The Ropes Have Been Unbound

Category: Reviews

I’m Not Staying In My Play Pretend, Where the Fun Ain’t Got No End and Thank God For That

I don’t like being vulnerable, which is something you can probably glean about me within a very short period of time. Leslie Jamison wrote one of my favorite essays “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” the last essay in her collection of essays called “The Empathy Essays,” and she touches on a type of woman that’s become almost stereotypical in modern discourse, the “post wounded” woman. I’d recommend the whole article to everybody, and the whole collection to be quite honest, but the passage that most struck me on reading it was this one:

“These girls aren’t wounded so much as post-​wounded, and I see their sisters everywhere. They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is. What I’ll call “post-​wounded” isn’t a shift in deep feeling (we understand these women still hurt) but a shift away from wounded affect: These women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama, so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-​wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much. The post-​wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt. Post-​wounded women fuck men who don’t love them and then they feel mildly sad about it, or just blasé about it; they refuse to hurt about it or to admit they hurt about it—​or else they are endlessly self-​aware about it, if they do allow themselves this hurting.”

I’m barely 20 years old this passage resonated with me more than it ought to because I’m just so very done with being hurt. I’m done with crying over silly things that don’t matter and profound things that do, I’m done rubbing salt into wounds that were rent a decade ago when I first came to this country, and I’m very done with being open and warm and nurturing towards others when I’m disinclined to believe people ever had anything resembling sympathy towards me.

It might have been why I started reading Sandra Cisneros again, because for all the pretenders, nobody does post wounded like Sandra Cisneros. I was forced to read “The House on Mango Street” as a freshman in high school and it exhausted me; I wrote my third quarter paper on Esperanza’s rape and since this was also the time I discovered Sylvia Plath, I ended up quoting Sylvia: “Being born a woman is an awful tragedy.” Sandra and Sylvia and Esperanza and all of them were what I was conditioned to loathe because I was raised in a world where the concrete semblance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics was prized over all; but what attracted me, even more than math which I’m admittedly fantastic at, was the ugliness of it, raw emotion and embarrassing feeling. The thing is, I’m still not inclined to express these sentiments directly, and I discuss it all in a detached, borderline clinical way. “Emotion is healthy!” “Feelings are natural” but god forbid, I ever tell somebody how I feel about them without covering it up with a splash of Latin and insulting them where it hurts the most in the process. Maybe that’s because I’ve made myself too guarded, and yet as someone who has the potential for deep emotional pain, I feel like I have to be.

With regards to Sandra Cisneros, in the last few weeks, I read “Woman Hollering Creek,” a collection of short stories, “Loose Woman,” a poetry anthology, and “Caramelo,” a novel. As far as form goes, I adored Cisneros’ poetry; I found it vicious and emotional in Bronte manner, while I saw The House on Mango Street and Caramelo as “Austen-esque” so to speak. And, I am about as far from a fan of Jane Eyre as can be (husband who locks up his mentally ill wife who’s a woman of color to be seen as the romantic hero no thanks) so when I say Bronte, I’m primarily referring to Wuthering Heights. It’s not to say one is more valid than the other, but as a rough estimate, the Austen sort of literature is what I’d discuss at tea with people my grandmother’s age, and what I feel comfortable saying I like in “good” company. Bronte works are what I turn to when I’m not inclined to be rational, and when I more resemble these women who we’re inclined to loathe, the wound walking out of the hospital, the wound that we’re giving up on. I would gossip with Jane Austen over skim peppermint mochas, and talk shit about girls who aren’t smart enough to rationalize their love affairs but I’d run out into the moors on five shots of Jack Daniels mixed into my Diet Coke (never regular) screaming my love for some broken emergency, and Emily Bronte would probably cheer me on.

