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.

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.