My Engine Summer: Lost Utopias

This book lit up all the parts of my brain that love Ursula K. Le Guin. The story takes place in a far-future American landscape, long after the end of modern life, so long that the world is green and pastoral, its people living out their lives in small, knitted communities, their concerns more of the soul than the rat race. It’s not dissimilar from the people and places in City of Illusions  or Always Coming Home, and much of my reading pleasures converged here: the Road, crumbling and cracking under the thrust of the roots of new trees, the skeletons of bridges both dangerous and beautiful, a generation from falling to orange dust, the quiet nosings into the past (our present) with a kind of wonder and dismay. 

The image of the mobius recurs in this novel, the strip of paper twisted and then bound so that if you trace your finger, there is no end. Perfect, because this book ends in such a way you must, you absolutely must loop back around and read the beginning with fresh eyes, with the knowledge you have picked up along the way. It kills, this reversal, absolutely slays. It’s morose and sad and hopeful all in the same. Jesus. 

This is the thing I noticed when I read this book: we’ve lost our taste for utopias. Because even in all of the sadness and grieving in this book, there is a very earnest attempt to imagine livable societies, societies that work, societies that are decent. I went just now and looked up all the publication dates for the books I just mentioned, and they are solidly all before the turn of the millennium. You could, probably without much thought, rattle off a dozen dystopias – which, why the hell doesn’t spellcheck recognize this word? – but utopias? We don’t even try anymore. 

The utopias here aren’t perfect, and by needs any (good) story has to find the fracture in the societal system and widen it, but, I guess I’m just wistful for writers, and readers, trying to find hope in these apocalyptic ashes. The best of us is as important as the worst of us. Which is not to say that I didn’t smile bitchily about a lot of the assumptions about human nature here. There’s a chasteness about human sexuality I found puzzling – the main character is a boy between the ages of 14 and 17 through this novel, half-chasing a girl who makes choices he can’t, or won’t – and I couldn’t figure out how far their relationship went, in concrete, carnal terms, which seems an notable lacuna. Seems chivalrous in a way I find politely repellent. 

Crowley walks you through three societies, and a fourth in the oblique: the warren-bound Truth Speakers, the people of Dr Boots’s List, and the avvengers. The Truth Speakers are the soul of this book, and as you as reader pass through the others, you see it. Truth speaking is never defined, but emerges in the edges of the narrative, a felt truth. It’s both beautiful and hopelessly naive, the way these things are, and absolutely cut with how truth won’t get you happiness necessarily, and right living is maybe only understood in its absence. 

The sad thing is most of the way through this review, I haven’t even talked about what I wanted to talk about when I was reading: all the groaning puns and funny translations of modern terms – Nu Yeork – one of which informs the title here. Or the long winter spent by the protagonist under the effect of a drug that induces hibernation, or the alien plants harvested and smoked, or the rings on Mbaba’s toes. This is a book for the experiencing of it, all these long sentences and these repeated refrains, like a song. The best of us is as important as the worst of us, and so are the rest of us, in the middle. Hot damn.

The Reapers are the Angels

I think there is something like an inverse square rule at work here between one’s familiarity with Southern Gothic (or Western/Appalachian morality tales more broadly) and enjoyment of The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell. Or maybe it’s a bell curve, but I think there is a relationship. My knowledge of these things is limited – I had a shattering, eye-opening affair with Flannery O’Connor in my youth, and read The Road along with every other housewife on the planet, hit some of the short fictions, but I can only cast my eyes down and mumble when it comes to Faulkner, Welty, anything else by McCarthy, et freaking cetera. 

So I know the genre exists, and I can nod my head when the tropes come up – the Faulknerian idiot man-child, the Old Testament vengeance, clannish hillfolk, the echoing Southern plantation with its fragile social/racial politics, the land, the land, the la-an-and – but I’m not so familiar that I kept tying the string to the push-pins in a hundred other fictions. And this seems to be the sticking point for more genre-versed readers; the line between allusive and derivative is thin and personal. I don’t know how this would read to someone who was slate-blank – and, by the by, just because this has a young adult protagonist does not mean it is a young adult novel at all; the sensibility is seriously wrong for that – but I’m guessing much at work here would perplex. So, bell curve. Maybe. 

I’m using genre in its little-g sense – this isn’t a Genre exercise – despite the zombies. The novel opens with Temple, a teenager who has only known a wasted, apocalyptic America, trailing her feet in the water on her lonely island. She watches the minnows play in the water like light themselves, like the trout in the stream that close McCarthy’s own American end times. Then a jawless animated corpse washes up on the beach (whose head she caves with a rock she leaves as marker, his body bumping in the surf) and Temple knows it’s time to move on or be overrun. She swims ashore and begins moving through a series of communities and the wild. 

This is why I say it isn’t genre: if you want to start nit-picking about how roads would be broken to crumble, or kudzu would have finally strangled every living thing without 25 years of human intervention, or no car would ever work, then you are in the wrong novel. This is a book that starts with, “God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” We are solidly on metaphysical terrain here – do not look for science in your fiction lest you disappoint yourself for no good reason. This is the South of St Flannery of the Knife. The moral’s gonna hurt, and it might not even be a moral. 

Temple herself is a fearsome creature, the inheritor of the character of generations of knowing, savage girls born onto dirt farms to absent mamas and even more absent fathers: the girl from True Grit, Ree from Winter’s Bone (whom I only know from the movie, of course), or even Katniss Everdeen. She’s comfortable, almost easy with the dead (if she could ever be said to be easy). She has a naturalist’s respect for their ethical simplicity. The living are always more the puzzle, and after an incident in an itchy, confining survivor community, she becomes locked into a vengeance plot with a taciturn, honor-bound old cuss. She runs, and Lord, can she run. 

The man is old enough to remember the world that was, before the dead crawled out of their graves to put the modern world down. As someone who was raised mostly parentless, feral, living in drains, I wouldn’t have expected Temple to be so morally central – all these honorable and ethical knowings passing between her and the man, their truths in short, truth-felt lines to one another – but then I need to take my own advice about the metaphysical terrain. Temple is what is left when the lights go out on our civilization. She doesn’t need to be taught the theology of the American landscape – that is inherent, and inheritable, in the end. She’s like a child of the Reconstruction come forward, or likely she never left. 

Though not written in dialect – and thank God for that – there are the dialectic cadences that worked for me, and a stripped down punctuation I thought was apt. The lack of quotation marks was especially cool, and made the care taken toward dialogue more noticeable – if you can’t just throw quotes around it, you make sure it’s easy to tell who is speaking. Again, I could probably just gesture to McCarthy, so derivative or allusive – that’s your call. I really enjoyed this, even though it’s occasionally overheated, it’s sentences portentous and overmuch. But I’m a sucker for that long slow pan of the American heart and soul, the road and train and feet on the pavement. Amen. The End.