My favorite lines in Ciseneros’ anthology are from “One Holy Night,” a story in Woman Hollering Creek, and the eponymous last poem in “Loose Woman,” and they’re both similar in meaning. “I am a woman without shame” and from the poem, “I am the woman of myth and bullshit/(True. I authored some of it.)/I built my little house of ill repute/Brick by brick. Labored/loved and masoned it.” To be quite honest, I regard the first as a life goal, and in my opinion, so should every one. It’s very tiresome to eternally be apologizing for aspects of our being we cannot control, for things that other people think are wrong with us, and we have to live with ourselves so we might as well revel in it. But to expand on that concept, we write our own fairytales; nobody else is responsible for the reputation we covet, our loves and our hates and the myth we become is in our control and we should make ourselves people that we are proud of. It’s the manifesto of the woman who’s post-wounded and aware of it; she’s saying “I have made my mistakes and commited sins if you want to call them that and they are a part of me.” To us, the goal is to make a joke of it, laugh about it, and the secret is that we all know it’s a joke, and we’re here for your wounds, even if everybody else is going to be fooled by your nonchalance. But perhaps I’m projecting.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I hate being vulnerable and I think people misunderstand my definition of vulnerability. I write about the literature I read and I respond to it in what may come across as overtly personal but full disclosure: this is the myth of myself I am comfortable with people telling. And when I say people, I mean my parents, my family, my old teachers, my boyfriend, my long list of ex-lovers who’ll tell you I’m insane. This brand of not possessing artifice is an artifice in itself; I claim that I’m an emotional being but all you see is a girl who writes as if she’s a doctor analyzing the concept of deep pain and you search for signs that it’s all real but they’re as murky as the ocean green and blue.

Maybe someday, I’ll be as brave as Sylvia Plath who wrote “At twenty I tried to die, to get back, back, back to you”, as doggedly determined as Elizabeth Grant to be the image of Lana del Rey, how you get that way, who covers up what very clearly is deep depression, suicidal tendencies and a chain of abusive relationships in a pretense of extreme Americana that so many of her fans miss, as Taylor Swift who called out John Mayer in “Dear John” to the ridicule of millions as that crazy ex-girlfriend who couldn’t deal with her boyfriend moving on. I’m tired of women who are brave enough to be that vulnerable in the public eye being scorned as making victims of themselves, which is nothing more than gaslighting.

Or maybe, I’ll find some sort of balance. I taste like nectar and salt, and pollen and stars and for all the bitterness I may hold, I still taste of hope, which I’m unreasonably proud of.

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Sing a Song of Six Deaths, a Girl With Hands Cut off, A Pair of Evil Children, Baked In a Pie

I hope that’s not too morbid a title. Then again, Titus Andronicus is violent and morbid and it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays so I’m writing a piece on it anyway.

One of my favorite phrases I’ve ever written is the “protofeministic existence of voyeuristic sadness,” used to describe the image that women like Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and of course, Lana del Rey portray of explicitly “feminine” unhappiness: passivity, bitterness, emotional enmeshment, resentment and crippling grief. It’s about how the individual nature of a piece of their work, a poem or a song, isn’t what’s important when analyzing their importance on a societal level, since there are so many “problematic” elements in them all and I’m not saying we should ignore those aspects, but the acknowledgment of their characters and psyches in total as valid expressions of humanity and also of intellect is hugely significant.

Sad girls aren’t allowed to be competent, sad girls aren’t allowed to be intellectuals, sad girls aren’t allowed to be more than the Ophelia or the Woman in the Attic, or in the case of Titus Andronicus, the Lavinia, whose narrative importance catapults when she is raped and mutilated and physical silenced by having her tongue cut out. The play is one of Shakespeare’s shortest and most violent, and my last post it note lists the number of deaths in the last scene and ends with “wtf just happened?” Because the thing is, the amount of violence in the play is so extreme that it almost becomes not about the individual acts of violence similarly to how Lana del Rey stops being about seducing old men for money, no matter how much both pieces dwell on those elements.

