Posts Tagged ‘lesbian’

witches of eastwick

Continuing to celebrate Halloween, here’s one of those novels whose title has gotten stuck in my head somehow and is as closely associated with October as Frosty the Snowman is with December, but is quite different from the Mitchell novel I read earlier in the week.

The first question is one of style. I tried to sit down and read it all at once, but Updike’s sentences resist being read quickly. Halloween being the season of personifying the inanimate, one could argue that they don’t like to be read at all. There is a profusion of detail that can seem ponderous, all those subordinate clauses pushing their way in so that it is sometimes hard to see what the subject and verb are, or maybe that heart of the sentence is intentionally hiding, enfolding itself in the extraneous as a means of self-preservation. Which sounds ridiculous, because the only life words have is when someone reads them. Stories are a complex act of shared creation between a writer and a reader – he suggests a shape, and I breathe life into it with my imagination, a complex, unique spiraling shape of personal experience and genetic memory. But Updike is seldom content to suggest; his riotous excess of description leaves little for the imagination, and since the imagination works more quickly than the reading eye, the process is slower. It was very challenging for me to take Updike’s mind into my own, and his style is very indicative of the Literary Novel of his time, the 1980s, and I’d say that it continues to influence the self-consciously literary writers of today.

Another issue is that of subject. Witches? In New England? How original. Updike is a man writing about women’s lives from women’s perspectives, which always seems highly suspect to me. It’s in many ways a book of all the things men accuse women of doing, like the way that most of the book is a transcription of gossipy phone calls. Some of it also seems like men’s fantasies of what women do, like the unspoken bisexuality of the witches, where it seems that every woman is trembling on the cusp of lesbian porn. The climax of Act One is a hot tub orgy with one man and three women (we know Updike is a heterosexual man because he never mentions the size of the penis with such power).

Maybe it was modish in the 1980s to refer to homosexuality a lot in your book, but the way his characters talk about it pushes men like me away. That word for us that I find the most upsetting, a British cigarette, gets tossed about like it’s as normal and inoffensive as iron or book. I’m not sure why I find this word so much more upsetting than all the other ways people describe me, nor why the shorter version is so much more upsetting than the word that means a bundle of sticks, but I’m apparently having a rainbow snowflake moment and I’ll thank you to respect my feelings, Mr Updike. The reviewers talk about his great sympathy for his characters, but as a homosexual male I felt outside the realm of his empathy. It seems natural for me to be angry at being the only one included in the book but excluded from sympathetic treatment, so maybe the rest of you (meaning women or heterosexuals) won’t feel the same way that I do. This book is about as pro-gay as the Christopher Reeve film Deathtrap.

But then again, maybe what seemed like sympathetic treatment in 1984 won’t seem sympathetic today. I believe that many women of my acquaintance would take umbrage at the idea that femininity requires taking the place of a man’s mother, just as I find it offensive that many people even today believe that men are perpetual children in need of mothering. For an example, watch the later seasons of Arrow. In the first season The Green Arrow is very Batmannish, but by season four he’s surrounded by women, a little sister and a few friends, and one of them takes over as CEO of his family business and they all boss him around as if he were a child, despite being younger than he. They all talk about how dumb and helpless he is, despite the fact that they know he’s a fucking superhero. He might be a filthy rich masked vigilante with serious top-shelf hand-to-hand combat skills and an amazing body, but he’s still ‘just a man.’

Healing belonged to their natures, and if the world accused them of coming between men and wives, of tying the disruptive ligature, of knotting the aiguillette that places the kink of impotence or emotional coldness in the entrails of a marriage seemingly secure in its snugly roofed and darkened house, and if the world not merely accused but burned them alive in the tongues of indignant opinion, that was the price they must pay. It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal – to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.

Our witches are three divorced women in their thirties, which was quite shocking in the late 1960s, when the book is set (distanced from author and reader in either time or space, as a Gothic novel should be). And yes, they set about having affairs with married men, and frankly it seems that everyone in town is having an affair with someone else and they all whisper about it but no one does anything about it but talk. When another woman in town gets left, they remark on the fact that she’s now gained the power if she’ll do anything with it, but they don’t make any effort to invite her to the coven. Sukie is the youngest, a bright redhead who writes for the local paper; Jane is the angry one, a cellist who also teaches piano; and Alexandra is the leader, being the oldest and most powerful.

