the white room

May 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo is a glacial collection of stories that are admirable in their intelligence, coolness, and reserve. These are minimalist, tidy, self-contained stories, and while they are worth reading for the writing and the style, they were not capacious or generous. I felt like I had to be really careful, as if I were in someone’s all-white living room without a single smudge of dirt and if I so much as moved I would leave a stain on the white.

After watching Get Out I’ve been thinking a lot about how this works. The interior space and the reproduction of white supremacy, especially in the benevolent form of white liberalism. The interiority of white narrators can sometimes be like a cold, cavernous white room that has no space for the excess and muck of other colours, like brown. (Ha.) If I’m going deep into the consciousness of a narrator, I prefer to see the mess and the ugliness. The grotesque. Maybe that’s just me.

And so while I admired this book, I did not love it. But I’m beginning to understand why white women who write like this are critically adored and praised. It’s a version of feminine cool that leaves the hysteria and the excessive feeling at the door. To be excessive is to demonstrate one’s lack of power. The anger and the rage that so many brown people, in particular, are accused of exhibiting are absent or subsumed into a more pleasing form, one that whispers elegantly: this is Literature for the intelligent. This is an aesthetically-pleasing form, much like the Instagram feeds of financially-secure people in the first world.

I think about Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, a book that really gave me vertigo, and I say that as a compliment.  Throughout the title story, set in the 1960s, which Collins tells us with a sharp dose of irony, is “the year of the human being”, she differentiates her characters with the pointed use of descriptors in quotation marks: “white”, “negro”. This is the main character (“negro”) in the story:

I insisted loudly that she shoes were in bad taste and the lipstick was too gaudy because I didn’t wear shoes like that just because I was colored and couldn’t he tell I didn’t give off any odor of any kind just because I was colored and that I always held my  breath every time I went into his store because I was colored and didn’t want to give off any odor of any kind so I tightened my stomach muscles and stopped breathing and that way I knew nothing unpleasant would escape — not a thought nor an odor nor an ungrammatical sentence nor bad posture nor halitosis nor pimples because I was sucking in my stomach and holding it while I tried on his shoes and couldn’t he see that I was one of those colored people who had taste.

This is how it feels to sometimes inhabit the space of white writing, the kind of white writing critically-praised by Serious White People Who Love Literature, like I’m holding my breath and trying to not give off any odor while I try to show the Serious White People Who Love Literature that I have taste, so I hem and haw about why I did not love the pristine white book that they love.

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

January 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

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

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

Brief thoughts on Interchange

December 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

I found Interchange to be a mess as some people have said, but a beautiful and intriguing mess. Certain fantasy/memory sequences are so arresting and I can’t stop thinking about it.

(I don’t think there are “spoilers” here, but it’s a film that unspools slowly and requires that you get on board with fragments of information, so I don’t know if reading some of this will spoil the experience if you haven’t watched it. It might.)

I found the “why” of it illogical. That illogic is what enables the film to perpetuate orientalist cliches of Borneo people and what the film deems to be tribal rituals. This is the part that is most incoherent, and leaves me conflicted. The premise is that colonial anthropology and its invasive and harmful mode of study, which required photography as a technology to document, was harmful to the native populations it attempted to “decipher” for the urban, mostly white intellectual class. (Actually, this might not be the premise and this might be me reading too much into the “clues”.) But in the movie, they dropped the ball. If the film went deeper into exploring the effects of colonialism and capitalist modernity, it would have to sacrifice the exotifying gaze that drives the mystery. And this film is like a fantasy, a dream. It’s like Dain Said threw a bunch of stuff in the blender: animism, indigenous spirituality, ecocide, colonialism, magic, enchantment, noir, police procedural, photography, murder mystery, and hoped for a really good sambal to come out of it. It was tasty; I might even go for seconds. But it leaves you with a stomach ache. And then you’re left trying to figure out exactly what went wrong with the sambal.

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It’s a visually-stunning film and in its flaws there are things that lodge themselves in the mind. The mingling of the accents, for example. (Several actors are Indonesian and their accent reflects this in the parts where Malay is spoken). I liked that, in the sense of alluding to a greater Malay archipelago, the shifting and dissolving of borders.

My favourite part was the jungle/sanctuary amidst concrete urban jungle scene. I loved it; it’s beautiful and haunting. The first time we see it the mysterious Belian just sort of runs from the city into this dark place, filled with trees and then sort of climbs into a tree and disappears. Then we see it from the inside. It made me yearn for the kind of place I’ve only ever dreamed of, maybe visited and never inhabited. It made me yearn for a kind of green I’ve probably never seen in my lifetime, both a real and mythical green place as an idea of home. There is peace there. But this is at odds with what Belian and the other native people have to do to return to that peace. It also reeks uncomfortably of the “noble savage” idea.