Titus is just… straight brutality from the very first scene where the protagonist kills his own son and kills his enemy’s son in spite of her pleading to save him. I became desensitized to it in a way because I knew every action that was committed, Tamora encouraging her sons to rape Lavinia, Aaron murdering the nurse out of cold blood, Titus’ final revenge where he murders Tamora’s sons and feeds them to her in the pie, was about something bigger than the perpetrators of the cycle of Senacan violence. It was about the cycle itself, and how the rise and fall of Rome parallels the rise and fall of the Andronici, and how, in the very end, it is a turning of the screw, from Classicism to Shakespeare to the modern era, and if we don’t abandon our inclinations towards bloodlust, our life cycle will be terminated.

There’s validity in Titus as an extremely ironic morality tale, and it includes Tamora and Lavinia who represent the dichotomy of the Madonna Whore Complex women have always been relegated to, and the crux of it is that neither of them are saved by it. In a sense, that’s my take on Titus and Lana and Sylvia and them all: we aren’t in control sometimes, and governed by greater forces and when we refuse to acknowledge our subservience to them and sometimes, just let it go, we doom ourselves.  Anyway, Titus is my second favorite Shakespeare play after Lear, and you should definitely read it. I haven’t even started talking about the importance of all the classical references in the play, with Lavinia as Philomena, Tamora as a highly twisted amped up to 11 version of Dido and Medea and it’s shorter than most other plays, about half the length of “Hamlet,” which makes it all the more jarring. Well obviously, just look at the amount of violence in the first scene.

(And by the way, the Freys being baked into pies by the Northmen and fed to their kinsmen in A Song and Ice and Fire serves as a direct parallel to Titus’ vengeance on Tamora. Not usually my area of interest but that single element always intrigued me.)

Can You Give Me the Sky?

As a rule, I’m disinclined to trust public opinion on things. I don’t read YouTube comments, I seldom go on tags for Tumblr and Twitter and I avoid Reddit like the plague because to put it simply, I don’t like it when my opinion is disagreed with and it often is. I fully ignore reviews for works of literature apart from those in official publications because it viscerally upsets me to see any piece or character I have an emotional connection to torn apart without restraint. But I made the mistake of checking out the Goodreads reviews for “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch.

It was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club in 1999 and was the subject of a great deal of “coffee table” talk for the next few years for its controversial subject matter as well as the lucidity of its prose. Oleander is a toxic shrub that provides the catalyst for the plot of the novel, which is the coming of age tale of Astrid Magnassun who is shunted through a series of foster homes after her mother Ingrid murders her former lover Barry by smearing the surfaces in his apartment with a combination of Oleander sap and DMSO, an arthiritis drug. In short, the reviews for the novel praised Fitch’s writing style, although a large portion of them didn’t hesitate to label it as visibly “feminine,” (whatever that means) but entirely derided both Astrid and Ingrid as confusing, contradictory, unbelievable, and unlovable.

I’m not claiming that either Astrid or Ingrid are paragons of virtue but to claim that their actions don’t make sense indicates a profound misunderstanding of basic psychology and honestly, a lack of basic empathy. The paradox of human emotion is that sometimes, the rational explanation for an emotion is that there is no rational explanation. On occasion, there is no reason for an individual’s response to trauma, and there is a certain uniqueness in the construction of the human psyche. In this case, I’m responding to the claims that Astrid’s fixation on Ray, the middle aged man who she sleeps with as a 14 year old, is unnatural since she was also shot by Ray’s girlfriend Starr, her foster mother, and was bitten by a dog and had much worse things happen to her. Perhaps a 14 year old girl focuses on the parts of her life she believes she has a modicum of control over (although there is no way a girl that young can give consent to a grown man since she lacks the emotional maturity to be capable of it) instead of the parts that are so far out of her realm of comprehension she suppresses them. And in any case, to believe that children are to blame for the actions of adults (“She seduced him and he had no way to resist”) is disgusting.

