Tuesday, January 3, 2012

World without women

I'm in the 11th and last day of my holiday break, one of the few perks of university employment (the main other one being casual dress), and I can report that I read three books during these days off. Which would be a good thing if only I could report that they were three books I liked. Alas, that is not the case. Even though each was technically proficient, very well written, of high literary quality, engrossing, even, I found them all flawed in various ways. One flaw that all three books, each written by men, shared is their male-centric narrative orientation.

The worst offender goes beyond male-centeredness, in fact travels deep into misogyny. This is Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. It's a strange, unpleasant, ultimately creepy, dirty-feeling experience reading such a book--a book all of whose main female characters, rather than fully fledged fully imagined complex individual human beings who act with agency and are portrayed with depth and dimension, are instead caricatures of womanhood's worst, that is, the wife. The wife, in all her irrational, hysterical, crazy, contradictory, impossible to please--for yes, each wife is seen only through the eyes of her husband with the exception of one brief passage that basically sets up this wife's coming murder as more or less her own fault--extremes. The wife, who drives the husband always to dreams of killing her, such dreams thickly interwoven with the husband's deep endless helpless love of this unfathomable mysterious creature, this sex object whose sole function is to frustrate his simple heartfelt desire to live a good life with her. Here with this book we find fully ripened, plucked, and offered up proudly the cultural fruits of patriarchal society: profound misogyny served up via very fine writing (hence how dirty I felt at the end, for even as I loathed this book I couldn't put it down), extremely creative literary work, interesting postmodern tricks of structure and meaning. Art, then. Misogyny as high art.

One specific aspect of Mr. Peanut that I found offensive, shallow and thoroughly inauthentic was its treatment of a female character's struggles with weight issues. The book I'd read just before this one also featured a very fat character, this one a man, and, I'm sorry to say, an even less true, honest or insightful depiction of the consciousness, feelings, self-image and motivations of a fat person. I'm sorry to say it because the book is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. I respect and admire Banks, have liked several of his books and adore one, Cloudsplitter, as among my all-time favorites. Here, however, it's not just on the fat front that I feel he fails. The fat character, the Professor, falls flat altogether. Since his part of the story is key, nearly as key as the central character called the Kid's, the Professor's never coming to life is a fatal difficulty, one from which this novel cannot recover. Which is too bad, because it's an interesting story Banks tells here, an interesting topic he takes on in telling the story of the Kid, a young white working-class man forced into homelessness after being convicted of a "sex crime." Banks is known for his portrayals of characters like this, indeed his exploration of what it is to be a man in this society, and I do think that with the Kid he has crafted a poignant, credible, thought-provoking portrait of a young man adrift in the currents of this vulgar, vile, materialistic, pornographic culture. I wish he'd left the Professor out of it altogether; I don't think he accomplishes what he meant to with this far less than successfully realized character. As for women, well for all intents and purposes, there are none. The very few female characters make only brief appearances and only stand in, at that, for some archetype. Worst, I was very disappointed in how Banks sets up the Kid's mother as pretty much the villain of the piece, her self-centered pathetic party-girl failure to, well, mother her son presented as a glib explication of how he got so, well, fucked up. Yeah yeah yeah blame the mother, it's always the mother's fault. What an unfortunately easy way out. I'm sad Banks took it.

I don't have anywhere near such serious criticism on the female front of the first book I read over the break, Zone One by Colson Whitehead, so it's a little unfair of me to include my comments about this book in this post. But I did somehow tumble my tuchas down into a land of all male authors over the holidays, a world without a woman's perspective anywhere to be found, so I'll go on here with a bit about this book. Which is, to my knowledge, the first zombie novel by a first-rate author of serious literary fiction. I've read all of Whitehead's fiction. I believe that his first novel, The Intuitionist, was such a masterpiece that it really wouldn't matter if he'd only written pure dreck since then, his reputation would stand on that achievement (and by the way the protagonist is a woman). Of course he has not written anything like dreck. His fictional output has been by my lights a little uneven, some books better than others, but always worth reading. As I think I've said before on this blog, Colson Whitehead is incapable of writing a bad sentence. This is a very fine artist. That much holds true for his foray into zombieland. From the opening page, his literary brilliance shines. Sentence by sentence, he wows. With insight, wordplay, ideas, cultural and social commentary. Yes, this too is a pretty male-oriented book, but although there are only a couple female characters and they don't get much to do or say, no characters except the main one, known as Mark Spitz, do, so I see no great sexist crime here. I do, sorry again to say, have a couple complaints. One is of a type I almost never make: the writing is too good. The language is so pretty, it soars and zings so, that it far outshadows the story itself. Actually, the story itself is brief and thin and the beautiful writing can't sustain it. The few times that plot intervenes and something happens, something shocking or gory, the impact is blunted by the angle of approach. Does this mean a great literary author can't write an effectively scary and horrifying zombie novel? Who knows, but in this novel the terror--the literal terror, I mean, the OMG a drooling undead thing is about to bite my face off--is muted. There is the existential dread, yes, and there is certainly the broad bemused consideration of the zombielike state of this society--yes, this is pretty much the point of the whole book. Surprised as I am to feel this way, though, I find that not enough. The symbolism overpowers the story, and the result is unsatisfying. 

My other unhappiness about Zone One is the same one I've noted here before about other horror and sci-fi books and movies: I feel let down at the limits of postapocalyptic imagination. I mean, here we are, the world as we know it has pretty much ended, the bedraggled remnants of scattered humanity are left to try to save themselves, destroy the monsters and remake the world, and what do they do, how do they go about it? Why, the same old way they went about destroying the world in the first place. The corporations are in charge, working hand in hand with a dishonest, corrupt provisional government, the government and corporations arming and supplying the zombie hunters, and so on. I mean, really? There's no one left alive to think that there might be a better way of organizing things this time around? In the real world, the ever more appalling ravages of late-stage capitalism--which after all is what Whitehead is commenting about throughout the novel--are bringing on crisis after crisis, impoverishing more and more people, making life worse and worse, and all this will eventually lead to the ultimate crisis to which the only possible response will be socialist revolution. So why is it that in the fictional world of zombies, or aliens, or vampires, in all these fictional futures in which the accumulated ills of this society have led to an ultimate final crisis, nobody does what human beings without a doubt will actually do, that is get the idea to pull together, work together cooperatively, reorganize society in a new, better way? Why is this so far beyond the reach of the literary imagination? Not only would it be more plausible, I think it'd be a hell of a riproaring story too. The bourgeois undead vanquished by the living masses united in a revolutionary monster-demolishing front.