August 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
(A shorter version of this review is in The Star.)
Malaysia’s Original People: Past, Present and Future of the Orang Asli is a dense, far-reaching compendium of essays edited by Kirk Endicott, a professor with the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College in the US. His bio states that Endicott has carried out fieldwork with the Batek and various other Orang Asli groups since the 1970s; hence, this anthology naturally features other academics and researchers who have spent many years with the Orang Asli in various capacities. The essays run the gamut from pieces on Orang Asli religion, language, and culture to the legal battles and political situation that renders them displaced and marginalised within the nationalist framework.
Published by the National University of Singapore, the book is systematically divided into several sections under the categories mentioned above. However, as the writers are mostly academics and researchers, each essay is packed with information from several angles; so an essay on Orang Asli animism and cosmology, for instance, is also rife with facts about the history of oppression they’ve faced on the Malay Peninsula, starting from Malay and Indonesian slave raiders of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no beating around the bush here in an attempt to neutralise or even erase colonial British and Malaysian government complicity in the systematic displacement and marginalisation of the Orang Asli. In fact, this displacement occurs under the guise of “modernisation”; but as Duncan Haladay shows in his essay, “Notes on the Politics and Philosophy in Orang Asli Studies”, around the 1980s, within the rubric of development, the Orang Asli “were subjected to resettlement and pressures toward acculturation, and their sanctuaries were subjected to appropriation and extensive deforestation”. It cites a case study from 1997 that “government policies … appear to be transforming Orang Asli into a demoralized rural lumpenproletariat”. Not the words you’ll see in local media reports on Orang Asli, which, as multiple essays in this book point out, often quote government officials tied to the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA), which is in itself is part of the problem.
Not quoting these words in a review of this book will be intellectually dishonest; from start to finish, these essays excavate the devastating impact of capitalism via the oil plantation and logging industries, for example, and the bureaucratic nature of the capitalist democracies like Malaysia whose state interests are, with greater intensity and frequency, tied to the profits of corporations. As such, states that claim to protect minorities often make decisions in favour of profit and surplus value to the detriment of its people. This is standard anti-capitalist critique; for many Malaysians, however, the ideas might seem new, even ludicrous. We are often encouraged to think of “development” as an abstract idea that is for the greater good, but the Orang Asli were aware of the rampant consumption of resources required for development as a potential ecological and natural disaster from decades ago.
Because it’s written by academics, some essays tend to read as though they were written for other academics and the non-specialist reader might find certain words and terms going over her head. While the essays on Orang Asli religion are fascinating, they are complex and verbose; whole pages were sometimes indecipherable to me because it merely regurgitated a string of words in Orang Asli languages, couched between linguistic concepts, terms, and phrases. Despite these occasional hurdles, these essays demonstrate that Orang Asli beliefs about animism and interconnectedness between humans and non-humans are the key to how they manage the land and resources. It’s not that Orang Asli abstain from eating meat, or clearing land; it’s that they do it within a belief system that says they shouldn’t take more than they should, and that for what is taken, something should be done on the part of humans to restore the balance. As such, blaming indigenous practices of slash-and-burn on the yearly haze, for example, is outright falsification by logging and oil palm companies and stakeholders in order to maintain their image.
Orang Asli practices are managed for the greater good of the community that abhors greed; a key tenet is that one group or family should never have more than the other. They see their biological and spiritual wellbeing as tied to the land and the trees, the rivers, and the wildlife. An interesting concept among most Orang Asli groups is the taboo about mocking or insulting nonhuman life. This is an idea that is almost alien to the money-obsessed, work-driven middle-class urban professionals. To me it demonstrates something beautiful; the value of words and ideas, and the effect it has on one’s own wellbeing and one’s community and family. This interconnectedness makes it hard to close one eye and sanction widespread ecological destruction through various excuses, such as “We need to modernise” or “The technology helps us in the end”. The oil palm industry, on the other hand, is built on profit and works within a system that rewards people who gain more at the expense of others. Whose practices do you think is destructive to the environment?
