Writing Sex into the Classics

This was originally written a couple years ago after reading two erotic updates of English literature classics, which seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the monster mash-ups that became something of a fad after the surprise success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was reminded of its existence when I ran across a Northanger Abbey with sex writing mash-up recently. I haven’t gone back to see if my little theory about Austen and sex writing works at all, but I do applaud the mash-up writer for taking on one of my favorite Austen heroes. He was just the kind of gentle and mansplainy that I would expect.

A quick disclaimer: this isn’t really a “review”. That’s generally true when I’m writing “reviews”, but I felt squeamish reading through it for spelling errors and the like. This is a complete and total overreaction and overthink of some very silly stuff, and I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. If you really give a shit about whether you’ll like a smut version of “Daisy Miller” by Henry James, or the continuing erotic adventures of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I will repeat this quote attributed to so many people as to be a mysterious aphorism: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. I mean, seriously. 

I get why contemporary writers do pulp retellings of 19th Century literature. So much of what gives the original stories juice is the unspoken or the alluded, all that subterranean emotion thrumming through the stories like blood. The thing I remember most from Wuthering Heights, for example, is Cathy running out into the moors, tearing all her clothes off, and becoming a werewolf. And before you get on me, yes, of course I know this didn’t happen. But the image is what my mind makes of all the subtext, all this howling and brutality and half-creatures. While Wuthering Heights is an absolute hatecast, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, a closed mouth about certain things which isn’t so much coy as withholding. I can see the instinct to nail it down, to make it be one thing and not all the others. So of course it’s dumb and painful that Stephenie Meyer, in Eclipse, remakes this story of blood and revenge into a doddering middle class non-problem, but she absolutely gets the werewolf right. She makes it one thing and not the others.

Conversely, let us consider Austen, who probably has the largest body of retellings of her works. (Interestingly, these mash-ups tend to be either horror or romance; maybe it’s the embodied angle of both genres? Or, wait, there are some mysteries, which I tend not to read, so this theory is more about my predilections than anything. Carry on.) Unlike the Brontës, Austen is very rarely, and only under the most dire of circumstances, a Romantic — heed my capital letter, friends — even while her stories are intensely domestic. It has been observed that no two men speak to one another without a woman present in all of her novels, as she has the concision of the documentarian. She has never seen two men speak without a woman (herself) present, and she’s hard-headed enough to stick to the things she’s seen, rather than the things she can imagine.

She’s got a mercantile bent, so much so that one almost despairs ever meeting the principles of Sense and Sensibility when one picks it up, given the reems of description of everyone’s financial state. Observe:

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father’s inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife’s fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life interest in it.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Zzzzzzz. 

Look, I love Austen like the catty, introverted cousin I hang on the wall with while at family functions, drinking — which is to say: a lot — but this is some bloodless stuff. Much as the mistaken asshole plot from Pride and Prejudice has become a mainstay of romance novels, Austen herself would not particularly care for the high emotions of such a thing, especially if the principles failed to take into account or straight up flaunted social/economic/racial divides. Which happens often in romance novels because the driving considerations of a match are emotional; love trumps all incompatibilities. Education heals all, to Austen, or possibly one’s good nature, or manners, or all three, but then only provisionally, and only for the narrowest of slices of society. Maybe. Money is most definitely very large factor. 

So I can see why people want to sex her up. Austen doesn’t give us much to go on, in terms of physicality: Elizabeth has “fine eyes” and Darcy, honestly I don’t know if he is short or tall or blond or what. Elizabeth even pokes at the Romantic sensibility right before she gets her own moral/economic slapdown at Pemberley, so awed by her would-be lover’s stuff and things she doesn’t “know herself”:

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” [all sic, because Austen can’t spell, bless her heart]

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

What are men, indeed, Elizabeth? The romance novel heroine might protest in much the same way: no, of course I do not love Slade, who is either wealthy or secretly wealthy. But her revelation that she loves him would never come at observing Slade’s tangible wealth; that would be too bald, strangely. Indeed the opposite is more often true: the romantic heroine’s lack of care for his wealth is the test that paradoxically provides her worthiness. She is no golddigger. She does not consider such hard, true, palpable things as money in her calculations of her happiness, except insofar as her poverty is a virtue. There are roughly one million romance novels that pair the noble poor woman with a dickish billionaire, running a redemption arc for the wealthy while both volorizing poverty and slyly denigrating the poor. The worthy poor get a hand out; the rest of you lot are probably getting what you deserve.

In some ways, adding sex to Austen balances the scale. All scandals, my dad once told me, have to do with either sex or money. Austen’s scandals tend to be about money. Though sex occasionally factors, money is always the prime mover, that thing that bends passions and taints the tentative beginnings. Austen is no Victorian: This isn’t because she’s squeamish or a prude. The bone fide sex scandals in her novels do not result in redemptive death for the woman; neither Lydia Bennet nor the Bertram sister from Mansfield Park get consumption and die as punishment. The consequences of their actions flow naturally, and are not there as moral instruction (which is actually astonishing, considering.) But latter day stories featuring Elizabeth and Darcy often find them, post nuptials, engaging in all the hard passions denied the satirist, because Austen’s aim is not moralizing but satirizing.

The latter day erotic retelling aligns Austen to more post-War middle class American sensibilities: you can talk about money, but only as a metric for plucky self-determination, or for virtue-signaling purposes. Virtue is rewarded, often materially, in the narrative, which is something that often doesn’t happen in Austen. Elinor Dashwood and her beau are quite impoverished, in the end, as are Fanny and Edmund. And sex in a certain species of boilerplate romance novel — the kind you find on the spinning rack — is weirdly morally pure. I once spend a wedding shower in the company of born again Christian in-laws, who regaled me with their sexual exploits in terms far too explicit for this humble humanist. Sex in the confines is exalted, apparently. It makes sense, theologically: emotions are more important that fact, faith more important than works, at least in ground game American evangelical Christianity, which I think has tangible impact on the morality of your average romance novel. Fuck all you want; you’re married.

