June 24, 2014 § 44 Comments
Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).
Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.
Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.
To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.
Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.
A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—
Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.
Not everything, as it turns out.
I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:
In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.
I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.
Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?
We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:
There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.
What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.
June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
This is my review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for Pop Matters. I’m still steadily trying to post reviews up here and so this one is also several months old. Yes, we’re still in 2013. Today in my Twitter feed, Sridala linked to an article about the atrocious racial politics in the book, and I was so glad to read it, and so glad that this piece exists. Joy Castro, who wrote the article, makes some pertinent points. This was something that I picked up on while reading it — it’s hard not to — but was familiar enough with Tartt’s previous two books to know that she only cared about moneyed, slightly disgraced WASPs. That’s her Thing. By the time I got around to writing the review for The Goldfinch I was so tired. So tired of noticing and caring too much about how white people write about, and thus write off, people of colour in their highly-praised bestsellers. But Castro makes an important point about the depiction of racialised others in the book that fits in with the theme of the book at large: that of Art and Beauty and Great Literature. No room for anyone less-than-white (and rich, rich rich rich!) in that world. Castro emphasises how the working class non-white others in this book are willing to put themselves in service of these Great White People Living Their Fascinating Lives; willing to put their own (mediocre and unimportant, presumably) lives on hold so that whiteness can flourish. The labour of black and brown bodies for white ones is a story that must be told that way, as one of great willingness and good cheer. This view of the world is of a piece with the rest of the book. If great art must circulate (and this book does nothing in terms of deconstructing what great art is, how it’s made, or what it does), it must always return to white “culture”. For my part, by the time I got to the phrase “dead-eyed ethnic families”, I was ready to stab Tartt in the face with an expensive, beautiful, authentic fountain pen.
I read Donna Tartt’s impressive first novel, The Secret History, at an impressionable age and in a stage of my life I will politely refer to as Colonised Mind v. 1.0. Having grown up middle-class and Tamil in Malaysia—title of my forthcoming memoir, hahaha!—and fed Austen, Dickens, Christie (Agatha) and Blyton (Enid) throughout a very protected childhood, I was very susceptible to romantic Life of the Mind-type ideas and proclivities.
Besides, I had a tattered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology that followed me everywhere. I—like about a zillion other young kids who came to learn about Greek mythology by way of Anglo-European classicists—loved Greek myth. Who doesn’t? Myths are great. Why would you not like stories? Stories are great.
So when I found a tattered copy of The Secret History in a used bookstore, an Ivy Books trade paperback with a lurid cover image comprising a mishmash of an imposing New England colonial building, a Doric column and a single stem rose, with various phrases like “Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured,” “a terrifying secret that bound them to one another”, “an incident in the woods in the dead of the night”, “an ancient rite that was brought to brutal life”, and “gruesome death” strewn across the back cover copy, it worked like a charm. I bought it, devoured it, and read it over and over again, before I even knew that Tartt was “a sensation” in that faraway place called the literary world.
This makes The Secret History sound almost flimsy, even silly, but it’s not. Despite its premise, Tartt is a writer who plays with excesses and extremes in the most delicate way. You don’t read Tartt for pared-down elegance, although there are moments when she does this, too. You read Tartt like you would watch Pretty Little Liars: for the unalloyed pleasure of surrendering to a familiar story that is, at turns, also new and menacing.
Tartt’s third and most recent novel, The Goldfinch, was hugely anticipated among industry types and fans because she’s only written three so far; ten years separated the publication of her second novel, The Little Friend, from her debut, and 11 years separates The Goldfinch from her second. I still pull The Secret History from the shelves every so often, skipping the parts that bore me, and going over the passages where the Greek scholars who so fascinated the novel’s protagonist, Richard Papen, are at their most knowing and obnoxious.
Now older, wiser and bitter, I’m tempted to throw copies of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena at their heads, then set off on a long lecture about the appropriation of Greek knowledge and thought by Eurocentric thinkers and writers. Still, the story remains tantalising. And, as reductive as this might probably sound, this is what Tartt does very well. She tells a good story.
The Goldfinch can be said to be an anti-bildungsroman, in that it traces the life of one Theo Decker from about 13years of age, where he survives a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that kills his mother, until his late 20s, where he reflects on this life while telling his story. It’s an anti-bildungsroman because Theo, much like Richard in The Secret History and Harriet Dufresnes in The Little Friend, has his head firmly turned back to the past, to that point in time where a singular event changed his life.
This isn’t a straightforward novel of growth and progression as it is a novel of regret, and for much of the book, Theo exists in a state of anguished perpetual adolescence. He’s always that 13-year-old boy on that fateful day at the Met.
The premise of the novel hinges on Theo’s possession of Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch” following the museum bombing. When Theo and his mother first arrive at the Met, Theo is drawn to a young girl with red hair and her elderly male companion, and after the blast, Theo finds himself in the same space with the dying old man, and in a distinctly hazy, dream-like encounter, this man gives Theo a ring and encourages him to leave the museum with the painting.
Later, after learning about his mother’s death from a pair of social workers—his father having long since disappeared from their lives—and after having narrowly escaped a life in care by moving in with his friend Andy Barbour’s family, the ring will lead Theo to the old man’s business and home, an antique shop in the West End, and into the orbit of the lives of the man’s business partner and Theo’s future mentor and guardian and father-figure of sorts, Hobie, and the man’s young niece, Pippa, the redhead of the museum encounter. The painting stays with Theo until, of course, it doesn’t, which is a sort of plot progression the reader would have seen coming from the start.
Throughout the book we meet a cast of characters that includes the family members of the Barbour household, as well as Hobie, Pippa, and Theo’s estranged alcoholic father and his new girlfriend, Xandra. Theo moves from the Barbour’s upper-class posh lifestyle in New York to Las Vegas with his father and Xandra and makes a life-changing new friend named Boris, and then moves back to New York again, with a fevered, nightmarish pit-stop in Amsterdam before the novel’s end.
Boris, as it turns out, is the novel’s most entertaining character probably because he’s Polish-Ukrainian and is made out to have both socialist and criminal tendencies, a perfect foil to the generally law-abiding and liberal Theo. Tartt’s liberal American imagination allows Boris to be the wild and fun and yet corrupting influence in Theo’s life—yes, he’s a good friend, in his own way, but in some ways Boris just an amalgam of how Americans view foreigners who have lived in countries with different political systems. Those insane Eastern Europeans and their dangerous political ideas and lax ways with the law! Crazy Boris even tried out being Muslim for awhile, which teenage Theo finds positively incomprehensible.
