Posts Tagged ‘rape’

August

Hide and Seek (Wilkie Collins)

In this novel Collins starts his interest in writing about the disabled, with Magdalen as his deaf heroine. She’s a real angel in the house, and we conclude with the same brother/sister ending that we had in Basil. I’m kind of hoping that he gets off of this kick, because while I do acknowledge the validity of love between people who aren’t having sex, the fact that Collins keeps replacing the traditional married couple with a pair of siblings makes me wonder about the nature of the relationship, especially in a story like this one where the two kids don’t know about their consanguinity for most of the birth-mystery plot, so they toy with romance a bit before they realize. One of the strongest themes for me is the suspect nature of visibly excessive virtue – the people who are strictest with others have the most to hide, as in all those leaders of conversion therapy camps who later come out as gay. And not the quiet, domestic sort of gay that I am – we’re talking rowdy rent boys in loud techno sex clubs gay.

Sunjata (Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute)

This is a west African epic, in this edition transcribed from a couple of performances by famous bards. It is difficult to capture the magic of a live performance in a written medium, but the editor sure tries his hardest. I think this edition is useful for those of us who are interested in traditional stories but don’t have our own immediate access to traditional African bards.

Zeus is Undead: This One Has Zombies (Michael G. Munz)

The sequel to Zeus is Dead, which I read back in June. The characters who annoyed me in the first book are either absent or only appear in cameos, so I prefer this one. Instead of drifting around to several different characters, Munz keeps a much tighter focus on a single protagonist, Athena trying to win back her divinity by solving the mystery of the zombies’ origin. As with any good sequel, this book is about the consequences of what happened in the previous book, and you can’t just go around killing goddesses and expect nothing bad to happen.

Sugar and Other Stories (A. S. Byatt)

Reading this book, I was actually wondering what I was going to write about it here. I thought about aboutness, a real word/concept we use in cataloging. This book is about the emotional lives of intelligent women. [Find me a Library of Congress Subject Heading for that.] Like many of the women in this book, I was a smart child who grew up and wanted to be known for his heart rather than his brain. So many people treated me like a disembodied intellect, and I went along with it – it’s rather a job to make up for lost time and balance myself out now. I recognize that it’s easier for me to be smart because I’m a man and people either expect me to be intelligent or at least to believe in my own intelligence, which is the opposite of what they expect of women. Byatt’s argument, here and in many of her other early works, seems to be that women have both heads and hearts, and can use both effectively, even simultaneously.

The Lord Won’t Mind (Gordon Merrick)

Okay, so I recognize the groundbreaking nature of having written a gay romance in 1969. I know the cultural issues surrounding coming of age in the United States in 1940. But the protagonist of this book is so racist, so misogynist, so homophobic, so toxic that I had a hard time reading about him. Charlie is a terrible person who, when a girl sets boundaries about what he can do with her body, thinks that he ought to rape her because she ‘deserves’ it. There is a lot of explicit gay sex in the first part of the novel, and it’s really hot and really works for me, but then Charlie gets all stupid and breaks up with Peter and marries the first woman he can find. Then he gets abusive and breaks up with her, after he’s beaten her so hard that she’ll never act again, and go finds Peter again. Peter has been nothing but sweet, honest, and tolerant this whole time, so I really worry that Charlie’s going to beat the shit out of him too, leaving him too disfigured to turn tricks, so I don’t want to read the sequels. Charlie’s not anyone I want to spend my time reading about.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

A novel without a real plot. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about the cities he’s visited and heard of in his travels, most of which are impossible to really exist. They all have women’s names, so I wonder if he’s speaking metaphorically about people he’s met. As the stories go on, it becomes less easy to know what’s real and what isn’t, who’s speaking and who’s listening, and where the story is being created, if there even is one. It might be a bit destabilizing, but I thought it was very good.

Weight (Jeanette Winterson)

Yes, I’ve read this book before. I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m allowed to reread. It’s easy to focus on Atlas, the man carrying a heavy burden who learns to let it go. This time I saw the story of Heracles, the bragging, self-centered idiot who is changed by carrying a weight too heavy for him that he dare not lay down. It’s not just the physical weight of the world; it’s the weight of being alone, afraid that the loneliness will never end. When it does end, he’s still changed by it.

The Invention of Heterosexuality (Jonathan Ned Katz)

If you will recall, a little more than a hundred years ago people in the United States created the concept of whiteness as a way to pacify the masses of poor immigrants, I’m thinking of the Irish and southern Europeans. Yes, your lives are shit and no one will hire you or speak to you in a language you can understand, but at least you’re not black. You’re white, and there will always be a place in our slums for you. Katz gives a similar historical survey of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tracing the formation of the heterosexual identity. As gays and lesbians became more vocal about their existence, innate dignity, and basic human rights, heterosexuals began to examine their own sexual orientation identity and to codify what it means to be ‘straight’. In what situations is it acceptable for same-gender heterosexuals to express affection, and how should it be expressed? What habits of dress, mannerism, and behavior characterize the heterosexual American? The book is very interesting in looking at the changing nature of ‘normal’ and the codification of homophobia; I don’t think it should be labeled for gay/lesbian studies (eh-hem, publisher who printed that on the back of the book). I think that in some places Katz’s analysis is a little slap-dash, and his understanding of American history seems a bit incomplete (we didn’t all land at Plymouth Rock), but there’s still a lot of value here. I think this book is a good starting place, but that we need more granular perspectives, a closer reading of specific times and places. The United States is hardly a single monoculture, even today. Katz tends to homogenize the country as he decries the homogenization it performs on itself.

Let’s Talk About Love (Claire Kann)

YA asexual romance. Protagonist is a biromantic asexual college student, starting with the breakup from the girlfriend she loves but doesn’t want to have sex with and working through the friendship that becomes her next relationship. Our culture puts so much emphasis on sexual license for people in their late teens and early twenties that a young woman of color really has to fight for her right not to have sex. She works at a library, which makes me happy, and falls for the guy who volunteers for storytime. He’s straight, so when they do finally have the talk about sex (after having already broken several touch barriers), it’s a struggle for him to deal with the fact that they’re not going to do it. There’s a happy ending, where he says that all the passion and connection he looks for in a sexual relationship are already present with them, but I personally tend to doubt what he says. He loves her, yes, and he’s not a rapist, but I don’t think he’s going to be long-term happy with lifelong celibacy. It’s very much a happily-for-now, not a happily-ever-after.

