The Ropes Have Been Unbound

Month: August, 2016

On Life and Death and Pain Again

I deeply respect and appreciate A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara but I fundamentally can’t bring myself to enjoy or recommend it. It details the history of Jude St. James, complete with the extreme abuse he undergoes at an early age that cripples and expressly traumatizes him for his entire life. I cried so much reading the book, I would read a few pages and then scrunch up into a little tiny ball hiding my face in my knees because I couldn’t deal with the prospect of Jude being hurt even more than he already had been. The explicit descriptions of abuse that Jude undergoes and enacts on himself were side by side with depictions of extreme love and affection between Jude and his friends, his found family, and I felt a feeling of real whiplash reading it because I didn’t always know what I was supposed to feel at a particular time. But despite my love for the book, I couldn’t help but think, what if Jude had been Judy? It irks and frustrates me that the trauma of women, rape victims and sexual abuse victims and everything in between, is almost commonplace, as if it’s just what we should grow to expect being female. It’s as if the suffering of being a woman is a common coming of age narrative we all ought to come to terms with and it’s ultimately not worth writing about because somebody has probably done it before and probably done it better than we ever could.

There’s something very notable about being a woman who’s been in a lot of public pain- you start to realize that you can’t really escape the identity. I want people to take me seriously despite my experiences but at the same time, I want them to be valid portions of my past, things that I can bring up and discuss without fear of social retribution. I want people to stop asking me “Has your condition returned?” but I want them to be aware of its existence, not judge me but to understand me for what I’ve been through. The balance that has to be struck when writing about the wounded woman is between acknowledging the voyeurism associated with female pain but also realizing that no matter how reductive the image may seem, we must acknowledge the various needs and sufferings that yield pain and attack them at their cores instead of focusing on the unsavory ways they may be displayed. It’s almost as if my pain makes me all the more feminine, as if it’s a constraint for my womanhood to be in deep and unforgettable pain. I think about Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and the continual trauma he witnesses and how it changes him, how he swears to God as a little boy that he will never die. I think about Hemingway himself and how much I can’t help but relate to him, his inability to escape from his own mind that eventually led to his sorry suicide. I deeply empathize with him and I love him in a way feminists on the Internet would scorn me for doing so but at the same time, I can’t help but think that men in pain are allowed to be more than their pain. Hemingway is still a great writer who committed suicide, Sylvia Plath is that woman who stuck her head in an oven and was probably a terrible mother to boot. Her writing is almost an afterthought despite its extensiveness and nuance. Men are allowed to be more than how they’ve been hurt, as women it feels like we’re scarred by what we’ve been through in a way that makes us anathemas. But the thing is, we’re never alone in our sorrow.

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t really deal with the lack of female characters in A Little Life despite its many merits. I have some questions about the book itself and the implications about literary fiction that it raises. Hanya Yanagihara is female but what does it say about literature that for a woman to be so lauded she must write about men? Are female issues and characters not enough? The Neapolitan novels are resolutely female but to what extent? They are about economics and social mobility as much as they are about the relationship between the two female protagonists. Moreover, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the depiction of male versus female pain in the novel. We all know that I’m a huge proponent of “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” but I’m just fixated on the portrayal of Jude’s pain compared to that of women in other sources. It just feels so extreme and I didn’t even read the whole thing, I just felt this overwhelming dread and I couldn’t bring myself to read something that I knew I would hate. I read the reviews, and I completed about 400 pages of the book but I stopped right before the bulk of the detailing of Jude’s abuse.

There’s also something strange about how the love that Jude inspires feels almost as a reward for the pain that he’s been through which I really fundamentally dislike and disapprove of. It’s really not a no sum game, it’s real life and it doesn’t work like that. Pain doesn’t make one a better or worse person, it just is and it’s horrific obviously but I don’t need the unequivocal lauding of Jude to tell me that. He didn’t bother me as a character but rather what he represented. I felt as if his pain was more important than that of other people and I dislike that notion. I compared his experiences to that of Theon Greyjoy in ASOIAF because the both of them undergo horrific torture and are forced to live with their pain. But the difference is that Theon was forced to compartmentalize his torture in order to survive, to help Jeyne Poole, while Jude wasn’t required to do so. In other words, I felt that Theon’s narrative was more blatantly truly feminine while Jude’s was almost a male impression of a female narrative if that makes sense. I got the impression that Yanagihara was trying to inspire empathy in her readers but it didn’t feel as if they’d truly have to try to care for Jude simply because of how abjectly pitiable he is. It wasn’t like Theon who committed such heinous sins and had to be truly forgiven in order to understand his storyline.