The portrayal of Alexandra got on my nerves, too. This is entirely personal: she’s my age, height, and weight, and she thinks of herself as old and fat, and no one disagrees with her. I’m actually not sure how much I weigh – I haven’t weighed myself since I dated that guy in Texas, when I gained twelve pounds during a two-month relationship – but Lexa is the weight at which I no longer feel like I need to lose weight. He of the Midwest asked me the other day how much weight I’ve lost in North Carolina, and again I have no way of knowing, but I will say this. I can no longer grab an entire handful of excess at my side, and the tendons in my hands and feet are showing themselves again. I don’t have one of those sexual foot fetishes, but a man’s feet can be a pretty good indicator of how much body fat he’s carrying, and when I lived out there I had these thick pads of fat on top of my feet, and now they’re almost completely gone. My belt is getting loose, and when I put on my trousers yesterday I just pulled them up and fastened them without holding my breath or lying down or trying to stretch the waistband an extra inch or two. In Illinois I thought my trouser zippers were going to kill me, and now I don’t think of them at all.

On the first page they’re talking about a new man who’s moving to town, and while you may remember this as the same beginning to Pride and Prejudice, it’s not really anything like. At first they think he must be gay because he’s from Manhattan and has never been married, but once he gets there they all fall for him and he encourages all three. It’s never made explicit, but he’s very much a Satanic figure, and the name Darryl van Horne does sound a bit devilish. He fills in the wetlands, displacing the egrets that nest there; Alexandra doesn’t always see his aura when she’s surrounded by the peacock tails of color that other people’s emotions manifest; at one point his legs seem to be jointed the other way, as if he had goat legs; his face always seems cobbled from disparate pieces that don’t belong together; and he takes charge of their art and ends up controlling the witches. They eventually suspect that they’ve been serving him all along, but with no proof, they drift away from each other. There’s also all the magic going on that they’re not doing, and the way that their lovers end up dead. I also think it’s weird that his hot tub room and bedroom are both completely black. I suppose this draws more attention to the white bodies on display in those rooms, but it’s a little strange.

I don’t remember what gender politics were like in 1984; I was still too young to attend school back then. Maybe this sort of portrayal was normal or enlightened back then, but it’s not any more. It’s a book about women’s power, but the power comes from ceasing to have loved a man, so it’s still very anti-Bechdel. They may be empowered to the point that they have uncoupled copulation from procreation, but they freely admit to neglecting their children, and while the witches all have progeny, none of those children are main characters. Their pets are more important to the book than the children are. Their power makes them independent, outsiders in their own families and community, reliant on each other and no one else. It’s as if being a feminist requires (or induces) social isolation.

I suppose part of this review should mention love as the binding between the sexes, but I don’t see much of it in this book. I see desire and attraction, control and power and a lot of things that have nothing to do with love but get substituted for it. I think the lack of love is part of my trouble with the book. People are selfish and isolated and horrible to each other. In the beginning, Alexandra reminds herself that magic always has a price, a sacrifice necessary to maintain the balance of nature, and it bothers me that as we roll along they forget that. Maybe the dissolution of the coven is a result of their lack of sacrifice, their desire to get something for nothing, but Updike doesn’t address that explicitly.

He does address suicide. The only time we see something from a man’s perspective is when a guy kills his wife and then hangs himself. If this is a trigger, be ready to skip ten pages or so from the middle of Act Two.

