animals strike curious poses

April 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

One of the “perks” of being born the youngest in a family of five, nine years separating me from my sister, the fourth child, and fifteen separating me from my eldest brother, is that I had immediate access to all kinds of “age-inappropriate” pop culture from, well, birth.

I didn’t quite get “When Doves Cry” lyrically when I first heard it around the age of five or so, of course, but I liked the melody. Or maybe I was a genius and knew it well enough for what it is—a perfectly self-contained pop song. You don’t need words or cognitive development to groove to a good beat. Do you?

By the time I was in my pre-teens and this song had been firmly established in my personal canon as one of those songs, I still couldn’t quite grasp what it was saying about sexual relationships—although I knew it was about that. Sweat! Bodies! Kisses! But then there were the birds, and that confused me. In retrospect, I see that confusion can sometimes be a good thing. I took it literally to mean that maybe humans and birds copulated in courtyards and I don’t know what effect that had on me in the long run. Did it help to make me a more imaginative person, a weirdo who was willing to sit down with weirdness for a bit, to see what it was about, and didn’t automatically judge? My wishful thinking is that maybe it did, a little bit. It was a strange and captivating fairy tale, and in the tradition of the best kind of fairy tales, menacing and scary as adult emotions and sexuality are likely to be to someone aged ten or so.

But mainly as a child who didn’t have words to articulate what it’s like to be in a family—this screaming family, in particular—what it’s like to explore the dark recesses of all those feelings and the way in which your father and mother loomed in front of you, flawed and impossible, minor gods you couldn’t quite conquer, I could definitely get something out of

“Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied
Why do we scream at each other
This is what it sounds like when doves cry”

I hadn’t heard that in a pop song before. At ten, it seemed astonishing to me that Prince, too, had my father and my mother. As I grew up—and came to terms with the fact that Prince was not a sibling—I realised it summed up, in a few perfect lines, the legacy of your parents’ union. How, if you grew up with your parents, it is likely to play out again and again in the “I” and the “you” of every relationship you will have, in different registers.

A nightmare, in many ways. Trust Prince, the poet, to have made it sound so good.

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is jane austen mean

April 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

I managed to get an ARC of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice and thought I’d review it for a local paper. It seems like fun, I thought. It would be nice to review a “light” book for a change, I thought. I don’t know much about Sittenfeld; I do remember reading Prep in a haze while living at Winnipeg, because going from Malaysia to Canada there was not a day that went by when I didn’t marvel at the existence of this grand thing called a library and so I tried to read every book available, and Prep was one of them. It was ok, I guess? Entertaining? I can’t remember much. But I decided to give this a go because how bad can a retelling of Pride and Prejudice be? Additionally, I was curious. Why update what was already very good? “The Austen Project” intrigued me. Who are the writers who willingly offered themselves up to be compared to Austen? Why? Fascinating.

The problem so far is that I’m only about 1/4 of a way through Eligible and I’m bored out of my mind. But I must slog on, because I promised to write a review and this one actually pays (quite well, in fact). It’s not that Sittenfeld is a terrible writer, but that’s a whole other story. She can … write. I’m sure of it. I think. It’s just that this whole world I’m supposed to willingly enter into for pages and pages on end is so devoid of enchantment — everything and everyone is so petty, crude, tedious, and dull-witted, even Mr. Bennet and Liz, whose verbal sparring or conversations are meant to energising. In this update, it’s as limp as an afternoon in KL during the heat wave.

The story of Pride and Prejudice has been updated, so to speak, and so now Liz Bennet is a liberal feminist who writes for a magazine called Mascara and tries to lean in but is hampered by both a not-quite-going-anywhere writing career and love life. So far, so tedious. Jane is now a yoga instructor in New York, which … I mean, I could never really warm to Jane (could any of us warm to such a paragon of virtue, to begin with?) in the original, but in this book she’s just a walking, talking, jogging robot. And when Sittenfeld describes the WASPy Bennets’ decaying Tudor mansion thus, from Liz’s POV — “her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could no longer see, touch or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible” — I flinched. Was Austen ever this small-minded and mean-spirited?

Charlotte Lucas too, has been updated to become nice but fat. Mary, with whom I’ve always had a problem, or rather, I’ve always had a problem with Austen’s gaze when it comes to Mary — so judgmental and, dare I say it, bitchy — fares no better, unsurprisingly. When I read P&P, I try not to think about Mary too much so I could revel in Austen’s sparkling prose, etc., but Sittenfeld’s update has led me to consider if it was a conscious attempt to highlight Austen’s latent uncharitable and mean-spirited perspective, which was at its most obvious when directed at a poor young lady who possessed neither socially-approved looks nor charm. In Sittenfeld’s update, Liz thoughts about Mary are painful: “Mary was proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant”. Was Austen ever this small-minded and mean-spirited? Maybe … yes? She could be?

When I read Austen, especially of late, I’m under no illusions about Austen’s disdain for and simultaneous acquiescence to the bourgeois values of her time. She both mocks it and strives to reach it; or rather, her characters do. Poor Mary; she was noted for being both unattractive and lacking in charm both in looks and in personality, and then dispensed with. Who cares what happens to Mary? I’ve always wondered. In the 21st-century, Mary suffers even more so in a society where social interactions are mediated by images. As does Charlotte Lucas, who for all intents and purposes in this update is not hampered by an inability to support herself independently — in this update she seems like a perfectly decent and functional person, but is fat, and therefore alone. (Until she “settles”, presumably, like the original Charlotte.)

I’ve never resolved the problem of Charlotte and Mary and I do wonder if Eligible’s obtuse characters and inane conversations and utterly horrifying, shallow perspectives on love and marriage and a person’s worth are so bleak not only because it reveals the crass emptiness at the core of the bourgeoisie and upper classes in the times we live in, but also because it reveals something fundamentally — nasty? — about Austen’s conception of femininity and female worth. As a “fan” of Austen, this leaves me more than a little disturbed.

But anyway. There’s still MANY MORE PAGES TO GO before I sleep. I might have a different view by the end of it, and back to loving Austen without having to think too much about it.

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