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

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

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

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

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

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

a line drawing of a selkie skin, empty and discarded

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

a charcoal drawing of a stag's head rising from the water in silhouette, a steam ship in the background

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

Twain in the background while the mermaid sleeps in a bed.

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

original Starbucks cigar-band logo, with the mermaid's breasts uncovered by her hair
Now I’m just being a scofflaw.

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

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

Wuthering Heights: Lock up Your Dogs!

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


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

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

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

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


Okay, so I was goofing off when I started this review talking about dogs, but dogs are all over this story. Bitches nurse their whelps in the kitchen; dogs are set on strangers in the yard; people enact the most vigorous cruelties on dogs as a manifestation of their black, black hearts. Mid-way through this novel, I had a conversation with one of my brilliant friends, and she said to watch how characters treat animals, which was smart advice. The scene where Heathcliff absconds/elopes with Isabella and hangs her dog from the neck to be rescued later by Nelly; the scene where Isabella escapes from Wuthering Heights, running past Hareton while he strangles a litter of unwanted pups: these cruelties bracket a larger brutality enacted between husbands and wives, lovers and friends, parents and children. 

Ir’s not that animals get it worse than people. Whoo boy, not by a stretch. There’s violence everywhere: masters boxing servants, parents beating children, drunks threatening everyone with guns, wife-beating, dog-fights, fist-fights, death-threats, kidnapping, coyly hinted-at marital rape, book-burning – I could go on, but I’ll stop there. The violence also has the ring of real experience – what a mouth looks like filling with blood, how the bruises change over days, how a sucker punch robs you of breath and leaves you gasping like a fish. I wonder how quiet the Brontës home life was, really. The somewhat crappy introduction to my edition, written by Alice Hoffman, indicates that the Brontës’ brother was a gambler and an addict, and then rather sloppily connects the real brother with the character of Catherine’s older brother who gambles away Wuthering Heights. This is too literal a reading by half. This is the story of addicts and abusers all, a shockingly intimate and muscular portrait of vice and obsession, and it’s only because there aren’t needles cast about on the moors that we don’t quickly recognize it as early Romantic Trainspotting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Street: 100 Year Old Satire Still Makes Me Die

Wow. Main Streetkind of kicked the tar out of me, something that I did not expect even halfway through my read. I’ve been sputtering and wailing around the house since I finished a couple of days ago, trying to get my thoughts in order. I should have seen this coming for a thousand reasons, but probably the biggest reason is that this is a satire about my own people, and it’s gotten me where I live. It’s also gotten me, which is maybe the worst thing about it. Good satire doesn’t play nice. It eats babies and butchers the sacred cows, and this is some of the best satire I’ve ever had the discomfort to read. 

The narrative starts cheerfully, with Carol, or protagonist, marrying a small town doctor, a one Mr. Kennicott, and stumbling from St Paul into the inbred, gossipy community of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Lewis is quick-witted and dry, and every page seems to have some sort of wry observation about America and its people, about the sexes, about education. On Mrs. Bogart, the most virulent of the town gossips:

She was a widow, and a Prominent Baptist, and a Good Influence. She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one, Cyrus N. Bogart, a boy of fourteen who was still at home, the most brazen member of the toughest gang in Boytown.  

Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence. She was the soft, fat, sighing, indigestive, clinging, melancholy, depressingly hopeful kind. There are in any chicken yard a number of old hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday noon dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance.

Ha! I mean, calling gossips hens is maybe nothing new, but the way he takes it to this extreme conclusion, the capital letters – this is all funny to me. The beginning is thickly adjectival; some sections only long descriptions of place with bending semi-colons between them; a sort of Epic catalog of the armaments of small town. I laughed along with it, because he’s funny, just objectively, but then also because I was substituting the name Sauk Centre – where Lewis is from – for Gopher Prairie, pretending that what happens in Gopher Prairie stays in Gopher Prairie, willfully ignoring that this is not some grudge-match between Lewis and his home town, but a smarter, more encompassing indictment of whatever was passing for the “real America” of his day. 

I’m going to tell several hundred off-topic stories here, so gird your loins, folks. I hale from the proud state of Minnesota, and my folks were heavy into Sinclair Lewis when I was growing up. So much so that we visited Sauk Centre, Minnesota multiple times as a child, because Sauk Centre was Lewis’s hometown and the model for the satirical town of Gopher Prairie in Main Street. I’ve gone to his grave, walked through his house, and know all kinds of random trivia about him. Mum has the bed he owned when he lived in Duluth. (Duluth, MN being another town he took apart in his novel Babbitt. Also, hey, did you know that the name babbitt – from the eponymous character of Lewis’s book – became a common noun, meaning a self-satisfied middle-class materialist? Or babbittry, which may be an even better word, which refers to this kind of person’s actions? You didn’t? Philistine.) During the last half of my read, I was staying with my Grandma, who came from a town much like Gopher Prairie. “Oh, you’re reading that?” she said, with one of her enigmatic laughs. “I re-read Babbitt last year.” I asked her what she thought. “Yep, I knew a lot of people like him,” was her only reply. I tried to get more out of her, but she just shook her head. I don’t know if this kind of terseness means anything to other people, but coming from Grandma, it spoke volumes to me.

All this Lewis mania happened when I was very young though, and part of the fun of reading this book has been pestering my folks for stories about Lewis and Sauk Centre and all the weird stuff they know about him, and correcting my fuzzy drifting memories of that time. I remember standing in the museum – or maybe the hotel? – looking at the drawings local school children had done of his books, and feeling weird about the pictures for Arrowsmith that depicted an anvil and some arrows. That can’t be right. It amuses the crap out of me that these kids lauded the Famous Native Son of Sauk Centre, Minnesota with absolute ignorance. I think Lewis would be pleased, in a perverse way. When his brother went to bury the urn containing Red’s remains – Lewis was called Red by his friends – in an act of great satire if it were done by a character – his brother balked at burying the urn itself. Maybe you could use it again or something? Too nice to bury, anyhow. It was a calm, windless day, the kind of deep cold, high pressure system that sits still and echoing over Minnesota in the dead of winter. His brother decided to dump the ashes, and at the moment he did, the wind picked up out of nowhere and scattered Red all over the graveyard. It got so cold that night, that many of the windows up and down Main Street cracked. The Palmer House, where Lewis worked as a youth, is haunted, or so they say – though not by Lewis – and when I stayed there as a kid, it sparkled with drama and danger. 

I have no idea why I’m telling all these Middlewestern Gothic tales, because Main Street is not Gothic, but parts of it were scary as shit, for me. Published 90 years ago, this satire nails the ever-loving crap out of so much of American culture, culture that has remained disturbingly similar for nearly 100 years. So, yeah, the parts about semi-English speaking Scandinavian/German rurals maybe would only work for someone whose ancestors were exactly that, but Lewis’s portrait of emerging (sub)urban plutocrats and their petty, depressing babbittry (see what I did there?) was both gleefully accurate and, well, horrifyingly accurate. The satire is also deft because it’s aimed in two directions: at his main character, a somewhat flighty reform-minded housewife, and at the town she so ineffectually seeks to reform. 

Much of this book reminds me of Austen, but I don’t want to say that too loudly lest people misunderstand. Especially at the beginning, it is very domestic, and centers on the social lives of a very large cast of characters. Carol is an Emma Woodhouse of sorts, though more a middle-class version, if such a thing is possible (and I think it is.) There’s lots of social burlesque and cringe-inducing missteps both by Carol, and by everyone around her. Carol’s also not far from Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey (maybe my jump to Gothic wasn’t so far off) in that she says incredibly revolutionary things, really critical things, and no one much pays her mind because she’s just some girl. Lewis also has an incredibly touching sensitivity to women’s experience, one that I didn’t expect from a male writer of this era. An argument with her husband:

“Let me tell you a fable. Imagine a cavewoman complaining to her mate. She doesn’t like one single thing; she hates the damp cave, the rats running over her bare legs, the stiff, skin garments, the eating of half-raw meat, her husband’s bushy face, the constant battle, and the worship of spirits who will hoodoo her unless she gives the priests her best claw necklace. Her man protests, ‘But it can’t all be wrong!’ and he thinks he has reduced her to absurdity. Now you assume that a world that produces a Percy Breshnahan [a famous Son of Gopher Prairie] and a Velvet Motor Company must be civilized. I suggest Mrs. Bogart as a test. And we’ll continue in barbarism as people as nearly intelligent as you continue to defend things as they are because they are.” 

“You’re a fair spieler, child. But, by golly, I’d like to see you try to design a new manifold, or run a factory and keep a lot of your fellow reds from Czech-slovenski-magyar-godknowswheria on the job! You’d drop your theories so darn quick! I’m not any defender of things as they are. Sure. They’re rotten. Only I’m sensible.”  

He preached his gospel: love of outdoors, Playing the Game, loyalty to friends. She had a neophyte’s shock of discover that, outside of tracts, conservatives do not tremble and find no answers when an iconoclast turns on them, but retort with agility and confusing statistics.

