The Ropes Have Been Unbound

Month: September, 2014

You Say You Want a Miracle

This book was beautiful. I was partway through Deathless when I picked it up and well, I still haven’t finished Deathless, and I finished “White is for Witching” over a week ago. Helen Oyeyemi is an author who doesn’t talk down to her readers but it doesn’t come across as if she’s trying to come across as an intellectual or forge an active crusade for social justice yet she still manages to do both by sheer virtue of her writing. For one thing, she’s very young, only a decade older than I am, and lacks the airs many older writers exude and simply writes in an extraordinarily fluid manner. And for another, Oyeyemi succeeds in writing a story about race and gender and sexuality without coming across as tokenized because the crux of the matter is that those traits aren’t tokens. A white man is seen as the universal norm and I can’t really rationalize why a black woman isn’t since love and anger and sadness aren’t individualized sentiments, they’re what bring us together in this mortal coil of humanity, no matter what our backgrounds may be. I think this idea can be summarized with this excerpt from the narrative:

“Look at me.

Will you not?

It is useful, instructive, comforting to know that you are not alone in your history.

So I have done you good

and now,

some harm.”

Above all, the overarching trait of humanity that we crave validation; we want to belong in the world as it is, even if we simultaneously crave to be seen as exceptional. The purpose of literature is to teach us empathy for those who aren’t like us, to remind us that we are not alone; Dostoyevsky felt like we did 200 years ago, and Virgil felt the same way 2000 years ago, and that most of all, literature assures us that our humanity will not isolate us.

“White is for Witching” is about people first and foremost, the tale of two twins, Miranda (called Miri) and Eliot, their deceased mother Lily, their housekeeper Sade, Miri’s college friend Ore, and most interestingly, the house itself. It’s a ghost story, not specifically concerning the spirits straight out of a dinky corner Halloween costume store, drowning in garish makeup and sweltering masks but of the ghosts we don’t like to talk about, which are far too raw and sensitive to discuss without immersing them in art. With a glance at the Goodreads reviews, many are blazingly derisive of the novel and denigrate it as “overtly intellectual” and “impossible to comprehend,” but I don’t think it’s Oyeyemi’s responsibility to write in a way that’s accessible to the masses and to shame a novel as intellectual is something out of a Dystopian novel. The purpose of media as a whole is to be understood, but for a work to take time to process isn’t the same as it being ludicrously dense to the point of pretention and unreadability. As I’ve said before, humanity and all its facets are complex; racism and love and sexuality aren’t possible to constrain in designated boxes of black and white, and I’m not inclined to condemn an author who gives those topics the nuance they warrant.

The mood of the novel is actually extraordinarily light for the range of topics it covers, which is why I found it so readable despite its denseness. For instance, Miri suffers from an obscure eating disorder called Pica that serves as a metaphor for other issues in the novel, and the descriptions of it are borderline triggering to read about especially with the repeated metaphor of placing salt on open wounds. But I think accusations of it being “Ivory Tower Fodder” for its supposed checkmarks for literary political correctness are way off mark; the thing is that almost nobody in the Ivory Tower is comfortable enough with themselves to make themselves so vulnerable as to process relationships in the manner explored in the novel. The conceptualization of the world as a fairy tale with us as the main characters is how to come to terms with the world as it is, but it’s also borderline taboo since it’s what children do before it’s beaten out of them by so-called rationality. We’re supposed to be okay with the world and know how to deal with its trials and tribulations without resorting to compartmentalizing it into different parts of our mind and using our long suppressed imagination to come to terms with it but the fact is, those who are most at ease in the world are those who can tie together those disjoint aspects of our being.

Oyeyemi articulates the beauty of daily life amidst the tragedy and destruction that surrounds us, since in the words of Warsan Shire, we may smell of war and running but we still crave love and peace. Almost nobody thrives in painful discord, and the book didn’t hesitate to remind us of that, even when we’ve become so conditioned to fighting that we forget it ourselves. In a sense, we’re all the girl who wants out of a fairy tale she never asked for in the first place, the boy who has no idea how to be the prince but is such a good liar he even fools himself, the woman who was never given the opportunity to be the princess in the first place, and we intrinsically relate to the manner in which they all meld together.