Scraping at the Skin: A Review of Palimpsest

There are whole cities of me who could have hated Palimpsestby Catherynne Valente, or been indifferent, or been casually affectionate, and then left the next morning – or even just as it ended – and then called four days later and been polite but firm that it was over. Books can be – they are – often like lovers. We hold them in our hands – or if the lights are off and we cannot see – they whisper in our ears, and it raises gooseflesh all over our bodies. Sometimes our teeth clank, or they are too rough, or not rough enough. Sometimes they fill us up. Sometimes the same lover is all of those things: teeth-clanking, giggling, shuttering, and perfect – but you met them on the wrong day, in the wrong mood, and its fumbling and awful. I met this book on the right day, the right days, and I loved it. 

I don’t listen to audio books that often. My mind makes sounds when I read, and when other people are making the sounds, my mind is left to wander like a horse that has pulled its picket. But I found myself on a ride north with no other adult to talk to, with this book sounding out in my ears, my restless mind penned into watching the road and the landscape. This is a novel of cities – of a city, Palimpsest – a sexually transmitted city. A contagious city, a city that enters into the body like a drug, and leaves its absence as surely as any withdrawal. 

Four people – Sei, Ludovico, November and Oleg, each from their own countries – enter into Palimpsest through their own lovers and madnesses – and are bound by a frog goddess through lines of experience and string. There’s something Narnian about it, but only as a departure point – the wardrobe full of mother’s furs wearing its subtext as text. The language is aggressively adjectival and allusive, the plot not so much action as experience and the uncovering of memory. Even the sections that take place in the cities I can point to on a map – Rome, New York, Kyoto – had the too-vivid feeling of a fairy tale, or a dream. The characters are strange, bejeweled creatures who cannot live in this world. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t dream in black and white. That I do, or should, is one of the strangest things people tell me with credulity, so I understand these bee-loud almost-people. 

There’s a place in me that grows weary of the adjective, that prefers the unornamented. That place was out the window – the nodding scrub and twisted near-spring branches of the landscape was the stage this city grew onto. It was perfect. Palimpsest can only be returned to for the characters by sex with strangers – strangers who have the maps of neighborhoods tattooed on their skin by their own entrances and addictions. It’s somewhere between erotic and disgusting the way it works, all this flesh and skin, and the leap to ecstasy and alarm that finds them once again in Palimpsest. 

I’ve been with the same person for sixteen years, we finally counted out one of the evenings this week, and I still dream of sex with others, usually the dream-faceless, but occasionally, with upset, someone I know. Invariably, as I feel and move, I remember within the dream who I am, whom I have made my bed and life and children with, and I panic in the dream. The dreams don’t spin to nightmare often, but it is disquieting to be someone else, to be somewhere else, in a city of dreams, and then wake up – but not often truly wake – and remember who I am. When I have nightmares where I fall and fall I often wake with the sensation that I have hit the bed. Or I run from monsters until I wake up with a charley horse and clutch my leg and writhe. That’s this book. 

I had to switch to paper after the rides north and back were completed – my house is loud and busy, and audio has no place in that – and I would fall into naps and dream the city, Palimpsest. However often my waking brain would bother itself with one too many description of smell or sound or touch, it would curl around those descriptions and play them out. For a city predicated on the vellum of monks stripped layer by layer and rewritten, leaving the trails on the skin on the eye, it was perfect. 

One last thing: this book is an intertext with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Though that story was referenced here, it was written after, and September and her Green Wind – good God – what a thing. I’m just shivering with what Valente did with children’s stories and retrospective adulthood and the stories we tell and are told and all of those devices, those devices that whir in our brains like damp clockwork, like maps to ourselves and others. I kept thinking of Autobiography of Red, where Anne Carson spoke of the magic of the adjective that reorders the noun, the place, and Valente’s heavy adjectives do just that. Perfect for these bones, for this skin, for this grey brain. I put out my hands to touch. Lover, come to bed.

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.)

God’s War: Merciless Badasses Kick It

I have so deleted so many openings of this review. Objectively, if there is such a thing, God’s War by Kameron Hurley is probably a three-star outing – there’s an ugly, badly handled time transition about a quarter of the way through the book, and the central mystery is maybe less mysterious and more perfunctory than it could be – but whoo boy, what a world. And more importantly, what a girl. Nyxnessa is a failed bel dame, which on this dusty, war torn planet is something like a Bene Gesserit crossed with Han Solo, but more badass than the sum of her parts, and that is saying something. She burns with her whiskey-fueled near-honor, getting by with something more terrible than will. And will is a pretty terrible thing in my book. This is a sticky, bloody little smash-and-grab that rang my bells in just the right ways.

So, can we talk world-building for a minute? I usually make the ward against evil when world-building is invoked, because the term can be code for infodumps up the ass and a coy, heraldic sense of history. Lo! You remember, Bob, how this rock, which is called Tdfkdhkasjja in the old tongue, was the site for the Blahblahblah of K’thizzle. But, when you get down to it, genre exercises that take place on other planets have to let you know the parameters of their cultures, have to set them up and knock them down, and this does so, with feeling. The smart way to go is to drop the reader in the middle of confusing terms and brutal realities, and then assume your readers have access to wikis that will explain what a bakkie is, and if they don’t, then for sure they can figure it out. Go, smart readers, go. The language here is stylistic genre, not afraid to cuss or drop a bunch of undefined terms on you, letting you catch up. The planet in question has been colonized by post-Muslim societies – I say post-Muslim because there’s a lot of ornament from other religions – like the prayer wheels I associate most strongly with Tibetan Buddhism. 

The world itself is Dune-ish, unsuited to humans to begin with, but then even more so because of the holy war that’s been raging for who knows how long. Nyx is the brutal daughter of this environment, a scriptured place where the men have been killed for so long, and so thoroughly that these patrifocal cultures have had to come to terms with almost entirely female populations – at least in the two cultures that are at the center of the conflict. All of the central players in this story are on the outs with their cultures in one way or another: too gay, not enough gay, orthodox, believers, non-believers, alien, and so on. 

In another mood, this might have felt like the usual suspects school of character development, a Venn diagram of needs and aversions, one overlapping the other – too schematic. I guess even in the right mood it is, because I’m saying this out loud and believe it, but I didn’t really care as the story was unfolding. Nyx is such a towering badass, such a bitch, that I was wide eyed watching her cut a swath in the most profane, bloody and personal of ways. She’s so shuddering and intimate in her brutality – there was this moment when she freaks, and calls her – for lack of a better word – love interest, and orders him to read to her – she’s functionally illiterate – and it twisted my insides. If she’s scared and doubting, and she’s the scariest, undoubtingest thing ever, then I have cause to fear. Whoo boy. 