Another key point is the practice of nonviolence among the Orang Asli; researchers who have lived with them for years explore how it is possible that they never abused their children, or their wives, even when they disagreed. To me, this is astonishing: no child abuse, no rape. These disagreements are always sorted out verbally through intense discussions; and it’s never individualised, as all parties involved must participate. Some speculate that their adherence to non-violence grew out of a reaction to the brutalities faced by the Orang Asli when slave-raiders regularly tore threw the forest to abduct them. Interestingly, a concomitant fact about their practice of non-violence is the communal nature of their societies. Private property doesn’t exist; in the instances where some Orang Asli groups tried to absorb capitalist values and enter into market-based living, earning more at the expense of others, their attitudes changed, and they became selfish. They hoarded what was theirs, which was alien to most Orang Asli. The connection between private property and violence is interesting, here, but as these are anthropologists and not Marxists, it’s not explored in detail.
Malaysia’s Original People is required reading for all Malaysians, but it’s heft and price may be a detriment to some. It’s too bad that such information is not widely available to local readers by local publishers at affordable prices; reading about these issues will engender a seismic shift in most Malaysians’ thinking and our ready acceptance of capitalist values as the best values for competition, innovation, and development. Seen from the point of view of the Orang Asli, however, it looks different. They foresaw the dystopian future most of us are now aware of with regards to climate change from more than a mile away. However, they continue to struggle against oppression against a nationalist framework that valorises them as “the original people” in theory, but in practice, ensures that they remain irrelevant and on the margins, displaced in resettlement villages, and left out of educational opportunities that lead to better-paying jobs. Forced out of the forest by an intricate legal framework that gazettes their ancestral land for “wildlife reserves” (oh, the irony) and development, and forced to assimilate into Malayness (an official “secret” until the 1990s, as Diana Riboli’s essay makes clear), some of the Orang Asli have survived by retreating further back into the forest and refusing the state’s demands to assimilate, convert into another religion, and erase themselves. More Malaysians should learn not to accept what’s being done to them in the name of a so-called developed Malaysia. We, like the Orang Asli, should learn how to say no.
May 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
A fragmented history of bourgeois morality, sexual division of labour, dirt, and the middle-class housewife via two books excerpted below; Kipnis’s one on North American feminism (broadly speaking) and Theweleit’s one on the rise of white supremacy and fascism in Germany in relation to gender relations and the advent of capitalism.
Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability:
Note that the dirt-sex dilemma hasn’t only played out in the nation’s kitchens and bathrooms, it’s left its mark on history as well, and nowhere more conspicuously than in the female social-purity movement of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The “movement” was actually hundreds of separate organizations and campaigns, with rousing names like the National Vigilance Association and the Moral Reform Union, variously devoted to anti-vice agitation and temperance campaigns, rallying against gambling, prostitution, and general male sexual loucheness. All this first took off in England and the United States, eventually spawning international organizations and world congresses aimed at cleaning up male behavior everywhere. Themes of public hygiene and sanitary reform were tied to morality campaigns, with women undertaking to purify society on all levels, public and private, through legislation, street-corner proselytizing, or whatever it took.
In retrospect it make (sic) sense that with the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a compensatory cult of domesticity took hold. The home became a sanctified realm removed from the tawdriness of the marketplace, and it was the new sentimentality about the home that gave the women the platform to assert a new public authority as guardians of national purity. When Frances Willard, founder of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, pronounced that her goal was “to make the whole word houselike,” she was floating a new political ideology: that the strength of the nation was directly connected to the strength of the nation’s households. The problem with dividing the world into these increasingly separate male and female domains was that it wasn’t just paid work that was assigned to the male sphere, it was sexuality as well. On their side of the divide, men got sexual passion; women got cleanup duty. One again, thanks.