I keep trying to wrap this up in a nice summative fashion – a story that builds and builds but doesn’t go anywhere, no Act Three climactic finish, the worst kind of realism – but all I can think of are more things to disagree with. I wonder how much of it is the book and how much is me. Recently someone told me that I’ve been saying No too much lately, so the other night I decided to say Yes to the drag show in a neighboring town. I had only been to one other drag show, and while the entertainment hadn’t been very interesting to me, the man I’d met there was amazing. So I tidied my apartment and cleaned myself up and went, only to find a crowd of around twenty people loosely centered around the door to the club. I walked through and stood for a moment directly in front of the door, cocking my head inquisitively at the handsome man stationed there. He told me that they couldn’t admit any more people, and I heard some of the students around me muttering about how shocked they were that any place in this town would be full, so I nodded at the handsome man and walked on down the street. I decided to find something else I could say Yes to, but there’s not much in that town, and I didn’t feel like drinking with a lot of straight college students (I wasn’t in a talkative mood), so I drove back to this place where I live, but I don’t know this town well – I’ve been in and out of the area for almost twenty years now, but I’ve never spent much time in this town – so I got lost and didn’t find downtown and eventually just came back home, thinking, This is why I keep saying No to the world. I did say Yes to the deer wandering in the road, meaning I didn’t hit her, and when I got home I looked up at the stars and said Yes. They’re always so amazing, out here away from streetlights, and I saw one suddenly rush to the ground, and I made a wish. The same wish I always make: Love.

 

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slade house

Well, it isn’t often that I gobble a book up all in one go, but this one I did. I have some time off from work this week, and not much to do aside from reading, knitting, and trying to remember to eat, so there was no reason not to. The book also reads a lot faster than the other things I’ve been reading lately.

As I was reading yesterday morning, I noticed something strange: the air here has suddenly gotten cold in the morning, so when I looked out the back window, I saw a clear day in early autumn, where some of the leaves are turning but there’s still a lot of green. But when I looked out of the front windows, I saw a wintry day covered in frost. I didn’t know if there was a lot of fog, or if there was a sudden icing over of the trees across the street, or what. It was disorienting, as if I were seeing into two different times, occupying a middle ground between what I thought was the present and the future. Later I walked over to the front windows and saw that they had frosted over in the night, as evidenced by the water still on the panes as the sun warmed the world. In real life there are perfectly rational explanations.

But in fiction there aren’t. Once every nine years, someone gets lured into a mysterious mansion and they’re never heard from again. These people are a series of first-person narrators, so we get to see what happens from their perspectives. They find their way through a tiny door set in an alley, where a pair of mystical fraternal twins leads them through a sort of Mind Theatre which always ends with a very Clive Barker-esque ritual murder, thus ensuring the twins’ survival. Their lives are unnaturally extended, and their ability to project thoughts and images into other people’s minds is sort of par for the course for a Barker villain.

What separates them from my beloved Mr Barker’s characters is that they’re really bad at being evil. Their illusions are sloppy, and the victims generally figure out what’s happening and try to escape. There’s enough of a soul left for them to appear as ghosts later and warn the next. However, like a good fairy tale or myth, they’re too late because the new victim has already eaten or drunk something and so can’t leave. Another problem is that they leave traces – it would be simple to treat these narratives as separate short stories, but they’re not. After the first victim disappears, a thirteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s, the second is a detective investigating the disappearance, the third is a college student in a paranormal club, the fourth is her sister who’s come looking for her, and the fifth is a psychiatrist studying the abductions and the narratives of the witnesses. Or maybe I should say, witness. Fred Pink sees the boy and his mother right before they go, and then he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out the truth.

That first section of the book is not a deep exploration of mental difference. The victims in this story are all people whom society doesn’t work for, outsiders, and the syndrome makes Nathan very pick-on-able at his school. In 1979 there weren’t any of the advanced medications or treatments or interventions we use now, so he self-medicates by stealing his mother’s Valium. I suppose it’s hard to be a proper horror novel victim when you’re high on anti-anxiety meds, but he realizes that he can drop physical items through the cracks in time, and is thus influential in bringing about the end.

The 1988 detective is divorced and unhappy – I’m not saying those two things are connected, but I also don’t feel sorry for him because he refers briefly to a domestic violence incident that these days would have led to a restraining order. Good police officers don’t hit their wives. The presence of Gordon Edmonds, though, really makes me wonder about Mitchell’s identity politics. (Give me a second. I’m circling back to this, but we need to mention the Timms sisters first.)

