“The Walrus” at Sea

The December edition of Canada’s only magazine of ideas, The Walrus, is disappointing for its multiple examples of ‘masculine blindness’. This month editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay is glad his privilege allows him to eschew introspection for video game playing, journalist Russell Wangersky laments the “24/7 drip, drip, drip of a thousand different toxins flowing continually  into my newspaper’s well of ideas” from online anonymous commentators without once acknowledging that women get far more, far worse than men. It was his comment that he was once threatened with a rock through his window that got me. Does he not know that women with public voices get daily onslaughts of rape and death threats?

Then there were the memoirs, two of them. I love memoir. It’s my favourite form of literature and I’ve studied it in all forms and permutations. Memoir, as others have said before me, is open to the charge of self-involvement and narcissism. Who, after all, thinks their own life is interesting and important enough to write about? The best thing about memoir is the way it overcomes this. The single most important quality of memoir is the introspection of the author-as- narrator. It’s through that introspection, the self-questioning, that readers can glimpse into the heart and mind of another human being. The details of memoir can be foreign to many readers, but the quest for meaning that occupies the introspecting narrator is universal.

In this case, both memoirs were written by men, white men. Privileged male voices occupy too many of The Walrus’s pages. But there is a difference in degree when the subject is the self, rather than some aspect of life outside the self.

In The Roughneck Diaries, Don Gillmor recounts his experiences as a young man when he divided his time between studying literature at university and working as a roughneck on the oil patch. He tells several anecdotes about the hardship of life as a roughneck and eventually decides the dangers are too great. That’s it. End of story. So what? How can I relate to this? How can a young immigrant, a woman, a disabled person, relate? We can’t relate to the details. What we can relate to is the meaning the author/narrator makes of it. Gillmor doesn’t go there.

Where he does go, though, is into portraits of prairie oil patch workers and support staff. He describes the driller who was “mean as a snake” and enjoyed destroying farm crops for the sheer perversity of it. There is a doctor who was “cinematically drunk” and whose medical care should have been grounds for lawsuit. There are all the workers who get drunk before they start their shifts and drunker when they finish. There is not a decent, thoughtful human being anywhere in sight.

Gillmor makes no attempt to understand these men, who are stuck in their lives of backbreaking physical labour without access to ‘the finer things’ that the author cherishes and will return to. His lack of empathy is most evident in his description of the woman who fell asleep at the wheel, sending both of them to hospital. The narrator wasn’t badly hurt, but the female co-worker spent a week in hospital. Gillmor expresses no compassion whatsoever.

I can’t imagine that Albertans reading this article feel anything but resentment at being so callously denigrated. As for me, I consider longingly how much the author could have said about masculinity at that time in his life when he stood between two modes of masculinity, sampling each. And what he could have said about privilege, when he was surrounded by men without it. And what he could have said about the erosion of humanity in the lives of men without options.

Without any of that, this memoir emits the sour perfume of entitlement and superiority.

But I’ve left the worst memoir for last. I don’t actually believe that Richard Kelly Kemick’s Playing God is memoir. I think it’s fiction. The premise is too good. I can just imagine a creative writing teacher giving the prompt – think of the weirdest thing that a man could collect and make up a story about a man who collects it.

This is not sufficient reason, of course, to call the author a liar.What makes the case more compelling is that the author-as-narrator is a poseur. Throughout the story, the narrator postures. This is the antithesis of memoir, where the honesty that comes from self-questioning is essential.

I don’t like the narrator. He verges on the sociopathic. I wouldn’t want to meet him. And nowhere does he give a reader any reason to care about him.

What I especially don’t like about him is his total lack of empathy for anyone, his self-involvement and his striking misogyny. All three are evident in his admission that he’s been selling his wife’s clothing to pay for his hobby, collecting figures for his Christmas village. An honest narrator might confess to feelings of guilt, but Kemick is gleeful that he got “a whole $23 dollars” for one of her tops.

No introspection there.

His misogyny forces itself onto readers most bluntly when he says of his relationship with his wife, “it had been just one month since I’d stopped getting the milk for free”. Is this meant to be a joke? Are we supposed to laugh? It’s been a few decades since people have found misogynistic jokes about ‘the wife’ funny, hasn’t it?