Did I say love interest? That is not what I meant. She’s certainly got a strange watchfulness with her relationship with Rhys, an orthodox man who out-classes her in most ways, his straight, dark-skinned, controlled body and mind in contrast with her sloppy, heterodox brutality. It’s godamn sexy to watch them hate each other, need each other, read to each other over their flaws and weaknesses, strengths and wills. As a smash-and-grab, this plot moves over acres of land, into palaces and out into the desert, through disparate cultures, and the way their bodies are read and changed, their sexualities coded and re-coded – hot damn, this is some interesting stuff. This is a world full of people who tape up their knuckles and brawl, and the brawling is like sex and death, and as important as both. 

This claims to be the first in a series, and even though the ending is downbeat and uncompleted – almost frustrating as it shakes the central characters loose like water off a shaking dog’s back – I see how you are setting it up for the next – I find it almost impossible to imagine coming back to this place, and I mean that in the best way. I don’t want completeness from a character like Nyx. I don’t want her to sort it out and find peace. I want to keep imagining her cutting this bright, bloody path across the world, drunk and high, tumbling with boxer girls, pining. She’s la belle dame sans merci and amen to that. 

(I received an ARC from 

Seraphina, or The Uses of the Paranormal in Fiction

Rarr. Totally lost my review for Seraphina by Rachel Hartman due to computer problems, and now I’m really ticked off. I’m going to go review something I don’t care about as much, and then I’ll be back when the pissedoffedness has dwindled.

Okay, I’m back. I think I started off by writing about what kinds of young adult novels work for me, adult reader. Like most genres, it is legion, running from your baldest of wish fulfillment exercises, to post-apocalit and sff more generally, to romance, to topic-driven Public Service Announcement like fare. I know I wrote something about how I don’t really like young adult in more contemporary settings, especially if there seems to be some sort of message or topic – though you can blow a giant Melina Marchetta shaped hole in that statement. Now that I’ve had some time to process, my disinterest in young adult fictions in realistic, contemporary settings isn’t specific to young adult. I don’t really want to read about a character’s round robin of affairs and mid-life crises that you can sometime find in grown-up books, just as I don’t want to read about sexting and the effect of parental divorce in something for teens. 

I may sound a little dismissive, but I don’t really intend that. My interests bend to the fantastic in fiction for a number of reasons, the most easy to explain being the fantastic – and I mean this in the little-f sense; like, not just elves and stuff – can twist the reader’s perceptions, throwing in a gravitational mass that affects the usual order of one’s personal constellations. To start out with a bad example: Twilight without vampires is a boring tale of a stalker and the woman who loves him. I mean, arguably, it still is that story, but the stakes are higher and the metaphors more disturbingly theological. Or to switch to grown-up books, what does something like The Road read like if transported into a contemporary setting? The wasted America that is the setting for that novel is an emotional reality for the boy and his son, not strictly plausible, but a place to work out the father-son dynamic in a way that isn’t possible in a more domestic setting with sippy cups and play dates. To mix my metaphors, the fantastic red-shifts the everyday into something that must be re-calibrated or recolored to see its meaning. 

Of course, this red-shift isn’t always successful, and I must have a perverse need to undermine my own argument by using one of the more derided examples of YA out there, one whose pleasures are described as guilty even by its defenders. But I’m simply trying to note where my interests, as a reader, lie, and why. The fantastic can be a place for writers to camouflage authorial insert or blatant wish fulfillment – the parameters of the universe of the book bending inexorably to the needs of the protagonist/authorial-proxy/reader-proxy. This conflation of the protagonist and reader may work more often in young adult, as the creation, management and fulfillment of wishes is an important part of learning who you are. I can see why such universes would resonate – I would like the universe to bend to my will as much as the next girl – but I get a little squirmy when it’s too blatant. When the fantastic shift works, it captures the heightened emotional reality of life though the impossible and the unlikely. My often roiling internal state owes nothing to strict reality. 

Oh Gawd! I remember how my review started before! (I swear, this review is turning out be remember that one time I wrote a review that was no doubt AWESOME but it got eaten by my computer; alas.) I mentioned this scene in the b-grade horror film Ginger Snaps – which is about a pair of near-pubescent sisters, one of whom is bitten by a werewolf at the start of the movie. Her changes are looked upon with distress by her younger sister – staying out too late, hanging out with a different, more jerkish crowd, expressing an interest in sex that didn’t exist before. The younger sister goes to the school nurse early in the film and lays out the changes – she’s growing hair on weird parts of her body! – and is met with a politely condescending speech about how she, too, will go through the changes of puberty, and is given an embarrassing pamphlet. I love this scene because it gestures to the obvious way the metaphor of lycanthropy is being used – this movie is about puberty, both the physical and mental changes – but the dismissal of the profundity of those changes by an authority figure is both enraging, and not just a little bit funny. Puberty, while you’re going through it, is the end of the freaking world, and the metaphor of the werewolf is a better capture of the feelings of that time than the bloodless facts. 

So, finally – sheesh – I can start talking about this book. I’ve mentioned a couple of monsters that show up in fictions of the adolescent – werewolves, vampires – but the monster, the metaphor here is dragons. I’m too lazy to do an exhaustive search of the dragon in literature, and will instead rely on my limited experience, but the dragon doesn’t lend itself to tidy summation. Like werewolves, they are often understood to have divided motivations – fiercely intelligent, but with a bestial nature that humans like to evade. (See the dragons in A Wizard of Earthsea, Grendel, or The Hobbit) They tend toward inhuman scheming and their murderousness is almost droll – we kill to live, they say, why do you pretend you don’t, ape? 

Seraphina lives in world where humans and dragons were at war forty years before, and the peace, such as it is, is fragile. Seraphina has come to her near adulthood in a place where her divided allegiances are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous, and the way she guards her body and her self, even with people she aches to connect with, is so vividly true. She’s a talented girl, her talents as much the result of practice as they are of some innate competence – which is my favorite kind of talent – the earned one. There’s a lot about music in this novel, which works beautifully in the ways emotions can be expressed in the non-verbal, especially when the verbal is impossible. 

The plot of the book is court intrigue murder mystery – a prince of the realm is found sans head in a way that points to the involvement of dragons. If this had been the focus of the book, emotionally, I would have been politely bored, the way I am with court intrigue. But the bald facts of the plot are mechanical, and you watch that architecture unfold through the strange parallax of Seraphina’s bisected vision. But this isn’t the world bending to her; this the world seen through her, and it’s wonderful. 

I don’t want to get too far into it for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I loved so so many of the secondary characters. There’s a girl, a friend, whose laughing ease is in sharp contrast with Seraphina’s discomfort, but she is not cut down or diminished simply because she is not like the protagonist. She has a moment, late in the book, overcome with grief and weeping, and she pulls her head up, and says, I’m doing this now so I don’t have to do this later, and you want to reach out and hold her, and you understand her matter-of-fact-ness in grief. That’s a character moment a less generous author would not have given to a girl other than the heroine. 

