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.
May 23, 2014 § 2 Comments
In further installments of “Book Reviews I Wrote Months Ago”, this is my piece on Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon for Full Stop:
The panopticon has been over-theorised. Maybe Foucault can take some of the blame for that. Jeremy Bentham, 18th-century philosopher and social theorist, came up with the design of the Panopticon to enable institutional surveillance, primarily in prisons. The design involved a curved or circular building, where inmates would live, with an inspection house or tower right in the centre. Guards or managers or nurses or wardens could watch over the entire building this way. Inmates would know they were being watched, but they wouldn’t be able to know who was doing it, or when. In the 20th-century, Michel Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish was largely responsible for introducing the idea of the panopticon as metaphor for modern Western societies. Disciplinary societies, according to Foucault, normalized the mechanisms of the panopticon precisely because it is a mechanism that “automatizes and disindividualizes power”:
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.
When talking about the twenty-first century surveillance state, it’s practically impossible not to talk about the panopticon as metaphor. Revelations about NSA surveillance have led to comparisons between the surveillance state and the panopticon, with one crucial factor overlooked or erased: for the panopticon to work as the panopticon, people have to know it’s there. The NSA surveillance is different from, say, how social media works. The metaphor of the panopticon might work for how users are both subject to and agents of surveillance in sites like Facebook and Twitter; but revelations about NSA surveillance came as a shock precisely because no one knew that they were being monitored in precisely this way. Vague generalizations about how we’re all complicit in mass surveillance serve to mystify actual mechanisms of power that operate through capitalist state structures; they rob it of form and content,making the general public “complicit” in state-sanctioned NSA surveillance, except of course — they are not
In Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, the panopticon is not a metaphor but an actual building an institution for troubled foster kids. It is a building as Bentham envisioned it; a place where power is present but unseen. When fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks arrives at this building, her new home, she has blood on her school uniform and has been remanded for possibly having attacked a female police officer who is now in a coma. She has also been in the Scottish foster care system her entire life and has a history of starting riots in previous institutions, of setting fire to police equipment and vehicles, of drug dealing and bloody, knock-down fights. Anais is a veteran of various care institutions, and she quickly observes the various features of the building — how the windows are only open about six inches, for instance, in the third-floor bedrooms, or how the windows on the top floor are barred and boarded up. We see the building when Anais sees it: “The Panopticon looms in a big crescent at the end of a long driveway. It’s four floors high, two turrets on either side and a peak in the middle — that’ll be where the watchtower is.”
“We’re just in training for the proper jail,” Anais tells us, acknowledging the role of foster care institutions in executing the state’s disciplinary power against the poorest, most deprived members of society — abandoned, abused, and unwanted children. “Nobody talks about it, but it’s a statistical fact. That or on the game. Most of us are anyway — but not everybody. Some go to the nuthouse. Some just disappear.” By the end of the book, the reader learns about how “some just disappear” and how some just die.
Anais is the central character in Fagan’s novel and its sole voice, and it’s a truly arresting one. Having lived in the care system all her life, Anais is especially keen to know something, anything, about her biological mother. She wonders if she even has one, or if she’s just part of the “experiment” — a fantasy/nightmare that keeps recurring throughout the novel because of her undetermined parentage. The closest Anais ever got to having her own family was a woman named Teresa who adopted her, a sex worker who was found murdered in her bathtub when Anais was eleven.
While reading The Panopticon, we’re certain that there’s one single thing that’s rotten to the core, and that’s the foster care system. Like schools or prisons or asylums, it’s a disciplinary tool meant to produce docile — but ideally broken — bodies and psyches. Anais is scathing about social work in general, where she’s diagnosed with borderline personality. “It’s better than no personality,” Anais retorts, to which she quickly learns: “Wrong. Apparently — no personality is the correct answer.” There is her case worker, Helen, who is more interested in saving her spiritual soul by making trips to India and being conveniently absent during some of the more crucial aspects of Anais’ life, such as police hearings and questioning. Anais deems herself a “lifer” because she realizes that what is deemed her history of “violence” and antisocial behavior, and how that’s filtered through machinations of the system, is likely to keep her institutionalized forever, first in care homes and then in prison. So she knows better than to trust social workers:
As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick. I lure them in to begin with. Cultivate my specimen face. They like that. Do-gooders are vomit-worthy. Damaged goods are dangerous. The ones that are in it cos they thought it would be a step up from the office job are tedious. The ones who’ve been in it too long lose it. The ones who think they’ve got the Jesus touch are fucking insane. The I can save you brigade are particularly radioactive. They think if you just inhale some of their middle-classism, then you’ll be saved.