The noble savage trope also connects with Said’s inability to do anything with women that is not a cliche. It was there in Bunohan and it’s here, as well. Iva (Prisia Nasution) keeps appearing in several scenes as the alluring, mysterious woman who makes eyes at Iedil Putra’s Adam and sucks on ice cubes while being coy. Later we know her true role but it also traffics in the cliches of the native woman, and has a distinctly West Malaysian idea of how women from the East are like. Sucking on ice cubes and being coy, apparently. It’s for a certain gaze. The gaze is male, as seen from Adam’s voyeuristic practice of photography, and as seen in law enforcement: the people tasked with “figuring things out” are men.

The film of course doesn’t try to dictate who should be blamed for the condition of the people that leads to the murders. But we know history and we know that blame can be assigned to the ones that came with their cameras and their notebooks. So in a film that leaves this possibility “open”, one only feels the same old disappointment about how Malaysians — urban middle-class West Malaysians in particular — choose to ignore and devalue certain parts of our history. I would love to read critiques of the film that approach these problems head-on. I’ve read some reviews where it’s purely about a psychological analysis, with a dash of auteur theory (linking Interchange to Bunohan) which is fine but limited. Because ultimately this film is about ritual murder framed as a mystery, and it leaves the burden of the killings on the native people for whatever flawed reason the movie thinks is sufficient. And that’s quite unpleasant, to me.

(Nicholas Saputra played Belian and his ordinarily recognisable beautiful form shifts and transforms into something else; it’s not just visual, it’s also in his manner, how he inhabits his body, and his body language. It was unnerving and very good, I thought, and took me by surprise for someone I’ve just sort of vaguely known as a pretty face in Indonesia. Having watched this though, I’ll take him in any form. *heart-eyes*)

Dirt and the housewife

May 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

A fragmented history of bourgeois morality, sexual division of labour, dirt, and the middle-class housewife via two books excerpted below; Kipnis’s one on North American feminism (broadly speaking) and Theweleit’s one on the rise of white supremacy and fascism in Germany in relation to gender relations and the advent of capitalism.

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability:

Note that the dirt-sex dilemma hasn’t only played out in the nation’s kitchens and bathrooms, it’s left its mark on history as well, and nowhere more conspicuously than in the female social-purity movement of  the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The “movement” was actually hundreds of separate organizations and campaigns, with rousing names like the National Vigilance Association and the Moral Reform Union, variously devoted to anti-vice agitation and temperance campaigns, rallying against gambling, prostitution, and general male sexual loucheness. All this first took off in England and the United States, eventually spawning international organizations and world congresses aimed at cleaning up male behavior everywhere. Themes of public hygiene and sanitary reform were tied to morality campaigns, with women undertaking to purify society on all levels, public and private, through legislation, street-corner proselytizing, or whatever it took.

In retrospect it make (sic) sense that with the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a compensatory cult of domesticity took hold. The home became a sanctified realm removed from the tawdriness of the marketplace, and it was the new sentimentality about the home that gave the women the platform to assert a new public authority as guardians of national purity. When Frances Willard, founder of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, pronounced that her goal was “to make the whole word houselike,” she was floating a new political ideology: that the strength of the nation was directly connected to the strength of the nation’s households. The problem with dividing the world into these increasingly separate male and female domains was that it wasn’t just paid work that was assigned to the male sphere, it was sexuality as well. On their side of the divide, men got sexual passion; women got cleanup duty. One again, thanks.

Consider the psychological effects of the flush toilet alone — goodbye to chamber pots, all your bodily wastes thankfully whisked from sight, now only a vague memory — allowing the ever-pertinent question “You think your shit doesn’t stink?” to the enter the social lexicon. Consider too, the new varieties of class contempt directed at the unwashed: if cleanliness is virtuous and the distribution of cleaning advances invariably begins with the moneyed, obviously rich and poor deserve their respective fates. After all, who’s cleaner?

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Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History:

The second characteristic of industrial production is that from the very start, it had the capacity to create specific abundance in the midst of general scarcity: toys and baubles for the rich, fashionwear, and every other kind of garbage imaginable.

Working and making love became exercises in dying, only to a limited extent were they still creative, life-affirming processes. Every single commodity a worker produced was a piece of his own death. Every act of lovemaking carries the bodies deeper into a debt of guilt that accumulated toward death.