In 1997 Sally Timms is a college student in a Paranormal Society, lost in unrequited love for Todd, one of the other members. Her sin against society is being overweight, for which she was bullied mercilessly in school. In 2006 her sister Freya is a journalist trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance, and keeps fielding texts from her girlfriend while time is going all out of joint around her.

Okay. In real life, death is often a senseless tragedy, and we try to create a meaning for it. In fiction, authors choose who lives and who dies, which means that there are no accidental deaths. Authors kill people because deep down at some level the writers think the characters deserve it. The wife-beater I can understand, but the others seriously bother me, now that I’m thinking about it. Mitchell even draws our attention to their differences, as if on the surface being bullied can increase a person’s psychic potential and abilities, but going deeper, being bullied at school identifies people as targets and even the author can’t resist knocking them down and stealing their lunch money. Asperger’s Boy, The Lesbian, and The Fat Girl all have to die because their author is removing those who are different from society. He may be doing it in a sympathetic way by giving them voices, but he’s doing it all the same.

If you watch British television and film, you’ll have noticed two things: one, that unlike in America an actor can become famous and successful while looking sort of ordinary and not drop-dead gorgeous; and two, that the British crowd people (NPCs) are much thinner than the Americans. Yes, we have a serious problem with weight in our country, with literally two-thirds of the population considered overweight or obese, but while we talk about body-shaming here, it’s nothing like over there. I heard a story of an English teacher in the U.K. teaching his Asian students the word excessive, and he showed them a picture of a sumo wrestler, hoping they would pick up on the excessive weight. It was a teacher fail because in Japan sumos aren’t considered fat, and I was rather surprised he would have chosen such a culture-specific body-shaming example. But from all that I see and hear, it seems like it’s much more culturally acceptable to be horrible to fat people in Britain than it is in the United States.

I feel like I should say something about the homophobia, overt in 1979 and 1988 and implied in 2006, but to quote R.E.M., “This story is a sad one told many times.” I don’t want to keep talking about how people hate me for . . . I’m having a hard time finishing this sentence, because what precisely is it they hate me for? I don’t love differently than heterosexual conservatives; when I fall in love, I feel the same way about it that anyone else does, and I do the same sorts of things with that person that anyone else would do. Maybe I fuck differently than they do, but I don’t invite them into my bedroom to watch. Maybe they hate me for being open about liking something that they can’t imagine liking, but I don’t understand why this reaction is so much more extreme than when I tell people I like liver and onions.

This week I’ve been celebrating Halloween not just with a scary book, but with another viewing of the Harry Potter movies. At the last one I got all weepy, not over all the people who die or the attack on Hogwarts, but over the Malfoys. In the midst of all this huge conflict of good vs. evil in which all the wizarding world is taking sides, the Malfoys choose each other. Narcissa may not be a good person, but whenever we see her she is acting out of the love she has for her son. It’s a great, overpowering, maybe in some ways frantic and excessive love, but it’s love nonetheless. They’re in the middle of the final battle, in that lull between attacks, and Voldemort offers the students a chance to join his side – Draco’s parents beg him to come over, and since he’s been a minor antagonist all along we expect him to, but all he does is quietly and gently take his mother home. The books and films go on and on about the love of Lily Potter, but only the Malfoys turn their backs on both good and evil and choose each other over all the world. Even Lucius, Voldemort’s lapdog, leaves his Dark Lord’s army to stay with his family.

Which leads me back to Sally and Freya, the two sisters whose love for each other damages the forces of evil so that they can be defeated.

I wish Sally’s last known place of abode could have been prettier. For the millionth time I wonder if she’s still alive, locked in a madman’s attic, praying that we’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed. Like Schrödinger’s cat inside a box you can never ever open. For the millionth time, I flinch about wriggling out of inviting my sister to New York the summer before she started uni here. Sally wanted to visit, I knew, but I had a job at a photo agency, fashionista friends, invitations to private views, and I was just starting to date women. It was an odd time. Discovering my Real Me and babysitting my tubby, dorky, nervy sister had just felt all too much. So I told Sal some bullshit about finding my feet, she pretended to believe me, and I’ll never forgive myself. Avril says that not even God can change the past. She’s right, but it doesn’t help.