There’s a boy, a friend, who shares affinities with, and is angered by Seraphina in equal measures – who understands as far as he can, but is hamstrung by Phina’s dissembling. He is not there to make her look good, or make her look bad, but has his own credible motivations, and life outside of Seraphina’s existence. The worst of young adult fictions – of any fictions – cast the opposite gender friend as a prop, as an extension, and it’s so beautiful to see one who is a character in his own right. 

And family – there is an uncle here who is such a fascinating creature, though again, I don’t want to get into it too far for fear of spoilers. I do have some reservations about the way Seraphina’s father was portrayed – his reservations and near-absence felt…tidy, or possibly convenient – though the trajectory of her relationship with the uncle in many ways stands in for the paternal relationship in a way that made emotional sense, even if it didn’t exactly make concrete sense. And the absence/presence of the mother…the way that relationship was expressed through the fantastic – Seraphina’s mother died in childbirth, but her memories were encoded in an emotional mechanism – that completely worked for me. 

I’m running out of steam, which is too bad, because there are plenty of other things to note about this world – the sweetness of Seraphina and one of her friends talking imaginary philosophers, like you do when you’re sort of showing off your first year of college, but showing off in a way that’s incredibly important at the time; the system of saints in this culture, and the way those saints are used and understood; the strange near-dragons who literally stuff themselves on the edges of this world, a mystery that no one is watching; the sly humor that is throughout this book, such a happy thing to find in capital-f Fantasy stories, because so often they are so dead serious that they invite ridicule. 

Such a good book. Such a smart book. Such a good metaphor for the experience of growing up, my discomfort and unease, but also my blinding moments of connection and ultimately prosaic, but completely shattering revelations. I wish that I could have read this at 17, and that’s high praise, even though I sometimes make fun of 17 year old me now. On some level, she’s reading this anyway, because it’s not like my younger self is a completely vanished creature, but someone there just behind my eyes. The best young adult books call her forth and respect her. Oh man. 

(I received an ARC from, and I have been friends with Rachel Hartman on Goodreads for while now, for full disclosure. Neither NetGalley nor Rachel offered me cookies or anything for a good review, and all opinions are decidedly my own.)

Unholy Ghosts, Hecklers and Critics, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Critical Process

I am here today, friends, to talk about author behavior. And also this book. But because of the recent, sometimes ugly, and wholly passionate conversation going on here on Goodreads and the bookish Internets in general about the relationship between authors and readers and reviewers, I came to read this book. I don’t want to get too far down into this rabbit hole, but even dividing writers from reviewers from readers is a little weird. Of course writers are readers too, and sometimes reviewers. (This is leaving aside the strange species of author who does not read, which must exist.) Of course reviewers are readers. (Except for the strange animal who does not read but reviews anyway. Which is not to say I have any problem with DNF reviews, just that I’ve seen at least one example of the kind of reviewer who starts into a book with a critical stance in mind, and then deep-sixes the book when it fails to conform to that vision.) Of course reviewers are writers too, though I certainly understand that writing a largely unedited essay while sitting on the back porch is quantitatively different than writing, editing, and publishing a novel. Of course it’s all a messy mess of varying personalities and aesthetics.

I guess what I’m trying to say that so much of this fighting comes down to warring ideas about the place of criticism layered onto the strange posture of identity and Internet identity. I had this really interesting conversation with my friend Emily yesterday about the movie “Heckler”. A couple people had recommended it to me because, honestly I don’t know why. Because they said it made them not hate Jamie Kennedy as much as they had before. It’s a documentary by Mr. Kennedy about hecklers in comedy shows. I watched about half of it before I lost my crap and had to turn it off. So much of it sent me up the freaking wall – the way hecklers were equated with the entire critical enterprise, the way negative was equated with some sort of jealousy, the fact that more than one person said “Until you have made a movie, you can’t say anything about making movies.” I reject that with both hands and a foot up your ass. I’ve been reading, watching movies, consuming fiction in all of its forms since I before could form a godamn sentence. And sure, there have been times when I have gotten my hate on in a serious way about books/movies/whatever, my negative assessments aren’t coming from some some lonely pit of jealousy and despair. Oh how I wish I had produced this piece of art I hate!

Which is when I realized I was taking it personally.

I, as a critic, am not exempt from criticism. It’s a form of writing, in its own weird way, and Emily was absolutely right when she pointed out the performance of the heckler, and that of the critic, are going to be assessed in some ways by the power of the performance. The heckler seeks to disrupt, to pull attention – any performer does. Some people seek to go as bloodlessly academic in their reviews as possible – and mazel tov to you – but every single time the top lists are brought up, people bemoan how those who do don’t get the attention they deserve, etc. I had to really really resist putting scare quotes on that last phrase – none of us deserve anything for what we write, from authors down to the unwashed reviewers. Sure, it’s a crying shame when a writer bleeds out and no one notices – reviewer or author. It’s a crying shame when intelligent writing is trampled over to get to some godamn thing full of .gifs and misspellings up the ass. But there’s no A for effort. I can sit looking at this cursor for hours, pouring out my soul, and that and about two bucks will get me a cup of coffee. I don’t deserve anything. No writer does, not critics, not authors, not nobody.

But people use the term “popularity contest” like it’s a bad thing, when ultimately, it is what it is. A popularity contest measures popularity, and acting like a popularity contest should be a meritocracy does a disservice to both merit and popularity. Because what it comes down to is that Goodreads is a Frankenstein’s monster of social network and critical platform, and if it bugs you that the top reviews are all of severely popular books in genres you despise and don’t credit, then the problem is you. People like stuff I hate all day every day, in forms I hate, for reasons I hate. All day. That doesn’t make them wrong, or me right. It doesn’t make my aesthetic judgement any better. It just makes it sometimes at odds with what a large group of people think. And I don’t get a gold star for being some kind of iconoclast, because I’m pretty sure I’m not; I’m just an individual who doesn’t reside exactly in the golden mean. Which pretty much everyone is – average taste is a mathematical concept, not an identity.

Anyway. Fuck. What was I talking about before I slipped into ranting? Oh yeah. Heckler. One of the things that super bugged me about Heckler was the section which dealt with all the racist shit comics say on stage. Like when Michael Richards freaked and screamed the n-bomb a hundred times (when reacting to a heckler, interestingly) whenever that was. Or the scads of ethnic jokes clipped in the documentary. When those audiences reacted negatively, they weren’t heckling for its own sake, because they were “jealous” of Kennedy’s “popularity” – it was because he just said some racist ass shit. Maybe it’s an aesthetic judgement to find racist ass shit unfunny, and react to said racist ass shit negatively, but I don’t actually think so. That’s a question of identity and worldview. That’s an articulatable position – your comedy is racist, and therefore unfunny – which is a step above “your shit is just unfunny to me because of taste” on the critical hierarchy. Taste can’t be argued. Whether your shit is racist or not, and whether that makes it unfunny or not, that can. That’s the difference between heckling and the critical process, motherfucker.

