Women Talking

By Miriam Toews

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think it’s time to have a granular conversation about what it means to ‘like a book’.

The problem is, when someone says that they like a book, they might mean any number of things, alone or in combination.

They might mean that they think that the book represents a technical achievement, that it demonstrates skill or creativity. They might mean that it moved them, that they resonated with something being expressed, or that something of the events being portrayed in the book felt particularly real to them. Or they might have meant that it was super fun, or funny, or exciting, or whatever.

This is why you can “like” Stephen King’s ‘The Stand‘ and “like” Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago‘; those are both true statements that mean totally different things.

And it’s also why we give a sort of extra credit to books that achieve multiple of these ends, books that are fun and humane, or skillful and entertaining. We recognize that we like them in multiple ways, that they have landed points in multiple categories.

But if you can like a book in more than one way at once, it means that it is also possible to like a book in one way and really not like it at the same time, in a totally different way. To like it along one of these axes, and to dislike it, potentially strongly, along another.

Which is how I feel about ‘Women Talking‘.

A little backstory is relevant here.

There is a substantial Mennonite population in Bolivia. In the late aughts, women in the Manitoba Mennonite colony started waking up in the mornings in pain, covered in blood and semen, with rope burns around their wrists. They were told they were imagining it, that they were dreaming, that they were consorting with the devil in their sleep.

Eventually, it was discovered that a group of men in the colony had aerosolized a horse anesthetic and had been spraying it into houses while families were asleep. They were then breaking into the houses and raping the women. Over several years, it is estimated that they raped hundreds of women – eventually, 130 victims were identified, ranging from ages 3 to 60. The men were turned over to the Bolivian authorities, tried, and have been convicted of multiple counts of rape and assault.

This is a true story – these things really happened.

Women Talking‘ is the novelization of one very specific part of this story: the experience of the women.

The men of the Molotschna (a fictional Manitoba) have left the colony to post bail for the rapists. They have done this so that the guilty men can come back to the colony and be forgiven by their victims. Without this forgiveness, neither the men, nor the women they raped, will be able to get into heaven.

Two families of women, three generations each, have gathered in a loft while their men are away in order to discuss what to do. Half of them want to leave, to take their children and flee, run to safety.

The other half want to stay and fight.

Because the women of Molotschna cannot write, they ask August Epp, a former apostate who has returned to teach the children, to write down what they say. August is not a man, not by the standards of the colony, since he has no wife and no children and cannot farm. But he is not a woman, no matter how much he may sympathize with, or love, them. He can only listen, and record, and try to help.

Women Talking‘ is a tough read. It’s kind of a brutal read, actually.

Not in the way you’d expect, or, at least, not in the way I expected. I was prepared to grapple with the horror of what was done to the women (in real life, never forgetting that), but that’s not what ‘Women Talking‘ is about. Not exclusively.

The first thing that the women of Molotschna have to settle among themselves is whether they are people, the way the men are, or whether they are animals, the way the men treat them. It’s a matter of some debate between them, whether they are animals or not. It is not obvious.

This is where the brutality of ‘Women Talking‘ really lies: in the fact that what has happened to the women is the inevitable result of their living in a system which teaches them, and the men around them, that they are not people. That when women are literal objects, the men around them will treat them like objects.

Miriam Toews

It’s hard, as a woman, to read a novel about women trying to see their way to their own personhood. Trying to decide whether it is better to stay in a place where they are raped in their homes at night, where their young daughters will be raped in their beds, or to leave their homes, their husbands, their sons, and set out into a world they don’t understand, where they don’t speak the language. It’s hard, as a woman, to imagine having to make that choice yourself.

It’s a desperate choice, and desperate choices are hard to read about.

It’s also…a little boring to read about.

I know I’m not supposed to say that about a novel about rape. And I know that I’m really not supposed to say that about anything called ‘Women Talking’. And I would like to assure everyone that I feel the appropriate amount of respect and feminist appreciation for ‘Women Talking‘, which is stark and singular and effective and, at moments, really deft and lovely and humane.

But, because of the way that ‘Women Talking’ is written, it’s also sort of…arduous. Let me give you an example:

“Ona speaks: If it has been decided by the elders and the bishop of Molotschna that we women don’t require counseling following these attacks because we weren’t conscious when they happened, then what are we obliged, or even able, to forgive? Something that didn’t happen? Something that we are unable to understand? And what does that mean more broadly? If we don’t know “the world,” we won’t be corrupted by it? If we don’t know that we are imprisoned then we are free?

