Book review: Love, Lust and Zombies

I’ve been doing a crap job of keeping up with ye olde blogge. Some of it is the way the pandemic screwed up my reading, sending me straight to historical romance and lighter fantasy. Fantasy I could have probably pulled out some bullshitting about: it’s close enough to my wheelhouse, if not in it entirely. Romance, less so. I don’t want to be that dilettante dabbler in a genre talking out my ass, like every Valentine’s Day column of “romantic books which aren’t romance novels because cooties” which includes motherfucking Lolita. I’m better versed now, but, judging from how often I’m out of step with other readers when I check bookface reviews, I just don’t want the grief. Sometimes reading for pleasure is just that, and I’m not going to assign myself homework out of some misbegotten sense of staying current or whatever.

That said, I’ve recently been sidling back up to my old love, horror fiction, specifically zombie fiction. I reread both Severance by Ling Ma and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. They both only get better with a reread. They’re both the kind of lapping retrospective memoirishly close-third-person which doesn’t tell their stories linear-like, so during a second pass (or third), you already have the shape of things, and can really marinate on the details.

Like my experience with rereading World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, it was kind of alarming how prescient they were, Severance especially. Also because I’d reread Severance after watching the series of the same name (no relation), I definitely took home some millennial ruminating about the nature of work that, while I’d noticed it before, became much more foregrounded this time. Even the indefatigable Mark Spitz from Zone One, whose musings cover that storied island, New York City, more than the workaday, presses his attention to the nature of work:

Hard to believe that reconstruction had progressed so far that clock-watching had returned, the slacker’s code, the concept of weekend. It had been a humdrum couple of days, reaffirming his belief in reincarnation: everything was so boring that this could not be the first time he’d experienced it.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Then I started reading an anthology of zombie short stories called Zombies! Tales of the Walking Dead edited by one Stephen Jones. (Not, as I’d mistakenly thought, Stephen Graham Jones, who is a very different writer.) After reading the introduction, I was afeared Zombies! was going to be a snore-fest. I was initially rebuked by a rollicking short story by Clive Barker called “Sex, Death and Starshine”, which was both sick and delightful. But then as I trudged on, my initial fears came true. Zombies! takes a kitchen sink approach to inclusion in the collection.

While this can be sort of fun for the completist — hey I didn’t know Edgar Allan Poe wrote a zombie-ish story! called “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” — so many of the stories I encountered were dated, clumsy, or only peripherally about zombies, more in the vein of cosmic horror than the living dead. (Look, I get that arguing genre is a losing game, so I’m not going to do it, but things are about what they are about, and not other things, and cosmic horror has decidedly different concerns.) Anyway, I’ll probably hack my way through this eventually, as a completist, but it’ll be homework and not any fun.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Love, Lust and Zombies, edited by Mitzi Szereto. I was poking around in the library catalog because I was looking for this book I know is about a thinking zombie, but couldn’t remember the name of. (It ended up being Dust by Joan Frances Turner, fyi.) My ears perked up when I saw Szereto’s name. She’s the author of The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray, which I read a while back when I was into a bunch of literary monster mash-ups and continuations. Most of the continuations I read were kind of ok to fucking bad, but Szereto’s take on Oscar Wilde’s only novel was actually inspired. Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, running from the Belle Epoch’s class warfare to Thomas Mann’s monastery to Anne Rice’s New Orleans, and while I don’t think it works, entirely, it’s definitely some of the most thoughtful sex writing I’ve seen in the genre.

Now, I’ve said this more than a couple times, but: my sister’s quip about vampire fiction is that “vampires are high-functioning zombies.” Which, if you read any vampire romance, feels accurate. There’s a lot of breathless description of cold, white flesh out there in vampire romance, about the intractability and immutability of the body of the immortal lover. On some level, I think this invokes deep-structure cultural ideas about the incorruptibility of sainthood. Flesh and spirit are one, and both flesh and spirit are perfectly and eternally static. Or to put it crudely, these vampiric love stories are literally about banging Jesus, the original risen dead man. Drink of my blood, eat of my flesh, &c.

After the success of Twilight and roughly one million iterations, it wasn’t a huge surprise when urban fantasy and paranormal romance trained its libido on angels and devils, beings who make this theological passion explicit. (Lest we not forget, the word passion can refer to the suffering and death of Jesus, not only sexual passion.) Since then, paranormal romance has taken on all manner of unsexy beasts, everything from ghosts to orcs to dinosaurs, but largely writers stay away from the humble zombie as a source of pants feelings. I think this is a notable lacuna — the lack of sex writing about zombies even in the gleeful perversity of monsterotica — and indicates something intractably unsexy about the walking dead, both metaphorically and physically.

I can think of two novels which attempt a romance between a living person and a zombie: Warm Bodies and Dearly, Departed. Warm Bodies ended up setting my back with its incorrect reading of Romeo & Juliet –and look I know I’m supposed to pretend that there aren’t incorrect readings, but I have something of A Thing about R&J, and I cannot listen to reason — but it’s decent, if a little dippy. Dearly, Departed is messy — it’s clearly a first novel — but it’s energetic and exuberant, which counts for a lot in my book. Obviously this worked for other people, but I could not get over the thought of these heroines making out with a decaying or desiccated corpse. And, to be fair, the courtship between the living girl and undead soldier in Dearly, Departed takes place through a wall, Paramus and Thisbe style, and is honestly emotionally affecting. Ultimately, neither novel really addresses sex anyway, maybe because of their YA designation, maybe because it’s too gross to contemplate. Which is why Love, Lust and Zombies is so fascinating: it’s dealing with sex and zombies head on.

While I joked earlier about vampires just being high-functioning zombies, that’s not actually the case, either metaphorically or practically. A zombie is characterized by its degradation, by its lack of personality and agency. By contrast, vampires are defined by the very opposite. They may both be undead, but the vampire is incorruptible, while the zombie corrupts everything it can get its teeth into. And while the rotting flesh angle may be a hard bar to clear when sex writing about zombies, the lack of agency makes actual zombie romance doubly difficult to pull off. Appetite is appetite, sure, but its tough to build sexual tension when at least one of the lovers is mindless carrion. I can think of a couple movies which feature the living fucking the dead, and it’s never the good guys wetting their wicks.

So. I checked out Love, Lust and Zombies with a swiftness, because all of this is in my wheelhouse, and hard. I’m not going to get up and ride my hobby horse about zombies, violence and domesticity just yet, but let it be read into the record that an anthology of short fiction which involves conflating the little death with the big one is right up my godamn alley. I read through the forward by Mark Onspaugh, which is good, trotting around both art history and psychology which manages a breezy profundity — no mean feat — and Szereto’s introduction, which is less good, more cringe-y Boomer joking than anything.

Without further ado, to the individual stories.

“Vanilla” by Janice Eidus

My first reaction was that I hated this fucking story, which seems to enact a bunch of stupid romance tropes in a way I find distasteful. But with some thought, it might actually be subverting said stupid romance tropes, so maybe I don’t hate its guts. A young woman who works as a librarian and characterizes herself as “vanilla” sexually falls into a relationship with a man who is surely the walking dead. He comes into the library and orders her around like an alphole, which makes her wet and compliant. By the end he announces “Vanilla is my favorite flavor” and she understands “that once he licks my vanilla clean, I will be a librarian no more”.

The librarian is a cliché romance profession, and our heroine’s protestations of vanillaness are entirely a doth protest too much situation. While it may be culturally common, I think the sexualization of dead flesh which one finds all over vampire romance is pretty freaking kinky. “Vanilla” taking that one step further and making the love interest a straight up zombie might be a cool commentary, but then it might just be an accident. Just structurally, this fetishization of dead flesh is almost inevitable when zombies and sex writing collide, and it’ll show up in a number of other stories in this anthology. Honestly, I can’t tell from the prose, which seems kinda weak, tbh. Shrug emoticon.

“In the Red Light” by A. M. Hartnett

The set-up is kind of like Romero’s third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, in which mad scientists and military personnel ‘speriment on some zombies to try to reawaken their humanity or whatever. There’s a mad scientist, a lady soldier, and a zombie called Bub. Being Romero, the zombie called Bud is basically the only character with identifiable human emotions in the whole mess; humans are the real monsters, &c. The zombie in this story is more fully cognizant than Bub, and considerably less decayed: He was a death row inmate bitten when the prison warden released the undead into the prison. There’s some kind of chip in his head to keep him from zombiing out. The lady scientist (this time a shrink) is tasked with seeing to his mental state when they’re not hacking him open to see how his guts work.

There is potentially a lot here to unpack in this scenario about the treatment of institutionalized people, how they are dehumanized by systems which see them as resources, not persons. Alas, I don’t think any of that was more than cursorily touched on. I doubly don’t think the writer fully considered the consent issues involving a therapist sleeping with someone who is both her incarcerated patient and an experimental subject. The writer avoids the usual consent problems with zombies by making the zombie fully cognizant of himself, then screws that all up by having a therapist bang her patient. Like, I get that in the zombie apocalypse, probably there’s no board to revoke her license and/or bring her up on charges, but that crosses alllll kinds of ethical lines. Not great, Bob.