I’m not so far gone that I can’t see that there is a world of overlap between heckling – or as I think we might call it on teh interntetz here, trolling – and the critical process. All writers – critics and authors – are writing as hard as they can, trying to reach as many as they can. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times recently, where someone comes onto a review and says “this review sucks” and than get all miffy when they’re called out on it – what the hell are you trying to accomplish? “This review sucks” is nothing but a statement of taste. Same as “this book sucks” if you don’t back it up with something other than your subjective taste, or you don’t articulate your subjective taste. Both statements of suckitude are valid, I think, but I’m not personally going to credit criticism of any form that can’t back itself up. The book sucks, the review sucks, for reasons. Maybe those reasons are weird and person to you – say it out loud. Articulate those reasons or go home. I disagree because I liked it – I disagree because I didn’t like it – those are bland statements, not opinions. Or maybe they are opinions, but they aren’t interesting ones. They are not discussable, disappearing into the black box of subjective taste, the non-overlapping magisteria of readerly pleasure or disgust. I guess what I’m looking for in criticism is an opening for conversation, and pointing out something sucks is just saying stuff to be heard. There’s no listen. There’s no opportunity for listen.

So. Whatever. I feel like I’m so far from the point I wanted to make that it’s notable even for me. I’ve been watching the various controversies unfold on Goodreads and elsewhere with an almost obsessive fervor. If you haven’t been following too closely, a site which I will not name came online month or two ago, which published the private information of several Goodreads reviewers, in some cases down to where these reviewers lunched. While they themselves hid under anonymity. This site was unhappy with negative reviews, referring to these reviewers as bullies, and hoped to give them a “taste of their own medicine” by, what, having them killed by Internet loonies? Jesus Christ. They scrubbed their site of the most offensive and possibly legally actionable content just in time to have their bullshit published on HuffPo, after which HuffPo delivered the absolute weakest apology for their total lack of journalistic due diligence. Anyway, point being, in all of this, I saw post after post by an author who was smart, well spoken, and angry about how these reviewers were being treated. Who was funny and witty and cool. That author, my friends, was Stacia Kane. (And, for the record, there are a bunch of writers I noticed speaking intelligently during this mess – Foz Meadows, John Scalzi, and a couple others I can’t think of right now.)

I do maintain a probably-not shelf on Goodreads, which is mostly for weird shit that I won’t read just because it’s weird, and I don’t want it on my to-read. In most of all this shouting about authors and reviewers, the books in question by authors-behaving-badly would have gone unread by me anyway, just because of my total lack of interest in the subject or genre. So probably-not-ing them has no meaning. But I decided to turn the frown upside down and read something by an author-behaving-goodly. If Ms Kane’s book was half as smart and funny as her posts, it’s not like I could go wrong. And I dabble in urban fantasy, so it’s not like it’s a stretch, even if my reading interests tend more strongly in other directions.

So, yeah, this book was fun as hell. It’s an alternate history where there was a ghostocalypse in 1997 – something about how the murderous undead appear and tried to kill everyone? And succeeded with, like 2/3 of the population of the Earth? But not, like, zombies or whatever? I admit, the backstory is a little hazy, but that’s not the godamn point. You’re thrown into the story with Chess Putnam, who is some kind of Church-licensed ghostbuster, but also a total addict and fuckup. The plot is Scooby Doo all the way, in the best way, where there are three plots – one relating to Church business, and another two dealing with various dealers that Chess is in deep with in one way or another – that start converging into a giant clusterfuck of epic proportions.

God, I loved watching this unfold. The book is not surprising, really; this isn’t going to blow your post-modernist skirt up or give you shit about the meaning of life, but it is going to knock about and snort speed and talk in a street dialect that manages to be fucking cool without being racist. I usually get all tense and pissy about dialect, because it tends to be used racistly – I have christened this an acceptable adverb – subtly telling the reader that certain characters (usually the brown ones) are stupid or ignorant. The dialect here was more street talk, used by anyone on the corner, and the fact that Chess speaks in more standard English was more a function of her half-status on the street – her feet in two worlds – than her betterment of anyone. That’s how you use dialect. Amen.

And man, I loves me the fuckups. I feel like they are relatively rare out there in urban fantasy, and even more so in romance. I feel like every time I crack a book about werewolves or steamships or vampires or whatever genre stuff, I find these virginal ingenues who can’t find their sexuality with both hands and a flashlight. Who never dream of being bad until they find that one guy who unlocks their honey-oven with his manroot, and then ye gads! sex kitten emerges. But only, like, because of love and whatnot. Chess is not this, and it felt fresh as the nicotine hitting the blood on that first hard inhale. You kinda want to puke because it’s so dirty and transgressive, but you also want to do it again. Rarr. And speaking of rarrr, there’s a dude here, one of those muscle-buses that I’m on record as making fun of – though I would not kick Jericho Barrons out of bed for eating crackers – who totally worked for me. Big, ugly, nasty enforcer for a drug dealer who can, like, read and stuff. Because literacy is sexy, baby.

Though, the fuckup protagonist is a little more common in detective or Noir stories – probably Harry Dresden falls into this a little, though he irritates me greatly – so it’s not like Chess is wholly unusual. I don’t have a ton of background in urban fantasy series, which is probably a saving grace for my enjoyment, when I get right down to it. I kept holding Chess and her world up to the characters and places I do know – Mac & Fever, Ward’s vamps, Dresden, Sookie, Kitty the Werewolf – measuring them in relation to one another. This is on solid genre ground, and probably the more versed in the genre you are, the more similarities might bug you. But it is on solid ground.

So, I don’t know. What’s the point of reviewing, ultimately? I don’t mean that rhetorically – I’m asking with my bowl out. I’m not in this game to get people to read shit I like if they’re not going to like it. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t actually believe in the “constructive review” – I’m not arrogant enough to think that my shit-talk or praise is going to influence – or should influence – how someone writes. Presumably they have people they trust for beta readers, and it’s not like whatever I read isn’t a done deal anyway. I’m not here to sell books or sink them, not that I think that I could anyway. I’ve had a lot of somewhat bullshit existential twisting about what it is I’m doing here on Goodreads – wondering what the point of it all is – and even though I keep deciding not to review anything anymore, I keep coming back. Reading is a sullen art, and I like saying it out loud, I guess. Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe that’s all the critical process ever is.

