Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie

September 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

This is a hard book to review. I wanted to love it but I have some significant issues. In a sense, this is a timely reworking of Antigone.This novel considers present-day issues of state power, borders, and terrorism. The ideas are worth thinking about but I feel the depth of the novel is less a feature of its writing, structure, characters, and plot, and more about what present-day readers will bring to their reading of the book. It’s the fact that it’s about our current political and social issues and the fact that it’s based on Antigone. I’ve seen reviews where people say they would have given it two stars, but knowing that it was based on Antigone elevated the book to three stars. I’m not sure that this reflects well on the novel.

Some of my issues: (SPOILERS AHEAD)

Antigone as the novel’s symbolic framework is also its limitation. I have a significant problem with the romance and the blockbuster film ending, and I can see it had to work that way to fit the parameters of the tragedy on which it’s based. But it simply did not feel true. This is largely in part to the flimsiness of the central characters of Aneeka (Antigone) and Eamonn (Haemon). Aneeka comes off as a cardboard character of a moody girl who’s mysterious in her ways and beautiful and unpredictable and impulsive, while Eamonn is a shell of supposed charm and humour and earnest do-gooder privilege. So far, so stereotypical. Much of the gravitas of Antigone is lost because Aneeka is not given the depth of a narrative voice. We see her through others. To Eamonn, she appears as some Manic Pixie Muslim Dream Girl. Their sudden passion and attraction does not leap off the pages. Maybe part of this is because Aneeka had a motive for getting closer to Eamonn, and Shamsie wanted to convey the “is it real or is it not” ambivalence of the romance. Or whatever. I did not care at all and that to me is a significant flaw. I was rolling my eyes and writing “Oh, please” in the margins. The wheels of this story is set in motion by their love. It felt like a weird, coldly-choreographed infatuation.

There is this really cringe-worthy scene after they have sex, when Eamonn looks at Aneeka praying after she has naughtily taken off everything for him except her hijab. Eamonn is the cultured, cosmopolitan posh Muslim boy who has, thanks to how he was raised, disavowed his Muslim self, but as it turns out what really turns him on is hijab sex with a hot hijabi! This is the section from his perspective: “He should have left immediately, but he couldn’t help watching this woman, this stranger, prostrating herself to God in the room where she had been down on her knees for a very different purpose just hours earlier”. Oooh. First she was down on her knees for dirty times and now she’s down on her knees for God! Honestly, I thought this self-Orientalising nonsense was Shamsie’s way of poking fun at Eamonn’s privileged worldview and insularity, but Eamonn is only depicted in such a tediously dull way as a Good Man that it turns out that scene was quite sincere.

Isma (Ismene) and Karamat (Creon), and even Parvaiz (Polyneices) to an extent, are complex and dynamic. Isma is the heart of the story but she is made to have a supporting role, because this novel needs to construct itself around the Antigone tragedy. The connection between Isma and Karamat could have developed into something interesting but that was prevented because, again, Antigone. I’d rather read a whole novel about Isma and Karamat. But Aneeka? Repeated references to her beauty does not a character make.

Despite enjoying the sections on Isma and Karamat, and feeling moved by Parvaiz’s situation, or rather, by the burden of family and fate that he feels he shoulders in isolation, I failed to connect to the novel as whole. Ultimately, it’s too comfortably bourgeois, too careful and too centrist in its politics. Shamsie’s language is polished and careful. Sometimes this language is a delight to read; it slips down easily and comfortingly like pudding, but sometimes it veers lazily towards sentimental platitude. Not having read Shamsie before, I’m not sure if this is her style. I know what the politics were going to be and I know that it’s meant to pull the right emotional strings. It’s meant to make you feel bad about good, innocent Muslims vs. the very evil and bad ones.This is not because I know what happens in Sophocles’ tragedy. This is because there is nothing remotely unpredictable in here that I haven’t read in zillions of liberal op-eds and thinkpieces.