This sainted carnality is well more important in the contemporary erotic retelling than Austen’s uneasy broodings about education and morality, the subtle differences between good breeding and good manners, with all the attendant, antique and oft unpleasant implications of such concepts. I like Austen because I do not agree with her in many things (insofar as anyone can “agree” with a society 200 years distant) but I adore how serious, subtle, and nuanced her considerations are. Austen’s creatures do something more interesting than fucking, but I get how people want to see the fucking as an outgrowth of the more interesting, how they want to see it flat and straight. How fucking simplifies all the problems brought up by Austen, makes them cleanly dirty.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to these two fictions: Daisy Miller: The Wild and Wanton Edition by Gabrielle Vigot and Henry Miller (snort), and The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray by Mitzi Szerto. Both of the original works are fictions with thick erotic subtexts, something near satire, almost didactic, definitely a hard examination of the author’s social milieu. It might be unfair to compare these two latter day appendage fictions: wild & wanton Daisy Miller is a mash-up, stitching sex writing into James’s short story, while Wilde Passions is a continuation, imagining the later day travails of the immortal Dorian Gray. I think it works in the way that Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sits uneasily yet surely with its inferior prequel: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. These are all fictions tied to the trajectories of larger gravities, unable to be considered as separate works by even the most New Critical of folk. 

So. Wild & wanton Daisy Miller is probably easier to consider, what with its brevity and large chunks of the original text. I can see why it’s attractive just to stitch fuck sequences into 19th century lit — like porn, you don’t have to mess around with actual plot, etc — but such an enterprise becomes stylistically dodgy when dealing with an author as distinctive as Henry James. I have never read the original Daisy Miller, and I could tell, down to the sentence, where the graft occurred. But the early sex sequences were honestly adorable, with Daisy and Winterbourne enacting fantasy and reverie at the edges of James’s work. This dreamy, half-imagined fuckery seemed right in line with James’s aesthetic, with a brooding, half-real cast to it. It was only as the story unspooled that things got dumb. I guess what bothers me about the new Daisy Miller is that Winterbourne wins in the end, and that dude should fucking get it. Not that he gets it in James’s version, exactly, but he sure doesn’t get the girl. Wait, let’s back up.

Definite spoilers ahead. 

In James’s version of Daisy Miller, a boring cipherous New Englander named Winterbourne meets the lush and lusty daughter of American industrialists in Geneva. They have a boring and cipherous semi-courtship, until they decamp singly to Italy. She falls in with Italians (gasp!), with whom she is either having sex, or having the socially disastrous appearance of sex. (Same/same.) Winterbourne is a dick and a bro about the whole thing; Daisy delivers some speeches about freedom (O, America); then she dies because sluts always die of the fever. The story reads as this weird superimposition of New York Belle Epoque morality, where the girl gets it because she’s a slut and/or the wrong class (same/same), and a criticism of that, because the industrialist son who oversees this tragedy is a drag and a buzzkill. (Should we be outside? Should you even be talking to me? Omg, this is all soooo informal; that’s hot but I’m scared.) You want to fling yourself at Italian men at the end, because godamn is society cold and cruel. 

In the lush & lusty version, Daisy delivers her speeches, and instead of Winterbourne magically not be the worst (which he’s pretty much been in all the Henry James parts of the story) he discovers his love for her and rescues her from fucking Italians. (I mean “fucking” to mean “having sex with”, not as an intensifier, to be clear.) They make out and she’s cured of the Roman Fever, the end. Oh, also, her mom has a lot of buttsecks with the butler. I don’t really have a problem with that either, other than the usual squeamishness about, like, fucking the staff. But, you know, this is fine work if you can get it.

Winterbourne and Daisy getting together is the kind of end that makes me feel icky in my tummy. Sure, in the original, Winterbourne is an officious dick and Daisy a sheltered fool, but their ugly ends (while completely incommensurate) taught me something about rigid, boring, horrid class systems based on the finest of gradations. While I’m fine with Daisy surviving the usual Romantic illness that overtakes all fallen women since Victoria took the throne (at least), I am mos def not okay with Winterbourne being treated like some kind of romantic hero. Fuuuuck that guy; he is the embodiment of mediocre conventionality. Team Daisy. 

This seems an altogether different kind of American social message to have Winterbourne win out against his girl fucking Italians. Instead of some quaint 19th century examination of the grasping newly middle class tripping over its inborn lusts in front of the more second generation moneyed asshole, we have the second generation moneyed asshole being redeemed by the quaint notion of love erasing all impediments, even the bone-deep character ones. Daisy opens her legs and her heart, and Winterbourne is tugged dickward towards his inevitable romantic emanation. (I love you. Daisy, and your fucking of Italians in the square is simply performance to my voyeurism. What happiness, etc.) It’s a petty, priapic kind of love, one where romantic love brutally wins over literally everything else.

Everyone forgets that Romeo and Juliet were the exact same damn thing, and that their thwarted romance had nothing to do with class or race or anything. It is the narcissism of small differences: that the more similar two people are, the more they are likely to focus on the points of divergence, sometimes to animosity. (Which explains things like, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which to outsiders looks like an pointless ginger fight.) R & J would have cemented a dynasty had they had text messaging, and I gotta say, that’s not a play I want to see. It would be gross to watch two rich, white assholes get together, and it’s a damn good thing they died. So too, in the updated Daisy Miller. Daisy survives Winterbourne’s bourgie morality so they can canoodle, pretty much destroying all actual criticism of James’s social milieu. I really haven’t got a lot of time for this, but then I also admit I’m a vicious crank. Someone has got to die to prove the situation serious. All the unintended consequences to the shifts in Daisy make it kind of a bummer.