“Smile” by Laura Huntley

Honestly, I don’t even get it. A young woman in the zombie apocalypse goes rambling around outside every day instead of staying holed up with other survivors. She thinks they’re a bunch of emotionally stunted losers. She’s sad she lost a sister, finds a hot zombie dude at the park who lost a daughter. They bang it out. He smiles. I think I’m supposed to take home some message about how living isn’t just surviving or somesuch, but it’s not particularly well drawn. I also have serious questions about zombie physiology, specifically how they get boners and ejaculate. It’s fine though, just a situation and not really a story. That can be ok too.

“Dead from the Waist Down” by August Kent

This one does address the boner issue! Thank the Lord. This story is kind of goofy and cute, set in a sort of monster high school attended by ghosts, zombies, vampires, harpies, and whatnot. Our zombie protagonist, Nicholas, has been pining for a vamp girl called Dani. Vamps appear to be the top of the heap, socially speaking, so Nicholas is dragged by other vamps for even looking her way. Dani is a MPDG though, so they get together at a party sort of. He’s not actually capable of getting it up, but she’s unfazed, and eventually announces to the party that they’re dating. Pretty cute little scenario, and I laughed every time the zombie narrator slagged harpies for no apparent reason. Good stuff.

“Sweeter Than to Wake” by Thana Niveau

Another strangely sweet one. A man takes his bitten, frozen wife and removes all of her internal organs, sews her mouth shut, and embalms her. Zombies (or the Woken, as they are styled here) break down just like any dead body, and he’s trying to draw out their last days together as long as he can. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but this is easily the most heartfelt, poetic, and romantic conclusion to any story in this collection. This is one of a number of stories in this collection which deal with couples where one is a zombie and one isn’t, which is probably the most emotionally fruitful scenario involving Romero-style or post-Romero zombies.

“The Wild Ones” by Erin O’Riordan

Oddball little story about a love triangle of sorts playing out in an enclave of living humans protected from the undead by a bunch of ghosts. The main pair is the community leader and her wife. The community leader wants the wife to have a baby with another survivor called Steven, so they can give hope to a demoralized and dejected community. This one felt like the kind of situation where the world-building took a back seat to the interpersonal scenario, because I have close to zero understanding of how anything works in this world, especially i/r/t ghosts. Maybe there was something there about living for the memory of the dead or something, but it wasn’t clear.

“So You Want to Date a Zombie” by Shane Vaughn

Repellent story about an unlikable asshole who goes on a dating show, and ends up getting paired with an old girlfriend, only she’s undead this time. Either misogynist or so jaundiced that I’m misreading a hatred for humanity for a hatred of women.

“Still” by Delilah Devlin

Another husband and wife trying to navigate what happens when one becomes a zombie and the other doesn’t. Felt like real emotional stakes and a legitimate dilemma. The way the couple had to evade the authorities because the husband was zombifying also felt like maybe you could read the couple as LGBT or other identities who can sometimes “pass”, but I admit it’s something of a stretch.

“The Dying Time” by E.C. Myers

Probably the stand out of the collection, as it is utterly unlike any of the other stories, its own little sealed world of strange magic. A loner blows into town just as they are are battening down for a kind of winter. He develops a tendre for the town sex worker, which she numbly thinks is naïve, sweet, and stupid as hell. This might sound bitcher than I mean it, but: This is maybe the only story in this collection which fully uses the stiletto sharpness of a short story. We are given just enough to think we understand both the world and characters: insular town, drifter, town whore. Then the very end of the story rearranges how we understand everything: world, plot, and character. It’s deftly done, almost like a fairy tale, the Grimm kind, where folk die and live on a whim, and the moral of the story is survival.

“My Zombie, My Lover” by Mitzi Szereto

I’ve generally found it to be true that if an editor contributes fiction to a collection they are editing, the story is going to be not great, and that’s the case here. The narrator lives a solitary existence in the Appalachian hills. She has a distasteful tendency to sneer at the community around her. Someone starts breaking into her house and eating her leftovers; it’s a zombie; they bang. It’s a situation, not a story, which is fine, but it’s not an interesting situation, which is not.

“Come Back to Me” by Chantal Noordeloos

Another real standout, just deeply alarming. This story deals with your old school zombie reanimated and directed by Vodoun magic, not the Romero kind which is a member of a mindless mob. A young woman whose grandmother is a Bokor (which the internet informs me is a practitioner of dark sorcery) has her heart broken by a feckless summer person (or whatever seasonal tourists are called in Louisiana.) Her grandmother gives her the means to compel his death and reanimation, with the admonishment to release him from her magic once specific conditions occur. (This is what we call in folklore a “narrative lack”, when the writer introduces conditions which will precipitate action. “Don’t feed them after midnight,” the man says, which, narratively speaking, means they will inevitably be fed after midnight.) Inevitably, she does not release her lover, and some super bad shit happens.

Like “The Dying Time, “Come Back to Me” absolutely gets right into the viscera of what animates the zombie, culturally and metaphorically speaking. I feel like a number of these stories try to tart up zombies so much they’re not even zombies anymore — there’s no guts — while these two revel in paradox of the zombie’s curious detachment and their voraciousness. Fucking great.

“Not Ready to Let Go” by Deanna K. Deavers

Another story about a couple, this time from the point of view of the dying partner spending her last moments with the man she loves, and then into her reanimation and the hungers that provokes. There was something unsettling to me about this scenario, something deeper than the obvious fucked-upedness of the situation. Maybe it was that the story was told from the zombie’s point of view? A common theme of zombie stories is the horror of the loved ones transformation from lover to killer. This can work well as a metaphor for how traumatizing it is to watch a loved one waste and die, and how our bodies ultimately betray us unto death. Death reaching out from the death bed to consume the living freaks me out, apparently. Nice.

“Night of the Lovin’ Dead” by Ashley Lister

A young woman goes with the elders of her village to perform a ritual which will conjure an undead army to protect them from a living one. She’s not sure what the ritual will be, but she’s been told it will be pleasurable, so she’s all in. Both the living and the undead end up pulling a train on her, which she’s super into. Honestly, while I was reading, I kept thinking of Men Write Women, which details the worst examples of dudes writing how women boob breastily. Like this line: “From the periphery of her vision she could see the rigid thrust of her erect nipples.” I think I speak for most breast-havers that I only notice my nips when I’m specifically checking to make sure I’m presentable. I sure as shit don’t see them from the periphery of my vision — however that’s supposed to work — while I’m walking in forest so dark I can barely see the ground I’m walking on. The entire situation was priapic male gaze nonsense, and the girl’s characterization ridiculous. No.

“Under a Perfect Sun” by Zander Vyne

“Under a Perfect Sun” concerns a group of people riding out the zombie apocalypse in the biosphere in Arizona. Before the inhabitants of the biodome figured out what was going on, one of the men is bitten. Before he turns, he locks himself in a closet and writes out detailed instructions on how to stretch food and power within the dome for as long as possible. Later, his wife has to decide whether to sleep with her zombified husband to get pregnant — apparently he’s technically still alive; it’s more of a rage virus — and if she’ll allow the other women to do the same, repopulating the planet-style. This one is the most stylistically interesting of the bunch — it skips through time and characters’ perspectives, including some epistolary passages.

This is one of two stories in this collection which deals with survivor communities grappling with questions of procreation. (“The Dying Time” also deals with pregnancy, but that is in a very different scenario.) On some level, I think this goes back to the fact that we’re kind of living through a slow-moving apocalypse right now, so an isolated community deciding whether to continue existing is going to resonate. I mean, have you seen millennial birth rates? But I think the thing to note about these stories is that both place the question of procreation solidly on the woman. Zombie stories often trade in questions of how to build and defend domesticity, but mostly it’s about how men are supposed to use violence to keep their families “safe”. (Rick Grimes is the absolute avatar of this.) So it was pretty dope to see a less 2A approach to society’s survival.

Anyway! So this was a fun little read because I have some feelings about zombies and domesticity, but this collection didn’t knock my socks off or anything. Mostly I’m glad it exists, because it’s cool to see that other people have the same dumb obsessions I do, even if we do our dumb obsessions in different ways.

History and Historical Romance: It Started With a Scandal by Julie Anne Long

I tend to get all breathless and twitterpated when I discover a new historical romance writer I enjoy, sending out profligate hold requests at the library. That was the case with Julie Anne Long, whose Lady Derring Takes a Lover was so beautifully choleric on the ingrained sexism of the time, and features a found family plot and exquisitely rendered female relationships. I maybe don’t need to say this, but I will anyway: as much I enjoy a historical, the baked in acceptance of social norms which are, to put mildly, antique, and to put more specifically, fucked beyond the telling of it, makes me often quite itchy while I read. Lady Derring was a salve.

