Monthly Archives: November 2013

dory

The Art of Losing

I’m in the middle of planning the last of my grandparents’ funerals, the one for my Grandma Dory who died three weeks ago. I’m a mess, and I’m not going to sugarcoat that. This is going to be messy.

Writing Grandpa Ed’s was easy, though the writing was the only easy thing about it. I was about to be married, and my mother, his daughter, was out of the country, and my sister was sicker than I’ve ever seen her. I ended up blinking, dazed, in this foreign country of grief, digging through the papers on his desk in the basement room of his house, the one he called office. There was a stack of photos on the desk, this chronology of his life. He knew he was dying. I moused open his computer, which was a cast-off from my college days, which I’d set to the largest system font I could find to accommodate his blindness. He was writing to the end.

The easy thing about his funeral was that he was a man for poetry: maudlin, Celtic, one of those large, performing personalities that acts as subterfuge for a moody, feeling introvert. Dylan Thomas, we said, almost at once. Fern Hill.We made my dad read the poem, which was almost a cruelty I can see now. At the time all I knew was that I couldn’t read it. I can barely read it now.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
       In the moon that is always rising,
               Nor that riding to sleep
       I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
               Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Dad was the only one who fit my grandfather’s suits, and there was a fashion party as we stood in my grandfather’s narrow room and shrugged them onto his shoulders. The red one, with the big 70s lapels. The dappled grey and black one in a winter wool. The ties on a tie rack. Grandpa’s car, which took us to the funeral and then refused to work again, like a dog pining at an empty bedside.
Grandpa Chris was the next. He was not a man for poetry – reed-thin and active, Scandinavian and full of puns. He had a doctor’s sensibility, all bedside manner and efficiency and easy charm. In a book called Medical Mentors: Practicing the Art of Medicine in Duluth 1927-1996 by Kathleen Hannan, my grandfather said:

“Do what you like to do. Live in the area that you would like to live. Enjoy your time off. I like the more simple life, down to earth. In a smaller town you have so many friends, real genuine friends.”

Also in the book, he talked about his mother’s death, when he was six, of child-bed fever. It was the defining moment of his life, in some ways, this woman lost a century ago. I wish I’d met her. I wish she’d lived long enough to raise him up so he didn’t keep looking for her all those years later in the throes of his senior dementia. I wonder about her funeral. It would have been horrible, like all funerals for young women and new mothers. I went and bought my son a suit today and worried about his hair grown long. I can just see Chris at six with an ill-fitting new suit and a haircut. I can see his infant sister. The prairie of Iowa would have been hard and flat.

At his service I read “How One Winter Came in the Lake Region” by Wilfred Campbell, a Canadian Anglican priest. I’m not sure anyone understood why, including me, but then I’m not sure I care. It was right, this slow freezing and the joy in that, the shift of seasons.

When one strange night the sun like blood went down,
Flooding the heavens in a ruddy hue;
Red grew the lake, the sere fields parched and brown,
Red grew the marshes where the creeks stole down,
But never a wind-breath blew.
That night I felt the winter in my veins,
A joyous tremor of the icy glow;
And woke to hear the north’s wild vibrant strains,
While far and wide, by withered woods and plains,
Fast fell the driving snow.

My Grandma Fran, I can’t even work out the timeline for her death. She died so long and sudden. I have these memories of driving over the hills and bridges of Allegheny county, past the grim and vibrant steel towns laid down by the rivers of Pennsylvania. I remember my daughter in a fountain playing until the hospital security guard told us to get out. I remember flying home and waiting for the call from my mother, who stayed there until the end, or one of them. I remember cleaning out the house.

Fran was not a woman for poetry either. When I named my daughter after her, she was so perplexed: why would you do that? It wasn’t false modesty either, but something weirder, something hard and unsentimental. I never saw either of my grandmothers cry in the decades I knew them. I read Dylan Thomas’s “After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)” at her funeral. It was a counterpoint to Ed’s Fern Hill. I don’t know that there is anything written that could sum Fran in either poetry or prose.

I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.