Before this comment, Kemick has treated us to his view of his mother. He thinks she likes his Christmas village, in part because “the woman is insufferably supportive of everything I do”. Well, I guess we need to excuse her for caring about him. And “the woman”? Who refers to their mother as “the woman”? It turns out though that the narrator suspects his mother of taking over his village for herself, and believes she completely misunderstands him. He was forced to listen to her “confuse my post office and library, gloss over my recreation area, and completely fuck up my all-embracing vision”. Poor thing, his mother doesn’t understand him.

And lastly, when an elderly woman buys a piece that he can’t afford, he says “I say a small prayer for the elderly woman: I ask that the distillery turn her village into Sodom and Gomorrah and that her smiling citizens, hopped up on liquor and lust, eat one another.” Right, nice guy, eh?

The narrator then goes into a litany of all the horrible village gifts he’s received over the years, from people who wish to give him thoughtful gifts, of course, pieces for his obsession. They’re all wrong. This is not a man who ever says ‘it’s the thought that counts’. This is a man who says “village gifts are kind gestures offered by those who have no fucking clue.” Kemick is a child-man who offers nothing of himself to others and then complains that they don’t understand him.

At a couple of points I thought the memoir might transcend the narrator’s whining. He says of his flawed village “Mine is a city that understands the true weight of mortality – its fleeting and fragile nature – and has grown accustomed to closed-casket funerals. Mine is a city that embraces the true spirit of Christmas only because its citizens so desperately need a holiday from the lifelong process of dying.” That’s good! Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t actually display any compassion for real people.

His entrapment in isolation is most revealed in his final comments. He and his wife are thinking of having a child, and he’s afraid that he’ll be “heartbroken when Litia loves this new thing more than she loves me.” The only insight he has into himself is that he will observe his wife and child from the trap of his own fears. Okay. He has revealed his core vulnerability.

But he ends the story by backtracking away from that insight, that honesty. He plugs the whole village in and “Here I am, surrounded by my city and its inhabitants, feeling like a god. And I bless them, every one.”

Judgmentalism and blame don’t belong in memoir. What we love about memoir is that we can see someone overcome the wrongs done to them by others, or the harm done by circumstance. This involves taking personal responsibility, not for the harm that has been done, but for the healing that must follow.

That The Walrus has included one memoir without the qualities of introspection, honesty and personal responsibility could be a mistake. That is has included two in one edition points to editorial blindness.

The Walrus was started to bring something like Harper’s and The Atlantic  to Canada. In fact the original idea was a partnership with Harper’s. Look at what has happened to that magazine in the last 12 years. One has only to look at “Easy Chair” to see the single biggest difference between a world-class magazine of ideas and The Walrus. Rebecca Solnit.

“The Time has come to speak of many things,” says the walrus. Yes, but  men need to stop speaking all the time and listen. The masculine view, by itself, is just too limited.


Ethics, the Feminine and the Thriller part II

On Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears

It’s impossible for a novelist to deal with ethics through stereotypical characters. The role of the stereotype dictates their behaviour. Consider the stereotypes men have created for women : the holy triumvirate of whore, virgin angel and madonna mother, along with the ball-busting shrew, the ambitious women who threatens male power and control. None of these characters can confront ethical problems in fiction because their role assigns them either ethical or unethical behaviour.

Male characters can be judged by readers according to how they treat whores, angels, madonnas or shrews, but there’s a limited range of responses, often socially, rather than ethically driven. It’s okay to harm a whore or a shrew according to social mores of even recent times, but ethical standards are of a different order than this context-sensitive social morality. It’s stereotypical masculine behaviour, too, to banish the whore, destroy the shrew, adore the virgin and make way for the Madonna. For a novel to be truly concerned with ethics, the characters have to be nuanced and rounded.