Consider the psychological effects of the flush toilet alone — goodbye to chamber pots, all your bodily wastes thankfully whisked from sight, now only a vague memory — allowing the ever-pertinent question “You think your shit doesn’t stink?” to the enter the social lexicon. Consider too, the new varieties of class contempt directed at the unwashed: if cleanliness is virtuous and the distribution of cleaning advances invariably begins with the moneyed, obviously rich and poor deserve their respective fates. After all, who’s cleaner?
Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History:
The second characteristic of industrial production is that from the very start, it had the capacity to create specific abundance in the midst of general scarcity: toys and baubles for the rich, fashionwear, and every other kind of garbage imaginable.
Working and making love became exercises in dying, only to a limited extent were they still creative, life-affirming processes. Every single commodity a worker produced was a piece of his own death. Every act of lovemaking carries the bodies deeper into a debt of guilt that accumulated toward death.
Lovers and workers now produce “dirt” from the moment they start their activities. The citizen of a society that began “placing a cover over piano legs, as a simple precaution,” set about keeping both things at a distance, factories and love (flowings as well as machines).
Is it any wonder with all that “dirt” around that the quality of water changed? The habits of washing and swimming in water, including in rivers and lakes, originated in the eighteenth century, in the context of the bourgeoisie’s “moral superiority” over the absolutist nobility. We need to consider the enormously heightened significance of water, in these attempts to implement hygiene in bourgeois society in relation to the simultaneous social proscription of other wet substances (especially those of the body) and the demotion of these substances to the status of “dirt”. At the same time, the phrase “hygiene as a new form of piety” describes only one aspect of the process.
The spring is a kind of natural shower for washing off the “dirt” of society. And showers like that found their way into houses. I’m a little surprised to find that I’ve arrived at the conjecture that plumbing had to be installed in private residences to help carry out the repression of human desires in bourgeois societies. (That repression took the form of gender segregation and sexual repression.)
Starting from the kitchen and the bedroom, Cleanliness began its triumphal march throughout the house. White lines, white morals, white tablecloths: an incessant rustling of white (no longer audible, but ever present). With the drying up of the streams in the bedroom, moving through the water pipes that were the heart of any clean kitchen, the image of the Pure Mother (the propaganda about clean interiors in houses and bodies) slowly gained ascendancy within the house. The housewife gradually came to embody whiteness, while her husband despaired or started dreaming about the sexual allure of nonhousewives (image of the ocean). Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
March 15, 2016 § 2 Comments
Page numbers are from the pdf version available from Monoskop.
Femininity in particular has retained a special malleability under patriarchy, for women have never been able to be identified directly with dominant historical processes, such as those that gave rise to bourgeois society, because they have never been the direct agents of those processes; in some way or other, they have always remained objects and raw materials, pieces of nature awaiting socialization. This has enabled men to see and use them collectively as part of the earth’s inorganic body–the terrain of men’s own productions. (294)
The Catholic Church offered up the body of the Virgin Mother, more heaven than ocean, as territory for licentious desires. It is possible to trace the process of sexualization of that body through legends surrounding Mary from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward […] The secular body didn’t remain fictional; real women were employed to give form to its function. In the period that most concerns us here, the initial phase of development of bourgeois society, the first such women were those attached to the bourgeois courts of the Italian mercantile capitals of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. With the expansion of the European world, which followed in the wake of exploration by seafaring adventurers, these were supplemented by images of women from other continents–the black slave woman, the woman of the almond eyes, the Indian squaw, and above all the South Sea maiden. Collectively, these images began to construct the body that would constitute a mysterious goal for men whose desires were armed for an imminent voyage, a body was to be more enticing than all the rest of the world put together. It was the fountain men drank from after crossing the arid terrain of their adventures, the mirror in which they sought to recognize themselves. (296)