Anais is particularly acerbic of Helen’s expectations of her as a damaged foster kid. Helen is frustrated by Anais’ inability to code her class position through particular forms of dress and style that would render her an ideal, to-be-pitied, poor thing: “What [Helen] really didnae like, though, was that I wouldnae stick tae the uniform. No hair extensions , no tracksuits, no gold jewellery. That really pissed her off. The first time she saw me in a pillbox hat and sailor shorts, you’d have thought I’d just slapped her granny.”
In fact, The Panopticon shows how the care system produces the damaged subject it’s supposed to “help”. The capitalist state reproduces this underclass through specific institutions meant to accommodate them to “a regular life” of wage labour and despair, up to the point where they’re productive but not actually happy or content. And if that’s impossible, then there are countless ways to control them: prison and psychiatric institutionalization. And if some of them die along the way, well, it couldn’t be helped. When lectured by the police on her vandalism, Anais says that they tell her “how much money vandalism costs the average taxpayer a year. They talk to me a lot about the taxpayers. The taxpayers hate me.”
Parts of The Panopticon can be read as interesting commentaries on the production of identity and how it is performed both in the private and public sphere, and in places where these differences start to blur — such as the internet. Anais knows that for people like her, visibility is a trap. She looks at CCTV footage of herself caught stealing and thinks, “It’s me. I’m a movie star, Mama, are you proud?” Darkness, for her, is safer than daylight, “her safe place”. Throughout The Panopticon, there’s no reference to self-performance, to selfies, Tumblrs, and livejournals or blogs. Anais and the other kids spend their time with each other, alone, or getting high on an addictive substance of their choice in a bit to escape. For a hypervisible and heavily-monitored person like Anais, the internet holds no particular appeal. And if she were to use it, her access to it would be limited—and as in all aspects of her life—heavily-monitored. As Anais explains, it’s impossible for her to be labelled a borderline personality with “identity problems” when she barely has an identity, having moved some fifty-odd times throughout her fifteen years of life. Anais’ fantasies and dreamscapes involve flying cats and a quiet artist-life in Paris. Hers is a life of the mind and a multitude of actual, living nightmares. For Anais, who is watched all the time, her mind is the one place where she can be herself, whatever that may be, and it seems dangerous to want to surrender that part of her to the world when it’s the one place the world hasn’t trespassed and invaded — yet:
The surveillance window in the watchtower glitters in the dim. Dinnae look up that glass. There could be anyone behind that glass. Five men in suits with no faces. All watching. They can watch.
I dinnae get people, like they all want to be watched, to be seen, like all the time. They put up their pictures online and let people they dinnae like look at them! And people they’ve never met as well, and they all pretend tae be shinier than they are are — and some are even posting on like four sites; their bosses are watching them at work, the cameras watch them on the bus, and on the train, and in Boots, and even outside the chip shop. Then even at home — they’re going online to look and see who they can watch, and to check who’s watching them!
Is that no weird?
But while Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, wrote that in the Panopticon, “inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers”, Anais’ community of inmates show that it’s not so simple. Power, here, is not disindividualized — in fact, these kids are well-aware that power is exercised through the very people who are meant to care for them. Their resistance to the care workers is often clever and subtle, but not diffuse. When it’s time to demand for a change, they band together through communal acts of resistance, like the riot that takes place towards the end of the book, even if they know that the bond cannot possibly last for more than a moment, perhaps. Even the care worker whom Anais feels the most affinity with, Angus, is not really on their side. At the end of the day, he stills answers to a system of power that is beyond the efforts of his own individual acts of kindness, and when Anais is close to being sent away to a secure unit for the crime she is certain she did not commit, he has no choice but to comply with the requirements that make it so.