I think feminist and other broader ethical concerns have much to do with spirituality, for lack of a better word. Well, maybe “psychological health” would suffice, psyche and spirit being either identical twins or close cousins, depending on your point of view. Encounters we have with other people, like encounters we have with anything, impact our spirit or our psyche. We either mature through the encounter, growing in wisdom and compassion, or we harden into crippled versions of humanity. Men who see women only as stereotypes, or functions, deny themselves the value of the encounter. Even men who choose not to deal at all with the 52 percent of the population that is female, deny themselves the growth and maturity that could follow if they would only throw down their patriarchal glasses to try to see the women around them without preconceptions, and without diminishing them to the status of functionary.

Where ethics really come into play is in how we respond to our emotions. Anger, envy, jealousy and fear are the emotions that lead us to harm others, if we simply act from those emotions. An ethics that doesn’t deal with emotion may be prescriptive, but it fails to analyze the problem, and thus can’t provide solutions. “Just say ‘no’” doesn’t cut it. That’s one problem with religion-sourced ethics. It calls on us simply to obey, without helping to understand why we might harm others. Controlling our emotions has never been a viable solution, as it leads only to repression, which all too often leads to explosive release. The ethical route is to feel emotions without acting on them. That’s the route to spiritual and psychological growth.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I consider The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller about how the world might destroy itself in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin War with its accompanying thaw in US – Soviet relations. He envisions a crisis, in which the world is destroyed by fear, by bogeymen, by stereotypical responses to cultural stereotypes. The ethical person will be the one who can throw aside the stereotypical view and use reason to sidestep a stereotypical response and has the strength of character to refuse to be motivated by fear.

Jack Ryan is the hero of the novel. We are informed almost from the start, and throughout that he is a Catholic and that it matters. We find out again and again that Jack is an ethical person, a man who learns by his mistakes, a man who uses reason to overcome problems, a man who hates corruption in politics, a man who speaks his mind and follows the rules. He is saved from being a caricature by his tendency to lose his temper, which makes him enemies and diminishes his effectiveness at his job.

There are two female characters of note in the novel and a third who figures more in the plot than her brief appearances would suggest. One, Ryan’s wife, comes very close to being the “angel in the house”. She’s pretty much a perfect wife and mother, as well as being an eye surgeon. We know she’s not greedy, as she’s not concerned about money. We know she suffers only minimally from vanity. Her hair is rarely groomed, she doesn’t wear heels and acknowledges her flat-chestedness with only a little sadness, not enough to invest in silicone. She is close to the stereotype of the woman who “leans in”, drawn long before the term was created — the woman who takes on wife and motherhood while also working hard at a career, without letting anyone suffer.

When she believes Jack is cheating on her, we see her weakness, which seems at first to be her failure to believe in Jack, but evolves into a failure to confront him to find out the truth. We see her at her worst when Jack’s driver and bodyguard comes to see her and she says: “’Sure, why not? It’s over, the only reason I haven’t walked out is the kids. So go ahead, make your pitch. Tell me that he still loves me and all that. He doesn’t have the guts to talk about it to me himself, but I’m sure he had something to do with this,’ she concluded bitterly.”

This is actually a foreshadowing of the major plot of the novel, in which The American president believes lies about the Russian head of state, which almost leads to world destruction. Tellingly, Clancy does not let this character struggle through the situation. She already knows she should talk to her husband and it is her failure to do so that causes her to spiral downward with her emotions. While she accuses Jack of not having “the guts” to talk to her, she suffers from the same cowardice. Instead of taking that step, and growing through the act of courage, or failing to take the step and suffering the consequences, however, she is “saved” by the work of Jack’s two friends and bodyguards, who come to her home to tell her that Jack is faithful, and even bring her to see the evidence for herself. Clancy fails to allow her to make the ethical choice. Does he believe women are incapable? Does he believe women need rescuing by men? This would be a better book if he had made different authorial decisions with regard to this character.

The other woman, Elizabeth Elliot, is more of a problem. For quite a long time in the novel is looks as if Clancy is going to have a woman destroy the patriarchally-created, violent, cruel and murderous world because the woman is worse than any of the men in that world.

Elliot is shown as totally self-absorbed, without compassion or empathy for others, suspicious of all around her, devious in attempting to control other people, and lastly stupid enough to believe that she can control them. She is the ambitious shrew who actually believes (gasp!) that she can bust the balls of POTUS! After the first instance when readers are shown that she and the President are having an affair, the narrator says: “So easy to manage. She smiled her secret smile to herself. He could be directed to do exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it and do it consummately well, for he loved to give pleasure to a woman…he craved being remembered and so he did what the woman wanted if the woman had the wit to ask…so eager to please, even in this.”