…Greta Loewan sighs heavily. She says that although we may not be animals we have been treated worse than animals, and that in fact Molotschna animals are safer than Molotschna women, and better cared for.

Agata Friesen reminds Greta that, due to issues of time, we have agreed to abandon the question of whether the women are animals are not.” (p. 39)

It doesn’t exactly zip along, does it?

Look, it’s not supposed to, that’s clear. ‘Women Talking‘ isn’t trying to be the snappy, feel-good book of the year, and I wasn’t expecting it to be. But it did often seem as though ‘Women Talking’ was trying to be deliberately plodding.

Which, OK, I can think of reasons why an author might try to make their book deliberately plodding: she might be trying to show how overwhelmed the women are, disoriented and building a world-view from scratch, for example. To show that, when you must remake your whole self, your progress is slow, is plodding, when you start from nothing. That is a worthy project.

But a project may be worthy and still excruciating to read. And because ‘Women Talking‘ was slightly excruciating to read, I had trouble actually caring about any of the women in it. And it feels as though connecting with what happened to these women (again, can’t say it enough: in real life) was maybe the point? Or at least would have been good?

Women Talking‘ is clearly the work of a capable author, and I’m sure that Toew’s stylistic choices are choices. I appreciated ‘Women Talking’, but I didn’t like it.

Or, rather, I liked it the way you like things which are hard and important, but which you secretly dread having to consume. I liked it in the way of worthy things, not in the way of joyful things. In the way of sheer, awful truths, and not beauty.

But it is true, and for that reason alone, it should be read. A novel needn’t be beautiful, if it’s true.

My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“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 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.

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.

The House In The Dark Of The Woods

By Laird Hunt

All Posts Contain Spoilers

So, this is embarrassing, but it happens to everyone (everyone! I swear!), and so I’m just going to admit it and try not to sound defensive at all, OK?

I just read an entire book, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it.  At all.

Here’s what happened:

Last weekend, I was in my favorite local bookstore with a friend, perusing the “Staff Selections’ rack.  Now, I am, in general, skeptical of this particular flavor of curated bookstore table, because I am not at all convinced that working in a bookstore improves your taste in books.  But one book caught my eye: it had a creepy cover, hands crawling all over themselves on a bright orange field.   The title was kind of irresistible: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘.  The description on the inside cover began, “In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing.” 

Ingenious horror? Yes, please.  I bought the book and started reading it right away.

I realized that I was in trouble almost immediately.  ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is, essentially, a dark fairy tale.  ‘Goody’ goes for a walk in the woods one day to collect berries for her son and husband.  She takes a nap only to wake in the dark; panicked, she sets off running, cutting her feet and hurting herself badly in the process.

Eventually, she is discovered by a woman called Captain Jane, who takes her to the house in the dark of woods, where lives a woman named Eliza, who wears the face of a friend and will try to keep Goody with her forever.

But ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is one of those books that hinges on the reader’s inability to tell whether or not their narrator is mad.  Now, when that kind of book is done well, it’s incredible, and some of the great classics of horror rely on this trick: ‘The Turn of the Screw‘, or ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘.

But those books are so affecting in part because, whether or not their narrators are insane, they are definitely terrified, and their distress is communicated to you.  Goody, however, spends most ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ in a sort of blithe, batty daze, which does make her seem crazier, but which also alienates the reader from the horror.  She speaks in choppy, under-punctuated, declarative sentences with very little emotional subtlety or elaboration.  I suspect that this was meant to make her seem childlike but instead it made her seem, well, stupid:

“The sun was gone from the glade and gone almost from the world when I woke and took up my basket and went hurrying back the way I had come.  I smiled a little but didn’t mean it when the oak and ash and box elder began to grow tall around me and my trot turned into a run.  There are fears in the airs and on the earth that can call up a fire in your heart whose ash will blacken all hope.  This was not such a fear; it was just the little toe or finger of one.  I stopped running and wiped my brow and realized I had left my bonnet behind.  I shifted my basket from one hand to the other.  I stood with my legs planted sturdy and gave a laugh, for I had never liked that bonnet, blue with a frill of tender flower.  A gift from my dead mother.” (p. 6)

And which doesn’t in any way clarify whether any of what happens to her is real.  What is clear, however, is that what is happening to her is a metaphor, and here is where I have to ‘fess up: I have no idea what it’s a metaphor for.