Astrid was a hard character, all jagged edges that cut if you get too close to her, but it was a hardness that many teenagers possess and one that she wasn’t allowed to grow out of. Her mantra was survival and it’s admirable but also borderline terrifying the amount she was willing to sacrifice, her innocence, the prospect of love, money, whatever she had. I think I had a harder time connecting with Astrid than with Ingrid because I’m not as strong as Astrid and I’m not as unscrupolous. I have a deep rooted optimism that I can’t eviscerate the way Astrid does at such a young age because I was loved in a way that Astrid wasn’t. I believe in its existence because I still maintain that child’s logic “if my parents could love me this much, and do this much for me, that means I’m lovable and I obviously deserve to be loved romantically as well.” At one point, Astrid gives a boy a blowjob for a gram of weed which was the only place I stopped and put the novel down; it disgusted me so much and made me sad because at the end of the day, it feels like Astrid’s pragmatism regarding the selling of her body for goods is the fate all women are doomed to. Whether it’s the cold hearted near prostitution of Olivia, Astrid’s erstwhile neighbor or the more nuanced manipulations many girls perform on a daily basis, it feels like we’re just bodies and bones, buried at adolescence and never returned unless we dig ourselves out and render ourselves vulnerable to those who would gladly raze us to the ground.

Ingrid on the other hand, Ingrid made me laugh first of all, and I think Ingrid reminded me of what my mother would have been like with Ingrid’s upbringing. Ingrid rejects love the way Astrid hungers for it because when she allows herself to succumb to it, it destroys her to the point she kills a man who didn’t love her back the way she wanted to be loved which is why she was so wary of it in the first place.

“Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love is temperamental. Tiring. It makes demands. Love uses you. Changes its mind.” Her eyes were closed. Beads of water decorated her face, and her hair spread out from her head like jellyfish tendrils. “But hatred, now. That’s something you can use. Sculpt. Wield. It’s hard or soft, however you need it. Love humiliates you, but hatred cradles you. It’s so soothing. I feel infinitely better now.”

“I’m glad,” I said. I was glad she felt happier, but I didn’t like the kind of happiness it was, I didn’t believe in it, I believed it would crack open sooner or later and terrible things would come flying out.”

The prose of this novel is poetic and it’s smooth in a way that renders it still relevant decades after its publication but it’s also sharp when you least expect it such that it made me pause to collect my thoughts. The strange dichotomy between Ingrid’s out loud discourse and the truth behind it which Astrid states in her monologue intrigued me because my instant response to any form of turmoil is to pretend nothing is wrong, almost to Ingrid levels, even if my inner Astrid knows the truth.

And of course, Ingrid wasn’t a good mother, and she wasn’t a good person even if she did love Astrid in her own way. I loathe parents who abandon their children and parents who don’t love their children properly and Ingrid checks off both those boxes but I didn’t hate Ingrid because I understood why she was the way she was. But, my take on parenting is, if you have a child, you are committing to that child. Parents explain the universe to their children and more often than not, the universe has patterns which they’re responsible for teaching them; if there is no consistency in a child’s upbringing, you can’t blame the kid when they lash out because they deserve better.

In short, White Oleander deserves to be read, and it deserves to be understood because it speaks to the part of human nature that craves understanding more than love and has come to the realization that they’re not the same thing. The most dangerous thing is to abandon who we are for other people to love us because they still may leave us for simplicity, because they realize the night magic has been consumed. And don’t fall in love with another magician because the magic doesn’t work when you know where it comes from and if your lover can’t give you the sky, then don’t stay, because they can still cause a natural disaster inside of you, eviscerating everything in its path.

Teenage Divorcee Confessions and/or Lana del Rey, How You Get that Way?

The first time I remember referring to myself as a feminist was when I was 13 years old; there was a lot of cringing and more than one person told me that I wasn’t ever going to find love. Our history teacher had married us to other kids in the class so we could learn about the feminist movement in the 1960s and it was a good idea in theory. I was married to a boy who I got divorced from because he didn’t think women should wear revealing clothes, he wouldn’t like it if his wife earned more than him, and he thought women should first be mothers to their children to which I asked “What children?!” I’m not saying my compromise levels were at an all time high at 13, or that they’re significantly better now, but I’ve just become ultimately frustrated at the debates about feminism because I’ve been listening to them for years and it’s just exhausting to put it simply. I can’t understand why people wouldn’t be feminists, because they’re benefiting from feminism even if they don’t realize it, and it’s just so childish to be honest. “I’m not a feminist because I like men;” well I hate to tell you this but men are abusing and assaulting women all over the world whether they’re feminists or not, so liking men doesn’t mean men like you back. And the other issue is that I don’t even agree with a large part of the mainstream feminist movement because it doesn’t feel applicable or relatable to my day to day life. This eternal contradictory frame of mine is why I picked up “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay; I don’t consider myself the epitome of a perfect person or a perfect feminist, but I know that the world’s not fair and I know that we all deserve better.