After she has arranged for a naive young student to spy on Jack to look for dirt she can use to get rid of him, she thinks: “It was so easy to seduce people …Sex was a useful tool for the task, but power and ambition were so much better. She’d already proven that.”

After all her predictions that she could control men, even the president, a reader expects to find out whether she is right or not. However, although the president is strongly swayed by her suspicions during negotiations with Russia, we never do really find out. In the end Clancy drops her quite awkwardly from the plot, consigned to a hospital because she “didn’t cut the mustard.” The president himself is also inexplicably dropped and we don’t find out what happened to him. No hospital is mentioned in his case.

The third woman is the Asian wife of a dead army officer whom Jack is helping financially. With eight children, all of whom are to receive good educations, the triumvirate of angel, whore and Madonna is complete.

Despite these limitations in the female characters, this is a good novel. It presents a scenario in which suspicion and distrust function as the greatest threat to peace and good relations in both personal and political arenas. The novel has something to tell us about how to make the world a safer place. Jack is a good man because he transcends his gender conditioning – his best qualities are those his society generally assigns to women. He is generous, tender and kind-hearted, forgiving and humble. He understands that power corrupts, saying “The very atmosphere of Washington corroded the soul.” He also understands the power of clear and direct communication and it is in that way that he manages to avert the destruction of the world, about to be brought about because of people’s failure to speak to and listen to each other. And, unfortunate as it is in a world run by men, communication is also regarded as a woman’s skill. He is in touch with his emotions and capable of self-criticism, qualities one doesn’t see in public representations of men.

Though I usually prefer detective novels and thrillers written by women, I plan to read other Clancy novels to see if he improves in his representations of women – if he’s capable of moving beyond the triptych of female stereotypes.

Ethics and the Thriller Part 1

I continue to believe that mystery novels and detective thrillers have taken over the role that novels originally had, to teach citizens compassion and empathy for people outside their own families. British society of the 17th Century was able to go beyond clannism and tribalism partly as a result of novels. Does it go without saying that compassion and empathy are directly related to ethics? To care for other people means to do them no harm, which is to say to neither rob, rape nor murder them. Beyond that it means to prevent harm from coming to them, which means to protect them from harmful people by means of law and/or force, but also to protect them from starvation and exposure to the elements by economic means. To do no harm and to protect from harm – that’s the concern of ethics, motivated by compassion.

Interestingly enough, some of the first novels used the plight of women in this educational pursuit. In the early 17th century life for all but well-off families was visibly hard for women. Women worked in the fields and dairies, and as servants in wealthy homes. The work was physically hard and women were vulnerable to attacks by men. Married women bore babies one after another, many of whom died, many of whom killed their mothers in the process. The husbands, themselves hard put to provide money for the family, without many options in life either, were too frequently drunkards and wife-beaters. It’s no accident that the first novels dealt with concerns we now call “feminist”.

Feminist concerns continue to be closely linked with ethical concerns of course, although what constitutes harm is often in dispute. Is it harmful to women to be constantly harassed and threatened by strangers on the web? Is it harmful for women to function as prostitutes? Is it harmful that they are represented as sexual objects in pornography? Is it harmful that they are constantly admonished to be unrealistically thin? Is it harmful if they’re forced to wear makeup and/or high heels to work? These are some of the ethical questions of the early 21st century.

I think none of these would have been asked in the 17th, which is only a measure of shifting landscapes including a greater understanding now that what appears to be choice can be constructed servitude. Prostitutes and porn stars, not to mention women and men in general, are constructed by masculine pressures, controlled by masculine perspectives, subservient to the needs and wishes of POP (people of power).

It has occurred to me, thirty or forty years on, to wonder why early “second wave” feminists didn’t formulate their demands within ethical frameworks. The enslavement of women — inevitable when women don’t have money or the means of earning money — is surely an ethical matter. But then the domestic enslavement of women handed from fathers to husbands (and if necessary to brothers) was constructed by patriarchal culture as a privilege, not a deprivation. Women, at least women of a certain class, were being protected from the dog eat dog working world.