“Her throat is blocked with a slice of apple

(to stop her speaking words that may betray her)

her ears are filled with earth

(to keep her from hearing sounds that will confuse her)

her eyes are closed, but

her heart thrums hard like hummingbird wings.”

It’s written in poetry because prose can’t say what needs to be said sometimes. In short, the novel about the importance of fighting an unseen battle with ourselves and coming to terms with the world at large, about unblocking the obstacles we can foresee, and protecting ourselves blindly from those we cannot. I don’t know if I’m conveying my appreciation for the novel exactly how it’s meant to be lauded but I don’t think if that’s a requirement for this work in particular. It’s open to interpretation and the narrative itself invites ambiguity so unzip yourself and feel safe in digesting “White is for Witching,” or at least try to.

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We Used to Play Outside When We Were Young

I’m actually somewhat unsure about how exactly I’m supposed to process “This is How You Lose Her.” Junot Diaz is a very profound writer and the book is profound and heartbreaking and just very human, in the most beautiful and most disgusting of ways. I’ve been in love, I’ve been in hate, I’ve been in everything in between with other people and with myself, and I don’t think I could tell you anything concrete about love except that it’s so individualized you have to figure it out for yourself. I felt like this book was about watching a man realize his callous mistreatment of others was what broke him as a person and I think he got to a point where he came to terms that he wasn’t going to be able to fix himself since the cracks were too deep, and so dedicated himself to preventing it from happening to others. And with the knowledge that Junot Diaz cheated on his wife, I’m inclined to believe this book is an apology that he knows isn’t going to be accepted, even by himself, because you reach a point sometimes where love isn’t enough to salvage a relationship

I don’t sympathize with the narrator for his infidelity and I don’t think I’m supposed to, but I do understand his pain regarding it. For all the chronic accounts of unfaithful men in fiction, I’ve never read an account that’s so self loathingly insecure and acknowledging of the pathetic awfulness of infidelity and its detrimental effect on other people. For the most part, I don’t think infidelity is about the sex, or about the other person involved, but about the cheater himself; it’s about a search for validation that is never going to be received, the search for something new and fresh because they’re so scared people will eventually see them as they see themselves and it’s an almost childishly petulant declaration of power. And, in romantic relationships, an unbalanced dynamic leads to nothing except unhappiness and mutual dislike. And yet, the book wasn’t ugly no matter how ugly the topics inside could be; there was a certain light in the novel that couldn’t be extinguished. In the midst of darkness and death and gloom, the reader is still given the message that love exists in all forms, parental and fraternal and romantic, and the most human of tendencies is to want to love and be loved, so there is always hope.

My favorite passage in the novel wasn’t any of the “famous quotes,” or the content of the last vignette where Yunior acknowledges his failings in love, but a conversation between a teenage Yunior and his girlfriend.

“I wore an eye patch when I was kid, you said. Maybe we met out here and fell in love over bad barbecue.

I doubt it, I said.

I’m just saying, Yunior.

Maybe five thousand years ago we were together.

Five thousand years ago I was in Denmark.

That’s true. And half of me was in Africa.

Doing what?

Farming, I guess. That’s what everybody does everywhere.

Maybe we were together some other time.

I can’t think when, I said.”

That’s what young love felt like, and when reading that, it’s as if I’m looking at my old diaries as a young teenager. It evokes the undying yearning for togetherness and a tie to each other beyond romantic love, a craving for something more than physical attraction and shared interests, the belief that destiny is taking care of us, wrapping us in a blanket and protecting us from the harshness of the world. As a young adult, I’ve been conditioned to abandon that sort of romantic sentiment for a practicality that doesn’t feel entirely natural, and yet, it doesn’t go away. It simply is buried down under everything and everybody we’ve ever known, a craving for the mutually exclusive states of unconditional love and total freedom and may not ever be fulfilled.