The reviews say the book reads like a combination of bolstering girl talk, academic literature, and a gospel of sorts because the crux of feminism is that it’s a movement by humans for humans and it’s prone to all the flaws of humanity. For some reason, we hold feminism to a significantly higher standard than we hold other social movements like Christianity and that’s because it comes from the minds of those who have faced long-standing oppression by society and in the true spirit of Capitalism, there’s a misconception that for women to be seen as equal, men have to be seen as less than equal. As I’ve said before, the reason I read so much is because literature validates our humanity, it makes us feel that our thoughts aren’t inherently wrong but just different. Roxane Gay made me feel that I could be a feminist and still be who I wanted to be, the girl who wears sunflower shirts and headbands and wants to be wanted, no matter how flimsy that wanting may be and doesn’t allow people to be treat me like shit for what I want. I’m tired of the constant infighting in the feminist movement, and sometimes it’s extremely valid especially regarding issues of intersectionality, but I don’t want to be constantly defending every choice I make as feminist or antifeminist, to be held up to some pedestal I can’t ever live up to. And Roxane Gay gets it.

Her love of Sweet Valley High and deliberate takedown of Chris Brown spoke to me because despite my devouring of the “The Second Sex” as a 14 year old who wanted to annoy my ex-boyfriend, my feminism is more about Gossip Girl and Sylvia Plath and Lana del Rey than feminist political theory. I’m not claiming that feminism should be depoliticized or that it should be watered down for public consumption but the fact remains: at the very core, feminism is a social and political movement that renders it possible for women and other minorities to live their lives without censure or abuse and that’s not even close to a reality for most of the world. I don’t mean to devalue the issues faced by men, in particular men of color, but the eternal fear of rape and sexual abuse isn’t present; when I’m walking home alone I will cross the street if I see someone walking behind me because that’s what I’ve been conditioned to do. There’s a profound difference between being scared to share feelings and being wary of being assaulted when walking home from the library and if people can’t see that, I don’t know how I’m supposed to make it clear.

Maybe I liked this book so much because I feel a closeness with Roxane Gay that I also feel with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when reading “Americanah” and listening to her TED Talk. By consuming their work, I felt as if a giant weight had been lifted off my chest because I often feel like I can’t ever live up to some blurry “ideal” of my existence; I’m not a good enough Indian or a good enough feminist or a good enough person and the self-haranguing never ends. Am I not a feminist because I’ve listened to “Every Man Gets His Wish” by Lana del Rey 725 times in the last three months, am I not a feminist because I get gel nails for my boyfriend since he hates acrylics, am I not a feminist because I like to wear dresses and skirts and have long hair? I think Adichie said it best; one of the most tragic aspects of the patriarchy is that we raise girls to perform pretense as an art form. We encourage a borderline Kafka esque tendency in women to exist as a set of contradictions, beautiful and untouched, experienced yet innocent, competent but not frighteningly intelligent, sexy but decidedly not sexual. It’s something that the best of us have taken to such an extreme level we’ve lost ourselves; we don’t know who we are except for what we’re supposed to be. We spin on this axis of extreme anxiety that we must meet every single item on this metaphorical checklist to being a woman because otherwise we’ll lose everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve.