I also admit I’ve entirely overthought just about everything. Lighten up! It’s just a bit of fun! And look, I know. And I did have some fun, mostly because of the dizzying whiplash of stewing in James’s page-long sentences, and then being treated to rapid fire anal sex scenes. There’s something charming about how silly the whole prospect is, which is why I undertook this at all. Brontës and Austen make sense to me to graft in some love and zombies, but James? Is there, like, wild & wanton versions of Melville? Ethan Frome? They’re both stories with thick erotic subtexts, and even some unrequited love! (If only that big white Dick would put out, sigh.) It takes stones to take on James with a project this goofy, and I do earnestly applaud the effort. You’d never get me to set my prose style against James’; no fucking way.

And so, to move on after far too much ado, a quick google unearthed for me the latter day adventures of Dorian Gray. Unlike Miss Daisy, Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is not a mash-up, but a continuation. Szereto rewrites the very end of Dorian Gray (the only novel Wilde ever wrote), rescuing Dorian from death by his own hand, and recounting the plot of Wilde’s novel though flashback and reference. Dorian bottoms through the next century or so, moving from various literary and/or exotic locales: Paris in the beginning, where he runs with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (though why they are never named confuses me); on to Marrakesh, where he enacts an ooky Orientalism; then to South America, where he tempts the faithful, and finally ending in New Orleans in an unconvincing redemption of sorts. With vampires.

While the wild & wanton “Daisy Miller” feels like a goof or a lark — hey, let’s stitch some fuckery into Henry James! That’s hi-larious! — I get the distinct impression that Wilde Passions is rather serious. Wilde Passions is not simple stroke material, but an earnest grappling with the ambiguous messages of Dorian Gray. This is odd, really, because Wilde, as you may be aware, was one of the funniest dudes ever, and the shift in tone is notable. I scanned a little of the original Dorian Gray, and shit, yo, is that man droll. At least Wilde Passions doesn’t have the source material cheek to jowl with the continuation, because that would be ruinous. As it stands, the different tone is not distracting, and trying to write like Oscar Wilde, one of the great comic writers, is probably doomed anyway.

So, I guess what I want to talk about is the erotic, and sex writing more generally. Sex writing is one of those things that is more variegated that it would appear from the snickering. It’s probably harder to pull off than a fight scene, which I would say is damned difficult to do well, because even just the writer’s choices for body terminology can turn a reader off. I know I have the words I cannot take seriously in a sexual context, which is not the same for “arm” or “leg” or “knife”. The verb “to lave” doesn’t get much play beyond sex writing, and feels both clinical and euphemistic to me. I’d much prefer cunts and cocks to honey pots and manroots, but I know many readers of sex writing, almost ironically, find these terms far too aggressive or smutty or something. 

It seems to me we’ve ceded sex writing to romance novels, and I don’t mean this to be an indictment of romance novels, but an indictment of literary fiction. Most of the best sex writing I’ve read has been in a romance novel, because that’s where sex writing occurs most often. But romance novels generally present a very, very narrow slice of the stunning variety of human sexuality. I’m not just talking about kinks or whatnot, I’m talking about how it’s generally middle class white women knocking boots with middle class white men, all between the ages of 25-35. The sex is going to be good, mind-blowing even, and no one has tired, married sex to get it over with. I’m not saying romance novels should start depicting that, necessary, though some older, less white folk would be greatly appreciated. I get that they’re wish fulfillment narratives. But it’s notable to me, for example, how many people shit the bed over the tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein dude removes her tampon before banging her, when, right now, literally thousands of people are having sex on the rag. Tens of thousands. It’s such a mundane, everyday detail to freak out over. Romance novel sex is often weirdly prissy.

But it’s dreadfully hard to find sex in literary fiction, and when you do, it’s often just painfully bad. The British literary magazine Literary Review does a Bad Sex in Fiction prize every year, and the esteemed and prized writers who make the list make one wince. From Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner, and the Bad Sex in Fiction winner for 2014:

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

 I mean, really. This is what sex would be like on Monty Python, the bombs bursting on air and all that. I can think of some really cringy sex scenes from literary novels, with this just terrible mix of platitudes and overwrought metaphors. And this is of course when there is any sex writing at all, this vital component of many relationships simply elided. 

The sex — and there is a lot of it — in Wilde Passions cuts a weird middle distance. It’s not explicit enough to be stroke material — it’s not erotica — but then it’s too omnipresent to be truly literary. Dorian enacts just a host of transgressions in his quest for hedonistic sensuality and fading youthful beauty, like he does in Wilde’s novel. He ruins a Marrakeshi prostitute boy with shame and drink; he seduces a monk, which leads to the monk’s suicide. He brutalizes and murders women in New Orleans. But, here’s the thing: I just kinda didn’t get why.

Wilde somewhat famously added a preface to Dorian Gray after Victorian critics got all up in arms about its “sham morality”. You’re just writing smut with the lamest of censures tacked on the end, they said, to which Wilde replied: all art is quite useless. Morality or immorality has no place in the process of creating beauty. Art is a not a tool — it should not have a use — or it is not art. I can’t say I agree, but then I also understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s putting it so starkly. He goes to explore a life decoupled from consequence, driven by an amoral worldview, and then a bunch of howling censors accuse him of corrupting babies. Fuck you, I’m not making tools for your morality. Make them your damn self. 

Continuing on Gray’s amoral quest, after removing what you could even consider a moral, is an interesting experiment, honestly, but I have some reservations about how successful this is. His transgressions are all sexual in nature, and I begin to weary of the fuckery. Why can we not change up his violations of the social contract with, say, a Ponzi scheme or selling cancer cures made of chicken bones? I guess what I’m saying is it seems a failure of imagination to cast all his amorality in terms of the bedroom. He even killed a dude directly in Wilde’s tale. Sure, you could argue that it’s the culture around Dorian which casts his homosexual sex acts as villainous, but, as a first person narrative, that doesn’t really work. He’s pretty gleeful about the ways he ruins people through buggery, and, ultimately, it reads a little like, omg, the homosexual agenda! I don’t think that’s the intent, not at all, but it can be read out of the text pretty easily. 