This is figleafed in ur average historical romance: industrialists are all, to a man, fair minded and generous, having acquired their fortunes without being the rapacious monsters they all, to a man, were. The aristocrats — the dukes and earls and the like — may have daddy issues, struggling under the injurious regard of their Old Testament fathers, but these paternal and paternalistic dinosaurs are emblematic of an outdated mode of lording over great swaths of land and hundreds, maybe thousands of people. These new sons are embodiments of a New Aristocracy, one that views its marriages as meritocracies, the perfect embodiment of noblesse oblige. 

I was just reading one recently where the industrialist romantic lead mentioned offhand his ownership of cotton mills, and my mind leapt right to tour of Lowell, MA I took some years ago. Lowell is a locus of both early American industrialization, and the inevitable labor movements that follow once people grow weary of being ground down by engines, spitted by the spearpoint of progress. (It is also the hometown of Jack Kerouac.) That’s the problem with historicals: they are inescapably based on history, which features a boot on a throat in one permutation or another for as far back as one can manage.  

So, the endgame of this little sermonette was some dissatisfaction with It Started With a Scandal. On every objective metric, this is a fine novel, with excellent characterization, smooth pacing, and well drawn sexual tension. Long is a smart, interesting writer, and I will continue to read the shit out of her back catalog. However, I was never quite able to get over the fact that our romantic lead was a prince of Burgundy or Bourbon or somesuch, a French aristocrat who fled France during the Revolution. He’s very put out by the fact that his ancestral lands are not in his family’s possession anymore, and spends much time glowering and throwing vases in fits of pique. The leading lady, his housekeeper, vouchsafes to feel bad for him quite enormously. She is herself just weeks from penury — she and her child — so she knows what it is to lose things. 

To which I say: bah. The French aristocracy deserved to have their heads separated from their necks. They were indolent, greedy, dissolute shits whose venality resulted in the abject poverty and misery of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. So boo fucking hoo about getting run out of the country where our hero was born into incredible wealth and privilege. (I may have my back up after seeing some billionaire — there are only 600 or so in America, a listable group of people — literally crying on television because someone might tax him commensurate with his wealth. Meanwhile millions of Americans go bankrupt or just fucking die due to a medical insurance system designed to maximize profits at a brutal human cost. Fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, every single billionaire.) 

I am aware of, and engage in quite happily, the sort of historical blindness required to enjoy a historical romance. I am not going to nitpick inconsistencies unless they are egregious and/or not in service of the final resolution. But sometimes I’m in my own place in history, where I cannot unsee the parallels to current, ongoing, often fatal injustices in the world. I am not going to waste time feeling bad for people who have had everything and then some given to them by accident of birth who, just occasionally, feel thwarted in their every impulse. Our heroine’s soft-heartedness looks soft-headed.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it: every romance has the echoes of a less satisfactory conclusion embedded within it. Without the invisible authorial hand, our housekeeper’s life would end in brutal poverty, discarded by a “polite” society predicated on systematic exploitation. Mostly I’m satisfied with these romantic revisions — that is the point of a historical romance novel, n’est-ce pas? I can and do acknowledge this freakout is largely on me — I do not want to enbussen Long, who seems a very fine writer, because of a personal convergence of things. But sometimes I just can’t. The romantic conclusion ends up seeming such a petty, priapic thing, the tumescence of love blotting out all impediments to our lovers, even the important, necessary, and structural ones. 

Probably I should just back way from historical romance for the time being, library holds notwithstanding, until some improbable time when our brutal history is less brutal. I’ll be busy holding my breath. 

Review: Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

This was originally written in July 2018.

If I believed in such a thing, the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh would be a “guilty pleasure.” While I don’t believe in feeling bad for reading enormously successful and interesting books – that’s ridiculous – there are aspects of the series that nonetheless make me me feel kinda embarrassed. Any romance involving one of the changelings – and they are always predatory changelings – is so hopelessly mired in kinky Victorian notions of biological determinism and dominance and submission. I mean, that’s usually what you find in animal shifter narratives, so Psy-Changeling isn’t outside the norm, but I know I’m going to have to grit my teeth through that stuff to get to the extremely cool mythology she’s been spinning for almost 20 novels now. (I don’t have the same problem with the Psy, who are Vulcan-like psychics, because their romances tend to center around recovery from severe abuse and personal sexual awakening, which I find much more interesting than YOU MAH WOMAN GRARR.)

Technically, Psy-Changeling wrapped up with Allegiance of Honor, which was a sort of clip show, where we checked back in with literally everyone who had ever been mentioned in the previous 14 books. I get why it was written that way, but romance epilogues make my teeth ache, and this was more than a dozen of them all piled up. It was also a letdown because the previous three novels, Heart of Obsidian, Shield of Winter, and Shards of Hope, are hands down the best novels in the series. Singh brings all of her complicated mythology to full flower in those novels, and in ways that make the romance plot absolutely integral to the narrative. Heart of Obsidian especially. That they’re a dozen novels deep in a series makes them even more impressive; Singh had the opposite of burnout. 

Silver Silence, the novel directly previous to Ocean Light, was the first of the novels in Psy-Changeling Trinity, which details life after the fall of Silence (a form of widespread social conditioning practiced by the Psy designed to repress all emotion.) Like Ocean Light, it follows a character seen on the periphery for most of the series: Silver Mercant, personal assistant to all-around badass and ex-Psy Council member Kaleb Krychek. She falls in with a bear pack outside of Moscow, which was interesting because we’ve never seen bear changelings in action before. Bear changelings end up being annoying, but then they’re not as drearily serious as either the cats or the wolves, so on the balance more fun to read about.

Like Silver Silence, Ocean Light centers on a peripheral group, one that has heretofore been shrouded in mystery: the BlackSea pack, the changeling clan that encompasses the entirety of the earth’s oceans. Even the land-bound changelings think of them as out there. While we’ve encountered some of the BlackSea characters in Psy-Changeling novels, specifically Miane, the alpha, and her security guy, the pack itself has been secretive. BlackSea takes in Bowen Knight, head of the Human Alliance, in order for BlackSea scientists to remove a degrading chip in Knight’s head. This is a conflict we’ve seen before in Psy-Changeling, most recently in Shield of Winter, where it was the secondary plot. It is not as good as a primary conflict, like it is in Ocean Light, because it is a relatively inert situation: people worry, maybe they go to the doctor, then they worry some more. Either dude dies or he doesn’t.

We’ve met Bowen many times before. As the head of the Human Alliance, he’s tangled with both the Psy and Changelings (both of whom tend to treat humans like butt monkeys, but more so the Psy). He’s also been kind of a dick, which doesn’t necessarily change in Ocean Light. I don’t think that’s all bad – I like when dickish folk remain true to their characters even after, like, emotional and sexual awakening. That’s one of the best things about the romance between Kaleb and Sahara in Heart of Obsidian: Kaleb is a stone cold psycho and Sahara is his only emotional human relationship. In fact, I think he generally characterizes her as his only “weakness”: he sees his strength as flowing from his emotional sterility, and in many real ways it does. Even after they fall in love, he remains completely cut off from the rest of humanity. Sometimes the damage is just too great, and love is not a magic elixir. So it’s fine, good even, that Bo remains a dick, but he’s just less compelling than Kaleb all around, so I’m way less into it.

The romance in Ocean Light largely consists of Bowen and the BlackSea chef, Kaia, making eyes at one another while agonizing about how Bowen might die from a medical procedure. Further complicating their relationship is that Kaia, while being a water changeling, has Psy ancestry and some of their mental gifts. Bo is pretty much an anti-Psy bigot, so this could be a problem. The non-romance plot has to do with ongoing kidnappings of BlackSea members, kidnappings that seem to be perpetrated by the Human Alliance. Knight and Miane’s [sic, I super want this name to be Maine for no good reason] security guy work towards figuring out who the traitors in their organizations must be, but mostly through phone calls and data searches, and we don’t get to see changeling kicking down doors and apprehending bad guys for the most part. They spend most of the novel hanging out in the BlackSea HQ chatting and making sandwiches. There is some movement at the very end, but reading about a grueling transatlantic flight isn’t exactly action either.

BlackSea itself, though, was interesting to read about. There’s still a fair amount we don’t know about the pack – pack members tend to be especially secretive about what their animal is – but the underwater city was beautifully rendered. While shifter narratives almost never address bestiality – and I am not suggesting they should – there was an ongoing tentacle-sex gag going on here that surprised a laugh out of me. All considered, Ocean Light was fine, but I felt like more could have been done with both BlackSea and Bowen Knight, alas.  

I received my copy from Netgalley.

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?