Lovers and workers now produce “dirt” from the moment they start their activities. The citizen of a society that began “placing a cover over piano legs, as a simple precaution,” set about keeping both things at a distance, factories and love (flowings as well as machines).

Is it any wonder with all that “dirt” around that the quality of water changed? The habits of washing and swimming in water, including in rivers and lakes, originated in the eighteenth century, in the context of the bourgeoisie’s “moral superiority” over the absolutist nobility. We need to consider the enormously heightened significance of water, in these attempts to implement hygiene in bourgeois society in relation to the simultaneous social proscription of other wet substances (especially those of the body) and the demotion of these substances to the status of “dirt”. At the same time, the phrase “hygiene as a new form of piety” describes only one aspect of the process.

The spring is a kind of natural shower for washing off the “dirt” of society. And showers like that found their way into houses. I’m a little surprised to find that I’ve arrived at the conjecture that plumbing had to be installed in private residences to help carry out the repression of human desires in bourgeois societies. (That repression took the form of gender segregation and sexual repression.)

Starting from the kitchen and the bedroom, Cleanliness began its triumphal march throughout the house. White lines, white morals, white tablecloths: an incessant rustling of white (no longer audible, but ever present). With the drying up of the streams in the bedroom, moving through the water pipes that were the heart of any clean kitchen, the image of the Pure Mother (the propaganda about clean interiors in houses and bodies) slowly gained ascendancy within the house. The housewife gradually came to embody whiteness, while her husband despaired or started dreaming about the sexual allure of nonhousewives (image of the ocean). Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

housework

excerpts from Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (vol. 1)

March 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

Page numbers are from the pdf version available from Monoskop.

Femininity in particular has retained a special malleability under patriarchy, for women have never been able to be identified directly with dominant historical processes, such as those that gave rise to bourgeois society, because they have never been the direct agents of those processes; in some way or other, they have always remained objects and raw materials, pieces of nature awaiting socialization. This has enabled men to see and use them collectively as part of the earth’s inorganic body–the terrain of men’s own productions. (294)

The Catholic Church offered up the body of the Virgin Mother, more heaven than ocean, as territory for licentious desires. It is possible to trace the process of sexualization of that body through legends surrounding Mary from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward […] The secular body didn’t remain fictional; real women were employed to give form to its function. In the period that most concerns us here, the initial phase of development of bourgeois society, the first such women were those attached to the bourgeois courts of the Italian mercantile capitals of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. With the expansion of the European world, which followed in the wake of exploration by seafaring adventurers, these were supplemented by images of women from other continents–the black slave woman, the woman of the almond eyes, the Indian squaw, and above all the South Sea maiden. Collectively, these images began to construct the body that would constitute a mysterious goal for men whose desires were armed for an imminent voyage, a body was to be more enticing than all the rest of the world put together. It was the fountain men drank from after crossing the arid terrain of their adventures, the mirror in which they sought to recognize themselves. (296)

Second, and more important, holding out the “high-born” woman as a partial reward for the higher-ranking retainers of princes prevented these men from setting out together with women, as equals; from leaving the European terror behind them, to found new, more human settlements elsewhere. […] The maintenance of inequality between the sexes, its perpetual renewal and exacerbation, has always been an important part of the work of the dominant group. (298)

We have seen how the noblewoman was gradually eroticized, in conjunction with a violent de-eroticizing of the common woman. In the course of that eroticizing, the bourgeois male gained access to a female body that had previously existed only as an image: the transcendent body of the noblewoman. The noblewoman herself is made the possessor of the erotic body for two purposes: for lovemaking and for the representation of the power of her overlord, whose commercial wealth made the secularization of her celestial flesh possible. This development was kept from getting out of hand by confining women to a representational function and by monogamizing the male-female relationship. (my emphasis)

Among the people, the (slower) consolidation of monogamy had a different function. Here it wasn’t a limitation placed on a process of sexualization; on the contrary, it was the final stage of a campaign for the total elimination of sexuality–the “lesser of two evils.” Monogamy surfaced here as the new code for a new set of circumstances within which access to the body of the opposite sex, which had for a brief time been relatively easy, was now to become more difficult for both parties. What had been accessible was now made unattainable because it harbored a potential for new freedoms. Alongside the “divine” one-and-only (inaccessible to the man of low breeding), an “everyday” one-and-only appeared as a boundary for the same low-born male). (324)