In a chapbook published by Guillotine titled Violence, Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch talk about how “territories of violence — psychic territories, physical territories, psychosexual territories” are under-represented in most women’s fiction. Of course, the question may be less to do with women not writing about violence than about what type of books get published, and the attendant ideological functions that work towards making those decisions — whether in book publishing, or films and television. Fagan is uninterested in pretending violence isn’t a fact of Anais’ life and in the novel, Anais is resigned to it. It’s a book that doesn’t flinch from portraying the territories of violence in Anais’ life. It shapes her very existence, but she hates it and can’t bear to see violence inflicted upon the powerless — the idea of someone harming or abusing a child or an animal, for example, makes her so angry she can hardly think. And yet knock-down fistfights between Anais and other girls are a basic fact of her day-to-day life. She hates fighting, but she has to do it; not only is it a means of staying alive, but it’s a means of crafting an identity, a reputation, and crucially — a means of preventing further violence in the future. When placed in a new institution with a new group of people, if you can get that first fight out of the way and do it reasonably well, you can then hope to be left alone afterward. Crucially, The Panopticon also depicts violence inflicted on girls like Anais by the cops, especially in carefully-manipulated ways designed to let the cops off the hook: they’re not meant to rough-up these kids too much because it could lead to bad publicity if word got out, but they can rough them up if they see fit, which is almost always. But as Anais would be the first to tell you, institutional violence against foster kids and runaways is rarely the subject of a news report or an online petition.
One of the more harrowing incidents in the book is about sexual violence and how it plays out on women’s and girls’ bodies as means of communication between men. The Panopticon shows how even the most impoverished and desperate men work around the issues they have with each other and with the system that violates them through the use and abuse of women’s bodies. And so too Anais’ boyfriend in prison, who is deep in debt and tricks Anais into a situation where her body is offered up as repayment. Earlier on, Anais is surprised when she meets a girl in care who’s still a virgin in her teens because she knows that if young girls haven’t already had transactional sex to survive, they would have been raped by any number of men, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, who view their bodies as goods for the taking. The teen girl in care who’s still a virgin is an anomaly. The poorest, youngest, least-defended bodies are handed around, back and forth, and one is reminded of that passage in Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory:
I find it strange today, when so many people walk around with tiny computers in their pockets — cameras, phones, personal organisers, iPods — there exists no object at all to slip into your pussy when you go out for a stroll that will rip up the cock of any fucker who sticks it in there. Perhaps it isn’t desirable to make female genitalia inaccessible by force. A woman must remain open, and fearful. Otherwise, how would masculinity define itself?
Because Anais is such a force, it seems as though her voice is enough for The Panopticon, and it is, but it’s also a particular kind of loss that so many of her thoughts remain in her head. When we meet Anais at the beginning of the book, she’s alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her, and when we leave her at the end, she’s still alone in a world that wants nothing to do with her. Although Fagan’s novel is one of the finest I’ve read in a very long time, there is no respite for Anais from an atomized neoliberal existence, no possibility of a different kind of life that doesn’t require a partitioning of the self for mere survival. Anais finds moments of solidarity, even love and friendship, with other kids in her position. But it’s gone in a flash. She then has to move. An isolated existence bereft of attachments is the only mode of survival for a person like her in a world like ours.
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.
October 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
Recently I watched the last two episodes of series one of The Fall and read the last 50 pages of Natsuo Kirino’s Out on the same night, before I went to bed, and predictably stayed wide awake. If in Out the male sadist, torturer and killer of women is identifiable by his pathology, not in some overt way but just in the way he is, so much so that both men and women feel afraid or out of sorts when in his presence, then in The Fall the exact opposite is true—the serial killer of women is practically nondescript, ordinary and regular, a loving father and husband. Along with the many “nice guys who rape” articles that proliferate the internet, or maybe not so much articles as incessant chatter on Twitter and Tumblr, I wonder what it is about this cultural moment that needs to depict the violent man who rapes and kills women as an Ordinary Guy, a Nice Guy even, and what this means. What does it mean when the trend is to focus on the pathological misogyny of ordinary guys? When you look at The Fall, and maybe in some way it’s an answer that’s too big for this question, is that this male character is ordinary in the sense that he’s white and almost inoffensively middle-class, and played by an actor who previously made a living off the images of his beautiful face and beautiful body. In The Fall, however, Jamie Dornan’s attractiveness is made non-descript, almost—yes, inoffensive—nothing of his face and body here is reminiscent of the well-oiled god that Eva Mendes wore as a second skin in the Calvin Klein ads. I mean, it’s the kind of beauty that isn’t terrifying, until it is. In scenes in The Fall we see Dornan’s body, or rather the body of his character, Paul Spector, shaped and transformed into a kind of weapon, how he works out and runs and builds his upper body strength, and what is posited as the current ideal—the long, lean, well-muscled male—is next seen tying women up to their beds and strangling them to death.