People have said I don’t give many fucks and to be quite honest, I really don’t, at least not about the things most people care about. I don’t wear makeup on a daily basis because it’s not my problem if my tiredness offends you, I twirl when I walk, I’ve stopped regarding it as an inherent error in my creation if a boy doesn’t love me, and that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from this conditioning. I’ve been living with an imaginary turntable of things to do in my mind for so long that caring has become second nature to me; I care about school, I care about my loved ones, I care about my hair, and the rest of it will come together because I’m capable of dealing with so much more than whatever I’m going through at the moment. Roxane Gay stated this phenomenon in the following way:

“I don’t believe in safety. I wish I did. I am not brave. I simply know what to be scared of; I know to be scared of everything. There is freedom in that fear. That freedom makes it easier to appear fearless- to say and do what I ant. I have been broken so I am prepared should that happen again. I have, at times, put myself in dangerous situations. I have thought, You have no idea what I can take. This idea of unknown depths of endurance is a refrain in most of my writing. Human endurance fascinates me, probably too much because more often than not, I think of life in terms of enduring instead of living.”

None of us are strong, it’s merely that we’ve become so capable of pulling ourselves together at short notice because of far too much practice, and just because I find so much to criticize and think about, doesn’t mean I’m not hopeful for a better future.

This diverged from my thesis at hand but basically, I loved this book because we’re all “Bad Feminists.” None of us are perfect because we’re human beings, and the idolization of anybody, even ourselves, is the “Do not Pass Go, Do not Collect $200” path to self-ruin. One of my favorite pieces of writing is Maya Angelou’s “Letter to my Daughter” and whenever I feel incapable of existence or otherwise out of control, I read the copy I have saved in my phone, specifically this part:

“I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make many more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my responsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anybody injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot unlive history and my repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.”

In other words, self-acceptance and self-improvement aren’t mutually exclusive elements and moreover, we have one lifetime on this earth in our bodies, and it’s our moral imperative to make the best of it, to love as much as possible and to live more ethically than the world around us currently is.

The Dense Nothingness of Death

I’ve been in the process of reading “Deathless” for almost a month now and today I just speed read the remaining 200 pages I had left during my break because it wasn’t going to get any better no matter how long I left it and I really wanted to get this review done because it’s been dwelling in my mind for almost as long. I’ve read bits and pieces of Catheryne M. Valente’s work, namely her poetry, and I like her style, probably in large part because it’s more than a little reminiscent of my own, extraordinarily dense and giving off a semblance of deep emotion but with spurts of lightness interspersed to prevent readers from abandoning it. That being said, I don’t think I’ve felt as disturbed by a novel until I read Deathless and granted, it was more from the response to it than the novel itself. I’ve reached a point in my existence as a media consumer where I’ve started to take the response to a work as two part: first, as influenced by the consumer’s own prejudices and second, as what the creator herself is accountable for, because you reach a point where the portrayals of characters are filled with so much ingrained bias that it has to be criticized on an objective as well as a thematic level.

To quickly summarize the novel, it’s the retelling of the Russian fairytale of Marya Morevna Ivan Tsarevitch, and Koschei the Deathless, a demon of sorts who specializes in the kidnapping of young women. Unlike the original, Valente’s retelling casts Marya as the main character instead of Ivan, makes Marya’s sisters participate in the plot, and details the original relationship between Marya and Koschei and her subsequent defeat of him which the original narrative exclude. Valente’s account of it is like I previously stated, beautiful, intricate, and dense, full of historical references to the real Russian Revolution and the fallout from it as well as fairy tales and the tropes that accompany them. Most prominently, “Deathless” features the Rule of Three, three of Marya’s sisters that marry birds who turn into men, three tasks Marya must complete for Baba Yaga to marry Koschei, three chyerti friends who help Marya with her tasks and so on. Moreover, the featuring of Baba Yaga is notable in that she represents the archetype of the witch, a long-standing fixture in fairy tales the world round, and who’s the only person who comprehends the depth of the story they’re all in.