These were pages and pages of ideas that have been moving around in my mind over these months — and it’s been months since I’ve started this book. I just got to the bit where Theweleit talks about beauty standards (and accordingly, sexual desirability) under the heterosexual male rule as a means to emphasise the hierarchies between women of nobility and women of the emerging bourgeoisie, and “the extent to which the female body served as an arena of competition between bourgeoisie and the nobility”. What it did was make a certain class of women — who adhered to the beauty norms — the prize for both ruling class noble men and property-owning men, thus ensuring that “lower” class women were accordingly devalued. (Devalued, but their bodies still subject to “common” ownership by men of all classes.) In the current society of the spectacle — and I know people supposedly are over the Debordian spectacle or whatever, for some reason? but I think it has its use still — celebrity is the modern version of nobility. This is why thinkpieces that celebrate Kim Kardashian’s agency or whatever miss the central point, that the redirection of people’s attention towards celebrity beauty is a disciplinary apparatus for us, the commoners. As Theweleit explains, this was a process of indoctrination that began with the bourgeois women of European societies, women who “had to be trained (“cultivated”) for their new responsibilities — to be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves.” To be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves — I can’t think of a better description of the ways in which celebrity culture is put to use in the lives of women who will never, ever be able to enjoy a smidgen of the money and power enjoyed by the famous women they’re supposed to emulate and root for through the combined “training” instruction manuals of lifestyle and beauty magazines and libfem pop-culture analysis.

luckiest girl alive

February 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

luckiest girl alive

Luckiest Girl Alive is one of the more horrifying novels I’ve read in recent memory about gender and class relations, not least because it takes a sudden turn midway through and becomes more of a tale of psychological healing and redemption and this somehow makes it worse. Comparisons to Gone Girl are instructive in the sense of coming to terms with what publicists and marketers will do to sell a book–simply refer to a bestselling one that came before because there are vague similarities, like white women authors writing about white women characters. Perhaps I’m being unfair; I enjoyed Gone Girl and also Dark Places; having read two of Flynn’s novels I get the sense that beneath the thrill-a-minute veneer of the carefully-structured plot is an emphasis on what wealth, and how one’s class position shapes one’s social relations and conduct. While I really appreciated Mary Gaitskill’s review of Gone Girl, now archived and sadly no longer available to read for free in Bookforum, I feel that Flynn is interested in showing us just how depraved the wealthy characters are as a means of understanding modern American society. In Gone Girl and particularly Dark Places, we just how ruthless women can be–and not in the “internalised misogyny” way that she is commonly accused of. Flynn shows us how destructive middle and upper class white femininity is, to the women themselves, and worst of all, on the people on whom they’re able to exercise their (considerable) power.

Luckiest Girl Alive starts out like a a cracker of a book, but it pretty much depends on your tolerance for nasty people being nasty. Dark, bitter satires or psychological portraits of nasty women being nasty is a bit like catnip for me. No doubt it’s from having spent the better part of my formative years in all-girls’ schools. It’s not that women are inherently nasty (and I feel so stupid typing that out because obviously it’s not, but people seem to need to have it spelled out); it’s how heterosexual women are trained to be and put to use in that way, in order to win one of life’s many prizes: A Man and A Job (these go together in our lean-in, liberal feminist empowerment times). LGA starts out like very bitter satire; the main character, TifAni who becomes Ani (long story by which I mean it’s literally the whole book) is what you would imagine the misogynist, capitalist spectacle to be if it came alive in one human being. For that reason it was hard to imagine where the writer, Jessica Knoll, could go with such a premise. When I started to get an idea of where it was going, it was troubling to realise that certain “major issues” in the book, specifically high school gang-rape of a fourteen-year-old girl and a school bombing and shooting, were strategically maneuvered as thriller plot points designed to evoke suspense. By the end, then, Ani–who is really quite brutal in how she has found her way from middle-class mediocrity to upper-class feminine security in New York (contingent on her marrying her fiance and “earning” his family’s connections, obviously)–is rescued from her own strategically-designed future by an arc of redemption that involves exploiting the traumatic events of her youth for a documentary. First as tragedy, then as neverending spectacle. In this weird way too, what starts out in the book as an indictment of American middle-class bourgeois clerk values of aspirational wealth becomes, by the middle of it, a purely psychological Ani phenomena. She is so fucked up because of what happened to her that miraculously, towards the end, the functions of her class position–where she has been raised to become arm-trophy to a rich man–is made to be just a problem of her outlandish, tasteless, money-grubbing mother and distant, asshole father, and the combined effects that this upbringing and the awful people in her private school had on her.

