October 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
Recently I watched the last two episodes of series one of The Fall and read the last 50 pages of Natsuo Kirino’s Out on the same night, before I went to bed, and predictably stayed wide awake. If in Out the male sadist, torturer and killer of women is identifiable by his pathology, not in some overt way but just in the way he is, so much so that both men and women feel afraid or out of sorts when in his presence, then in The Fall the exact opposite is true—the serial killer of women is practically nondescript, ordinary and regular, a loving father and husband. Along with the many “nice guys who rape” articles that proliferate the internet, or maybe not so much articles as incessant chatter on Twitter and Tumblr, I wonder what it is about this cultural moment that needs to depict the violent man who rapes and kills women as an Ordinary Guy, a Nice Guy even, and what this means. What does it mean when the trend is to focus on the pathological misogyny of ordinary guys? When you look at The Fall, and maybe in some way it’s an answer that’s too big for this question, is that this male character is ordinary in the sense that he’s white and almost inoffensively middle-class, and played by an actor who previously made a living off the images of his beautiful face and beautiful body. In The Fall, however, Jamie Dornan’s attractiveness is made non-descript, almost—yes, inoffensive—nothing of his face and body here is reminiscent of the well-oiled god that Eva Mendes wore as a second skin in the Calvin Klein ads. I mean, it’s the kind of beauty that isn’t terrifying, until it is. In scenes in The Fall we see Dornan’s body, or rather the body of his character, Paul Spector, shaped and transformed into a kind of weapon, how he works out and runs and builds his upper body strength, and what is posited as the current ideal—the long, lean, well-muscled male—is next seen tying women up to their beds and strangling them to death.
How unsettling it is, when you google Jamie Dornan, because you haven’t seen him in anything before, only to realise that you have seen him in those ads with Eva Mendes. And to scrutinise those ads differently, now, to see how both bodies are oiled and glimmering, shining in media-approved perfection, how he holds her wrists down and what’s meant to be erotic play, meant to titillate, takes on a whole new meaning once you realise it’s the same face and body that you’re meant to believe is a serial killer on a TV show, and it all comes full circle, these images of sex and violence and bodies on display; something that’s always lurking beneath these highly stylised images of heterosexual sex or potential sex is the spectre of male violence—
And then keep in mind also that what makes Paul Spector a loving father and husband is exactly what he does without his family’s knowledge—kill women. Being able to kill women without his family’s knowledge—obviously—is what makes him a good father and husband; if he wasn’t killing women would he be like one of the other characters in the show, a working class husband from the wrong side of Belfast who beats and rapes his wife but who doesn’t kill women? So is The Fall trying to tell us that misogyny must have an outlet, and this is how it works?
I’m not sure. It’s a TV show. Maybe The Fall just wants to entertain us.
What’s also important to consider is that even though he is a working father, Paul Spector has the space and time to become a serial killer. Try to imagine a working mother and wife having the time and space to become a serial killer, and you cannot, imagination fails you, WHEN WILL SHE HAVE THE TIME, you think—and you realise the work of the serial killer, in The Fall, is literally made possible by the reproductive labour of the women in his life: his wife (who is also a nurse, a professional caregiver), and the teenage babysitter (who also has a crush on him). So when Paul has spent a whole night killing and is exhausted, forgets to feed the kids breakfast, the wife, returning from a night shift, also exhausted, will feed the kids. Being a parasite, sucking the life out of women, doesn’t exactly rejuvenate Paul, and this comes as a surprise, he has all the time in the world to stalk his prey on the internet, write and draw gruesome things in his journal, quote Nietzsche—but poor guy, being a killer is also exhausting.
I started watching The Fall because GILLIAN ANDERSON AND ARCHIE PANJABI IN A SHOW, TOGETHER. Then I was troubled by this Nice-White-Inoffensive-Middle-Class-Guy-as-Women-Killer trope, because I’m not sure what this trope is doing, what work is it doing, that it wants to present a dangerous violent psychopath as ordinary. Does it want to warn women that all nice guys are potentially harmful? That the harmful guys might also appear nice? That misogyny is banal and it kills? Or is it about how nice-looking white men who may or may not have come from bourgeois propriety but who definitely aspire to it are also kind of bad? Really bad, even? Imagine that. What does this say to women, except to always be afraid and be on guard? So when Gillian Anderson’s character, Stella Gibson, asks Archie Panjabi’s character, Tanya Smith, what she will tell her daughters in order to keep them safe, Smith answers, “Not to talk to strange men,” and Gibson goes, “Strange men?” (as in, presumably, what does that even mean?) and Smith amends her answer: “Not to talk to men.”