While The Goldfinch is set in a politically-charged landscape—the bombing at the museum is vaguely attributed to “terrorism”—Tartt is a writer of bourgeois psychological novels, and the large cast of characters in this book only serve to contextualise Theo’s interior life. This isn’t to say they aren’t well realised, even larger than life, as in Boris’ case—but this isn’t a novel that’s grappling with social and political issues surrounding the bombing in 21st-century New York. It’s about a boy and his painting, and how it both circumscribes and expands his relation to other people, and serves as a talisman that links him to his mother and to a gentrified world of art and beauty and stability—Hobie’s world—that he wants to be a part of, even while he realises he stands outside of it.
Tartt’s fascination with rich WASPs continues in this book, as seen in Theo’s perpetual amazement of the Barbours and their lifestyle, but equally unappealing for me is the casual othering of people of colour. Boris is larger than life because he’s a central character, but otherwise while criminal white Germans might each have a name, criminal Indonesians only appear inscrutable and are compared to anacondas, while criminal Chinese are inscrutable and wily and are in possession of a name that all the white people can’t be bothered to remember, or have “difficulty” remembering, because it sounds so strange. (Theo can’t even tell at one point, if this person is a man or a woman or a boy or a girl, and somehow this problem seems related to this person’s Asianness.)
When Theo arrives in Amsterdam and looks around at the airport and sees “dead-eyed ethnic families”, it’s hard not to flinch, though I was also curious about where one could obtain this all-purpose “ethnic family”—at the gift shop, presumably? Does the ethnic family come in all sizes and colours? Theo even exoticises his own mother’s appearance because she was part-Irish, part Cherokee, telling us that “in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight”—the what and the what?, was my question—and that sometimes the exotic character of her facial features were too stark when her hair was pulled back, making her look “like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji”. Okay.
There’s a Dickensian aura running through The Goldfinch, most notably Great Expectations, and there are certain similarities between Pip and Theo as they navigate their orphan hood (Theo’s father is far from a father) and find parental figures in the unlikeliest of places, not to mention their inability to love anyone but the one woman they can’t have, though Theo’s spiritual twin appears to be The Secret History’s Richard. In all her novels, Tartt is particularly adept at conveying the banal hazards of estrangement and evoking sensations relating to place and space. Both Richard and Theo, for example, wish they were anyone but themselves, and are particularly gifted in losing themselves in copious quantities of alcohol and pills. “A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help,” as Theo puts it. And while The Secret History will always be reminiscent of frost and snow and ice and the chill of the unknown, this book is notable for the hot, barren, drug-infused Las Vegas suburban desertscape and its air-conditioned ennui.
In this novel, as with her previous two, Tartt seems to be circling around the same concerns about a person’s fatal flaw. “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”, Richard begins in The Secret History—and the same is true for Theo. His longing for beauty, and his inability to let go or exist separately of “The Goldfinch”, once he’s set eyes on it, is his constant downfall. For one thing, it connects him to his mother, who loved Fabritius’s work before Theo even began to pay attention. But more alarming, for Theo, is how hard he fell for the painting, and the lengths he with which he destroyed little aspects of his life in order to keep it:
What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?
This is a thread that runs through all of Tartt’s novels, with protagonists floating in a sea of banal everyday life routines, desperately wishing for wings to fly out and touch the sun. Even in The Little Friend, Harriet was convinced of her difference—her fatal flaw being the morbid longing to find out the truth, at all costs. (And the price is steep, as she learns by the end.)
While the ending for The Secret History was rather exquisite, evoking the tragic in a way that was both sad and tender, The Goldfinch ends with what feels like a sermon from Theo, desperately trying to attribute meaning to everything that had happened thus far while still assuring us that the knows that “life is catastrophe”. It feels tacked-on and forced, and one wonders if Tartt felt compelled to drag the novel on for as long as close to 800 pages in order to give us A Lesson to make up for the dissatisfaction many felt with The Little Friend, which ended on a totally bizarre note, with no resolution of any sort for anyone—and which, I thought, was perfectly in keeping with the slow drip of menace that increased with every page.
While talking about how a novel is about one thing is a sure way to kill the experience of reading, the ending of The Goldfinch seems to want to reduce it to a meaning: about the magic that exists in that unfathomable place between illusion and reality, that lives on between people and things—in particular, things that are passed on from one hand to another. After some 700 pages of one catastrophic event after another, after repeated attempts at self-erasure, these words don’t seem true delivered in Theo’s voice, and the conclusion seems too tidy, too hopeful, too trite.
Tartt’s novels aren’t novels of ideas—there’s a reason why I compared reading a Tartt novel to watching a TV show, and it’s because it’s propelled by a forward-moving momentum; it’s about action and places and people. These are novels concerned with the psychology of its characters. The Goldfinch seems ripe for meditations on art commodities, and ideas and politics that are transmitted through works of art, as well as deep explorations about what cultural anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai have called the social life of things, but any asides or discussions on books or paintings and the exchange of and desire for commodities are tangential to the main story of Theo’s life. It’s only at the very end that Theo attempts to weave the history of this masterwork he’s kept, hoarded, and lost into the trajectory of his own life, but by then it’s all delivered in one big rush of a moral lesson, and the effect is one of vague disorientation at this newly-wise Theo.
The Secret History was a compelling modern tragedy because its effects were rooted in mimesis, in replicating the elements of the Greek plays in the catastrophes of Richard’s, and his friends’, modern American lives. The Goldfinch merely uses the central artwork as a prop for the plot, for the service of the protagonist’s inner life, even while Theo tries to convince us otherwise through occasional meandering and repetitive musings on art that are, unfortunately, superficial and uninteresting. Tartt’s novel is eminently readable and entertaining, even moving at times, but while I kept turning the pages I never wanted to linger over it like how Theo does when he looks at the painting and meets the eyes of Fabritius’s all-seeing goldfinch.
May 23, 2014 § 2 Comments
In further installments of “Book Reviews I Wrote Months Ago”, this is my piece on Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon for Full Stop:
The panopticon has been over-theorised. Maybe Foucault can take some of the blame for that. Jeremy Bentham, 18th-century philosopher and social theorist, came up with the design of the Panopticon to enable institutional surveillance, primarily in prisons. The design involved a curved or circular building, where inmates would live, with an inspection house or tower right in the centre. Guards or managers or nurses or wardens could watch over the entire building this way. Inmates would know they were being watched, but they wouldn’t be able to know who was doing it, or when. In the 20th-century, Michel Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish was largely responsible for introducing the idea of the panopticon as metaphor for modern Western societies. Disciplinary societies, according to Foucault, normalized the mechanisms of the panopticon precisely because it is a mechanism that “automatizes and disindividualizes power”:
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.