But, my disquiet aside, Szereto is clearly grappling with something here, something real. And let’s put my disquiet back into it: Wilde Passions invoked for me the same brutal, chilly eroticism of mid-century fiction by women — stuff like The Story of O and Ice by Anna Kavan — and that shit frays me. She takes this odd, amoral remnant from the most squeamish of times, Victoriana, and then runs him like a VHS tape on fast forward. Wilde Passions ends somewhere in Anne Rice’s vampire eroticism, all kudzu and rot, which would be relevant 20 years ago but feels weirdly antique now. All of it feels antique: the Fitzgeralds, the Orientalism, the Thomas Mann inflected monastery, New Orleans before Katrina. Hell, maybe this takes place after Katrina, but that wouldn’t rightly be the point.

On some level, Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, and the ways it doesn’t work are indictments of the form. The erotic in literature is built partially on shame, and shame is a sad, lonely, and conservative beast, more worried about body parts than injustice, more worried about degradation than violation. So Dorian’s burgeoning, transformative love for a girl he both brutalized and terrorized is part and parcel of the romantic narrative: love is redemptive, and requires no agency in its actors. You will be an ideal person whether you like it or not. You are simply a player in someone else’s story. Once again, love brutally wins over literally everything else, only this time, you’re not supposed to see that as a good thing. God help us all.

It’s intensely clever the way Szereto removes the Victorian “moral”, weak though it is, and then runs Gray’s amoral sensation seeking through changing literary erotic landscapes. She then ends with a modern “moral”, which looks just a weak as the Victorian. You rarely notice how blinkered the idea that romantic love is a moral agent, but boy can you see it here. Wilde Passions was a very pleasant surprise for me, an essay on sex writing and morality which is deeply considered. Who knew?

Resurrection, and the Returned: “I’m not sure it would be a good thing.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched network television, I realized halfway through the premiere episode of Resurrection, which is the newest revived-from-the-dead offering on tv. (Though I’m not bothering to google this, there are several such shows in production at the moment, I am given to understand.) Though I kind of can’t imagine network tv taking on the latent and blatant nihilism and grimdark nature of the zombie show – despite Walking Dead‘s cable ascendancy – I could see the more domestic concern of people in a small town returned years after their deaths working as a sort of Lost-ish mystery show. Who returned Laura Palmer?

Network television can pull off the Gothic melodrama, with even creature-of-the-week procedurals like early seasons of the X-Files bending towards the childhood traumas and interpersonal machinations of the principles. Alas, what I got from Resurrection was a whole mess of anxiety about whether the viewer was even going to buy the premise. The cold open works as an image – this boy in the rice paddies and his collapse in a Chinese town – but once the cut-rate X-Files agents get involved, it all goes downhill. A seriously put upon agent of ICE, which might be the least sexy of all federal agencies, picks up a boy who has been repatriated to the US because obvs he’s an American? Why are we being showed this travel time? Start in China, switch to the small town. Also no, the agent doesn’t just haul off to magical New England town just on the say-so of some rando kid.

The thing that killed me about Resurrection was how arm-wheeling the emotional and social problems are, all of these painful conversations with ICE ICE agent, man of exposition and explication, reiterating over and over how obvious the stakes are. The childhood friend of the resurrected boy now a priest, stuttering through his homily as the boy’s mother ushers him into the pew. The fact that every single person in Stars Hollow appears to be related to the resurrected boy, down to his doc. Also, you are seriously not allowed to put a lynching joke in the mouth of Omar Epps in a show this white, no. After the joke, my husband yelled, “Omar Epps, everybody!” Sorry, that’s a fail.

There was altogether too much hugging, speechifying, and shaming going on in Resurrection for my taste. I do not even get why everyone ragged on resurrected boy’s dad for not believing this miraculous kid was his, even though the boy was unchanged after 20 years and reappeared on the other side of the planet. I get that Americans don’t like skepticism or science, but this is beyond the emotional pale for me. I’m going to need some time, DNA tests notwithstanding, to accept this manifest creature of a family’s grief as something other than its shocking reiteration. Quit mansplaining what I should think, ABC, sheesh. (Also, total waste of a few of my favorite character actors, especially the boy’s parents.)

Which was why the first episode of The Returned, “Camille”, was so damn good. The events occur in a small town in the French Alps, with four or five – its not entirely clear – people returning to their lives after years of the absence of death. Camille dies in a bus accident with 38 other people. Years later, we watch a group therapy group consider the monument to the loss that is to be installed in order to enact their dubious healing. Camille comes home and her mother follows her through the house, shaking, getting her a robe, pulling down the half-considered shrine on her dresser. “Why did you rearrange all my clothes?” the girl asks, and the mother doesn’t answer. A creepy boy keeps being framed through glass. A morpho eugenia butterfly, pinned to a display case, flutters, and then breaks free.

a morpho eugenia butterfly

There is little dialogue in The Returned, more a series of reaction shots and tight Gothic interiors interspersed with tight Gothic landscapes: a reservoir, a row of suburban alpine houses, an underground walkway with flickering lights. None of the relationships are telegraphed in megaphone dialogue, but in subtle nods of the head. Camille’s parents are divorced now, but were not 4 years ago when she died. “Tu fumes?” she asks her dad, as he pinches a shuddering cigarette with his ex-wife beyond the glass of the sliding door, hissing at each other, what are we going to do? What do you even say, years past someone’s death? How awful would their return be, a tearing of all the scar tissue, both personal and societal?

I don’t mean to keep hat-tipping Twin Peaks, even though I do, but there’s something here that reminds me of that. Not in the pin-wheeling grotesquery of Lynch’s middle America,  but in the Gothic dread of the small town, the flickering iteration of civic grief, and the half-careful invocation of the supernatural, like a shrine swept suddenly into a drawer. (Also because the cinematography is gorgeous.) When the priest avows the durability of the human soul and then demurs about the resurrection of the body – “I’m not sure it would be a good thing” – I was all in. I suspect there will be fewer answers in The Returned than there will be in Resurrection, which I count as a good thing. There is no answer to grief.

