old New Yorkers and came across a review of ‘Conversations with Friends‘, a fad book from 2017 that I had successfully avoided. But this review (by Alexandra Schwartz) was called, ‘A New Kind of Adultery Novel‘. I didn’t read the review – I didn’t need to. I’m kind of a creepy little pervert, and there was absolutely no chance I wasn’t going to read a New Kind of Adultery Novel. So this week I read ‘Conversations with Friends’.

Frances and Bobbi went to school together. They dated, and then they broke up, and now they are best friends, college students in Dublin, where they perform spoken-word poetry together. Bobbi is beautiful and outlandish and charismatic. Frances is our narrator, plain and severe, quiet and cerebral. She is a socialist and poet, a bisexual who believes that love has been co-opted by capitalism to wring unpaid labor out of mothers.

One night, the two friends are approached after a show by Melissa, an established artist and photographer. As they begin to get to know her, it becomes clear that, like many people, Melissa prefers Bobbi, and Frances, a little defensively, strikes up a friendship with Melissa’s husband, Nick. Nick is a actor who is semi-famous, handsome and much smarter and more sardonic than he appears. As Frances and Nick begin an affair, the relationship between the four adults becomes more and more complicated until it begins to threaten even the love Bobbi and Frances have for each other.

People went kind of bonkers about ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I myself had multiple girlfriends tell me that I had to read it (that way that people do that makes you want to hit them). And I think I know why, even if I do not perhaps share the wildness of the enthusiasm.

Rooney has a way of writing, a plainness of presentation, which is nearly unique and very effective. This is a little what people are reacting to when they talk about the revolution that Hemingway’s prose represented: the way the spareness of the prose, the lack of adornment, left the reader nowhere to hide.

But Hemingway wasn’t writing about the intricate interiors of human relationships – Rooney is, and so the effect is very different. When people write about feelings, even the feelings of fictional characters, they tend to explicitly frame them as feelings, to soften their reality, to layer them away from fact: “I felt as though…”; “He acted like I was…”; “It was as though I had been…”. We lard our feelings with metaphors and analogies, which are illustrative, but also distancing. Even as we contemplate the feeling, we are imagining something else.

Rooney doesn’t do this. She doesn’t invest in the emotional reality of her characters so much as she simply states it as reality and moves on. She doesn’t interpret or elaborate. Because her prose so fundamentally inhabits the experience of her protagonist, when she does employ similes, they have the effect of turning back inwards, into the mind of Frances.

“Certain elements of my relationship with Nick had changed since he told Melissa we were together. I sent him sentimental texts during daytime hours and he called me when he was drunk to tell me nice things about my personality. The sex itself was similar, but afterward was different. Instead of feeling tranquil, I felt oddly defenseless, like an animal playing dead. It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn’t try to stop him. When I described this to him he said he felt the same, but he was sleepy and he might not really have been listening.” (p. 232)

Sally Rooney

All of which, because of the bareness of the prose, has the effect of making Frances a little hard to take.

Which, ok, a brief temper tantrum on my part: I really, really hate when people object to books because the characters aren’t “likable” or because “there’s no one to root for”. I think it’s infantile to assess books the same way you pick friends: by how much you want to have a beer with them. If you’re only reading books that have people you explicitly like, fuck off to ‘The Babysitters Club’ and let the adults talk.

So it’s not a problem for me that I don’t like Frances (or Bobbi) at all. But, let’s be real: a book about complicated, narcissistic, chilly people hurting each other is a different emotional experience than one that involves heroic, kind people battling evil. ‘Conversations with Friends‘ is a very different book than, say, ‘The Hobbit’. I understand why people reacted to strongly to this book: it’s emotionally bracing. But, like most things that are bracing (a stern talking to from a loved one, a leap into an ice cold lake), it wasn’t pleasant until it was done.

And maybe it wasn’t even pleasant after it was done? But that’s OK – pleasant is emphatically not the point.

Rooney is experimenting with a different way of communicating about emotions. She’s trying to show the interior life of a young woman, show us her anger, and her loneliness, her fear and her attempts at love, the way that she herself experiences them. The prose is meant to be immersive – there is no framing here, to give you distance. And because Frances is angry and lonely and scared and receives no consolation from love, the experience is a little bleak, a little real, a little rough and almost totally undigested.

It’s tough, because I know I was supposed to love ‘Conversations with Friends‘, and so I really, really didn’t want to. When I finished it, I thought it was competent and over-rated.

But I’ve had a couple days to think on it, to get some emotional distance from Frances, and I think maybe I did love it. Or I really, really appreciated it? Or I saw the same thing all the fart-sniffing New York literary whosits saw: a very smart new writer trying something different. And succeeding.