This all goes down mid-book, and I was still rah-rah-ing and sighing along with Carol, even as Lewis skewered her as the parlor radical, the armchair revolutionary, comfortable, beholden to the system, part of the system, inextricable, hypocritical. Ha ha! Look at Carol make an ass of herself in front of a bunch of asses! Ha ha! Carol is treated badly, shunned, brought into line by the gossiping cruelty, but she’s insulated and made ineffectual by her money, her status. She’s the doctor’s wife. Her ideas are eccentricities and not threats. 

Then the hammer drops. There are two episodes in the middle half of the book – spoilers ahead, although I will try to be as non-specific as possible – that clove me in two, and dealt with how terrible this bourgeois decorum can be. One was about the town Socialist, a personable logger-tinkerer, who blows into and out of town through the first part of the book. (I know this guy; I work with him. Like Carol, I’ve always been fond of how outside society my colleague is, how modular his life. He can pick up and go, while the rest of us are bolted down.) The plutocrats like scoring points off of The Red Swede, but he’s cheerfully impervious. But then he settles down into a really wonderful marriage to Carol’s maid, and Carol defies the town in continuing to associate with the maid, and him, even though she mostly does it on the sly. Then, oh God….I kind of don’t want to talk about it. I’ll just say that however bad it gets, it can get logarithmically worse when people demand obeisances for kindnesses that should be a requirement if you want to call yourself human. And then punish you for calling them out. God help my friend if he ever has anything to lose. 

Then a girl goes to a dance with Cy Bogart, Widow Bogart’s son, narrowly avoids being raped, and is run out of town for her trouble. Cy brags and blames, and gets in good with the corner-chatting men of the town. Widow Bogart goes screaming to the school board. Carol tries her hardest to help the girl, and everyone knows that Widow Bogart is a sanctimonious bitch, and that Cy is trouble, but it doesn’t matter. The girl is ruined. She leaves under a cloud. 

Her letter to Carol, a little later:

…& of course my family did not really believe the story but as they were I must have done something wrong they just lectured me generally, in fact jawed me till I have gone to live at a boarding house. The teachers’ agencies must know the story, man at one almost slammed the door in my face when I went to ask about a job, & at another the woman in charge was beastly. Don’t know what I will do. Don’t seem to feel very well. May marry a fellow that’s in love with me but he’s so stupid that he makes me scream.”

It’s so awful it makes me die. It’s more awful because I identify with Carol, possibly in a way that Lewis never intended. I’m a Midwestern housewife type. I am comfortably Liberal, while languishing in a life that is incredibly conservative: marriage, monogamy, children, mortgage, &c &c. It’s real nice of me to espouse my little ideas over coffeecake, but it doesn’t actually get anything done, and it sure doesn’t undo all the damage done by the Widow Bogarts of the world, and their sons. Lewis’s portrait of Carol is affectionate, more affectionate than his portrait of the town of Gopher Prairie, but it’s still like hugging one of those wire mommies in that horrible experiment. 

I don’t know that I can go on with this review, because I don’t want to fall into a bunch of self-pity and hand-wringing. Lewis has already satirized that, so it would be mawkish and redundant. Satire is depressing, when it’s done well, because it’s true. It’s even more depressing when a satire from a century ago can feel fresh and current. I’m definitely going to read more Lewis, but not until I heal up a bit.

As side note: Sinclair Lewis, people, not Upton Sinclair. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a socialist indictment of the treatment of labor in America, which has been somewhat mistakenly remembered as a gross-out about meat packing*; Sinclair Lewis was a satirist who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve had to make this distinction too many times when I told people I was reading this book.

*I mean, it is a gross out about meat-packing, but I think Upton was trying more to galvanize people about the treatment of people. 

Wifey: Not Jumping but Hanging

Not jumping but hanging. 

First off, I’d like to note that Wifey was chosen as a group read for a romance-reading group. This is seriously funny-sad, in retrospect, because I think this novel is the anti-romance. Which is not to say it doesn’t have some commonalities with the romance novel: female protagonist, concerned primarily with sex and relationships, trappings of consumerism and status. This book also shares a commonality of usage with romance in that many, many people about my age stole this from their mothers at an impressionable age so’iz they could read the sex bits over and over. Having read this as an adult, I find this somewhat hysterical, because it is possibly the least romantic book to be classed as such. If a romance novel is primarily an act of wish-fulfillment, where love conquers all and sex is cauterized through marriage, then this succeeds in only one of these things. And I can tell you it’s not the love bit.

I have a pretty severe allergy to this time period in American fiction, and I realize a bit of this is learned and a bit of it is just general cultural anxiety. Writing from the sexual revolution can’t work for me, generationally, because things that are couched as stunning revelations – women feel desire – read like cliché. Of course we do! Durr. Then there’s a boomer friend of mine likes to lean in and make jokes about that time period, in this upsetting way, because he’s the father of a friend of mine, and shouldn’t be talking about sex to me: the sexual revolution was all about getting into the pants of those not inclined. Hey baby, why do you have to be so square? I take his point: sometimes people equate free love with the sexual revolution, when I think that’s super reductive, but that equation is one that has a long history, and I think this book cuts a slash though that equals sign. The parts of the sexual revolution that I love have to do with the interrogation of gender roles and social expectations, and I think this book hinges on the equation of sex with liberation, and shows how hollow that idea can be when there isn’t a corresponding change in assumptions. There’s all kinds of social panic in this book: gay panic – apparently having a woman touch a man’s nipples makes him gay; racial panic – there are several enlightening conversations about what constitutes a “good” minority, red-lining, white flight, etc; gender panic – having sex with a woman on top makes her a “women’s libber” (god, I haven’t heard that term in a dog’s age). Sandy’s miserable in her roles a housewife and mother, and sleeping around may put those roles into crisis, but it doesn’t make those roles go away.

I recently read The Crying of Lot 49which was written roughly ten years before this, at the other end of the country and at the very beginning of the sexual revolution that is about to crash into the Jewish New Jersey suburbs in Wifey. I think that Oedipa from Lot 49 and Sandy from Wifey have strains of the same DNA in their blood. I’m feeling a little stupid comparing Pynchon to Blume here, but seriously. Oedipa is a useless housewife, as is Sandy; despite their transgressions, both are incredibly socially conservative; they both go on their little journeys of sex and discovery, and both novels fall completely apart, in the end, although one is much more personal a failure than the other. There’s other commonalities too – I think that the Nazi shrink in Lot 49 has something in common in creepiness with the gynecologist brother-in-law in Wifey, both of them trying to enact their institutional fuckery on the principles of these books. (I’m not using the term Nazi metaphorically here, although Pynchon might be. Dr. Hilarious was a bona fide Nazi doctor.) The difference may be that Pynchon treats his Oedipa with disdain & misunderstanding, in a gendered, satire kind of way – I’m pretty sure the only thing that makes Oedipa a woman is that her heels clack – Blume treats her protagonist with the pointed cruelty of understanding. Sandy does not just have clacking heels, she has an itchy vagina which she scratches to bleeding. Sorry, this is gross, but it’s the vagina-that-shall-not-be-named, the spooky specter of female libido.

There’s a moment in Lot 49 when Oedipa confronts what to any good social conservative is the inevitable horror of societal sexual permissiveness when she watches a mother and son tongue-kiss their farewells in a bus station – they’ve been using the evil, subterranean postal system to telegraph their transgressive love – and Oedipa falls into a dream-swoon, unsure if this real or imaginary. If it is acceptable to cross one line, then why not another? But Oedipa is mostly a satirical creature and Pynchon’s poking fun at her perceptions – I think it’s no accident that she ends up floating around Berkley or wherever it is running into gays and hobos and Vietnam veterans after she has her extramarital affair, because it’s almost like Pynchon is rubbing her nose in how she takes one part of the social movements going on by giving herself a pass to have an affair, and discarding the rest. The sexual revolution had as much to do with Stonewall or custodial rights or whatever as it has to do with giving already privileged people the permission to do what they want, which they would do anyway. When she finally returns to her husband, he’s lost in drug-perceptions, and the pinwheeling satire of 49 draws to its unfinished conclusion.

But Oedipa is a satirical creature and Sandy is not; Sandy has an inner life much more fully realized than Oedipa. Pynchon comes to judgment on Oedipa, and Blume does not. While there are elements of social satire in Wifey, it’s not satire, a frustrating muddle of realism and satire, of burlesque and social commentary. It’s aggressively straightforward, almost to a strange degree. I’ve read me lots of genres, and there’s usually a moment, even in the most prosaic of fictions, when the writer tries some writerly zig-zag, just to make sure you’re paying attention. I don’t feel like that ever happened here, and it makes me think about the female diarist in Possessionwho never writes what she means, and that not writing it is an act of subversion. I’m groping, again, as I have been in all of this review, because I feel like a definitive reading of this book is severely impossible. But as I’ve found in reading this women’s fiction in the group, I take Sandy a lot more personally than I do Oedipa, which is sometimes a mistake. If I’d written this review the minute I finished reading, it would have been one-star outrage – I would have read myself, as a wife & mother, into Sandy, and I would have taken personally the outrages committed and perpetrated by Sandy. I never had that reaction to Oedipa, because she’s not really a woman, and I’m less sensitive to what I perceive as sexist twaddle coming from men, rightly or wrongly.