When talking about the twenty-first century surveillance state, it’s practically impossible not to talk about the panopticon as metaphor. Revelations about NSA surveillance have led to comparisons between the surveillance state and the panopticon, with one crucial factor overlooked or erased: for the panopticon to work as the panopticon, people have to know it’s there. The NSA surveillance is different from, say, how social media works. The metaphor of the panopticon might work for how users are both subject to and agents of surveillance in sites like Facebook and Twitter; but revelations about NSA surveillance came as a shock precisely because no one knew that they were being monitored in precisely this way. Vague generalizations about how we’re all complicit in mass surveillance serve to mystify actual mechanisms of power that operate through capitalist state structures; they rob it of form and content,making the general public “complicit” in state-sanctioned NSA surveillance, except of course — they are not
In Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, the panopticon is not a metaphor but an actual building an institution for troubled foster kids. It is a building as Bentham envisioned it; a place where power is present but unseen. When fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks arrives at this building, her new home, she has blood on her school uniform and has been remanded for possibly having attacked a female police officer who is now in a coma. She has also been in the Scottish foster care system her entire life and has a history of starting riots in previous institutions, of setting fire to police equipment and vehicles, of drug dealing and bloody, knock-down fights. Anais is a veteran of various care institutions, and she quickly observes the various features of the building — how the windows are only open about six inches, for instance, in the third-floor bedrooms, or how the windows on the top floor are barred and boarded up. We see the building when Anais sees it: “The Panopticon looms in a big crescent at the end of a long driveway. It’s four floors high, two turrets on either side and a peak in the middle — that’ll be where the watchtower is.”
“We’re just in training for the proper jail,” Anais tells us, acknowledging the role of foster care institutions in executing the state’s disciplinary power against the poorest, most deprived members of society — abandoned, abused, and unwanted children. “Nobody talks about it, but it’s a statistical fact. That or on the game. Most of us are anyway — but not everybody. Some go to the nuthouse. Some just disappear.” By the end of the book, the reader learns about how “some just disappear” and how some just die.
Anais is the central character in Fagan’s novel and its sole voice, and it’s a truly arresting one. Having lived in the care system all her life, Anais is especially keen to know something, anything, about her biological mother. She wonders if she even has one, or if she’s just part of the “experiment” — a fantasy/nightmare that keeps recurring throughout the novel because of her undetermined parentage. The closest Anais ever got to having her own family was a woman named Teresa who adopted her, a sex worker who was found murdered in her bathtub when Anais was eleven.
While reading The Panopticon, we’re certain that there’s one single thing that’s rotten to the core, and that’s the foster care system. Like schools or prisons or asylums, it’s a disciplinary tool meant to produce docile — but ideally broken — bodies and psyches. Anais is scathing about social work in general, where she’s diagnosed with borderline personality. “It’s better than no personality,” Anais retorts, to which she quickly learns: “Wrong. Apparently — no personality is the correct answer.” There is her case worker, Helen, who is more interested in saving her spiritual soul by making trips to India and being conveniently absent during some of the more crucial aspects of Anais’ life, such as police hearings and questioning. Anais deems herself a “lifer” because she realizes that what is deemed her history of “violence” and antisocial behavior, and how that’s filtered through machinations of the system, is likely to keep her institutionalized forever, first in care homes and then in prison. So she knows better than to trust social workers:
As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick. I lure them in to begin with. Cultivate my specimen face. They like that. Do-gooders are vomit-worthy. Damaged goods are dangerous. The ones that are in it cos they thought it would be a step up from the office job are tedious. The ones who’ve been in it too long lose it. The ones who think they’ve got the Jesus touch are fucking insane. The I can save you brigade are particularly radioactive. They think if you just inhale some of their middle-classism, then you’ll be saved.
Anais is particularly acerbic of Helen’s expectations of her as a damaged foster kid. Helen is frustrated by Anais’ inability to code her class position through particular forms of dress and style that would render her an ideal, to-be-pitied, poor thing: “What [Helen] really didnae like, though, was that I wouldnae stick tae the uniform. No hair extensions , no tracksuits, no gold jewellery. That really pissed her off. The first time she saw me in a pillbox hat and sailor shorts, you’d have thought I’d just slapped her granny.”
In fact, The Panopticon shows how the care system produces the damaged subject it’s supposed to “help”. The capitalist state reproduces this underclass through specific institutions meant to accommodate them to “a regular life” of wage labour and despair, up to the point where they’re productive but not actually happy or content. And if that’s impossible, then there are countless ways to control them: prison and psychiatric institutionalization. And if some of them die along the way, well, it couldn’t be helped. When lectured by the police on her vandalism, Anais says that they tell her “how much money vandalism costs the average taxpayer a year. They talk to me a lot about the taxpayers. The taxpayers hate me.”
Parts of The Panopticon can be read as interesting commentaries on the production of identity and how it is performed both in the private and public sphere, and in places where these differences start to blur — such as the internet. Anais knows that for people like her, visibility is a trap. She looks at CCTV footage of herself caught stealing and thinks, “It’s me. I’m a movie star, Mama, are you proud?” Darkness, for her, is safer than daylight, “her safe place”. Throughout The Panopticon, there’s no reference to self-performance, to selfies, Tumblrs, and livejournals or blogs. Anais and the other kids spend their time with each other, alone, or getting high on an addictive substance of their choice in a bit to escape. For a hypervisible and heavily-monitored person like Anais, the internet holds no particular appeal. And if she were to use it, her access to it would be limited—and as in all aspects of her life—heavily-monitored. As Anais explains, it’s impossible for her to be labelled a borderline personality with “identity problems” when she barely has an identity, having moved some fifty-odd times throughout her fifteen years of life. Anais’ fantasies and dreamscapes involve flying cats and a quiet artist-life in Paris. Hers is a life of the mind and a multitude of actual, living nightmares. For Anais, who is watched all the time, her mind is the one place where she can be herself, whatever that may be, and it seems dangerous to want to surrender that part of her to the world when it’s the one place the world hasn’t trespassed and invaded — yet:
The surveillance window in the watchtower glitters in the dim. Dinnae look up that glass. There could be anyone behind that glass. Five men in suits with no faces. All watching. They can watch.