 

September Books

The Hangman’s Daughter (Oliver Pötzsch)

Historical mystery. The author comes from a long line of executioners, so he did some research into life in small-town Bavaria in the seventeenth century and wrote a murder mystery featuring his however-many-greats-grandfather. Kids are being killed during the week of Walpurgisnacht, and when found they have alchemical symbols drawn on their bodies, so everyone assumes witchcraft. Despite the potential for emphasis on women’s wisdom (and the title referring to a woman), female characters are not really terribly important (the woman of the title is identified by her relationship to a man, not anything inherent in her). This is a book about the hangman and the doctor in love with his daughter, their interest in herbal medicine and modern surgical methods as opposed to the traditional four-humors style of healing by opening veins and forcing laxatives. When women appear, they are fantastic and strong and wise, but we spend most of our time in the heads of the men investigating and perpetrating the crimes. As with the witchcraft itself, women are a distraction or a misdirection, red herrings all. Some of the characters I read in the voice of angry Nazi officers in films, both American and German, which adds a layer of fear that I don’t know was intended. The fact that I can do this seems to point to the quality of the translation – I take it it’s very good.

The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” Maggie Tulliver is a girl who holds tightly to the ties of mutual history that bind her to her family, no matter how miserable they make her. Eliot spends a good bit of time setting up the tug-of-war tragedy of Maggie’s adult life, so it can seem a bit slow at the beginning, when everyone is talking about the future. The foreshadowing is heavy, and then the reflection on the past is heavy as well, and the weight of all that is not present tense crushes her. I really want Maggie to focus on right now for a few minutes, but when she does she breaks convention so strongly that she’s shunned for the rest of the book. I identified very closely with Maggie on this reading; my family vexes, ignores, and intolerates me, but I feel equally unable to cut the ties, no matter how loose they have become, no matter how many Stephen Guests tell me it’s okay to do it. Sometimes I feel so distanced from them that my own last name seems foreign to me. Spending time with them feels like I’m complete, as if I’ve misplaced a part of my identity that only lives with them, even though/even while they constantly reinscribe my role as Lost Child, the tabula rasa who hides his own personality like a palimpsest, wanting to be valued but afraid to be seen.

Where Angels Fear to Tread (E. M. Forster)

This is a story of cultural contact, looking at the way Englishpeople respond to Italy. The fools rushing in, implied by the title, are the English family who seem determined to destroy the life of a handsome young Italian. All the English know that while Italy is beautiful, both by nature and as home of Renaissance art, actual Italian people are dirty and evil, no matter how sexy (probably because they’re so sexy – there’s no way someone that pretty and that dark could be good). It’s easier to stay racist at a distance, so when the English come to Italy they can’t hold onto their resolutions, leading to blunders and foolishness and ruined lives. It’s not always clear when Forster is speaking in his own voice or narrating the inner monologues of his characters, so it’s not always clear where the racism is coming from, but the broad strokes make it clear that the English are idiots and the Italians are better off without their meddling. Misogynistic philanderers, maybe, but also close to nature, closer to the marrow of their own lives. If you can stop thinking of love as monogamous and possessive, then modern Italian culture as Forster portrays it can be really beautiful as well. They just experience chivalry differently than the English do. There’s a strong sense that the English experience goodness as passivity and part of Italian evil is the willingness to act, but I think that good and evil are not easily mapped onto passivity and activity – I don’t think either of these binaries actually exists except on a spectrum from one extreme to another, and that inherent nature (which I perceive to be good, distinct from the dominant culture’s perception of good) always lies somewhere in the middle.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

Another book about Man’s relationship to Time. I use Man in the gender-specific sense because women are not prominent in this story. They can act as ideals for men to practice their chivalry upon, but if they take up any space in the narrative at all it’s as the fallen woman or the evil witch. It’s a story of men learning to accept the aging process, not trying to speed it up when we’re younger or reverse it when we’re older, not placing sole value on our existence between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. Will and Jim are thirteen-year-old best friends, and in one of the easily-forgotten-yet-foundational early scenes, they watch while a couple has sex with the window open. I guess pornography wasn’t readily available in Bradbury’s Illinois, so Jim is continually drawn back to staring in the window of adulthood while Will keeps pulling him back toward childhood. The dark carnival arrives almost immediately, turning the literal growth of sexuality into surreal metaphor. Will’s father Charles occupies the opposite end of things, older than most first-time parents, so much older than his wife that people mistake him for her father. Realistically, she’s probably only ten or fifteen years younger, but Charles looks old for his age. He’s the janitor at the library, which I find interesting because (a) there’s no stigma attached to his work, and (b) there are no librarians. Librarians were mostly female at this time, and the profession was consciously trying masculinize itself in its rebranding as library SCIENCE. Charles Halloway manages to use the library resources in the absence of the trained library employees, as if to point out that all that education women get in organizing and providing access to resources is unnecessary to a man who is determined to root out evil. The book has a way of erasing women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities, leaving us with a world of ‘straight’ white men eradicating evil through the power of their contempt and desperate self-control. I do appreciate the lesson that we see later on in Harry Potter’s boggarts, that the best way to deal with fear is to laugh at it, but Green Town is such a restricted view of the United States that I find it claustrophobic, creepy even without Cooger and Dark’s. Bradbury’s writing is beautiful, but very firmly rooted in the conformist part of the early 1960s.

 

Inspector Hobbes and the Blood (Wilkie Martin)

Inspector Hobbes and the Curse (Wilkie Martin)

Inspector Hobbes and the Gold Diggers (Wilkie Martin)

Full disclosure – Kobo offered me the three in a bundle, so that’s why I read them all in a row. There’s a fourth, and now you can get the four of them in a bundle. Or I can pay full price for the one that’s left.

These books are low-key paranormal mysteries. Inspector Hobbes, the resident Sherlock Holmes, is a large, hairy man with a keen interest in old-fashioned manners and a complete obliviousness to anything modern, like fashion or technology. Watson is played by Andy Caplet, who calls himself a journalist but he’s better at causing news than at reporting on it. He’s clumsy and awkward, and in the first book that leads to a tendency to incite riots. People react less violently in the later books, and the novels are the poorer for it. In the portrayal of trolls and vampires and other supernatural characters, Martin displays unflatteringly people’s tendency to racism and classism, and the gratitude that minorities have toward someone who just treats them like a regular person (maybe a little too grateful). That being said, there’s nothing in these cozy little mysteries to offend anyone, or even to make the heart beat faster. Read these books to laugh, not to be enthralled or horrified. The comedy is the most successful aspect.