As for me, I’m conflicted in my pain though because on one hand, I believe it makes me special that I can see and feel such profound things about the world I live in. I know things about people that they never told me, I know who they’re sleeping with and why they hate who they hate even though they never told me. I can see it in their eyes, the way they move around and play with their hair, and I can’t be rid of the pictures in my mind no matter how much I might want to be. I can relate to other people who I have no overt connection with because pain is universal, I can empathize in ways that aren’t taught in the schools even though they ideally ought to be, and I have so much to give in a world that clearly needs it. But at the same time, I feel spent; my emotional labor is going unpaid and I feel like I’m suffering more and being rendered more pain than any I might cause or heal. I feel the pain of other people and it doesn’t feel remotely fair because honestly, I’m burdened with enough of my own. Am I being punished for what I’ve done to others? Am I being punished for how I’ve hurt myself? Nowadays, unlike in my past, I sort of deal with my pain in the ways that I’m supposed to, I read and I smile and I sleep, I dance and I laugh and I cry, but only in secret where nobody can see me rather than on public buses like I used to, yet nothing really takes it all away.

Despite everything I have forced myself to endure, my pain belongs to me because I have claimed it like no other, because I have resolved to take ownership of it for all that it’s worth. And I don’t know if Jude has that same frame of mind. I know it’s wrong to impose my ideas on how to deal with trauma onto others but sometimes I can’t really help it because it doesn’t feel natural or real. I don’t think the book was tragedy porn per but at the same time, it was too much for me. Maybe some day I will be able to handle it but right now, I’m too hurt on my own self to be able to stomach the ways that somebody else has been viscerally destroyed.

I think about the ugly ways we deal with pain, cutting and inhaling and breaking hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken in return. The faces of the people I’ve hurt flit rapidly through my mind, and I physically feel the lingering consequences of long-standing pain that I caused myself. I think at the end of the day, pain and trauma are neither transitive nor sustainable, but are bitingly human in their very existence and we cannot live without them. Every relationship is bolstered by pain, the remnants of what we used to be and what we are today, and what remains to be understood. Kendrick Lamar raps “A fatal attraction is common/and what we have common is pain” and he’s right in his assertion. It brings us together, it tears us apart, and it ultimately defines us with regards to who we are to be.

 

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Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings

I guess I think a lot about girlhood and portrayals of it. Currently, I’m en route to India to see the family, and I just finished Emma Cline’s The Girls and Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, and I have a lot to say about them both and not all of it is good. I feel a lot about the state of young girlhood because I’m finally, finally growing up past it and at the same time, I’m a little hesitant to critique any aspect of it because I don’t want to take away from what girls enjoy and take pride and joy in. It’s a thin line between critiquing something in a misogynistic manner and coming across a truly misogynistic piece of media and in these two books, I found myself exploring that line.

The Girls was honestly underwhelming. I was reading it on the plane and my mother was reading over my shoulder and we had the same reaction: “Why is this book so celebrated?” In particular, there’s this scene involving two underage girls having a threesome with a middle aged man and I literally couldn’t stomach reading that scene and I’m not somebody who regards herself as squeamish. That being said, the prose was absolutely lovely and it pains me to criticize it in such a manner because I truly believe that Emma Cline is capable of writing something much more original and much less sensational. She writes about love better than she writes about sex in my opinion or rather writes about the absence of love in people’s lives.

“The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like “sunset” and “Paris.” Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.

But as for the rest of it, I’m so tired of reading about sex and drugs to be blunt about it. I’ve been around and I’ve seen it all, I’ve had sex, I’ve done drugs, and it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be but at the same time, it’s not the end of the world either. I’m not looking back on my days of rebellion with a dewy eye of “what could have been” but then again, I didn’t almost commit heinous acts of murder.

I got to thinking about why the book is being so celebrated among literary circles. I think it’s partially the prose itself is absolutely glorious that it’s easy to forget the plot is well, forgettable. There’s the wannabe stepfather and the rebellious teenage daughter and the well meaning but disgustingly oblivious mother and for what? There’s not a single person in the book I feel remotely positive towards and that includes Evie herself and I’m not one to disdain unlikable protagonists. She is unlikable in a pathetic way which well, isn’t appealing whatsoever when I look back on it, and I literally couldn’t stop myself from blaming her for the events that occurred although I know I’m fully wrong in doing so. Perhaps it’s my own biases that prevent me from truly empathizing with Evie, perhaps it’s that we aren’t intended to empathize with her as a rule. I just became increasingly angry with her that she still looked back on her days with Suzanne and Russell and the rest of them with almost a dewy eyed mentality and that fundamentally frustrated me. Then again, the end of the novel was a dead giveaway (no pun intended) so the suspense was almost nonexistent.