Blume writes a portrait, a character, and refuses to tell you how to read it, which is absolutely the strangest thing ever. I held off reading the intro until after I read the book, and that fucked me up in all kinds of ways. Blume wrote this after she left her husband in the 70s, and Sandy makes all the choices that Blume did not: to stay by her husband, to hide in her Jewish, suburban enclave, and fuck, I don’t know what. I hate reading books through autobiography. (I have almost zero interest in the lives of writers, maybe because I’ve been tainted by the New Criticism of my mother, who is my internalized reader, my readerly super-ego.) The subversion in the writing is the lack of gloss, in the lack of artistry. Here it is, she says, think what you will. Blume might have written Sandy as an elegy to the choices she never made, because there was a moment there, somewhere, where she could have become Sandy, and she understands and empathizes. Maybe not. There are good arguments against the polemic novel, one that tells you what to think and why, but this is anti-polemic, letting you twist wondering why choices were made and conclusions come to.

Here come the spoilers.

When Sandy and her husband come to their agreement, and choose to remain in this horrid, soul-killing marriage, I died. In a year, Sandy will kill herself too, inevitably, awfully. My husband and I screamed out this conclusion: why does it have to end like this? A shared bed is a horrible capitulation – this is not a happy choice. This may be me bringing too much literary reading to my reading, but I was horrified by Sandy’s offer to shave her puss so that her husband could endure it. I think of all the literary hair: Ruskin freaking at his wife’s pubes, Humbert Humbert and his smooth girl, the hard, alabaster Edward, J. Alfred Prufrock noting the hair on the arms of the women coming and going, and on and on. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, because I do not have a woman to hem them. Maybe I’ve just articulated one of those insane personal pet theories, but hair and its metaphorical stand-in for real sexuality, for libido, for the deeply anti-social nature of love seems to be a running thread not just in fiction but in life. Sandy will hem her husband’s trousers, and hem her cunt, and I hate that it comes to that. I hate that I just said “cunt”, like her husband did to Sandy when he found out about the affair. I hate all things that seem like choices but are not, or are choices but the wrong ones.

Another component of the romance novel is one of the exceptionalism of its principles: a love that knows no bounds, love that turns transgression into acceptance, the kind of love that turns someone as soulless & inconsequential as Bella Swan into the heroine of a grand plot. It is the inner life turned out, made manifest in the men who can see the exceptional nature of the protagonist. Sandy is not exceptional: not smart, not talented, not healthy or spunky or robust. But she is character with the only reality, and her rich fantasy life is almost a commentary on the dangers of mistaking wish-fulfillment narratives of love & romance with hard realities. If this were a romance, her affair with Shep would have concluded with their happy marriage and some more babies. But Shep is just some schmuck, like her husband, and wishing for happiness, hoping that love will magic away her obstacles for happiness continues to put the agents to her happiness in other people. As crushed as I was by her conclusion, for her to stay by her horrible shit of a husband after he smacks her and calls her a cunt, I can’t imagine her making the choice to run away and find a less inconsequential life. This story interrogates the idea that romantic love can change your life, and lays it bare. Sandy should, by all rights, chuck this dreary shit and strike out on her own, but she’s been bound by a narrative of domestic harmony and consumerist comfort that makes such a choice impossible. In short, she’s swallowed the barb that’s in a lot of women’s fiction: that you cannot do this on your own. Love will set you free, but if there is no love to be had, then you remain in your cage, and she does. I hate her choice. I think it will kill her in the end, but I appreciate Blume’s lack of judgment & her compassionate portrait of Sandy. Sandy is the road most traveled. May we all look on her and despair.

We Shall Not Be Going to the Lighthouse Today

I saw five lighthouses today, and at each one, I told my children that “We shall not be going to the lighthouse today”, and every single time, they almost started crying. I’ve been laughing about this, in an extremely immature fashion, but I’m also sad about how I can’t seem to stop joking about this thing that hurts them, even if it’s transitory and easily remedied by the fact of real lighthouses blow over by a clear, cold wind. Ah.


We’re walking back on the lakewall and I meet Mum with her dogs. The boy is running ahead, his head full of the lake and its tidepools and wind. The girl and my husband are lagging, her short legs in almost comic contrast with his long swinging stride. Mum and I talk about the wind, which is palpable and cold. It pushes, insistent, but with an insistence that is less gentle than the similarly palpable sun. We talk of our separate walks: she to the point, we to the lighthouse.

The girl is mad for the lighthouse. She has demanded that we return this morning, despite our carefully worded choice to her: the lighthouse or the island. She chose the island, but returning by the lakewall she saw it again. We give in, and go, but I say it again, the horrible joke, the unfunny untruth, “We shall not be going to the lighthouse today.” She doesn’t hear me; she is far ahead, running, and I shout her back to hold my hand. The narrowness of the wall, her short legs, the insistent wind. I imagine the cold of the water, how horrible it would be to jump down and fish her out. No need to think of this. Her hand is small and warms my palm.

I don’t know how I work this into conversation with Mum on the lakewall on the way back. There’s a conversation before this about the dogs, their age. “To the Lighthousetakes place on the Hebrides, you know. I’m assuming Skye; the outer ones are too remote.” She and I have been to Skye, and the Uists ten years ago, no almost fifteen, the two of us in a car going from London where I’d spent a semester. Fifty miles from Hadrian’s wall, I, the map reader because I couldn’t drive on the wrong side, I saw a little triangle on the map that read “Carrawburgh, Temple of Mithras,” and began repeating this phrase at every opportunity, in the boomingest voice my lungs could muster.

We went. How could we not? It was Carrawburgh, Temple of Mithras. There was a small gravel car park, and a fence with a cattle grate, and cattle on the other side. In the car park was a German couple in a small car, having a fight. It ended with him stalking off to the ruins and her steaming in the car. We walked around the ruins, although the word “ruins” implies it was something other than a stone square on the ground with the roughest rock hint of an altar. Roman soldiers sacrificed bulls here, bathed in their blood, fortified themselves against the blue-streaked bodies of the Picts just over the wall. Now it was a stone page left carelessly in the grass. We read what we can.

On South Uist, the nearest of the outer Hebrides, it was just past mid-summer, and the sun was nearly constant, as close as we were to the arctic circle. The wind was not insistent, but demanding. The wind was cold and salty, and the land rose and fell with the tides. The sea continues to surprise me when I’m near it, raised as I was with a lake, The Lake, the Lake Superior, which crashes and gurgles like a sea, which kills and rages, but doesn’t breathe or slop. The sea never stills to glass. Archaeologists were excavating the home of Flora MacDonald, who housed Bonny Prince Charlie on his failed, bloody foray into Scotland. I wore everything I owned and the wind still poked its cold fingers through the weave of my clothes. The Ramsay’s house is somewhere just around the corner now, a ghost house, broken slowly by the wind, by the sea air. It lays like a page on the ground, but uncleared by archaeologists, so that the stone sleeps beneath earth and the harsh moss & winking heather. Keep the doors closed and the windows open.

The night before we’d sat around in the small trailer and talked about The Lighthouse. That afternoon I put down the cross stitch I only seem to work on in the car and read the first section. I tell Mum that I didn’t really get it as a freshman, when I read this first. Back at 19, I re-read the first six pages several times, because I simply couldn’t believe that I’d decided James was the protagonist, and then it turns out there is no protagonist, or all are protagonists. The society is the protagonist, the family, maybe. But not the term “society” that implies detachment, sociology, an idea of order as seen from above. But this time, the stream of consciousness felt easy, unforced, intuitive. I had invited Mum to join the group read when it started, but she talks now about how she couldn’t revisit this sadness, how she wept at this book when she read it in grad school. My husband asks why it’s so sad and I can see my mother’s eyes become reflective when she talks of the loss of Mrs. Ramsey. That she could die! That she could live and then die!

I’m thinking of Grandma Fran suddenly, my mother’s mother, who died, and her loss is a great lake of still, saltless water somewhere under my lungs that makes it hard to speak. Maybe Mum is thinking of her too, but she has her own lake, and it goes unmentioned. We talk about Joyce, and Ulysses, how Modernism often relies too heavily on the Classical mythology in ways that make it opaque to me. I express how surprised I was that the Stephen Dedalus of Ulysses was the same person as the one in Portrait of the Artist, how one captured something about my adolescence, and the other was kind of a jerk. I say that I didn’t understand the politics in Ulysses because I’m a bad student of history. Like, who is Parnell?

Mum leans forward. “But what about the dinner table fight about Parnell in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?” Oh, but I get that entirely! The emotional reality of the argument wasn’t about politics at all, and I saw myself blinking through Stephen’s eyes at the domestic rage that is the sister of the political. Here is where we can talk about Grandma, about her Mum, who is the same woman, but in parallax. We talk about Grandma Fran and her sister, devout Old World Catholics both in their different ways, and how Grandma loved to take big swings at the Pope at the dinner table that were designed to connect with Aunt Helen’s devotion. The men would leave the table as quick as they could. One cannot catalog the history of a family like the dates and battles of history; it will not run linearly. The way Woolf breaks our consciousness into separate, connected, ruptured understandings that flow from one eye to the other – this is the web of my mind.