 

A Ghost in the Closet (Mabel Maney)

I loved this book so much. It’s a lesbian parody of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, with a bit of Nurse Cherry Ames thrown in. It’s the third in the series, with two previous Nancy Clue/Cherry Aimless books. By the time this one opens, the squad has something like five lesbians traveling together – Midge and Velma are the stable couple, while Nancy and Jackie are fighting over Cherry. There are also several bits of the Hardly boys dealing with their own homosexual feelings (not for each other). The mystery itself is a cross between utter triviality and overblown world destruction, and the writing style is so alliterative I was giggling constantly. There are a couple of graphic scenes with the ladies, but not so graphic. There’s an emphasis on fashion and interior decorating that leads me to question the community’s interest in conspicuous consumption – are we really that materialistic?

“Let’s have breakfast,” Willy announced, shepherding the gang into his pleasant kitchen. Nancy relaxed for the first time in days as she watched Willy bustle about the cozy room, painted in soothing peach tones and decorated with starched white tie-back flounced curtains. Above the sink was a saucy shelf edged with ruffled gingham and holding a collection of dainty porcelain egg cups. She sipped her coffee as Willy tied an apron over his slacks outfit, took a bowl of farm fresh eggs from the Frigidaire and expertly cracked a dozen into a cast-iron skillet, next to a pan cradling a sizzling side of bacon.

A few minutes later he plopped a plate of just-right eggs, yummy-smelling bacon and crunchy toast in front of her. “You’ll feel better once you’ve had a bite to eat,” he smiled. Nancy blinked back tears. He had seen right through her brave charade!

 

Alien Quest (Mark Zubro)

Another gay book, this one not so much a parody as a clunky genre piece. Joe is a detective from outer space, and Mike is a Chicago waiter. There is nothing hot or steamy about the romance, and Mike routinely ignores the global consequences of events for petulant moments of self-absorption. Then, there are so many other things that get shoved in, because apparently no book about gay men is complete without (a) someone dying of AIDS and (b) the gay community adopting a homophobic teenager and converting him to tolerance. Seriously. I get so sick of the myth of the saintly minority. I know what it is to suffer, so I’m required to relieve the suffering of those who hate me? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Minor Character is out of the physically abusive situation he was in, but having to save the teenage jerk while trying to save the world was an unnecessary distraction. It’s like Zubro didn’t have enough plot with an alien detective, so he had to keep shoving more elements in until it reached critical mass. There are a couple more in this series, but I may end up having too many issues to read them.

Another thing that bothers me is how seldom the narrator uses Joe’s name. He’s always referred to as ‘the alien’, perhaps because he’s so normal that we might forget that’s what he is. It makes Mike (and Zubro) seem a bit racist against non-humans. If someone looks and acts like a human being, even down to having the same genitals and manner of employing them, why would you keep insisting on his difference?

 

David Starr, Space Ranger (Isaac Asimov)

Asimov includes a short note of apology at the beginning of this book, because science moved on and the story as he imagined it could not possibly happen. Interstellar radiation, or something like that. David Starr is the type of hero that the audience of the time would have really loved – young, rebellious, smart, asexual, and violent. Asimov was writing for boys in the 1950s; what do you expect? Female characters? Despite the complete absence of women, he avoids any hints of homosexuality, which is actually sort of amazing. The last page features two men swearing eternal friendship and companionship, but it’s not until the last page. It seems strange to me that there’s so much hand-to-hand combat, because I don’t think science requires the frequent application of fists to noses, but I’m from another time.

 

Old School (Tobias Wolff)

This is a book about books. First-Person Narrator is remembering his school days, at this uncomfortably elite school where they invite famous authors to meet the students. The first part, about Robert Frost, is sort of straightforward and introduces you to the world and characters. The second part disrupts the first – some fool invites Ayn Rand. She’s horrible, travels with an entourage of superfans, and treats everyone like shit. FPN is enamoured of her work until he meets her and realizes what a terrible person she is. I was going to say bitch, but that’s an insult to dogs. Things get really intense for the third author, Ernest Hemingway. Of course FPN has to submit a story, but he can’t force anything out until he reads a story in a girls’ school literary magazine, and her story hits so hard and seems so much like his own that he plagiarizes the entire thing. He’s chosen, and caught, because this is what Story requires, but Hemingway dies before the visit anyway.

This is a book about authenticity, told by a boy who is so ashamed of his Jewish heritage that he can’t admit it to anyone, not even other part-Jewish boys, not even when he plagiarizes a story about being Jewish on the edges of high WASP society. It’s sad and weird, but worth reading.

 

Alphabet of Thorn (Patricia A. McKillip)

This book was so fantastic. Protagonist is a foundling raised by librarians to be a translator, and one day she finds an untranslatable book written in a completely unique alphabet that only she can read. It tells the legend of ancient heroes, and with the increasing level of detail it becomes clear that it was written by the greatest magician of all time. Because history is as it is, a number of legendary historical figures are misgendered, so the books feels strongly feminist, literally taking a time-traveling fantasy out of the hands of men and making the real heroes women. Men are realistically portrayed, but they do tend to be either violent, dense, or both. My favorite male character accidentally turns himself invisible.

I like the way that McKillip is sex-positive without being erotic or graphic. In this book, sex is as normal, unquestioned, and not worth describing as eating. She normalizes it successfully instead of fetishizing it or making it a significant plot point. I’m now looking for all the books of hers I can lay my hands on.

 

The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle)

I had a hard time making it through this one. I started it back before Nancy Clue, but it took this long to finish, even though it’s a short little thing. The problem is that I hate Professor Challenger. Like David Starr, he uses his fists as much as his scientific intellect, but he looses his violence on reporters and colleagues, not anyone who is actually trying to pick a fight. His wife disagrees with him on something, and she’s in the right, so he punishes her by literally setting her on a pedestal that is too high for her to climb down from. It’s everything that’s wrong with Victorian masculinity condensed into one vain, belligerent asshole. He leads a small expedition – another professor, a reporter, and a big-game hunter – with its attendant racist portrayals of Brazilians to find an isolated plateau populated by dinosaurs. It’s hard to escape from, but apparently genocide helps. The reporter is the first-person narrator, and he’s Irish, but uses unmarked speech while his Scottish editor is portrayed as a dialect-employing idiot. So racist. So sexist. Also ends with two men agreeing to stick together because “Bitches be cray”; she told him before he left that he wasn’t good enough for her, so I don’t know why he expected her to stay single while he got himself lost in the Amazon. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but if they’re as bad as this, I may never come back to Doyle.

 

Faerie Tale (Raymond E. Feist)

Horror novel based on the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Phil and Gloria, a successful screenwriter and an unsuccessful actress, buy a house in upstate New York and move their family there. The twin boys are pretty standard American fare, obsessed with baseball and too young for girls, and the older daughter falls for a grad student working with Phil’s old mentor. He’s a good kid. There are also Mark and Gary, two folklore scholars who are studying the fairy stories and strange occurrences. They sound and act like a gay couple, even though Gary has a girlfriend. Her name is Ellen and she’s a very competitive, athletic tennis player who is almost never onscreen – the perfect lesbian beard. There’s a lot of secret society stuff, and sex is positive when it’s offscreen, as if rape is the only sex worth describing. Feist isn’t a bad writer, and I’ll probably read some more of his work, but there’s something dissonant about this book that I can’t quite articulate. Maybe it’s just me.

