Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys tells the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, from Jane Eyre. As I recall, Charlotte Brontë, gives few details about the "mad" wife of Rochester, implying that he's doing her some favor by keeping her locked in the attic for who knows how long.

Rhys's novel seeks to fill in the large gap of Antoinette's life story. She writes from various perspectives, beginning with her childhood in Jamaica to her ill-fated marriage and journey to England with Rochester. Far from "mad" she's, much like Jane, a victim of 17th century gendered politics - trapped in a marriage, without access to her own inheritance, she's stuck with an angry dude who won't even call her by her real name. Rhys makes it quite clear that rather than going "mad", women in such circumstances have zero recourses. Says a Jamaican housekeeper of Antoinette's mother:
They tell her she is mad, they act like she is mad. Question, question. But no kind word, no friends, and her husban', he go off, he leave her. And they won't let me see her. I try, but no. They won't let Antoinette see her. In the end - mad I don't know - she give up, she care for nothing. That man who is charge of her he take her wherever he want and his woman talk. That man, and others. Then they have her. Ah, there is no God.

Aside from offering a feminist view of Antoinette's situation, she also examines the racial tensions of post-slavery Jamaica and the entitled, colonial attitude of Rochester toward everyone that lives on the island. Antoinette, as a Creole of European decent, is a figure despised by African descendants living in the Carribean and thought simple-minded and unsophisticated by Europeans like Rochester. She explains to him:
It was a song about a white cockroach. That's me. That's what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I've heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.

I found Rhys's writing style to be very contemporary and was impressed by how she pulled off the neat feat of "borrowing" a character from someone else's novel (and such a famous novel!) while still creating a book that can exist and stand apart and alone from the point of inspiration. Few others have pulled it off successfully (there's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and by Tom Stoppard, The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, which I haven't read but is supposed to be quite good; and March by Geraldine Brooks, which won the Pulitzer) and there are also some real stinkers (Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, Scarlet... let me know if you think of others!)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bad Girls

When I was but a young lass, there weren't a lot of serial books available. I read The Babysitters Club, that ho-hum nod to the young, overworked, underpaid, entrepreneur, then there was Sweet Valley High: the tale of two sisters, twins, gorgeous, white and upper-middle class. Jessica was the "bad" girl, who borrowed "good" Elizabeth's clothes without asking, and kissed the occasional boy, but not much else. Those books were achingly dull, I kept waiting for something truly terrible to happen (Jessica gang raped, then taken to Mexico, something like that...) but nothing ever did.

Not long ago I was perusing the book section at Target, mostly just for the fun of chortling at what Corporate America wants us to read, and was surprised by what I saw in the "Teen" section - tons of books about "bad" girls. Titles include Gossip Girl, A List, Clique, It Girl, Au Pairs (the list goes on), and each had titillating back cover descriptions.These girls are up to shenanigans Sweet Valley Jessica never dreamed of. Drugs, booze, sex, liberal use of the word "fuck" - all those seem to be standard fair in at least the two books I checked out from the library to read for myself. I Like it Like That: A Gossip Girl Novel and It's Not Easy Being Mean: A Clique Novel didn't really distinguish themselves from each other, and, it ought to be noted that although Cecily von Ziegesar appears to be an actual person and the author the Gossip Girl novels, many of the other books are written by a team of writers and attributed to say, Zoey Dean. (She comes complete with a fabricated bio on the publisher's website. And you'd think Cecily von Ziegesar was the fake name, right?)

To go to college a virgin, or not?

Do we do something about it now, with a boy we've known for years? Do we get rid of it over spring break? Over the summer? Or do we settle into our dorm rooms just as we are, bold but innocent, and ready to lose it with the first campus player to say, "Come hither"? Maybe we should just listen to our mothers and older sisters and "wait til the time is right," whatever that means. Of course some of us girls nipped this particular issue in the bud long ago, opting to spend our college years focusing on more important things, like geology and Freud. Not. Face it, even if you're not a virgin anymore now, you're going to feel like one all over again the minute you step on campus. And that's a good thing. (from I Like it Like That)

That passage might shock particularly parents of kids in grades 9-12, the suggested age group of the reader, but, personally, I find the abject consumerism the most insidious part of the books. In a matter of pages in It's Not Easy Being Mean, the following brands are mentioned: Tab Energy Drink, a DKNY bangle watch, Teen Vogue, a Juicy hoody, Bose headphones, American Idol, Porsche, Abercrombie and Rugrats. (Surely there's a kickback for product placement?) There are somewhat established methods of dealing with the pressure to have sex early, but fighting an onslaught of consumerism for largely unattainable items (Juicy hoodies are out of my price range) is a problem with which our culture continues to struggle.