I dinnae get people, like they all want to be watched, to be seen, like all the time. They put up their pictures online and let people they dinnae like look at them! And people they’ve never met as well, and they all pretend tae be shinier than they are are — and some are even posting on like four sites; their bosses are watching them at work, the cameras watch them on the bus, and on the train, and in Boots, and even outside the chip shop. Then even at home — they’re going online to look and see who they can watch, and to check who’s watching them!
Is that no weird?
But while Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, wrote that in the Panopticon, “inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers”, Anais’ community of inmates show that it’s not so simple. Power, here, is not disindividualized — in fact, these kids are well-aware that power is exercised through the very people who are meant to care for them. Their resistance to the care workers is often clever and subtle, but not diffuse. When it’s time to demand for a change, they band together through communal acts of resistance, like the riot that takes place towards the end of the book, even if they know that the bond cannot possibly last for more than a moment, perhaps. Even the care worker whom Anais feels the most affinity with, Angus, is not really on their side. At the end of the day, he stills answers to a system of power that is beyond the efforts of his own individual acts of kindness, and when Anais is close to being sent away to a secure unit for the crime she is certain she did not commit, he has no choice but to comply with the requirements that make it so.
In a chapbook published by Guillotine titled Violence, Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch talk about how “territories of violence — psychic territories, physical territories, psychosexual territories” are under-represented in most women’s fiction. Of course, the question may be less to do with women not writing about violence than about what type of books get published, and the attendant ideological functions that work towards making those decisions — whether in book publishing, or films and television. Fagan is uninterested in pretending violence isn’t a fact of Anais’ life and in the novel, Anais is resigned to it. It’s a book that doesn’t flinch from portraying the territories of violence in Anais’ life. It shapes her very existence, but she hates it and can’t bear to see violence inflicted upon the powerless — the idea of someone harming or abusing a child or an animal, for example, makes her so angry she can hardly think. And yet knock-down fistfights between Anais and other girls are a basic fact of her day-to-day life. She hates fighting, but she has to do it; not only is it a means of staying alive, but it’s a means of crafting an identity, a reputation, and crucially — a means of preventing further violence in the future. When placed in a new institution with a new group of people, if you can get that first fight out of the way and do it reasonably well, you can then hope to be left alone afterward. Crucially, The Panopticon also depicts violence inflicted on girls like Anais by the cops, especially in carefully-manipulated ways designed to let the cops off the hook: they’re not meant to rough-up these kids too much because it could lead to bad publicity if word got out, but they can rough them up if they see fit, which is almost always. But as Anais would be the first to tell you, institutional violence against foster kids and runaways is rarely the subject of a news report or an online petition.
One of the more harrowing incidents in the book is about sexual violence and how it plays out on women’s and girls’ bodies as means of communication between men. The Panopticon shows how even the most impoverished and desperate men work around the issues they have with each other and with the system that violates them through the use and abuse of women’s bodies. And so too Anais’ boyfriend in prison, who is deep in debt and tricks Anais into a situation where her body is offered up as repayment. Earlier on, Anais is surprised when she meets a girl in care who’s still a virgin in her teens because she knows that if young girls haven’t already had transactional sex to survive, they would have been raped by any number of men, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, who view their bodies as goods for the taking. The teen girl in care who’s still a virgin is an anomaly. The poorest, youngest, least-defended bodies are handed around, back and forth, and one is reminded of that passage in Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory:
I find it strange today, when so many people walk around with tiny computers in their pockets — cameras, phones, personal organisers, iPods — there exists no object at all to slip into your pussy when you go out for a stroll that will rip up the cock of any fucker who sticks it in there. Perhaps it isn’t desirable to make female genitalia inaccessible by force. A woman must remain open, and fearful. Otherwise, how would masculinity define itself?
Because Anais is such a force, it seems as though her voice is enough for The Panopticon, and it is, but it’s also a particular kind of loss that so many of her thoughts remain in her head. When we meet Anais at the beginning of the book, she’s alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her, and when we leave her at the end, she’s still alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her. Although Fagan’s novel is one of the finest I’ve read in a very long time, there is no respite for Anais from an atomized neoliberal existence, no possibility of a different kind of life that doesn’t require a partitioning of the self for mere survival. Anais finds moments of solidarity, even love and friendship, with other kids in her position. But it’s gone in a flash. She then has to move. An isolated existence bereft of attachments is the only mode of survival for a person like her in a world like ours.
May 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
Some of the first words you hear in Transcendence are “an unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”. And this, too, before the person telling you the story goes on to narrate a tale about a particular form of technology produced by “mankind”.
So, “unavoidable collision between mankind and technology”—
If we follow the “logic” of the film, and believe me: it’s hard to follow anything in this film, Will Caster, as the all-seeing, all-healing form of consciousness played by Johnny Depp becomes a one-man NSA in this NSA-less America. The future is here, and it’s a white American man who knows and sees everything. Fittingly, he is also the all-seeing, ever-present husband who never goes away. More important—he knows his wife, truly understands her, because he has the data on her hormone levels, etc. The wife is quantified, the husband is knowledgeable. At some point, the wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall), is angry about this, the way her husband has been surveying her like she’s a mouse in a lab—truly angry, because although she is his partner and his wife, she is also a mouse in his lab—but this anger is quickly forgotten as the plot hurtles towards its end. Why? Because love. Because the marriage institution. (And so it is that the one person who could, and would, literally reproduce Caster by uploading him to the internet is his wife, who does so at great personal risk—which is strangely downplayed in the movie as oh, look, Rebecca Hall gets to have a stressful, creepy adventure because love.)
At some point in this movie, through the workings of this miraculous nanotechnology life-rejuvenating cell-healing thingamajig that is Will Caster’s consciousness, Will Caster’s consciousness, everywhere and nowhere all at once, must reproduce itself further in order to become … you guessed it … more powerful. It takes on a little bit of a Heal-The-World type goal. Once Caster convinces his wife to move to a tiny, decaying small town in order to work on their “project” (i.e. to work on Will Caster), he needs the bodies of the poor people in town (all of whom appear to be white) in order to become stronger. The film can’t seem to decide what Caster is doing with the bodies of poor people, whether he’s merely using them or “fixing” them. It does not matter! In the end, it all amounts to the same thing. The intentions of the white male genius are all that matters.