Review: Wallbanger by Alice Clayton

Like many – or maybe even most – romantic comedies, Wallbanger bumps along cheerfully until its third act, where the whole thing descends into unearned sentiment and willful stupidity. Situation comedies are almost always characterized by mistaken identities and misunderstandings – meaning the characters often have to be irrational, clueless or foolish to make the situation work – but the third act turn in Wallbanger towards just breathtaking stupidity and a frankly bizarre understanding of a woman’s sexuality felt egregious. This was one of a long list of fictions I’ve read ruined by its ending.

My husband asked me about this book right as I was mid-way through the third act turn, and I groused about the ending unfolding. He asked if I thought maybe I was just an outlier – lots of people like descent into treacle, obvs, or it wouldn’t happen as often as it does. And that’s a factor, sure. As with all comedy and romance, your mileage may vary. I guess I’m just annoyed with how stupid that third act turn was, incommensurate with the level of stupidity preceding. What I would like from my fluff reading is an even level of stupid and unbelievable so I can be prepared. Writing characters with a modest level of competence and humor only to abandon that for completely weird confounding action makes me sad.

Simon and Caroline meet cute after Caroline sublets an apartment from her boss. In her first week there, her sleep is interrupted by the neighbor in the next apartment having several loud assignations with several different women. (You know, not all at once, but serially.) Eventually, after weeks of trash talk with her lady friends and interrupted sleep, Caroline goes banging on the wallbanger’s door in the middle of the night to get him to STFU. It eventually turns out that Caroline and the wall-banging neighbor, Simon, are in a six degrees of separation situation, and her friends and his friends hook up while they razz each other and banter.

So far, so good. Again, comedy is personal, and this could certainly be the kind of humor to put you off, but I thought the middle sections of the novel were the kind of breezy, silly shenanigans I’m looking for from my lazy chick lit. No, it’s not particularly deep nor well written, but in terms of light entertainment, it got the job done. Simon is not a huge asshole and defends his situation credibly; Caroline clearly has seen too many Sex in the City episodes on Oxygen (the ones with the sex scenes and cussing expunged), but not in a nasty, label-obsessed way. Some of the situations made me cringe – the cabin – but mostly the interpersonal relationships were the kind of fakey, airless relationships that exist mostly to be punchlines, not profound statements on the human state or whatnot. Which is totally fine.

I’m given to understand that Wallbanger started life as a Twilight fan fiction, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you how this has anything to do with Twilight. Unlike 50 Shades, the most successful of the pulled-to-publish fanfics out there, the characters in Wallbanger seem almost sensible and evenly matched. They’re roughly the same age and success level, and while Simon obviously has a different take on the whole monogamy thing than Caroline, he’s not a stalker psycho. The person whom I assume is the Jacob character has little in common with Jacob either structurally within the novel nor in terms of character attributes, and Caroline is no Mormon housewife slash shuddering virgin. In fact, my husband and I got into a whole thing about the ethics of published fanfiction – most of which I’m not going to replicate here – but I think the usefulness of the Twilight intertext is pretty minimal either way.

What I really want to bitch about is the third act shitshow involving Caroline’s orgasm or lack thereof. This complaining will certainly involve spoilers, though of the minimal kind, because when a romance heroine tells you she can’t get off at the beginning, what are the odds she’s going to get off by the end? It’s like the Chekhovian gun, only this time it’s the Chekhovian vagina. Somebody’s going to fire that bad boy until it clicks. Caroline tells us early on that she’s lost her O, as she calls it, due to an unfortunate hook up with a dude she calls “machine gun fucker”. I think it’s a blind date set up, and MGF is status-obsessed and boorish. She eventually fucks him out of resignation, just sort of to make the date end, which I recognized from my gauzy memories of dating as an unfortunate but sometimes eventual sexual situation.

It’s not so much that you’re coerced into sex with a bad sexual partner – even though you know it’s going to be bad – but just that you shrug and figure that bad sex is better than no sex at all. This argument uses extremely suspect logic, and I’m not saying it’s true, just that it’s thought by people like younger me and Caroline at points. I don’t even mean to be hyperbolic here, but Caroline’s reaction makes me think this sexual experience is a lightly encoded sexual assault. I get this supposed to be a funny haha set-up, a fakey impediment to be overcome by fakey shenanigans, but it really seems to me that the loss of desire – of sexual response – is such a serious issue that it shouldn’t be treated as lightly as it is.

Not that long ago, I was standing out on the back porch smoking with a friend of mine. I don’t even know how we got on the topic, but she related to me that she’d recently lost her mojo, which had precipitated something of a crisis with her wife. “Why am I not responding to this person I love? Do I not love her enough?” They asked each other and themselves. She went to her doctor in despair. Turns out, she had something like a cyst or other perturbation in her lady-system, a physical explanation for a situation that had pretty serious emotional bearings on her emotional state, her relationship, and her sense of self. I related how my sexual reactions had been gutted by the double punch of breastfeeding hormones and chemical birth control in the months after I had my first kid, and how weird it was to find that my sexual response was something that could be gutted like that. I’d always thought of my sexual being as inextricable until it was extracted. “Oh thank god,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

I didn’t know either, for months, what was going on, that it wasn’t my fault or in my control. (Not that if it were psychological it would be any more my fault or under my control.) This isn’t even factoring in all the body trauma I went through simply bringing my son into the world. The process of rediscovering my sexuality was a long and complicated one, one that had as much to do with chemical changes as it did to my emotional reaction to them. And that’s not even getting into friends I’ve known who’ve lost their mojo over maybe more severe traumas – psychological or physical – who have to work and work at healing, who have had kind and patient lovers who nonetheless cannot magically repair these dampened and depressed sexualities simply through love.

So when Caroline trips the fuck out because her first time having penetrative sex with her man does not result in her elusive O, I kind of wanted to scream. I don’t think it’s inaccurate that she wouldn’t orgasm from penetrative sex – only about 25% of women consistently do – nor do I think it’s inaccurate that she would blame herself for that “failure”. What drives me fucking bananas is that she magically finds her O again in a scene played for slapstick. and from then on it’s an O rodeo. Just, fuck, I know I’m taking this personally, but this kind of easy magic that has women lit up like a pinball machine after some kind words and the old in-and-out just burns me.

I’m not trying to be unromantic or a crank, and I’m not saying that this book is particularly horrible in its sexy times. This was just the book where I noticed that so much sex writing focuses on straight up (pun intended) penetrative sex as the be-all come-all, and I just can’t anymore. Love is grand, but it’s not going to ring your bell ipso facto. Kindness and understanding – which Simon does evidence, a little – go far in healing, but they are not an elixir. The moment when you realize you’re totally drunk is not the moment you become sober. That’s a whole other process. The rest of it is work, and letting go the idea that your orgasm is a metric, and time.

The third act of Wallbanger ended up being Cosmo healing, a checklist of simple solutions to decidedly unsimple problems, using trips and tricks inaccessible to most women. Again, there’s nothing particularly uncommon about the way Wallbanger portrays a woman’s sexual response, so my irritation is more aggregate than specific. But its commonality is precisely the problem. This is emancipation by will, empowerment through bikini wax. It’s not that I don’t think such things are possible; it’s just that they are constantly portrayed as probable when I know the lived experience is so much cooler, more fucked up, and weirder than these fluff pieces let on. I’m not expecting strict reality from my fluff – I’m not a complete buzzkill – I would just dig if for once it didn’t descend to the lowest, most common narrative, this glossy tabloid psychology that has neither the bite of insight nor the sacrilege of humor. I can be amused by situational comedy up until the situation is a real one treated cheaply. Alas and alack.

Posts from Overshare Planet: Unteachable

“How old did you think I was?”

“I don’t know. 25? How old did you think I was?”

“About the same.”

Both of us were lying. I was 19 and he was 31.

When I think of my body then, I have this sense of sharpness, like my skin was too tight over my bones, like the meat of my body was as thin and fine as the knife used to fillet it. I’ve always looked younger than I am. In high school, I’d go in solo and buy child’s tickets for the movies for friends because I could pass for 13 easy. I didn’t get my period until I was 16, and I was still growing, so I had that look of stretching bones, no boobs, no hips. Coltish, you’d call it if I were six inches taller; cute is the designation for the short. At five feet and some change, at 19, I could still pass for a freshman in the right light. Most of the light was right.

 

My boyfriends before him had been my age or younger, these sweet, sensitive boys who were as inexperienced with their bodies as I was with mine. One had vivid horizontal stretch marks on his back and thighs because he’d grown six inches the summer before. They were still shimmery and white. We spent a lot of time stripped to the skin because I think we needed to show someone our strange new inhabitations, like we were squatters setting fires for a night in an empty house and then found ourselves trapped. We were so tentative, like we were fragile, and we asked for permission like a hall pass. We would just go out and come right back.