What personally most interested me about the book was the idea of sex as kind of this gross entity to be done solely for the sake of men. I mean, I never got the impression that Evie or really any of the girls in the book ever wanted to engage in any sexual activity except perhaps with each other and yet, it was a commonplace occurrence in their lives. The quote “All the books made it sound like the men forced the girls into it” is well and good, but the whole novel came across to me as if the girls really were forced into sex and I don’t know what to really believe. Is Evie an unreliable narrator unable to see when she’s really being taken advantage of? Or is sex to girls really just something to be done? Personally, I’m inclined to believe it’s the former but at the same time, I can’t shake the impression that it’s truly the latter and I’m just fooling myself.

Megan Abbot on the other hand, makes me believe in the concept of real adult novels about children, if that makes sense. I read the entirety of You Will Know Me in one sitting on an airplane and I well, I liked it. I mean like, liking a book to me is slightly an ambiguous concept because it’s impossible to say what you really like or dislike about it in such a simplistic statement. I found this particular novel far more predictable than her other works but I don’t think that’s really a bad thing. It was far better organized and plotted than The Fever although I think that both it and Dare Me were stronger novels in some way, in terms of how compelling they were. But, You Will Know Me had its charm. There were notable turns of phrase and it reminded me of a Jodi Picoult novel in the best of ways, the artistic decision to write the book from Katie’s perspective and the focus on adult politics when the subject or rather the object, Devon, is a young girl. I found the focus on family interesting because I’m very close to my family but I’d like to think we’re not nearly as toxic as the families explored in the novel. I am slightly proud to say that my parents value me too much to allow me to focus so wholeheartedly on something no matter how much I may love it.

And, while reading this book, I got to thinking about the sexualization of female gymnastics as well when I was reading this book and I don’t know, it fundamentally frustrates me. These are little girls whose bodies are being focused on to an almost extreme level and there’s literally no excuse for the way that people talk about them, the way that even their own parents discuss the girls and the progression of their lives. Their bodies don’t belong to them anymore, they’re a collection of limbs and muscles and skin and bone, glitter and sinew and satin leotards, and well, there’s a reason women’s gymnastics is one of the most watched sports in the Summer Olympics. But I think that I should refrain from commenting on it in detail because I am not part of the inner circle of competitive sports and I don’t and will never know the true details of it.

The only real criticism of the novel that I have is that the characters weren’t nearly as fleshed out as in Abbott’s other novels and it hurt the book in some ways. It was less scandalous, less dramatic, less “OMG” and I strangely enough could predict the twists long before they occurred. Perhaps I’ve read too much fiction, maybe I just know too much about the world as I see it for anything to truly be a surprise to me so I’m possibly biased. Katie in particular was very much a Jodi Picoult protagonist and again I say, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Thankfully there was no dramatic legal trail with background romance to distract form the main plot because I honestly don’t think I could have dealt with that. In particular, Dovon herself served as more of a symbol of a prodigy, of perfection, of something to be strived for and simultaneously feared rather than a character in herself. Even with regards to her relationship with Ryan, it didn’t feel as the sheer tragedy of the affair was about her, a teenage girl involved with a grown ass man but about how everybody else around her was affected by it. Although, perhaps that’s the point that Abbott was trying to make in including it.

I call this piece “Hazy Rotten Musty Evenings” because both these books encompass that part of adolescence we don’t really like to talk about. As I said, I think The Girls is a bit of overkill and overemphasis on the scandal element of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it covers embarrassing, disgusting aspects of youth that nobody likes to consider even when looking back at their own lives. Everything is sort of vague and I think that is ironic given that You Will Know Me is about competitive gymnastics, which is such a precise sport. It reminded me of Abbott’s The End of Everything rather than The Fever or Dare Me, and I think it was all the stronger for it although as I pointed out, it does have its drawbacks. It has more of a crossover appeal, to adults as well as teenage girls and it didn’t hurt to read in the way I think it was supposed to. But again, I’m not a typical reader which I suppose is why you’re reading this blog in the first place.