June 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
I reviewed Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage for PopMatters. Here is an excerpt from the review:
It seems wrong, somehow, that some reviewers on Goodreads and elsewhere have pointed out that this novel is too thoughtful and does not teach the readers about the war in Sri Lanka or give detailed descriptions of what one expects to be the correct image of a refugee in a war camp. Writers of fiction are not obliged to teach the reader anything; novels are an act of imagination that ideally should spur the reader to learn more about the social and political contexts in which it’s set on their own. To say that a thoughtful and introspective, reflective tone is an inaccurate description of a person in the midst of war also reveals a limited and perhaps even condescending worldview; one that assumes that people in dire straits somehow continually exist in a state of animal-like barbarity that precludes thinking and feeling in ways that the reader might recognise. There is a need, on the part of the well-adjusted reader reading about the horrors of life from a position of relative comfort, for a certain degree of suffering that they can pass judgment on and deem sufficient; it enables them to give themselves, as readers of harrowing things, a pat on the back.
Arudpragasam has bypassed the usual conventions of writing about war. This book is small in scope, distilled into the course of one day featuring a single and singular point-of-view. This is a novel of integrity, in the sense that Virginia Woolf refers to in A Room of One’s Own: “What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens.” This book affords its characters, especially the central character through whom we see this slice of war-ravaged world, dignity.
The full review is available here.
February 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
An excerpt of my review of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel, Reputations. The full review is available here:
Reputations is the sixth novel by Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, though his Wikipedia entry explains that he has only written four “official” novels and would like to forget the existence of the two earlier novels written in his 20s. All four of his official novels have been translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, who also did the translation for this novel. Vásquez’s previous novels have done well among English-speakers, particularly The Sound of Things Falling, which went on to win the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Reputations, however, is my first exposure to Vásquez.
At just under 200 pages, Reputations is a slim, taut, nervy novel that tells the story of a great man, the reputation he has come to enjoy in his position as a great man, and the slow unravelling of his self-conception after a chance meeting with a young woman. Set in an elegant three-act structure, the first section lays down the groundwork for the character, Javier Mallarino who, when we meet him, is 65 years old and having his shoes shined on a street in Bogotá ahead of an event which will honour his work as a political cartoonist.
The irony of his anti-establishment cartoons being lauded by the establishment is not lost on Mallarino who, despite his greatness and his reputation cemented by the position of his cartoons “in the very center of the first page of opinion columns, that mythic place where Colombians go to hate their public figures or find out why they love them, that great collective couch of a persistently sick country”, goes unrecognised by the person shining his shoes. In that moment of non-recognition, Mallarino also has a moment of misrecognition—in his case, he thinks he sees the figure of the “greatest political cartoonist in Colombian history”, Ricardo Rendón, walk past him on the street “despite having been dead for seventy-nine years”.
The death of the political cartoonist is a foreshadowing of what happens later in the novel, in the metaphorical sense of a social death, and how people continue to live on in the public imagination. After a fluidly-written first part that builds up Mallarino’s life and his ascent into his current status, a younger 30-something woman named Samanta Leal approaches him at the ceremony, introduces herself as a journalist, and comes up to his house in the mountains the next morning to interview him. Mallarino “liked the idea of living up at those altitudes and frequently used it to impress the gullible, even if it was an exaggeration: my house is in the Bogotá highlands”.
That Mallarino likes being above it all is one of the small, discreet clues about his character that foreshadows the revelation that comes in the second part. Up until the current point, the reader has gone along with the pleasing, seductive, wry voice of the narrative that has revealed Mallarino’s life with entertaining nuggets of anecdotes and events. We slowly learn that Mallarino moved into this house after his wife Magdalena split up with him, as she found it difficult to recognise the man she loved in this new public figure who is admired and praised by the intellectual class. It’s tough to love a Great Man, much less live with him, and behind every one there is a woman who has been privy to the deterioration of his original values and character. But when Mallarino tells his story to Samanta, he says he moved into this house simply because he “got tired of Bogotá”. It gives us a glimpse of Mallarino as someone invested in his own self-image as a person far removed from the petty concerns of the materialistic population of the crowded city.
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.
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.
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.
April 24, 2014 § 1 Comment
This is a piece about the Harvard UP annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks. When I was younger I used to reread Austen fairly often, so I’ve made the grand claim that “Austen’s in my bones”–and perhaps she is, but also, surprisingly not, in a lot of ways. And even when she is, it’s not all good, as Said made it clear. Though I’ve watched adaptations of S&S and read it several times, reading the annotated version felt like I was reading it again, for the first time–and was shocked anew by just how vicious the gender politics are. And because I’m older, and financially unstable (yes children, this is your future too), the fact of money (or the lack of it) made me more anxious than usual as the story progressed, even though I know exactly how it ends. There’s always that fear that the Dashwood sisters might be cast out onto the street into extreme poverty. And the old-fashioned, old-maidenish relief to get to the end and recall that, ah … yes, they make it through “okay”, in a sense.
Jane Austen is often accused by less-imaginative readers as a “domestic” writer of small, personal dramas involving the petty concerns of the upper classes of the landed gentry. This usually arises because the central narrative of Austen’s books revolves primarily around marriage, but that’s about as useful as saying that Shakespeare won’t interest some people because he wrote quite a bit about kings.
In Austen’s books, marriage as transaction is the microcosm by which she—quite ruthlessly, at times—explores the social relations between men and women of the upper classes. Mark Twain is known for a famous quote in which he talks about how “detestable” Austen’s characters are, and while this seems quite reasonable, it’s hardly a reason not to read Austen. Even someone who enjoys her books, as I do, find her characters detestable at times, especially her protagonists. It would be strange to love them unconditionally, as it were. Jane Austen wrote about upper class social relations in a newly capitalist society, and it’s no wonder that her characters are (often) detestable.