The fashion that summer was baby doll dresses. They made my legs seem long and swung. I was as tan as I can get, which isn’t much, more a pink flush than a darkening, the freckles coming out on my nose, my hair bleached bright blonde like it had been when I was a girl. I had tan lines high on my thighs and the white flashed when I walked or sat. I never wore much make-up, just lipstick, often red. I knew the picture I painted. I knew who tended to be attracted to that, and was often ferociously cruel to people hitting on me. I treated people attracted to me like perverts, and they often were, which ends up being a centrifugal force of weltering shame and desire.

We met at some theater thing, at a collection of tables shoved together in an after hours restaurant peopled with friends of friends and hangers on. It was all very boho, very cosmopolitan. I was very impressed with myself. When he kissed me first, we were making our way through the dark balcony of a theater. There was theater junk everywhere, bulky and haphazard. I put my hands on his back so that I could follow his path and so I could put my hands on his back. He didn’t play coy; he knew what those hands meant. He turned and kissed me, running his hands over my body. He pinched my breasts, and I thought, there isn’t going to be a hall pass this time. When we came out later he asked me to come home with him. I said yes. I was still living with my mom.

It was only later we exchanged birthdays. He was apologetic and played at the ethical dilemma, but I knew it was theater. He said to me once when our relationship was shuddering to its death, something muttered almost like he was saying it to himself, “I wanted to be on my last girlfriend.” “I don’t,” I shot back, and his eyes were pure anime. I knew what I was and I found it surprising that he didn’t. Poor baby. Poor baby doll.

I have a friend who got fired from a gig writing porn for barely legalmagazines because he kept writing his girls too honestly. The line that got him fired was, “You smell like my grandpa,” delivered by a legally consensual Lolita to the 30 something guy who was making it with her in his car. Girls can’t break the fantasy. I loved his skin, the way it was losing its elasticity, the softness to the corners of his mouth when he frowned, his crow’s feet. I don’t have crow’s feet now so much as radiating lines above my eyebrows. I think I frown more than I laugh. His skin made me think of my grandma’s hands which were like suede and bird bones. I never said this, of course.

He wasn’t tall, and heavyset. He was rueful about his belly, the rolls on his waist, but I liked it. I liked that he was solid, like he was a person. I felt like I was made out of ballistics gel and vinyl, something carved out of plastic. I liked that his age had settled upon him. I wanted someone to set me on my knees and fuck me so that I could be fucked. I wanted someone to lie to me about how old I looked or how old I acted. I wanted my own shiny stretch marks as I swelled with experience. I wanted to use someone and then throw them away. That is more or less what I did. He wasn’t the only 30 something guy I dallied with at this age.

I learned from him, and the next affair was casual and silly. He was moving out of state in two weeks and we had quiet sex in a room full of boxes and that grew, quiet because his roommates were dour and religious. I knew he had a thing for small, mean blondes; the old saw: only God could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair. I could quote Yeats and self deprecate. Our first date was to the drive-in with the roommates. The movies were all 70s exploitation films, horror with a lot of blood splatter and casual nudity, and the woman – wife? I wasn’t tracking this sort of relationship then – decided we should leave after one of the characters bit off a man’s dick after a blow job. I thought it was funny, the way mean blondes do. I was very Hitchcock.

He pulled me away so he could explain why we were leaving. He was elaborately apologetic, about the movie, about his upset, religious friends. I kissed him while he was sputtering about some psychological bullshit and pressed him against the wall of the concession stand. He tasted like popcorn. The drive-in smelled like pee and gravel. The whole thing was ruddy. They dropped me off at home – we had all gone together – and he got out of the car and stood out on the sidewalk looking sheepish and hopeful. I was hoping we could go back to my place together, he said, gesturing at the couple in the car. But, you know, they’re religious. I smiled like a shark. I drove over and snuck in past them like the teenager I was. Most of our relationship was based on the short clock and the transgression. It was sweet in its honesty. It wouldn’t have lasted, but there was nothing wrong with it beyond the obvious.

My parents have old neighbor friends, a couple. They have kids just a little younger than me, more like my sister’s age and younger. They moved up north a million years ago back to my dad’s hometown. He became a teacher, and I think she was too. A dozen or so years ago, he started fucking one of the seniors in his class, a technically legal but nevertheless actionable offense. He was fired; his wife left him; my mother, my dad’s ex-wife, made this really specific face of disgust. He followed the girl out to college and they ended up married when she graduated. They had a baby. She went to grad school. She has a PhD, is on tenure track at a good school, and has a 10 year old boy. He’s retired. I don’t think you could call their relationship anything but a success at this point. If I wanted to sit in judgement about it, I’d be well too late.

A couple of years ago, my dad took my son up for a weekend up north, and they met with his friend and his son. The pictures of the boys on the rocky north shore beach are transcendent as they jump around like boys and throw rocks, one grandson, one son, samesies. I can mimic my mother’s face now, the one of disgust, the very specific one. Considering their relationship makes me think of dad in ways I don’t like, not that he has any culpability in this. I don’t like being reminded of the power of potential. The skin on my jawline has gone soft.  I just learn new faces when I slide them on, but under all my aging softness is that hard 19 year old girl. God, she’s such a terrible creature to consider.

Leah Raeder’s Unteachable made me consider that terrible creature, and it was full of that lying honesty I remember, the sensation and overheated meaning. Maise O’Malley and Evan Wilke meet cute at an ugly local fair, all carnies and robbed tourists, Southern Illinois. She’s a bored senior, 18, flash and skitter. They ride the roller coaster and when it drops, so do they. She fucks him on the bench seats of his hipster car and then walks away to the first day of class several weeks later. He’s her teacher. He makes feints to the ethical dilemma, but she knows who she is, what she is. She sits on the hood of his car like the trope she is, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. She can quote Nabokov and self deprecate.

Maise is almost too worldly, too allusive, this older Maise cracking through the voice. There’s a retrospective edge to it that makes her possible, but then she was possible anyway, horribly, the way I was. I have diaries of that time and they’re full of poetry and fragments, raw, stupid, cruel, funny. I like the person who wrote them, but she’s lying like I’m lying now about some things. Maise’s playing it for theater, but it’s the kind of theater that strips you, full of starbursts and skin, the kind that strips herself.

Unteachable reminded me of The Age of Miracles, in a way, though Julia from that novel is so much younger, so quiet and watchful. Unteachable has the same inexorable stretching though, the bones still growing, the marks on the skin still shiny like spider eggs. Maise and Julia are both girls, and they narrate their slow softenings: the days they look in the mirror and see their mothers; the father they replicate in sex or silence; the trying on of a hundred different faces, not all of them of disgust, so many of them of wonder at the stretching bones, the surprise of yourself, the hard and gem-like flame maintaining its ecstasy. Terrible creatures, all of us. Amen.

Beautiful Disaster: Most of this Title is Wrong

There’s this old joke from the Simpsons where Bart sees the movie based on the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and then quips, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” The beautiful part of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is most certainly wrong, but I think the disaster part is also a misnomer. Disaster implies a sudden destruction, something out of the hands of the affected, but this novel is a long, Mordorian slog through the absolute worst character traits that bloom into their inevitably dreary conclusion. Beautiful Disaster is like slowly adding chlorine bleach to ammonia, and the toxic fog that results is both unsurprising and cheerlessly boring. That I’ve struggled for nigh on three months to come up with a review is probably more due to my burnt throat than anything. What do I even say about a novel this fucking dumb?

Which, now that this act of spleen is out of the way, onto the novel. I don’t really have much to say about the plot, being, as it is, the pointless, motivationless histrionics of characters without sense or coherence. Much of the romantic drivel published about young white women and their non-problems follows this sort of plotting: two acts of interpersonal hand-wringing followed by a more pulp-sensible third act. (Think Twilight, where not much happens for most of the book, then a badly blocked action sequence to remind you that there are “real world” stakes intrudes.) Abby Abernathy’s dorm showers break, so the most reasonable solution is to shack up with her friend America’s boyfriend and his psycho roommate, Travis. Due to reasons, she ends up having to share a bed (you know, like, platonically, not that any of these assholes have a clue who Plato was) with Travis for a month. An artless and witless courtship ensues, complete with an unconvincing love triangle and a lot of drunken screaming.

Though I really could go on about this – and I could, believe you me – dogging the complete incoherence of the characters is probably not terribly fruitful. Like so many of these pulp romance slash New Adult characters, Abby and Travis inhabit a magical land where athletes who smoke and never train are just the very best at boxing; where shy good girl virgins can drink, card shark and fuck like a pro; where openly cruel & violent psychotics can command the admiration of everyone; where there are no legal ramifications to getting people killed and precious few emotional ones, short of “phew, glad it wasn’t anyone I know.” So many of these bottom barrel romances (or whatever this is) are peopled with incoherent sociopaths, the selfish and solipsistic edge of romantic love acted out by reader (and writer) proxies who can be all things and therefore nothing. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Not once. Not even if you should.

