The Troop by Nick Cutter: Hungry Man Games of the Flies

I’m going to make one of those specious and ultimately rhetorical dichotomies just so I can start with a bang. There are two kinds of horror story: the one one that puts you off your lunch, and the one that makes you sleep with the lights on. This is one of the former. Oh, baby, is it one of the former.

The Troop by Nick Cutter begins with a vignette of a hungry man eating himself to bursting, and then vanishing into the underbrush. Our monster, then, or the monster is within him. The setting is Prince Edward Island in Canada, which has in Cutter’s hands a similar grubby small town feel as Stephen King’s Maine: multiple generations of gossip and expectations, a social stratification where the difference between the haves and the have nots is thin. We cut to the titular Boy Scout troop landing on Falstaff Island off the coast of PEI, a small island wilderness with no particular infrastructure beyond a cabin and a shed. The hungry man stumbles into camp, smashes the radio, sickens and then dies. We are then off and running.

A lot of blurbcraft about The Troop focuses on its similarity with Lord of the Flies, and certainly I’m not going to say that that comparison isn’t apt on some level. But sometimes I think the Lord of the Flies comparison gets used knee-jerkily. One could just as easily compare this with The Hunger Games – har har – and the comparison would be as accurate and as specious. Maybe it’s just that I encountered Lord of the Flies late, not as a kiddo nodding though A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and similar novels with young protagonists that are often foisted on the students before they can handle them. My young self mostly noted that Holden was a douche, for example, and the one scene I remember was him trying to scratch out the word fuck in graffiti so his sister Phoebe wouldn’t see. “Fuck you,” I thought. “Phoebe isn’t some delicate flower.”

I hit Lord of the Flies in a college Brit lit class that focused on the Angry Young Men, a (contested, like all literary movements) movement that originates in working- and middle-class British writers in the 1950s that focuses on class and violence and class violence, with a sideline in misogynist bullshit. The writers, reductively, tended to be bright boys who’d been plucked from their class neighborhoods and dumped into the less-charming Hogwarts of the British public school system on scholarship, with predictably brutal results. (If you are a Yank playing along at home, “public school” in British means the exact opposite it does in American.) (Also, my prof was more or less one of these, making his lectures fairly pyrotechnic. Teach what you know, oh baby.)

Golding’s novel has nothing of the “kitchen sink realism” of writers more closely associated with the Angry Young Men, but Lord of the Flies does certainly situate in the aesthetic philosophically, and philosophy is more or less the operative word there. Lord of the Flies is a pretty serious kick in the balls of the Robinsonade novel and all of the colonial and class garbage that goes along with imagining Tom Hanks and his beach ball Friday conquering the wilderness and the natives by dint of their superior skin color and technology. The characters are more or less tropes intentionally, with whole categories of persons like the younger boys functioning as a Greek chorus, Athenian mob style this time. Lord of the Flies isn’t about people, but People; not about a society but Society.

Which circles me back to The Troop. There’s much about The Troop that is predictable or stock, from the situation – cut off from the mainland with a threat! – to the cast of characters – the nerd, the jock, the spaz, the mad scientist. But the concern isn’t philosophical, which is not meant to be a dismissal but a description. Cutter’s got the sensibility of a short story writer, crafting brutal little vignettes in serial, end to end until the end that isn’t. His characterizations are deliberate, careful, the sort of non-sequential and almost tangentially important moments that are only important to an individual. An individual who interconnects with a society, lower case s, one that might be emblematic but isn’t – and this term makes my ass twitch – universal. There’s no predictable character-as-destiny – except as the most mordant joke – nor are the most horrifying things you find in The Troop the most horrible objectively. All I’m saying is that the death of a turtle can be way freaking worse than you’d expect in a narrative that includes the deliberate murder of a kitten.

I’ve been half-invoking gender in this review so far: my kinship with unseen sister Phoebe over monologuing Holden, my quick bristle about the casual chauvinism of the Angry Young Men. I realized recently that since the start of the year I’ve been alternating between horror and romance, novel by novel; squelching dread against ecstatic expectation and its fulfillment. Horror tends to be written by men for a male audience; romance by women for women. Alternating the two is a trip, especially because both tend to focus strongly on the body and its functions and fractures, but in extremely gendered ways. What I tend to like or dislike in either genre is incredibly personal, but often can be boiled down to my feelings of the author’s deliberation or care. (Sidebar: discuss why women tend to subsume their domestic panic into the HEA, while dudes go for bloodbath without cauterization. I know what Camille Paglia would say, but the semiotics of spurting makes this late model feminist tired.)

The all-boy horror novel is pretty common. A quick calculation on the back of a napkin shows that four of the last six horror novels I read fail the Bechdel test, with another one right on the edge. (Usual caveats about Bechdel: no, it’s not an indicator of poor quality; yes, it’s a hideously low bar.) As I was reading, I watched The Descent again, which has a similar set up: a group of single-gender characters – this time all-women – are confined with a lethal threat, and the thrills escalate. And I love both of these narratives for the care they take with their prêt-à-porter structures, wringing out some very deliberate observations about the ways single-gender groups interact, both in times of crisis and without. In The Troop, I felt the all-boy environment wasn’t an accident – a thoughtless reiteration of tropes, or the tendency of the genre to focus on the concerns of masculinity, or its capital letter version, Society – but a deliberate choice that focuses carefully on the social life of boys. Hoorah.