Earlier the woman at the coffee shop told me there was a nesting killdeer, which is a shore-bird with the long, funny legs and rock-like plumage, living right near the start of the lakewall that leads to the lighthouse. To protect their nests they fake a broken wing, dragging it lamely on the ground, to lure the predator away. I’ve forgotten to look for her on our way out, our way in. Her eggs are there, somewhere, living rocks in with the more placid ones. Why do I want to find her and provoke her automatic response? Maybe because she shields her babies with a brokenness I understand, until the predator moves far enough away and she flies. She flies. 

The Ravishing of Being Really French

Well, this review turned out to be a whole helluva lot harder to write than I thought when I was snorting my way through Ravishing of Lol Stein. This was chosen as a group read for a romance reading group, out of list of capital-L Literature books that are read primarily for their sexual content, stuff like The Story of O and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And my experience ended up being similar to my read of Wifey, another book read primarily for its sexual content, but hoo boy, not because either is romantic in any way. But are stories of unfulfilled housewives, both were unpleasant for me to read, both were chilly and distant, shot through with voyeurism and infidelities of all kinds, and both ended up being much more interesting to consider than to read. 

I’ve got a thing for the housewife in literature, I admit. I notice her and watch her, the way she is constructed and commented on. She’s not a component of any romance I can think of, almost the anti-romance in her bones: the foregone conclusion, the morality tale, the warning. (Though maybe remarriage comedies come close – but no, that’s not quite right.) She is inert and motionless, not part of the decisive world of love, but its frusty, decaying aftermath. No romance starts with a housewife, though it may end with one in the oblique. (And, quick aside – this is interesting too. I don’t know the truth of this, but the housewife is the imagined reader of romance novel, who we allude to when we talk about who consumes wish-fulfillment exercises about the domestic. I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think some of the attacks on Twimoms are ad hominem – Twilight is bad, because the readership is bad. You ladies should grow up.

It’s true that I find her fascinating because if you squint right, I am a housewife. No, yes, of course, I work, and don’t feel defined exclusively by my husband or my family, but the work of child-rearing and house-keeping is still a major component of my personality at this point in my life. I regularly self-define myself as a housewife though, often disingenuously, just because I know it pisses my friends and husband off. No, you’re not a housewife, they eyeroll, you’re smarter than that. Which is the thing to me, ultimately. An almost inextricable part of the definition of housewife is her passivity and lack of intellectual life; hers is an emotional life, protecting the hearth fires so that men, and later (boy) children, can venture out into the important and active world and do important and active things. She looks within so others can act without. She is the font of compassion like Mrs. Ramsay from To The Lighthouse, telling James his bedtime stories so that Mr. Ramsay can contemplate the movement from P to Q. And ultimately, she has no self. She is a role cut out from society and watched like a kettle. Maybe watching will keep it from boiling. 

Which is the thing with this novel. This book takes on all of the voyeurism inherent in the housewife narrative – the neighbors watching, the husband watching, the male gazing – and makes it manifest, everyone peeping out from their houses, into windows, imagining observers and observing observers and mirror mirror mirror memory observation mirror mirror. As an intellectual or literary exercise, this book is some bang up stuff. The narrator reads like a man gossiping about himself, and the unsettling shifts to quoted narratives, between the first and third person, between the felt self and observed self were artfully done. The distance this creates, though intentional, is yawning and chilly. There is so much art, there is very little life. 

Interesting, I think to myself, how often the narrative of the housewife hinges on voyeurism. Sandy, in Wifey, watching a masturbating motorcyclist watching her window in the first scenes; Carol, from Main Street, the most squirmingly accurate portrayal of a housewife to me, fighting the blind-holding gossips; and the most tactile voyeur of them all, Humbert Humbert, watching like a pov slasher killer Delores Haze and her immortal daughter, Lolita, from inside the house, like the murderer he was. I felt the fingerprints of Lolita all over this story, down to Lola’s own name. But there’s other things as well: the road trip, the beach where Lol’s insanity is born mirroring Humbert’s beach side dalliances that he (partially, lyingly) blames for his derangement, the endless descriptions of Lol’s slenderness, the repeated phrase that she is a “grown-up schoolgirl”. Lol is a collapsed character, melding both Delores Haze and her daughter Lolita, with annihilating results. There is no center to hold here, no self beyond the observed one, no housewife but the one seen from without. And, speaking from the inside, maybe that’s the only place where one can see her, can see me. I, we housewives exist in observation. Without it, we are only ourselves, and that is nothing at all. 

Hot damn, I have been infected by all this glacial unknowing. Because hear this: I laughed through this book. There’s a lot here that feels stupid and dated, calculated, deliberately unreal. The narrator regularly refers to himself in the third person: Jack Hold did this; Jack Hold did that. I had this annoying friend who would refer to himself as Hershel Walker, who I think was a football player for the Vikings, because Hershel Walker did that all the time. Hershel Walker threw the game. Hershel Walker gives 110%. Hershel Walker does not use the first person because Hershel Walker is too important for that. So when Jack does it, I laugh. Lol Stein’s name unfortunately reads to me as LOL Stein, which is an accident of history, I know. Lol! Then there is the dialogue, which is art film wankery up the ass all day. There is no person on earth who talks like this, let alone a gaggle of them speaking past each other. I wanted to shake them all, shake them until their necks snapped, pour blood on the dining room table, scream. Bunch of fucking phonies. 

I also thought of the Gothic novel, that panic of the domestic, the castle rotting from within by secrets kept and marshaled by women even if they are perpetrated by men. These books of the housewife write the details of their enclosures as closely as they do the housewives themselves; the housewife as landscape; the housewife as nature documentary. There’s an epic catalog of her houses in literature: Mrs. Ramsay’s closed doors and open windows, Mrs. Haze’s petty bourgeois taste, Carol’s failed parties in a Chinese theme, Mrs. Dalloway’s narrow bed and her famous flowers, Sandy’s chart documenting the shits of her dog. (I’m leaving off Oedipa Maas, because I’m not sure she’s a woman.) Maybe we will learn something from her furniture, from her gardens, but then it turns out the gardens and draperies are for show, just like everything else. They are cultivated for observation. Look, look, look. Fuck, I don’t know. This book has defeated me with its distance, all this talk of love by people who are liars. Liars! Almost nothing said by anyone about any feeling at all made sense to me. Aliens. 

So, yeah, I’m glad I read it, but I’m equally happy to be done with it. Oh, and far as sex writing goes, this is a cold affair, the erotic of the oblique, and very little of it stirred me. There were a few scenes with Lol sleeping in a rye field below the hotel window where her friends were enacting their dubious love affair that were beautiful, but every time someone kissed someone else, I recoiled. Gross. Maybe you either watch or touch, maybe you look but don’t touch, that old saw about women not being visually oriented in their desires. Maybe not.

O is Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

“Who I am finally, if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part which has never betrayed itself in public by any thought, word, or deed, but communicates through subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself?”
-Dominique Aury (All quotes attributed to Aury were pulled from this article.)

In her late 40s, worried about her lover’s devotion, Dominique Aury, whom I have seen described as “nun-like” in more than one place (though this could be a single source echoing out into the chattering set) penned the opening of The Story of O. She and her lover, the writer Jean Paulhan, had had one of those conversations that is the staple of romantic comedies and op-ed pieces penned by misogynists: can a woman write erotica? It seems quaint now to ask this this way – women are overwhelmingly the producers of sex writing in romance novels and related narratives of the domestic. But, of course, the real question is whether a woman could write erotica like a man, the man in this case being Marquis de Sade

Without preamble or explanation, O is taken by her lover to a chateau in the Paris suburb of Roissy. She is stripped, costumed, beaten, and violated, tied up in dungeons, used. Strictly speaking, this is consentual, though as the narrative continues, the question of consent becomes murky, to put it mildly. The only words she utters, and those only late in this sequence, are “I love you.” Her internal monologue is not one of pleasure or of pain – there are no descriptions of shattering orgasms or deeply felt soul-twinning pleasure – a mainstay of sex writing now – nor is there much commentary about the physical pain O is enduring – we are told of her screams, but not the feelings that cause them, either emotional or physical. Indeed, despite the very clear concrete picture of how exactly O is laid out, strung up, and entered – there is very little description of the sex act itself – though I assume some of this is the coy translation I was reading, that insisted on using the term “belly” in place of more common phrases for the female sex. (I assume. I can’t read French.) The eroticism is strange, of the mind, dissociated, and theological – a submission of the godly sort.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne, from Holy Sonnets: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”

As such, I think it could be successfully argued that O is a form of ventriloquism, acting out the masculine erotic in female terms…but then I say stuff like that, I start balking at terminology for gender, and for the expression of desire in gendered terms. Without getting into a bunch of shit about why men and women are different, and if that is essential or learned or blahblahblah, in this one case, with this one story, which is a seduction between a man who admires de Sade and a woman who desires that man…O is almost a pronoun – a third person feminine “I” – or possibly “eye”, if you want to get cute like the academics do and talk about dis/ease and the male gaze – which you could without much resistance to the penetrating insight, pun intended. Roissy is written with 18th Century Gothic furniture – the dungeons and stone floors, the anachronistic clothing – carefully detailed – the fire in the grate that O tends. This is the Sadeian playset, and the O is set in the middle of it and beset. O is the great emptiness of female desire which provokes while accepting. Provokes by accepting. 