Tthere it is: if even someone who walks, talks, and looks like Paul Spector is a killer, then be wary of all men.
So the relief of Natsuo Kirino’s Out is that the killer, Satake, who orgasms while raping a woman he’s simultaneously stabbing, a man who confesses to feeling closest to a woman when he can share her pain, and get inside her, literally, when he sticks his fingers into her wounds—all told in Kirino’s spare, unvarnished prose—a man who achieves pleasure that he cannot even put into words at the precise moment a women is about to die, is presented as not a nice guy, or an ordinary guy, but a marked man, his violence inscribed onto his body and words and mannerisms, so that some women are drawn to his sad eyes and charisma while others are repelled and want only to stay away … there’s some relief there, to know that a violent killer bears some signs of being not-ordinary.
I’m not saying that my sense of relief about this is right, or good; in fact I know it’s dangerous, because killers and rapists don’t come with a warning.
But what about the women who are drawn to Satake? Who don’t heed some form of instinctual warning about his sad eyes that seem to mask something else? There’s no pat answer to these questions in Out and this is what drives me crazy, because when it comes to crimes like these I want someone to hold my hand and fix things and tell me that everything will be all right, somehow, in the end.
Satake meets his match in a woman, Masako, who has never killed anyone before but who has butchered dead human bodies (I would tell you more but this is the plot of the whole novel). The ending in Out is not redemptive, whatever that means, but it does allow possibility for a continued existence for the female character. She’s not snuffed out, or silenced, or reintegrated back into the dominant narrative. At least, not when we leave her at the end of the book.
In the finale of series one of The Fall, when Stella and Paul confront each other, not face-to-face but through the phone, Stella tells Paul some things are rarely uttered in films or movies, like “What you’re doing is plain old misogyny”. Time stops, for a little bit, when she says that, because when was the last time you heard that word on TV, from a woman to a man. And there is something there to the way Stella robs the serial killer’s actions of its mystique and pseudo-philosophical bullshit (does it come as a surprise that the serial killer is a former literature major who still quotes Nietzsche, or more disturbing, are viewers not meant to be surprised that Spector didn’t have an “ordinary” upbringing but grew up instead in various care homes?). Stella robs Paul of his own self-created misogynist spectacle when she cuts short Paul’s prattle about “being really free” (i.e. women-killing as the last frontier!) and tells him that he’s just another guy and reminds him of the banality of his misogyny. She lets the killer know that there’s nothing special about his killing, nothing to inspire a thousand documentaries and pop-sociology crime books, because it is a familiar hate—women already know all about it, so shut the fuck up, Paul.
The Fall is a BBC show so maybe we can’t expect too much. It still individualises Spector’s pathology while throwing words like misogyny around. I mean, we do see it in action but in a particular context: bad German criminals beating up an escort during a night of sex, working class Belfast men beating their wives about. I don’t know very much about Belfast but Spector’s white male ordinariness is a blessing, here, a privilege, yes—he gets to stalk the streets of Belfast at night dressed in a black hoodie and is unnoticed. Nice-looking whiteness does not inspire alarm, as it turns out. As for nice middle-class white men, Paul Spector is the aberration—the worst kind, as it turns out, which is what is troubling about the show. Does it, in the end, make a spectacle of (white) (middle-class) male violence even while trying to portray it as banal, ordinary? In Out, in contrast, misogyny is everywhere—from sons to husbands and police officers and factory supervisors. The only “nice guy” in this story, perhaps, is a migrant worker—who isn’t also entirely free from how misogyny structures the behaviour of men who do not actually hate women; so deprived is he of sexual contact with a woman he thinks it’s okay to stand in the dark and pull a woman close to him, even if he’s not going to hurt her.
Of course, The Fall is a cop show. Justice is meted out via a very compelling feminist female police woman with great hair and silky blouses who eats cheeseburgers while drinking red wine and has sex with whoever, whenever, and is also kick ass. The character is a liberal feminist dream in one sense, with echoes of governance feminism—the only kind we get in law and order shows. In contrast, in Out, the female characters, whether they exact vengeance or not, are not a part of the brutal police machinery and legal system; they are always the victims of it, and Out never lets you forget this.
But what does it also mean for our cultural moment, fascinated as it is with the nice guy as rapist and killer, that the same face that plays a killer also sells you (or used to sell you) brand names and fashion, a face meant to incite both pleasure and consumption? One face indistinguishable for another; the same face but different, the same body, positioned and conveyed in another manner.
Who or what is the nice or the ordinary guy?