So Will Caster becomes a little bit of every person he heals (fixes) and every person who is connected to him through the process becomes a little bit Will Caster. Supposedly. His consciousness is meant to fuse with that of others and transform into some sort of a “collective mind”, which is what Caster says at one point. This is immediately interpreted to mean “army” by the FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy, and this collective mind, as such, is very quickly seen as a threat to the US government and, by extension of imperialist logic, all that is true and good about this planet, etc. The movie doesn’t understand what to do with this collective mind, or even take a minute to ponder the alternatives. All that the FBI and assorted government agents know is that any notion of collectivity without state or corporate supervision can only lead to bad things. [The point Evan Calder Williams makes in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: “Why do the vast majority of apocalyptic fantasies assume that things going bad with lead to human relations going far, far worse?”]
There is this ambiguous positioning of Will Caster as neither hero nor anti-hero and if the narrative had reflected this, it might have made this mess of a movie a touch more interesting. Except the film is very much in the vein of good guy vs. bad guy; it just isn’t sure who the good guys and the bad guys are. In this sense it mirrors the liberal-moralist handwringing over technology: Technology ruins humans! Technology saves humans! Perhaps it’s important to note that the film’s “neo-Luddites” are never given the opportunity to be good; from the very start, they are “terrorists”. Predictably, they have a very shallow idea of what it means to be sceptical of technology or to be resistant to technopositivism and resort to tossing around reactionary ideas about “human nature”. But the film must fulfil its reductive narrative, and so this collective mind must come to an end. And for that to happen, the entire world must go off the grid in order to get Will Caster off the grid—no power, no internet, no nothing. For the world, apparently. What does this dystopia look like? Oh, I guess like an ordinary day if you consider the American city Paul Bettany’s character is in; people are lining up for coffee at a café, it’s generally okay except things are messier than usual. This is a worldwide catastrophe as seen through the eyes of the few white people (and one token wise black man—introducing Morgan Freeman) in the global North. What’s that you say? Business as usual? Oh yeah, that’s right.
But lest you think the movie was trying to go somewhere with its idea of the “collective mind”, it really wasn’t. The collective mind, as it turns out, is just one (white) (male) mind—because it was Will Caster’s consciousness that was uploaded, Will Caster calls the shots. The capitalist mode of technology that built this collective mind has no capability of making it truly collective; the entire population of the world probably can’t upload their consciousness, and so, predictably, only the few with access can. This collective mind means every one becomes a little bit Caster, but Caster only seems to become more Caster. According to this logic, then, there seems to be no way out—either you become a “collective” ruled by one man, or you go back to how things used to be (just without Gmail and electricity). “Collectivity” is always presented as a bunch of deindividualised, slack-jawed, blank-eyed shells of people who are vulnerable to the (potentially) tyrannical machinations of one man. But while the people are characterless fools, in need of a leader, Will Caster, the one-man NSA, is both genius and tragic romantic hero (wait for the ending, if you want to have a good laugh). It’s hard not to think that the “army” the FBI was so afraid of is only dangerous and unstable because it was corrupted by the presence of so many poor people, by so many not-Will Casters.
The white American male genius, meanwhile? We are meant to mourn him, but don’t be sad! The while American male genius will never die.
[It shouldn't surprise me that this film was directed by Wally Pfister of the Nolan school. I watched it because I think Cillian Murphy is beautiful, okay? Also, Paul Bettany? And Rebecca Hall? CM in his dumbest role ever, possibly, which is not necessarily an insult to his acting, I think? Because he plays an FBI agent whose job is to show up every so often looking puzzled, informing people that they've missed "the real threat" (what is it, though?) and, as an officer of the law, to shut things down--so I thought playing his Agent-Whatever (can't remember his name) as a particularly disinterested and apathetic character was a sneaky way of embodying official rah-rah American authority. But perhaps it wasn't intentional, and perhaps Murphy just fucking didn't know what to do with this role once he realised he was committed to a terrible film? Hard to tell.]
April 24, 2014 § 1 Comment
This is a piece about the Harvard UP annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks. When I was younger I used to reread Austen fairly often, so I’ve made the grand claim that “Austen’s in my bones”–and perhaps she is, but also, surprisingly not, in a lot of ways. And even when she is, it’s not all good, as Said made it clear. Though I’ve watched adaptations of S&S and read it several times, reading the annotated version felt like I was reading it again, for the first time–and was shocked anew by just how vicious the gender politics are. And because I’m older, and financially unstable (yes children, this is your future too), the fact of money (or the lack of it) made me more anxious than usual as the story progressed, even though I know exactly how it ends. There’s always that fear that the Dashwood sisters might be cast out onto the street into extreme poverty. And the old-fashioned, old-maidenish relief to get to the end and recall that, ah … yes, they make it through “okay”, in a sense.
Jane Austen is often accused by less-imaginative readers as a “domestic” writer of small, personal dramas involving the petty concerns of the upper classes of the landed gentry. This usually arises because the central narrative of Austen’s books revolves primarily around marriage, but that’s about as useful as saying that Shakespeare won’t interest some people because he wrote quite a bit about kings.
In Austen’s books, marriage as transaction is the microcosm by which she—quite ruthlessly, at times—explores the social relations between men and women of the upper classes. Mark Twain is known for a famous quote in which he talks about how “detestable” Austen’s characters are, and while this seems quite reasonable, it’s hardly a reason not to read Austen. Even someone who enjoys her books, as I do, find her characters detestable at times, especially her protagonists. It would be strange to love them unconditionally, as it were. Jane Austen wrote about upper class social relations in a newly capitalist society, and it’s no wonder that her characters are (often) detestable.
The new annotated edition of Sense and Sensibility, published by Harvard University Press, brings a sort of clear-eyed examination of the socioeconomic hierarchies and cultural values of Austen’s time without becoming overly fond of, or resistant to, the ideas of love and romance that run through the novel. Patricia Meyer Spacks, an English professor at the University of Virginia, seems neither enamoured of nor contemptuous of the central characters of the novel and is particularly astute at contextualising 19th century thought and ideas for a contemporary audience.
It might be difficult to say anything new about an author as canonical as Jane Austen, and Sense and Sensibility in particular. Its tale of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who find themselves dispossessed of a home—and their subsequent challenges in moving into a new home and society, with all the attendant issues surrounding love and potential husbands—has resonated far and wide that even a Tamil film adaptation of the story exists as a popular hit in its own right.