‘I wrote it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him. I wasn’t young, nor particularly pretty. I needed something which might interest a man like him.’ (Pressed as to why she wrote in pencil, she replied mischievously: ‘So as not to stain the sheets.’) -Dominique Aury

I love this person, this Aury who became pseudonymous, her seductions public but veiled. Her pencil, like the Woolfian Manx cat, this joke about the phallic pen and its untidy eruptions of ink. There’s something here that eludes, that isn’t spoken, a lack of commentary on a lack of narrative. These few forays I’ve taken into the feminine literary erotic – into which category I would put Wifey & The Ravishing of Lol Stein – just baffle me, but baffle me with the horror of recognition. And I see O in so many fictions, now that I have met her. Stephenie Meyer, imagining the tableau that became Twilight: the image of a woman and a man in the gloaming, a man who “was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately”. (Citation here) It’s not nihilism, exactly, but still a strange negation, striding out onto the prison of the stage and enacting male fantasies through a woman’s mind, or a woman’s fantasies through a man’s eyes, or the strange silence when one reads the other.

Many people did not believe O could have been written by a woman. 

[…]I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

In the next section, O returns to her life as a photographer, and is given by her lover to another man, Sir Stephen, an Englishman who is a brotherly cousin to her lover. I don’t have much background in French lit, but I am aware of the characterization of the French in English literature as oversexed and irrational. I am willing to bet this Sir Stephen is one of a species of the French construction of the English – a blue-eyed titled imperialist who does not profess to love O, who uses her exclusively “as he would a boy”. 

The narrative, such as it is, begins to falter in this section, the fantasy of Roissy and its strictures stitched messily to the more modern word of apartments and the work day – the playset uncomfortably expanding to include daily life – the wardrobe amended to include only those things dictated by her lover, her camera framing a model of exotic Russian poverty, her dress up over her head and her body commented on in the rudest of terms by her lover and his near-brother. She becomes a sort of erotic intercessor for the men – the creation of one, given to the other. We begin to see O balk – she will not masturbate for Sir Stephen – not give him this image of her pleasure? – so he pins her to the couch and stops up her mouth with his cock. Never once is O said to climax, or to flinch but in the most autonomic of ways. 

Sexual power and privilege in “Story of O” are rigid, systematic, almost metaphysically encoded — O is like a supplicant joining a religious order. But what seems most out of sync with our time isStory of O‘s utter lack of that therapeutic quality that pervades so much contemporary porn: that remarkable insistence that this stuff is good for you, bringing with it self-knowledge, autonomy and the ability to love. –Molly Weatherfield

The final section finds O deposited again in a Roissy-like chateau, this time run and peopled almost exclusively by women. Her sumbission begins to be written on her body – chains bound to her belly, as this translation so coyly puts it, brands marking her as Sir Stephen’s burned into her flesh. The men for whom she has submitted all of this time begin to recede, no longer using her in the ways she has been used; supplicant, novice, intercessor. They begin to demand she seek out other women to people Roissy – the exotic model, her very underage sister. The fantasy is its own bait, just to misquote Donne again; once it is conjured, it can be discarded, but each invocation is a escalation. 
The ending of O is abrupt. As my husband pointed out, all seductions have to end, and the end is not really that – at which point I imagined Aury and her lover, over the next decades, smiling together with knowing that she was the one who wrote this for him. She didn’t come out as the writer until after his death, though there is a wonderful anecdote about his funeral:

Jacqueline Paulhan didn’t find out Dominique was the author until the day of her father-in-law’s burial. ‘There was a very big bouquet of flowers with no name attached,’ she told me. ‘I was standing next to Dominique Aury, whom of course I knew well, and I remarked, “I suppose they must be from Pauline Reage.” Dominique turned to me and said, “Mais Jacqueline, Pauline Reage, c’est moi.”‘

Oh, c’est moi. C’est moi! 
The abruptness is odd, conditional: O is abandoned by her lover to Roissy again, or she decides to die, which her lover permits. It is not clear whether the lover is the original one, or Sir Stephen. She had been completely negated, so much so there is no finality to the ending, no closure, to use pop teminology that I hate. She does not understand herself, or misunderstand herself; she is not. The story – or lack of story, as there is no causality here, really – simply ends. 
I think I’m going to play chicken with this one, and leave it unrated. I can’t talk about simple enjoyment with this one – like I haven’t been able to with all of the literary erotic penned – or penciled – by women that I’ve read. This isn’t sexy, in the strictest sense – not something that fires my libido – but I can’t deny its naked eroticism – eroticism that is impossible and disembodied in a way, even as it orchestrates the furniture and clothing, blocks the players, writes the limited dialogue. It feels like an expert act of misdirection.
So, I just let my husband read this, and he, after pointing out a few odd phrasings that I have since corrected, noted that this is incredibly impersonal for one of my reviews – this is not about me, or my reactions, or my desires. True. We’ve been talking about it for a half hour – he has just been called off by our son, because our daughter is crying, and I am here, interstitial. There’s something so intimate about this story – so specific – that I don’t feel my way to myself – and if and where I do – it is no business of yours. He dared me – my lover of decades – to write a seduction of him. What do I imagine turns him on? This made me blink – and blink – imagining Aury writing with her pencil in the cool, dark sheets. This book is an incredible act of daring, of bravery, and of the terror that underpins bravery – Aury holding her lover in her mind with such specificity that he wanted her to broadcast this to the world. Jesus. Can you imagine? It almost folds in on itself – the lovers watching each other watching each other. I can’t even imagine conjuring someone like O, what that would take. And once conjured, I can’t imagine letting her die, and I can’t see it going any other way. 

(And just fyi, the kindle edition of Story of O is absolute shit. Go paper or not at all.)

Fifty Shades of Fanfic

I’ve been writing this review for four hundred years. Seems funny, because this only came out whatever many months ago. But for real, I think this is the longest bother I’ve had with a review. This whole review is tl;dr, and a ton of it was written while drunk, although I’ve certainly had time to clean up the typing, given the 400 years. So the usual caveats are in place: I might talk spoilers, though I try to note them. I also cuss a fair amount, and there’s some sex-talk, but if you don’t like cussing or sex-talk, then you won’t like this book anyway, and what the hell are you doing reading reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey? You know what this book is about.

Some Blather about The Novel, The Romance, and The Fanfic

I’m not even sure it could rightly be called a novel, if you get right down to snobbish definitions involving, like, narrative structure and the experience of reality and stuff. Observe my man Nathaniel Hawthorne making the distinction between a Novel and a Romance in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.  The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.  The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.

Nate was living before the invention of the modern romance, so he can be forgiven in assuming his writers were dudes. (Although, according to this definition, extremely dude-y books such as Moby Dick; Or The Whale are Romances. So there.) I mean, maybe this crusty distinction between Novel and Romance – even the capital letters are an indication of moldering taxonomy – has been exploded by the contemporary creation of the romance novel. You got you peanut butter in my chocolate! Etc. And to digress even farther, this distinction between Novel and Romance becomes unworkable fast when you start factoring in any kind of genre fiction at all – scifi, fantasy, the detective novel, Noir, the post-modern novel, the action adventure, Westerns, (some) satires, parodies, the Gothic novel &c &c. Or maybe unworkable is the wrong word – maybe the word I’m searching for is pointless. So you’ve got an extremely small subset of books that strive for some kind of hewing to probable reality and psychological exactness, and then you have 95% of the books published in the world. Maybe even 95% is low.

I’m putting in a paragraph break here to indicate I just spent way too much fucking time screwing around on the Internet looking at various critical definitions of the novel, arguing and muttering with all of them, and realizing if I go with one to prove some amorphous gut reaction about how weird a novel this is, that’s not really going to get me anywhere. Mirriam-Oxford-Whatever defines the novel as a book of a certain length that goes on about some characters until it ends which is good enough for me. (As I’ve been recently called out for paraphrasing, be aware this is exactly that.) So. That doesn’t make this less of a weird novel, and that probably boils down to its fanfic nature.

So, fanfic? Much hay has been made about this being a work of Twilight fanfic. And much of that hay discounts all fanfic as a form of plagiarism, which I find a little severe. (I mean, this might be a straw man argument I’m fighting – that fanfic = plagiarism – but I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of bananas that many times it has been stated that if this started life as fanfic, it doesn’t deserve to be put to paper, cannot be considered as a work of fiction. I get a big stink eye when certain kinds of authorial motivations are used a priori to dismiss fictions. You can put in a big rampage about blurb-craft that seeks to equate everything dystopian with The Hunger Games  – everything with vampires with Twilight  – everything with wizards with Harry Potter. And then, while we’re at it, pretending that narrative similarities between these books and countless other fictions that predate them renders that book some kind of fiction crime. What is up with this?