Like Ana from 50 Shades, Abby can be everything to the reader – virgin/whore, shy/brazen, competent/confused – without having to own any of it. Travis, like Christian Grey, exists solely to facilitate the heroine’s feels and/or vagina, driving her to actions that she wants/doesn’t want. Travis enacts the most vicious misogyny I’ve seen in a while from a character I’m supposed to like, which is then redeemed by magical ladyparts aka love. On some level, I get it: women spend a lot of godamn time dealing with threats of violence or actual violence. Just put up a female avatar and make two lightly feminist comments on Reddit and watch the rape threats roll in. A narrative that vaccinates one walking date rape through love has an appeal, I guess. (The bff of Abby, America,  who spends a lot of godamn time girl-hating and slut-shaming is more confusing. Maybe it’s just self-loathing? Who even knows.)

So, here’s the thing. I’ve said this before, so I’m paraphrasing myself here, but whether I like this sort of girl pulp has a lot to do with whether I like the main character. The characters are always incoherent and the worlds badly build; that’s just table stakes. Sookie Stackhouse reads to me like a 60 something lady who hasn’t been laid in so long she’s forgotten how the mechanics actually work, in addition to having terrible fashion sense. I find her fakey cluelessness frustrating, but I don’t dislike her. Bella Swann reads to me like a housewife desperately trying to reconnect with a libido twisted by religious dogma – Edward as both saint and stranger. I want to trip Bella, but I also empathize. Ana from 50 Shades is more of the same, but worse; it’s wedgie time for you, Ana. Harry Dresden – though that series isn’t girl pulp, technically – reads like a black-duster-wearing nerd who didn’t get much in high school because he was a jerk, and is making up for it now. (Making it up for now by getting some, not by not being a jerk, to be clear.) The women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood recede before the men, who enact a lot of hyper alpha stuff, but almost as a drag show, which I find stupid, charming and hilarious. I could easily go on.

Anyway, point being, the person Abby most reminds me of is the unhinged sorority president whose letter to her sisters was brilliantly performed by Michael Shannon for Funny or Die. (I’ll let you go take a look: Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter [NSFW]. The difference is that Abby doesn’t have nearly Rebecca Martinson’s flair for profanity, profanity I grudgingly respect, even if I think it’s seriously lame she got a writing gig on Vice [NSFW] out of the deal; ugh, and of course.) Mean-spirited, cruel, condescending, vulgar, and I want to underline this again, vulgar. Abby, like the sorority prez, spends a lot of time talking about drinking and shoring up her prowess in this incredibly juvenile way. Abby at one point takes 19 shots – 19 fucking shots! – and isn’t rushed to the hospital dead because she’s so good at holding her liquor. She trashes other girls for their awkwardness and their stupidity while solidly doing the very same things she castigates. Her priorities are completely fucked, her ambitions skewed, and her empathy nonexistent.

People like Abby make my late model third wave feminist self want to punch a baby. Not everything a girl does has to be a feminist act, and maybe it’s a good sign that girls can treat their relatively insulated lives so cavalierly. Maybe that’s one of those horrible signs of progress that people like Abby can roll around acting like they’ll never get hurt, that psycho date rapists like Travis can see fit to slut-shame a girl for wearing a shirt. These are characters who have never once had to hold a hand, or have gotten that call, or watched when someone’s eyes shift when they decide to tell you. They have zero fucking clue. What kills me is characters like Abby and her bff America running their condescension on the girls who don’t get out safe, who get taken in by abusers – and make no mistake, Travis is an abuser – because they thought they were safe but weren’t. After Travis doorsteps a girl after banging her, and the girl is unhappy about her treatment.

“Every time!” America said. She looked at the woman. “How are you surprised by this? He’s Travis Fucking Maddox! He is famous for this very thing, and every time they’re surprised!” 

Uh, okay? First off, I believe in casual sex, insofar as if it’s your bag, go for it. I don’t think you should have to enter into a long term relationship with someone after you have sex with them, and I think a lot of shitty relationships could be avoided if more people could have the sex they need without having to justify it with love or even commitment. Travis is a huge dick about giving this girl the brush off, but fine, probably better for her overall. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not clutching my pearls over the thought of casual sex at all.

What I question about this scene is the fact that Travis is swimming in pussy, even though he had a well established rep, even though all these women have to couch-fuck him because he won’t let them in his bedroom. (Red flag, ladies: that’s where he keeps the heads.) What I question is that “every single time” all of these women who are willing to couch-fuck a guy in his not-too-clean sounding apartment are so enamored of him that they lose their damn minds? And need to be scolded by America? I’m completely willing to believe that there are women who would have sex with Travis; that’s not my issue. (“He was hot and I haven’t tried scabies yet.”) My issue is that McGuire is asking us to believe this Cro-Magnon is universally treated like some kind of catch, when, uh, no. That the couch-fuck was so good that every woman who gets one is gagging for round two. I guarantee you this: Travis couldn’t find a clit with both hands and a flashlight, and for sure he never tried. He cannot be that good in bed, ever. But I guess this is the romantic ideal? I don’t know.

The person I don’t even get is America. She alternately pushes Abby on Travis, and then drags her back off, loudly breaking up with Shep and getting back together, shrieking in clubs, judging, and generally acting like the worst bff ever. She’s the constant counterpoint of Travis’s awful misogyny, and the two of them have a game of one upmanship throughout the book of who can say the most terrible thing next. This is one of those left field thoughts, but bear with me. So you know the Book of Job, right? From the bible? So the commonest reading of the section where Job’s friends show up to tell him to curse god and die and all that is that the friends are psychological aspects of Job himself, the oldest recorded example of the devil and angel on your shoulder. I keep seeing this kind of divided psychology in these shitty romances:  Ana with her “Inner Goddess” and “subconscious”, Jacob stepping in to voice Bella’s fears in Breaking Dawn because she can’t. Much as I’m dogging on Abby for being horrible, mostly she’s just milquetoast, not evidencing any kind of real emotional reaction to anything around her. It’s all this flat affect and observation, and the real emotional reaction gets off-loaded onto America so we can identify more readily with this car wreck. No.

Anyway, blah, I hate these people. Because I’m tired of trying to make coherent observations, I’m just going to note a couple things about this book that suck, in no particular order. I groaned aloud and put my head on the table when Travis bought Abby a fucking puppy, whose existence then blinks on and off throughout the book as McGuire remembers him. The trip Abby takes to meet Travis’s nightmare of a family turned me into my great-aunt Edith for about 50 pages, completely mortified by their boorish squalor. I wanted to cover all the chairs in that crinkly plastic, douse everything in bleach, and then take off and nuke it from orbit. As disgusting as Travis’s bachelor pad sounded, the mothership was a million times worse. The staph infection doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wanted to punch myself into unconsciousness when the singalong happened in the cafeteria. Who the fuck are these people, vomit Glee? And Pigeon is the worst name bestowed on anyone ever.

Oh, but I guess that reminds me. I see justifications for shit like Beautiful Disaster that runs something like: you don’t have to like the characters for a book to be powerful or well done. And in the abstract, sure. Psychologically astute portraiture of monsters can be devastating to read, especially when they lure you into identifying with the monster. But that’s not what’s going on here; this isn’t an adroit manipulation of readerly expectations. All of the major characters are psychologically impossible, and most of the plot is patently ridiculous. Nothing that could possibly happen that way enacted by people who can’t exist? That’s not a cool dramatic monologue that causes the reader to reexamine what she thinks about human nature; that’s a shitshow. I don’t come to end feeling like I’ve learned anything about damaged people, and I sure as shit don’t buy that happily ever after. Gross.

Oh, and also? That piece of shit Travis Maddox should not be attributed with lines from Song of Solomon like I see all over the damn place, idiots. (I did find the blog Bad Hebrew Tattoos though, which is my new favorite thing, so it wasn’t all bad. ) “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine” was written by King Solomon. And as far as tattooing that particular line on your skin, like douches Travis Maddox and David Beckham have done, the line correctly translated from the Hebrew reads, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine. He browses among the lilies.” You can make that gender neutral in English easily enough, but the Hebrew unmistakably refers to a male lover. So unless Trav is a gay Jew – which would make this book considerably more interesting – this line has no business being on his body. Moron.

Losing It: New Adult Read by an Old Adult

So this is my first foray into the New Adult genre, if I don’t count The Piper’s Son and Fifty Shades of Grey, which I’m not sure if I should. They do seem to fall broadly into the category though. For those not up on your recent marketing distinctions, New Adult is, to quote Wikipedia (of course):

New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.” New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices. The genre has gained popularity rapidly over the last few years, particularly through books by self-published bestselling authors like Jamie McGuire, Colleen Hoover, and Cora Carmack.

Hey, this is a book by Cora Carmack!