Where is the ugliness, the blood, the mess, the absolute and mind-numbing fear and uncertainty brought on by the bureaucracy of borders and the security state? These characters move around like pieces on a chessboard. I can accept this if the novel was brave enough to take fate as a serious concept like the ancients did. Because part of that utter futility of human effort is at the centre of ancient Greek thought and in Sophocles’ play. The terror and awe of Antigone’s commitment to the gods and the concept of philia. But we live in a different time and we’re all materialists now even if we’re not, and this novel wants to be a realist novel of action, of cause and effect, and everything is so self-contained.

Aneeka’s love for Parvaiz and her willingness to do anything to get him buried at home is utterly unreasonable to others because she’s one half of twins. Great. So it basically comes down to: she’s acting that way because, well, twins! You know how they are!

Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices (painting by Nikiforos Lytras, from Wikimedia Commons)

What about Aneeka’s God and how she wrestles with religion in modern-day, increasingly right-wing UK where the only way “others” are told they should exist is by assimilating? We get a strong, almost sympathetic depiction of that conservative viewpoint via Karamat. In fact, his perspective closes the book. He gets the final word, even if it’s meant to be a representation of his hubris before his personal fall. But there is no real, strong political opposition to his view by other Isma or Aneeka. Isma’s critique of both the police state and Islamophobia carries more weight than Aneeka’s sense of justice. There is never that confrontation between Aneeka and Karamat that enables readers to think of another way of how the state should exist, of a way that it can protect and yes, care for its citizens without trying to eradicate difference in people by means of weapons, war, incarceration, poverty, torture, and weaponised security.

And if this is Antigone, then it’s Aneeka’s impassioned arguments that should strike the heart of the reader. But we only get inside her head at the worst point of her grief, and her viewpoint is submerged in the “chorus” of newspaper reports, tweets, etc. I don’t understand why this section was done this way. It doesn’t work as a structural choice, it doesn’t work as a stylistic choice. Thus, instead of the argument between Karamat and a worthy foe of opposing political views, we are meant to make do with sentimental claptrap about Karamat having to be a father and pleas for him to “be human” from both his wife and son. Really? Both Islamic State fighters and war-mongering NATO politicians think they have the monopoly on what it means to be human, don’t they?

I thought Shamsie was going to take a risk in the Parvaiz section, which I found moving until it was again clinically-engineered by the hand of the author. After giving us an engaging, even sympathetic Parvaiz, I thought Shamsie was going to show us how unreasonable we are in our desires, how mad we can become when faced with a family legacy that is riven with trauma, in a world that is brutal and unjust. That after getting the reader to sympathise with Parvaiz, she would leave him there, with the choice he made, thereby making the reader flail in the uncomfortable space of finding themselves sympathising with a terrorist. Or not sympathising, as such, but living in his head and seeing the world from his eyes. But no. Very quickly Parvaiz repents, and enters the world of good humans again. The dichotomy of Muslims terrorists as monsters and the rest of us as good humans remains. This is straight out of Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, but not in a good way. In fact, it is just like any depiction of “Muslim terrorists” we see in the media. But fiction is not corporate-sponsored journalism. One hopes that if you’re going to write about this, you would take the risk of humanising the people that the media have Othered and made monstrous. Because that is the black hole of our collective consciousness, isn’t it? How is it that people, actual humans, vast numbers of them, think that so many of us are not fit to exist on this planet with them? Shamsie does this by taking an ethical shortcut. Parvaiz regrets his choices; hence, we are allowed to feel pain that he is denied humanity in his death.

Daniel Mendelsohn on Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Antigone’s relevance: “This is the point that obsessed Sophocles’ Antigone: that to not bury her brother, to not treat the war criminal like a human being, would ultimately have been to forfeit her own humanity. This is why it was worth dying for.” There is none of this terrifying, heart-rending power of sticking to a principle, of ethics, conveyed in Aneeka’s position. This to me would have been the most crucial aspect of the novel, the element that should have been carefully developed, the bright flame at its core. I searched for it and was left wanting.