April 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
I first heard of Yoko Ogawa via the PR machine for her novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, one of those books that received breathless rave reviews in all the big name literary publications. The breathlessness made me a little wary. But I was curious – the premise seemed fairly interesting. But that’s not the first Yoko Ogawa book I bought. The book I bought was The Diving Pool. I bought it because it was on sale.
The Diving Pool is a collection of 3 long short stories, or rather, 3 novellas as the publication information states, but they’re rather insubstantial as novellas, so I’ll stick with long short stories. I had high expectations for the book despite myself, following the breathless praise for the other novel, and the breathless praise for this collection of stories too, as printed on the back and front cover. So much breathlessness made me breathless in anticipation.
Overwhelmingly, all 3 stories employ the kind of narrative style that makes me rather breathless with annoyance. It’s the carefully-contained, constrained writing that’s supposed to be ‘pitch perfect’ and without a ‘word out of place,’ as reviewers have said, but that kind of writing should always feel natural. It should feel like that’s how the writer writes. Not the style in which she writes in order to be appear literary. Which is exactly how it feels like with Ogawa. I don’t know if this ‘quiet’ kind of writing is better in Japanese, and if the effect gets lost in translation. I don’t know, for instance, if the translator aimed for a more precise, measured, quiet style than the original was. The Literary World always wets itself in its pants over exactly this type of precise, measured, ‘not a word out of place’ writing, whether in Japanese or in English.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I was led to believe this book was going to be STUPENDOUS, but if you want to know why I’m really bitter – it’s because I still believe in book reviews. And so I’m bitter because I believed them and they lied.
Ogawa is a gifted writer in some aspects – the cool casualness of her prose belies the “unexpected menace” in her stories (those words in quotes are from the New York Times; I can’t help it, anything that I want to say about this book has already been said – just in a different context). And the unexpected menace works, it really does. I started this book before going to bed at night and didn’t want to continue because there is that suggestion of an underlying creepiness that’s going to trickle out from under my bed and stain my dreams an ugly dark shade of anxiety. And who wants that? I want restful sleep.
But all that menace doesn’t really make up for stories that are otherwise rather… boring. Or maybe boring is too strong a word. Bland is better. It’s just that… the stories lack flavour. There is no… energy. Maybe that’s the point; that these stories are meant to feature listless, direction-less, depressed girls with unexpected reserves of cruelty, pessimism, and manic paranoia. And then – bam! Creepiness magnified. But somehow, during the reading, it just doesn’t work. Also, there is a complete lack of humour in any of these stories. I understand listless, depressed, bored, scared, and fucked-up people – hell, reminds me of me, hardy har har – but dear lord, can’t they at least crack a joke or two? Or chuckle, perhaps?
The first two stories irritated the hell out of me even though I wanted to know what happened in the end. I’m not sure what this means. A failure of style? It’s not necessarily a failure of the imagination. Or maybe it’s just the failure of the reader (Ha!). ‘The Diving Pool’ featured an unlikeable character with whom one can also sort of sympathise (to some degree, at least) which is no mean feat, certainly. But moments were ruined with bits of contrived writing, like when Aya, the protagonist, talks to her roommate (Aya’s family runs an orphanage; her parents are head of the local New Agey church/religious group). Her roommate, Reiko, was talking about her life before coming to the orphanage, and said that she felt as though the hooks that have kept her and her parents together have come undone. Aya, without responding to Reiko, thinks about “what sort of sound was made when hooks holding together a family come apart. Perhaps a dull splat, like the sound of a ripe fruit splitting open. Or maybe it was more like an explosion, when you mix the wrong chemicals.”
Really? Here’s this poor kid talking about the loss of her family and Aya’s making poetic observations about the sound of those metaphoric hooks? If Reiko knew what Aya was thinking, I’ll bet Reiko’ll tell her to sod off. That’s nothing necessarily wrong with thinking about the sound of the hooks. Perhaps that mental diversion was meant to suggest Aya’s unique… oddness. However, the likening of the sound to ripe fruit splitting open, or chemicals mixed in the wrong proportions, just seems so very, very calculated. You can hear the writer thinking about what to write; the efforts of thinking of how to be writerly and literary is laid bare in the prose. You’re yanked out of the story and made aware of the presence of the writer, being writerly. And that’s a recurring problem with all of Ogawa’s stories.
It’s either that, or the translator had one hell of a time translating the stories, and it’s his laboured efforts that we’re witnessing as readers. (Stephen Snyder, here’s looking at you.)