I started reading horror late. I can trace it right back to the birth of my first child and the severe body trauma of that event, one that had me overcoming my girlish squeamishness about viscera, one that reworked my sense of what is scary. I’m not afraid of being torn open from the inside anymore; that’s a done deal. But I’m terrified of that call from the behavior specialist from the school, my 11-year-old son in a paroxysm of pre-adolescent pain. He’s on a godamn island of sometimes terrified boys, and there is little I can do at this point to help, short of momishly unhelpful stuff. That I didn’t recognize him exactly in the cast of The Troop is an ugly comfort; these are other mother’s sons. Not that it makes it any better, in the end. Good job, Nick, if that is your real name.

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me an ARC.

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway – can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read? 

 

David Gilmour is a Bad Canadian

I’m not interested in reading books by David Gilmour. In an interview with Random House two days ago, Gilmour stated:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says, making an exception for one female writer.

“Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories,” he says. “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”

Instead, Gilmour says, “[w]hat I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

CBC

Now I know what you’re thinking: here goes another one of them Feminazi queer-loving bra-burners trying to impinge on this man’s free speech. So he doesn’t like the squawk-talk and jibber-jabber of female writers, gay writers, or Chinese writers? What’s it to you? Fair enough, imaginary Internet commenter.

But he’s said something much worse. You might want to sit down for this. David Gilmour, Canadian author, doesn’t like other Canadian authors.

Now, I’m not Canadian, but I’ve played one on tv, and some of my best friends are Canadian. My accent is in the ballpark, and if I drop in a couple “ehs” and “take off, hosers,” I can pass for one. From my intimate knowledge of the Canadas, I know that it is Canadianly constitutionally mandated that every time you have a conversation about any subject, you are required to note which famous people are from Canada. Talking to nerds? You know, Shatner is Canadian. Doing the chicken dance from Arrested Development? Michael Cera is Canadian. People with huge boobs? Boom: Pamela Anderson.

But that’s not all. The Canadian constitution requires that you don’t ever shittalk whole classes of Canadian citizens in front of Americans. You just can’t even do that, or Mounties will triangulate your location and force you to eat a bowl of moose cock and a case of Molson for your reeducation. I presume that right now, Gilmour is being very politely set upon by men in really hot red outfits while they prize his mouth open to accept the ungulate tumescence. (Oops, I started slipping into some of my Due South fanfiction. Is it hot in here?)

Promo photo for the tv show Due South: a Mountie stands net to a guy in a trechcoat with a white Siberian husky sitting at their feet

So there you have it: David Gilmour has committed treason. Now, I know that I’m not allowed to write reviews based on author behavior anymore, but I think maybe Goodreads should make an exception in this case. I’m not dismissing Gilmour because he dismissed all writers who have a vagina, or are homos, or them Chinese. Obviously, that’s his right as a professor of literature who has been entrusted with educating Canada’s tender youth. That’s just table stakes for the Western Canon. But when you mess with the Queen, you get the horns, David. Who’s that knocking on your door?

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Tango in 29 Essays

“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irrestistably real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

Walter Pater

I’m not too embarrassed to admit I’ve written just pages of garbage about The Beauty of the Husbandthat I will not be posting, now or ever. Anne Carson absolutely fries my circuits; she makes me synesthetic and incoherent. I keep trying to explain why I quoted the much neglected and almost ridiculous Walter Pater, a quote that came to my mind like driftwood dredged by a storm and then bobbed, insistent.

I went to visit my aunt and grandmother once. They both live on the south shore of Lake Superior. I took my kids to the lake, to the municipal park with creosote-soaked railroad ties as playground equipment, cordoning rusting swings and concrete habitrails. It was half-spring, that odd interstitial season where the ice had broken to finger-shaped bits and then rubbed themselves warm on the surface of the lake. When the wind blew, the floating ice tingled on each other in this quiet bell noise that could be missed but for listening. 

There were heaps of this black stuff, like a soft, black wet sand, running in ribbons up and down the shore. There was an old guy spading it into a used five gallon plastic bucket. What is that? I asked Kristen. Oh, that’s sawdust from the sawmills what were on the lake at the turn of the last century. It blows up onto the shore in the spring, and people work it into their gardens. The land there is peat and clay. She might even have had a name for this anaerobic sawdust, but I can’t remember it anymore. That’s this book: a disinterring and re-interring of the forest duff of the emotional history of marriage. 

Duff? Another word I learned on the shores of Lake Superior. The New World had no earthworms before the Europeans came, and those wriggling creatures are an infection. Duff is the crust of decomposing matter on the forest floor, and invasive worms change this composition at its fundement. The outside wiggles in, and it can’t be spaded out. The litter should build, not be eaten away like fingernails. 