To me, all of this suggests that the reader is meant to fill in the gaps in Shamsie’s book by connecting it to the long, rich history of interpretations and readings of Antigone. Instead of fleshing out a key character in the novel and the mechanics of its plot, we are meant to assume Aneeka’s actions are powerful and tragic based on what we know about the tragedy. Such a shame. There are seeds in here for a novel that could have been really messy, brave, and complex. I was expecting so much! I still think it’s worth reading, despite my lengthy criticism, but it’s not memorable and it did not shake me up inside, it did not take my thinking to new places. It’s worth reading because it’s topical and relevant. But it could have been so much more.

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Hanif Kureishi”s The Nothing

July 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

My review of Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing appeared in The Star last week. It’s available here.

This is the review in full:

In Hanif Kureishi’s brief and caustic novella The Nothing, Waldo is a celebrated filmmaker who is confined to his apartment because of illness and advancing age. He has lately begun to suspect that his wife Zee, younger by twenty-two years, has begun an affair with Eddie, “more than an acquaintance and less than a friend for over thirty years”. This is the story of Waldo’s descent into paranoia, obsession, and sexual jealousy.

Eddie is a scamp, an itinerant shifty dude who has done some film journalism and written about Waldo. Currently, because of money troubles, he is largely living with Waldo and Zee on the pretext of assisting Zee with caring for Waldo. And care for Waldo he does; he has even given him a bath. Waldo has tolerated him and enjoyed his company all these years, to an extent, because Eddie has interesting things to say about movies and “adores the famous” and is a “dirty-minded raconteur”. Waldo describes in detail why he tolerates Eddie and keeps him around, but his exact words are not fit to be printed in this venue.

It is that kind of a book. It’s always a pleasure to read Kureishi, and this is shot through with vivid descriptions and black humour on every page. It’s obnoxious, clever, and bawdy, much like its main character. The whole novel is told from Waldo’s extremely graphic and increasingly paranoid first-person point-of-view. As Waldo says of his detailed, obsessive fantasies, “I like to think I can see it. I was always a camera”. The reader is reminded that “the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth”.

A glimpse into Waldo’s character can be seen in this nugget:

If you’ve once been attractive, desirable, and charismatic, with a good body, you never forget it. Intelligence and effort can be no compensation for ugliness. Beauty is the only thing, it can’t be bought, and the beautiful are the truly entitled. However you end up, you live your whole life as a member of an exclusive club. You never stop pitying the less blessed. Filth like Eddie.

If this makes you want to suffocate him with a pillow, you won’t be the first in line. Certainly his wife is tempted to do the same. But as Waldo reveals more of himself throughout the book, one starts to wonder if all this philosophising is just a cover for a real and actual fear: the slow, creeping realisation by someone on their death bed that all that they hold dear might not be what makes the world go around. If beauty and desirability are the true forms of entitlement and the ugly are to be pitied-from the perspective of someone who has always had both-then what makes an average-looking man like Eddie such a hit with the ladies, including his own wife?

Waldo would certainly bristle if you called him a misogynist; he might counter that he does in fact love women, and would probably privately write you off as a prudish, repressed feminist, which in turn would affirm the fact. That’s the kind of man Waldo is. He does love women, but only if they’re pleasing to his eye and sexually-alluring. If they’re not, they’re dispensed with in one sentence, like Maria, “the kind Brazilian maid”. Waldo’s appreciation for his friend Anita, one of the actresses he has directed, is summed up in an assessment of a physical feature of hers that also cannot be reprinted in this venue.

If you love sharp, snappy writing with a keen sense of rhythm and pacing, this book has it. Waldo’s bon mots are clever and provoking but the whole thing can often feel like one giant quip. And that might be the problem with the book: while Kureishi has established an incredibly vital sense of character through Waldo’s voice, there’s never a sense that anything is truly at stake. The obsession with his wife stays on the surface, though when Waldo tries to contextualise how a rogue like him fell in love with this one deserving woman, it sounds a bit hokey, like something he’s memorised from a Hallmark card.