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

I love this book so much. It’s about a competition between two magic teachers – they each train a student, then bind them together in a magical fight to the death. Of course the two fall in love. The first time I saw that much, but this time I saw just how important everyone else is, the clockmaker, the contortionist who survived the last challenge, the fortuneteller who uses Temperance to keep them balanced, the teenager who teaches the magician about stories, the woman who sees behind the scenes and runs mad, the boy who falls in love with the circus and saves it. Of course I love the circus as well, all the magical tents that don’t seem to match what I remember of circuses – The Wishing Tree, The Pool of Tears, The Ice Garden… It’s beautiful and emotional, and not at all outsized or self-conscious the way I picture circuses. I want Morgenstern to write more books.

 

The Poisoned Island (Lloyd Shepherd)

This book starts with a rape, and rubs the symbolism in as it continues to tell the story of English botanists raiding Tahiti. It’s marketed as literary fiction, but don’t be fooled: this is a dark Regency-era murder mystery with a strong social-justice message. It’s also the second in a series, which didn’t become clear until I got curious about all the references to the characters’ shared history and checked Amazon, and sure enough, the major characters are mentioned by name in the description of Shepherd’s previous novel, The English Monster. So read them in order. I’m not saying it’s poorly written, because I think it’s a good book – I use ‘literary fiction’ as a genre rather than as a description of quality. But seriously, the body count gets up to nine or ten, and the protagonist takes a really paternalistic attitude toward his wife, who seems like a brilliant scientist if men would stop hampering her activities.

 

The Earthsea Trilogy (Ursula K. Le Guin)

I thought this would be a good way to slow down the way I’m burning through my book collection, reading a three-in-one, but it didn’t work. It went so fast. Three titles: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. In some form, all three books are about the human conflict with death. Le Guin points out that death is to be respected, but not sought after, not worshipped, not feared. The protagonist of the first one turns into a guide in the other two, but while it makes sense, it’s a little sad – the first book makes it clear that he has dark skin, as do most of the people in Earthsea, but the next two books have white protagonists, and Ged becomes another magical Negro spirit guide. There are important things here about who we are and what it means to be human, but the racial stuff did make me sad. There are more books now, so maybe the people of color come back to the center in Tehanu, but I don’t know yet.

 

The Lightning-Struck Heart (T. J. Klune)

I loved this book so much. Again, it’s sort of thick so it should have taken me a while, but I went through it so fast and loved it all. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks that bitchy twinks who make sex jokes in a fantasy landscape can be hilarious. Fantasy/gay rom-com, completely genre-appropriate. Sam is a wizard’s apprentice whose best friends are an angry glittery unicorn and a half-giant. He’s in love with Knight Delicious Face, engaged to Prince Justin – the prince gets kidnapped by a sexually aggressive dragon who has been deified by a local town with mind-control corn, so the baby wizard and the knight go on a quest. I am super excited about the fact that there are three more that I can put on my list.

 

Oh, and by the way, today is my seven-year anniversary on WordPress. You’ve come a long way, Angry Ricky, but you’re still yourself, even though you thought you might lose yourself along the way.

This novel was originally published in 1980, and the quotes on the cover are all about how Graham Swift is the literary novelist of the decade. And to some extent, they’re right. His book fits all the conventions for the literary novel of his time. It felt like something I’d read before, even though I’ve never read anything of his before, because there’s nothing to mark it as different or distinctive. It’s the same literary novel that people have been writing since the mid-1970s.

We meet Willy Chapman on the last day of his life. He knows that it is, and there are almost constant references to this fact, even though it’s never explicitly stated. Because it’s his last day, he tries to make it both completely normal and a form of leave-taking, so of course he fails. People catch on to the fact that something’s weird, but they don’t know what.

But of course this isn’t the real story. The real story is his life, told in a series of flashbacks, sometimes in order, sometimes not.

Past the winning post, round the first bend, the shadows on the grass swivelling round mockingly in front of them. Barely half the race run, but already – you can sense it – they are getting lost in their struggles. A grimness setting in. They don’t notice the wails of the crowd or the encouragement of the figures clustered round the winning post and the judge’s desk – sports masters, house monitors in blazers and flannels, Mr Hill, bending over the track, waving what seems a threatening fist as they approach; the clock-tower, the spire. Don’t they see, the secret is not to think of the race? But they notice only the endless dark circuit of the track. A grimness. The crowd senses it. The cheering changes tone. They like a battle.

This is written close to the end, but it’s from one of the earlier scenes. Chapman was a high-school track star in 1931, where he realized that for most people life becomes a constant struggle, a battle that never ends. Until it does. People like that; they enjoy watching the fight. But that’s not what Chapman lives for. He wins the race by thinking of the encouragement, or the crowd, or anything but the struggle, the difficulty of filling lungs while moving too fast for the air to be drawn in naturally, the ache of tiring muscles, and the inevitable slowing. Chapman hangs back until the last lap, then races past for the win. His primary opponent, Jack Harrison, pushes himself to be faster than everyone else, and finally comes in second.

Irene Harrison is a reasonably nice girl from a wealthy family. They run a chain of laundries, I think all in London. Her parents pick a suitor from a similarly ‘good’ family with a ‘good’ future, so of course he date-rapes her. They insist she go out with him again, and he does it again. The family had drummed her head full of all this nonsense about feminine purity, so premarital sex kind of destroys her. She ends up going to a mental institution for a few weeks, but that only keeps her from acting out. It doesn’t heal anything.

Literature from this time seems to require a rape, or an abortion (either unwanted and forced or wanted and denied), or both. It’s like the fiction of the twentieth century is fueled by trauma inflicted on women. Thinking about it this morning, it’s like the last century went along steadily denying people the comfort of traditional gender definitions. The wars became so obscene that men doubted their masculinity simply because they refused to lose their humanity. I hate the fact that masculinity is so often defined by violence – not only because it destabilizes the gender identity of men who like peace, but mainly because it leads men to perform acts of violence simply to understand who they are. Defining masculinity through violence means that every man needs a victim, usually a woman or a child. Drawing our attention to toxic masculinity is important, but it’s most helpful to pair it with the nontoxic variety. Pointing out toxic masculinity without providing an alternative expression of male gender identity has the tendency to normalize the unhealthy attitudes. “Don’t rape women” is a fantastic rule, but we also need “Do treat women with respect, as you would any other equal.” Provide Do’s for all the Don’t’s to avoid creating a behavior vacuum, that people will then fill with other forms of bad behavior.