It seems unlikely that girls will read these books and turn "bad" themselves, although they might get a few ideas. As with so much of pop culture, they'll be exposed to a largely ridiculous lifestyle and maybe feel a little lame in comparison. Or, more likely they'll see through it all as a fantasy, just like I did Jessica and Elizabeth's too-perfect middle-American Dream Life with their shared red Fiat Spider, their popularity, perfect bodies and luscious blond hair.

What is quite interesting is that instead of presenting an "ideal" girl of really unreasonable "goodness" who is rewarded for her saintly ways, these books present the opposite: girls of rather unreasonable "bad" behavior who suffer little consequences for their actions. But, what's the difference if they're both extreme behaviors with unrealistic ramifications? I trust real-world girls (especially girls that read) are smart enough to see through both fantasies.

Naturally, I have no problem at all with this new crop of books, aside from the elementary writing style (I couldn't make it through either one of my selections) and plot repetition across series (stealing the best friend's boyfriend seems to be a major theme). They're fun, and a little naughty, and I think I would have gotten a kick out reading them as a teenager myself. Or, maybe I would have hated them, having been a up-tight, modest, virgin, God-fearing, Midwestern teen with absolutely ZERO disposable income.

I like to think of these as "Gateway" books to "Harder" books like The Catcher in the Rye or American Psycho or anything by Chuck Palahniuk or Michelle Tea. I firmly believe that reading leads to more reading, despite the disheartening report in last year's NYT that less and less children read for fun, despite Harry Potter, and another depressing article in the WaPo that one in four adults read no books in the last year. With stats like that, we've got to take what we can get, whether it's some crap being pushed by Target, or Oprah's latest schlocky suggestion, or, God help us all, anything from the Today Show's "book club"*

In my opinion, it doesn't matter what people are reading, as long as they're reading. TTFN, bitches. You know you love me.

*BTW, wtf is up with that? The Today show's list of titles ranges from The Sex-Starved Wife to How to Eat like a Hot Chick to How Not to Look Old... I've got a title for them. How about How to Objectify Women, Cause Eating Disorders and Continue to Dumb-Down Society with Your Moronic Television Show?

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Gathering

Anne Enright's The Gathering won the Man Book Prize in 2007, and it's a really fantastic read. It's woman from a very large Irish family who's brother has died, and all the family members gather for the funeral. The main character has a memory that she's never dealt with, of her brother being abused, and she grapples with the memory, not even sure if it occurred, and feels a guilt and obligation to share it with her other siblings.

Every word of Enright's novel is pure poetry, and she has a way of ending her chapters with killer sentences, the both make you stop to catch your breathe and eager to turn the page. There's a feminist slant that runs through the book as the main character regrets the circumstances of her matriarchs, burdened with one pregnancy after another, so that they were barely able to function. She writes:
I think of her when I do the dishes. Of course I have a dishwasher, so if I ever have to cry, it is not into the sink, quietly like Ada. The sink was her place for this. Facing out of the back of the house, something about the endless potatoes that needed peeling, or the paltriness of the yard, but, like all women maybe, Ada occasionally had a little sniffle and then plink, plink, a few tears would hit the water in the sink. Like all women Ada sometimes had to wipe her nose with her forearm because he hands were wet.

The Gathering's full of big ideas, some of which I haven't really processed yet. When it comes down to it, I suppose she's writing about that odd phenomenon - that we can both love and hate the same person.
God, I hate my family, these people I never chose to love, but love all the same.
It's painfully honest, and I think Enright is one of my new favorite authors.