And we need to remember that when women started fighting for “women’s liberation”, they first had to become aware of their lack of liberty. Privilege can mask bondage. This is the power of social conditioning. A weekly allowance, if it’s more than sufficient, is a powerful inducement. Any many men would feign amazement at a woman who would give that up to earn her own living by the sweat of her brow.

Moth Smoke Obscures

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, which I found in the bookshelf at the Hotel Orchidea in Florence, made a big splash when it came out in 2000, garnering praise and awards then and again when it was reissued in paperback in 2007. It’s a beautifully written novel, and people who love sentences will love this book. But it’s a seriously flawed novel. The central character, Daru, is  an unlikeable whiner with no redeeming qualities (that I can find). This is not necessarily a problem, but as the central protagonist, he must be a primary tool through which the author’s message is elucidated. In that he fails, and that is a problem.

As a poor child who associated with rich kids because of financial help from a friend of his dead father, Daru is motivated by resentment and arrogance when his education is finished and he has to live within his own means, which are significantly less than that of his wealthy jet-setting ex-schoolmates. His arrogant response to a client of his bank who treats him like a servant results in the loss of his job and his life spirals down in a drive to self-destruction. When he adds heroin to to near constant consumption of hash, we know he’s approaching the end. By the final chapter, he’s on trial for a death he did not cause, a child killed by his erstwhile friend Aurangzeb, trained to be a shark in New York, and bringing those skills back to Pakistan to hide and launder his corrupt father’s wealth. Innocent of this crime,  Daru had shot at a child during an attempted robbery, so  he is not exactly innocent. The novel begins with a parallel case from history, about which the narrator says “none present were innocent, save perhaps the judge. And perhaps not even he.” It’s possible the origins of the novel lie in Hamid’s desire to explore this subject. However, he has wandered too far off-track for readers to see this as a novel about lack of innocence.   Daru is a  wanna be wealthy elite who can’t accept the relative status and money of his own life in the face of his friend’s limitless wealth and power. It’s a depressing novel about someone who feels like a victim and consequently acts like one, participating in his own destruction.

The biggest question is whether this is a political novel, or a psychological one. I think it’s meant to be political, exploring different responses to a blatantly corrupt government by wealth and influence. Aurangzeb’s wife, Mumtaz, unhappy in her marriage and the useless bacchanalia of life as an insider, turns her journalism talents, nurtured in New York, to writing about the corruption all around her. She illustrates that one can choose an active, participatory role as exposer of corruption and advocate for the oppressed.

Daru’s drug-dealer, a man who also owns a small rickshaw company, offers another response to such political corruption. When taxi-drivers move in and take away rickshaw business, he takes to robbing them. While preparing Daru to assist him in a new endeavour, robbing boutiques, he lays out his philosophy: “This is how I see things. People are fed up with subsisting on the droppings of the rich. The time is right for a revolution. The rich use Kalashnikovs to persuade tenant farmers and factory laborers and the rest of us to stay in line . . . but we, too, can be persuasive.” When Daru asks him why boutiques, he replies “symbolism: they represent the soft underbelly of the upper crust, the ultimate hypocrisy in a country with flour shortages.”

Daru seems stumped by the fact that the traditional opposition,  communism, is a spent force and the “trending” opposition is religious fundamentalism. Yet Mumtaz and Murad show there are other ways to respond to the despotism of wealth. Daru chooses self-destruction.  Unfortunately his response is too loaded with psychological weight to be seen as a response to corruption. He is more disabled by his envy of the rich than by the fact of the rich. There is a distinctly British feel to this novel, with its orphan raised above his class through a wealthy benefactor and then dropped back into it when the funding ends.

The rickshaw driver is more sympathetic, as he’s a man who takes action without rage or the impulse to violence. Though he provides the guns, he plans robberies that won’t require any actual shooting.  Daru wallows in his boredom and emptiness, but it is within us all to take action, as we see through both Mumtaz, underground journalist, and Murad, rickshaw driver and leveller of rich and poor.