The new annotated edition of Sense and Sensibility, published by Harvard University Press, brings a sort of clear-eyed examination of the socioeconomic hierarchies and cultural values of Austen’s time without becoming overly fond of, or resistant to, the ideas of love and romance that run through the novel. Patricia Meyer Spacks, an English professor at the University of Virginia, seems neither enamoured of nor contemptuous of the central characters of the novel and is particularly astute at contextualising 19th century thought and ideas for a contemporary audience.
It might be difficult to say anything new about an author as canonical as Jane Austen, and Sense and Sensibility in particular. Its tale of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who find themselves dispossessed of a home—and their subsequent challenges in moving into a new home and society, with all the attendant issues surrounding love and potential husbands—has resonated far and wide that even a Tamil film adaptation of the story exists as a popular hit in its own right.
In the first page of her introduction, however, Meyer Spacks dives right into the nuances of the title, pointing out that the concept of “sensibility” in the 19th century was often an object of ridicule because it “became often less of feeling than of show”. Austen wrote early drafts of the novel in the18th century and saw it come to print in the final version in the 19th, and Sense and Sensibility is often both interesting and hard to pin down precisely because it contains conflicting and perhaps contradictory ideas about sense and sensibility that mirrors turn of the century changes in dominant ideas of social conduct and personhood.
As Meyer Spacks points out, current conversations about the performance of feelings—as demonstrated in blogs and Tumblrs and tweets and Facebook status updates—is often pitted against some notion of “real” feeling and is similar to the novel’s narrative tug and pull between what constitutes good sense and what constitutes good sensibility. Marianne says “Elinor has not my feelings” because Elinor is not quite given to displaying them as Marianne does, and accuses others of “horrible insensibility” when they’re unable to appreciate her piano-playing as she appreciates Music and Art and All of the Other Glorious Things.
It would have been too easy to lampoon Marianne for being narcissistic and self-obsessed, a sort of 19th century Jonathan Franzen who just doesn’t understand why other people like the things they like, but Austen isn’t interested in punishing her for believing her feelings to be more authentic others because they’re more deeply-felt. Instead, Marianne is shaped by the discourse around feelings, particularly by her consumption of novels and romantic poetry. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Marianne, being a reader and lover of nature, and who regularly prefers solitude to the company of others, is regularly so misguided about the intentions and feelings of others.
This is not to say that Elinor, who is consistently attuned to the feelings and needs of others, is necessarily better; only more aware of the disjunction between appearance and reality, or form and content. Marianne, too often, judges by form and appearance, and is led astray by it.
This can raise the uncomfortable question of whether Marianne is thus punished for her sensibility, for the excess of it, for the very fact that she isolates herself from others and considers herself often superior to many people of her company in terms of both taste and feeling. Meyers Spacks is a valuable guide throughout, providing liberal and valuable notes on various iterations of the concept of sensibility, as when she writes, “The sexual vulnerability associated with sensibility is one of the novel’s understated themes”. Virtue is chastity, and the “dangers” of feeling too much correspond to how feelings are embodied, particularly through women’s bodies. God forbid that Marianne becomes a hysterical woman and a lustful one—or worse.
In a thoroughly fascinating reading, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl”, defines Marianne’s erotic identity in terms of “the one that today no longer exists as an identity: that of the masturbating girl”. She writes that “Marianne’s autoeroticism is not defined in opposition to her alloerotic bonds, whether with men or with women. Rather, it signifies an excess of sexuality altogether, an excess dangerous to others but chiefly to herself: the chastening illness that ultimately wastes her physical substance is both the image and the punishment of the ‘distracted’ sexuality that, continually ‘forgetting itself,’ threatens, in her person, to subvert the novel’s boundaries between the public and the private”. What is the modern reader to make of Marianne, so alive to her own thoughts and ideas at the start of the book, practically sleepwalking into marriage with Colonel Brandon by the end of it?
Elinor is often read as the opposite of Marianne, and in being more sense and sensibility, she gets her reward in the man she has always and only loved: Edward Ferrars. But here too, the novel doesn’t make it easy to see it that way—Meyer Spacks points out that “the revelation that Edward expects Elinor to accept him promptly, despite his mistreatment of her, reinforces the novel’s emphasis on marriage as an arrangement in which men exercise choice, while women wait to be chosen”. So Elinor, despite her modesty, decorum, and sense, is not quite the winner of these stakes, either. In some ways, we learn that Elinor is also quite like her depraved and materialistic foil, Lucy Steele, but only that Elinor is more proper about her own needs in relations to others; she has disciplined herself well so as not to want too much, whereas Lucy is pretty brazen about wanting money and having it.
The thing about Sense and Sensibility is that you never know if the reward is a good marriage to a reasonably decent man compared to the loutish, insufferable others (Elinor and Edward) or if the reward is financial security, even at the expense of being married to a loutish, insufferable man (Lucy and Robert Ferrars, Edward’s unpleasant younger brother). Maybe it’s Marianne who has it best, after, all—a decent man whom she could grow to like, if not love, and financial security.
If, as Susan C. Greenfield suggests in her essay “Moving In and Out: The Property of Self in Sense and Sensibility”, that “each sister copes with her lack of personal property by imagining she has a Lockean property in her person”, then Austen’s gender politics become a little more muddied, as lack of actual property or access to it makes middle and upper class women protective of themselves in a way that allows little room for sisterhood beyond shared principles and values between actual sisters.
Sense and Sensibility, like other Austen novels, is about central female characters in a capitalist society who are not like the other women, who are determined to avoid being copies of each other in an economic system that encourages and perhaps even requires, instant reproduction and thus, easy substitutions, and who ultimately have to distinguish themselves by being better than the other female characters. In every book, the Austenian heroine, though fallible and flawed, triumphs because she is superior to other women in terms of wit, intelligence, morals, and personal conduct. In short, she is the better product.