Revival, Volume 2: Winter isn’t Coming; It’s already Here

The second volume of Revival is not quiiite as awesome as Revival, Volume One: You’re Among Friends, but some of that is just the inevitable settling that occurs when reading a series which starts with such a bang. Revival, Volume Two: Live Like You Mean It collects issues 6-11 of the ongoing Revival series, which details the travails of the town of Wausau, Wisconsin in the days and weeks after a discrete number of their dead get back up.

These reanimated people aren’t cannibal shamblers, and the reanimation does not appear to be contagious. Although the setting, art style and dialogue is naturalistic, there’s an edge of the supernatural: rural noir, Midwestern Gothic. While the revived seem mostly unchanged, some are still…twitchy, and everyone is on edge. The town is quarantined; various jurisdictions jockey; locals sandbag the Feds; religious leaders attempt to score points; scumbags attempt to profit. You know, the usual with a civic trauma.

This second volume sinks into the boredom and profiteering of the quarantine, with minor revelations punctuated by lots of wheel spinning, both literal and metaphoric. Winter is deepening. I wasn’t real enamored of the meth brothers and their theatrics – it felt like too much of a red line under a point – but the several conversations between two central sisters, the weird, dumpy religious lady lit up with her faith, the Hmong woman’s monologue – all of this worked in the strange, understated, deflected language of my Midwestern people.

comic panel showing cops talking at a roadblock

Fuck it, Tim Seeley is my new boyfriend.

All Politics is Feudal: This Dark Earth

So, I was recently watching The Dark Knight Rises, and kind of craughing to myself about what a brilliant expression of post-9/11 fascism it is. I don’t mean the term “fascist” in its sloppy usage of “stuff I don’t like” or “dad”, but the more old school definition of authoritarian militarism that positions the arbiter of justice not in law, but in an idealized übermench, you know, with your usual racial and nationalistic overlay on what makes the mench über. Bad guy Bane talks a lot of shit about giving power back to the People – invoking the dialectical enemy of fascism, communism – but as a fascist tract, there is literally one person who might be considered “the people” with a speaking part, and that’s Catwoman’s wing-girl. She has maybe three lines. The police state and the über-police state are pretty much the only important players in a city of 11 million, the People existing either to cheer Batman or drag rich people from their homes dumbly. It’s pretty much a Leni Riefenstahl film, both in terms of ideology, and stunningly beautiful fascist aesthetics. 


A diver in the 1936 Olympics, photographed by Riefenstahl

Putting aside some lumpy plotting – which no doubt was caused by Heath Ledger’s untimely death after so perfectly capturing hysterical nihilism in The Dark Knight (and I’m glad they didn’t re-cast the Joker) – The Dark Knight Rises brilliantly expresses the not-so-latent fascism of the superhero story. It’ll be interesting to see what the Nolanizing of Superman comes up with in Man of Steel, because Superman was your granddaddy’s very first anti-fascist American fascist superhero. (Sometimes you gotta fight fascism with fascism, apparently.) Somehow I don’t think it’ll work, because Superman is boring, and the best fascists have some chutzpah. The old fanboy saw is that Kent is the disguise, and overpowered aliens posing as dorks are hard to put the banners up for. Squeeze out that single tear, fascists, then we’ll root for you. 

Anyway, some what belabored point being that I was reading This Dark Earthat the same time, and kinda musing to myself about all the post-9/11, fear state, how-will-we-maintain-our-humanity-in-the-face-of-terror that I see as endemic to the zombie narrative. This Lord of the Flies with cannibal corpses has been going on at the very least since 9/11, but certainly bubbling there in Romero’s game-changer, Night of the Living Dead, where he rips the shit out of the American nuclear family and societal structures, and probably even earlier in your older school Voodoo sorcerer controlling reanimated slaves folklore. (Sophomore level paper topic: taking the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead as a structure that symbolizes the Freudian psychological model – id as basement, ego as main floor, superego as attic – map the movement of the characters within this landscape as pertains to societal construction. Et cetera.) 

So, This Dark Earth is, in some ways, a very traditional zombie story, starting in a hospital becoming overrun as the doctor very slowly accepts what is occurring around her, complete with zombie infants and a chemical dump outside of town. A basement-bound reunion of mother and child, a bullet in the brain of a turned husband, a military group using a woman as rape fodder and mama, a barbed wire settlement slipping towards feudalism, a girl writing notes that she’s sure no one will read – it’s all there, and more – the wrangling and hand-wringing of the boy grown into a world with new rules, the prince of this new dark earth. The steam train. The slavers. Jacobs hits all of this, lightly, humanely, with an eye toward the individual that I feel gets lost in a lot of zombie stories, somewhat perversely. Even with very large time shifts, the pacing is furious while still managing a tightly personal tone. 

A lot of people are going to invoke AMC’s The Walking Dead with this book – and I guess I am too – but this book checks a lot of the stupid societal bullshit of that show – Rick shouting about how “this isn’t a democracy” and then getting his ass bitten by eye-patched demagogues (but not literally, of course), Carl turning into a squint-eyed tiny badass, the rheumy moral mouthpiece wondering “but at what cost?” I’m still into Walking Dead for the set-pieces, because those continue to thrill, but I have no patience for the people or the society of that show. And I’ve lost patience with the characters of Walking Dead because it never comes out and owns the inherent fascism of the zombie survivor community, not with any finesse anyway. Breathers are all imbued with exceptionalism in the zombie apocalypse. It’s numbers; that’s all. But on Walking Dead, Rick gets to be touched with the invisible hand of narrative superiority/safety, lending his leadership a sort of unassailable divinity that should just suck it. This Dark Earth addresses that impulse to feudalism, and it does so while being beautiful in an unshowy way. 