The title refers to the ancient eastern symbol of the moth, so enchanted with the beloved flame that it’s willing to be burned to ash in consummation, to lose its identity in union. In this novel Daru slashes away at the moths with a tennis racket, preventing them from immolating themselves. There is an absence of “moth smoke” here, and the corpses littering the floor point to an absence of meaning. This seems to parallel Daru, in love with nothing (despite his brief affair with Mumtaz), absent of passion, slowly killing himself. But shouldn’t the title be “No Moth Smoke”?
I have to wonder what western readers saw in the novel. I can’t help but think it’s a colonial response – the affluent west’s enchantment with the exotic “other”.  Hamid has laid open his Pakistan culture — with its corruption, its huge wealth disparity, its hedonism — for westerners to feast on, while congratulating themselves for their own superior culture. We shouldn’t do that; we should see it as a mirror of our rapidly disintegrating democracies, and perhaps if Murad were the central character we might take more notice of what could threaten us.

Random Readings pt 5

Surprisingly, Rome is not as hung with penises as Florence. Maybe that’s because  so much of the statuary predates the Renaissance, when men and women were presented and their images preserved in marble robes, or charmingly plump fig leaves. Where the Medici crest, a shield with red balls or coins, hangs ubiquitously in Florence, Mary hangs in Rome. On countless street corners her image has been painted or frescoed or sculpted in many guises — virgin wife, young child, mother. She is the ideal – overflowing with compassion and pure of heart.

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The city’s churches all seem to bear her name. That’s an exaggeration; there are churches with other names, but my guidebook lists 24 variations of St. Mary in the list of Rome’s churches and cathedrals. She is and has been venerated for all the qualities that men attribute to womanhood, except sexuality. Rome reveals the male longing for forgiveness from the eternal mother goddess.

And what do men want forgiveness for? For being without all the qualities that men attribute to womanhood. Somewhere in the histories of civilizations, men decided to categorize about half the qualities that humans are capable of cultivating as “feminine” – these are qualities like compassion, kindness, grace, beauty, tenderness, gentleness – and having categorized them as feminine, to evaluate them as “less than”, and to assign them to female human beings. It is the job of woman the compassionate to forgive men for their lack of compassion, and of woman the gentle to forgive men for their lack of gentleness. When men idealize a woman, they are idealizing qualities they have no intention of cultivating in themselves.

And the qualities of strength, courage, self-reliance, etc. that they assign themselves are considered superior and not to be sullied by women attempting to claim them.For women to cultivate these qualities in themselves would lessen the value of these qualities. And then what would men do? Who would they be?

While in Rome I read two books that dealt with the idealization of women. I know, the synchronicity is hard to believe.
Promises Lost by Audrey Howard, the only English language book in the studio apartment I rented just behind the Vatican, doesn’t deserve any critical commentary, as it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is, cheap historical romance. There’s an ideal young woman, Sara Hamilton, who gives her heart to her young man at 15 and doesn’t reclaim it over the five following years when they are separated, or even when eventually she doesn’t know his whereabouts or whether he is still alive. There’s an ideal young man, Jack Andrews, who stays pure in his love and longing for Sara over the same five year period. Nonetheless, as a man, he has “needs” and he gets them met with various women over the years. Sara, meanwhile, develops a beautiful friendship with a man who makes her laugh and helps her have some joy in a life bereft of Jack. In time, this friendship develops a loving sexuality. Gender roles are intact: the man has sex without love, the woman adds sex to affection.

What interests me is that a contemporary woman writer should create a perfect, ideal young woman molded in the historical construction of the “angel in the house”, a two or three hundred-year-old trope that was dishonest from its very beginning. Surely she knows no such things exists? In this case her man is similarly robed in goodness and in the end we can imagine them living happily for 40 or 50 years with nary a quarrel, except perhaps, over what might be the most ethical or compassionate thing to do in some circumstance or other.