And now Dory. I have to account for you in words now too, and I’m not sure I’m at the task of it. Dad and I trade phone calls, working out logistics; my children, who have been muddy with odd grief, calls from the teacher in the last month; what has happened? The Art of Losing at my knee last night, paging, paged. There’s so much here that gets the heart of it, but cannot be spoken aloud in a Cremation Society building in downtown Duluth. It would not be fair.

 

Translation

by Franz Wright

 

Death is nature’s way

of telling you to be quiet.

 

Of saying it’s time

to be weaned, your conflagration

starved to diamond.

 

I’ll give you something to cry about.

 

And what those treetops swaying

dimly in the wind spelled.

 

Dory was so domestic, so practiced in the arts of familiar deception. She was the most accomplished liar of my acquaintance, who rolled mythology as simple as truth. She read me maudlin Scandinavian folk tales as a kid, which I cried about with the pleasure of sorrowful fiction. She knitted like she breathed. She was the last, most important member of that generation to leave me here. I’m still surprised that it was possible for her to die.

Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

Edna St Vincent Millay

 

Fran and Ed

For There She Was: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway is a hard book to write about, for me. I read this on planes, and not on foot, in hard tubes that bolt up into the blue and down again into the strange sameness of airports; surrounded by strangers and boredom; trying to mask my weeping, coughing back my laughter; the phones off; the world insubstantial and patchy out the window of the plane. Wrong. I should have been walking, but then maybe flying is the better metaphor for Woolf’s strange prose, her perfect movement. At the end, wrung out after a week on vacation, I cried and pushed my head into my husband’s shoulder. We talked. I tried to convey why I was crying, but it’s all so inexplicable. Not sadness. Not sadness. Something more like the pain of recognition; the joy of disconnect; the shock of understanding.

Ten days before my husband and I married, twelve years ago this month, my grandfather died. My mother, in whose house we were to marry, was in Ireland. My sister, who was to be my only bridesmaid, was sick, so sick, ensconced in my mother’s bedroom. I would go there daily, more often if I could, and drop off videotapes of movies for her to watch, clear the dishes. She spent so much time lying down that her face swelled with uncirculated blood, narrowing her eyes to a squint.

Two days before he died he called me from the hospital, and we held a confusing conversation. He kept talking to nurses while talking to me, until he abruptly cut off the conversation and hung up. I tried to say I love you, but it was never said, or only said to the dead air on the phone. I cried then, cried hard, and I can see my not-yet-husband’s face while I wept into my hands alive with compassion and helplessness. He never did meet Grandpa. This week, in a shop in New Mexico, I looked over a set of string-ties, felt them with my hands, and told my husband that Grandpa would have loved these. I thought of his neck.

Grandma called to tell me he died. She told me not to tell my mother, not to disrupt her trip. Mum called me that evening, and I tried to lie, stupidly, bowing to the wishes of a woman who had lost her husband. I was strange, horrible. She called Grandma, who told her herself. Mum called back, and I confessed, broke it all over cords that run under the cold Atlantic all the way to Ireland. She was a daughter; I was a daughter; we owe these things to one another. That act of silence was the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I found myself in Homestead, that homely, ghostly town, in the week before my wedding running the strange minutia of a funeral that is in profound & exact correlation with the detail of a wedding. There is music, and an officiant; an afternoon going through poetry to find the poem to read; a caterer, a church, a house. The front row cordoned off for the old women; hats; nylon stockings; shoes. My father, my mother’s ex-husband, in my grandfather’s suit reading Fern Hill to a room of people. To me.

“Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

We took my grandfather’s giant, metal car though the car wash before the funeral. He had always loved those grandfatherly Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the seat belts belted to themselves so the warning lights wouldn’t chide him to buckle up. The car wash attendant, upon hearing of our loss, testified to Jesus. My atheism is soft – a lost tooth or a missing thumb – but I felt his foaming compassion in those imaginary fingers, in that void in my bite, in a way I have never before or since. He admired the car, and I think, had we not planned to drive that soul-body to the funeral, I would have given the keys to him and walked.

I married him, my husband, ten days later, in my mother’s house, with my sister, in a small miracle, by my side. During the reading of one of the poems, the Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d chosen before death sat me down to remind me of impermanence, I reached my hand back and found her hand and held it as hard as I could.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.”