It makes sense, then, as Meyers Spacks points out in her introduction, that “characters’ attitudes towards money in Sense and Sensibility provide one index to the nature of their sense and sensibility”, that romance and marriage as transaction is linked to Austen’s focus on money and how capitalism began altering and reshaping relations between the landed gentry and the upper middle classes. Where Edward’s vile mother and sister are concerned, Meyers Spacks writes that “Fanny Dashwood and her mother embody one perverse kind of ‘sense’: constant attention to what will serve their self-interest.
Both also claim ‘sensibility.’ Their intense feelings focus on money”, which shows how affect, or sensibility, is to put to use by capitalist logic—a method that’s not at all unfamiliar to Sense and Sensibility’s twenty-first century audience. This isn’t to say that Austen wrote against the grain of capitalist logic; she was, instead, fully enmeshed in it, but her concerns are more to do with the moral and ethical boundaries of capitalism, as dictated by sense, propriety, and a sense of decency to oneself and others. (This is why a land-owning man like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice can go from being a toffee-nosed snob to a real catch in the space of the book—Darcy was a productive land-owner who put his land to good use by the labour of others, providing them with jobs and caring for their welfare in a distant but imposing way. A real patriarch, a true gentleman, Austen-approved.)
Meyers Spacks says that Austen “writes, and arguably, inaugurates” the kind of “polite or bourgeois novel” that Clara Tuite refers to in her book Romantic Austen, and the polite novel values the well-mannered and well-bred characters that are ultimately the recipient of the narrative’s goodwill. How would Austen have felt about being the new face of the Britist ten-pound note, then? Bemused, probably, mixed with some ironic delight—and perhaps still wary about how terms like “sense” and “sensibility” continue to be twisted and appropriated to mean anything at all by the likes of individuals in power like George Osborne.
There’s so much more to be said about Sense and Sensibility, and this new annotated edition might not be ideal for someone reading the novel for the first time because it might be better to just read it straight through without stopping to thumb through copious notes and illustrations. But for people returning to the novel, Meyers Spacks’ notes are quite illuminating, mostly serious, but occasionally fun—there are illustrations of “very knowing gigs” used by smart young gentlemen, or the kind of toothpick case that might have enticed Robert Ferrars, the type of wallpaper Elinor and Edward might have chosen for their new home, and even how the pocketbook into which Willoughby tucked a piece of Marianne’s hair might have looked like.
Some of the annotations strike a dud note, like paintings of young children whose facial expressions might suggest “the kind of personality manifested by the Middleton children”, as though bratty are not a historical constant and contemporary readers need help imagining how they might look or behave. But these are rare, and Meyers Spacks’ introduction and annotations indicate a person who has spent a considerable amount of time with the Dashwoods and their assorted friends and foes. This handsome edition is all the richer for it.
April 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
Here I am, posting up a review of a book that I did months ago–in August of 2013, in fact, so … not only months ago, but last year. And this goes against the very ethos of blogging which demands the new! and the now! and I know that people are hissing as I write, thinking, HOW DARE YOU, A BLOG IS NOT A REPOSITORY OF SHIT YOU WROTE MONTHS AGO–
I will not only do this, but continue to do this for the next few posts, I think–gotta catch up on those book reviews of 2013! And hoping that, somehow, inflicting you with stale reviews will somehow get my juices going for proper writing. Writing worthy of a blog! I don’t know.
But enough about me, Marie NDiaye’s writing is fierce and magical. I wait, with bated breath, for forthcoming works of hers available in English. This is the review of her collection of stories, <i>All My Friends</i>, in full (it features the unashamed use of that dreaded phrase, Kafkaesque):
The stories in Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends are delicate and multifarious. You can never be sure-footed in a Marie NDiaye story. Realities twist—very slightly—and narrators seem just short of being unreliable. Once you have entered a particular character’s point-of-view, you’re quite certain that things are not what they seem and yet you persist, filled with a sense of foreboding that the story is unlikely to end well. And it rarely does, in NDiaye’s world; if a “happy” ending is to be had, it usually comes at the expense of an enormous sacrifice or loss.
All My Friends was originally published in French as Tous Mes Amis in 2004; this English edition, translated by Jordan Stump, comes hot on the trails of the success of NDiaye’s 2009 Trois Femmes Puissantes, which won the Prix Goncourt in France. The English translation by John Fletcher, Three Strong Women, was published in 2012, and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize 2013. Although NDiaye’s output is prolific, besides these two works only one other book, Rosie Carpe, has been translated into English. Judging from the critical reception of Three Strong Women and All My Friends, however, one can hope that more of her writing will be made available to English readers.
The characters in All My Friends seem to be on the brink—of what, we’re not quite sure. The characters themselves might feel close to some sort of revelation, epiphany, or breakthrough, and maybe they are, but it’s interesting to note how similar the signs are to imminent chaos, collapse, or breakdown. A recurrent theme is the idea of reckoning with what one has not become. The past colludes strangely, jarringly, with the present. Characters in NDiaye’s stories attempt to project a self that they imagine to be smooth, whole, and well-adjusted, yet somehow realise that these attempts are less-than-successful, possibly even tragic, ridiculous, and flawed.
In the titular story, the narrator, a former schoolteacher and now an aging man shunned by his wife and children for reasons that are never made clear, employs a former student named Séverine as his housekeeper. His desire for her is clouded by his former hate; or perhaps all desire is informed by hate: “How troubling it is to remember the loathing I felt for my student Séverine, and to think of the affection I feel for my maid Séverine. Are they even the same girl? I sometimes wonder”.