But my takeaway from the novel is that in spite of our preoccupations with it, we don’t need romantic love to be fulfilled as human beings. It’s not part of a checklist for being a valid, successful person: wears business suits, can walk in 4-inch heels, eats quinoa and kale, and is madly in love with the person who destiny chose for them. Romantic love isn’t a goal because it’s not about knowing and controlling and achieving, it’s about understanding and acquiescing and listening to others, and most of all, coming to terms with who we are when we’re standing naked in front of the mirror at night, the fluorescent lights are exposing every imperfection in our bodies and in our souls. Because, if we aren’t comfortable with ourselves without a lover, the combined insecurities and neuroticisms of another person will do nothing more than drive us to emotional ruin, and like Yunior says, love is about acknowledging the inherent worth of another person in spite of their numerous flaws, to trace their weaknesses with a tender hand. And, we’re only rendered capable of that by first tearing ourselves apart and putting the pieces back together with the careful tenderness we’d wish for everybody we’ve ever loved.

An Explanation for All the Queen Talk

If you’ve noticed, despite this being a generalized book blog, I’m inclined to concentrate on the ideas and topics that I automatically gravitate towards, namely stories of women and men who break apart from their narratives and become archetypically important on a more humanistic level. And, queenship narratives of many different kinds often dominate these preferences. In my Shakespeare class, we’re beginning our study of the history tetralogies and focusing on the poisonous nature of kingship and the masculinity that intrinsically ties into it. But in the history plays, queens often exist solely as wombs to ensure the path of succession basically, with the exception of Margaret of Anjou. The importance of queenship narratives is the explicit portrayal of the highest power a woman can wield while still facing the full brunt of her gender and place as a woman in society. The difference between a queen and a Woman King is that a Woman King blurs the lines of gender, in that she is seen as a woman taking on the mantle of a man, her father, her brother, her son, and rules without a man. In a sense, in order to maintain her power, she must be seen as a man; but a queen is stuffed into the body of a woman whether she likes it or not, and must negotiate the terms of her power within that constraint.

I have a great deal of appreciation for real life queens obviously, Elizabeth and Anne Boleyn, Theodora, Cleopatra, Nefrititi, and honestly any of the women who were the power behind the kings of new and old, even if they were not acknowledged in the history books. But my top 5 fictional queens are, in no particular order, Cersei Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire, Medea from the play by Euripides, Helen of Troy (she was queen of Sparta first don’t forget), Blair Waldorf a la Queen B, and Irene, the Queen of Attolia from Megan Whalen Turner’s series about the thief, Euginides and the queen whom he falls in love with. In simple terms, the fact these women are permitted to be so morally ambiguous by their narrative and yet are ultimately sympathetic is extremely important to me. In a sense, it feels more real, for these women to be contradictory and complicated than for them to fall into the archetypes that have long defined women in media and in the world, mother, maiden, whore, crone.

Irene is the Queen which I’m reintroducing myself to right now because I’m rereading the Queen of Attolia since I haven’t read it in full since late middle school I think. God, Irene Attolia is an enigma because her first action in the book is to have Euginides’ hand chopped off and yet, she’s the female protagonist of the novel, and I’d go as far to call her the heroine. My clothing theme was her today, in a modern incarnation obviously because I’m not really a proponent of brocade in early fall sunshine but the theme was simple: pretty in the harmless looking way but with a sort of forced deadness on the inside in order to maintain control of her throne. My favorite quote about Attolia is “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.” It epitomized my whole fascination with queenship narratives; what is the sacrifice a woman must make in order to wield power when the men around her would prefer she was the weakling she pretended to be? And at what point, does the forced hardness become part of a woman’s character and is this hardness even inherently a negative quality?