Maybe families are accidental, maybe. But maybe not. My sister dreamed of him, our Grandpa, the night he died, unknowing of his death. She went to the attic and looked through old pictures. When I told her he was gone, we sat on the floor and she recreated her steps that night: my mother as a child; the pictures of the family car, my grandmother stylish and stunning in her fur-trimmed jackets in front; trips to Florida; unremembered friends. We didn’t cry, but talked, and it was like crying in its release. I would be on a plane within a day, and land down into the Homestead of grief, into the city of loss. My sister was too sick to come.

Mrs. Dalloway makes me think of this, makes me think of me. It’s shocking to find me there, in London, planning a party, this inconsequential thing; to find me in London, moving, and also far above the earth. She went out to buy some flowers and napped; she ran into an old lover; the party happened and was marred & perfected by death. It’s dangerous and egotistical to find meaning in events. My grandfather did not live and die so that I could be reminded of this long string of being, this ineffable web, but I couldn’t help thinking it at the time, and can’t help drawing the narrative that way now. It writes itself, our lives, my life. A life is not symbolic. The truth is unflattering and lacks the grammar of logic, but it moves in beauty and the snapped sentences of emotion. I have my stupidity for comfort, my unintellectual love, the unthinking feelings of connection and desertion.

“‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa, he said.

For there she was.”

 

9780300109894

The Unknown Battle of Midway

This half-memoir half-history is one of those bleak books that seem designed to confirm Sartre’s claim that a victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat. On June 4, 1942, US Navy dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers – all of which had been present at the attack on Pearl Harbor seven months prior – in one of the most spectacular naval revenges in history. But at other points of the battle, the American “Wildcat” fighters were found to be useless against the Japanese Zero, and the three squadrons of “Devastator” torpedo bombers were obliterated – 41 planes took off, 6 returned, and none scored a single hit on a Japanese ship. The crews of the Devastators flew obsolete aircraft, carried faulty torpedoes, and used terrible tactics: they flew straight at the Japanese carriers, low and slow, in tight formation; many were shot down by Japanese fighters before they could release, and those that did release “belly-flopped” their torpedoes into the waves, which probably damaged the delicate propulsion and guidance innards. The destruction of the torpedo squadrons is always justified by the fact that their attacks kept the Japanese fighters off the American dive-bombers (the real hit men, lurking high above), and disrupted flight operations so much that the Japanese were unable to launch their own planned strike, and so hundreds of veteran Japanese pilots, waiting to take off, were incinerated in their cockpits.

Kernan, author of the completely engrossing memoir Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s Odyssey in WWII, was a member of one of those torpedo squadrons, not a flier but an eighteen-year-old ordinance trundler and torpedo-attacher aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He reminds us that accidents and snafus complicate victories, that the early clashes of any war are fought by clumsy combatants desperately trying to learn their business while under fire. (The fighter and dive-bomber squadrons from the USS Hornet, nearly one-third of the American strike force, flew away from the battle, on a mistaken heading, under a commander whose navigation was rusty, and played no part.) I thought of Shiloh, in 1862, another momentous battle early in a long war, whose victor made fewer mistakes than the vanquished, where Grant and Sherman, future war masters, didn’t even think to have their troops entrench, and were surprised and nearly routed when the rebels attacked out of the dawn mist.

As in Crossing the Line, Kernan is here a great military sociologist. Later in the war enlisted service personnel like young Kernan were permanently assigned to a carrier or a naval air station; early on, however, they were members of the squadrons, which moved about like the old baggage-laden British infantry regiments, microcosmic households with aristocrats (the pilots), scullions (junior grease monkeys like young Kernan), and several grades of variously skilled, variously privileged technicians (radiomen, armorers, metal smiths, parachute-riggers) falling in between. This household quality made the aftermath of Midway eerie for the torpedo bomber squadrons: they remained, but most of the planes were destroyed and most of the pilots dead. I dated this girl whose father was a deeply traumatized Vietnam vet, but he wasn’t the former grunt you always picture – he had been ground crew at an Air Force fighter-bomber base in Thailand, and he spoke of the horror of having to witness the steady attrition of the aircrew, week in and week out, each rotation of fresh faces containing a statistically inevitable – and often predictable – number of dead men.