Which drops me at the last thing I wanted to say. Despite all of the horror novel trappings, this is a book about Grief. It even gets capitalized and personified a couple of times. Stripped away to the basic bones, this is the story of an extraordinary woman who can’t deal with her grief in constructive ways, so the unmanaged feelings lead to paranormal abilities and all sorts of damage. I don’t mean to judge her for this; Grief is personal, overpowering, and no one else’s business. Grief is the expression of love for someone who cannot return it. I nearly wrote ‘the final expression,’ but I don’t think it’s that. Grieving is the process whereby we learn how to continue to love someone we have lost. There is nothing final about it.

For fans of Cloud Atlas, this may seem like an odd direction for Mitchell to have moved in. I have The Bone Clocks on my shelf but haven’t made time for it yet, so maybe there were intermediate steps that I missed. But Mitchell’s writing is still excellent and engaging, and like me, you may find that this is a book you don’t want to put down. It’s a good thing it’s short.

Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

Before I get into Shen Fu, I have a confession to make. Because I love The Woman Warrior, I’ve been trying to read Maxine Hong Kingston’s fiction, but it’s been killing my motivation pretty quickly. This is the second time it’s happened, so I checked something. Tripmaster Monkey, the one I was reading last week, features a character named Wittman Ah Singh, and I find him thoroughly unlikable (in the first chapter, which I didn’t finish). I looked back at The Fifth Book of Peace, which I’d started a few years ago – the first section, the one on the San Francisco Fire, is great, but then she starts telling a story about that same guy, Wittman Ah Singh! I couldn’t stand him then either! Maybe I need to find a book of hers that isn’t about him.

Shen Fu lived in the later part of the Eighteenth Century, in China. Some things were weird and foreign, yes, but what surprised me is just how similar he is to British authors writing around the same time, like Coleridge, Blake, and Wordsworth. Lavish descriptions of nature, interest in ruins and other picturesque features of the landscape, travel, and fragmented narrative. Each of these six records shows a different side of his life, but they don’t follow each other chronologically.

First, he talks about the happiness of his marriage. He marries a girl who seems like his intellectual (but not social) equal, so they make jokes about literature and laugh all the time. He and Yün are very happy and love each other very much. Yeah, sometimes they leave a party drunk and he sends her on ahead so he can have sex with a stranger, but attraction to third parties doesn’t change their feelings for each other. They live in beautiful places and find joy in their everyday lives. Besides, in China at the time lesbianism was kind of a normal thing that didn’t upset straight marriages. His wife has a couple of very dear friends, and whenever they come over the three women get the bed and he gets the couch, which he accepts with the same good cheer that men in my society accept “Girls’ Night Out.” In their early thirties, she starts looking for a concubine for him, but she’s really looking for a woman she can love too. When they find one, she falls hard for her, but it doesn’t work out and she becomes seriously depressed.

But later Han-yüan was taken off by a powerful man, and all the plans came to nothing. In fact, it was because of this that Yün died.

Ending the chapter like this, it seems like we’ve started a murder mystery, but there is no mystery. Grief and stress rob Yün of her health and kill her at the age of forty.

The second part is about his hobbies, so there’s a two-page section on flower arranging. He likes entertaining and landscaping. He is quite the aesthete.

Third, we have the story of his sorrows. Life with Yün isn’t a bed of roses, like it may have seemed in the first part. His parents don’t really like her, which makes for some serious problems. He’s not that great with money, or holding down a job, so they’re always poor and relying on friends for help. His parents also don’t like Han-yüan, so they’re part of the plot to prevent the concubine thing from working out. Nevertheless, he takes his father’s death pretty hard, as well as his younger brother’s attempt to take over as head of the family. He talks about his children here, but not in the first part, and I take that to be a little odd since my children were the happiest part of my marriage, but he is separated from them and his son dies in childhood, so it makes sense.