I almost don’t want to recommend it to your average non-horror reader, because I think what Jacobs is doing is subtle, this slow, personal invocation of all the tropes of the genre, that sets them all up and knocks them all down, slowly, like a steam boiler, like cancer. Death is the greatest democracy there is; we all have our one vote. Survivalist groups in the zombie apocalypse are often pictured as Spartan paramilitary camps set against the undead Athenian mob. I think that we tend to conceptualized survival this way shows our instinct towards feudalism – the dictatorial Governor in Walking Dead growling about terrorists, the slaver in This Dark Earth looking for a king to behead. Both Carl and the “Prince” here are positioned as the members of the New World Order, unable to remember the world before the mob, groomed in violent expediency to threats both real and imagined. I’m not sure where Walking Dead is going to go with Carl, but I have my suspicions, and I’m already girding my loins for disingenuous speeches about honor and stuff. 

this is not a democracy anymore, it's a ricktatorship with an image of Rick Grimes from Walking Dead

Observe Jacobs, instead:

The world loves a tomato because it’s red. The apple is red too. But the tomato’s flesh is the flesh of mankind.

Do the dead love the flesh of man because it is like a tomato? We’ll never know. But I have my suspicions.

As the matriculating Prince observes as he filches tomatoes from their tenuous garden. There are times when this is too much, like in an overtly symbolic sequence that has our boy crucified, quite literally, on an exit ramp sign, but then Southern Gothic (which this book is also, in many ways) often can’t help its dips into histrionic religious imagery. Jacobs runs this linear and time-skipping narrative hand-over-hand, from one point of view character to the next, which I believe works beautifully with the stakes and danger of the undead-filled world: you will hear this voice, but you will not know when this voice will end, or if it will pick up again on the edges of another person’s story. Knock-out’s sequence, and the boys on the steam train were especially tight. (And I have another sophomore paper topic ruminating about the train as it fits into the American landscape as some kind of echo of industrialism and colonial expansion, but I haven’t worked out all the kinks.) Certainly, This Dark Earth isn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of zombie narratives, but I thought it dealt with the tropes in a thoughtful manner, which for me can be much more enjoyable than genre-confounding gimmicks or the like. I, for one, welcome our zombie apocalypse feudal overlords, at least as described by John Hornor Jacobs. Hail to the king, baby. 

Gothic Short Fiction: Top 5

We arrived at the cabin yesterday, and have been doing the slow, unloosening unwind of food and fire-ful conversation. Time out from one’s life is a strange, interstitial moment, sitting in a kitchen with my mother and my husband and arguing about literature and the state of the weather and the price of beans. Mum and I started in about Gothic fiction, because we have that in common. She taught a class in Gothic fiction way back when, using primary The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. I read it along with her  at the time because I’m easy and I like books and I like short fiction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales ended up being one of the very best multi-author short story collections I’ve ever encountered. From the editorial choices to the brilliant fucking introduction, Chris Baldick knows whassup. (But, sadly, we made fun of his name a little because baldick.)

So we started arguing the top five Gothic short fictions, and Mum ended up with the following list:

“Jordan’s End” by Ellen Glasgow

A doctor goes to a remote, decaying Virginia farmhouse to treat the head of the family who is suffering from a hereditary disease. The doctor quickly realizes that not only the man, but his wife, aunts, and sons are all caught in a web woven of madness and death. Doom everywhere.

“The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorges Luis Borges

A student from Buenos Aires goes to visit his bumpkin cousin on a remote estancia during Lent, which is fall in the Southern hemisphere. To pass the time, he starts reading the Gospel of Mark to the degenerate, illiterate servants–which turns out to be a huge mistake.

“The Vampire of Kaldenstein” by Frederick Cowles

In the late 1930s, a clueless Brit takes a bicycle tour to a remote part of Germany, fails to heed the locals’ warning–to comic results. Don’t go to the castle, you idjit!

The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter

A sad, young vampire waits in darkness in her ancestral castle for her true love to come to her. Many men and boys do, but wind up as blood donors. Another British bicyclist, this time a soldier o leave during WWI, shows up and spends the night with her. Will his blood be shed there or on the battlefields of France?

The Horla” by Guy DeMaupassant

Oh my god! Hysterical first person narrator wigs out when he thinks an invisible Brazilian chupachbra is haunting him. He grows crazier with every passing day until he finally decides to do something about his unseen tormentor.

Like the joke about lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, this is a good start. But my list would look a little different. I would add “The Bloody Countess” by Alejandra Pizarnik, which is so completely dirty and perverse and freaks me out with its semi-academic tone married to some seriously fucked up content. Elizabeth Bathory, man. The husband brought up Poe, because obvs, and we decided that “The Fall of the House of Usher” was the best of his Gothics. A young man comes to visit his friend and the friend’s tragic twin sister in their remote, crumbling estate.

In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates self-absorbed teenager Connie has all these fantasies about boyfriends, and when Arnold Friend pulls his red convertible into the driveway of her family home when her family is away at a barbeque, she gets a boyFriend from hell.

And then, of course, the patron saint of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find“. A Georgia couple, their bratty children and a grandma who fancies herself a Southern aristocrat, embark on a road trip. The grandmother’s insistence on seeing a plantation (that she later realizes is “gone with the wind”) ends with their rolling the family car on a dusty rural road.  Enter the Misfit, an escaped convict, and his sidekicks.

So, given this collection of freaking excellent stories, I think you could probably say something about the shape of the Gothic. An outsider comes into an often rural location. He (or occasionally she) might be a painful doofus. The rot of the inbred rural location might spread, or it might be a counterpoint to the mechanized horror of the industrial center. Monsters have faces; machine guns do not. Gothic more than other longstanding genres has a lot of female writers, and that makes sense to me: the creeping dread, the lack of agency, the limited locales. Women haven’t have the most control over our lives, historically speaking.
List:
Autumn setting
Remote, isolated location
Night, darkness
Enclosed spaces
Decaying houses, castles
Hereditary insanity, illness
Twins (doppelganger)
Madness
Grotesque body shapes
Inbreeding
Storms, floods, extreme cold or heat

So it was fun to talk lists, and the weird convergences – bicycles, apparently? – and I look forward to more food and talk and half-napping here on the North Shore.

