The Power

By Naomi Alderman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

This power will completely reorder the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check your privilege, Sir.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there is the problem of the resolution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kill All Normies

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

By Angela Nagle

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

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

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

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

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

Angela Nagle
Angela Nagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or this:

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

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

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

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

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

But brace yourself, ’cause it’s ugly.

Shrill

By Lindy West

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or

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

Or

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

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

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

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

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

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

giggle
Lindy West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Land of Invented Languages

Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius

By Arika Okrent

I have always had a weakness for books like this, books which provide a wealth of specific information on topics so esoteric you did not even know you were ignorant of them.  My love of this sort of non-fiction has lead down very strange paths, and I now know more than I ever thought I would about rats and Scrabble and poison* and a host of other subjects for which I have no need of expertise.  Despite the uselessness of this information to me, I’ve never regretted reading one of these arcane texts.

In the Land of Invented LanguagesI knew that I wanted to read ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ as soon as I knew it existed.  I first encountered it in a New Yorker piece on Ithkuil; I bought it immediately, and socked it away on my ‘To Read’ shelf like a little treat I was saving for later, something thoroughly fun to read after I had waded through some dense history or mind-dumbing bit of classical literature.  Earlier this month, after I had quite virtuously re-read, and been re-disappointed by, ‘The Aeneid’, I decided it was time for a reward.

Arika Okrent is a linguist, and ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ is exactly what you would expect: her exploration of all the languages which people have designed, created from scratch, invented.  She begins with John Wilkins, who created his Philosophical Language in the 1660s, and ends with Klingon, which she herself attempts to learn.

arikaokrentl.png
Arika Okrent, from TheWeek

Okrent’s great gift is that, despite being a linguist herself, she understands that her subject is just as much the language inventors as the languages themselves, and, probably because she loves language so much, she genuinely sympathizes with the impulse that drives these souls on their quixotic task.  This sympathy does not, however, mean that her readers are deprived of any gratifying stories of their oddness, their bad behavior, or their self-defeats.

And there are many of these.  The main takeaway of ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ seems to be this: language inventors are not a relaxed group of highly normal people.  In fact, the urge to prosthelytize a new language seems to arise in individuals (men, almost exclusively) who, having discovered some profound flaw in the world, are willing to subject themselves and the people around them to enormous hassle in order to correct it.  Sometimes, the flaw is real, but sometimes they are the only ones who perceive it; it makes no difference.  More idiosyncratic still, these men have decided that this global flaw is best addressed through a complete overhaul of language.

But the men themselves are totally bananas; even if you didn’t care at all about language, this book would be fun to read just as a catalog of weirdos:

We learn, for example, about Paulin Gaugin, who created Monopanglosse, and was “well-known in Paris for, among other things, proposing that the French help out the famine-struck Algerians by donating their own bodies for food (or just and or leg, if one preferred not to die for the cause” (p. 12)

And about C.K. Ogden, the creator of Basic English, who “believed that much of the world’s troubles could be traced to the negative effects of what he called ‘Word Magic,’ the illusion that a thing exists “out there,” just because we have a word for it.  When we are under the spell of Word Magic, we fail to see that “sin” is a moral fiction, “ideas” are “psychological fictions,” “rights” are “legal fictions,” and “cause” is “a physical fiction.” (He also feels compelled to pick on “swing” by pointing out that it is a “saxophonic fiction.”)” (p. 139)

And about Count Alfred Korzybski, who wrote ‘Science and Sanity’, and who founded a “Institute of General Semantics, where he promoted techniques for overcoming the thinking errors caused by language – beware of the verb “to be” (“Is-ness is insanity,” he liked to say)”. (p. 201)

Language, my own and others, is something that I love.  I see it as the paramount human achievement, bar none, and I take great delight in the idiosyncrasies of individual languages, in the things that they reveal about the people who speak them and the way those people interact with the world.  I don’t see language as a distorter, a pernicious tool, but many (most?) of the figures in this book did.  It was so interesting to inhabit that idea, to think about the language which has shaped my mind and my life as limiting and malevolent, rather than as what it has been for me: the medium through which I experience the world and the vehicle for my best self.

Klinzhai_alphabet
The Klinzhai Klingon alphabet (because, yes, there are multiple ones).

And, of course, it made me want to make a new language.  How could it not?  So much of the project is the blending of your favorite elements of your language and others, a sort of linguistic cherry-picking – how could anyone resist that project?  Of course, it also persuaded me of the fruitlessness of the task, and the enormity, but this book has had me going around in circles in my mind about what I would want in my language, what I wouldn’t, things I need to express but can’t, things I wish I could express more easily.

My favorite part of the whole book had to do with this problem: the easy expression of things normally unexpressed.  Láadan is a language constructed in the early 1980s by a woman named Suzette Haden Elgin.  It was designed to be a “woman’s language”, to express easily the world from a woman’s point of view.  It contains some words which are obvious to the point of obnoxiousness, as though they came from a mean cartoon about first-wave feminism (“radiidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help”), but also words which are sublime and lovely, like bala: “anger with reason, with someone to blame, which is futile”, and aazh: “love for one sexually desired at one time, but not now” (p. 245).

Those words make me doubt my premise: I have never believed that language limits my thinking, but those are feelings which I have had, but have not had the word for, and so did not understand coherently.  Now, I will.  That language will have changed how I think.  It’s rare that books are fun to read and good for you; this book was both.

*Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan; Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, by Stefan Fatsis; Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases, by John Emsley.