I once had a dude tell me with absolute earnestness that Star Wars was “just a remake of The Hidden Fortress” which is near one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. Yes, they have their similarities – in the same way that Battle Royale and The Hunger Games have similarities, both to each other and to dozens of other fictions, from Battle Royal – Ralph Ellison’s opening chapter to Invisible Man – Lord of the Fliesto Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome down to the freaking Theseus myth. It is the worst kind of authenticity-seeking hipsterism to treat books with similarities – especially freaking genre fiction which by its very nature deals in set motifs and narrower stylistic parameters – as failures if they aren’t so stunningly original that your face melts off. Originality is bullshit. For fuck’s sake, people, the ancient Greeks should be suing the shit out of the entirety of Western civilization – including Shakespeare, that rip-off artist of the first order – and on that level, and I have close to zero patience for it. There is nothing new under the sun. Get over it.

Which is not to say I don’t understand that there are complexities of race/gender/culture/placement that result in one thing being noticed and another falling down the well, and that can be monumentally unfair, awkward, or stupid. There are better romances out there. Hell, there’s better Twilight fanfic out there. We can wring our hands about why exactly this piece of shit got to be the biggest piece of shit since Twilight, but ultimately, that’s not really this book’s fault. It can’t bear up to scrutiny, but then I’m not sure it was even trying. Popularity isn’t a criticism in its own right. Though it does get people indisposed towards the fictions at hand to read them – resulting in some unfortunate book/reader pairings. It’s true that I probably shouldn’t have read this – I’m a crank about romance novels in the general, if not the specific. I’m no Twilight fan, even though I have some serious obsessiveness about that series and how nutty it is.

Anyway, point of massive digression being, I admit I’m the kind of girl who, when I hear the words “authenticity” or “originality,” I reach for my pistol. Which is not to say I don’t believe some books are total rip-offs of others – The Sword of Shannara (which I like to think of as the s-word of shannara) being a complete and unvarnished rip-off of The Lord of the Rings – but while I hate the shit out of that book, I hate it for being super crappy on its own terms – ripping off the bad parts of Tolkien and leaving the dross – not because the rip-off occurred in the first place. I know I’m an outlier on this one, but I perversely kinda liked Eragon – the first book anyhow – because while it’s Star Wars in Middle Earth with some Dragonflight thrown in for shits and giggles, it’s absolutely naively exuberant. That kid is having a freaking blast playing in worlds way, way above his pay grade, and the glee of his rip-off is both charming and infectious. (Though, of course, objectively fucking terrible, and to seasoned readers, a Frankenstein’s monster of parts ripped from other fictions.)

Because, probably, a lot of this snarling about fanfic has to do with the fact that Twilight is objectively terrible, and much more recently written. I can name you several hundred thousand retellings of Shakespeare stories, which, my friends, could be classed as AU fanfic (AU standing for “alternate universe”, something I learned because of this book.) A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, When You Were Mine, Prospero’s Books, Scotland, PA, “O”, et freaking cetera. But, first, Shakespeare is not objectively terrible, and second, he is out of copyright. But lord knows, hitching your cart to something that everyone knows sucks and is also insanely popular is so evil and an attempt at a cheap cash-in, which hitching your cart to something that’s part of the Canon is totally a’ight, despite it being an obvious attempt to add intertextual gravitas. I don’t want to get into it too far, but plagiarism and copyright infringement are two different things, though there is admittedly an overlap. I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis or anything, and I will bow to someone who does, but the AU-ness of this little world makes straight copying unlikely. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that while I can see the ways this narrative owes certain structures to Twilight – the gormless girl at the center, the stalkerish love interest, a catalog of secondary players  – I’m not sure these things are unique enough to say that Twilight invented them. By which I mean, Twilight didn’t invent them. This book is stupid enough in its own way to be, if not uniquely stupid, than differently stupid enough from Twilight to be its own stupid thing. And, like Eragon, Fifty Shades is absolutely bone-shattering in its love for its shitty characters, bad prose, and earnest enjoyment of its source material. Which, good for it, although I can see how this book is shittier than Twilight, on both prose and character levels. Which, wow.

Interestingly, while Ms. James’s crimes against prose are different from Ms. Meyers’s, there is a weird similarity to the enthusiasm of their badnesses. Maybe it’s tone? You can tell they are writing their little hearts out, thesaurus at the knee, cartoon sweat leaping off their brows. A for effort, and I actually mean that in a non-bitchy way. I don’t get the impression that either writer has delusions about their writing abilities – this isn’t full of attempts to pull a fast one or bullshit you about how they are deconstructing the form or some such nonsense – a clumsy plug I see trying to justify a lot of D-grade pulp. It’s a straightforward first person narrative with a narrator who claims to be exactly what she thinks she is. (Whether she is is another ball of wax.)

However, and this is a big however, that is not to say there aren’t some gaping holes in motivation and sense that can only be plugged if you consider this as a derivative work. There’s this pretty great review of the book City of Bones on Ferretbrain that defines how fanfic works pretty neatly. I’m just going to quote a little bit, but you should probably go read the article at some point.

Essentially City of Bones reads like fanfic – and I don’t mean that as kneejerk indicator of poor quality, I mean that it reads like something constructed for a different purpose, functioning on a different ruleset. […] I truthfully have no idea what it is that makes fanfic work but it seems to me to have something to do with potential plausibility. Scenes of certain characters doing things they never explicitly did in the books (even if this is fucking each other) resonate with you because it feels both novel and familiar […] Fan fiction, even if you’re looking at a 100,000 word AU fic, seems to be all about the establishment of moments, which need not necessarily (and probably don’t) exist as part of a continuum of moments.
This is absolutely the opposite to a book.

I mean, obviously, the thing I like about this definition is that the writer has the same qualm I do about how this work functions as a novel, though she uses the term book. I mean, obviously this is a book – I can shart out 50,000 words and have it printed and bound and call it a book – but it’s not a coherent narrative, either in terms of character development or in narrative structure – it’s a series of moments. I think it’s possible to break structure – I think the books in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever Series taken individually, especially after the first – don’t pull off the whole narrative unity thing that well – the fucking cliffhangers – but they do rise to believable crescendos within the terms of that world. There are stakes. People change. And ultimately, taken as a whole, the series constitutes a coherent arc. But the terms of this world have some serious split-personality which blows its potential plausibility. It’s not even so much that I think it’s tricky to add sex into a narrative that is functionally virginity porn and a morality tale about the female libido. It’s that the terms of the Forksverse and Shadeland are fundamentally at odds with one another, and that even in a Romantic sensibility, not a Novelistic one, this world’s order wobbles.

Bella, Ana, Christian, Edward

So, to the characters. Taken without her Bella-ish beginnings, Ana is a deeply nonsensical character. I mean, she is anyway, but her nonsense makes a little more sense with Bella in the mix. Bella is a pretty solid hot nerd reader-proxy just waiting for the make-over to release her inner Swann – get it? get it? I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name – whose inexperience and virginity is completely justifiable due to her age. Age her up a couple years to just-out-of-college, and you have some serious problems. Repeatedly, Ana says and thinks things – this is first person, so we’re privy to every single fucking thought – and thought while fucking, badumptss – that imply she has never had one single solitary sexual thought her whole life – up to and including the fact that she has never masturbated. Now, I’m not saying that 22 year olds who haven’t been kissed don’t exist, I’m saying that 22 year olds who have never once contemplated their own sexuality don’t exist. This is not some sly, damaged narrator who is playing coy about her motivations either – every thought is bald as a baby’s ass. But if that 22 year old is secretly a 17 year old from Forks, WA, then it jibes slightly better.

You know, until it doesn’t, because say what you will about Bella – and I’ve said my share – she is completely capable of expressing her desire for Edward. She’s the one pushing sexual contact every single step of the way. Both books spend a lot of focus on strange somewhat disembodied aspects of their mens – Edward’s skin, which you might remember is marble-like, alabaster and cold, or Christian’s long, elegant, tapering, ET-like fingers – and both these boys exist as a sort of libido-body for their female protagonists. Which is to say, both Edward and Christian are unicorns drawn to the virginity of the female character, with their horns a-blazing, and you may insert all the innuendo that you see fit. Edward though, however often Meyer tries to underline his predatory nature, is the poster boy for true-love-waits, the cauterizing masculine rationality that puts the brakes on dangerous, deadly female sexuality. Not to reiterate my Twilight review to much, but Edward exists to both canonize and criticize female desire – the male version of the Madonna/whore – the God/devil. But much more weighted to God.