Next book 

In the Garden of Lost Children: A Review of Frankenstein

I first read Frankenstein in a British Survey class when I was nineteen. I’d just hacked my way through the 17th and 18th Centuries, bolting down huge chunks of the raw meat of “Paradise Lost,” the Romantic poets, and early novels. It was perfect time to read Frankenstein, as all of her source material was still digesting in my brain. It was also perfect because Shelly herself was nineteen when she wrote this. This precipitated a sort of pre-life crisis for me. Here’s this book, this amazing, flawed book, formulated while she chilled with the original Vampire Lestat and the luminous, otherworldly Bysshe Shelley during maybe the most famous rainy day in the history of novel creation. The problems of technology, divinity, education and creation that she made manifest in the awesome and awful hulk of the Creature keep reanimating and lumbering through all kinds of fiction, and while the later movies almost uniformly get everything wrong, the trope of the Mad Scientist and his Flawed Creation have been thoroughly set as a modern archetype. What the hell was I doing [edited for content] and [edited for language]? Why didn’t I have dreamy, Romantic boyfriend?

I decided to read this again because of my backyard conversations with a friend who has children the same age as my own. I’ve inadvertently traumatized my boy with Frankenstein’s monster, which is too bad, because I could really get behind a zombie phobia. Talking about this with my friend, I unwittingly unleashed an amazing depth of knowledge and love of Frankenstein from him, and he spoke articulately and at length about Frankenstein, its themes and conclusions. My memory of this book was almost gone: the creature hoping  from ice to ice in the arctic and his education with the deLaceys were the only things that had any solidity anymore. He urged me to read it again, using a parental lens this time. It’s different when you have kids, says he.

So, okay, I thought, how hard could it be? It’s only 200ish pages long and I’ve read it before. Then comes the massive clusterfuck of book-loss, reading Twilight and the total incongruity of reading Gothic on the back porch while late summer in Minnesota stretches out its finery of grass, the drone of cicadas, and one perfect day after another. I was reading the copy of Frankenstein that I used in class, and I kept having this unsettling sensation of my younger self: her little notes in the margins alluding to knowledge that is only theoretical to me now, her strange penchant for underlining passages in a series of increasingly distracting pen colors, culminating in hot pink for the last couple of chapters. Dammit, Younger Ceridwen, you need to sort some crap out.

So, I feel like I know what YC would say about this book. She’d go on about theology, myth, and technology, a reading Shelly made explicit in her sub-title of “a Modern Prometheus.” Frankenstein is Promethean in that he has stolen the gift of life from God(s). The creature himself is often surrounded by the fire, a deliberate marking of him as Promethean as well. He finds fire in his early, John Lockian period living off of nuts and berries in the wilderness; when the creature’s attempt at education and society with the deLacey’s goes wrong, he burns down their house, and at the very end, he describes the pyre on the ice that will be his funeral fire. Frankenstein is both stealer of technologies (the flame) and God himself, making the creature either Man (as the recipient of Prometheus’s gifts) or Promethean in turn. It’s a complicated metaphor, one that works in an uneasy quantum uncertainty of either both things at once or a fissionable synthesis. And one, that for the most part, leapfrogs over Christianity into the earthier moralities of Greek mythology and the Hebrew Yahweh. Yes, yes, there’s a ton of talk about “Paradise Lost,” but Milton’s work, while avowedly Christian, doesn’t much concern itself with Man, Jesus, or the divine sacrifice. It’s all about creation, the creation of beings that are not Man, and their Fall. I was actually irritated when Frankenstein invoked Jesus near the end, when in a last ditch attempt to get someone to help him hunt down the creature, he goes to a local magistrate. The magistrate thinks he’s nuts, and kindly tells him so. Frankenstein yells, “Man…how ignorant art thou in thy principle of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say.” My pink pen in the margin says, “Jesus?” I hate when writers use JC as a tack-on (see also: the later Matrix movies.) Although, wait, it’s altogether likely Shelly was putting his words into Frankenstein’s mouth to show what a messianic twit he was. Then that’s okay.

Which brings me to another thing. This book is written in the style my mother not-so-affectionately refers to as “the epistolary nightmare.” It opens with a ship captain writing his sister about his heroic attempts to sail to the North Pole, and also about his serious longings for some bromance in his life: if only there were some hep cat to talk to and share his manly feelings! (YC also notes that the sister of the captain, the recipient of his letters, has the same initials as Shelly herself: MWS.) Frankenstein appears, the embodiment of Captain Walton’s pining for a tragic, ruined, beautiful hunk of burning manhood. The letters then shift to Walton writing Frankenstein’s narratives in the first person, which then shift again in places to the creature narrating his life and feelings in the first person.

I suspect that Shelley is doing this mostly because it’s a Gothic convention, used by early novels to lend a sort of verisimilitude to the proceedings. (This is like the “based on a true story” that gets glossed onto horror films, whether they are true or not.) I don’t think Shelley intends her narrator to be a damaged narrator; I don’t get that vibe at all. So I end up feeling really weird about the whole thing, because Walton has this big beautiful boy-crush on Frankenstein, but everything Frankenstein says about what he does makes me hate him. I truly and perfectly hate this man. It’s one of those resounding, continuing ironies of the world that Frankenstein’s creature is referred to popularly as “Frankenstein,” because, of course, the creator is the monster, not the creation. (Parenthetically, I’d like to point out that one of the first things Yahweh tells Adam to do in the garden is give names to all the creatures. (Hyper-parenthetically, I now have the Dylan song in my head.) Frankenstein manages to screw this up as well; the creature remains nameless for the entirety of his existence.)

So, okay, this is all stuff that the younger me would love to talk about, and I’m sure she could give you some better Classical references and actual quotes from Milton, instead of just magical hand waving and allusions to things I can’t quite remember. I couldn’t currently Milton my way out of a wet paper bag. Of something and its loss…Sing Muse? Older me thinks this is all great, and fun, and is probably the stuff Shelley was consciously going for in her book. However, my friend is right, reading this as a parent, I walk away with some really different stuff. I undertook to have me some kids, and the great swooning insanity that overtakes Frankenstein in his quest to create the monster felt very true to the somewhat selfish, unconscious biological fever that underpins my otherwise conscious decision to procreate. I can give you all kinds of reasons why I decided to have kids, but ultimately, they all fail. I did because I did. The reasons are written in the children themselves, but I, of course, didn’t know that until I brought them to be.

Family relationships are all over this book: the captain writing his sister, the complicated relations of the Frankenstein family, Frankenstein’s relationship with his cousin/sister/wife, the deLacey bother and sister, their blind father, the Turkish fiancée. But in all of this, Frankenstein never refers to the creature as his son, nor the creature to him as his father. This is an amazing lacuna, on par with the fact that while we see Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, we never actually hear from her. But Frankenstein’s creation is a sort of changling, a fairy creature born out of the inferno of Frankenstein’s mind. He even behaves like a brownie, when being unwittingly educated by the deLaceys, chopping their wood for them while lurking on the outskirts of their hearth-fire.