Thankfully there are used book stalls in Rome, lined up next to the Tiber River. One of the stalls specializes in English language books. I found Accused by Mark Gimenez there one drizzly Sunday. This turned out to be a detective novel that pretends to be in support of women, but is breathtakingly insulting. Scott Fenney is a lawyer called to defend his ex-wife, accused of murdering the man she left him for two years earlier. At one point she tells him “All women live in a man’s world, so all women lie. They have to. At least all women who depend on a man for their survival”. The real reason women read romance novels, she adds, is that the women in them are financially independent: “Not being financially dependent on a man, that’s a woman’s true romantic fantasy.” These are the comments of a university-educated white woman in America, a woman who could support herself if anyone could. Yet Fenney doesn’t call her on it; rather he accepts this as a new truth that he needs to take account of. At the end, we discover that, although Fenney did get her off, she did murder her wealthy lover and she feels no guilt about it all “because a woman’s life is not lived in a man’s world of truth or lie, right or wrong, black or white; a woman’s life is lived in shades of gray. Rebecca Fenney had simply done what she had to do to survive in a man’s world, what any woman would have done.” Uh huh. Any woman might murder the man she lives with when he threatens to leave her for another woman, taking all his money with him. Are we supposed to believe this? Is this a man’s conception of what ‘woman-power’ is?

It’s clear she hired her ex-husband because she knew that he was still in love with her and blind to her faults. This novel illustrates what a woman is really like when you can get over your idealization of her — a callous, murderous, manipulative danger to men.
The rest of the novel is peopled with a selection of sexually predatory women, particularly a television news anchor covering the case and the judge trying the case. Both had had sex with the victim, both attempted to keep it hidden because of conflict of interest, and both propositioned Fenney before the trial started.  It appears that even women who are not financially dependent on men are manipulative and deceitful. Arrayed against these evil bitches are Fenney and his three male side-kicks who all worship him for one reason or another. And his job, aside from representing his ex-wife at her trial, is to raise two daughters in such a way that they won’t feel they have to lie to men all the time. Clearly raising honest women is a man’s job.
This was a Sunday Times bestseller and a quote from The Times names the author as “the next Grisham”. Yikes, if this is the quality of book reviews then we’re really in trouble.

Random Readings Pt 4

Comments on The Persimmon Tree

Florence is a city of penises. They dangle from marble and masonry by the dozens. It’s also a city of power and power struggles. Florence’s paintings present the numerous long running wars the city had with such nearby cities as Sienna and Pisa. Tucked in the corners of countless palaces and churches hangs the Medici family crest, reminding us of the absolute power that family held over generations. Though it may have been christened ‘city of flowers’, this town reminds us of a time when patriarchy in all its tough and murderous glory was celebrated.

The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtney is one of the worst-written published novels I’ve ever read, but it may be appropriate that in a city with more visible penises than anywhere else, I read a novel whose central character is more or less an 18-year-old’s penis. I started reading this novel because it concerns Dutch colonialists in Indonesia during the second world war. My grandparents on my mother’s side were living in Indonesia for some years and became Japanese prisoners of war. Though books have been written, and movies made about the experience of British trapped in Indonesia at that time, I haven’t been able to find anything written in English about the Dutch experience. Unfortunately the novel dealt with this only peripherally. The “hero” was British. He fell in love with a mixed race girl, product of a “relationship” between a young Indonesian girl and a married Dutch man. Whether she is the product of rape is unclear, but when the mother died, the family deposited the baby with the father. In this novel the boy, Nicholas, remains steadfastly in love over a period of years with the girl, Anna, despite the fact that they are separated by the war. He joins the British Army, she’s captured and both protected and required to provide stylized sadistic sexual practices for a Japanese officer. During the course of these years, Nicholas has several affairs with other women. Despite the fact that his groin is constantly “swelling”, these affairs are not just about sex. They’re growth opportunities! When Anna develops a bond with the officer who protects her and keeps her from being imprisoned in the army brothel, like the Dutch women, the author describes it as an example of Stockholm Syndrome. Still, the narrator says some insightful things. He speaks of the capacity of humans to adapt to almost any situation and see it as normal and says it is the reason we have found ourselves the dominant creatures on earth. For instance, there were some amongst the emaciated near-skeletons that emerged from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in Burma who exhibited mixed feelings at the final Allied victory: “Many were thrown into a state of confused apathy ringed with anger and a fear of the unknown. This was because survival had become a routine, a skill acquired by those who were strong enough to survive. … It seems a contradiction that this capacity to adapt and adopt also depends on rigid adherence to routine acts, to maintaining regular habits that we have acquired which we believe keep us alive. “ I think this is exactly right. We become conditioned, or constructed, as we adapt, and then we become our conditioning. But then the narrator continues: “It was no different for Anna. She first learned to adapt and then to adopt, learning the language of her captor, his habits, routines, pleasures and predilections, all in order to survive and to maintain her chastity.” He seems to feel a need to make excuses for the affection she began to feel for her Japanese officer, as though his interest in her mind, his lack of interest in violating her, his kindness and protection, are not sufficient for a psychologically healthy person to respond. I wonder if the author has considered that these behaviours he describes have been the behaviours of countless women in history who have been forced, sold or given away in marriage. Later, the narrator brings in the wisdom of Hongzhi Zhengjue in a very strange context. Anna’s protector has been ordered back to Japan, leaving Anna at the mercy of a much more ruthless Japanese officer. He tells her, when left with no choices, “Withdraw now from the pounding and waving of your ingrained ideas. If you want to be rid of this invisible turmoil, you must sit through it and let go of everything.” He then forcibly gets her addicted to heroin and then uses her addiction to get her to willingly submit to his rape in exchange for drugs. In fact, as we see, she loses her “self” as a result of this supremely manipulative cruelty. She becomes re-constructed as a prostitute/addict who is filled with self-blame and self-loathing. Never mind, Nicholas’ love will reclaim her from this false self. ——-