Thus one isn’t quite sure what was Kureishi’s intention in this character study. Perhaps a man who values looks, charm, sexual allure and glamour like Waldo can always only skate on the surface. As always, one is left wondering about the women whom we have only seen through one man’s eyes. One wants to know more about them and why they are this way. Seen by Waldo, Zee veers from petulant to crazed and fulfills all the stereotypes about attractive women who are constantly threatened by the presence of women who are considered more attractive. Yet she is fascinating; Kureishi gives her some amazing lines.

The book ends abruptly, with a bleak solution. Waldo is no fool and he hasn’t had the wool pulled over his eyes, but things have certainly gone his way-in a sense. Waldo’s voice is memorable and I will probably still think about his pitiful masculine ways for some time. “You have savage eyes”, Zee tells her director husband, and the same could be said of the male gaze in general, as well as of Kureishi. Whether or not one enjoys this book depends quite a bit on how much of this savagery one is willing to sit through.

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

January 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

I don’t have goals or resolutions, which probably explains a lot about my life, but I do have an idea of what I want to do more of in 2017, and part of that is more writing here and less opinions on Twitter. So far I’ve managed to stay off Twitter but I can’t get back into the rhythm of blogging, for some reason. But we’ll see how it goes. I’ve been very bad about updating the blog with reviews and writings I’ve done elsewhere, and for the last year or so I’ve done a lot of reviews but I haven’t really highlighted it here. I’ll try to get back on track with that, just because I do spend a lot of time working on the reviews, and even if the world is ending I still like engaging with the thoughts and ideas of another mind that one can encounter in books. So here’s an excerpt of a review of Virginie Despentes’s Bye Bye Blondie which you can read in full at Full Stop:

Virginie Despentes’ 2010 feminist polemic, King Kong Theory, was a bit like drinking a bitter, black potion steeped in rage and fury concocted by a kind but brutally frank fairy witchmother. “I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick,” Despentes wrote, delivering a manifesto for women who felt alienated and cast-out from the rhetoric of liberal feminism and its framing of gender equality via the spectacle of consumer and celebrity culture. The female protagonist in Despentes’ most recent novel to be translated into English, Bye Bye Blondie, is also one of the girls who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick. Gloria is getting older and angrier, and the novel is a narrative of that rage and its specificity rooted in Gloria’s position as a working-class woman in France. Published by The Feminist Press and translated from French by Siân Reynolds, Bye Bye Blondie is a blistering account of a woman’s attempt to exist as a person in a capitalist, spectacle-driven, misogynist society while also trying to honor her love for a man and the deep connection she shares with him. Like Chris Kraus in I Love Dick, in this book Despentes too seems to have set out to solve the problem of heterosexuality.

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.

luckiest girl alive

February 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

luckiest girl alive

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 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 girly gal 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.

Ronald Frame’s Havisham

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Not quite sure how or why I can’t seem to get back to blogging in the way I used to. I don’t think this matters at all to anyone except me but for people who still read this blog, thank you. I wish I could offer something more other than recycled or half-baked thoughts.

But in keeping with tradition I’m still putting up reviews from Pop Matters that I keep forgetting to put up sooner. This one is almost … a year old. Almost. This is on Ronald Frame’s Havisham, not quite a retelling of Charles Dickens as it is the story of Miss Havisham, or how Miss Havisham came to be Miss Havisham. I haven’t really thought about this book constantly since reading it but almost a year later I do remember the poignancy of it, the immeasurable sadness of a single woman’s life. Right now I’m reading Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me and it also features sad women who are alone and it some ways reminds of Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque. I’m tired of this specific female form of sadness — not because sad women are tiresome but because the story of the sad woman is all too familiar — but I keep gravitating towards books and films that seem to want to live within this sadness, probably because I sense it all around me in life as well.