It’s particularly strange that the narrator employs his ex-student, whom he lusts after, and spends most of his time with another ex-student, Werner, who also lusts after Séverine. Séverine is married to yet another ex-student, whom the narrator contemptuously refers to as “the Arab” because he can’t remember his name. In this sense, sexual jealousy and longing is neatly woven into the narrator’s seemingly latent racism. The narrator is so ill at ease with the world that no space is safe or comfortable, especially not his own home. “My house doesn’t like me”, the narrator tells us. The memories of his former family are in every room: “My wife and children made an ally of my house, where they once lived, where they no longer live”. The narrator seeks out Werner and enjoys spending time in Werner’s immaculate, expensive house—but is disgusted with his own duplicity, he once cursed Werner for having come from money, for having lived in the “town center’s finest neighborhood”.
Similarly, in “The Death of Claude Francois”, the past crashes in on the seemingly-calm present through the appearance of an old friend, an incident that sends the narrator, Zaka, reeling through the memories of a shared childhood in a poor neighbourhood, where average-looking Zaka and her beautiful friend Marlène Vador had lived and loved a famous pop star. Zaka, now a doctor who has, one might say, “made it”, takes her young daughter Paula back to the neighbourhood of her childhood, only to be shocked by the suburbs of outer Paris and their “blighted gray concrete buildings”.
It’s important, for Zaka, to be able to show off Paula, to have her former friend realise that her daughter is as beautiful as she is, even if Zaka never was, that “they were both, mother and daughter alike, true bourgeoisies, refined and invisible”. But when she goes up to meet Marlène, ready to forgive her “tinge of vulgarity” and her “overeagerness to display her body” (“traits, Zaka reflected, that she might have shared had she stayed on and lived there”, in that neighbourhood), she finds Marlène to be beautiful in a way that might even intimidate a true bourgeoisie like Zaka, who is of course not at all a true bourgeoisie at all, having renounced her working-class roots. “Today she’s middle-class and magnificient,” Zaka thinks of Marlène when she sees her. And so the reader learns that the Zaka of the beginning of the story may not have been wholly truthful, or alternately, we learn more of Zaka by the end that renders the start of the story doubtful.
When she sees her ex-husband at the start of the story, she’s contemptuous of him and embarrassed because he reminds her “of what she’d had to do to conceive her little girl” and the reader is made to imagine an unattractive, desperate and lovelorn former spouse. But by the end of the story we learn that it’s her ex-husband, a “fine and upstanding man”, who stopped loving her, who “had lost all regard for her”. The power relations shift and it’s Zaka who appears to us as the lovelorn former spouse, cast aside. “What did she have to do,” Zaka wonders, “to turn regret and nostalgia into indifference?” Even attempting to remember the past differently offers no respite for Zaka in her present situation.
In “The Boys”, the best story in the collection, poverty, hierarchies of beauty, commodification, and sex work are some of the themes that NDiaye stirs up and troubles through the perspective of one young boy named René. René watches a business transaction in his neighbour’s house as the beautiful teenage boy Anthony is sold off to a wealthy woman by his parents (here it’s never quite clear if the mother is in the instigator and the father the reluctant tag-along) while Anthony’s “uglier” older brother is ignored. René is aware of what’s going on:
Anthony had been chosen because he’d turned out well, while the other was an inferior product, deeply and irreparably disgraced. Devoid of commercial value, he seemed of no use, and relegated to lowly and inessential tasks: bringing his brother to the woman, remembering the bag, keeping an eye on his brother. And all this with the insincere simpering of one who strives to anticipate authority’s needs, who seeks only to please that authority, and who knows that it never even sees him.
In this story NDiaye deftly highlights the inequalities of a system where everyone is exploited but not all are exploited equally. In this case, René is aware that he has youth on his side—he too can be bought and sold—but he won’t be first choice in the hierarchy of attributes. For René, “his youth was purely theoretical” because of his scrawny and feeble body, his nondescript appearance. Even Anthony’s discarded older brother, despite his plainness, “radiated irrefutable youth from his hard, brutal body”. But René did not even have a body that was able to radiate youth. And so “The Boys” progresses on this trajectory, exploring how poverty and lack shapes desire and ambition and subsequently how, in a capitalist “free market”, self worth is intricately bound up with material worth.
Anthony makes enough money to send home to his family, which allows his mother to acquire a computer and an internet connection, enabling everyone to see endless images of Anthony—even nude pictures of him together with the woman to whom he was sold. The mother can’t stop looking at pictures of her son and showing these pictures to others. René looks at pictures of Anthony and is troubled—Anthony is “more glorious in each image, more assured—still himself, to be sure, but by the end so remade that René scarcely recognized him”. Anthony’s mouth, chin and nose seem to have been slightly reshaped, his teeth “whiter and more regular than René remembered”. The seemingly content and now materially-comfortable Anthony appears to be an improved Anthony.
Even beautiful Anthony can be improved upon! So René starts to dream of this life—to be beautiful enough to be bought seemed a better existence than to toil away in hardship. He imagines that Anthony’s existence could one day be his own, his own physique “duly amended”. “Let me be bought, bought, bought”, he prays. To be an improved image of himself is what René wants; the life to aspire to is one where you can set the terms of your own exploitation. It all amounts to the same in the end, perhaps, but in the meantime this world is a better place for the rich and the beautiful and René, too, like the rest of us, wants to be both.
The fourth story in this collection, “Brulard’s Day” captures the kind of claustrophobic, almost schizophrenic form of internal monologue that takes place in the mind of a person under intense pressure, the kind that NDiaye excels at. The story deftly blurs the line between “organic” internal criticism, stemming from the person itself, and the kind that is reinforced by what others say and do, so much so that it becomes hard to tell whether you’re thinking bad thoughts about yourself that others have made you think about yourself, or that thinking bad thoughts about yourself somehow translates into making others think badly of you.