I was so appalled by Ani’s hyper-surveillance of other women and her intrinsic, knee-jerk hatred of them, that I looked up the author’s Instagram and Twitter and found her voice sometimes almost disturbingly Ani-like. Of course, it’s a particular effective form of affective writing common in beauty magazines that use the chatty yet judgmental mode of friendly vigilance–from one girl to another!–to sell the many, many products advertised in practically every page, except in Ani the pretense is removed and it is pure self-hating and misogynist surveillance. Knoll used to write for women’s magazines; Ani, too, works for a women’s magazine. Her beauty industry-fortified gaze, when it lands on other women, is ruthless and cruel. Teenage Ani already showed mastery of this gaze in order to best her more languid upper-class contemporaries, secure as they were in their class position made up of inherited wealth, but at least teenage Ani seemed to recognise that a shiny exterior was not the whole. Older Ani had come to fully immerse herself in the spectacle and call it being shrewd, street-smart, and resourceful. The image stands for the whole. It reminded me of “The Girlfriend Gaze”, specifically the bit about how the girlfriend gaze functions as governance:

This obfuscation of the male gaze helps to mystify the technologies of patriarchy that profit from women’s body hatred, particularly through the beauty and lifestyle industries. It reconfigures obsession with body image and consumption as an exclusively female preserve. The women in Heat are in danger of losing their celebrity status as they are seduced into the domesticated spaces of heterosexual love. Because the skinny body is a woman’s cultural capital, the magazine’s subtext implies that to let go of the rigours of self-discipline is a form of naivety. And it also perpetuates the pervasive discourse that defines women’s empowerment through the control they exert over their bodies. Being skinny, or a discerning and avid shopper, is sold as signifier of autonomy: it is because she is worth it that she botoxes, not because she is a victim of the heterosexual male gaze.

Because women exercise ownership over their bodies and can profit from this through the processes of branding, the surveillance of body control is sold as enablement. In an overwhelmingly visual culture, the spectacle of the female body is necessary for self-promotion and therefore success. As the practices of beautifying and “girling” become more complex, it is women who are able to recognise and appreciate the work spent and expertise accumulated. Because the body is represented as integral to success in the labour market, this surveillance of women by women through friendship is represented as entitlement. It is marketed as solidarity or sisterhood through the rhetoric of girlfriendship; it is “girl time”.

It is a white-supremacist, capitalist gaze built on exploited labour and ownership of private property, of course, but these elements are slowly neutralised throughout the book, so that by the end, Ani, who has spent a lot of money and time on crafting the ideal upper-class New Yorker feminine body, still gets to “own” her gifts and be saved from her awful fiance, too. It’s classic lean-in feminism; she crafted an very specific image of herself in order to obtain a man and power via wealth and social capital, but now that she’s ditched the man and found some liberation from oppressive heterosexual norms, she can be kinder in her power, power that she has obtained through looking hot as shit and putting other women in their place. Though it’s made clear a few times that it’s Ani’s ability to take control of herself and her body–after everything was taken out of her control through the events that altered her life in high school–that makes her the hyper-image obsessed person that she is, this is lost in the manipulative aspects of the plot designed to keep the pages turning. And I can’t get past the sense that so much of what is plain old American middle-class striving is displaced onto the mother figure, whom seen through Ani’s eyes is often clueless in her desire for wanting the best for her daughter, but is also often pilloried for being tacky, overdone, and unable to play the game right.

Ani’s only female friend is a rich, obligatorily skinny white woman of epic beauty, so much so that conversation stops when she enters the restaurant, bla bla bla. This friend is crucially, of course, rich, so her beauty can appear effortless, which is what Ani craves most of all. So much of what Ani wants to be–disappear into the spectacle as an emblem of power and wealth–is premised upon the brutalities she endured as a young girl, but the book locates her freedom in an act of personal empowerment. Presumably, she will have earned this bit of freedom, and go back to her life as a cog in the capitalist machine that sells self-hatred as liberation. This minor fact, of course, is never the problem at all. Knoll is pretty deft in sketching out this type of mean girl white New Yorker at the start of the book, but loses steam halfway. It’s almost as if she realises that this type needs to be made likeable to a vast number of female readers who will have to “identify” with a female character who will definitely consider women who don’t live in New York–much less in the Western world–and who lack beauty, wealth, and the means and willingness to cultivate a designer body and designer style, i.e. the vast majority of us, utterly beneath her.

Ronald Frame’s Havisham

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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