I think I was reminded of Pater for two reasons. First: Pater is such a poet of the moment, the hyper-Romanticism of that one shining event caught and crushed like a firefly so that it leaves its luminescent ichor on your hands. This is the opposite of a marriage. Not that marriage is a drudge, or a slog, but it is not a moment. Carson always invokes the weirdest muses for her works – here she keeps cutting snippets of the boy Keats, whose consumptive unconsummation of his romantic life made his Romanticism burn. I could speak of speaking urns if I could go off to Italy and die, taking my hard and gem-like flame with me. I can’t though. I’ve got obligations. 

Second, I feel like poetry is often argument. The three-part sonnet, with its terminating couplet like the prestige in a magic trick. Ta da! The morals of the epic, however sloppy, spent like rage. This poem is a series of arguments, undertaken in the kitchen, that never rightly resolve to the prestigious coda. Pater’s moment’s aren’t argumentative – they just are – but they reside on a spectrum of the emotional like a teeter-totter. An argument enacted a thousand times is a habit, in black or white like nuns. It is worn like shoes. A moment casts those shoes off, or steals them. So Pater is my wrong muse, like Keats is Carson’s.

I don’t know. The thing about The Beauty of the Husband, the thing I think makes me impossible, is the Woolfian argument, the quantum leap that dances from q to r through a lot of impossible, everyday connectives that only make sense in the black body radiation of my heart. I can’t even argue it right. I’ve only lit one end, and the light is both lovely and small. I’ll dance it to the end. 

The Animal Family

I am not going to do The Animal Familyby Randall Jarrell justice, I know. This is incredibly beautiful, powerful, sad, wonderful stuff. My brilliant friend Georgeanna (and next door neighbor – Lyndale neighborhood represent!) pushed this into my hands when I freaked out about how wonderful The Last Unicornwas. She’s right – this is just as amazing, heartbreaking, literate, and poetic as Beagle’s stuff. Add in art from Maurice Sendak, and I am in hook, line and sinker.*

I am a land-locked soul, which is funny, because if I have a soul, it resides somewhere on a rocky beach on the north shore of Lake Superior. My soul watches the water, but it can’t swim, and spends its time trying skip rocks over the glass of the lake. Maybe this is why I freak out all day about selkie stories – freak out completely beyond the bounds. This isn’t necessarily a selkie story – she, who has no name, is referred to as a mermaid – but there’s something selkie-ish about the way the hunter and the mermaid find their connection on the spit of land between meadow and sea. Selkie stories** are about miscommunication and alienation and how they can be the basis of love, and how that is the most profound paradox to ever blow my mind.

But she is a mermaid, not a selkie, and that works because selkie stories are usually massive bummers and this is not. I know from reading that if I am ever caught in an undertow, I am to swim at ninety degree angles against the pull, so that I may find myself in still waters. I’m not sure I would remember this if I were caught and drowning, but I know this now on land. I’m not a sea creature, and I can learn through telling, but that knowledge is incomplete and it always will be. I don’t know much about Randall Jarrell. I had this boyfriend once who loved him, and I hair-tossingly did not understand that love. (I was young. Shut up.) I associate him strongly with the WWII poetry that he is best known for:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

 From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

I guess he was also a critic, but criticism has a faster expiration date than poetry even. (Sorry, no offense all of Goodreads. We’ve lit our candles at both ends.)

So a mermaid and a hunter find their strange love on a beach, and then they adopt a family of animals over the years: a bear, a lynx, a human boy. I can’t put my finger on why, but I found myself near tears at the oddest of points. And that’s weird. This isn’t the kind of tale that is determined to work your tear ducts – in fact, it is sweet and comic in its tone – but there’s this sorrow to it, an affectionate sorrow, an everyday sorrow, but a sorrow nonetheless. I don’t even know how to describe it. Here’s a passage, where the lynx is scratching the hunter accidentally in play:

 “Velvet paws! velvet paws!” The hunter would cry warningly.

 The mermaid had got used to his saying it, but the first time she’d asked perplexedly: “What’s velvet?”

 “I don’t know,” the hunter said. “But it’s what you say to a cat to get him to keep his claws in. My mother used to say it on the boat.”

So the hunter said it and the mermaid and the lynx understood it, each in his own way – a little scrap of velvet between the forest and the sea.

Omigod, do you see it? Do you see how this is everyday, happy and sad all in the same smooth movement? I think I may be done reviewing for now. I go to freak out.

*So I can’t decide whether I want to use the Oxford comma or not. Sue me.

**I recently saw the movie Ondine, which is a selkie story set in modern Ireland. I loved it like crazy.

Review: Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson

I took the kids to the zoo on Friday because sometime late Thursday, I discovered they had the day off and we were suddenly at loose ends. The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St Paul is an old school, Victorian zoo, a municipal pasture that was fenced in to hold three deer gifted to the city in 1897. Various attractions were added over the years, such as the ominous sounding “Monkey Island” which must be where the flamingos live now in the summer, or Archie Brand’s Seal Show featuring a succession of sea lions named Sparky. There’s a statue of the original Sparky, as well as one of the first resident lowland gorillas, a male named Don, who lived out his days at Como Zoo. He’s currently stuffed and in a case at the Science Museum of Minnesota across town.

a woman in what looks like 1920's garb with a huge fur wrap around her shoulders feeds a black bear
Watch your fingers.