1VT-8

 

Pilots of the Hornet‘s Torpedo Squadron 8. (Each plane carried two other crew members, a gunner and a bombardier.) Ensign Gay, kneeling forth from the right, was the sole survivor of Midway.

lover-awakened

Lover Awakened by JL Ward

These Black Dagger books are superfun hangover reading material. There’s a fair amount to laugh at, both cattily – all the clothes-horsing by ridiculously cut guys – and earnestly – the dialogue can be very, very funny. And given the high stakes of the world here, Ward does seem to take on some really heavy themes not necessarily dealt with in vampire chick-lit – themes like rape. This is the one where she really takes it on, and, I think, deals with it in a pretty sensitive way.

Wait, let’s just backtrack. This world makes no sense. The Black Dagger Boys are the rulers, but no one knows who they are? That doesn’t make any sense. The Scribe Virgin…why is she so damn dumb? And don’t even get me started about how little sense the Omega makes, or any of the organization stuff related to the nethers or whatever the eunuch zombies were called. It makes me feel like I did when the Giant Ball of Evil called up Gary Oldman on a cell phone in The Fifth Element, which is reverence for how batshit that is, mixed with uncontrolled laughter.

So, Zsadist (see again the reverence mixed with laughter as I type this name) has a terrible history of sexual violence, and this book details his recovery. I’ve seen a lot of Cure by Magic Vagina in romance, those ladyparts that balm all ill, but that isn’t exactly what happens here. I don’t think there’s a good reason for his ladyfriend to find him so compelling, but that’s probably okay. I never thought I would ever type these words, but the part where he learned to masturbate is really touching. I know, I know, that’s what she said.

Screenshot 2013-11-13 23.09.19

Palimpsests and Turing Tests: Cool Things on the Internet Today

I found two things that made me freak out today, and for entirely different reasons. First, I saw this post from Themis-Athena with a link to a post about a medieval palimpsest that had been analysed using some kind of scientific devilry, and the palimpsest gave up classical commentary about Aristotle and some fragments of Euripides. My post to her was ZOMG. When I posted somewhere else, the reaction was ZOMG. It’s pretty ZOMG all around.

A million years ago, when I was a teen going to the Minneapolis public schools, I ended up getting a bunch of free tickets to the Guthrie theater for their season of classics. They ran all of the Oresteia, I think, though maybe it was just the trajectory of Oedipus Rex —> Oedipus at Colonus —> Antigone. For sure Medea was in there too – I can still see the bloody tableau of Medea rising with her murdered children off the thrust stage and into the rafters. It was a great season to watch at 17, all these crazy powerful classics from a million years ago staged with a minimum of fuss. I cried a lot at people so dead they were dead beyond the telling of it, or so non-existent they didn’t rightly make sense in the world anymore. In our crappy, ugly school building, we talked about what I had seen, the fact that so much is lost. Whenever someone unearths just a bit of those old, crusty words, my 17 year old self rejoices. Plus, scientific deviltry is hot.

But then the other thing I found today was what would I say, which is one of those Turing Test things that burns through facebook every now and then. Basically, this app takes all of your facebook posts and chops them up and spits them out in something resembling grammar. Generally my posts on facebook only resemble grammar, so it’s kind of perfect. For example:

Watching the “Divergent” casting by claiming that the credits rolled in it.

Just out their bs, the dinosaurs wouldn’t let you, and every one of the backhanded compliment.

And they sting you! No, more potential for Grandma Dory. Perfect.

30 Day Book Challenge Day 24 hours to accomplish for the Constitution forbids the endless descriptions of bookstores gauzy and dreamy, yet I want some of the execution of spoilers.

At least not until much harder core than I.

Certainly, this is all stuff I would say if I were high as fuck and posting on facebook. Which has happened a couple of times, but totally legally and due to illness/medication, FBI, fyi. Gosh, is this app fun to play with though, this post-modern mirror on all the stupid stuff I say all the time, and in public.

So, thanks Internet. Today was a blast.

