Friday, May 13, 2011

The un-Stieg Larsson

That's how I think of Cara Hoffman after reading her very good and deeply provocative debut novel So Much Pretty. I was going to head this post "the thinking woman's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or something along those lines as a shorthand for what I think this novel accomplishes in earnest compared to what Larsson's by some accounts purports but by my read fails to. I didn't use such a heading because I don't want to offend the many people, including friends of mine, who not only like Larsson's novel and its two trilogy followers but think they are anti-sexist works of fiction. I respect those who think that. I myself, however, didn't react that way to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and have no interest in reading the other two). I found it a run-of-the-mill thriller/murder mystery, terribly clunkily written, not particularly interesting politically or in any other way. The lists of ghastly statistics about violence against women that precede each chapter seemed to me a lazy throwaway that I guess could be charitably interpreted to have been meant but completely failed to substitute for any meaningful exploration of this issue in the text itself. Writing about a misogynistic crime is hardly in and of itself any sort of contribution to the struggle against male supremacy. Sheesh, books and movies that feature awful acts against women are a mainstay of this culture, violence against women is in fact frequently offered up for misogynist titillation and, sadly, in Dragon Tattoo, can certainly be read that way. Especially when folded into a plot replete with the whole gamut of hot-sexy-crazed-babe-fucking-brooding-misunderstood-deeply-decent-male-hero cliches as they are, Larsson's depictions of crimes against women can be read as deeply offensive, exploitive and sexist (not to mention trite) business as usual in the thriller genre. Sorry, but, again, by my lights lists of statistics can't and don't substitute for substance, and unless something deeper is offered simply recounting gruesome anti-woman crimes is at best fatuous, at worst itself sexist and offensive.

OK, so how do you write about violence against women in a way that takes the reader on a much more profound journey? That makes the reader feel the horror and the ubiquity of this society's utter, definitive even, misogyny? That forces the reader to feel this—the woman reader to, shuddering, feel everything she's already felt and known, the male reader, I'd imagine, to gain a new level of understanding–and to think about it and about what can or might or should or must be done about it? That does all this without providing any graphic depiction of the disturbing, disgusting crime against a young woman that is central to the story—that is, without offering any opportunity for depraved titillation? That on the contrary builds real empathy for the victim as a person, a human being in all her fullness before the crime? That takes us inside her consciousness only for fleeting moments of the agonizingly long months of her ordeal, and yet in this brief passage contributes more to the case that a society-wide upheaval is needed to end violence against women than any of Larsson's lists ever could?

You do it the way Cara Hoffman does in So Much Pretty. I'm not talking about the plot, although that is well handled. [SPOILER ALERT STARTS HERE.] I knew what the crux of this story would be—the two basic thrusts of the plot, which are the abduction, repeated gang rape and eventual murder of a young woman, Wendy, and the shockingly violent retribution of another young woman, Alice—fairly early on, certainly by about halfway through the book. Hoffman certainly crafts the plot skillfully, but this is a novel whose underlying questions carry the real weight. Questions like: what kind of society does what this society does to women? and how can it be stopped? and what is or is not a moral or ethical or otherwise justifiable response?

For me, as a communist, the answers to the latter questions have to do with issues of consciousness and education, and with mass organizing and community control. For the teenager who ultimately takes matters into her own hands to mete out what she sees as justice to the young men who she believes are the culprits and who, she knows, are unlikely ever to be brought to any other kind of justice, no options except unilateral individual action seem viable. I'd trace this, at least in part, to the tacit lesson she took from her parents, doctors who left New York City and a life of community medical work and moved to a rural, depressed town in upstate New York—who opted out, in other words, removed themselves from any direct social engagement, any directed effort together with others to help or fix or change anything. This is me now, not the author, it's me saying united collective action rather than individual is the way forward. But Hoffman does weave in enough stuff to chew on, via the parent characters and some others, their friends, about their various choices and conflicts and thoughts and ideas and arguments, to indicate that it's just these issues, or at least that it's partly these issues, that she's posing as challenges we need to take up. The bottom line is that this is a successful novel, a disturbing, truthful work.