The zoo has changed a lot since I was a kid. Mum used to joke that you more or less pulled open a fridge to see the penguins, which continues to be true, but the polar bears recently got a multi-million dollar upgrade on their previous, frankly appalling enclosure. Two black bears and a grizzly were visiting from someplace upstate that had been washed out by flooding. But I like how the Victorian bones of the zoological garden are still showing at Como, all this post-Civil War Age of Industry and Expansion, that drops a fence over a pasture and then calls it tame.

an undated black and white photograph that shows three large metal enclosures in a grove with lots of people milling around and looking. It's not possible to tell what's in the cages.
(The two above photos are from the Como Zoo website, and do not have dates.)

My kids and I stood out in the weak November sun and watched sea lions circle their rocky tank. They were the only seasonal animals still out; the single desultory ostrich and his warm climate peers disappeared into basements or wherever they go when not on display – and the flash of the dark body, knifing silently through the water to nose up with the sound of breaking surface tension (not a splash) and then disappear again moves me in that enclosed way of all zoos. They remind me more of dogs than anything, with their big brown eyes and doggy snouts, but I can feel the fur just under my skin, like I could strip off my hairlessness and dive in. Lord, but do selkies do it for me.

stamp from the Faro islands which features a woman transforming into a seal

Mermaids are a little different. They aren’t layers of wildness and domesticity, but a bifurcation of the two, an uneasy stitch between scale and skin. Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudsonby Mark Siegel takes place slightly earlier than the founding of this zoo, 1887, on the Hudson river. Sailor Twain (“Don’t call me captain”) plies the river in his steamer in the employ of a drunken Frenchman named Lafayette. The story starts with layers though – a broken Twain sought out for his story by an enigmatic woman, all shadows and cloaks, and then tells the tale lappingly, incidents building, reversing so that you apply new information to old assumptions, reimagine as you imagine. The Hudson, like the Thames, is a tidal river, and it flows both ways depending on the moods of the tides. Twain’s recountings start with his offhand observation of a stag in the river, and then the discovery of mermaid on his boat.

My husband called the art here “sophomoric” because he’s a jackass, but I do see his point. Twain is rendered almost naively, his big round eyes and unruly hair under his captain’s hat offset by his almost Puritanically dark figure. The mermaid – her name is unpronounceable, but translates to South – is both fishily sticky and voluptuously sexy. They enact their doom on the charcoal canvass of Industrial Revolution America, all smog and late evening. It took me a while to cotton to Twain’s rendering – why so cartoonish, so simple? – but I eventually dug it for its childlike lack of wonder, its earnest simplicity.

[Image removed]

I’m waiting for someone to flag this image, because Goodreads has a no nudity clause (something which I generally agree with – the pornbots are bad enough without encouragement) and I’m pretty sure that’s a nipple slip there. But it gets really tricky with creatures like mermaids. Their strange unconsummated sexuality is the seam of their existence – it’s what holds them together. The mermaid in Sailor Twainis bare-breasted in most of the panels she occurs, and it is frustrating me no end that I can’t replicate them here. I went and dug around the history of the Starbucks mermaid for a while this morning – I knew she had run into trouble in places like Saudi Arabia and with Christian groups for doing things like having breasts and being a woman-ish creature.

black and white etching of a split tale mermaid with German text
Now I’m just being a scofflaw.

Like the strange Starbucks mermaid with her fishy “legs”, there are a lot of doubled storylines and doppelgangers – Twain’s wife convalescing from some unnamed illness that has her legs tucked unworking into a blanketed wheelchair, her church solo like the siren song of the mermaid, but pious and tamed. Siegel makes use of all the metaphorical possibilities of a steamer captain named Twain – so much so, that I occasionally laughed at how they were deployed. But I think I was supposed to in these little odd moments of levity. Mark Twain himself wasn’t afraid of the narrative wink – although his tended to be whole body gestures.

I pretty much loved this story because I love inevitable tragedy – mermaid stories never end well – and doppelgangers, and Industrial Revolution America, and strange sublimated sexuality and doom. I love it like watching sea lions in an enclosure thousands of miles from the sea.

Wuthering Heights: Lock up Your Dogs!

A quick disclaimer: I betcha there are some spoilers in here, but it’s tough to properly mark spoilers on books this old. Fair warning.

——

My sister and I recently got into one of those stupid cage matches about which was better: Jane Eyreor Wuthering Heights. Before everyone starts popping their monocles and baying about how this is a stupid comparison & as meaningless as comparing chalk and cheese, I know. I totally know. But five hours in a car will send conversations to really weird places.

Anyway, I spent some time defending Jane, because I’ve read it three times. I’ve only listened to a shitty books-on-tape version of Wuthering Heights when I was 19, which was *cough* a while ago. While I may read really hard, I listen badly, and even though I wasn’t that distracted – I was on another road trip – I spent a good deal of time spacing out during my listen. Add into this the fact that the guy doing the reading used Dog Voice on all of the women, I don’t remember boo about the book.