That it is a metaphor, there can be no doubt (when characters have names like Captain James, it’s a safe bet that metaphors are happening…).  Which obviousness makes my confusion even more embarrassing, since I think it’s probably not a subtle metaphor. 

Laird Hunt

I’m also pretty sure that it’s a metaphor about being a woman, or womanhood, or the trials and tribulations of women in society – it’s somewhere around there.  There are creepy shadows of violence lurking at the corners of the story, dark intimations that the women in it have been slowly but thoroughly brutalized by the men in their lives, the men to whom they toil in constant service, the men to whom they belong.

What emerges, I think, is a tale about the roles that women play.  I think (I think?) that ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is a allegory about the slow, creeping horror of the feminine position.  It shows that a woman who does not choose to obey has no other option but to go mad, either because society will drive her so or pretend that she is.  And that the roles available to us are highly circumscribed, archetypical and limiting and cannibalistic, as we slowly destroy each other in an attempt to break free of the restraints into which we were born.  That every woman will move through these roles: innocent girl, wife, mother, crone, until she eventually comes face to face with the terrible adversary that is her own furious psyche.

In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is weird, and creepy, and I think it was probably pretty good, but I’m not sure because I’m not sure it was…coherent. Partly this is a problem with the book itself – partly, perhaps, it is a problem with me (I may just not be getting it). Partly, however, it is a problem with allegories in general.

The meaning of an allegory lies beneath the plain reading of the text, is hidden, coded, in symbols and allusions.  They tend, therefore, to mean different things to different people; they often act as mirrors, showing us our reflections, shining our own baggage back at us.

Is ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ a feminist allegory about the slow mutilation done to women by society, the violence to which we are subjected and which we sublimate into madness?  Or am I, who have always found the roles normally prescribed for my gender (wife, mother, grandmother) stifling and unnatural, simply finding in this story confirmation of what I already felt?

To a certain extent, this is the purpose of fairy tales, to teach us the lessons that we, in particular, need to know.  ‘Little Red Riding’ is a lesson about the dangers of straying too far from the path.  It is also a lesson on the bravery available to each of us, when we need it.  It is also a lesson in caution, even about the faces we believe we know well.  It is also a lesson about the triumph of ingenuity over darkness (and, depending on which version you read, it is also a lesson on the triumph of darkness over everything).

I am not, in general, comfortable with ambiguity – I like to know what is.  This may be an indication of a pedestrian mind, but, alas, it is what it is.  I am not content to say, ‘This what the text meant to me’; I need to know whether what the text meant to me is what the text really meant.  And I feel inadequate when I can’t solve it.

So, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ made me feel inadequate.  It made me feel creepy, undermined, and inadequate.  Like there was something flickering at the edge of my vision and I couldn’t focus my eyes on it.  It was unsettling and difficult to understand.  It was a strange, cold mist of a book, something with a definite shape but without clear edges.  It was eerie.

I suspect that that was exactly the point.

Dietland

By Sarai Walker

All Posts Contain Spoilers

This is probably just a coincidence, but I’ve been reading a lot about female rage recently.

It’s very strange that I’m on this run of books about women’s anger.  It’s not by design, but I have, in the past few months, picked up book after book with this theme: ‘Alias Grace’, ‘The Power‘, ‘I Love Dick’, ‘Shrill’, even ‘Fates and Furies’.  I’m not doing it on purpose.

DietlandAt least, I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but then I read this article in The Atlantic about all the new T.V. shows about female rage which are being made, one of which is a show based on the novel ‘Dietland‘.  I had actually never heard of the novel ‘Dietland’ before, but this article describes it as a novel in which “a guerrilla group of women kidnaps and and murders men who’ve been accused of crimes against women, ranging from institutionalized misogyny to violent sexual assault.  But that’s just a subplot.”

Vigilante justice is an old interest of mine (whether or not the avenging agents are female) and, if we’re being totally honest, I enjoy consuming a healthy dose of fictional violence in my media.  I am used to getting this dose from movies and television, but I’m not at all averse to taking it in book-form.

So I was all over this book.  I ordered it right away and started it within minutes of its arrival.