The second story, ‘Pregnancy Diary,’ was again, somewhat strange. Again, I was annoyed while also being mildly interested. The protagonist chronicles her sister’s pregnancy through a carefully-kept diary of her sister’s moods, and as the morning sickness and cravings start to take their toll, through her eating habits. There’s nothing really weird about the sister’s behaviour. What’s weird is her sister’s, the protagonist’s, obsession with her pregnancy. The jacket copy tells us that this story is a “sinister tale of greed and repulsion.” Sure, the sister’s greedy – but pregnant woman can be, for certain foods. Repulsion – I suppose the protagonist is, to some respect, repulsed by her pregnant sister’s weird eating habits (again, nothing abnormal about that). I suppose the pregnant sister is repulsed at the beginning, too. Morning sickness will do that to you. But at the end of it, you’re left feeling, what’s the damn point? Even pointless stories that are good are not supposed to do that to you. If told well, it just is. Because life itself has moments of pointlessness. But if you’re left wondering “what’s the point?” of a story you just read, you’d better believe that it’s a serious effing flaw. And not due to a “pitch-perfect” literary style.
Things start to coalesce pretty well in the final story, which is the one I enjoyed the most. ‘Dormitory’ is plain creepy in that jeng-jeng-jeng Hitchcock way, the momentum slowly building up, until you get to the end and nothing the hell is resolved and you’re left with your nerves jangling and your mind completely on edge. Now, that I totally enjoyed. There are crippled caretakers who are self-sufficient to the point of oddity (no one should be that independent), empty buildings, and strange flowers. Nothing changed much with the writing style, but there’s more action, less ponderous musing. But even when there’s musing, it’s musing with a purpose – all the elements of the story come together quite wonderfully. If this is what Ogawa is like when she’s good, then yes, bring it on – I am especially interested in reading the latest Hotel Iris, which appears to be a full-length exposition of weird creepiness.
But please, spare me the ‘no-word-out-of-place quiet elegance and poetry’ or whatever of the first two stories. I say, bring on the words, bring on the mess of your literary style, as long as you take me somewhere. If, as the blurb on the front from the Guardian says, you’re one of “Japan’s greatest living writers,” then please for the love of god make me live through something in your pages.
February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
Love as an obsession overrides love as everything else. In Hitomi Kanehara’s Autofiction, the protagonist is consumed by love – literally and metaphorically. She talks of nothing else. She thinks of nothing else. Every thought, even those of plastic mineral water bottles, leads back to the concept of love and unity. For the character, Rin, to be in love with someone is not just to BE with them, but to be them. To become the other.
She’s manic and paranoid, and within a few pages of reading you’re tempted to wonder why any of these guys are seeing her to begin with. Or why any of them have led the relationship to progress as far as it has. The alarm bells would have started sounding awhile back. It leads you to wonder – is she hot? Is it the sex? Does her hotness override her raging paranoia, jealousy, and insecurity?
Or maybe she’s just a really nice girl, and loveable despite all that.
But she gets under your skin. I read chunks of this slim novel late at night, under the covers, and I got goosebumps. There’s a certain skulking creepiness about her, because she sees things that other people can’t. Not dead people, just… things. Her perception is twisted, but that’s a large generalisation. Her perception could be the real one. Or maybe that’s the point of perception – one woman’s twisted is another woman’s ho-hum.
Much as we all want love to be roses and sunflowers and buttercream frosting and mutually-fulfilling sex, it’s really about this: loneliness, uncertainty, anger, and the endless desire for more. More from yourself, more from your partner, more from The Relationship.
Rin would rather imagine the presence of another entity, an imaginary entity – Smith-Smith – in the house, than she would face the ‘secrets’ of her husband Shin, who disappears to his room every night for a few hours despite Rin’s pleas, tears, and drama. He goes into his room, and… who knows? Rin hears the sound of the trunk in his room opening and shutting. That sound has superseded all fears for Rin. She’d rather have a ‘ghost’ named Smith-Smith hanging about the place than listen to the sound of the trunk cover opening and shutting from the closed door of her husband’s bedroom.
I thought about this at length. I’m a wimp. I don’t watch horror movies, can’t listen to ghost stories, can’t stand old women and kids turning into demons (to which a previous post on Legion attests), and will rather face a roomful of relatives questioning me on my single status and marital intentions than tramp about in a graveyard at night all alone. (Wait, no… no, I take that back.) Okay, so there are things that will force me to face abject horror or unknown entities. But personally, would I rather have a Smith-Smith in the house than face up to my husband’s big secret? NO. Give me that big secret, and I will conquer it, I tell you. Well, give me the secret or the option of a creature named Smith-Smith hovering about the place, and yes, I will conquer that secret.