A note on Dog Voice: my family may be cracked, but all of the dogs we had growing up had voices. Tessie, who was from Appalachia and was part-hound and part-werewolf, sounded like she had rocks in her mouth. She also sang opera. Kip has gravelly voice and a New York accent. For some weird reason, all of the border collie girl-dogs – I know the correct term is bitches, but I just can’t – have high-pitched girly voices. Nant, who has one blue-eye and one brown, and is crazy as a loon, is almost inaudible. So, Catherine sounded like a border collie dog, and then my brain kept trying to wake up from itself, and the spacing out turned into full on WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?

So now I’m 75 pages in. This is just the funniest thing I’ve ever read. All the growling and slap-fights! By the 50th page two people had been attacked by dogs! I’m assured it gets even better. I don’t even know how.

——–


Ir’s not that animals get it worse than people. Whoo boy, not by a stretch. There’s violence everywhere: masters boxing servants, parents beating children, drunks threatening everyone with guns, wife-beating, dog-fights, fist-fights, death-threats, kidnapping, coyly hinted-at marital rape, book-burning – I could go on, but I’ll stop there. The violence also has the ring of real experience – what a mouth looks like filling with blood, how the bruises change over days, how a sucker punch robs you of breath and leaves you gasping like a fish. I wonder how quiet the Brontës home life was, really. The somewhat crappy introduction to my edition, written by Alice Hoffman, indicates that the Brontës’ brother was a gambler and an addict, and then rather sloppily connects the real brother with the character of Catherine’s older brother who gambles away Wuthering Heights. This is too literal a reading by half. This is the story of addicts and abusers all, a shockingly intimate and muscular portrait of vice and obsession, and it’s only because there aren’t needles cast about on the moors that we don’t quickly recognize it as early Romantic Trainspotting. Okay, so I was goofing off when I started this review talking about dogs, but dogs are all over this story. Bitches nurse their whelps in the kitchen; dogs are set on strangers in the yard; people enact the most vigorous cruelties on dogs as a manifestation of their black, black hearts. Mid-way through this novel, I had a conversation with one of my brilliant friends, and she said to watch how characters treat animals, which was smart advice. The scene where Heathcliff absconds/elopes with Isabella and hangs her dog from the neck to be rescued later by Nelly; the scene where Isabella escapes from Wuthering Heights, running past Hareton while he strangles a litter of unwanted pups: these cruelties bracket a larger brutality enacted between husbands and wives, lovers and friends, parents and children.

The heart is a muscle. It looks like a fist flayed of skin, stripped of all sensation but pain and bleeding and the need to clench and clench and clench. I don’t know what I expected, pretending as I had to have read this before, but I didn’t expect this series of reprisals and revenge and revenge. I’ve been thinking about Romeo and Julieta bunch recently, because a whole bunch of excellent reviews have gone past on the feed, and I’m struck by all the violence and recriminations that characterize the great romances. (I’m working hard to come up with a witty Shakespearean “die for love” play on words equating sexual climax with death, but I’ve got nothing.) Anyway, as usual, I may be a total whack-job, but for me, the pivotal moment in R&J is when Mercutio gets killed. Up until that point, R&J is a wacky lark of meeting cute and stolen kisses and having the first words a pair of lovers speak to one another resolve into a sonnet. (Squee! So awesome!) But then, oh holy hell, sometimes a sword is just a sword, and then the only person who isn’t a self-involved child gets stabbed, and at this point, just for a flash, I want everyone dead: the lovers, their confidants, their parents, everyone. You wanna see die for love, kids? I’ve got your die for love right here.

That flash is the plot of Wuthering Heights. Solder the principles of R&J into a lead ball comprised of two houses, some moors, and a visiting goofball and you’ve got it. Oh, our unreliable narrators! Let me freak about them for a moment. Walton from Frankensteinand Lockwood from Wuthering Heightsshould have a battle to determine who is the most in love with the stories unfolding under their noses. I’m going to give Lockwood extra points for being a more comedic fellow; all of his sighing and bitching about being such a misanthrope rings hilariously hollow when he’s confronted by The Prince of Darkness Heathcliff and his sick side-show. He stumbles back to the grange after the first meetings with Heathcliff and begs Nelly to give him the goods, which she does in just the most beatific of self-serving forms.

New Twilight-esque covers:
You totally wish, Smeyer.