In Eve Brulard’s case, a minor actress who has run away from her husband and daughter to a hotel in what appears to be a holiday ski town, in love with a mysterious other man who seems to be her source of income (for her and her husband), it involves seeing a past version of herself in every corner, a past version of herself who taunts and mocks her, and who, as the story progresses, begins to look more and more like Brulard’s young daughter, Lulu. It also involves a pair of brown tassel loafers, loafers that doesn’t seem to fit Brulard’s idea of herself: “That she’d been reduced to wearing such shoes tormented and astonished her at the same time”. It also does not please the ghost of young Brulard—“whose eagle eye had not missed those tasseled shoes”—and who, because of these shoes, may or may not be regarding older Brulard with pity, or “reproach, tinged by compassion and alarm”.
Later, it turns out that the loafers have not escaped the notice of her husband, Jimmy, either, who says, “No one who looks at you would ever say you’re wearing loafers, because they couldn’t imagine you wearing such shoes, and yet that’s how it is, and you’re wearing loafers”. Brulard, a woman who should not be wearing loafers, is wearing loafers. The loafers seem to reveal another kind of truth about Brulard. They defeat the picture she has of herself, just like one of the hotel clerks she tries so hard to avoid: “From the start, she’d sense that he thought her neither radiant nor carefree, despite all her efforts to seem just that”.
Is Brulard close to a breakdown? Are there moments in the story where she’s close to one, or having a panic attack? I don’t know if the answer to that is important, because for NDiaye’s characters, mere existence is already an unravelling of the self. Any given life appears to be quietly imploding at any given moment from the various tragedies and abuses its been dealt. When Jimmy tells everyone they meet that Brulard is an actress, and no one recognises her, doubts start entering Brulard’s mind: “What proof did she had that she wasn’t an impostor?”
In the final story, “Revelation”, a sort of exercise in Kafkaesque perfection that comes in at just five pages, a mother who is planning to abandon her son precisely because she loves him, is undone by the reaction her son’s beautiful face elicits in others because it’s a face that doesn’t reveal the whole truth of him, a face that is almost deceitful because of what inspires in others, something that is at odds with the son’s fundamental being:
This woman thought that she couldn’t bear the beauty of that son’s face one moment longer—and that, in the old days, when he was still right, his face was never as handsome. No one would have turned to look at the son back when there was no need to keep from him where he was being taken. His face then had no reason to be as beautiful as it was now, since it expressed only ordinary thoughts.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, What proof do I have that I’m not an impostor? then NDiaye’s stories are a reminder that not all writing offers itself up as a remedy. There’s no comfort in being oneself; there’s only ever-present anxiety. NDiaye’s stories rattle at the door of complacency; they disturb everything. In her world of maladjusted stragglers and outcasts, seemingly normal on the outside, perhaps, but running riot on the inside, one comes to recognise that no amount of planning for life is any sort of match for life itself. More certainly, you may never become who you thought you would become. You may find yourself wearing those dreaded brown loafers, or willing yourself to be bought, and upon wearing those shoes and being bought, discovering—as many others have before you and no doubt will after you—that you might have wanted your life to go in a different direction, after all.
September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?
But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.
So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)
The review in full:
I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.
As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.
Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.
Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.
As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.
Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.
When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”. When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.
If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.
It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.
When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.
And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.
Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.
She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.
As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.
Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”
It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.
Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently) pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.
Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.
Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.
But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”. Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.
For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.
September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
This is my review of Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Dog for Pop Matters.
There’s a passage that brought on a feeling of instant recognition:
In the opening scene of Days of Being Wild:
He comes in for the third time, after he’s told her that she will see him in her dreams, and asks her why her ears are red? I think: why is this whole movie red? And green. Green tinted (made green) and truly green (the jungle, the trees). Green like Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Red like Marnie. But parts of Days of Being Wild are shot like The Third Man, only all the shadows on the narrow streets are green. Outside, the angles belong to that noir. It’s overwhelming to see these two colors together like this in one movie after everything they have meant to me the past few months. Maybe always.
She’s embarrassed. Embarrassed because she is excited, so she can’t look at him. I like people, no love people, who take looking and being looked at this seriously.
Because 1) I love Days of Being Wild and 2) I too love people who take looking and being looked at this seriously.
This leads me to think about that troubling passage in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray):
Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill. Not only do we not talk to one another, we don’t even look at one another. When you’re being looked at you can’t look. To look is to feel curious, to be interested, to lower yourself. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning.
I always stumble over those last four sentences because it seems to contain contradictory ideas about looking. I’ve been trying to write a post about looking for a long time now but I have no ideas about looking, only collected thoughts and impressions from various sources.
Something about how people are meant to look now, at themselves and each other, seems impoverished and demeaning, in a way. Now people are meant to glance at each other with speed and efficiency, and sum up, very quickly, whether they want to pursue the gaze or not. You are not even worth looking at in the mirror, sometimes. Or you must earn your own gaze, of yourself, by working hard to present a seamless, attractive self.
Nicholas Mirzoeff has written about looking and slavery, and Jonathan Beller on the labour of looking and how it is embedded in the history of racism and colonialism. So you can’t think about looking without thinking about power.
Sometimes you wish for the mutual look to be an equaliser but it never is.
I don’t know. Circling around the idea of looking, of how we’re trained to look, about what Mirzoeff says about it, that “the right to look is not about merely seeing”; where he thinks about “a time in which my claim to the right to look is met by your willingness to be seen”.
Like Nelson in Bluets, “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”
Today, while out on the streets, I told myself not to fall into my habitual pose, which is to stare at the ground or at my feet or off into the distance, but to look at faces, to offer this silent gesture of something in what I think now was just an attempt to feel less alone while among so many people. But it’s hard(er) now to return the glance or to initiate one. The faces are opaque; or rather, faces have become obscure screens we can’t afford to waste eyeballs on.