 

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A wealthy old spinster who lives in a crumbling mansion named Satis House, jilted at the altar and still wearing her wedding dress, hell bent on revenge on all men. When Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations meets Miss Havisham, she has an entire reputation to live up to. The village gossip has made her larger than life; a witch of outsized proportions who is not just mad, but mad in a particularly female way.

All we know of Miss Havisham we see through Pip’s eyes—what hangs over her is the spectre of soured sexuality, ruined before its prime. No self-respecting nubile young girl would want to be her. Heterosexual manly-men, who should like their women soft, yielding, and accommodating, must run from her or gawk from afar. Dickens, being Dickens, was able to write a brutal yet tender representation of a scorned, damaged woman that seemed like both of an indictment of the patriarchal culture that made her that way while simultaneously indulging in the misogyny that sees her as aberrant, even abject.

Miss Havishams abound in a heterosexist culture. In our present lives, however, we might be hard-pressed to find a woman who stops all the clocks because she’s been hurt in love and betrayed by the man she trusted completely. Modern-day Miss Havishams would be given a stern talking to on television by Dr. Phil, encouraged to hit the gym again, work on their self-confidence, enjoy the finer things in life that their wealth is able to buy them, “lean in” and hang on to a career ladder—any ladder—for dear life. Dickens’s Miss Havisham kept her wedding feast rotting with maggots for all to see, wore her wedding dress for the rest of her life, and never let the sunlight in. In modern parlance, she “let herself go”, leaned so far back she disappeared from the public eye.

The madwoman, whether in the attic or the ancestral house, is always a spectacle. I find Miss Havisham to be a troubling enigma. I wanted to know more about her, but Dickens was content to let her manipulate her adoptive daughter Estella’s charms in order wreak havoc on men’s lives, but there is a price to pay for even that. Vengeful women find that anger is no way out, eventually.

The world finds a way to put Miss Havisham in place, and the same goes for Estella—who, trained to be a potent weapon against male power, finally finds herself susceptible to the charms of an abusive asshole and marries him. Scottish writer Ronald Frame, in Havisham, traces Miss Havisham’s back story in an elegant, stylised novel that gives us more of Catherine Havisham without giving us too much. The result is odd and alluring, imperfect and unforgettable.

Havisham takes us from Catherine Havisham’s younger days, just after her mother’s day, and her strange and silent upbringing in a brewer’s house. Her father secretly remarries the family cook, and Catherine learns of this marriage through a pared-down dialogue between father and daughter that occurs after this second wife dies. She also learns about her half-brother, Arthur, who will grow up to be a layabout who schemes with Charles Compeyson, the man Catherine loves and is about to marry, until Compeyson swindles her out of some money and leaves her stranded at the altar.

Catherine’s first love isn’t Compeyson, however, but her first (and only) female friend named Sally—who, being the daughter of an employee at the brewery, is below her in station. Frame’s careful drawing out of their young friendship hits a tender note with an undertone of menace, befitting a female friendship where one woman has all the power because of money and social position and the other does not. They play games with each other, games tinged with this imbalance; when Catherine playfully holds Sally’s wrists down and teases her, she thinks of Sally as “my captive”, prefiguring her future treatment of Estella.

Throughout Catherine’s growth, Frame presents a woman who is well-aware of her worth in terms of class position. He doesn’t sentimentalise Catherine by trying to make her insipidly likeable, or worse, cute. The Catherine of Havisham is proud and arrogant, and constantly thinking about the ways in which she must live up to it. She’s also sharp and intelligent and preternaturally self-aware:

But I’m not a face, or a body. I’m a Havisham. My appearance is wrapped around with an aura of wealth (provincial, not metropolitan; but money is money) and high living (vulgar rather than sophisticated; but time, between one generation and the next, is the best civiliser).

I don’t need to be a beauty. Yet no one, except some person ignorant of my name, would consider me less than handsome.