 

lolfreud

A Blog Post from 1898: 100 Best Novels

I saw this blog post on my feed this evening, thanks to a friend on a social networking site. The blog post describes a blog post from 1898, when the latter was posted in something called a “newspaper” – sound it out, kids – and it details the 100 novels the blogger (or “literary critic”) felt were the best 100 novels published to date. The critic was mad about Tristram Shandy – a book he felt was too odd – being lauded as a groundbreaking novel (which it is), and this list was his rejoinder. I’ll let you go take a look at the list. I’ll be here when you get back.

I’ve lost my taste for arguing which are the best novels because it feels like so much posturing and bullshit. Which, maybe that’s a lie (and more posturing) because I certainly get sucked into arguing them every time they come to my attention. I once saw a round up on Kirkus (which I can’t find at the moment) of the best science fiction slash fantasy, and I laughed until I fired off an angry letter. Not only did it read as something put together by someone who only read literary science fiction (which is a thing, I assure you), including just a ton of stuff by people like Atwood and Chabon who sit decidedly uneasy in the genre. (I’ll give you Yiddish Detective’s Union as spec fic or alt-history, but Kavalier & Clay? Please. That isn’t science fiction, unless all histories who have characters inserted into them that didn’t exist are speculative fiction. I think even the most hardened sff nerd would object to that.) But it wasn’t even that I disagreed with the definition of best – the list was pretty good – but that I disagreed with their concept of genre.

Anyway, my grudges against Kirkus aside, top 100 lists are funny things, generally more link-bait than anything, so it was a trip to see one from so long ago. (I think they’d call it “circulation-bait” back in the day.) The 2013 blog post about the 1898 critic rightly notes that the 1898 blogger is weirdly squeamish about including living writers, adding in an addendum of 8 works by those still breathing that he felt might make the cut of history. (And by and large, they do, or did.)  I think we do now rush to add living writers to the canon. Some of this is the fact that there are so many novelists now, and, as the form reaches its end-stage, there really is a lot of weird, form-breaking and remaking stuff out there. Maybe it won’t make the cut of history, but it certainly makes the cut of now.

And here I’ll just gesture to my pet theory that art forms, like the novel, or poetry, or whatever, have their rises to popularity and then falls, and I think right now we’re in the Decline of the Novel. Which is not to say that novels are getting worse, or that I think that that means it’s the End of Western Civilization or something, just as a form, the novel is being replaced by newer, sexier art forms as they work out their trajectories. Things like television. After the stale episodic nature of tv at the beginning, television is turning into something surprising and weird. Deadwood, The Wire, Community – these shows are all building on the tropes of the medium in ways that I find exhilarating. Sure, there’s a lot of crap out there, but 95% of anything is crap. Many of the works cited as the first examples of the novel in English are included in the  1898 list - Clarissa, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe – and as a well-established genre now, I think people tend to leave these off.  These works are formative and influential, but maybe not best. They belong on another list entirely.

I did find it interesting how many books by women make the list. That surprised me until I thought back to my 19th Century lit class, and about all the screaming and hand-wringing in the 19th C about how the novel was an example of the End of Western Civilization, its dangerous domesticity and lurid tropes read (and written) often enough by women to be suspect. Northanger Abbey – not on the list, but by Austen, who is on the list for another work – takes aim at Mysteries of Udolpho – on the list – for its hysterical Gothic trappings, and what they might do to impressionable minds. Anyone who was Serious and Important was writing poetry in the 19th C, and the novel was for icky and suspect things like social commentary – Trollope, Dickens, Morris – or girls – Brontes, Austen, Eliot – or horror/Gothic – Radcliffe, Le Fanu – or sentimentalists – Cummins, Stowe.

Though formative doesn’t always mean the works will stand up – I think the weird titles I’ve never ever heard of attest to that – sometimes 1898 nails it, like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Sometimes it’s like, why Salammbô and not Madame Bovary? We can agree that Flaubert was awesome, but not which work was the awesomest. I don’t think anyone reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin except as an artifact of history; it’s not “good” so much as “historically important”. My dad and I recently had a conversation about James Fenimore Cooper, who is included on the list. His English teacher in high school looooooved Cooper, and assigned him copiously, but I don’t think, short of the movie with hunky sex-pot Daniel Day Lewis, anyone knows who he is anymore. Same goes for Trollope, and Le Fanu, and Burney and, and… Many of these novelists have become the fodder for footnotes, and the boutique interests of novel nerds. They may be good, or influential, or occasionally both, but they’re also forgotten.