Sometimes I wonder if I learned how to unlook in Winnipeg as a way to avoid the endless stares of a certain kind coupled with the amazing number of white dudes, bros, men, whatever who could never make eye contact but only dart glances your way when they think you’re not looking. (Which — when I sat down to analyse this with fellow not-white women in Canada, all from other countries, 100% of whom experienced the same — basically boiled down to endlessly complicated discussions about racism and fetishism of “the exotic”, discussions that were never resolved, of course not, how could they ever be.)
Also, the ever present threat of misogyny that makes looking such a fraught affair for a woman who just wants to claim her right to look.
August 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
This is a review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us that first appeared in Pop Matters. If you expect The Managed Heart-type analysis and insight, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Barring any structural analysis, it appears as though Hochschild just wants to let us know that life is pretty shitty these days–and for all of us equally, at that.
Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist who published an influential book about emotional labour and gender in late capitalism, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, in the early ‘80s. For that book, she studied two types of workers for major US airlines and companies, flight attendants and bill collectors, to explicate how the discipline and management of feeling became embedded in service work in ways that both shaped and produced gender norms. In her description, emotional labour is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” that is meant, of course, to produce the “proper state of mind in others”. The “others” in this case are the consumers of a particular service, a service which is either increased or diminished in value by the emotional labour of the workers performing it.
Twenty years later Hochschild’s latest book, The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us, delves deeper into privatised emotional labour, exploring how the free market logic has spread its tentacles into the sacred haven of the home. While The Managed Heart was informed by Marx’s theory of the alienation of labour—“If we can become alienated from goods in a goods-producing society, we can become alienated from service in a service-producing society”, Hochschild wrote—The Outsourced Self is less interested in providing an analysis or, indeed, a workable solution or alternative to the market-driven logic. Rather, it tells stories of the people who are caught between its contradictory demands and impulses.
If The Managed Heart was about how emotional labour was becoming a fundamental job requirement among white-collar or “pink-collar” service jobs undertaken by largely middle-class white American women, then The Outsourced Self is about how middle and upper class white American families are made to cope with the disconnection of late capitalism by having to outsource the most private, emotional aspects of the self.
Hochschild emerges as a dogged and determined sociologist and storyteller, and the examples she cites are numerous. They run the gamut from love coaches and surrogate mothers to nannies and wedding and party planners and care work for the elderly, with companies offering personalised services for the disposing of the ashes of the a deceased love one as well as services for grave and headstone maintenance. Hochschild interviews both the people employing these services and the people who perform them, the latter being overwhelmingly female.
If being an efficient worker under capitalism means making enough money to have a comfortable life, having the means to acquire that comfortable life means not having the time to participate in the personal and social relationships that make it comfortable. When the bride is too busy working, it’s the wedding planner who has to figure out “how to coax the groom to get more involved”. When the private equity fund manager-father with a strong “faith in the global free market” is too busy to have mastered the art of party organising for kids, it’s the children’s party planner who comes up with the perfectly productive party that keeps the children occupied from start to finish.
If capitalism requires a productive, efficient worker to be available around-the-clock, then the increasingly inconvenient business of being human has to be outsourced—ideally for a negotiable fee.
Part of the business of being a productive worker is to project the image of how productive one is, to crow about one’s lack of sleep and inability to stay away from email as a form of accomplishment that justifies having a job and a salary. It’s a particular class of people who get to boast of this busyness and be admired for it. And it’s this class of people that can afford to outsource the undesirable or scary or unpleasant or unproductive aspects of their emotional lives to others and set the terms of the contract.
The reason why some of Hochschild’s critical analysis is blunted, one suspects, is because underlying these examples is Hochschild’s own story detailing her struggle to find an adequate care provider for her aging and increasingly frail Aunt Elizabeth. The stories of others are refracted through a personalised lens, and while this serves a particular motive—showing how people’s lived reality is often at odds with their intentions, for one thing—it doesn’t attempt to contextualise these forms of late-capitalist living for the reader, preferring instead to merely conclude that the logic of neoliberalism has penetrated into the most intimate aspects of our lives.
Hochschild’s sociological framework doesn’t render her oblivious to the ways in which capital works through race relations to create a class of precarious American emotional labourers who are largely working class black and Latino Americans and migrant women from Central and South America, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. In this book she travels to India to speak to surrogate mothers and notes how the Americans using the services of these women seem to consider this situation through the lens of free-market democracy.
Talking to an American couple who used the services of an Indian surrogate agency, Hochschild notes how some aspects of guilt at the nature of the transaction and the imbalance of the power between the employer and the employee are justified through contradictory rationalisations by the couple doing the choosing. They attempt to reach out to the women they hire, to convey their gratitude for the monumental service that is provided, but at bottom they remind themselves that, as one woman named Lili did, that “this girl is poor and she’s just doing it for the money”. Her husband, referring to the surrogate’s reticence and lack of amiability—she had asked the American couple no questions while they had “reached out” and asked her about herself—says, “I’m sure for them it’s a pure business transaction. Payment for surrogacy could equal ten years’ of salary in India. Still, if she’d been more cheerful, maybe we could have talked more.”
In another example, while relating the story of a relatively well-off American family and their Filipino nanny, Maricel, Hochschild writes:
“In the eyes of their employers, the actual stories of the Maricels of the world are often replaced by mythic ones. In the global South, people live more authentic and relaxed lives, Alice Taylor felt … Other versions of the “happy peasant” fantasy held by other well-meaning employers draw a similar curtain over the fractured lives of the many Maricels around the globe.”