In a way Attolia’s mask is analogous to Cersei Lannister’s mantra in A Feast for Crows, “a woman may weep but not a Queen.” The elevation of a woman to a queen means that she gives up certain privileges, most prominently that of any human weakness because any fallibility can be used against her, dethroning her and resulting in the death of herself and her loved ones. The crux of the appeal to queenship narratives is that they’re first and foremost survival tales in the way kingship narratives often are not. The stories of kings seem to concern how they fell despite being set up to rule, with their human flaws bringing them down, making them mortal. But on the other hand, queenship narratives concern women who try so hard to be more than human, and whose personas and identities are so carefully constructed and arranged but can shatter in a minute because they’re also so fragile.

It’s a valid question that they all ask at some point; when does my suppression of sentiment become a part of me such that I’m incapable of feeling love? The problem though is that they can’t stop feeling love because they’re first and foremost human beings; Blair Waldorf says you’ve got to be cold to be queen but she loves and loves and loves so much it almost destroys her and it’s also what brings her more happiness than being the cold unfeeling queen ever did. Attolia loves Euginides for bringing out the girl she was inside the woman she is, and in a way, he frees her from the walls she’s been forced to put up for herself to protect her throne. Cersei Lannister is a bad person but she’s not a bad woman, and she’s a symbol of the tragedy of womanhood, the most powerful woman in the country who’s still available to be raped and abused by the man she was sold to as a teenager, and that’s the life of the queen. She must hold down the set roles of mother and daughter and wife, unable to abandon her gender and wield power as a man, but is forced to do so through their often downright incompetent sons and brothers and husbands.

And most of all, the stories of queens are told by men, which colors their perception in both history and fiction so it remains to us to parse through the metatextual implications of the recorders and find the truth. Who are they, how did they live, how can we learn from them and relate to them, what parts of all women bleed the blood of queens? It’s fascinating to me, and it’s not something that appeals to everybody, but as far as feminine ambition and yearning for validation goes, queenship narratives are some of the richest and most diverse out there, and I don’t know, the deeply human core in women that are borderline craving of transhumanism is just beautiful to me.

But I am a Queen!

Why does Medea still matter 2000 years after it was originally written, let me count the ways: Medea is important because it codifies the long standing trope of the righteously wronged women who refuse to take their fates standing down, the Lady Macbeths and the Heras and the Clytemnestras, Medea is important because it invokes the sheer power of love and how twisted that power can become, Medea is important because it thrusts a woman into the decidedly male world of vicious vengeance and instead of absolving her of her sins the way many a male protagonist has been, demands her penance. I promised I’d say more about Medea than it invokes the line “Drag my teeth Across your beating heart” from Florence and the Machine’s “Howl” but to be honest, that’s what Medea is about: love to the point of ruin, love for Jason, love for her children, and more so the absence of love to the point it drives her mad because at the crux of it, Medea is a queen and that still wasn’t enough to earn the love she so cleaved.

First and foremost, Medea is a madness tale, that of a woman, a witch to be specific, queen of so many, who loses her mind and murders so many innocents including her own children. Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts fame) has abandoned her and her two children with him and hopes to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon the king of the city the play is set in. It’s strangely voyeuristic in a sense because Medea’s anger at Jason’s betrayal is the same as so many women’s all over the world through time and space; she gave him everything she had, abandoned everything she knew, and she was a demigod, a queen of women, and it still wasn’t enough for him. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

It’s not that Medea’s murder of her children and of Glauce and Creon is remotely excusable but there’s a strange appeal in Medea compared to the Hannibal Lectors and even the Hamlets of the world because she actually actively questions the morality of her actions. Her monologues are rife with the anxiety she feels for what she is to do and yet her desire to make Jason suffer for how he has made her suffer is just too strong. That’s not a remotely maternal or really positive quality at all but it’s fascinating to consider on a holistic scale because those sorts of emotions are generally reserved for male antivillains, to put it quite bluntly. Not to mention, Medea is clearly mad. She’s not of stable mind, and yet her rationality is extraordinarily sound, particularly when it comes to issues of gender roles and perceptions in her society. There’s a difference between her very obvious mental breakdown and her destruction of her own family and life and the sentiments which drive her actions, which are entirely valid and rational.