But. Deathless left a sour taste in my mouth, like I was eating one of those beautiful French hors d’oeuvres which taste like something gone rotten but are presented as elite so anyone who dislikes it is automatically seen as in the wrong. To put it bluntly, I thought Marya was a stagnant glorified bad teen fiction heroine who’s immersed in this madcap struggle for survival and yet, has time for a love triangle. I don’t really care about Ivan because he’s not important in this retelling of the story, and even in the original, he’s the archetype for a hero more than an individualized construction of one. But as for Koschei and Marya, my opinion is a combination of disgust and abject horror at the number of people that romanticize it.

Let’s get this straight: it’s not okay to romanticize the relationship between a 15-16 year old girl who has zero agency even if she manages to achieve it later and manipulates and defeats her captor. It’s not romantic and dark, it’s abusive, and honestly, it’s an entry in the long line of narratives in which teenage girls are clothed in pretentions of adulthood so that their adult male abusers are seen in better lights. I find complicated and toxic romantic relationships fascinating on a literary level, but the key element is that the relationship is of equals; one party is not abjectly more powerful than the other, and this definitely includes the relationship between adults and children. Koschei may appear young, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s ageless, has numerous ex-wives (all named Yelena because that’s not remotely disturbing at all) and oh yeah, is the personification of Death which isn’t a positive trait in a potential romantic partner in case you thought otherwise.

Perhaps Valente is attempting to meta-textually comment on these issues but I’m disinclined to believe that just based on the lucidity of the language used in describing it.

“Oh, I will be cruel to you, Marya Morevna. It will stop your breath, how cruel I can be. But you understand, don’t you? You are clever enough. I am a demanding creature. I am selfish and cruel and extremely unreasonable. But I am your servant. When you starve I will feed you; when you are sick I will tend you. I crawl at your feet; for before your love, your kisses, I am debased. For you alone I will be weak.”

I’ve having a hard time articulating my discomfort with this dynamic but in short, it just screams of the manipulation and systematic emotional disfiguration of a young girl and I’m not a proponent of that at all. A man who’s cruel doesn’t have his cruelty invalidated by momentary spurts of kindness, the logic of a man who’s selfish and debased who tells his partner he’s on his knees for her is inherently flawed because his power is based on his dominion over her. Not to mention, that sort of language doesn’t imply true humility or respect, it reeks of emotional abuse with an underlying ambiguous threat of violence if she doesn’t meet his “demands.” And the fact Marya eventually defeats him doesn’t invalidate his initial actions and the fact that Koschei is seen by the narrative and by readers as a Byronic Hero or an anti-villain far more than the depraved rapist he is is disturbing. I know that “love is like having your throat cut” but there’s a profound difference between love cutting your throat and your lover cutting your throat, and with regards to Koschei, I’m inclined to believe in the latter.

I think that my major distaste for the book also has to do with the responses to it that I’ve read, because there’s this very strong argument for it being a majorly feminist work and “empowering” to women. Personally, no matter how pretty the language was, there remained this underlying element of oversimplification to me; something always felt unreal and not in a good way. To put it bluntly, I don’t agree with all the metas which claim Marya Morevna as some form of “strong” female character because to me she’s not even a character, she’s an archetype and the unfortunate part is that Valente doesn’t seem to develop her beyond the external visage of her even if on some level, I think that was her intent.

“Koschei, Koschei,” she whispered. “What would I have been if I had never seen the birds? I am no one; I am nothing. I am a blank paper on which you and your magic wrote a girl. Just the kind of girl you wanted, all hungry and hurt and needing. A machine for loving you. Nothing in me was not made by you.”

I wish that lack of characterization in Marya was acknowledged more when discussing the novel because that’s how I felt about her to be quite honest. She was just this creature made for the male gaze, to be the warrior queen who had all this power but was still unbearably appealing to men even Death himself was susceptible to her charms, and personally that really bothers me in a character because it’s another construction of femininity that really doesn’t strike me as remotely feminist.