This is where 50 Shades starts to fall to pieces for me. There’s this character in this little seen 90s movie played by Eric Stoltz – I can’t remember the name – who has been working on his dissertation for like ten years or so. His favorite phrase is, “and I’m paraphrasing myself here”. That’s what I’m about to do. I’m paraphrasing myself here, but I believe very strongly that the paranormal in fiction – that thing, like vampirism, that shifts a relatively boring ass story full of the ornament of everyday stew-making and class-attending to the red, the thing that makes a Novel a Romance – is something that allows story-tellers to explore the edges of cultural expectations. Zombies equal the fear of the mob cut with the theatrics of fear-based siege societies; werewolves equal the id/ego split; vampires equal the parasitic aristocrat and also, sometimes, the Freudian sex/death equation. Ghosts are our embarrassing angry pasts. So Edward’s vampirism is a heightened metaphor for male sexuality seen through a female lens, or a nod to certain theologies, or something. Whatever it is, it involves the cultural constructions of imaginary though partially agreed upon group identities. The group of vampires have these characteristics – let’s run them to their logical conclusions.

Twilight works, on the level it works, because Edward is unreal, this saint/stranger, vegetarian vampire impossibility. He’s obviously a unicorn, probably more likely than an under-30 hot-ass billionaire like Christian – because seriously, the only under-30 billionaire, hot-ass or not, I can think of outside of crown princes of women-hating theocracies is the dick who invented facebook. (Who isn’t under-30 anymore, but was once.) And no thank you to all. But Christian’s vampirism is not that he’s an under-30 hot-ass billionaire, it’s that he is a member of BDSM culture, a very real, very marginalized group of people.

I’m not competent to talk about how the BDSM community works, but I get very very fucking twitchy and worried when real groups of people are used in the fantasies of others, especially when those others are members of the over-culture. I might even go far as to say it’s shitty as shit to treat that culture like some kind of half-assed paranormal ornament on the par with vampirism. (This is not to say that BDSM culture can’t be criticized, just because it’s a sub-group or something. I am a sex-positive, kink-positive feminist – in that I think that our sexualities are vital and inextricable parts of our identities, and that kinks are a part of the typical variation of human sexuality, but I also believe that issues of consent can get very murky indeed once you start factoring in gender, class, and personal experience. I might be in full-on Minority Warrior mode – attempting to score points from my position of straight, white, middle-class comfort when I say things about the use of BDSM culture in this book. I honestly don’t know.) (I mean, maybe the real problem is that there’s just enough half-assed “facts” about BDSM culture for this to be a problem. Christian does a tolerable job of explaining BDSM, but everything he says is constantly undercut by Ana’s freaking out and eye-bugging. And undercut by how James seems to be positioning him to have a big “emotional break-though” when he explains what’s up with his refusal to be touched and the scars on his back and stuff. There’s a bright red arrow pointing to some heavily bullshit Freudian mama-hurt-me-so-I’m-afraid-to-loooooove thing, which makes me want to smash things with a hammer. Cheap psychology really pisses me off; we are all more complicated than this red arrow.) All of this hand-wringing and parenthetical bs aside, I get worried when we (whoever the fuck we is) start using real, non-imaginary people as sort of half-assed paranormal boogies, ascribing them stock psychological backgrounds. I’m not competent to talk about BDSM culture, and I get the distinct impression that neither is James. And, drawing conclusions about BDSM culture from this book alone is a huge, huge freaking mistake.

The sex scenes in this book are competently written, once you cut out literally every single thing Ana thinks while they are going on, and everything that happens before or after. All of the sex toys and contract stuff feels a little google-y – like James read some wiki articles about Ben Wa balls and hard limits and tossed those suckers in there – but in concrete, physical terms, there isn’t a lot of coyness and euphemism. Which is the sort of thing I hates in a sex scene – no “apex of her thighs,” no “globes,” no “manroots.” Good. Whether this sort of thing will turn you on is another issue entirely – and this is the goal of erotica, non? – and one that I can’t answer. Desire is a personal game, maybe even more so than comedy, which can factor in less id-based orientations like politics. And, I shouldn’t be swinging at this right now, but scoring point trashing other people’s sexual responses is lazy bullshit, my friends, and something I’ve seen happen far too often in reviews of 50 Shades.

Which is not to say there isn’t a lot here that is, as the term goes, problematic. But the sex is competently written, if you’re into super mild bondage, and contains just enough understanding of kink to pretend to be kink-positive, if you choose to ignore huge freaking swathes of the novel. And you can, absolutely. I got my copy from the library, which is a little eeww, because the book easily fell open to certain, ahem, passages. They were well thumbed, like you do. I mean, how many Ayla books were read solely for their poor sexual content? Or Wifey? or Flowers In The Attic? (Just because I’ve dated myself here as from the pre-Internet era, these books were heavily stolen from mom in youth, and read pretty exclusively for the sex scenes.) (Not my mom – no way – I’d more likely get some pomo behemoth– but as a generation.) I get the impression that beyond all the griping I’m doing about this being a fan-fic-y series of moments, 50 Shades is being read by a large number of people in an even more decontextualized manner: sex scene, sex scene, sex scene, end, like playing a video game and skipping the cut scenes, because who freaking needs ’em?

But let’s talk about Ana for a little bit more, hmm? I’ve said before that she’s a nonsensical character – she does not hold together – but the ways she fractures are completely, utterly fascinating. She’s got a “subconscious” and an “Inner Goddess” – fully embodied, fully voiced aspects of herself that she is in dialogue with almost all the time. She sees them tap their toes or hears them say things she can’t. It’s not exactly the angel/devil thing you find in cartoons – though the Inner Goddess seems to exist as a sexual id, mostly. I was most bothered by the subconscious because in almost all the contexts in which Ana talked about her subconscious, she was really referring to her conscious mind. These were thoughts that she was having. There was no sub about it, just to make the shittiest joke ever.

This analogy is going to be tricky to pull off, but bear with me. I think one of the reasons Bella’s voice worked so well for so many of the mom-set – of which I count myself a member, so this is not a disparagement – is that Bella thinks like a housewife. All the stew-making and worrying about her father Charlie’s diet/friends/whatever feels like the running background monologue I have about my family’s welfare, about the state of the fridge, about the fact that the car’s brakes are squeaky, and shouldn’t I figure how to take the car in? Edward appears, fully formed from the head of Eros in his marble-white armor, and distracts her from this everyday banality. He’s a daydream. A daydream with teeth.

But now we have Ana, who is the daydream of a daydream. A housewife dreams of a teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of an untouchable boy. Another housewife dreams that same teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of a boy, and she touches that boy, and he touches back. Eeeek! Bella doesn’t get her freak on until the last book, once she’s gotten married like a boss, but Ana dives in, um, like a boss. New simile please. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Ana is this sexual tabula rasa – an unwritten sexual being – and we get to watch while she is written into being. Ana would probably be a better character if she didn’t have Bella in her DNA – this moralistic over-presence that reads femininity in very conservative terms. Ana’s subconscious, in this reading, is the housewife split again, because they (we) are defined in many ways by our sexuality, but mostly in the negative. We’re the end result of the romance plot, glimpsed in the sequel smiling beatifically with an armful of babies, but never really considered again in depth.

I will say, overshare be damned, that sexual life post-marriage, post-children, is an endlessly complicated set of negotiations – not simply between the couple – what you want and how you want it – but also a negotiation with our aging bodies, the demands of the family schedule, the logistics of having sex in a house with children whom you don’t want to freak out too bad. I can understand the desire to return to origins and perfect them, or replay them, or reimagine them, or whatever. All the ridiculous (and frankly boring) consideration of the sexual contract between Ana and Christian may may not have the content of a boring married couple’s, but the contract is an unspoken component of boring married life, and as such, I can see why it appeals to so many of us smug marrieds. The funnest part of the book, as many have noted, are the emails flirting and teasing between Ana and Christian – “You hang up.” “No, you.” Silence. “Are you still there?” – which are on one hand emblematic of hazy courtship, but on the other mirror my day-to-day goofy texts and boring questions between my husband and me.

ceridwen: you got an extremely urgent ups envelope. Want if I should open it?
NSP: sure
I bet it’s spam of some sort
ceridwen: AHHH111!!! POISONOUS SPIDERS1!!
NSP: I don’t think I’ve ordered anything recently
ceridwen: Actually, it’s spam.
NSP: I knew it
ceridwen: I was hoping for the spiders.
NSP: I could order spiders
ceridwen: Then I could be a superhero!
NSP: Bitten by radioactive spam

I have been laughing about this exchange with my man for two weeks, but then, I don’t really get out much which is exactly why 50 Shades works, if and when it works. But Ana’s a total psycho because she’s being used as proxy for too many freaking things, and there’s no freaking way that a character as thin as she can bear the strain.


Oh, did I say thin? How clumsy of me. This is one of those half-assed thoughts, but I was bolted up by all the anorexic ideation in this book. It’s there in Twilight, all this food-worry – though mostly it’s located in Edward and his “vegetarian” vampirism. But here, good lord, Ana is the poster girl for the pro-Ana movement – I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name. It’s part of the sexual contract that she be more”health-conscious” – down to the hours she will spend exercising. And after Christian has put all these restrictions on her food, she stops eating because of how “emotional” she is, which gets him to spend all this time pushing food on her. I can’t even unpack it, it’s so fucked up. If he’s her sexual body, and he both restricts her food and tries to get her to eat? What the fuck does that mean?