This line, “I am not an evil woman. I am a skillful woman. Because I am skillful, I make distinctions. Because I make distinctions, some people hate and fear me,” encompasses what made Medea herself so powerful and memorable to me. Medea knows her worth as a woman, as a person, and her frustration with being disregarded and set aside because of her gender is apparent. She doesn’t truly want to hurt others, but she’s entirely capable of it and more so, she’s aware of that ability which is frightening to others. It hearkens to the idea that women are meant to be beautiful/intelligent/funny/witty but unaware of their worth because that sort of confidence makes them unsettling. It’s all very “What Makes you Beautiful;” the girl in question is beautiful because she doesn’t know she’s beautiful and a society where women think they have inherent worth is one that is diametrically opposed from the one we currently live in. And, change is terrifying to those who currently benefit from the status quo. *Obligatory High School Musical reference where you should imagine a bunch of angry people yell singing “Stick to the Stuff you know!!!!”

The point: Medea is short, bloody, and tragic and it’s dark but it’s also enlightening in a way few plays are. It’s not remotely relaxed or calming; it’s consecutive punches of emotion and anger and violence and personally, that’s the literary aesthetic I’m most attracted to because I’m not a calm person. I can wear all the flowing Lanvin and Anthropologie in the world but the crux of my personality is a constant Spin on the axis of my own neuroses, and I’m not going to shy away from expressing it, since suppressing herself is partially what caused Medea’s descent into madness. If I have to live the mortal coil of my own anxieties, then I’m going to acknowledge it because that death drive is what sustains me and I can only do my best to apply it in whatever way I can, and hold off on plotting the murders of my only children.

Boys Club Murder Fun

 

            I finally succumbed and read The Secret History by Donna Tartt and well, I really wasn’t a fan and maybe my expectations were too high. I avoided spoilers (somehow) and I had the vague idea it was about rich people behaving badly but I didn’t have any specific knowledge of the plot beyond the names of the characters. On one hand, there are some passages that I find truly beautiful, but on the whole, the book sort of left me cold and I think that might be the disconnect of my own personality with that of Tartt or her characters. Here’s the thing: I never found the cool, distant, Ivory Tower aesthetic of the first part of the novel remotely attractive because I’ve been rebelling against that for my whole life and I couldn’t grasp WHY Richard was so enamored of it.

            The Ivory Tower is in short, a huge ruse that the novel deconstructs. But as somebody who lives in the Ivory Tower, and is inundated with an excess of elitism and superiority, I didn’t understand why it took 600+ pages for Richard to realize that it’s downright awful and results in the disintegration of relationships and substance abuse and etc etc etc. The fact is that believing oneself to be ultimately rational, as Henry and Julian and Richard seem to, is the downfall of mankind because the crux of humanity is that we are not inherently rational beings. We love and hate and destroy and create and do things that make us all, in the words of Christine Korsgaard, “true irrationals.” We know what we are doing is wrong or destructive or just plainly a bad idea and yet we do it anyway and the acceptance of that fact is the only path away from the neurotic destructiveness that characterizes TSH. It’s not a difficult concept though, and the fact that Richard kept on describing Henry and the rest of them as so goddamn intelligent and alluring when I saw through it instantly both in the novel and in real life turned me off a lot to the novel because I just found it tiresome how downright thick all of them were.

            But then again, I think Richard’s homosexual awakening may explain his extreme infatuation with Henry Winter, Charles MacCauley and the Classics Group in general. Richard Papen is the ultimate unreliable narrative but he’s extremely transparent as far as those go; Flannery Culp, Tyler Durden, Humbert Humbert all accomplish this in a much more successful manner, but maybe that was Tartt’s intent, to almost ridicule the general populace’s fascination with what is beautiful and wealthy no matter how rotten it obviously is. This quote struck me:

“They all shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had the strange cold breath of the ancient world : they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks – sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat.”

HOW DOES ONE MISS THE ULTIMATE LOATHSOMENESS OF THAT AESTHETIC? That was the reasoning behind my eternal disgust with Richard though obviously, there’s the fact he’s also a raging misogynist but seriously: every male in the novel is. Attraction because of cruel detachment is different than attachment despite cruel detachment and the first fundamentally makes no logical sense to me.