Chapman is sort of like the good example – the rapist and the girl’s brothers treat him like a patsy, just like in all those eighteenth-century novels where the cast-off mistress is married to a sidekick or lesser hero. But really, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with marrying a girl whose hymen is already broken, or even understand why everyone is laughing behind their hands at him. She’s pretty, he likes her, she tolerates him, so what else matters?

Throughout the book, they talk about their deal. Irene is marrying Willy because she thinks he’s the only one who will have her. He’s not her equal, either socially or intellectually. Handsome, athletic, and malleable, yes. Willy is marrying her because she’s amazing: beautiful, rich, smart. They never talk about their deal, but it runs something like this. Irene can offer Willy everything he wants except love, so he won’t bother her with that. They’ll go through the forms of marriage without ever offering or eliciting the word Love.

When they marry, he’s a lower employee in a printer’s office. His hands are almost permanently dyed black with newsprint. She buys him a newsstand so that he can own his own business, though he leans more toward offering the candy and marketing to children than focusing on the papers. Eventually he also starts selling toys, and expands to a second location. Professionally, Willy Chapman is very successful. Unfortunately, before he opens for the first time, as he’s hanging the new sign, he falls off the ladder and breaks his leg. Due to the state of medicine in 1938, this is a life-changing accident. Now, a man in his 20s can break a leg and heal without it materially affecting his movements a year later. Chapman gets a permanent limp. You could read the runner’s sudden inability even to walk comfortably as a castration, but again, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Or at least, his feelings aren’t important enough to dwell on.

There’s a lot of talk about World War II, but they get through it without too much trouble. He works in the quartermaster’s, and she goes to live in the country for a while, but then comes back and gets a job (pointedly not working for her father). It seems to be a theme in the British literature around World War II – just keep buggering on. Irene’s brother, the runner, dies, but she’s not that sorry to have one fewer family member to boss her around, disrespect her husband, and gaslight her.

Then there’s Dorothy. Part of the deal, what Willy and Irene give to each other, is a child. Just one. He loves children, but he’s working all the time, so Dorry is really Irene’s daughter, imbued with all of her mother’s values and faults. She’s the classic baby-boomer, as seen in the early 1970s – entitled, rude, rebellious, ungrateful. So, sort of how the baby-boomers see the millennials. Takes one to know one, I guess. Swift himself was born the same year as his character, so I want to see him identifying with her, but I never found her all that sympathetic. He seems to be celebrating his parents’ generation and partially condemning his own.

I’m tempted to discuss the differences in values in terms of gender, but it is probably more accurate to frame the discussion around class. Willy Chapman has little in common with the family he marries into, and we see it most clearly in his interactions with his wife and daughter. He’s from a working class background, and pushed his way to the lower middle before marrying a girl from the upper middle. This being the twentieth century, there are no titles, but the Harrisons are definitely gentry while Chapman would normally be permitted to shine their shoes for a nickel if he washed his hands first. Remembering the emphasis on feminine purity, Irene inherited a great deal of money from her mother, who got it when her brothers died. It’s sort of like the payment she receives for holding herself together and marrying someone the family can tolerate. She’s being paid for not going too far off the rails – or in other words, for letting her rapist get away with it, for staying silent and accepting injustice. She invests some of the money in dish sets, china that will keep its value (she insists). When she dies, it seems logical that the fifteen thousand pounds should go straight to Dorothy, but the new generation isn’t into purity. She’s been living with a fellow student without marrying him, and the sense of social outrage is too much. No inheritance from her dead mother. She’s furious, of course, and comes around to take the china, which makes Chapman very sad. He hates the idea that his daughter is so obsessed with the money – he’s not seeing it as a symbol of familial acceptance, an acknowledgment of worth. Eventually he does write her the check (it’s not like anyone else in her family is still around to care), even though he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to her. She’s going to inherit when he dies anyway, but I think he wanted her to know that he’s giving it to her of his own free will, not as a default.

Contrast that with Chapman’s work, selling newspapers and candy.

Memorials. They don’t matter. They don’t belong to us. They are only things we leave behind so we can vanish safely. Disguises to set us free. That’s why I built my own memorial so compliantly – the one she allotted me, down there in the High Street. A memorial of trifles, useless things.

Newspapers are, by their very nature, disposable. I’m always sad when I hear of people who hoard the papers, because they lose their value very quickly. I don’t mean their financial value, I mean their use value. What good is last year’s newspaper? If you buy them daily, what use is it to keep one from last month? I’ve heard that one of my father’s sisters (he has two, I’ve never met either) is one of these, and it’s sad. The trajectory of my life has been away from physical possessions, toward finding my sense of permanency within myself. Wandering through a house with floor-to-ceiling stacks of newsprint is not how I want to pass my old age, nor how I think anyone should. For the Harrisons, the newsstand is kind of a Fuck you, you don’t deserve anything permanent; for Chapman, it’s also kind of a Fuck you, I’m devoting my life to the transient, disposable things of life, not your lasting value.

And none of it – that was the beauty of it – was either useful or permanent.

The irony is that in the end, they live on Chapman’s business and not his wife’s family or inheritance. The Harrisons wither and collapse while Willy’s business expands. He assumes that Dorothy will sell the business after he dies, but he’s really built something that the most mercenary of materialists would be proud to have, despite his celebration of the temporary.

The thing that really struck me about this book, aside from seeing a valorization of my own principles, is the way that the world shrinks. He’s in London, one of the most exciting cities on the planet, but his world consists of his house, his shop, and the road he drives to get between them. It’s not even a very long road. There’s a lot more to the city than he ever sees; a lot more to England, a lot more to Planet Earth, but he tightens his gaze to a handful of buildings and a few short streets. Having traveled as much as I have, I don’t understand it. I can’t comprehend the type of fortitude and courage it takes to live according to the same routine in the same narrow orbit for thirty years. I haven’t been able to manage it for three. My life has taken me around a continent and onto three more, but Chapman’s life is circumscribed within a few miles. I’m not even sure I want to understand.

Is Graham Swift going to be studied in literature classes in fifty years as a preeminent British novelist of the late twentieth century? I don’t know. I’m inclined to say not, because there’s nothing really too experimental, nothing to grab the eye. Will I remember this book in six months? I’m not sure. Like Willy Chapman, the book itself is like a small pebble dropped in a large pond, that makes a ripple or two and then is lost. Within reach, but not important enough to retrieve.