There’s a lot packed into that phrase “well-meaning employer”, obscuring the ways in which people simply choose not to see what’s right in front of them. But of course, they don’t have the time. The imbalance of power between the people who do the outsourcing for emotional and care work and those who actually do the work is simply that the former consider themselves important enough; their needs and desires and lifestyles trump those of their employees even if they’re not aware enough to recognise it, or choose to misrecognise what they see. It’s enough to have their nanny’s authentic Filipino self present to care their child, but who cares for Maricel’s child back in the Philippines?
A curious contradiction emerges among the affluent professional class who can afford to outsource whole chunks of the self: they don’t have a “choice” to do otherwise, but their employees seem to have freely chosen this particular type of work. As such, at the end of the day, it’s just a perfectly legitimate and necessary pure business transaction. The privileged can afford to lack self-awareness at the expense of hiring someone from a poorer background from another country. Having internalised the logic of the market, they imagine they’re helping to ease the poverty “over there”. As for the other details, such as who cares for their family while they care for yours—well, it’s a working relationship and it might be unprofessional to pry.
This is how people are encouraged to think, as Leopoldina Fortunati pointed out in 1981 in her seminal autonomist feminist text, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, because it’s how they are meant to live. As Fortunati says,” It is not by chance that under capitalism, while at the formal level there appear to be many opportunities for individual relationships, in reality there exists a high level of isolation between individuals, who are obliged to produce surplus-value even in the moment in which they reproduce themselves.” She’s referring to the family nucleus, which she says provides a “sufficient nucleus in the sense that this time, these relations, and these exchanges must suffice for labor power to reproduce itself”. Anything more than that is a waste. The more time you have, the less time you have—and that suits capitalism just fine.
Lacking more of an analytical framework, Hochschild’s book seems to posit historical problems with capitalism as new and novel issues. Because of this she is sometimes left asking us questions to which answers seem glaringly obvious, and have been, for awhile. “Can it be that we are no longer confident to identify even our most ordinary desires without a professional to guide us?” Well, perhaps. Part of the genius—or insidiousness—of capitalism is how it sells you a solution to a real or imagined fear, then sells you the uncertainty of an incorrectly or inadequately applied solution, thus creating an endless cycle of zero confidence—which it can sell back to you. (Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, for example.)
More interesting are the unasked questions, like how life coaches help their clients “redefine their desire”—redefined according to what standards and why? What’s shaping these new desires? These aspects of the production of disciplined subjects are factors that Hochschild does not examine. The book is also is burdened by Hochschild’s hazy nostalgia, based on her own memories, for a time before urbanisation when agrarian village living held out the best possible alternative to atomised neoliberal societies, offering emotionally-connected communities where people showed up unannounced at each other’s doorsteps with pie. While it may not have been her intention, Hochschild’s reminiscences seem to imply that the dangers of capitalist living began right on the dot when Hochschild started to take notice.
Hochschild’s work in The Managed Heart has been particularly useful for feminism in showing how emotional labour and care work are gendered and how subjects who perform these forms of emotional work are transformed, and social relations altered, when the practice of “deep acting” and emotional performance are exploited for the purposes of capital. Therefore, her tendency to frame the situations in The Outsourced Self as specifically new and novel problems under neoliberalism rather than as symptoms of capitalism seems particularly ingenuous, since her arguments in The Managed Heart could have predicted this outcome. It also allows her to sidestep how emotional labour was always required of women and the working classes performing domestic service in the past, or the ways in which emotional labour was required of labouring colonial subjects—both men and women.
While the aim of The Outsourced Self is not to present in detail the varied histories of forms of emotional labour, its tendency to skip from story to story with minimal analysis renders it essentially unremarkable, especially coming from a scholar and sociologist like Hochschild who has offered challenging and useful arguments for the field of labour theory in the past. The Outsourced Self is essentially pop-sociology light reading, a collection of anecdotes interspersed with brief (mostly personal) reflections. Hochschild is good at pointing out the general ambivalence and contradictions that underlie “intimate life in market times”, but the reader is not left with much more than a general sense of how troubling and inescapable it all is.
August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
Taking this blogging thing to a whole new level and putting up a review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself some three months later. #awkwardblogging
This originally appeared in Pop Matters:
In her book of short critical commentaries and interviews with ten contemporary writers, Voices of Russian Literature, Sally Laird describes the women and girls who populate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories as hapless and ill-suited to even the most basic machinations of life. They seem to lack “even the rudiments of pride or strategy,” and on the surface, as Laird points out, “many of Petrushevskaya’s heroines appear to live their lives ineptly.” Nothing better describes the heroines of the stories in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself.
These girls and young women are average-looking or sometimes outright unattractive, as in the case of the protagonist in “Give Her to Me”: “Karpenko… was one of those unfortunate creatures forced to compensate for their appearance with a pleasant disposition and a carefree attitude.” They’re barely visible to the world outside of their cramped apartment shared with family members. “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else,” begins one story, for example. “Until Clarissa turned seventeen not a single soul admired or noticed her—in that respect she was not unlike Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling,” begins another.
Motherhood is a central theme in these stories, and mothers loom large over these inept, awkward daughters. But these daughters then grow up to become inept, awkward mothers. This pattern keeps repeating itself throughout Petrushevskaya’s stories. That the parents are practically indistinguishable from their children is one of the key tropes in this collection.
In her interview with Laird, Petrushevskaya is keen to emphasise that she doesn’t regard herself as a women writer.” As she says: “I write above all about children, not about women; the land I inhabit is a land of children, not of grown-ups.” These love stories are as much about women trying to find their lost or dead babies in grown men as it is about love between two adults or supposed “equals”.
If Petrushevskaya’s women are hapless, then the men are clueless. But if there is a war of the sexes in Petrushevskaya’s stories, however, it’s a war between two losing sides. Husbands have lost their jobs, money, and teeth, and their wives plot to escape to another apartment inherited from dead aunts. Husbands and wives scream at each other over dinner and stomp off to bed; they wake up the next day and show up to perform the same ritual all over again.