Perhaps this is why, when she’s older, Catherine would assume that bestowing Estella with the wealth of Havisham money, and its attendant name, would work together with Estella’s beauty to produce the perfect female weapon: one who would not be in need of a man or desperate for one, but one who would use them and discard them. The heart, however, continues to beat—and wants what it does not want.

Or does it? Frame is astute in depicting a Catherine who snubs the attention of a young male acquaintance who lacks not intelligence or virtue, only physical charms, in favour of the brighter, strong-jawed, more conventionally-handsome son of Lady Chadwyck, whose family estate Catherine resides in for a period of time in order to acquire an education of aristocratic manners and polish. That Catherine is susceptible to male beauty and wants the best for herself sets her apart from other girls who are trained to know their place, but much of it has to do—as Catherine has already told us—with her name and aura of wealth (“money is money”). She wants the best because her class position allows her to imagine she can have it.

When Compeyson arrives at the scene, the reader is already aware that Catherine is ripe for the plucking because she is susceptible—she craves attention and beauty, and all her intelligence and self-knowledge can’t protect her from herself. What’s also particularly jarring is how alone Catherine really is in the world; both her gender and her class position prevents her from being able to know others well, and the one friend whom she thought was true, Sally, turns out to have had other thoughts about the friendship. Frame neither indicts nor supports Catherine or Sally; one feels for Catherine, certainly, but one also feels for Sally—who wants to be a friend to a woman who is rich enough to keep you captive?

This aloneness, Frame suggests, is dangerous. We only know who we are when amongst others.

The tone of Frame’s writing recalls Jean Rhys’s in Wide Sargasso Sea, if more minimalist; both novels eschew the straightforward realism of the original novels in order to capture more vividly the psychic landscape and subsequent breakdown of its central characters. It works, for the most part, but the towards the last quarter of the book, when the timespan of Havisham merges with that of Great Expectations, Catherine starts becoming a caricature of herself.

At this point, having loved and lost and inherited her father’s brewery business, she does not morph into the kick-ass independent woman of liberal feminist dreams but wills herself into becoming a ghost. “Again and again I replayed my life, on a long continuum of time, where my future was nothing other than the past”, she says, after having asserted herself in front of our eyes: “Look at me, in my train and veil. Tell me what magic you see. This is awful damage that men do”.

Indeed, they do awful damage, but I’m also distressed about a retelling of Miss Havisham that only leaves her where she began—at the behest of men, be it powerful patriarchs or deceptive seducers. Perhaps there is no other outcome for Catherine, trapped as she is between one man’s desire and the next, between her father’s desire that she should be a proper young lady, and a potential husband’s desire for her name and money, and now, some might say, by a male novelist’s desire to tell her story. When Dickens wants you to think that Miss Havisham was a desperate, sad manipulator who was adept at pulling the strings of young people, trampling over the buds of young love like the loveless spinster everyone thinks she is, Frame shows us that she was not only acutely aware of Pip’s desire for her beloved Estella, but sensitive to it, slowly coming to regret and agonise over her actions.

What does it mean that a rich woman like Miss Havisham, used and abused by a man, enacts her revenge on a young boy from an impoverished background? What to make of these people, rich older women who think they can engineer whole lives—who ask, “Who am I to be kind?”—and bright-eyed young men, good-intentioned or not, who think female beauty is theirs for the taking?

Frame’s novel is an elegy for Miss Havisham and Estella, and also Pip, in a way, and it leaves us with no clear resolution. It shows us the implications of both the class and gender war: ruined lives and so many deferred dreams, circulating among the living as dread, guilt, and regret. Perhaps Catherine—Miss Havisham, in the end—was trying to do it right: when you’ve known love, even if it has killed you, it is still a thing worth commemorating. That’s the tragedy of Havisham; that the awful damage that men do is bound up with the love that women feel, and with every new (retold) story, you wonder if this is always to be a woman’s undoing.

whiteness and giants

June 24, 2014 § 53 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:

KL Noir

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:

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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.

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