A Room of One’s Own

By Virginia Woolf

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I really don’t like being wrong.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, since I’m wrong at least as often as I’m right, but I still hate being wrong with the same furious intensity I did when I was a child, when I would rather have chopped off one of my own fingers than admitted I had been mistaken about something. It irks me, deep in my soul, to look foolish.

And it’s all well and good to be wrong about things that don’t matter, like math or medicine, but one would hope that I would be slightly more reliable on the subject of books. They are, after all, the most important thing in the world, the meaning and substance of my life – one would expect that, if I were going to be right about anything, I might be right about them.

And yet I’m wrong about books all the time. Even more distressing, my wrongness usually takes the same form: I discover, with depressing regularity, that I have disdained an author, often for years, who is actually excellent. Whom, when I actually trouble to read them, I end up loving.

In my defense, I rarely disdain an author for no reason. Usually, I have been forced, as a child in school, to read a classic, and found, in all my teenage wisdom, the classic wanting, and decided that the author was therefore garbage. I did this to John Steinbeck (did not like ‘Of Mice and Men‘); I did this to Zora Neale Hurston (hated ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘); and I did this to Virginia Woolf.

It was ‘Mrs. Dalloway‘ that did it. My fifteen year old self was not impressed by ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. I do not remember precisely why – I suspect I thought it was vapid. Or maybe that Mrs. Dalloway herself was vapid, and I did not feel that I should have to spend my time reading about the interior world of a vapid party-planner when there were so many more interesting things to read about, like War and Death and Space Battles. I did not understand yet that it was a novel about trauma, that great tragedies play out quietly in the psyches of ordinary people, probably because I was a teenager and so had no interior world to speak of.

Because I did not like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, I decided that I did not like Virginia Woolf. I have never read another of her books. But I believe in reading the classics; I’m traditional, and have an idea that one should read The Great Books, even if one really didn’t like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. And so, when I saw ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale this summer, I got it.

A Room of One’s Own‘ is an essay, born from two lectures which Woolf gave to women’s colleges of Cambridge. It takes, famously, as its thesis, the problem of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman born with all the talent of Shakespeare, but none of his masculine freedom. Would she, this sister, have left brilliant plays behind her? Not, Woolf concludes, without the time, space, and money to work. Not without a room of her own.

I was not expecting to enjoy ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. I read it entirely out of a sense of duty, an obligation both the Canon and to feminism. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is a foundational feminist text, one of those books that you, if you are a woman, really ought to have read by now. I somehow graduated from an East Coast liberal arts college without reading it (I won’t say which one, lest they recall my degree), and have felt sort of nagged ever since by my own bad feminism.

I didn’t expect her to be funny. No, not because she’s a woman – because ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is almost shockingly unfunny, and because about ten years after she published it, Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse to drown herself, and so I don’t think of her as hilarious.

But, wrong again: she is funny. She’s sardonically, dryly funny, almost caustic. Her gimlet eye misses nothing, she is subtle, but when she cuts, she cuts deep, and her aim is devastating:

“..I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” (p. 46)

And she is a beautiful writer, but, of course, we all knew that. What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, as a woman, when this beautiful prose, this clear-eyed analysis, applied itself to the problem of women’s rights.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a feminist from an earlier time: she isn’t writing about #metoo, or whether Cosmo causes eating disorders. She is writing about whether or not women are as smart as men, whether their minds can ever be as fine as men’s minds, whether they deserve to be educated, whether they can make art. It’s moving to read such a fine writer, such an understated and lovely writer, speak to this: her very existence should prove her point, but you know that it won’t.

I was surprised by her, I suppose: I was expecting something glum, or censorious (I think, upon reflection, that I confused the character of Mrs. Dalloway with Woolf herself – oops). But ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ isn’t censorious at all – it’s a gentle argument, a ripost, to a society which much have been a source of great pain to its author. And so it still consoles now, as long as society remains a source of pain to her readers.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice it’s natural size….Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism…For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (p. 36)

It’s hard to know whether you are connecting with a work because the work is magnificent, or because you are a woman, or a mix of both. It’s OK for works to have special resonance for certain groups, but I’m always a little uncomfortable when I feel that I am only connecting to a work “as a woman” (like I said, bad feminist).

But Woolf is such a good writer, there is no question that the connection to her work is merely estrogenic. Magnificent prose is magnificent prose, whether its author is invaginated or not.

A fact with which Woolf would doubtless agree. I’m not sure I learned a lot from ‘A Room of One’s Own‘, but I’m also not convinced that that was the point. Rather, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was a consolation, the reaching out of one woman to another through time. I am very glad I read it, which I suppose serves me right. Wrong again, happily.