 

As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

I haven’t felt much like writing lately. I have a lot of anxiety and anger in my personal life right now, and I am the sort of person who enlarges his mental health symptoms instead of trying to cure them. Delaying writing about books means that it’s hard for me to recapture the feelings I had when reading, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I seem distanced from my subject matter this summer.

It is a wild adventure we are on. Here, as we are rushing along through the darkness, with the cold from the river seeming to rise up and strike us, with all the mysterious voices of the night around us, it all comes home. We seem to be drifting into unknown places and unknown ways; into a whole world of dark and dreadful things.

Please don’t judge the book by the films, or the appearance of the book’s characters in television. I haven’t seen all the adaptations, but I watched Bela Lugosi’s and Gary Oldman’s performances, and while I applaud the actors, I want to strangle the writers. A love story between Mina and Dracula? It’s stupid. Eliminating Lucy’s suitors? It’s weird. What’s wrong with Stoker’s story that no one seems capable of just showing it the way he told it?

Dracula is the most violently pro-Catholic book I’ve ever read. In most Gothic texts Catholics are the enemy, what with Lewis’s monk selling his soul to the devil, and Radcliffe’s Italians being sent to the Inquisition, and Melmoth appearing in the Spanish Inquisition. Think about how racist the British were toward the Irish and the Italians – Roman Catholicism was either feared or ridiculed (I’m thinking about Villette, where the romantic lead tries to convert the protagonist and she’s just not tempted). Dracula is an ancient evil, so he has to be defeated by an equally ancient religion, though considering European history neither the man nor the church is really that ancient. Regardless, crucifixes force him away, as does the host. The Catholic Church places a lot of emphasis on the little crackers they use in Mass, because they believe it magically becomes the literal body of Jesus when it’s been prayed over. Ten years ago (last time I checked), they refused to produce a gluten-free version of the communion wafer because apparently only wheat can transubstantiate. Catholics with coeliac disease either have to poison themselves on a regular basis or self-excommunicate. Prof van Helsing uses the wafers to control Dracula and poison the ground against him.

Let’s talk for a minute about the dirt. A lot of people say that a vampire has to rest in the dirt of his homeland, or at least he has to go underground. That’s not the issue for Stoker. Dracula has to rest in consecrated ground, cemetery dirt. But if you’re going to a Protestant country, how easy is it to find a Catholic cemetery? Remember, for religions based on a priesthood that has to be conferred from one man to another like Catholics and Mormons, Protestant ceremonies don’t count. It’s only holy if one of their own does it. So when Dracula comes to England, he ships thirty boxes of proper Catholic cemetery dirt so that he can be sure of finding a resting place. Van Helsing literally poisons his dirt by putting communion wafers in the boxes, turning something holy into something repellent. As a vampire, Dracula is all topsy-turvy with the good/evil thing.

Most of Dracula’s powers are as they are in other media: turning into a bat or wolf or mist, controlling animals and mental health patients, hypnotism. But he has no trouble walking around during the day; he doesn’t get all sparkly or burst into flames or anything. He is weaker during the day and so can’t change his shape, but that’s the only effect. When Dracula is away from blood, he ages, sometimes rather quickly. Drinking blood returns his youth, even making his hair darker. The thing that always confuses me about vampires in film, though, is the way they equate age with power. Surviving several hundred years could make someone more wily, better at living through whatever trials they face, but being really old doesn’t make a person physically stronger. The ability to punch people really hard isn’t the only or most important type of power, and we never see vampires in films going to the gym to bulk up. But Dracula didn’t get smarter with age. Van Helsing describes him as having a child-brain, still experimenting with his limitations after four hundred years. It might be better to describe vampires as animals with speech – Dracula is outsmarted by a group of well-meaning idiots.

And why do I call them idiots? Because of the racism and misogyny.

Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has a man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us; after to-night she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great.

Wilhelmina Harker is amazing. She doesn’t push hard against the restrictions placed on women in her time, but works within those limits to find fulfillment and happiness. Women can’t get a job? Okay. She finds a husband with similar interests and determines to ‘help’ him with his work. She teaches herself shorthand to help him better. Just to make that clear: She learns a second language so that she can interview her husband’s clients. She may not be a lawyer in name, but I have no doubt that she’ll have a better grasp of English Law than he does, given the time to study on her own. The men’s investigation moves forward when she’s a part of it; they suffer setbacks when they leave her out. Even though women of her social standing did not travel unattended, when her Jonathan gets sick she goes to Budapest alone to take care of him. She has an independence and resolve that society didn’t claim to value in women, though the authors of the time certainly did. Her intelligence and charisma would have ensured success in any endeavor she chose, and she chose to be a wife, probably the best-paid and most secure profession for a woman in the 1890s.

Lucy Westenra is Mina’s sleepwalking best friend. She’s more into the material, boy-chasing side of life that misogynists tend to claim is natural for a teenage girl. She gets three marriage proposals in one day, and her three suitors seem to follow the Mind-Body-Soul paradigm. They’re all three friends and have gone hunting in the Americas together. Dr Seward is the mind; he runs a mental hospital, though we’d see it more as an asylum, or torture chamber for the mentally ill. Or crazy-people jail. He and Mina are probably the most prolific narrators. Quincy Morris is the body; he’s from Texas and runs the hunting expeditions. Arthur Holmwood is the soul; he’s a gentleman of no settled profession. Of course Lucy chooses the Soul Suitor. And really, why shouldn’t she love the richest man? After his father dies, he becomes Lord Godalming. Arthur and Quincy spend a lot of time together offscreen, so it’s fun to imagine that body and soul are more into each other than they are into her, but there’s no real textual evidence for that. Lucy’s suitors are paralleled by Dracula’s three brides, the female vampires who fail to seduce Jonathan (though they do get to Keanu Reeves).

Lucy dies because of male stupidity. Seward can’t figure out why she’s sick, so he brings van Helsing over from Amsterdam. Van Helsing immediately recognizes the symptoms of blood loss and arranges for multiple transfusions, but even though he knows there’s a vampire at work he won’t tell anyone. He fills Lucy’s room with garlic and crosses and tries to keep her room closed at night, but he doesn’t tell anyone why, so her mother clears all that shit out and keeps the window open. If he had just talked to people about what was going on, she could have been saved. Instead, on the night her wedding was planned, she comes to her not-yet-husband as a vampire and he stakes her. The staking releases her soul from torment and she becomes good again, just before they cut her head off and stuff the mouth with garlic. Arthur makes a comparison between the blood transfusion and sex, trying to comfort himself that at least he had that satisfaction, but he doesn’t know that she got blood from nearly every male character in the book, making her probably the most visibly promiscuous girl in Victorian literature.