            The structure of the novel as a WhyDoneIt instead of a WhoDoneIt was interesting I guess but I just reviewed The Basic Eight and I know I’m biased but I like it so much more. As in, I found Flan’s actions far more justifiable and sympathetic than the Classics’ group because Fran was certifiably going mad as the novel progressed, and I didn’t consider any of the characters in TSH remotely insane and just think of them as objectively terrible human beings, with the possible exception of Camilla. Like, Henry Winter bored me. I go to school with wannabe Henry Winters, I’ve dated wannabe Henry Winters, and it just makes me eye roll all the way to Timbuktu. He’s rich and intelligent and a borderline sociopath who can justify cold-blooded murder as a redistribution of matter and commits suicide at the prime of his so called brilliance, though I’d honestly refer to his whole being as egotistical false rationality. That’s not attractive to me in a character, that’s honestly disgusting and the concept as a whole scares me a lot because I can think of people in real life who are the same way. Lauding a lack of empathy as trendy is the ultimate downfall of people that could have been great and I’ve lost patience for it, especially from those who are so privileged and well educated and from whom I expect so much more.

            But, I did find Camilla extremely appealing, partially because she was the only girl in an all boys club, and also because I’m predictably interested in forbidden love and tend to be more attached to female characters than male ones. The fact Richard never understood Camilla and we only perceived her through his tinted glasses was ironic since I think we know more about her as a person than I would have expected to. She’s not a heroine by any means since she’s an enabler in two murders, but her and Charles seem more aware of the wrongness of the Classics Group’s actions than the rest of them. Francis dissolves into panic attacks post Bunny’s death, but Charles and Camilla become hugely unhinged by the murders; Charles becomes a raging abusive alcoholic and Camilla begins sleeping with Henry, when I honestly don’t think she ever loved him no matter what she may say. And, her constant description as parallel to Charles was well done because is she still an individual when she isn’t seen as anything but Charles’ shadow? That all being said, the passage when Richard discovers Charles and Camilla’s relationship was probably my favorite in the novel since it was extremely emotionally driven and heartbreaking especially in contrast to the detached “Greek idea of beauty” that seems to define Henry and what the others aspire to.

“He came up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders; bending low, he put his lips close to the nape of her neck. “How about a kiss for your jailbird brother?” he said.      

She turned halfway, as if to touch her lips to his cheek, but he slid a palm down her back and tipped her face up to his and kissed her full on the mouth – not a brotherly kiss, there was no mistaking it for that, but a long, slow, greedy kiss, messy and voluptuous. His bathrobe fell slightly open as his left hand sank from her chin to neck, collarbone, base of throat, his fingertips just inside the edge of her thin polka-dot shirt and trembling over the warm skin there.”

Like, that was one of the few places I found Tartt’s writing truly compelling and it might just be that my personal interests are more about Romance with a capital R than terrible people justifying their terribleness, but also, I objectively believe that her oxymoronically simple denseness is just highly appropriate when discussing complicated, tense relationships and not as much so when attempting to deal with complicated ethical issues. And it somehow seems a lot more genuinely pure than the rest of the novel no matter how toxic it is because it’s not rotten or abusive, at least not at first until the fallout from the murders. 

            But that’s my take on The Secret History. I don’t actually hate it like I do certain other novels (lots and lots of other books don’t even get me started) but I’m a) slightly confused at its popularity as an “intellectual” work because the conceptualization is extremely simple in my opinion and b) more than slightly disturbed by how people perceive and/or admire the main characters. They’re first and foremost, murderers or accomplices in murders, and just disgustingly terrible people in their own ways, and for no real reason besides their own selfishness, which is vastly different than villains like Cersei Lannister who have a very detailed backstory and Freudian excuses despite still committing awful acts. But that conclusion is colored by my own life and personal experiences obviously and if you want to read the 700-page novel, be my guest.