I see a lot of weirdness in romance novels about the categorization and criticism of various female body types – male too, actually, but as these writers aren’t men writing for a male audience, I’m assuming it doesn’t affect dudes the same way – but the way it works here seems particularly confused. I mean, the target audience is likely like me: carrying a few more pounds than I’d like, slightly wrecked from child-bearing, unable to carve out the time for the gym. In sum, not 22 (or 17) anymore. So, on the one hand, Christian feels like a bodily superego, the one that criticizes when we get to end of our weeks and order pizza, too tired for sex, almost too tired for the parenting bullshit that must come first. On the other, I want to wring Ana’s fucking neck for all of her “too stressed out to eat” bullshit. That was probably a non sequitur, but whatever. I think what makes me irritated is that I know what anorexia looks like; I know how it thinks. (Caveat: I’m not an anorexic, but it’s gotten too close for comfort with too many people I love.) And while Ana’s thought processes hit that anorexic mindset with a flaming arrow, the whole thing was wrapped up in this breezily clueless “look at how cute and deep I am for forgetting to eat” thing that makes my head explode. No anorexic forgets to eat. She might tell people that’s what happened, but that’s not what happened. First person narrator fail.

And in these same lines, alcohol use/abuse also factors pretty strongly, as Ana is supposedly not a seasoned drinker, but gets blotto on at least one loud occasion – one that uses the Jacob character totally shabbily, I might add, but then, borderline-racist use of non-white characters is a Twilight mainstay, so it’s okay, don’t worry – and pours it down as liquid courage in several others. Just, what the hell is going on here? I don’t even have any conclusions to draw, I just want to point it out, this fluttering, strange disavowal of sensation by Ana – I never drink! Or think about sex! Or food! – and then the constant reality of the exact opposite – mediated by not one, but two! psychological others in this book. It dizzies. Maybe this is just the constant thrum in this book where we are obviously meant to take Ana at face value – the first person; the bald straightforward sequence of events – but over and over, she’s damaged as a narrator, unbelievable as a character – too many people in her mix – author proxy, reader proxy, Bella Swann, sexual tabula rasa, everygirl, inner goddess, subconscious, virgin, whore. That’s probably why this novel is both as successful and as derided as it is: Ana is incoherent as a woman, and that incoherence mirrors a basic facet of trying to live up the impossible, conflicted expectations put upon our gender. (Which is not to say dudes don’t have a set of fucked up expectations put on them too or anything, but, and I’m paraphrasing myself here,  things are about what they are about, not about other things. This isn’t about a male sexual experience, except as a female fantasy, and it is not being read by nor was it written by a man. Men can go elsewhere for their incoherent gender standards – oh, hai, Western Canon.)

Some Shit about BDSM

Anyway, on to Christian. Christian is all BDSM all the time. So much that, like Ana’s claim never to have had a sexual thought, he claims never to have had vanilla sex. Which, snort. I’m not bagging on kink when I say that sometimes, after a decade or more of sexual activity, you’re just not going to be up to busting out the swing every single time you have sex. There’s gonna be that time when you just do it, because sex is an important, but also a sometimes a mechanical part of a long term relationship. I mean, no one said that the sex in Romances, or romance novels, or whatever, had to hew to reality, but just, come the fuck on. All that aside, Christian is absolutely forthright and honest about his kinks – kinks which, as they play out on the page are not much more than the mildest of bondage play. Ana regularly and compulsively, possibly even willfully misinterprets his actions and statements, but again and again, what he says is what he means. Christian is incredibly forthright, and, even though we’re supposed to be rooting for Ana – that’s what the first person means here; root for me – I found it very difficult to side with her at any point, especially in the final “plot twist”.

Which is not to say that Christian isn’t a total abuser, which is what makes my antipathy for Ana kind of hard to deal with. Because Ana is absolutely a terrible person — she shits on her friends, she treats her family like crap, she hates literally everything in the world — but she also doesn’t deserve the abuse he doles out. The sex scene in her dorm room, when he comes in the window like a total creeper, feels just awful, Ana gritting her teeth through a debasement she doesn’t want. Orgasms aren’t consent; they’re just orgasms. He leaves her crying, bereft, which in my half-assed googling about BDSM makes him the worst dom ever. Whither your aftercare, asshole?

I’m nervous as shit about how this might play out in later books – I get the sincere impression that Ana’s irrational ideas about the sources of Christian’s kinks will be given credit – like she’ll cure him of his fucking abuse and kinks and they’ll ride off into the sunset of missionary style sex with the lights off. That’s the Romantic narrative, right? That true love can transmute the Beast into the God-husband, which is an okay, if silly thing to think about vegetarian vampires, because it’s not like they exist anyway. However, stories about “curing” deeply ingrained sexual proclivities through the power of love and magical ladyparts just smacks of reprogramming camps for gays. Is this a Godwin? Maybe. But the way Ana constantly conceptualizes Christian’s kinks as born in trauma, as a psychological knot to be cut, this makes me nervous. Even if his kinks were born in trauma, pretending like some Magic Vagina is going to untwist this wire between fear and sexual response for an individual is not just naïve, but narcissistic. A person is never a cure. I don’t even like that I’ve written that sentence that way, and I want to go back and throw a ton of conditionals on everything I’ve written, but whatever.

And if I go back and change the word “kink” for “abuse” in the last paragraph, it all gets a lot worse. Stories about about curing cruelty and possessiveness through the power of love make me nervous. The way Ana constantly excuses Christian’s abuse as born as his own trauma — which may be, strictly speaking, accurate — doesn’t make the abuse go away. She will never be able to love him enough, fuck him enough, or behave in just the exact right way to keep him from hitting her. To keep him from setting the terms to absolutely everything.

So, how the fuck long have been going on about this book? Too godamn long, that’s for sure. Hi. How are you? I’m feeling a little fatigued, but there are still a couple of things I wanted to touch on about this book. And what I want to talk about is tampons. I’m not putting this discussion under the spoiler tag, even though this takes place well into the book, because I’m not sure this “narrative” can be spoiled. So, fair warning, the spoiler averse – maybe my discussion of a discrete sexual encounter will ruin this book for you. (Lol, as the kids say.) (But also, seriously, spoilers on the ending in two paragraphs.)

Late in the book, Ana has a bunch of hand-wringing and Oedipal (Electral?) bullshit with her mom, which ends in a hotel room working out the final stages of her contract with Christian. So far, all the sex scenes have been pretty clean, in the sense that, even while there have been mild bondage aspects, everyone is beautiful, orgasms are simultaneous, and that even virgins can blow like Debbie doing Dallas. Not to be crude – too late! – but even though I said the prose wasn’t euphemistic, there’s a big freaking lacuna in the way a sexual neophyte deals with the sticky aftermath of…well, you know, spit or swallow? Also, how did she not drown giving that one blowie? Which, fine, this is not a frank sexual text. But in this later scene, intercut with some actually honest-sounding dialogue between Ana and Christian, he pulls out her tampon and then fucks her. In the aftermath, she looks at him, at his body covered in her blood, at her thighs streaked with it, and it strikes her as an image of nakedness. This is a moment of sexual, personal rawness, and the physical and the mental are both bloody with it.

Which, fuck yeah. Yes, this is absolutely a squeamish image. This is a little gross, or a lot, depending on how you feel about menses and all that. But taking you and your hang-ups out of it, this is an absolutely vivid character moment. This is something a character does and thinks – and absolutely astonishing to find in a romance novel, dealing as it often does with sexual encounters idealized or gauzy. This is both shudder-able, and shrug-able. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to live in tents during our uncleanness, and it should be no big shock that someone, somewhere, had sex on the rag. But that’s not even my point – my point is we have this moment where Ana and Christian are doing something both so usual, and so transgressive to say out loud, that it makes them momentarily look like people.

And then, my friends, it all goes to shit. I don’t even have this book anymore, which is why I can’t go back and figure what happens exactly, but once past this sanguine Rubicon of period sex and emotional nakedness, Ana goes completely fucking bonkers and ends their relationship? Honest to Christ, I have no idea what happens, but the book ends with her weeping about some damn thing and moving out, or something. The ending is where the fan-fic-y-ness is totally obvious, because this is just a quick, bullshit slipknot to tie the threads until Eclipse the next book, which will keep confounding these idiots in their quest for hetero sexual perfection using vampirism BDSM culture as a metaphor for heaven knows what. Which, fuck you. The stakes are way too godamn low for me to continue, even if I want to get to the Christmas scene I read in 50 Shades of Fuck All  standing in a bookstore well before I read this. Kiss kiss! Look at our perfect babies! Arrggghhhhhh.


I feel like I should come up with a coda on this review, but I’m not sure I have it in me. I feel like punching this book, and giving it a wedgie, and speaking softly to it, not to scare it, while feeding it formative feminist texts. I want this book to love itself more that it does. I want it to be less half-assed. I want us, by which I mean women, I think, but then maybe I mean everyone, to sit down and examine our kinks, and own those fuckers, and not have to get off to stupid fucking virgin-proxies who have embodied proxies themselves. I get why we’re doing it, but it would be sweet as fuck if we could all just move on.