In the first page of her introduction, however, Meyer Spacks dives right into the nuances of the title, pointing out that the concept of “sensibility” in the 19th century was often an object of ridicule because it “became often less of feeling than of show”. Austen wrote early drafts of the novel in the18th century and saw it come to print in the final version in the 19th, and Sense and Sensibility is often both interesting and hard to pin down precisely because it contains conflicting and perhaps contradictory ideas about sense and sensibility that mirrors turn of the century changes in dominant ideas of social conduct and personhood.
As Meyer Spacks points out, current conversations about the performance of feelings—as demonstrated in blogs and Tumblrs and tweets and Facebook status updates—is often pitted against some notion of “real” feeling and is similar to the novel’s narrative tug and pull between what constitutes good sense and what constitutes good sensibility. Marianne says “Elinor has not my feelings” because Elinor is not quite given to displaying them as Marianne does, and accuses others of “horrible insensibility” when they’re unable to appreciate her piano-playing as she appreciates Music and Art and All of the Other Glorious Things.
It would have been too easy to lampoon Marianne for being narcissistic and self-obsessed, a sort of 19th century Jonathan Franzen who just doesn’t understand why other people like the things they like, but Austen isn’t interested in punishing her for believing her feelings to be more authentic others because they’re more deeply-felt. Instead, Marianne is shaped by the discourse around feelings, particularly by her consumption of novels and romantic poetry. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Marianne, being a reader and lover of nature, and who regularly prefers solitude to the company of others, is regularly so misguided about the intentions and feelings of others.
This is not to say that Elinor, who is consistently attuned to the feelings and needs of others, is necessarily better; only more aware of the disjunction between appearance and reality, or form and content. Marianne, too often, judges by form and appearance, and is led astray by it.
This can raise the uncomfortable question of whether Marianne is thus punished for her sensibility, for the excess of it, for the very fact that she isolates herself from others and considers herself often superior to many people of her company in terms of both taste and feeling. Meyers Spacks is a valuable guide throughout, providing liberal and valuable notes on various iterations of the concept of sensibility, as when she writes, “The sexual vulnerability associated with sensibility is one of the novel’s understated themes”. Virtue is chastity, and the “dangers” of feeling too much correspond to how feelings are embodied, particularly through women’s bodies. God forbid that Marianne becomes a hysterical woman and a lustful one—or worse.
In a thoroughly fascinating reading, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”, defines Marianne’s erotic identity in terms of “the one that today no longer exists as an identity: that of the masturbating girl”. She writes that “Marianne’s autoeroticism is not defined in opposition to her alloerotic bonds, whether with men or with women. Rather, it signifies an excess of sexuality altogether, an excess dangerous to others but chiefly to herself: the chastening illness that ultimately wastes her physical substance is both the image and the punishment of the ‘distracted’ sexuality that, continually ‘forgetting itself,’ threatens, in her person, to subvert the novel’s boundaries between the public and the private”. What is the modern reader to make of Marianne, so alive to her own thoughts and ideas at the start of the book, practically sleepwalking into marriage with Colonel Brandon by the end of it?
Elinor is often read as the opposite of Marianne, and in being more sense and sensibility, she gets her reward in the man she has always and only loved: Edward Ferrars. But here too, the novel doesn’t make it easy to see it that way—Meyer Spacks points out that “the revelation that Edward expects Elinor to accept him promptly, despite his mistreatment of her, reinforces the novel’s emphasis on marriage as an arrangement in which men exercise choice, while women wait to be chosen”. So Elinor, despite her modesty, decorum, and sense, is not quite the winner of these stakes, either. In some ways, we learn that Elinor is also quite like her depraved and materialistic foil, Lucy Steele, but only that Elinor is more proper about her own needs in relations to others; she has disciplined herself well so as not to want too much, whereas Lucy is pretty brazen about wanting money and having it.
The thing about Sense and Sensibility is that you never know if the reward is a good marriage to a reasonably decent man compared to the loutish, insufferable others (Elinor and Edward) or if the reward is financial security, even at the expense of being married to a loutish, insufferable man (Lucy and Robert Ferrars, Edward’s unpleasant younger brother). Maybe it’s Marianne who has it best, after, all—a decent man whom she could grow to like, if not love, and financial security.
If, as Susan C. Greenfield suggests in her essay “Moving In and Out: The Property of Self in Sense and Sensibility”, that “each sister copes with her lack of personal property by imagining she has a Lockean property in her person”, then Austen’s gender politics become a little more muddied, as lack of actual property or access to it makes middle and upper class women protective of themselves in a way that allows little room for sisterhood beyond shared principles and values between actual sisters.
Sense and Sensibility, like other Austen novels, is about central female characters in a capitalist society who are not like the other women, who are determined to avoid being copies of each other in an economic system that encourages and perhaps even requires, instant reproduction and thus, easy substitutions, and who ultimately have to distinguish themselves by being better than the other female characters. In every book, the Austenian heroine, though fallible and flawed, triumphs because she is superior to other women in terms of wit, intelligence, morals, and personal conduct. In short, she is the better product.
It makes sense, then, as Meyers Spacks points out in her introduction, that “characters’ attitudes towards money in Sense and Sensibility provide one index to the nature of their sense and sensibility”, that romance and marriage as transaction is linked to Austen’s focus on money and how capitalism began altering and reshaping relations between the landed gentry and the upper middle classes. Where Edward’s vile mother and sister are concerned, Meyers Spacks writes that “Fanny Dashwood and her mother embody one perverse kind of ‘sense’: constant attention to what will serve their self-interest.
Both also claim ‘sensibility.’ Their intense feelings focus on money”, which shows how affect, or sensibility, is to put to use by capitalist logic—a method that’s not at all unfamiliar to Sense and Sensibility’s twenty-first century audience. This isn’t to say that Austen wrote against the grain of capitalist logic; she was, instead, fully enmeshed in it, but her concerns are more to do with the moral and ethical boundaries of capitalism, as dictated by sense, propriety, and a sense of decency to oneself and others. (This is why a land-owning man like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice can go from being a toffee-nosed snob to a real catch in the space of the book—Darcy was a productive land-owner who put his land to good use by the labour of others, providing them with jobs and caring for their welfare in a distant but imposing way. A real patriarch, a true gentleman, Austen-approved.)
Meyers Spacks says that Austen “writes, and arguably, inaugurates” the kind of “polite or bourgeois novel” that Clara Tuite refers to in her book Romantic Austen, and the polite novel values the well-mannered and well-bred characters that are ultimately the recipient of the narrative’s goodwill. How would Austen have felt about being the new face of the Britist ten-pound note, then? Bemused, probably, mixed with some ironic delight—and perhaps still wary about how terms like “sense” and “sensibility” continue to be twisted and appropriated to mean anything at all by the likes of individuals in power like George Osborne.