Isolation is Dracula’s greatest weapon. Getting people alone gives him his best opportunity to prey on them. The female isolation in this book is just baffling. People were talking about “The Surplus Woman Problem,” because Englishmen were sent all over the world to fight in wars and extort resources from the colonies while women were expected to just stay at home. This led to an extreme gender imbalance on the English homefront, and explains why Victorian novels are full of older women who never married. They were considered surplus, extra, unnecessary and unwanted, old maids. There’s a convent in Budapest where the nuns nurse Jonathan and facilitate his marriage to Mina, there are those three vampire women who never leave Transylvania, but there are really only three female characters in the book, and Lucy’s mother is very minor. So, for about half the book, Mina is the only real female character, surrounded by seven men. It’s just not realistic.

Then again, that does leave us plenty of time to explore male homosocial bonding.

I comforted him as well as I could. In such cases men do not need much expression. A grip of the hand, the tightening of an arm over the shoulder, a sob in unison, are expressions of sympathy dear to a man’s heart.

I read a theory once that Dracula is about internalized homophobia, a representation of Stoker’s fear that he might be gay. It’s an interesting theory, but I don’t see a lot of evidence for it. Vampiric activity is highly sexualized in a we-can’t-talk-about-sex kind of way, which makes it disturbing that female vampires seem to prefer children even though they can hypnotize men and enforce their cooperation. Among adults, vampires bite people of the opposite sex; Dracula is a rapist, but he’s not a gay rapist. He plans to leave Jonathan Harker to the ladies, but he doesn’t bite the man himself. The staking is also highly sexual (curing a woman’s rape trauma by fucking her properly?), with Arthur doing Lucy and van Helsing doing all three of Dracula’s brides. When it comes to killing Dracula, Jonathan cuts his head off without staking him to the ground first; it denies him spiritual peace by not returning his soul, and it reasserts Jonathan’s heterosexuality because men don’t penetrate other men in this book.

Dracula is exciting and modern (for its time), oddly feminist if you look at it from that angle, and I love an epistolary novel with several different perspectives. This isn’t the first vampire story, but it is the most famous and influential. I strongly recommend it for anyone who likes Gothic novels or who feels vindicated when a Dutch Catholic teaches English Protestants how to destroy Slavic monsters. Can’t trust eastern European immigrants, apparently. So racist.

I know it’s been a couple of weeks that I haven’t written here, but it’s not for want of reading. I have four or five books that I need to write about; I’ve been reading rather a lot. The problem is with my computer – it’s five years old, and they’re not built to last that long any more. It’s reached a phase where it crashes every time it gets jostled or tipped, and that doesn’t fit well with my computing style – I take the term ‘laptop’ seriously. I’ve put it on a desk for the writing today, so perhaps we won’t have any unpleasant interruptions.

Start with Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale is one of those plays that people don’t always like to call comedies because some terrible things happen. A truly nice guy has to exit, pursued by a bear. It’s not always clear who’s good and who’s bad, though I suppose that’s part of the point. It’s a story of dissolution, followed by gathering and forgiveness. King Leontes is convinced that the second child about to be born to him is not his, so he has one of those huge operatic scenes with his wife and friends after which the lady is unconscious and everyone assumes she’s dead. He sends the baby off to his best friend, whom he believes to be the true father, but the baby gets lost because the courier is eaten by a bear. She gets adopted by a poor shepherd and his idiot son, and sixteen years later she does meet Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, but it’s because her boyfriend Florizel is actually the king’s son. The truth about her starts to come out, but in a distorted form, so Florizel and Perdita run off to Sicilia to get the real story. Leontes, after suffering in isolation for so long, takes back his daughter and his best friend, and they go to see a statue of his dead wife, but the statue comes alive because she hasn’t really been dead all this time. In the end, Leontes’s pain seems to have redeemed him because everyone forgives him, which makes the ending seem unrealistic to me. It’s not enough to suffer – everyone does that. The suffering has to change you so you’re not a jealous homicidal nutbag, and I don’t see enough change in him to warrant bringing him back into Hermione’s life.

The Winterson novel is a retelling of the Shakespeare play, brought up to our time. There’s a good bit of the weirdness of Shakespeare in her story as well, because I find the story inherently strange. Leo is a successful businessman, married to a famous singer, MiMi. Their friend Xeno has been staying with them, and Leo suspects the two of them of cheating behind his back. Xeno and Leo are so close that they fooled around together in their bicurious stage. Leo has stuck with women ever since, but Xeno identifies himself as gay, though he also admits to being strongly attracted to MiMi. He kind of wishes they could have a three-way polyamorous relationship, but that’s not really an option for anyone else. Leo accuses her and gets to raping her, but her water breaks and they have to rush her to the hospital to give birth. Leo sends the child away to New Bohemia (which feels an awful lot like New Orleans), but his messenger gets killed and Shep and Clo pick up the child and raise her. Shep is an older guy, maybe a little too old to raise a baby, and Clo is his grown son, not bright. MiMi and Leo divorce and she moves to Paris, spending the next twenty-one years in near-total seclusion. As in Shakespeare, their first child, a son, gets killed for no apparent reason except to punish Leo, who loves the boy.

Time passes.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Sometimes where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.

Winterson often speaks of time as if it were a character, and she titles the book after one of the last lines of Shakespeare’s story. Leontes, newly surrounded by his loved ones, says they’ll all go off and discuss what they’ve been doing in “the gap of time,” the sixteen years that they were all out of contact with each other. The thing that fascinates me about this phrase is that time has no gaps. It just keeps moving on, one second at a time, and there’s nothing we can do to speed it, slow it, or skip over it. The only gap is in our experience as an audience. We don’t see the sixteen years in the middle of the play, or the twenty-one years in the middle of the novel, so we perceive it as a gap, but the characters do not. If Leo had really skipped over all those years of isolated pain, he’d be the same asshole he was in the beginning, and isn’t the lesson here that pain makes people less assholish, more deserving of love? Neither writer shows me convincing evidence that Leontes has changed, and I think that pain in isolation isn’t the best way to teach someone how to love. You have to practice, and that means not being isolated.