The Horla by Guy de Maupassant

Neatly masterful short story which suffers for the contemporary reader from being too influential. Lovecraft was all over the first person descent into madness narrative like Chthulu on New England port towns, though of course he saw it here first. Nevertheless, the sheer whackadoo poetry of our unnamed narrator’s grappling with an unsubstantial succubus/doppelganger manages to hit tons of the tropes of Gothic fiction with a concision not usually seen: colonial panic, tortured aristos, unease with science/Modernism, weltering claustrophobia. 

Our apparently indolent narrator starts his diary – oh, yeah, it’s one of those – nattering on about trees and walks in the park. He sees a pretty white ship sail past the house. Isn’t that a pretty ship? I’m sure this won’t be important later. He starts suffering from insomnia and the vague sense that he is being watched, which he alleviates briefly by going on vacation a lot. But the visitations escalate, resulting in some really freaky descriptions of sleep paralysis. Yeesh. There’s an interlude of a woman being hypnotized as a parlor game which is milked for a full-blown freak out about human agency (especially the way it is intercut with some other revelations). 

By the end, our narrator is in exclamation point mode, his prose downright Old Testament in its panic. I would be willing to bet there are deliberate echoes of Job all over the place, but my Sunday schooling is rusty. The final attempt by the narrator to confine and destroy the Horla – as he has come to name this creature – tips horrifying in the extreme when – this is for serious a spoiler, but this clocks at maybe 20 pages, so the spoiler is more conceptual than anything –> when you realize this lunatic has burnt down his house with all the servants screaming to death within because of a creature not even he can see. Then he decides to kill himself. Tada!

Anyway, a neat little story, not partially because of the way it breathlessly drags you along with the madness, and then ever so subtly checks that madness. Oh my God! as the narrator yells dozens of times. Maybe we’re the monsters!

Oh, and I found this on Google books – excellent! But then it turned out that it was in French – bogus! So I found an English translation online here. You’re welcome.

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

Nebula Nominees: Ironskin

Retellings of Gothic and/or Romantic classics in this here age of the happy ending are fraught with dangers. Plucky girls are given pluck and beauty, in defiance of people who are oh so jealous of them, and not much else; growling, terrible, inhuman assholes like Rochester and Heathcliff are neutered down to lapdogs like Edward Cullen; and the very worst of all: everything works out in the end. There should be fire and death and blood on the moors. Which is not to say that Jane Eyre, from which Ironskinwas heavily cribbed, doesn’t work out in some ways, just that the ways it works out aren’t facile natterings about Jane’s plainness.

But, before I let my irritation get the best of me, let me back up. I read this because I’d idly picked it up off a library display last week, and just a few days later, learned it was one of the nominees for the 2012 Nebula Award. I have an equally idle thought of reading (or attempting to read) all of the five before May, but I know my track record when I assign myself homework, i.e. not good.

Ironskinstarts credibly enough, with a war-damaged Jane Eyre Eliot starting her employ as governess for daughter of the growling and elusive Mr. Rochart. Helen Burns is transformed into Jane’s sister Helen, a sort of Holly Golightly ingenue type. Jane herself isn’t a battered, abused orphan, but a girl who was scarred late in the Great War, a WWI analog, but with the fey this time instead of Germans. Having written all that out, I’m impressed I didn’t dash this book down in the first pages, because put baldly, all of that sucks. (I mean, Jane had a brother Charlie? Bah.)

All of this, of course, being the problem of being too closely hitched to the Jane Eyre plot, because the first half is decent if you ignore the intertext. I liked the just-after-the-war vibe, all that Lost Generation desperation. I’m maybe not as excited about Jane’s wounded face, impregnated with a leaking fey curse that must be covered with a mask; it felt too much like using an acquired disability as metaphor. Or, that’s not really fair, because Jane’s curse is dealt with okay in the first half. The curse is anger that leaks and affects those around her, and as someone whose main character flaw may be wrath, I appreciated how pissed Jane was, how she struggled with positioning her masks and calming the fires within.

Jane’s charge is also fey-cursed, but uniquely so: whole-bodied, but with strange, unnatural gifts. Rochart is some kind of artist, always vanished into his tower, and altogether a watered down version of the Romantic psycho. All of the requisite myths are hat-tipped: Bluebeard, Tam Lin, Beauty & the Beast. At a certain point the plot diverges from Jane Eyre though, centering on some high society hijinks and the desire by silly women to be beautiful at all costs, costs that include being a Trojan horse for the fey. Even our plain Jane gets in on the superficiality, but desiring only to be “normal”, not beautiful, because she’s, you know, ennobled by suffering and all that. Rochart feels all bad about his part in the fey business, but it wasn’t really his fault because reasons.

Jesus, is this what we’re taking from Jane Eyre today? That how women look & their facile desire to be beautiful is a threat to the entire human race? That Rochester was luggage in the thrall of fey beauty – boo hoo I know not what I did? Rochester was an asshole and Jane loved him, and even though both of these things were true, she walked away from him. She was a fiercely moral creature who suffered because of her morality, because love is a bitch goddess who can set your heart for assholes, and not because she was plain to look upon. Godamn does this ending piss me off.

I think the thing that really gets me is that this whole mess had potential, and I do like how Connolly writes. This Jane’s mid-book revelations about how to manage her anger felt true to me, as did how she worked with her charge. Look, I know much of my anger is about my Jane Eyre, and my feelings of ownership over that text are probably unfair. (Though, of course, comparisons are invited by the obvious intertext; that’s the Faustian deal you make when you hitch your cart to the Romantic horse.) But even stripping out my irritation with the use of my Jane, all this mask and beauty business was sloppy, badly considered stuff, with a lot of shitty implications if you think about it for, like, 15 seconds. Probably not getting my vote for the Nebula, not that I have one.