How unsettling it is, when you google Jamie Dornan, because you haven’t seen him in anything before, only to realise that you have seen him in those ads with Eva Mendes. And to scrutinise those ads differently, now, to see how both bodies are oiled and glimmering, shining in media-approved perfection, how he holds her wrists down and what’s meant to be erotic play, meant to titillate, takes on a whole new meaning once you realise it’s the same face and body that you’re meant to believe is a serial killer on a TV show, and it all comes full circle, these images of sex and violence and bodies on display; something that’s always lurking beneath these highly stylised images of heterosexual sex or potential sex is the spectre of male violence—
And then keep in mind also that what makes Paul Spector a loving father and husband is exactly what he does without his family’s knowledge—kill women. Being able to kill women without his family’s knowledge—obviously—is what makes him a good father and husband; if he wasn’t killing women would he be like one of the other characters in the show, a working class husband from the wrong side of Belfast who beats and rapes his wife but who doesn’t kill women? So is The Fall trying to tell us that misogyny must have an outlet, and this is how it works?
I’m not sure. It’s a TV show. Maybe The Fall just wants to entertain us.
What’s also important to consider is that even though he is a working father, Paul Spector has the space and time to become a serial killer. Try to imagine a working mother and wife having the time and space to become a serial killer, and you cannot, imagination fails you, WHEN WILL SHE HAVE THE TIME, you think—and you realise the work of the serial killer, in The Fall, is literally made possible by the reproductive labour of the women in his life: his wife (who is also a nurse, a professional caregiver), and the teenage babysitter (who also has a crush on him). So when Paul has spent a whole night killing and is exhausted, forgets to feed the kids breakfast, the wife, returning from a night shift, also exhausted, will feed the kids. Being a parasite, sucking the life out of women, doesn’t exactly rejuvenate Paul, and this comes as a surprise, he has all the time in the world to stalk his prey on the internet, write and draw gruesome things in his journal, quote Nietzsche—but poor guy, being a killer is also exhausting.
I started watching The Fall because GILLIAN ANDERSON AND ARCHIE PANJABI IN A SHOW, TOGETHER. Then I was troubled by this Nice-White-Inoffensive-Middle-Class-Guy-as-Women-Killer trope, because I’m not sure what this trope is doing, what work is it doing, that it wants to present a dangerous violent psychopath as ordinary. Does it want to warn women that all nice guys are potentially harmful? That the harmful guys might also appear nice? That misogyny is banal and it kills? Or is it about how nice-looking white men who may or may not have come from bourgeois propriety but who definitely aspire to it are also kind of bad? Really bad, even? Imagine that. What does this say to women, except to always be afraid and be on guard? So when Gillian Anderson’s character, Stella Gibson, asks Archie Panjabi’s character, Tanya Smith, what she will tell her daughters in order to keep them safe, Smith answers, “Not to talk to strange men,” and Gibson goes, “Strange men?” (as in, presumably, what does that even mean?) and Smith amends her answer: “Not to talk to men.”
Tthere it is: if even someone who walks, talks, and looks like Paul Spector is a killer, then be wary of all men.