The fourth story is about his traveling. Up until now, Yün has seemed like the protagonist of this story because everything he talks about involves her. But he spends a lot of time away from her, following the demands of his changing professions, and maybe she really was happier living with a girlfriend than with him. This is the longest section of the book, so I think that spending time away from each other must have been critical to maintaining the happiness that was so strong in the first chapter. When he goes to the Land of the Floating Whorehouses (my title, not his), he looks for a girl who reminds him of his wife, and even though there are several girls living in the houseboat he sticks with the one he likes. His friend makes the rounds, though. He’s always traveling with some close male friend, so maybe there’s some male homosexual behavior going on too, but he never alludes to the possibility of that. The closest we come is when he talks about being in a room with a few friends and all their rented girls and being teased for wanting a private room. I’ve never been in a room with people who are having sex when I’m not involved, so I think it must be very awkward, but I suppose in a society that’s less puritanical it’s like watching a porn video. Except that it features your friends and coworkers. Even when I was in an all-male workplace, I still wouldn’t want to see my coworkers naked. I would be really uncomfortable.

Hsin-yüeh had a son named Chu-heng who was quiet and well bred. We never quarreled, and he was the second close friend I have had in this life. The pity is that we only met like bits of duckweed drifting on the water, and were not together for long.

This is why I hang onto Facebook, even when it’s full of sad news about world events. My entire life has been drifting along a stream, and I meet many interesting and lovely people, but then I move away, or they do, and we are never together for long.

I know it’s called the Six Floating Records, but today there are only these four. The other two have been lost to time. People have claimed to find them, but so far all “recovered chapters” have been forgeries. Some scholars think he may not have finished writing them, like one of those verse dramas by the English Romantics that are only ever published in fragments. He gets to the end of his travels, especially the traveling he does to recover from his wife’s death, and the book just ends with no real conclusion.

I felt very close to Shen Fu while I was reading his book, like he’s telling the story of my hypothetical life in China two hundred years ago, being bad at business but interested in art and literature and history and making everyday life beautiful. The Chinese astrologers would say that this makes sense, because we’re both born in the year of the Goat. Goat babies are unlucky, vain, unable to save money, and very proud of their homes. We like our lives to be nicer than we can afford on our own.

Normally this would be the part where I talk about him and how great it is that I live with someone who has a job and likes to take care of me, but he’s been out of work for the last six weeks and it’s given me a lot of stress because I don’t make enough money to support my kids and myself, much less another person. But he’s being trained in a new position this weekend, so I’m hoping that our financial situation will improve very soon.

Hope is so very important. Shen Fu and Yün are always hoping something will turn up, and it always does. There’s a certain amount of drift involved in living by hope, the Floating from the title. After she dies he loses his hope that anything good will happen again. I’ve heard depression defined as the inability to see a future, and that is his problem not just in his widowerhood but throughout his life. He doesn’t plan specifics – there’s only the vague hope that things will work out. It’s like when The Ex got pregnant for the first time, and we went to the midwife and she asked, “What form of birth control were you using? Hope?” Hope is not an effective method of preventing pregnancy, nor is it an effective tool for taking control of your own life. Relying only on hope means that your life will be determined by external events; it keeps the locus of control outside of yourself. However, for those of us who frequently feel that our life is in fact controlled more strongly by sinister outside forces than by our own will, hope is also the only thing we have to hold on to. Hope gives us a way out, a light in the darkness. Hope is our escape. Hope gives us the ability to sketch a vague plan that can keep us from dying from depression. Yün loses hope and dies. Shen Fu’s friends keep supplementing his hope with their own, keeping him alive long enough to find goodness in the world again.

This is a short and beautiful book, and it apparently gives us the most detailed look into private life in this period of Chinese history. I enjoyed it thoroughly. When I first came out a lot of people were after me to tell my story, but the task always seemed too big. This may be a good approach, though, taking just one element at a time. It could be a way for me to get a handle on it.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

This is a piece of teenage escapism. Perfect for that role, actually: fast-moving plot, ineffectual or evil adults, and awkward teen heroes.

Scary.

Especially after Petal, wearing a black skirt and matching lipstick, cornered him at school.

She never wore red skirts. She never wore lipstick.

Nick’s head went blank again, smooth, empty. A flat white glacier of nothingness. Not even a woolly mammoth buried in the permafrost.

“Hi,” she said quietly.