Xeno and MiMi talk a lot about Nerval’s dream – a French poet dreamt that an angel fell to earth, in one of those crowded back alleys of Paris. If he opened his wings, he’d destroy everything around him; if he didn’t open his wings and fly away, he’d be trapped and die. Xeno uses it as the basis of a video game he designs, The Gap of Time. It’s all about feathers falling and becoming angels, and deciding whether the angels are good or evil, whose side you want to be on. Of course he and Leo take opposite sides, though they both haunt MiMi’s virtual apartment, where he’s programmed her as a statue. Xeno’s portrayal troubles me because he seems like Winterson’s primary antagonist, but I don’t read him as one in Shakespeare. Polixenes seems a bit clueless, careless and thoughtless but not really bad. Xeno seems bent on making the people he loves unhappy. He’s the dark side of the moon, and Leo is the bright sun that burns. Leontes talks about adultery as the spider in the cup – if you don’t see it, your drink tastes normal; once you do see it, the drink tastes poisonous. But to me, the important part here is that there is no spider in Leontes’s cup – he’s seeing spiders that don’t exist, imagining his wine is contaminated when there’s nothing wrong with it. But Winterson keeps bringing it back, Xeno’s seemingly inherent arachnous nature. For her, Leo does have a spider in his life, even if it isn’t fucking his wife.

I’m troubled by Hermione. She seems like one of those Gothic heroines I enjoy so much, a beauty who falls in love with a beast. She’s an innocent, forced to suffer through the insanity of the men around her. As with Hero from Much Ado About Nothing, the most effective way for her to prove her innocence is by dying when she’s accused. Also like Hero, she doesn’t actually die because life doesn’t work like that, but she pretends to be dead so that the accuser she still loves will suffer. When he’s sufficiently proven his penitence, she takes him back as if that had been her plan all along. If a man is so irrational that he will only believe a woman is telling the truth if she’s dead, he’s not a person that woman should be with. Maybe he’s a murderer. Maybe he’s a rapist. Maybe he sticks with subtler forms of abuse, but that’s no reason for her to share her life with him. In both stories, she’s one of the least realized characters; more of an ideal than a human being. I’d like to read a story where someone really breathes life into her, but neither of these is it.

Winterson seems to connect most with Perdita, the adopted girl who finds out her birth parents are rich and famous. She also discovers that her boyfriend isn’t just a mechanic at the local used-car dealership; his parents are rich too. She’s literally the girl who grows up poor and turns out to be a princess. Polixenes and Leontes are both taken by her beauty, but there’s not really enough time in the story for them to build a relationship with her. Winterson’s Perdita makes the connection clear, but she’s a bit like Miranda from The Tempest. She grows up with a single father in relative isolation, and then she discovers that the world is larger and more beautiful than she had imagined.

Perdita heard his car. Perdita saw him across the fence.

She moved back. Her heart was overbeating. Why do I feel this way? And what is this way that I am feeling? How can something so personal and so private, like a secret between myself and my soul, be the same personal, private secret of the soul for everyone?

There’s nothing new or strange or wonderful about how I feel.

I feel new and strange and wonderful.

Perdita is a girl who loves. Her name points to her as lost, but that only describes her from her parents’ point of view. In herself, she seems to know who she is and what she wants in life, that identity not being solely based on her genetic background. She meets Leo, but still insists that Shep is her father, in all the important ways. And she loves Zel, even if his parentage is different from what she had assumed. Zel grows up knowing who his father is, and hating him. Polixenes spends a year on a visit of state to his best friend, but it’s assumed that he spends the sixteen-year gap with his wife and son. Xeno keeps wandering around the world with very little contact with his son, so Zel has reason not to value someone who shows so little value for him. When Xeno makes an effort, Zel resists, so there’s not a lot of hope for them. I grew up similarly, but when my father reaches out I try to reach back. I don’t think there’s anything productive to be had from being unkind to him. You could read this as contradicting what I said up there about Leontes and abusive relationships, but fathers are different from husbands. I don’t live with my father, and I make sure I filter and evaluate everything he says. I know he’s doing his best, even if I find that best to be wanting at times. The effort would be too much to keep up with a man I lived with. The marriage relationship makes the partners vulnerable to each other in a way that I’m not with my dad. The constant presence of the abusive man would erode his partner’s sense of individuality and freedom. As with MiMi’s interest in the Nerval story, the only way out is to destroy everything. That’s not the case with me, a man who lives independently of his father and only speaks with him occasionally.

Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.

Time seems to take on the role of Fate – it’s like people are stuck in a story that they’d rather not be living. I don’t believe it works that way. Leontes’s actions have disastrous consequences for the people around him, but none of that is inevitable. It’s not clear how much choice Shakespeare’s queen has, but in the twenty-first century we expect women to be able to choose their own husbands. MiMi didn’t have to marry him. It’s all a matter of accepting responsibility for choices. I think that twenty-one years of misery is a heavy penalty to pay, but that’s the story as Winterson gets it from Shakespeare. Leo has to accept consequences of his own behavior, but most of those consequences he’s forced onto other people as well. MiMi didn’t destroy her world by divorcing her husband – he did that by falsely accusing her and losing her children. Perdita and Florizel didn’t choose their circumstances, but they make choices, hopefully better ones than their parents made. If Winterson is correct, then I believe we are all stronger than time, we all have free will and are only trapped by other people, not by fate or moments or time.

Have you noticed how ninety per cent of games feature tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars? It’s like living in a hardcore gay nightclub on a military base.

I love Winterson’s sense of humor.

The endings interest me, primarily because of the difference between them. Shakespeare doesn’t show us the reunion of Leontes with Perdita and Polixenes; that’s narrated by an eyewitness to someone else. Shakespeare’s attention is on Leontes and Hermione, so restoring the marriage is the important thing for him. The other relationships seem harder for him to imagine, which is the explanation I can find for the indirectness of that scene. In Winterson’s story, the important reunion for Leo is with finding Perdita and Xeno. It’s the meeting of father and daughter and the repairing of the gay relationship that matters to her. She closes the scene with Leo and Xeno standing in the aisle of the concert venue, watching MiMi onstage, before they approach and talk with her. For a singer, MiMi has astonishingly little voice in the book, and here when she has an opportunity to talk to the man who hurt her and may or may not be forgiven, she is silent because she’s putting on a show for the larger crowd. Maybe it ends here because Winterson had a hard time facing the next scene, where she is supposed to forgive him and reunite. I’d have a hard time writing that scene, because in my imagination Hermione would not make that choice. I would have written her a community and a job and a life; I would have her prove to Leontes that she doesn’t need him. By ending the book where she does, Winterson doesn’t have to write MiMi’s decision to take him back or not, and we can choose to believe what we like.

I love reading Jeanette Winterson novels. I’ll admit to having found this one weird and a little hard, but I think the same thing about her source text, which means this is a good adaptation. This is dramatically more recent than anything else of hers I’ve read, so it’s good to see that I can enjoy books from different periods of her career. Her writing is beautiful and I get engaged quickly with her characters, even if they’re people I might not like in real life. And I still don’t know what to make of Autolycus, in either version of this story. But it’s a good book, and begins with a summary of Shakespeare for those who are unfamiliar with his telling.