I don’t want to get too pointy-headed here, but the concept of genre is an interesting one to me, so I’m just going to ramble a little about that. I have some discomfort with calling Young Adult or New Adult books a genre, because it seems to me that genre is not as simple as who reads the books, or who the books are aimed at. It’s like Atwood claiming her MaddAddam trilogy isn’t science fiction, because please. It has all the earmarks: an exploration of culture through invented technology, a thought experiment about current treads extrapolated into the future. What she’s saying, when she says she’s not writing science fiction, is that she’s not writing fiction for science fiction nerds.

When I get done bridling – y u no write for us, Peggy? – I think this is kinda legitimate. Genre can be an engagement with the tropes agreed upon by readerships or fandoms, and she is not writing to that genre engagement, whatever the motifs she might hit. I’ve argued in many a review against a book being classed as Young Adult, because despite the age of the protagonist (which is a motif often used to class the genre), I felt the sensibility was off. The Reapers Are the Angels or The Age of Miracles are examples of this: while they may occasionally have the concerns of the young adult – coming of age, emergent morality and social understandings – they lack the tone of novels aimed at teens. I’m not even saying that because they are literary – whatever that’s supposed to mean – that they are not young adult. I’ve seen plenty of literary YA novels that were still squarely aimed at teens.

I guess what I’m saying is that genre, as a concept, is a slippery beast, and can be defined in multiple ways, whether by marketing distinctions made by publishers about intended readership, or authorial intent in who s/he was writing to, or agreed upon motifs that define the genre. As the definition of genre has overlaps and fractures, so too are there books that sit uneasy in one genre or another. I can think of at least two books that switched marketing distinction upon publication in different countries – Pure and Tender Morsels – marketed as young adult in one place, and sold to adults in another. Both made me uncomfortable, although I thought the latter was better than the former in deliberately widening my upset about the way the book charted the uncomfortable middle ground.

If you pay attention at all to the most voted on reviews on Goodreads any given week, you can see just scads of reviews for New Adult titles making the lists, and also just a ton of emotion. People are reading these titles passionately and a lot. Enthusiasts have a whole review style that includes casting the protagonists with photos of milquetoast looking models and soft-core b&w images to telegraph their feels, and the detractors are often meticulous in their hatred. There are a lot of gifs, animated or not.

There’s also a lot of flamewarring coming from writers and fans and non-fans, and it’s pretty fascinating to see this emergent genre get sorted out on the threads. I don’t ever see this kind of flamewarring in more established genres, like romance, where both the well-defined readership and those who don’t define themselves as romance readers more or less know what to expect from a romance novel. I’ve shat on my share of romance novels (and loved a few too) and I rarely get flamed because romance fans can take just one look at my review and dismiss me as not part of the in-group. But because New Adult is so new and contested, there’s a hand-to-hand combat going on over how this genre is defined, who constitutes the readership, and what the motifs are. Everything is up in the air.

Point of my long-winded digression being: so New Adult? To the untrained eye, much that gets classed as New Adult looks to me like either contemporary romance with college-aged protagonists, or young adult with sex scenes, or an engagement in the concerns of emergent adulthood. Losing It falls into the first and second category, but fails at the third, and as such, pretty much is not for me. We find Bliss Edwards, College Student, opening the novel by enacting an unbelievably stupid plan to lose her virginity by picking up a stranger in a bar. It’s a young adult situation in a contemporary romance setting, complete with a meet-cute and rom-commy flighty-but-funny behavior for everyone from the sass-talking roommates to the protagonists. I have precious little patience for either the concept of virginity or stories about its loss, and romantic comedies and their situational fremdschämen make my skin crawl. (This is my asshole fancy way of saying I hate situation comedies based on people being embarrassing.) So far, we’re in it’s-not-you-it’s-me territory with this book.

My real problem is that the dude Bliss brings home and then abandons like a lunatic – Garrick – turns out to be Bliss’s new professor ZOMG. Putting aside that he is perfect and hot and British in a way that makes me feel tired, this is an entirely plausible ethical situation to be in – fucking a professor (or even being Clintonesque with a professor, which is mostly what happens here) – that is treated so lightly as to be uninteresting. It’s been a while since college, but university can be an over-sexed hothouse with profs, adjuncts, students, TAs, RAs, undergrads, overgrads, and everything in between all getting it on in every permutation. Most schools have forbidden prof/student dalliances, at least within the same department – I think anyway, and I’m too lazy to look it up – but these power dynamics and sexual dynamics are important parts of college sexual life.

I’m not even saying that Bliss and Garrick’s relationship is unethical or unmatched. I myself am the direct product of a professor and a student falling in love – though as both my folks like to point out, things were different in 1969. (Hi Mum and Dad. Sorry I’m talking about you on the Internet again.) What I’m saying is, as a reader, I was bored by a sit com that breezed over the parts of their relationship that had an ethical import. Which is fine, and if you’re looking for light entertainment, you could certainly do worse. Much as I hated the character of Garrick – not because he’s an asshole, but because hot British people written by Americans are dodgy as bubbles and squeak, cheerio – Bliss does have some active engagement with theater, her chosen major, which read to me as not-bullshit. That aspect of the New Adult motif-set was fine.

I read this and its sequel, Faking It, pretty much in a sitting, in the middle of some dire personal stuff that is both none of your business, and of course I’ve already written about on the Internet. Losing It was serviceable and inoffensive, and my two-starring it has more to do with retrospective consideration than my feelings about the prose at the time I was reading it. I liked the sequel considerably better, and Carmack seems to improve as a novelist. I’ve got some other NA titles on deck, and given my general malaise, I’m sure I’ll be reading them well before the smart stuff I’ve already assigned myself as a reader. Young adult, new adult, can be attractive to me as a reader, because in lots of situations, I’m looking for inoffensively silly and light. That the ethical concerns are so much simpler can be a plus when I’m in the middle of exhausting, brutal, depressing situations in my real life. Being an old adult is no picnic.

So, that is my first foray into the New Adult genre. You’re welcome.

The Land of the Painted Caves and Paleo Sue

Good lord. This was paiiiiinful. So painful that I couldn’t get through more than 200 pages of The Land of Painted Cavesby Jean M. Auel, and only that while skimming pretty heavily. Oh, Ayla, I am disappoint.

You don’t get to book 6 of a long, decreasingly satisfactory book series without being a partisan, and I was devoted to the cause. I have enough self-awareness in my dotage to know I should never revisit The Clan of the Cave Bearlest I crush a happy adolescent experience with my weary cynicism, but I also know that book was freaking badass. Setting aside for the moment that many of the attributes of the Neanderthals have been since proven inaccurate – it’s more than likely they could speak, for example – the story of a human girl taken in by a band of another hominid species is absolutely compelling.

Because that’s the thing: the fact that humans overlapped with another hominid species for thousands of years is somewhere close to the coolest fucking thing ever. Forget the hundreds of species created by science fiction; we shared the globe with at least one – and possibly more – species that the Prime Directive would call sentient. Tool-making, at least nominal burial of the dead, clothing and other ornamentation: Neanderthals, you has it. Seriously, you guys, COOLEST THING EVER. (Followed, in a close second, by the fact of dinosaurs. Think about it: dinosaurs were real.)

Neanderthals have always been used in fiction as a foil to our humanity – you know, like aliens have – and a lot of those depictions have tinged with the false Darwinian concept of “progress”. Auel sidesteps much of this by making her Neanderthals complex, intelligent people with distinct personalities, and she grounds the tale in some hard core paleolithic research. Creb, for example, was based on an actual skeleton of a Neanderthal man, who was born with various physical deformities and lived to the unthinkably old age of 40. The physical evidence of his long existence suggests a society willing and able to care for him. I can absolutely do without her Lysenkoism – the very concept of heritable racial memories is difficult to use without being racist (literally) – but godamn did she make the myriad uses for the cattail or the migratory patterns of the ptarmigan or flint freaking knapping page-turningly awesome. A family friend got a higher degree in archaeology pretty much because of The Clan of the Cave Bear, a field where she works to this day. That’s inspirational.

And at the beginning of the series, Ayla is a a pretty wonderful protagonist. A smart girl, and competent, but living within a system that doesn’t credit her gifts or respect her. I loved how brutal she was, but also kind and caring, and I loooooved her Clan family – her adopted mother, Iza, the scarred mog-ur Creb. I was recently talking about some assigned reading book, something important, that I know I read in high school, and how I can’t remember a single thing about it. (Maybe A Separate Peace?) I could probably tell you all of the major and some of the minor plot points in the first two Ayla books, despite the fact that I only read them once. Maybe if touching war dramas had more awkwardly phrased sex scenes and mammoths, I’d remember them better. Pro-tip, writers.

I admit I’m nattering at this point, because I kind of don’t even want to talk about how bad this book is. Things have been declining steadily since The Mammoth Hunters(and if I’m going to be honest, since The Valley of Horses, because Jondalar is, and always has been, the worst ever.) The Mammoth Huntershas a stupid jealousy plot. The Plains of Passagehas a thinly veiled dig on the more extreme feminist archaeology of the late-80s – you know, like the Starhawk feminist utopia stuff – which in some ways deserves the dig, but feels rich from someone who is using discredited Soviet genetic theory as the basis for her Neanderthals. The Shelters of Stonemanages to invoke some seriously painful class superiority bullshit, but at least it had a plot.