Here’s the thing about writing a “feminist” work: you have to write characters that have a valid existence beyond the text, whether they’re virgin lady knights or evil queens who use their bodies to fulfill their ambitions. There’s no such thing as succeeding and failing as a woman even if there is definitely such a thing as being a good or bad person. The thing about Valente’s writing (and George R.R. Martin’s and so many other writers of sci-fi/fantasy/any other genre besides romance which is female driven to an excessive level) is that it prizes not being conventionally feminine to an excessive level, or rather being capable in traditionally masculine mediums but still being beautiful and worthy of the male gaze, and in my opinion, that’s just wrong. And yes, I’m talking about Tamora Pierce with Alanna who was still attractive enough to be in a love triangle with both George the funny thief and Jon the crown prince, and George R.R. Martin with Lyanna Stark who’s the greatest because she was wildly beautiful and had Rhaegar Targaryen and Robert Baratheon going for her hand in marriage even if she was more interested in sword fighting and dressing up like a boy and Arya who looks like Lyanna and is always right even as a 9 year old. A woman doesn’t have to be worthy of male affection to be valid, and no matter what people may say about how the term Mary Sue is gendered (which it is to a degree), I’m not a proponent of the concept of the “ideal woman” who’s worthy of male affection and any other woman who isn’t just by virtue of not being her.

Also, I read this article that states that Deathless is feminist because it shuts down the concept of weaponized femininity, which is supposedly racist and classist etc. Okay short story: that analysis of weaponized femininity is more or less bullshit for a few reasons. I’m not claiming that designating femininity to be represented by thin white women is fair because it’s not, but at the same time, there needs to be the acknowledgement that the United States isn’t the baseline by which we make judgments on the nature of feminism because there are billions of women outside of it. The fact is, the hetero-patriarchal white supremacy hegemony is still prevalent outside the United States but people of color are not the “other” in the same manner as the United States. The same topical divisions of women, mothers, maidens, princesses, whores etc. exist in places like India, China or Africa where there aren’t a high percentage of white people, and if you’re going to spew statements like “women of color are always seen as monsters,” expect to be called out because that’s extremely U.S. centric and reeks of internalized racism. How do I know this? I was raised in India and abroad and I’m not saying it’s perfect, but there wasn’t as much pressure to be white; I didn’t see myself as anybody but myself until high school, I wasn’t Indian, I was just me. And I never saw myself as automatically ugly or monstrous for not being white, and now you’re telling me that I am? Well then.

But returning to my point at hand, I don’t think claiming “Deathless” rejects weaponized femininity is remotely valid because as I said, a great deal of Marya’s power comes from the faxt she’s appealing to both Koschei and Ivan as a romantic and sexual conquest. And to be honest, anti-femininity, which is hugely prevalent in radical feminism, is also misogynistic. Attractiveness as a woman is a double edged sword; if a woman isn’t attractive, then she hasn’t lived up to her task as a woman, to be sexually appealing to men, and if she is attractive to men, she’s responsible for living up to that privilege and being open to be picked and prodded and ogled and if she wants to be in control of her own image and sexuality, that’s a sin to be punished with cat calling and shaming and whatever other punishments we thrust upon women. And Valente herself has this passage:

“The old order, it is good for the old. A farmer wants his son to be afraid of beautiful women, so that he will not leave home too soon, so he tells a story about how one drowned his brother’s cousin’s friend in a lake, not because he was a pig who deserved to be drowned, but because beautiful women are bad, and also witches. And it doesn’t matter that she didn’t ask to be beautiful, or to be born in a lake, or to live forever, or to not know how men breathe until they stop doing it.”

It’s almost as if beauty is a sin even if it’s not in our hands and the way to overcome is to reject our femininity, but the text doesn’t fully support that either except to state that being feminine won’t save you but nobody ever said it did; it’s just that being conventionally feminine is just as valid a manner of self expression as is wielding swords and liking football.

But that’s my take on Deathless (over 2000 words of it wow) and I hope you enjoyed it or at least, gained a new perspective on the novel. Again, the novel is beautifully worded and hugely evocative of a rich period in Russian History but personally speaking, my issues with it far outweighed my appreciation for those aspects of the novel, and I leave my readers to form their own opinions.

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.

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.