But that secret gets to you. It gets to Rin, too. As she says, without Smith-Smith to believe in, she’ll die. She’ll die without the love of her husband, she’ll die if she finds out his secret. And really, what is Shin doing? What’s in that trunk? And why can’t Rin, being the obsessive paranoid that she is, simply storm into his room and demand an answer? Or alternatively, sneak into the room during the day when her husband’s at work? Instead, she chooses the path of endless rumination; she opts to drive herself crazy while drowning out the sound of what goes on in that room by playing music on the computer and CD player, and turning on the TV, and ceaselessly wondering what her husband is doing.
Because following Rin’s train of thought, soon you’re thinking like her. Or maybe all of us have a Rin in us, in lesser or greater degrees. Your husband should be allowed to hang out by himself in his room, for a few hours, if he wants. He can climb in and out of that trunk and it should be okay. Technically speaking. In a normal, loving relationship, it should be okay. In other words, it will never be okay.
And what it madness? Does that mean being completely self-aware? Because Rin is completely self-aware. She knows what she’s doing, she’s semi-alert or receptive to how others respond to her behaviour, and she makes promises to herself to stop, or to change. But she can’t. Maybe that’s what Kanehara wants to show us. Love is an addiction, it cannot be willed or rationalised. And most importantly, love and sex are never separate:
“The desire to be wanted by a man. The desire to get a man. Most females go into hysterics if either of these can’t be fulfilled or the fulfilment of these two desires is unbalanced. Their pussies get all irritable, restless. What is hysteria, after all? It’s the disease of the pussy.”
Hysteria, then, is solely in the domain of the female. And the female can only be fully satisfied by the male. Wombs may wander, but the pussy merely wants to sit by the fire with a male lover and companion to chase away all anxieties. Rin believes that a well-tended pussy will be satiated, calm, fulfilled. Interestingly, she conflates the need for masculine attention with sex. Do we want men to notice us for anything else? Apparently not, because Rin wants men so that they want her. If they want her, they’ll love her. But not forever, as she discovers.
Pussy only gets you so far, but not so much for Rin, because she sees her pussy as a living, thinking aspect of herself. So she talks to her pussy, she placates it with soothing words, she gives it advice. Sometimes Rin’s betrayed by her pussy, and she conveys her anger. Or sometimes, she’s just tired of being ruled by it. “How dare my pussy rule my thoughts! Shut up! Shut up. You’re just a cunt,” Rin tells her pussy. Her pussy can also be condescending. “Oh you poor thing,” her pussy tells Rin, and Rin gets mad.
Let’s face it – we all want to give our pussies a talking to, sometimes.
(I’m curious, however… what’s the disease of the balls? I mean, besides blue balls.)
Sex is also rape, for the most part of this book. In one of the flashback scenes, Rin hangs out with a group of women who make part-time money as escorts. They attend a party where one girl is dragged out kicking and screaming by two men. Rin asks her companion, “Are they going to rape her?” He answers: “I suppose so. Yeah.” And while Rin doesn’t want to be raped, and she hopes she won’t be, she’s attracted to her companion and so asks him if she’s going to be raped too, to gauge his response as his level of attraction to her. She’s happy with his answer: “I want to say that because you’re cute, you’ll definitely be raped.”
It’s a bit alarming to hear the word rape being bandied about so easily. Maybe Whoopi Goldberg might pause to ask, is it rape rape?
One of the female characters in this book says, “I don’t mind being raped by one person, but then it was group rape, and I felt betrayed.” They don’t mind or object to having sex, or to the concept of sex, but there is no chosen penis, no chosen one with whom to have sex. So, they leave themselves open to the idea of being penetrated by just about anyone – and they conflate that with rape, because there is no agency in the choice of their sexual partner. For them, that’s rape that’s not quite rape. But we’re unclear if these female characters want to have sex at all. Maybe they only want it insofar as they think it makes them desirable and desired. Or maybe if it’s something you’re not invested in, physically and mentally, then it’s okay if it’s consensual or not… the latter is unpleasant and possibly painful, but for these girls, it’s no big deal.
As Laura Kipnis asserts in The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability, the concept of the vagina as ‘valuable real estate’ and a ‘costly attribute to lug around’ is that maybe, oftentimes, the vagina is more than not ‘overpriced’:
“But as indicated, the big problem with these high-value vaginas is that the more they’re overpriced, the more theft-prone they become; thus constant vigilance is required to keep out marauders and trespassers, those who would pluck your trophy, steal your jewel, with feigned promises and sweet talk or sometimes even force.”
All this guarding against theft can deplete you of your faculties – mental, emotional, and creative.
Love is sex and sex is rape, and love is therefore rape? I think that’s the most perplexing and alarming aspects of Autofiction. Love is a stranger walking up to you and taking what’s yours, leaving you a shivering, suspicious, uncertain shell of your former self.