The elisions are also important. Whither Moby Dick? I think we can all with rancor and fighting agree that Moby Dick might be the first Great American Novel. But, it is my understanding that Melville died in obscurity, and it was only later critics/bloggers who dug Melville out of the ash pit of history to straddle American literature with his great, white, swinging whale. (That’s a dick joke, friends.) Which kind of makes me want to live for another 100 years, so I can see what novels I’m totally missing, the secret ground-breakers, the oddballs, the things that make literary critics/bloggers so mad they have to make a list of the 100 best novels to counter them. That’s the stuff I want to be reading: the things that piss the Brahmans of literature off. The things the list-makers miss because they’re too odd. The things the list-makers avoid.

The thing I notice about lists is that the books that tend to get listed year after year, century after century, are controversial in some way. A novel that is revered by everyone as “good” when it is written often just sinks into obscurity, because good is often boring and too culturally specific. To write a lasting work, you have to piss people off, break rules, and generally fuck with expectations. That’s what I want in a novel. When I don’t want comfort food, of course. Being the problem with the concept of “best.”

 

katniss barbie

Capitol Girls: Hunger Games Make-Up

My daughter and I ditched over to the Walgreens on Lake St in Minneapolis to get a gift for a birthday party she was to attend. I’ve always liked that drug store, despite it being down heel and over-stuffed. Even though my neighborhood is very mixed – residential and commercial, foreign and domestic born, poor and maybe not rich, but certainly middle class, different races – the clientele for businesses tend to sort by class or ethnicity. White girl that I am, I don’t frequent the botanica two blocks down; that store is not for me. I also don’t go into the punker store (too old), nor the saddle shop (too not a cowboy), nor the various halal groceries (too…atheist?) Even within our mixed neighborhood, we sort.

But the Walgreens on Lake cuts this really cool cross-section. Some of this is, admittedly, the fact that it’s a drug store, and the need for microwave popcorn and some $2 novelty socks at 11pm cuts across all socioeconomic and racial divides. But still, even then, when you compare that Walgreens with the CVS just blocks up, which has roughly the same kind of 2-for-1, as-seen-on-TV kind of endcaps, the Lake St Walgreens has a decidedly more broad clientele. And really garrulous employees. I was in there getting a prescription filled for my husband a couple of weeks ago, and the pharmacist browbeat me into getting a flu shot, at which point a young woman in a hijab stuck me efficiently, and then gave me a sticker.

So I was just jaw-dropped when I saw the following spinning display rack right smack in the middle of the make-up section.

spinning display of Covergirl ads using the districts as themes.  The idea of Hunger Games district-themed make-up was bad enough, but to be confronted with it in one of the few places I can think of in my city that don’t exemplify the (admittedly simplistic) divisions of Collins’s dystopia, well, that was another thing entirely. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, because when I posted this image on facebook, those who hadn’t read the books didn’t get how egregious this ad campaign is.

So, a little back story on the country of Panem, where Collins’s story unfolds. Panem is a post-America America, occupying the same landmass, but there are hints this a post-peak-oil and/or other post-apocalyptic environment, but centuries past whatever crisis changed the US into Panem. The political/economic system has been reordered into twelve districts controlled by an unnumbered district known as The Capitol. Each district is defined by a primary industry: coal-mining, agriculture, small electronics, heavy industry, etc. Due to a rebellion by the districts 75 years earlier, each of these districts offer up two teenagers to the Capitol as tribute every year to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. Out of 24 tributes, only one will survive. The whole event is televised.

 

Map of Panem

Now, I’m the first to admit this political/economic system is ridiculous, and it wouldn’t take more than a minute to rip it apart as unrealistic in concrete terms. But when you’re dealing with dystopia, and to a lesser extent young adult literature, strict realism isn’t the point, nor should it be. I was bowled over by Collins’s country of Panem because she captured a certain emotional reality that we live every day. My neighborhood is a Capitol sorted by districts. It is a microcosm of Panem, a country which makes manifest our American economic disconnects into the rigid structures of barbed wire and geography. Collins turns the economic, political, racial divides into someplace clarified and concrete, and then she has our children fight to death within it. Sure, it’s unrealistic, but it’s also happening every godamn day of the week.