Second, and more important, holding out the “high-born” woman as a partial reward for the higher-ranking retainers of princes prevented these men from setting out together with women, as equals; from leaving the European terror behind them, to found new, more human settlements elsewhere. […] The maintenance of inequality between the sexes, its perpetual renewal and exacerbation, has always been an important part of the work of the dominant group. (298)
We have seen how the noblewoman was gradually eroticized, in conjunction with a violent de-eroticizing of the common woman. In the course of that eroticizing, the bourgeois male gained access to a female body that had previously existed only as an image: the transcendent body of the noblewoman. The noblewoman herself is made the possessor of the erotic body for two purposes: for lovemaking and for the representation of the power of her overlord, whose commercial wealth made the secularization of her celestial flesh possible. This development was kept from getting out of hand by confining women to a representational function and by monogamizing the male-female relationship. (my emphasis)
Among the people, the (slower) consolidation of monogamy had a different function. Here it wasn’t a limitation placed on a process of sexualization; on the contrary, it was the final stage of a campaign for the total elimination of sexuality–the “lesser of two evils.” Monogamy surfaced here as the new code for a new set of circumstances within which access to the body of the opposite sex, which had for a brief time been relatively easy, was now to become more difficult for both parties. What had been accessible was now made unattainable because it harbored a potential for new freedoms. Alongside the “divine” one-and-only (inaccessible to the man of low breeding), an “everyday” one-and-only appeared as a boundary for the same low-born male). (324)
These were pages and pages of ideas that have been moving around in my mind over these months — and it’s been months since I’ve started this book. I just got to the bit where Theweleit talks about beauty standards (and accordingly, sexual desirability) under the heterosexual male rule as a means to emphasise the hierarchies between women of nobility and women of the emerging bourgeoisie, and “the extent to which the female body served as an arena of competition between bourgeoisie and the nobility”. What it did was make a certain class of women — who adhered to the beauty norms — the prize for both ruling class noble men and property-owning men, thus ensuring that “lower” class women were accordingly devalued. (Devalued, but their bodies still subject to “common” ownership by men of all classes.) In the current society of the spectacle — and I know people supposedly are over the Debordian spectacle or whatever, for some reason? but I think it has its use still — celebrity is the modern version of nobility. This is why thinkpieces that celebrate Kim Kardashian’s agency or whatever miss the central point, that the redirection of people’s attention towards celebrity beauty is a disciplinary apparatus for us, the commoners. As Theweleit explains, this was a process of indoctrination that began with the bourgeois women of European societies, women who “had to be trained (“cultivated”) for their new responsibilities — to be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves.” To be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves — I can’t think of a better description of the ways in which celebrity culture is put to use in the lives of women who will never, ever be able to enjoy a smidgen of the money and power enjoyed by the famous women they’re supposed to emulate and root for through the combined “training” instruction manuals of lifestyle and beauty magazines and libfem pop-culture analysis.
February 13, 2016 § Leave a comment
Luckiest Girl Alive is one of the more horrifying novels I’ve read in recent memory about gender and class relations, not least because it takes a sudden turn midway through and becomes more of a tale of psychological healing and redemption and this somehow makes it worse. Comparisons to Gone Girl are instructive in the sense of coming to terms with what publicists and marketers will do to sell a book–simply refer to a bestselling one that came before because there are vague similarities, like white women authors writing about white women characters. Perhaps I’m being unfair; I enjoyed Gone Girl and also Dark Places; having read two of Flynn’s novels I get the sense that beneath the thrill-a-minute veneer of the carefully-structured plot is an emphasis on what wealth, and how one’s class position shapes one’s social relations and conduct. While I really appreciated Mary Gaitskill’s review of Gone Girl, now archived and sadly no longer available to read for free in Bookforum, I feel that Flynn is interested in showing us just how depraved the wealthy characters are as a means of understanding modern American society. In Gone Girl and particularly Dark Places, we just how ruthless women can be–and not in the “internalised misogyny” way that she is commonly accused of. Flynn shows us how destructive middle and upper class white femininity is, to the women themselves, and worst of all, on the people on whom they’re able to exercise their (considerable) power.