I’ve been reading At the Bottom of the Garden, which, although I’m not done, has spent the first part of the book talking about fairy stories as related to children, women and men. With all due respect to Prof. Tolkien, I think his assertion that fairy tales have been relegated to the nursery in modern times is full of shit. The nursery is where, historically, the shit has gone down: the intersection of men and women, in very concrete carnal terms, the strange, liminal period of pregnancy, the danger and expectation of birth, the poopy, funny project of raising children into people, into society. The stories are warnings and portents about all the things that can go horribly wrong: the baby who is still-born, making the mother a not-mother, the child who is born wrong, screaming with colic or god knows what, the horrible sensation, almost completely unspoken of in polite company, that this person I’ve brought into being is not mine, is unlovably weird. My grammar has almost completely broken down, but I’m going to leave it. I suffered from a mercifully brief bout of the baby blues, but I still recall the feeling, as I lay down on the bed next to my daughter after changing her pants for the hundredth time that day, that nothing would ever be right again, that I was unequal to the task of raising her. I looked at the ceiling and felt her move in the the irregularity that characterizes the movements of infants, and thought, this is not me thinking this. This is where fairies are born, in the desperate moments of desperate parents, undone by the creatures they have brought into being.

Frankenstein’s great sin, in my estimation, is in his turning away from the creature when he first brings it into being. I’m struggling as to how to talk about this without betraying the privacy of close friends, but I have the honor of friendship with a child with Down Syndrome. I don’t think I’m going to tell her story, or the story of her parents, because it’s not my place. But it’s one thing to talk about my early desperation in my relationship with my daughter, but I’ve never had a child born into a community of the socially damaged, the stigmatized by sight. I’ve never had to confront what it means to have a child others point at and whisper about, one that will always, no matter how strong the safety net, be outside the hearth fires in some ways. My friend’s trajectory toward accepting her daughter, all of her, was not linear – this was not a Hallmark card, but a life – but it was the exact opposite of Frankenstein’s for his creature.

The creature is horrible to look upon. Everywhere he goes people heap curses on him and drive him out with stones. He eventually goes to his creator, his absent father, and begs for a mate, a community that that will nourish and love him. Frankenstein agrees, for a time, until he doesn’t. YC notes this, from when Frankenstein decides to stop the Bride of Frankenstein project:

“I had resolved in my own mind, that to create another like the fiend I had first made would be an act of the basest and most atrocious selfishness; and I banished from my mind every thought that would lead to a different conclusion.”

YC notes: really? Here’s Frankenstein, at the cusp of his own wedding, denying his child the succor of community, as he has all along. What Frankenstein says here is exactly backwards: the creation of the creature was selfish, yes, while furnishing him with a community would not have been. The plot of the book is irritating as all get out, to me, because it’s closer to psychomyth and fairy tale than it is to reality. Walton wishes for a man-friend and poof! He appears. Frankenstein suspects the creature of killing his brother and poof! There’s the creature silhouetted on the mountain. But imagine the creature to be a child, an abandoned child, and the whole thing gets horribly sicker and weirder. Stigma has long been a theological term: the mark of God’s unmercy written on the body of the damned, their sins made manifest in their perceived ugliness, their damage. This can be mitigated by the beauty of parental hopefulness and the wild, unknowable potential of all children. The manifestation of our biology in all of its forms, even the strange ones, may not always be a gift, but it isn’t always a curse. Frankenstein makes it a curse. The creature deserves a helluva lot more than the callous selfishness evinced by Frankenstein, because the changeling of the damaged is still a child, and worthy, like all of us, of love.

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.


The Twilight of Girlhood

Two things happened in my household, shortly after I started reading it, that seem germane to a discussion of this book. First, I was in the kitchen, dealing with the endless in-and-out of the dishwasher, and I became aware of a small, soft, wet noise coming from the back bathroom. This made my mom-ears perk up, and I went back to find my daughter, who is about 2 ½, tearing off strips of toilet paper, wadding them neatly, throwing them into the toilet, and then flushing. She looked up at me with her deceptively cherubic face and said, “Here Mum, this is for you.” She held out a tp wad. I tossed it in, and flushed, and then we went to find less futile pursuits. Second, in the same back bathroom, my dog was in there diving for tootsie rolls in the cat-box. The litter tray has one of those detachable tops, with an opening in the front so the cat can go in there and do her business without sending litter all over the freaking room, theoretically. The dog, in her lust to eat cat shit, got her head stuck in the opening and the topper thing lodged on her neck. She freaked out, the way only largish dogs in smallish bathrooms with a litter topper on her head can freak out, and there was all manner of howling, skittering and general mayhem, until I went in and rescued her from herself.

I’ve been known to let my metaphors run away from me, but let’s see if I can pull this off. We all have stuff that we do that’s stupid, futile or disgusting, or all of these things at once: eating cat shit, flushing wads of toilet paper down the toilet, smoking cigarettes, polka, embroidery, reading Twilight, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these pursuits, exactly (although I would give consuming feces a miss if you aren’t a border collie) but to the non-enthusiast, they seem inexplicable. But that’s the thing: eating cat shit is a source of pure, whole body pleasure for my dog; that, barking at kids on bikes and sleeping on the couch. While I may grumble at the mess and unintended comedy these activities generate, I really can’t criticize her joie de vivre. So, reading Twilight was like eating cat shit for me, but I mean this in an understanding way. You may not love smoking. The thought of the smoke hitting your lungs and the buzzing sensation you get in your fingertips may turn your stomach, but man if just typing these words doesn’t make me want to go out on the back porch and pound down a heater.

So I get it, I get the whole Twilight thing, on some level. But then there’s the girl thing. I’m not exactly the intended audience for Twilight, because I’m not a teenage girl. But I keep having to account for my not reading Twilight, as I will now have to account for disliking Twilight, because I live in a community of women who were once girls, because I was once a girl. I’m fascinated by how many women I know who love this book, women I love and respect, women who are not laughable, stupid or thoughtless. They may express chagrin or embarrassment, as though they just were busted for smoking on the back porch, but they love it just the same. Hating on Twilight, for guys, is easy, because it doesn’t betray their essential guyness; in fact, probably the opposite. (Yes, yes, girls are gross, now back to the clubhouse!) Hating on Twilight, as a woman, is essentially a betrayal of girlness, an erasure of that awkward adolescence many of us share. One can easily, oh so easily, enumerate the literary failings of this book. One can easily, oh so easily, parse the religious messages and sexual politics into something monstrous and ugly. This is all fine; go for it; I will be on the sidelines with pom-poms. But what I keep coming back to is the true, earnest and deeply felt pleasure this book provokes in so many women. Pleasure that is real and not deserving of scorn.

That community of women thing is what sent to reading Twilight in the first place. My sister was reading Twilight at the urgings of one of her co-workers. She has had an uneasy relationship with this other women, which had recently been patched up into something resembling friendliness. In their water-cooler conversations, the co-worker began extolling the merits of Meyer’s book, and pushed it into my sister’s hands. She knew what she was in for – how could she not given total cultural saturation at this point – but found herself unwilling and unable to actually finish reading the book. How was she going to explain this to the co-worker? We all know (or maybe we don’t) how quickly this sort of thing can get personal. It gets especially personal with books of this nature, that slip into the female hind-brain and coil around our unspoken (unspeakable?) drives and desires.