Dietland‘ is the story of a few months in the life of Plum Kettle.  Plum weighs 300 pounds.  She wears all black, and counts calories obsessively.  Every day, she goes to the same cafe and ghost-answers emails on behalf of the editor of the teen magazine Daisy Chain, dispensing advice to thousands of desperate teen girls every day about the issues which trouble and occupy them.  She secretly orders colorful clothes for a thinner woman, hiding them in her closet.

Plum occupies a permanent sense-state of unreality, the persistent belief that her ‘real life’ has not yet started.  That life, the real one, will begin when she is thin, and she has scheduled bariatric surgery to finally achieve what years of dieting and misery has not.  One day, however, while she waits, she notices that she is being followed.  She soon learns that she is being observed for recruitment to a feminist collective, Calliope House.  Calliope House was founded by the daughter of a famous diet guru, and now serves to shelter and protect women as they free themselves from the cultural baggage which has been loaded on them.

While Plum is trying to decide whether or not she would like to set her baggage down in the care of Calliope House, a group of vigilantes acting under the name ‘Jennifer’ begin killing men.  What begins with the gruesome murders of a few rapists will escalate into a crime spree across nations, the killing and terrorizing of men responsible for violence, both physical and psychological, against women.

Sarai Walker
Sarai Walker

It’s not Great Art.  ‘Dietland‘ is probably not a novel for the ages.  Walker has said that she wanted to write ‘Fight Club‘ with women, and that’s probably a decent approximation of what she’s accomplished.  ‘Dietland’ is a lot like ‘Fight Club’: it’s a single-note novel, extremely readable, funny and quick.  Grounded in the specific culture and moment which produced it, and speaking to a very specific unhappiness which denizens of that culture might experience.  Both are novels of modern isolation, but they lack the grandeur of true loneliness and the art which speaks to it.  ‘Fight Club’ is cleverer, but ‘Dietland’ is more emotionally focused.

What do I mean, ’emotionally focused’?  ‘Dietland‘ isn’t just about female rage – it’s about one kind of female rage, the kind which grows as you receive ceaseless, personal, painful reminders that you are not a good enough female, that you are not attractive enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough.  When you are bombarded by images of women whom you will never resemble, offered products and services to make you look at least a little more like them, and threats about what will happen to you if you don’t look like them: no one will want you, no one will marry you, the person who loves you now will get tired of you and find someone younger, prettier, better.  About the ways you begin to mutilate yourself when every piece of cultural information suggests that you should, when every female who is held up as ideal does not look like you.

The constant grinding of this message afflicts most women, no matter how thin or pretty they are.  For Plum, it has exiled her from all normal human intercourse, from love and relationships not only with men but also with other women.  It has convinced her that she will not even be real until she is thin.

And it is about the sort of rage, the sort of spiritual violence, which it takes a soul like that to break past a life of shame.  About the price we pay for towing the line, and the price we pay for breaking out.

And it’s focused on that problem, on communicating it in language that other women will understand.

The clearest, most pointed, and most effective, device in the novel is a room in the basement of Calliope House, a small room lined floor to ceiling with screens which stream, at all hours of the day and night, the most searched for pornography on Porn Hub:

Dietland Porn Room
An image of the Porn Room from the AMC adaptation of ‘Dietland’

‘The room was circular, larger than my bedroom and the other bedrooms combined.  The walls were banks of screens, all of them synchronized with the same scenes…On the screens were a naked woman and three naked men on a bed.  The men’s penises were inserted into the woman’s vagina and anus and mouth.  After a minute, the men removed their penises and reinserted them in different places.  There were always three penises inside the woman.  The men twisted and contorted the woman so that what they were doing was visible to the camera.  As the scene went on, the woman became haggard, her black eye makeup smeared with semen and sweat.  She was the underside of a piece of Lego, her bodily orifices nothing more than slots for the men’s penises.’ (p. 182)

It’s not beautifully written, but it’s very…well, focused, right?  Walker has figured out what makes her angry, and she’s pretty good at communicating it, which means that if you are at all susceptible to prose text, by the end of ‘Dietland‘ you will probably be angry, too.

Which, I would argue, is a good thing.  Novels are one of the ways that we can see the world through other people’s eyes; it’s how we try on other people’s feelings.  You don’t have to keep this anger with you, don’t have to buy it, but it’s worth taking it for a test drive, to see how it might feel to walk around the world in Plum Kettle’s body, to listen to her describe her own rage.  It will, I suspect, echo in the hearts of most women, but even if it doesn’t echo in yours, isn’t it worth knowing?