And Nelly. Ah, Nelly. Walton, in Frankensteinwrites to his sister who sits dumb and mum throughout the whole tale. Here there’s no epistolary nightmare, but the outflowing of kitchen gossip: domestic, unlettered, invested, damaged as all get out. Narrators like Nelly make me freak out, because I spend waaaay too much time thinking about what really happened, and then I remember that it’s all fiction, and then I freak out some more. Then there’s the tantalizing parts that Lockwood reads in Catherine’s own words – he spends a night spooking at his shadow at Wuthering Heights, and finds a collection of Catherine’s books, where she has used every unprinted space as a diary. This makes me hyperventilate. I have a whole thing about gothic novels – hell, just novels in general – and the way they reference the form, mostly negatively, a hall of mirrors reflecting influence and anxiety. The governess in The Turn Of The Screw, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey(Catherine’s literary ancestor?) both of these ladies read too much and it made them mad, I tell you, mad. (Well, okay, not exactly mad in Northanger, but v. v. silly.) I love that Catherine writes herself into a novel, limning her words over other stories. I think in some ways the whole latter plot, once Catherine decides to marry the noodle Linton and play at the domestic, could be seen as a revenge fantasy imagined by Catherine herself, written over the more likely scenario of her having her youthful identity ground out of her by a succession of children, drudging women’s work, and the inevitable betrayal of age.

Let’s just take a moment and think about Heathcliff and Catherine. Let’s just take it on faith that they are the same person, as Catherine most swooningly declares while she dithers about whether to marry someone else, sitcom-like, while Heathcliff feigns sleep in the next room and Nelly prods her on. Heathcliff is Catherine; he’s her wildness and anger and passion. This isn’t some Jekyll/Hyde deal because Catherine, at the start, is as wild as they come, feral, naughty & only partially housebroken. I think it’s important that Heathcliff is a foundling, born out of no one and nothing, his name the compound of two natural places, the heath and the cliff. When Catherine meets the Lintons, she’s attacked by their dog, and spends several weeks convalescing and domesticating. This troubles her relationship with Heathcliff, finally coming to a crisis when she decides to marry Linton.

Heathcliff storms off – literally! har har – as she forsakes wildness for a certain kind of comfort, choosing the way women had to between love and money. (Of course there’s always secret options b, c, & d: impoverished marriage, servitude or death in childbirth. You can probably come up with an equally unpleasant but likely e, f & g without much trouble too.) But still these are the options more often laid before women in novels: marry for love, marry for money, or not at all. This dramatized simplicity is why I think Pride and Prejudicegets mistaken for a romance novel: finding a rich husband that Lizzie (and Jane too!) also loves smacks of wish-fulfillment. How many times has that actually happened in the history of the world? Like, twice?

So maybe I’ve been watching too much Star Trek with its transporter accidents and multiverse theory, but this is where the plot spins off on Track B for me. In some more prosaic world, Cathy marries, gets pregnant, has a baby, and in some real way this kills her younger self. Heathcliff, her rage and freedom, transports into an emotional reality and exacts vengeance for his loss, for her loss, sucking up inheritances, property, lives, decorum, and anything else he can get his mitts on. As each person dies, he swells with life, living by punishment and annihilation. There aren’t many people in this world, and as the plot unfolds, they become fewer and more inbred, with an almost confusing doubling and trebling of names, children, marriages and blood and blood and blood. Lockwood, in the very beginning, notes a series of names carved in the window sill: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff and Catherine Linton. Read forwards, these names are the trajectory of Catherine’s life; read backwards, they are her daughter’s. After all the death and wreckage, the story comes to a kind of peace, the younger Cathy giggling in a window as she plays slap-and-tickle with her husband. (And those of you who’ve read this: I know they keep referring to Hareton as her cousin, which is gross enough, but isn’t he her uncle? Eww.)

I have this bad feeling I’ve made this sound like a total drag, and like I didn’t like it at all. No! I’m all for this, and this is funny as hell – literally! har har – I have simply got to stop making that joke. Again, I don’t know what I thought, but I didn’t expect how robust and lusty this book was, how muscled the prose, how unflinching and violent. I don’t often go in for romantic – degraded as that term has become – because so often it’s all soft-focus douche-ad that relies on euphemism over viscera. I don’t know what to say about the Jane v. Catherine thunderdome battle, other than this: I want some academic to write a paper about phrenology and the Brontës. Okay, maybe that’s a weird thing to think, but all the descriptions of foreheads and bumps on the skull – did they have some phrenological text in the house or something? Several brilliant friends have recommended I read the third Brontë to throw a folding chair into the ring. I think I will, after I read a bunch of trash, of course.

Review: Glass Houses

I suffer from intermittent insomnia. I go to bed at the usual hour, no problem, and then awake and squint at the clock which reads something between 2 and 4 and think, “Damn.” After I find my glasses, things are clearer, but I’m still awake. The television is no good at this time of night, although I do play a game where I try to count how many stations are running “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials. The record stands at four. (Not that this has anything to do with the review, but this is the thing I don’t get about Joe Francis’s titty empire: if you want to buy porn, then why not just buy porn?)

So I read Glass Housesby Laura J. Mixon in the strange hours between too late and too early, and I was happy for it’s company: not overly taxing, stylish, and driving toward some smaller human truth. My step-mom uses the term “little movies” when she refers to films that set out to accomplish some narrow thing and then succeed; in this way, this book is a “little book.” (And to be clear, this term is not a dig; success on any scale is success, and sometimes art fails because its reach exceeds its grasp.) It was written in the early 90s, and its cyberpunk sensibilities feel worn and frayed, too indebted to its sources to really make the genre new and vital. Mostly, I didn’t mind, but then I like cyberpunk. My real complaint is that the stylishness of the setting, the window-dressing of global warming as global apocalypse, the sense of technology driving the breach between haves and have-nots had little to do with the actual emotional heart of the book. Why dress it as cyberpunk at all?