One of the reasons I hated this book (and I mean that word emotionally, not critically, if you know what I mean) was that Meyer was far far too damn evocative of the strange alienated horror that is adolescence. Bella is never easy; there are very few unqualified pleasures for her; every single action, especially the ones that occur within the bewildering sucking chest wound that is her social scene, is considered for its effect on everyone else, her status, her placement in the group, her precarious self esteem. It gave me vivid and lingering flashbacks, and not in a wheee-I-see-trails kind of way, but in the countless shaming episodes way. The only real source of pleasure for her is her time with Edward. And while it’s probably not original to point this out, Edward is the externalization of her desire, an embodiment of the girl-fic wish fulfillment of both desire and fear, the shaming female libido that goes bump in the night. He can’t read her mind because he’s an extension of her mind. Which brings me to the creamy ironic center of this review. On some levels, this book is a morality tale about female pleasure, and I was unable to take much pleasure in that. Gods, but I love me some irony though, so it the book evoked entirely unintended pleasures.

Never is this more apparent than in the scene in which Bella is menaced by some would-be rapists. She’s been mooning all day about Edward, which in very concrete terms gets her cut off from her female companions and their consumerist escapades. She ends up surrounded by threatening male desire, which she has provoked by her dreaming thoughtlessness. Edward appears, the sort of flip side of this desire, and rescues her. When I was working on my Feminist Merit Badge, there was much talk about the virgin/whore thing, and then also romance novels and other mass-produced fantasies for women. Too much of this kind of talk can make me really really tired, but I’ll try to keep it brief, for all our sakes. Although I don’t think I’ve heard about a boy version of the madonna/slut thing, I think one is at work here, as one is at work in many female wish-fulfillment exercises. Men are conjured, neutered and domesticated, and that process of domestication both justifies and condemns female desire. Bella simply cannot help herself: her mooning attraction to Edward gets externalized into her scent, which makes him unable to help himself, makes him an animal, reminds us she’s an animal, a sort of endless mirroring. That scent also ribbons through the air, cartoon-like, bringing horribly unlikely rapists wafting in by their noses. Desire is a dangerous thing, girls. Here’s a Ken doll for you, his smooth, cold, inhuman man-parts stamped carefully into place.

I’m bringing up Ken deliberately. In her Goodreads review, Elizabeth describes this book as a Barbie doll, which pretty much nails the whole thing for me. Barbie is the embodied consumer. She teaches girls how to accessorize their lives: boys, friends, dresses, houses, all neatly displayed in little consumable packages. Barbie teaches the values of consumerism, of consumption, while simultaneously being completely immune to its effects. Barbie cannot get old, fat, or overdose on heroin. She is the bulimic model of perfection. By many yardsticks, one could say that Edward is an anorexic. A vegetarian vampire is a contradiction in terms. While not personally a sufferer of an eating disorder, I have a number of very close people in my life that I’ve watched go through that mangle. I get it too: I was demographically ripe for this sort of thing: a white, middle-class overachiever. The anorexic, as it has been explained to me by people I love, craves control over the uncontrollable, over her needs and ambitions. That Edward cannot or will not eat is especially troubling when he’s viewed as Bella’s externalized desire. It’s a closed loop: food equals death, desire equals death. Bella can’t see Edward in a mirror (in a dream) because he’s not really there; he’s wasted away. That the book ends with Bella begging Edward to “change” her – this is not a spoiler, everyone in the world could see this one coming – means that she is begging for death, the way any girl who expresses desire is begging for death.

I’d like to finish with a craft project, if you don’t mind. Please, warm up your glue guns. There’s a paper store near my house that hosts classes every month, and I keep thinking about attending the one about altered books. I’m not entirely clear on the idea, but it seems you take old books, and cut-and-paste alternate text and pictures as commentary or whatever. I haven’t done this yet for three reasons: a) lazy b) somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of cutting up books, even in the service of making cool, new books c) don’t want to be caught dead anywhere near something that even remotely has a chance of being associated with scrap-booking, even kinda sorta. I can’t emphasize this last one enough.

This is my idea for the altered book of Twilight. If I weren’t a squeamish girl, I’d march right down to Sex World in the warehouse district, and I’d buy up a bunch of pornography. Not just any pornography, but pornography with people with normal body hair having enthusiastic sex, cheerful happy sex. (Does such a thing exist?) No smoothies allowed, no shaved, pre-adolescent vaginas, but big furry bushes and armpit hair a la the 70s edition of The Joy of Sex. This would get pasted over every description of Edward’s cold and marble-like skin, because Stephenie Meyer’s ossification of the human body bums me out.

I’d toss in photos of Michelangelo’s David and Christ on the Cross, just to show how the nude male body has been depicted over time. (Women can certainly complain about the female nude, but since the rise of Christianity in the West, the most predominate male nude is Jesus’ broken body on the Cross. The primary visual representation of the male body is one of torture.) In would go some stills of the pretty blond-haired girl who has just devoured her bickering parents in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead because zombies freak me the hell out the way vampires never did. Also, because in the ongoing conversation I’ve had about this book with my sister, which ended in the double dog dare that I read it, she expressed bewilderment as to how anyone could love a dead thing. Quote she: “Vampires are just high-functioning zombies.” More than the crap prose, the endless adverbs, the discouragingly accurate portrayal of adolescent discomfort, this may have done the book in for me. Zombies man, brrr.

I’d put in wads of tp, to represent for my daughter, who some day may find this book appealing. But also for another reason: I recently had occasion to be in one of the local high schools, not the one I graduated from. I went into the bathroom, had some good times reading the graffiti: various people are bitches, etc. Then I looked up, and the ceiling was dotted with wads of dried tp, stuck to the ceiling after some industrious young women had spent what I know from personal experience is a very long time getting those suckers to stick. Throw too soft, and they won’t even hit the ceiling. Throw too hard, and they’ll bounce back. You’ve got to get them wet enough to stick, but not so wet they just fall apart. Stupid, futile and possibly disgusting, but emblematic of times spend with other girls doing the useless and possibly damaging things that made adolescence so enjoyable. I think I’ll do without the cat shit. I’d douse the book in the cologne my first boyfriend wore, that, the smell of cigarettes and leather jackets. Mmmm, smell-o-vision. Then, I’d cover it with the brown paper bag covers we all put over our text-books in school to protect the actual covers. I’d draw all manner of doodles, phone numbers, one liners, hearts and bunnies all over the outside. Finally, I would affix a picture of Spider Jerusalem on the title page, and dot it with pink nail-polish blobs in a heart shape around the picture. Then I’d put the book away and try very hard never to think of it again.