So the relief of Natsuo Kirino’s Out is that the killer, Satake, who orgasms while raping a woman he’s simultaneously stabbing, a man who confesses to feeling closest to a woman when he can share her pain, and get inside her, literally, when he sticks his fingers into her wounds—all told in Kirino’s spare, unvarnished prose—a man who achieves pleasure that he cannot even put into words at the precise moment a women is about to die, is presented as not a nice guy, or an ordinary guy, but a marked man, his violence inscribed onto his body and words and mannerisms, so that some women are drawn to his sad eyes and charisma while others are repelled and want only to stay away … there’s some relief there, to know that a violent killer bears some signs of being not-ordinary.
I’m not saying that my sense of relief about this is right, or good; in fact I know it’s dangerous, because killers and rapists don’t come with a warning.
But what about the women who are drawn to Satake? Who don’t heed some form of instinctual warning about his sad eyes that seem to mask something else? There’s no pat answer to these questions in Out and this is what drives me crazy, because when it comes to crimes like these I want someone to hold my hand and fix things and tell me that everything will be all right, somehow, in the end.
Satake meets his match in a woman, Masako, who has never killed anyone before but who has butchered dead human bodies (I would tell you more but this is the plot of the whole novel). The ending in Out is not redemptive, whatever that means, but it does allow possibility for a continued existence for the female character. She’s not snuffed out, or silenced, or reintegrated back into the dominant narrative. At least, not when we leave her at the end of the book.
In the finale of series one of The Fall, when Stella and Paul confront each other, not face-to-face but through the phone, Stella tells Paul some things are rarely uttered in films or movies, like “What you’re doing is plain old misogyny”. Time stops, for a little bit, when she says that, because when was the last time you heard that word on TV, from a woman to a man. And there is something there to the way Stella robs the serial killer’s actions of its mystique and pseudo-philosophical bullshit (does it come as a surprise that the serial killer is a former literature major who still quotes Nietzsche, or more disturbing, are viewers not meant to be surprised that Spector didn’t have an “ordinary” upbringing but grew up instead in various care homes?). Stella robs Paul of his own self-created misogynist spectacle when she cuts short Paul’s prattle about “being really free” (i.e. women-killing as the last frontier!) and tells him that he’s just another guy and reminds him of the banality of his misogyny. She lets the killer know that there’s nothing special about his killing, nothing to inspire a thousand documentaries and pop-sociology crime books, because it is a familiar hate—women already know all about it, so shut the fuck up, Paul.
The Fall is a BBC show so maybe we can’t expect too much. It still individualises Spector’s pathology while throwing words like misogyny around. I mean, we do see it in action but in a particular context: bad German criminals beating up an escort during a night of sex, working class Belfast men beating their wives about. I don’t know very much about Belfast but Spector’s white male ordinariness is a blessing, here, a privilege, yes—he gets to stalk the streets of Belfast at night dressed in a black hoodie and is unnoticed. Nice-looking whiteness does not inspire alarm, as it turns out. As for nice middle-class white men, Paul Spector is the aberration—the worst kind, as it turns out, which is what is troubling about the show. Does it, in the end, make a spectacle of (white) (middle-class) male violence even while trying to portray it as banal, ordinary? In Out, in contrast, misogyny is everywhere—from sons to husbands and police officers and factory supervisors. The only “nice guy” in this story, perhaps, is a migrant worker—who isn’t also entirely free from how misogyny structures the behaviour of men who do not actually hate women; so deprived is he of sexual contact with a woman he thinks it’s okay to stand in the dark and pull a woman close to him, even if he’s not going to hurt her.
Of course, The Fall is a cop show. Justice is meted out via a very compelling feminist female police woman with great hair and silky blouses who eats cheeseburgers while drinking red wine and has sex with whoever, whenever, and is also kick ass. The character is a liberal feminist dream in one sense, with echoes of governance feminism—the only kind we get in law and order shows. In contrast, in Out, the female characters, whether they exact vengeance or not, are not a part of the brutal police machinery and legal system; they are always the victims of it, and Out never lets you forget this.
But what does it also mean for our cultural moment, fascinated as it is with the nice guy as rapist and killer, that the same face that plays a killer also sells you (or used to sell you) brand names and fashion, a face meant to incite both pleasure and consumption? One face indistinguishable for another; the same face but different, the same body, positioned and conveyed in another manner.
Who or what is the nice or the ordinary guy?
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.
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.