Our protagonist, an agoraphobic scavenger using a proxy-device, almost rescues a very important man from his rather gruesome death. She steals his newly-written will off of his body, and then decides, due to the assholery of his family, to deliver the will to the rightful heir. Well and good; this will serve as plot. The real story is about her coming to terms with her roommate and sometimes lover Melissa. Her relationship with Melissa is the soul of the book, and the thing I responded to the most, even if the revelations felt forced at times, and the protagonist’s changes incomplete or untrue. I have fallen in love with users. At some point you realize that thee concept of unconditional love is something of a trick designed by people who have been keeping score. It’s not unfair to count the points yourself. 

I say that this is a little book, but I wonder if these things are little at all. It’s hard to say. I read this as my twilight self, companioned by the audible silence of the house and my frustrations with my continued awakeness. This is the odd thing I felt when I finished this book: I might have liked this better had it been billed as young adult, not that I disliked it. It’s fun to complain about marketing; I do it all the time. And I don’t want to fall into the the trap of thinking fiction written for the younger set is somehow smaller and less important. But there is something fundamentally young in the awakenings found within its pages, a young that isn’t naive exactly, but a young that keeps trusting the prostitute she loves despite the obvious metaphorics of her profession. It’s a good first book, worthy of a look at Mixon’s later work. And a good book for the edgy hours before dawn.

Day by Day: Groundhog Day for Science Fiction Nerds

If you’ve been paying attention to the Mayans and watching a lot of programs on the History Channel about Ancient Aliens – good lord, I love how the History Channel has morphed from all WWII all the time to seriously lunacy – you know that the world is going to end on December 21, 2012. Day by Day by the Brothers Kollin imagines that end of the world as a sort of Groundhog Day writ large: instead of just one man waking up reset on a single day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, it is everyone everywhere. 

This is seriously old school science fiction, and as such, was an absolute treat for me to read. At some point too long ago to remember any googlable details, I read an article about the serious philosophical and psychological implication of Harold Ramis’s little goofy comedy, complete with estimates for how long weatherman Phil Connors would have taken to learn all the skills he does in the film. If you spend any time thinking about it, the idea of being stuck in a single day is an absolute nightmare once you’ve done all the goofing and hedonistic stuff such a scenario presents. 

When I originally watched the film many years ago – though I saw it just again last month, coincidentally – I laughed myself to tears over the suicide sequence. There is something objectively hilarious about a man getting up, ripping a toaster out of the wall in the dining room, and then tossing it into the bath. ZZZt zzt. And it’s funny precisely because the whole situation has so completely destroyed the concept of the meaningful act. I don’t know, because I’m not looking it up, but I would imagine that people who consider suicide tend to work out a series of symbolic acts – this one meal, this last note, a gesture, whatever – and that Phil just wakes up and kills himself without preamble is funny precisely because it’s the godamn worst. Haha, graveyard! I whistle past you! 

Point being, the implication of a whole planet full of people who are stuck in a Groundhog day scenario is the kind of thing that science fiction was made for. I love the thought experiment, love it, and I love it even more when the thought experiments anticipate my “but…what! what about this?” thoughts and then answer them. In a scenario where everyone resets to the same physical situation, but they hold memories from every single reset single day, what happens to babies? What happens to fiction? What about the different time zones? Etc. Etc. All of my questions were answered in a satisfying manner, even if I’m inclined to disagree about certain implications. (Not that I do too much – just, I respect that in a narrative arc, certain things will out, even if they’re not, like, wholly plausible. That they are plausible at all is enough.) 

The other thing I’m grooving on in this story is how topical it is; we’re two months from the Mayan Apocalypse. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the world will not end in any fashion, let alone the one laid out here, on December 21, 2012, but exact date of the end of the world has always been a sucker’s bet. Zero percent of end times’ prophesies have been right so far, though I know it just takes the one. But I love anachronistic science fiction, like the short story collected in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Bagombo Snuff Box written before space flight that imagines the ether around planet earth as filled with the ghosts of our ancestors. And holy god, what a nightmare that is – your mother-in-law able to reach out from beyond the grave and keep telling you what to do. Blah. That this story will be anachronistic fast is delicious, like watching Y2K: The Movie (Planes falling from the sky! Ken Olin’s huge sweater!) in the month before December 31, 1999, only not terribly stupid like that. 

Anyway, get on this short story before the clock expires, nerds who like classically minded science fiction short stories. Or don’t, which could be fun in its own way too, reading this while the zombie hordes bang at the barricades. Haha! Those assholes Kollin got the Mayan doomsday entirely wrong! Could someone hand me a machete? I have to clear the fences again. And by way of full disclosure, Dani Kollin is a friend of mine, and my husband designed the website for his first novel. But we’ll be taking you up on those surfing lessons, Dani, if the world ends in the kind of stasis posited in this thought experiment. If I’ve got nothing but time before the despair sets in, I’m going to get as much as possible in. And I don’t even like being wet all that much. Twss. 