Random Readings pt. 3

Comments on The King Must Die

When I left Paris, I also left behind Gone with the Wind, which I’d been reading there. When I arrived at the Hotel Mignon in Avignon, almost the first thing I noticed was a small stack of books on a shelf tucked beside the stairs up to the rooms. Beside various maps and tourist brochures that the couple who owned the small hotel kept on hand for guests were three books. I thought I would try The king Must Die by Mary Renault because it was set in ancient Greece and I was heading back in time as well as south. Avignon, where six or seven popes lived during the break with Rome, was a step towards Rome.

My room was on the first floor (above the ground floor), overlooking the street. I loved hanging out the window at night to watch pedestrians and their dogs strolling by the brightly lit shops. The street was barely wide enough to accommodate cars going in one direction and late one night as I opened the window I was startled by the sight of a man in a cherry picker across the way. On closer inspection I saw he was part of a city crew that was stringing christmas lights from one side of the street to another, attaching them to buildings on either side.

It was in that little room that I started reading the fictional account of the life of Theseus, from his childhood to his maturity when he became king of a large chunk of land. Set during the shift from mother goddess worship to patriarchy, Theseus was the only child of a single mother, a priestess in a goddess grove. He knew nothing of his father, but they both lived happily with his grandfather, king of the land. As a young man, Theseus is finally told that his father is king of a distant country and that he, Theseus has been named the heir as his father has no other children. He embarks on the long journey only to be captured by another tribe. During his time of captivity he witnesses a culture in which the ruler is a Queen, the gods are female, and the Queen marries a new king each year. At the end of the year he is killed in a ritual sacrifice. This causes Theseus to contemplate what a man needs in life. Is it enough to have a fabulous year, possibly impregnate the Queen, and die? He senses that there must be more for a man to do, but he doesn’t know what that might be.

Aside from being oddly sympathetic to the emerging patriarchy, the novel explores the role of men in society in a rather compelling way. In a culture where women and goddesses ruled, men were dispensible. They formed the army, of course, and were required to impregnate women, but as Theseus asks, what else?

I’m wondering if the drive to have a greater role isn’t what has driven men to their positions of dominance. Women have always had a role, a purpose, a place in society by virtue of their ability to have children. They haven’t, traditionally, had to question their place. The problem for women has been imprisonment in this one role; but the problem for men may be the lack of such a natural birthright. Men have no place but the place they create. One of the places they’ve created for themselves has to do with play. They made art, the playing with matter and with word, their place. And they made sport their place. But, it seems to me, they have also asserted over and over again the legitimacy, and even the primacy, of this place they created. The belief that what they do is more important than what women do has been characteristic of male culture for a long time. Is it born out of existential insecurity?