There’s so much more to be said about Sense and Sensibility, and this new annotated edition might not be ideal for someone reading the novel for the first time because it might be better to just read it straight through without stopping to thumb through copious notes and illustrations. But for people returning to the novel, Meyers Spacks’ notes are quite illuminating, mostly serious, but occasionally fun—there are illustrations of “very knowing gigs” used by smart young gentlemen, or the kind of toothpick case that might have enticed Robert Ferrars, the type of wallpaper Elinor and Edward might have chosen for their new home, and even how the pocketbook into which Willoughby tucked a piece of Marianne’s hair might have looked like.
Some of the annotations strike a dud note, like paintings of young children whose facial expressions might suggest “the kind of personality manifested by the Middleton children”, as though bratty are not a historical constant and contemporary readers need help imagining how they might look or behave. But these are rare, and Meyers Spacks’ introduction and annotations indicate a person who has spent a considerable amount of time with the Dashwoods and their assorted friends and foes. This handsome edition is all the richer for it.
April 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
Here I am, posting up a review of a book that I did months ago–in August of 2013, in fact, so … not only months ago, but last year. And this goes against the very ethos of blogging which demands the new! and the now! and I know that people are hissing as I write, thinking, HOW DARE YOU, A BLOG IS NOT A REPOSITORY OF SHIT YOU WROTE MONTHS AGO–
I will not only do this, but continue to do this for the next few posts, I think–gotta catch up on those book reviews of 2013! And hoping that, somehow, inflicting you with stale reviews will somehow get my juices going for proper writing. Writing worthy of a blog! I don’t know.
But enough about me, Marie NDiaye’s writing is fierce and magical. I wait, with bated breath, for forthcoming works of hers available in English. This is the review of her collection of stories, <i>All My Friends</i>, in full (it features the unashamed use of that dreaded phrase, Kafkaesque):
The stories in Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends are delicate and multifarious. You can never be sure-footed in a Marie NDiaye story. Realities twist—very slightly—and narrators seem just short of being unreliable. Once you have entered a particular character’s point-of-view, you’re quite certain that things are not what they seem and yet you persist, filled with a sense of foreboding that the story is unlikely to end well. And it rarely does, in NDiaye’s world; if a “happy” ending is to be had, it usually comes at the expense of an enormous sacrifice or loss.
All My Friends was originally published in French as Tous Mes Amis in 2004; this English edition, translated by Jordan Stump, comes hot on the trails of the success of NDiaye’s 2009 Trois Femmes Puissantes, which won the Prix Goncourt in France. The English translation by John Fletcher, Three Strong Women, was published in 2012, and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize 2013. Although NDiaye’s output is prolific, besides these two works only one other book, Rosie Carpe, has been translated into English. Judging from the critical reception of Three Strong Women and All My Friends, however, one can hope that more of her writing will be made available to English readers.
The characters in All My Friends seem to be on the brink—of what, we’re not quite sure. The characters themselves might feel close to some sort of revelation, epiphany, or breakthrough, and maybe they are, but it’s interesting to note how similar the signs are to imminent chaos, collapse, or breakdown. A recurrent theme is the idea of reckoning with what one has not become. The past colludes strangely, jarringly, with the present. Characters in NDiaye’s stories attempt to project a self that they imagine to be smooth, whole, and well-adjusted, yet somehow realise that these attempts are less-than-successful, possibly even tragic, ridiculous, and flawed.
In the titular story, the narrator, a former schoolteacher and now an aging man shunned by his wife and children for reasons that are never made clear, employs a former student named Séverine as his housekeeper. His desire for her is clouded by his former hate; or perhaps all desire is informed by hate: “How troubling it is to remember the loathing I felt for my student Séverine, and to think of the affection I feel for my maid Séverine. Are they even the same girl? I sometimes wonder”.
It’s particularly strange that the narrator employs his ex-student, whom he lusts after, and spends most of his time with another ex-student, Werner, who also lusts after Séverine. Séverine is married to yet another ex-student, whom the narrator contemptuously refers to as “the Arab” because he can’t remember his name. In this sense, sexual jealousy and longing is neatly woven into the narrator’s seemingly latent racism. The narrator is so ill at ease with the world that no space is safe or comfortable, especially not his own home. “My house doesn’t like me”, the narrator tells us. The memories of his former family are in every room: “My wife and children made an ally of my house, where they once lived, where they no longer live”. The narrator seeks out Werner and enjoys spending time in Werner’s immaculate, expensive house—but is disgusted with his own duplicity, he once cursed Werner for having come from money, for having lived in the “town center’s finest neighborhood”.
Similarly, in “The Death of Claude Francois”, the past crashes in on the seemingly-calm present through the appearance of an old friend, an incident that sends the narrator, Zaka, reeling through the memories of a shared childhood in a poor neighbourhood, where average-looking Zaka and her beautiful friend Marlène Vador had lived and loved a famous pop star. Zaka, now a doctor who has, one might say, “made it”, takes her young daughter Paula back to the neighbourhood of her childhood, only to be shocked by the suburbs of outer Paris and their “blighted gray concrete buildings”.
It’s important, for Zaka, to be able to show off Paula, to have her former friend realise that her daughter is as beautiful as she is, even if Zaka never was, that “they were both, mother and daughter alike, true bourgeoisies, refined and invisible”. But when she goes up to meet Marlène, ready to forgive her “tinge of vulgarity” and her “overeagerness to display her body” (“traits, Zaka reflected, that she might have shared had she stayed on and lived there”, in that neighbourhood), she finds Marlène to be beautiful in a way that might even intimidate a true bourgeoisie like Zaka, who is of course not at all a true bourgeoisie at all, having renounced her working-class roots. “Today she’s middle-class and magnificient,” Zaka thinks of Marlène when she sees her. And so the reader learns that the Zaka of the beginning of the story may not have been wholly truthful, or alternately, we learn more of Zaka by the end that renders the start of the story doubtful.
When she sees her ex-husband at the start of the story, she’s contemptuous of him and embarrassed because he reminds her “of what she’d had to do to conceive her little girl” and the reader is made to imagine an unattractive, desperate and lovelorn former spouse. But by the end of the story we learn that it’s her ex-husband, a “fine and upstanding man”, who stopped loving her, who “had lost all regard for her”. The power relations shift and it’s Zaka who appears to us as the lovelorn former spouse, cast aside. “What did she have to do,” Zaka wonders, “to turn regret and nostalgia into indifference?” Even attempting to remember the past differently offers no respite for Zaka in her present situation.