Luckiest Girl Alive starts out like a a cracker of a book, but it pretty much depends on your tolerance for nasty people being nasty. Dark, bitter satires or psychological portraits of nasty women being nasty is a bit like catnip for me. No doubt it’s from having spent the better part of my formative years in all-girls’ schools. It’s not that women are inherently nasty (and I feel so stupid typing that out because obviously it’s not, but people seem to need to have it spelled out); it’s how heterosexual women are trained to be and put to use in that way, in order to win one of life’s many prizes: A Man and A Job (these go together in our lean-in, liberal feminist empowerment times). LGA starts out like very bitter satire; the main character, TifAni who becomes Ani (long story by which I mean it’s literally the whole book) is what you would imagine the misogynist, capitalist spectacle to be if it came alive in one human being. For that reason it was hard to imagine where the writer, Jessica Knoll, could go with such a premise. When I started to get an idea of where it was going, it was troubling to realise that certain “major issues” in the book, specifically high school gang-rape of a fourteen-year-old girl and a school bombing and shooting, were strategically maneuvered as thriller plot points designed to evoke suspense. By the end, then, Ani–who is really quite brutal in how she has found her way from middle-class mediocrity to upper-class feminine security in New York (contingent on her marrying her fiance and “earning” his family’s connections, obviously)–is rescued from her own strategically-designed future by an arc of redemption that involves exploiting the traumatic events of her youth for a documentary. First as tragedy, then as neverending spectacle. In this weird way too, what starts out in the book as an indictment of American middle-class bourgeois clerk values of aspirational wealth becomes, by the middle of it, a purely psychological Ani phenomena. She is so fucked up because of what happened to her that miraculously, towards the end, the functions of her class position–where she has been raised to become arm-trophy to a rich man–is made to be just a problem of her outlandish, tasteless, money-grubbing mother and distant, asshole father, and the combined effects that this upbringing and the awful people in her private school had on her.
I was so appalled by Ani’s hyper-surveillance of other women and her intrinsic, knee-jerk hatred of them, that I looked up the author’s Instagram and Twitter and found her voice sometimes almost disturbingly Ani-like. Of course, it’s a particular effective form of affective writing common in beauty magazines that use the chatty yet judgmental mode of friendly vigilance–from one girl to another!–to sell the many, many products advertised in practically every page, except in Ani the pretense is removed and it is pure self-hating and misogynist surveillance. Knoll used to write for women’s magazines; Ani, too, works for a women’s magazine. Her beauty industry-fortified gaze, when it lands on other women, is ruthless and cruel. Teenage Ani already showed mastery of this gaze in order to best her more languid upper-class contemporaries, secure as they were in their class position made up of inherited wealth, but at least teenage Ani seemed to recognise that a shiny exterior was not the whole. Older Ani had come to fully immerse herself in the spectacle and call it being shrewd, street-smart, and resourceful. The image stands for the whole. It reminded me of “The Girlfriend Gaze”, specifically the bit about how the girlfriend gaze functions as governance:
This obfuscation of the male gaze helps to mystify the technologies of patriarchy that profit from women’s body hatred, particularly through the beauty and lifestyle industries. It reconfigures obsession with body image and consumption as an exclusively female preserve. The women in Heat are in danger of losing their celebrity status as they are seduced into the domesticated spaces of heterosexual love. Because the skinny body is a woman’s cultural capital, the magazine’s subtext implies that to let go of the rigours of self-discipline is a form of naivety. And it also perpetuates the pervasive discourse that defines women’s empowerment through the control they exert over their bodies. Being skinny, or a discerning and avid shopper, is sold as signifier of autonomy: it is because she is worth it that she botoxes, not because she is a victim of the heterosexual male gaze.