Sharp Teeth: Domestic God and Dogs

Barlow takes the Homeric fire, tosses on a bunch of kerosene, toasts a couple of marshmallows until they bubble blackly, and then eats them with a grin. Then he throws on a couple of tires for good measure and leans back for a long, slow pull on a hip-flask. Man. I’ve been doing the sputtering flail whenever I try to describe Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow to people: it’s a free verse novel! about werewolves! an L.A.! Quit backing away like I’m a crazy person because I’m totally for serious and so is Barlow.

I’m the kind of dork who flips out when I read in one of the blurbs for this book that says it’s written in blank verse. Godamn it, blank verse has meter, my friends, and this does not. This is free verse. I’m also the kind of dork who has an opinion about free verse, generally, which goes something like this: free verse is for the lazy. No, no, calm down; I’m also enough of a dork to defend e. e. cummings with my dying breath for relying on other, cooler, more chthonic prosodic stylins. Sure, he’s kind of responsible for a bunch of lamers thinking it’s okay to just write crap all over the page and call it poetry, but that’s like blaming [some historical figure] for [later, sucky historical movements]. You know what I mean. (And I’m not talking about [Ayn Rand] and [Objectivism], for the record.)

The dorkiness will keep on coming when I try to relate my feelings about the Epic. I’m no Classics major; that train of inquiry more or less ended when a history prof in my freshman year gave the following question as a mid-term exam: Compare the Fall of Greece to the Fall of Rome. Um, does “fuck you” count as an answer? So, my relationship with the Epic begins with John Milton and then terminates in Alexander Pope. It’s been a while since I’ve sung this tune, but let’s see if I can hit the high notes: Milton translated the Epic into the vulgar language of English, and much like the translation of the bible into the vulgar language of English, both ended in a profoundly local sense of divinity and identity. Milton grappled with a Mediterranean God/form in his own tongue, and it changes that form, the God, and the tongue in ways that cannot be counted. 

Pope tootles along almost a century later, and knowing he couldn’t be Milton, broke his Epic musings into two things: he translates Homer’s epic into fucking heroic couplets, which is, like, the most insane thing ever, trust me, and then writes what he calls a “mock epic”:The Rape of the Lock. I don’t really know what to say about The Rape of the Lockother than it makes me seriously nuts on several levels. It’s goofy; it’s in absolutely more heroic couplets; it uses the word “rape” in an already (at the time) archaic sense that means “theft”. It’s been a while since I’ve hefted this tome, but I do know that a thousand proverbs in English come out of The Rape of the Lock. It’s catchy as hell. You can dance to it, even though it kind of pisses you off. So, your English prof would say at this time, the Epic is dead. Long live the Epic.

So. Then. Well. *cough cough* The epic didn’t really die there, and then English got itself transported to America and hit the Pacific ocean and sat down on the California coast and thought, “Oh, fuck, man”. There’s The Golden Gateby Vikram Seth which is a sort of prose poem/epic Tales of the City. Fantastic, and worth a looksee, seriously. It’s funny; it’s light; it’s written in the Onegin stanza which has a kind of loosey-goosey conversational style to it, despite being rhymed-and-metered. The opening: 

To make a start more swift than weighty 
Hail Muse. Dear Reader, once upon 
A time, say, circa 1980, […:]

Ha! Milton may have invoked the wrong muse when he began Paradise Lost, and Seth just sketched her briefly, but Sharp Teeth takes this a step farther. 

Let’s sing about the man there
at the breakfast table

No muse. Let’s just sing. Let’s just boogey it out on this California coast in the twisting idiom of supernatural Noir, which is both tired tired tired like the detritus of the American Dream and open open open like the frontier that ends at the Pacific ocean and breaks into the thousand ethnic neighborhoods. The epic at its heart cares and is concerned about God in its many guises; Sharp Teeth is no different. But since Pope elevated the silly to the profound, the epic in English can throw in the kitchen sink, and Barlow does, in spades. 

I say there are werewolves, but this isn’t the kind of genre fiction that gives a shit about silver bullets and the lame specifications of rule-bound supernaturalism. People become animals. They become these sleek, domestic beings because they are beaten until they change or they share the blood of another werewolf, or because they break with grief after an act of kindness shatters the darkness they have cultivated so closely. There’s a lot here about love, and kindness, about cruelty, about the prime mover and his ineffable indifference and old Wile E. Coyote who lopes into the grand creation and arranges a thousand coincidences that arrange themselves into the doofy haphazardness of our lives. 

I’m in love. I still won’t release my unease with free verse; that’s the fur on my hackles that I simply won’t shave off. This isn’t tight prose, but I like the shaggy dog of its looseness, which says things like:

The secret must stay
and – according to the scientists – 
the love will live.
The heart is quite comfortable with secrets.
After all, its home is a dark wet place
tucked in among all the other organs
who aren’t talking either. 

I’ve run off the end of the cliff. Love is the anvil that will hit me when I drop. Hail Muse.