Ayla has certainly been leveling up through these novels, but in The Land of Painted Caves, now her domination of the paleolithic world is complete! Heretofore, she’s invented the bra, the needle, the atlatl, and domesticated both horses and wolves. But as hokey as all that was, she was still a person. From the second freaking page:

Ayla, too, had extraordinarily sharp vision. She could also pick up sounds above the range of normal hearing and feel the deep tones of those that were below. Her sense of smell and taste were also keen, but she had never compared herself with anyone, and didn’t realize how extraordinary her perceptions were. She was born with heightened acuity in all her senses…”

This isn’t the Ayla I knew, who was smart and cunning, but totally had to work on her skills like the rest of us humans, whose talents were the product of work and determination, not some magical superhuman powers. It keeps being noted that she cannot sing, but this isn’t a character flaw in exactly the same way that Bella Swann being clumsy is not a character flaw. It’s dumb and lazy characterization. I don’t really mind Paleo Sue in the other books though, because all of Ayla’s inventions were neat little thought experiments about how those items came to be, what kind of conditions and experiences would have created innovation. That’s badass, and more importantly, it makes the dry archaeology personal and engaging.

This book, however, is about Ayla visiting ALL THE CAVES, and, get this: she doesn’t even paint them herself. They were painted generations before, and I threw down this book when Ayla and the Zelandoni medicine woman wonder why they were painted and then shrug and have some dinner and the baby passes water. Seriously, this is about as interesting as listening to someone narrate their visit to a museum, a narration with an unhealthy focus on where the dog is and who’s going to check on the car, in case it got eaten by lions. Seriously, Ayla, go large or go home. They should have been painted as part of the narrative – you know, like how Ayla is the Venus of Willendorf – and there should be something more than speculation about what they mean. Ground the story in the physical, and then make the leap. You’ve done it before, Ayla, do it again.

I’ve been skipping the sex scenes in Ayla books since I became sexually active – they’re pretty much cut-and-paste – but I have been all in on anything having to do with harvesting plants and whatnot. Auel had me with her paleontology porn. There are flashes of that here – like a scene where Ayla skins and guts a wolverine, which was pretty cool – but so much of the archaeology stuff is badly stitched in. I can’t bring myself to care about the hundred scenes where Ayla smells some tea (instinctively, whatever that’s supposed to mean) and then identifies its herbal contents.

Ayla and Jondalar meet up with several thousand people who appear, we are reminded of their back story from another book, and then they wander off. Ayla hands Jondalar the baby several hundred times. The baby, being perfect, somehow manages to be potty trained at several months. (And speaking of Bella Swann, the baby is named Jonayla, which is also the worst name ever.) They visit several caves, describe them in excruciating detail, and then move on. People are worried about Wolf, but then it turns out he’s awesome so they stop worrying. Ayle has a strange accent. Something vaguely approaching an event happens, and then someone wanders in, having missed it, and they recount the entire fucking scene you just read arg omg you would think Auel had never written a fucking novel, let along one that hugely captured my adolescent imagination. 

Jiminy Christmas, I can’t go on with this. I’m bummed, because I’ve hugely spoiled myself on all the plot points and kind of want to see the infidelity plot that shows up in the latter quarter, and the comeuppance that happens with all of Ayla’s yelling about how sex creates babies not magical spirits or whatever. I want to see it play out because Auel’s ideas appear to be simultaneously a feminist caricature and anti-feminist, which is a neat trick, if she can pull it off. The concept that men would, en masse, become patriarchal assholes when they learn they have something to do with procreation – and it is deeply stupid that any hunter-gatherer society would not know this anyhow – is so, so offensive, suggesting it’s logical for men to be brutish assholes. Ayla destroys an egalitarian society through observational science. Think about it. Yuck.

Also, she managed to make cattails boring again. Sigh.

Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

About a third of the way into Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie, I had to fold back and check the publication date. I was pretty sure this had to have been penned in the 80s, given the attitudes and assumptions of most of the cast. Nope! 2004. I’m not saying this is retrograde or backward or anything, just that it feels like a period piece of women of a certain class from my mother’s generation, and, in fact, it might make more sense if it had been set earlier than the late-90s. But, then, I’m not really a member of the socioeconomic milieu presented her, so maybe it’s entirely on the nose. I do totally know these women though, or I knew them 20 years ago.

Nell is a year past her divorce when she gets a job at a detective agency. She’s mid-40s with a grown son, and pretty mopey and gutted from the divorce. There are a lot of very broad hat tips to Noir plotting and tropes, in a way that was very goofy and fun, played for comedy instead of machismo. And probably explains some of the period piece feel of the novel; Crusie seems to be working out some things about the genre. Even the title is a misnomer, because these women are anything but fast, more a collection of stay at home moms, trophy wives and the tragic widows. I mean, who even uses the term secretary anymore? Even the broadest caricatures, like the girl who’s putting the blackmail to some assholes, is treated sympathetically – spoiler coming – even if she is ultimately fridged. But I get where Crusie is coming from, because I think the scene in Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade’s secretary rolls him a cigarette and then holds it out for him to lick the paper is damn near the sexiest thing I have ever seen, even though my late model feminist ass doesn’t…well, it just doesn’t.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade kisses a woman in a still from the movie The Maltese Falcon
Rwwrrr.

If you think about it, a lot of the comedy from the Noir stuff in Fast Womenis turned in a domestic direction, more about dogs and affairs than about money and international political whatever, which is an interesting shift, the kind of thing I think women’s fiction can be attuned to. And, in fact, the murder plot was the least satisfying, feeling almost incongruous with the tone of the thing. But given all the sublimated feminine rage and violence – there is a fair amount of kitchen and office smashing & burning – I don’t think it’s ultimately out of place here, even if it’s kinda badly plotted. I am not a slick mystery reader, and I saw many things coming miles away.

And, speaking of money, money what may be the weirdest part of this book, for this reader anyway. I’m going to refrain from telling divorce horror stories – you’re welcome – but I will just note that many women, especially of my mother’s generation, were deeply, personally, and financially fucked by their divorces. I’m not saying that divorce doesn’t suck for men too or anything – it is a drag when love dies, and the basic economic unit in America gets busted up – just that, if you look at the statistics, women fare much worse after a divorce, and especially if they have children. So this coterie of ladies who are swanning around post-divorce with no nevermind of money issues felt weird.

Or, that’s not really accurate – there is some nevermind – just that the exact nevermind felt very specific to a certain demographic, one that assumes dudes provide, and then dudes do. (And not the demographic that assumes that because of the bible and Jesus, but just because that’s the way men and molls have always done it, if you catch my distinction.) Again, some of this is the working out of Noir tropes, but then how those tropes intersect with suburban upper middle class values. My eyes still goggled a bit when Jack gets all bitter and pissy when Suze gets a checking account. (???) Or, Budge was seriously paying the bills for Margie for the last seven years, even though they are not married. (???) Who are these people??? In 2004???

Still, though, even though they are aliens, they are in some ways familiar aliens to me. I enjoyed? is this the right word? the parts where the ladies talked about all their china in vivid, personal detail. I am not, nor have I ever been, a dish person, but I know these women. I have been served tea by these women in their stately St Paul manses, after coming in the back door, because that is how the working class is to enter such a home. I remember talking with Sarah and Atherton – these are not their real names – Sarah relating to me that she had married Atherton assuming he had old money, and he had assumed the same of her, and then, knot tied, it turned out that, whoops! they were both socially climbing on each other. But they sucked it up and, 60 years later, had clawed their way into St Paul society. Their bridge partners kinda hated Sarah and her feisty red hair and real estate. (God, Sarah was feisty. I really dug her.)

But most of these women are gone now, these wives of Mad Man with steel in their spines and hard appraising looks. Maybe these women are their daughters, insulated from ways the world changed by money and society. Maybe the hardcore society ladies are different from the more middle class version here, but there’s still that sense of the whole wealth displayed through domesticity thing, or maybe it’s power, or who even knows what it is. Which is part of the exploration going on in this novel, even if is occasionally silly and weird and not something that makes any sense for me personally.

I mean, I don’t require novels to be about people who look just like me, and it can be cool and fun to slip into narratives that are earnest in their examinations, even if that examination is a breezy, screwball comedy about sexual slash financial power dynamics and screwing your secretary. Sure, there’s probably lots of more literary examinations of these things, something with, like, elaborate plotting and tense deconstruction of Noir tropes, instead of comic inflection. And those would be fun, but they wouldn’t be fun in the way this book is, which is chatty girl-talk and goofing about sometimes serious matters. Nice.