Because women exercise ownership over their bodies and can profit from this through the processes of branding, the surveillance of body control is sold as enablement. In an overwhelmingly visual culture, the spectacle of the female body is necessary for self-promotion and therefore success. As the practices of beautifying and “girling” become more complex, it is women who are able to recognise and appreciate the work spent and expertise accumulated. Because the body is represented as integral to success in the labour market, this surveillance of women by women through friendship is represented as entitlement. It is marketed as solidarity or sisterhood through the rhetoric of girlfriendship; it is “girl time”.
It is a white-supremacist, capitalist gaze built on exploited labour and ownership of private property, of course, but these elements are slowly neutralised throughout the book, so that by the end, Ani, who has spent a lot of money and time on crafting the ideal upper-class New Yorker feminine body, still gets to “own” her gifts and be saved from her awful fiance, too. It’s classic lean-in feminism; she crafted an very specific image of herself in order to obtain a man and power via wealth and social capital, but now that she’s ditched the man and found some liberation from oppressive heterosexual norms, she can be kinder in her power, power that she has obtained through looking hot as shit and putting other women in their place. Though it’s made clear a few times that it’s Ani’s ability to take control of herself and her body–after everything was taken out of her control through the events that altered her life in high school–that makes her the hyper-image obsessed person that she is, this is lost in the manipulative aspects of the plot designed to keep the pages turning. And I can’t get past the sense that so much of what is plain old American middle-class striving is displaced onto the mother figure, whom seen through Ani’s eyes is often clueless in her desire for wanting the best for her daughter, but is also often pilloried for being tacky, overdone, and unable to play the game right.
Ani’s only female friend is a rich, obligatorily skinny white woman of epic beauty, so much so that conversation stops when she enters the restaurant, bla bla bla. This friend is crucially, of course, rich, so her beauty can appear effortless, which is what Ani craves most of all. So much of what Ani wants to be–disappear into the spectacle as an emblem of power and wealth–is premised upon the brutalities she endured as a young girl, but the book locates her freedom in an act of personal empowerment. Presumably, she will have earned this bit of freedom, and go back to her life as a cog in the capitalist machine that sells self-hatred as liberation. This minor fact, of course, is never the problem at all. Knoll is pretty deft in sketching out this type of mean girl white New Yorker at the start of the book, but loses steam halfway. It’s almost as if she realises that this type needs to be made likeable to a vast number of female readers who will have to “identify” with a female character who will definitely consider women who don’t live in New York–much less in the Western world–and who lack beauty, wealth, and the means and willingness to cultivate a designer body and designer style, i.e. the vast majority of us, utterly beneath her.
shoulda put a ring on it, shoulda signed a contract, shoulda just kept your head down and worked, etc.
May 23, 2015 § 8 Comments
I had an idea of turning this blog around, as it were, come 2015 — it would be the diary of the angry Tamil spinster, or something. Her eternal disquiet. 2015 came and I spent a lot of time of twitter, faving tweets, retweeting tweets, wondering why bother to write anything. Thus far, I’m still wondering: why bother to write? And have not yet found an answer that is sufficient to make it worthwhile (not for myself, but for others.) Related: why should others read me, or how does my writing contribute to anything, if at all? More important than “why bother to write”.
I’ve started to identify so much as “spinster” in my head, first as a joke, but now as reality, because I think back to how we were made to be afraid of being the unmarried 30-something woman taking care of her elderly mother when were in our teens, and thus encouraged to study hard and look pretty to avert this fate, and how I have arrived at this fate not through conscious choice but a series of decisions based on facts of my life that were beyond my immediate control. Is this what they call agency? Surely the spinster, being in the position she is, should be the most anti-capitalist of them all.
I read Kate Bolick’s Spinster expecting to feel some kinship with it, moments where the writer stares into the abyss of utter aloneness and I stare along with her. Instead, it’s about a pretty woman who is plenty sought-after by men and attends lots of literary parties and can never walk down the street without seeming like she winds up on a date. (This woman is Bolick, to be clear.) There are bits in-between about women from her past who have acted as her awakeners; all of them white, most of them pretty and sought-after by men in the same way, and in a creepy way, all very pale-skinned and eroticised because of this white skin (her descriptions of how Edna St. Vincent Millay was desired by men, for example, works in this creepy way … creepy because desire-for-white-women is always taken for granted.)