In “The Boys”, the best story in the collection, poverty, hierarchies of beauty, commodification, and sex work are some of the themes that NDiaye stirs up and troubles through the perspective of one young boy named René. René watches a business transaction in his neighbour’s house as the beautiful teenage boy Anthony is sold off to a wealthy woman by his parents (here it’s never quite clear if the mother is in the instigator and the father the reluctant tag-along) while Anthony’s “uglier” older brother is ignored. René is aware of what’s going on:
Anthony had been chosen because he’d turned out well, while the other was an inferior product, deeply and irreparably disgraced. Devoid of commercial value, he seemed of no use, and relegated to lowly and inessential tasks: bringing his brother to the woman, remembering the bag, keeping an eye on his brother. And all this with the insincere simpering of one who strives to anticipate authority’s needs, who seeks only to please that authority, and who knows that it never even sees him.
In this story NDiaye deftly highlights the inequalities of a system where everyone is exploited but not all are exploited equally. In this case, René is aware that he has youth on his side—he too can be bought and sold—but he won’t be first choice in the hierarchy of attributes. For René, “his youth was purely theoretical” because of his scrawny and feeble body, his nondescript appearance. Even Anthony’s discarded older brother, despite his plainness, “radiated irrefutable youth from his hard, brutal body”. But René did not even have a body that was able to radiate youth. And so “The Boys” progresses on this trajectory, exploring how poverty and lack shapes desire and ambition and subsequently how, in a capitalist “free market”, self worth is intricately bound up with material worth.
Anthony makes enough money to send home to his family, which allows his mother to acquire a computer and an internet connection, enabling everyone to see endless images of Anthony—even nude pictures of him together with the woman to whom he was sold. The mother can’t stop looking at pictures of her son and showing these pictures to others. René looks at pictures of Anthony and is troubled—Anthony is “more glorious in each image, more assured—still himself, to be sure, but by the end so remade that René scarcely recognized him”. Anthony’s mouth, chin and nose seem to have been slightly reshaped, his teeth “whiter and more regular than René remembered”. The seemingly content and now materially-comfortable Anthony appears to be an improved Anthony.
Even beautiful Anthony can be improved upon! So René starts to dream of this life—to be beautiful enough to be bought seemed a better existence than to toil away in hardship. He imagines that Anthony’s existence could one day be his own, his own physique “duly amended”. “Let me be bought, bought, bought”, he prays. To be an improved image of himself is what René wants; the life to aspire to is one where you can set the terms of your own exploitation. It all amounts to the same in the end, perhaps, but in the meantime this world is a better place for the rich and the beautiful and René, too, like the rest of us, wants to be both.
The fourth story in this collection, “Brulard’s Day” captures the kind of claustrophobic, almost schizophrenic form of internal monologue that takes place in the mind of a person under intense pressure, the kind that NDiaye excels at. The story deftly blurs the line between “organic” internal criticism, stemming from the person itself, and the kind that is reinforced by what others say and do, so much so that it becomes hard to tell whether you’re thinking bad thoughts about yourself that others have made you think about yourself, or that thinking bad thoughts about yourself somehow translates into making others think badly of you.
In Eve Brulard’s case, a minor actress who has run away from her husband and daughter to a hotel in what appears to be a holiday ski town, in love with a mysterious other man who seems to be her source of income (for her and her husband), it involves seeing a past version of herself in every corner, a past version of herself who taunts and mocks her, and who, as the story progresses, begins to look more and more like Brulard’s young daughter, Lulu. It also involves a pair of brown tassel loafers, loafers that doesn’t seem to fit Brulard’s idea of herself: “That she’d been reduced to wearing such shoes tormented and astonished her at the same time”. It also does not please the ghost of young Brulard—“whose eagle eye had not missed those tasseled shoes”—and who, because of these shoes, may or may not be regarding older Brulard with pity, or “reproach, tinged by compassion and alarm”.
Later, it turns out that the loafers have not escaped the notice of her husband, Jimmy, either, who says, “No one who looks at you would ever say you’re wearing loafers, because they couldn’t imagine you wearing such shoes, and yet that’s how it is, and you’re wearing loafers”. Brulard, a woman who should not be wearing loafers, is wearing loafers. The loafers seem to reveal another kind of truth about Brulard. They defeat the picture she has of herself, just like one of the hotel clerks she tries so hard to avoid: “From the start, she’d sense that he thought her neither radiant nor carefree, despite all her efforts to seem just that”.
Is Brulard close to a breakdown? Are there moments in the story where she’s close to one, or having a panic attack? I don’t know if the answer to that is important, because for NDiaye’s characters, mere existence is already an unravelling of the self. Any given life appears to be quietly imploding at any given moment from the various tragedies and abuses its been dealt. When Jimmy tells everyone they meet that Brulard is an actress, and no one recognises her, doubts start entering Brulard’s mind: “What proof did she had that she wasn’t an impostor?”
In the final story, “Revelation”, a sort of exercise in Kafkaesque perfection that comes in at just five pages, a mother who is planning to abandon her son precisely because she loves him, is undone by the reaction her son’s beautiful face elicits in others because it’s a face that doesn’t reveal the whole truth of him, a face that is almost deceitful because of what inspires in others, something that is at odds with the son’s fundamental being:
This woman thought that she couldn’t bear the beauty of that son’s face one moment longer—and that, in the old days, when he was still right, his face was never as handsome. No one would have turned to look at the son back when there was no need to keep from him where he was being taken. His face then had no reason to be as beautiful as it was now, since it expressed only ordinary thoughts.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, What proof do I have that I’m not an impostor? then NDiaye’s stories are a reminder that not all writing offers itself up as a remedy. There’s no comfort in being oneself; there’s only ever-present anxiety. NDiaye’s stories rattle at the door of complacency; they disturb everything. In her world of maladjusted stragglers and outcasts, seemingly normal on the outside, perhaps, but running riot on the inside, one comes to recognise that no amount of planning for life is any sort of match for life itself. More certainly, you may never become who you thought you would become. You may find yourself wearing those dreaded brown loafers, or willing yourself to be bought, and upon wearing those shoes and being bought, discovering—as many others have before you and no doubt will after you—that you might have wanted your life to go in a different direction, after all.