That’s because they have nowhere else to go. Another central theme in Petrushevskaya’s stories is that of space or the absolute lack of it—the key characteristic of the Russian kommunalka. Petrushevskaya’s stories make no overt mention of politics, but her characters are constantly manoeuvring their way around the cramped spaces of communal apartments; the concept of privacy is literally impossible, barely even imaginable. The space of the communal apartment organises the behaviour of the inhabitants; it mediates their social interactions.
Petrushevskaya may eschew overt discussion of Soviet communism in her stories—all the action tends to take place “inside”, in these apartments and in offices, bus stops, grocery stores—but the Soviet-era administration of space haunts each and every personal encounter. In “Young Berries”, one of the collection’s most poignant and formally-inventive story with its alternating first and third person point-of-view, a young girl finds that she’s unable to have the phone conversation she wants to have with her crush because “the apartment’s entire population now stood in the hall… The conceit was that everyone was waiting to use the phone after me.”
More central to the story, however, is how the girl’s stay in a sanatorium—with its autumnal park and lush trees, with all its space—is what she comes to miss the most after she returns to a crowded apartment shared with one too many family members. “By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians.”
To the extent that this collection features “love stories”, however, love is a mangled, ugly thing. Despite love’s viciousness, manipulations, and violence, however, Petrushevskaya’s characters are lonely, and they want some of the sweetness it brings: human contact, warmth, an elevated sense of self, the idea that there must be something better out there than life as they know it. Often, it’s a means of escape—a way out of those damn communal apartments, for one thing (and into another, as it often turns out), but for children, it’s primarily a means to escape the pressing weight of their parents.
In “Father and Mother”, for example, Tanya leaves her bickering parents’ home with her lover after deciding that she’s had enough of them, and she never looks back: “Everything that happened to her afterward—homelessness, then a landlady who drank nothing but kefir and tried to hang herself every March but was rescued by her son—all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” In the hands of a different writer, the bleakness of these stories would be overwhelming, its black humour enervating or merely “ironic”. But Petrushevskaya wants her characters to have a better life. She’s not sure if they can, given the fact that the world is a pretty shit place, but she’s not going to give up on them.
It’s this aspect of Petrushevskaya that American reviewers seem to adore, perhaps assuming that this reveals a kind of liberal humanism that has seen the worst of Soviet communism and whole-heartedly refused it. And perhaps it does. Petrushevskaya is well-known playwright and writer in her own country and has been writing since the ‘70s, although it was only after the implementation of glasnost under Gorbachev during the ‘80s that her prose writings began to see light of day.
Meanwhile, she became well-known to American readers (and by proxy, readers in other parts of the world) after the publication of a collection of “scary fairy tales” by Penguin Books, ,i>There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in 2009. While Petruskhevskaya, in Laird’s interview, says, “I’ve never concerned myself with politics—it doesn’t interest me at all, for all sorts of reasons,” this strikes one as a particularly disingenuous statement because while it’s never overt, there is a sense of resistance or criticism to forms of communal living, and by extension, the Soviet communist project at large, in all her stories. This seems to indicate a particular political position, even if it’s not explicitly articulated.
In this light, then, her characters’ absolute lack of drive, ambition, or self-transformation is particularly interesting—their incompetence at life becomes more of a political stance and less of a quirk of the “the mysteries of human nature” variety for which Petrushevskaya’s stories are often praised. As Jochen Hellbeck points out in his study of diaries written during the Soviet revolution, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, “The concern with self-transformation, shared by the Communist regime and these Soviet diarists, was rooted in the revolution of 1917, which promoted a new thinking about the self as political project… Talking and writing about oneself had become intensely politicized activities. One’s ‘biography’ had become an artifact of considerable political weight.”
Petrushevskaya, whose forebears were part of the Old Bolsheviks and comprised the Russian intelligentsia, lived a life of poverty and neglect. Anna Summers writes in her translator’s introduction that as a young girl in Moscow “Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments,” while in the interview with Laird Petrushevskaya talks specifically about wanting to write the stories of “ordinary people” outside of the circle of politicians and intellects that she knew grewing up.
The characters of her book don’t keep diaries or ruminate on their innermost thoughts—they are consumed by detail and the minutiae of the everyday life; in those cramped apartments, they barely have space to think. This fulfils one common narrative beloved by liberal capitalists about life under Soviet communism: people are so victimised they barely even know how to have thoughts! On the other hand, as Hellbeck points out, Soviet diarists came from varied backgrounds and occupations, and many were wrestling with the summons to “internalize the revolution” with a personal attempt to write themselves into “the revolutionary narrative”. In this sense, while it was a Communist dictat that the people should write their lives and transform themselves into ideal revolutionary subjects, indicating a certain form of political and social coercion, people retained a sense of agency in their writings and sought to shape their troubled, conflicted individual narratives within a larger, collective one.
Petrushevskaya’s stories of “ordinary people” are ambivalent and unsettling because while people show up to help each other, they seem unaware of their own actions or the impulses, desires, and reasons behind it. Petrushevskaya wants her characters to come out on the other side, still surviving, but this concern for her characters can be as forceful, patronising, and muddled as the love parents have for their children. In her introduction, Summers wants us to see that Petrushevskaya “wants us to be strong, and clever, and resourceful, like the Russian people she loves.” But if the characters in her stories stand in for the Russian people she loves, then these are a people who are exhausted and perplexed, sent out into a world they don’t quite know how to navigate, subject to love, luck, and brutality by the incomprehensible energies of an indifferent universe (or, depending on your point of view, a gifted and shrewdly manipulative writer). There’s a sense that some readers can take some form of comfort from that, but for others, these stories merely suggest business as usual—only bleaker.