This book, as Jessa Crispin writes, also vexed me. At one point, when tracing the life of one of her awakeners, Maeve Brennan, and noting that she did actually end up living the spinster nightmare — that of a “bag lady” — Bolick wonders, “What did it mean that this was the woman I’d aspired to be?” Maybe some spinsters end up as “bag ladies” because of their position in society, alienated, precarious, and unwanted — how are they to thrive under the brutal conditions of capitalism? But in case the cover of Spinster wasn’t already a clue, Bolick’s book is for the shiny and striving. In identifying with Brennan but cringing at the bag lady, Bolick can’t see what she won’t see. All you need to do is awaken the neoliberal soul and be productively employed. Bonus: if you’re pretty and can get a lot of dates, you can only worry about your strange desire to be alone without actually living the alienation that aloneness prescribes in a capitalist society.
The face of the new spinster movement or whatever, as determined by the Publishing World (i.e. New York), is pretty and white, so the rest of us will have to gather under a different banner, I guess. Hag? Bag lady? Take your pick. Like wage labour, the ability to make a choice between being undesirable and unproductive, or being desirable and productive, is a sign of agency. The choice is yours ladies! Will you work to improve your look, lean in, and make an effort? If you do, you deserve to exist.
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.
September 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
I watched Magic Mike early this year and was troubled by it, and in a fit of earnestness composed some grumpy tweets about what I thought, and posted none of it up except, I think, the link to the Joshua Clover article. Recently someone was talking to me about movies and this person had seen Magic Mike, and “as a feminist” was thrilled about how it centered “female desire”, which is something that a lot of people have said about the movie, I think? Or at least that’s how a lot of discussion on it was framed. And I’d have to agree with Clover that this film is not at all interested in women, or “female desire”, whatever that means — I’ve used that phrase before, too, but now it makes no sense to me, and so it made me newly irritated with the film.
- Yes: “In the sex work movie, men get happy endings.” Joshua Clover on Magic Mike (& Step Up Revolution) http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/dance-dance-revolution-20130204
- Wonder if Magic Mike is entertaining because it doesn’t take sex work seriously when done by men. Think it wants to take precarity seriously
- but this is undermined by inability to show how precarity structures lives when focus is on hot white male leads who seem to be having “fun”.
- It’s a weird movie & completely unsexy since it is about sex work. So the comments about how this is the sexiest movie ever? Perplexing.
- How to unpack the layers of wrong in commentaries that celebrate this film for catering to “female desire” without acknowledging the work that produces it
- Talking about male sex work in a not-Soderbergh situation, in a dehumanising capitalist system, female desire comes at what expense?
- Not to mention what happens when it’s First World women and Third World men. But here the main leads are conveniently white.
- Is this what liberal feminism means when it talks about “equality”
- “despite its stylized hetero-swinger proclivities, the film is interested in men”–yes, which is why this is strange: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=956
- Her comments on Heti are astute but MM doesn’t “play with female fantasies of submission” so much as affirm men’s fantasies of dominance…
- Which I suppose is contrasted with how their material lives are out of their control/in capitalism’s hands — thus, not about female fantasies.
- Because yeah Alex Pettyfer is unemployed but at the end of his first performance he gets a blowjob and an actual job out of it.
- Meaning, it you’re an attractive heterosexual man and you’re lucky enough to be a sex worker in a film
- with an attractive heterosexual female audience — jackpot!
- Heterosexual relations between thin, attractive white people. Rinse and repeat.
- How do they know which woman to pluck out of the crowd, who would enjoy being on stage with a strange man’s groin in her face? Important q
- I mean, just because you show up to see men gyrate does not mean you want to be gyrated on. Or do you? What is “consent” in this case?