It was a brilliant tactic. Short. Friendly but noncommittal. Giving up no information while still requiring a response.

“Hi,” he answered.

Less brilliant. Somewhat uncreative. Verging on plagiarism.

Oh, and it’s a zombie thriller, too. Like any good zombie apocalypse story, the idea is that a lot of us are pretty much walking dead already, and that a catastrophe would do us all a lot of good. Nick works at a chicken processing plant, and after weeks of overwork he slips and stabs his own hand pretty badly, spewing blood all over the chickens. Instead of using the kill switch to halt production, he pushes over the conveyor belt and ruins who-knows-how-much product. But then, after people start turning into zombies after eating at a fast-food fried chicken joint, he begins to suspect that the company decided not to take a loss after all. Why does his blood turn people into zombies? Well, his dad used to work in the research department at the factory, and he brought home some of his experiments and fed them to his kids. I’ve never liked fast-food fried chicken, but since my primary survival skill is the ability to skip meals without complaining, I’d be zombie food for sure.

It makes me think about the weird situation American teenagers are in. As adults, we romanticize our own pasts and then try to extend our children’s childhoods for as long as possible, because we all hate being grown-ups. But people used to be grown up by the time they were thirteen, working full-time factory jobs and churning out babies for abusive husbands. Teenagers haven’t lost the desire for financial independence and sexual activity, but our culture has convinced us that those things are in some ways unsafe for people younger than eighteen or twenty-one. Remember when you couldn’t send your ne’er-do-well son to sea at the age of sixteen because he was already too old? We establish habits during our teen years that will last our entire lives, yet we don’t really encourage teens to develop healthy lifestyles. “They’re just kids; let them enjoy themselves.” What a load of rubbish. They’re bored; give them satisfying work to do. Or at least something to do other than play violent video games and share STDs. They know how to be good people, so let’s get out of their way and let them be who they are.

“Know what I like about you, Nero?”

“No clue.”

Me neither.

“I could tell right away, even when we were alone, you weren’t going to ask lesbian questions.”

“What questions?”

“You know – how does this feel? How does that feel? Is it just a stage I’m going through? The kinds of things boys always ask to make themselves seem open-minded but are actually just pervy and rude.”

“Oh.”

“It’s cool that you have no idea how cool you are.”

Don’t get me wrong, kids are often brutal, but as long as we keep teenagers isolated (still in the wrapper, like mint-condition action figures) they won’t have any reason not to be.

I regret a lot of things from my teenage years. I regret not figuring out that the reason I wasn’t attracted to the girls at my school was that I’m gay. I regret putting all of my effort into my mind while completely ignoring my body – I’d like to be more fit, but it’s hard to start a habit of exercising after thirty-five years without it. Also, because I didn’t exercise then, I’m at a higher risk for cancer and heart disease now. I regret playing video games in my spare time (almost constantly, from sixteen to nineteen). I regret trying to fit in where I was instead of looking for a more congenial social group. I regret accepting boredom, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness as normal. I regret waiting for my life to start. Sometimes it seems that I’m still waiting. Convincing myself that I was content when I was actually depressed was a bad habit to start, and it’s been one of the toughest to kick.

This is my life. It’s happening now. I’m going to go out and live it.

I don’t know how long ago it was that I bought this book. It was an impulse buy, because I had read another of the author’s books and remembered it as being well written. Afterward, though, as I remembered The Time Traveler’s Wife more specifically, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. TTW is a soul-crushing book. Niffenegger introduces you to some nice, lovely people, gives you half a book to fall completely in love, and then she spends the second half destroying them. Everything Henry and Claire love is taken from them, and then they die.

Fortunately, Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t follow the same trajectory. It’s essentially a Victorian ghost story, but up to date. Think back to Sense and Sensibility and Bleak House – you know how social roles are more important than individual identity? How people are easily replaced by others, whether because there’s a physical resemblance or a role in the family? Niffenegger makes that even more intense by using twins. Not secret hidden twins ala Little Dorrit, these are the upfront, can never be separated twins. The author even blames their virginity at 21 on the twinness:

And they would each have to pick different guys, and these guys, these potential boyfriends, would want to spend time alone with one or the other; they would want to be the important person in Julia or Valentina’s life. Each boyfriend would be a crowbar, and soon there would be a gap; there would be hours in the day when Julia wouldn’t even know where Valentina was, or what she was doing, and Valentina would turn to tell Julia something and instead there would be the boyfriend, waiting to hear what she was about to say although only Julia would have understood it.