Jane Eyre

This is a slipknot review to hold place until I can read this again. I’ve had to read Jane Eyretwice, both times for school. The first was the obligatory high school read, and then the second was the obligatory English major read. I liked it better the second time, because the class I took it in rocked like crazy, and I do remember fun things about it, like how Rochester outlines his various romances, and how each romance is with a woman of non-English background, and how each of those women are totally wrong because they are not English. I remember wanting Rochester to die in a fire a bit, because he’s such an arrogant fucking asshole, and then bang! he totally gets burnt in a fire! That’s some good writing. 

Weirdly, the thing I remember best about Jane Eyreis going to see a production at the Children’s Theatre here in Minneapolis when I was in the 5th grade. This was back in the Children’s Theatre’s heyday, before the sexual abuse scandal almost completely destroyed that institution. I had completely forgotten about this production until I recently got free tickets to go there again, and being in the building shook the memory loose. The play was based only on the parts of Jane Eyrethat detail her childhood – her unhappy time with the Reeds, her even more unhappy time at the Lowood School, her friendship with Helen Burns, Helen’s death by typhus. 

The production was really moving to me, and I remember seething with irritation when my classmates sent up a chorus of Oooohs when Jane climbs into bed with Helen to warm her as she dies of mistreatment and disease. Motherfucking homophobia starts young, and is stupid and unsympathetic at any age. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to say that I really loved Jane for her portrait of a mistreated and abused child who develops this incredible moral compass out of her experience. She makes incredibly hard choices, like the one to leave the man she loves because he’s an amoral would-be bigamist. 

Think about it. This is not some minor impediment to marriage, the kind of thing thrown up in dimestore romances to cause more sexual tension. This is not a misunderstanding or a mistake. This is a serious moral failing in the man she loves, and, you know, a legal failing too. For the lack of love, Jane’s childhood is cruelty and abuse. It’s wonderful for her to find love with someone who can appreciate her strange gifts. But love is not an ethical elixir that will magic away the difference between right and wrong. The most famous line to come out of this novel is “Reader, I married him.” I think sometimes this overshadows the fact that, Reader, for a very long time, and based on moral choices that materially damage her life, Jane does not marry him. Marrying him would be wrong, and all the love in the world will not make it right. That’s why I love Jane Eyre. 

Slasher Films: Lolita

Lolita is a premonition of the slasher film by way of the Gothic novel, the point of view monster breathing in the grass as the co-educational campers couple amongst the furniture of middle America. It begins with that slasher staple, the note from the shrink, a wheezy clueless sort who mistakes fact for innuendo. This whole book occurs after the blackbird whistles, just to make an obscure poetic reference. The beginning sections reminded me of my local love, the anecdotal satirist of my youth, Sinclair Lewis, with his intricate and bawling America, laid out in sitting rooms and social climbing, Humbert the outsider, Humbert the imaginary monster, Hubert the European of our fantasies, all dissolution and our fevered dreams cum nightmares. (Har har.) 

The beginning is outrageously funny, the way horror stories are, Humber’ts parentheses side-commenting about this and that, a dagger commentary sheathed in brackets. Wait, a moment for his parentheses. Woolf may have taught me to love the semicolon, although that affection was in full bloom before I hit her mastery, but Nabokov and his creature (his Creature) have taught me to love those brief, epigrammatic asides. I await DFW to teach me the beauty of the endnote. At some point though, the whole thing grabbed me by the throat and shook, the way a dog does with prey (a cat, a wild-eyed rabbit) and I found myself shaken into another novel completely – the road trip novel, the long, undulating America, the Gothic panic of the narrow space recreated in a thousand unnamed American burgs and their sticky hotels, the mountains (which ones?) rising purple and ground down in the distance, the Oedipal struggle completely drawn with fangs that bite Oedipus in his hoary ass. Lo Lee Ta. A series of consonants and vowels that refuse to coalesce into meaning. 

Humbert is aggressively contructed, a narrator so damaged that the character is so fictional, so unreal, that it shimmers with the hot road mirage of truth, just up the bend, just under the bed. Humbert is awful, gross, a fraud, on so many levels; his Lolita, his Dolly, a work of the most perverse art. Like a character in a Browning monologue, we cannot believe anything he says, about her, about himself, the rough Freudian gloss muddling on about bad hearts and the newspaper, about childhood and its damage. Grrr, my heart’s abhorrence. No. Unlike a Browning poem, we can’t simply reverse Humbert’s statements to see past to the facts. Messy, like a mind, like knees in the dew-wet grass. Like any good Gothic novel, the bracket of the doctor’s statement is unclosed, and we end with Humbert and his musings on immortality. (Spoilers, I say, but that is ironic, at best.)

When I was 12, I had this friend. I still have her, as they say. We were not close at that time, just near in the surname alphabet, sitting close to one another, a desk away, two desks away. We liked each other; we were friends of the giggling sort. One day, she opened her purse, a denim number that looked like my own, and showed me the contents. Her eyes slanted away from mine. Look. Inside was a knife, in with the lipstick and tissue. Why do you have a knife? I asked, round-eyed, not understanding. My step-father…and here is an ellipses of details that are neither your business or mine, in the end. We slant our eyes away. I urged her naively to seek out an authority and tell, as children say. She did. It did not go well. 

You can write it in yourself, and I will not disgorge the hard details of this revelation or its rending conclusion. Her story is so commonplace as to be cliché, which makes it all the worse. That is not what this book is about. This book does not mistake fact for innuendo. It is the story of the madness of storytelling; the madness of the way we construct ourselves and others; a madness that won’t adhere to a lineal, Freudian causality. My friend’s step-father, the real monster, was a plump, useless, banal man with a beard and fat hands, may he roast in hell forever. Humbert is not this. He is fire and words, a long prissy, fated monologue that turns fiction on itself, a long slow gin of puns – there I made one, do you see? – an unclosed bracket on the American dream. Schwink schwink schink.