Of course, this comes directly after Valentina meets Robert and Julia meets Martin. Not that they’re very skilled in starting relationships.

She was used to the profound intimacy of her life with Julia, and she did not know that a cloud of hope and wild illusion is required to begin a relationship. Valentina was like the veteran of a long marriage who has forgotten how to flirt.

It seems a bit odd to me that the author insists that the twins can’t have sex with each other. Women have sex in pairs without men all the time. The comment seems outdated and inaccurate, but it’s just a little speed bump. I may only think so because I’m not a lesbian; I don’t get angry with Mary Wollstonecraft for saying that male homosexuality doesn’t exist, but she was writing more than two hundred years ago, so that’s a pretty good excuse.

I am an expert in building a cloud of hope and wild illusion; beginning a relationship, finding someone suitable to join me in a relationship, not so much. I don’t have a twin to blame, just my own awkwardness and lack of experience. But I know what Robert means when he grieves:

Robert was struck once again by the finality of it all, summed up and presented to him as the silence in the little room behind him. I have things to tell you. Are you listening? He had never realised, while Elspeth was alive, the extent to which a thing had not completely happened until he told her about it.

After the ex and I split, everyone tends to assume that, because I’m gay, I don’t really care about the breakup. They’re wrong. She left a gap in my existence that I have not grown to fill. In my imagination, that space is supplied by my oldest son. Every time I see something new, or that he would have liked when he was three or four, my brain calls his name and goes, “Hey, look!” When I was in New York, I used to extend my hand to hold his. I wonder about getting him to attend a boarding school close to where I live now, but I doubt the ex would put up with that. It could be a school that places every child in an Ivy League school with a full scholarship and she wouldn’t allow it. The feeling of powerlessness brings on a bout of depression, and nothing makes me feel more powerless than having her take my children away from me by making me walk away, again and again and again.

So I look for a relationship to occupy the empty spaces, because I don’t understand the value of my experience until it’s shared. I need time alone to recover from time spent with people, but while I’m forced to stay alone I’m only half alive. I have an apartment rented, but I just keep staying in someone’s guest bedroom to stave off the isolation.

Jessica and James watched Robert walk stiffly across the terrace and into the house. “I’m really worried about him,” Jessica said. “He’s lost the plot, a bit.”

James said, “She’s only been dead eight months. Give him some time.”

“Ye-es. I don’t know. He seems to have stopped – that is, he’s doing all the things one does, but there’s no heart in him. I don’t think he’s even working on his thesis. He’s just not getting over her.”

James met his wife’s anxious eyes. He smiled. “How long would it take you to get over me?”

She held out her bent hand, and he took it in his. She said, “Dear James. I don’t imagine I would ever get over you.”

“Well, Jessica,” said her husband, “there’s your answer.”

But, I said something about ghosts, and then got distracted. One of the things that makes this book less devastating than its predecessor is the fact that death is not the end. Death is change, but it’s not the end. Existence continues, though you tend to get stuck in your flat. A flat next to Highgate Cemetery is pretty amazing, but you’re still stuck in your flat. And to some extent, the cemetery is the point of the book. It’s like in No Name, when Wilkie Collins over-describes everything, and you start thinking that he’s being paid by a tourist commission. Niffenegger puts in an appeal after the story for us to donate to the upkeep of the cemetery, because it’s full of famous dead people and beautiful monuments and it costs a thousand pounds a day to keep it in good repair, yet it relies almost entirely on donations and (cheap) tour fees. If you’re looking for some organization worthy of your donation, look no farther. You can use their website to give them money, either through check, PayPal, or bequest. There is a lengthy explanation of how to leave money to them in your will, but just sending them money now is much simpler (see the grey box on the right side of the page).

Whether you donate or not, read the book. It’s beautiful and satisfying, but not destructive.