But what does this have to do with make-up? Lemmee tell you. The plot of Hunger Games deals with Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District  12, the poorest and least populated district in Panem, and her experience as one of the tributes in the Hunger Games. The main industry of District 12 is coal mining. Mum and I took a tour of the coal mines in the coal districts of Wales, and what I took from the experience was that mining is the most out-of-sight-out-of-mind of the heavy industries. Men disappear underground to bring up fuel for the capitalist fire, and when they die in cave-ins and of suffocation or eaten by machinery, their bodies are often not recovered. Like fishing towns, the graves are predominantly for women, because the men just disappear into a pit. The labor movements roil underground in thousands of unmarked tombs. (At this point I highly recommend doing a google for “pit ponies poetry” and just freaking out at the poems you’ll find. They were brought down to work until they died. I won’t put a fine point on the definition of “they.”)

pit pony with his handler in a mine

One of the things I love so fiercely about Hunger Games is how it has this nuanced engagement with things generally seen as girly frivolity, things like fashion. Katniss is brought from her district to the Capitol, and denuded and perfected according to the beauty standards of the capital city. The sequence of her bodily perfection reads like an assault, almost a sexual one, her body flensed and bitten, her poverty stripped and removed. The Capitol takes away the marks of poverty in order to kill her with spectacle. She wakes up to the the gentle tutelage of Cinna, who will be her fashion consultant through the Hunger Games. He knows what she’s gone through, and he has a game plan. While Katniss, rube teen, wants to reject all the trappings of her assault and the cruel spectacle of the Hunger Games, he sees the subversive utility of playing the game to other ends. He reads it all against the grain.

As a completely unacculturated teen, Katniss can only see her engagement with the Capitol in all-or-nothing ways. She will wear black and combat boots and scowl. She will act the part of her resistance because she cannot look the part of her resistance. But the character of Cinna shows the beauty of subversion, the ways you can twist things designed to oppress you to uplift you. It’s not as simple as “looking pretty makes you stupid”, but something weirder like “looking like you have authority means you have authority” or maybe “take seriously the deliberately unserious” or maybe “not everything is as it seems.” To misquote Elizabeth Bishop: sometimes we are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Panem is an imaginary garden with real toads.

After the first movie came out, I was confronted by a Katniss Barbie doll in the toy aisle, and I really had to consider whether I thought this was a nightmare or not. After a ton of searching my late-model feminist soul, I eventually decided Katniss Barbie was okay. It’s kind of perfect, in a way, because the Hunger Games series can be consumed as just addictive pop fiction, this present tense hurtle to finish all about love triangles and teen tragedy and the like.  It’s a Barbie, totally all about consumption, which you watch, glued to set just as surely as any Capitol citizen.

Two racist ethnic caricature Barbies, Katniss, and Holiday Barbie.

I’ve seen a lot of teen reviews of the series that seem to have zero idea that there’s a deeper message to the Hunger Games series, training their attention on love triangles and pretty dresses. But one day those kids might wake up, bolted out of sleep that, wait, omigod, I’m living in the godamn Capitol. That’s the power of the series. That’s the power of the Katniss Barbie: something you play with until you realize that play is action. It’s practice, and it’s a subversion.

But, boy howdy, is the Covergirl Hunger Games campaign completely message-deaf. Dressing up as a coal miner, with “flamed out” eyeliner and mascara, with nails black and blue like bruises or coal is the kind of horrible poverty porn that every single person in Panem who doesn’t live in the Capitol hates about the Capitol, and with good reason. Don’t play dress up with the inescapable economic hardships of other people, people who on some level live and die so you can swan around in the comfort you so richly deserve. Accessorize with black lung, and malnutrition, and infant mortality, and short lives that don’t matter to anyone but those who lived them. Accessorize with injustice.

a look from District 10 marked livestock

This isn’t even getting into the model marked “livestock” from District 10, with a feather headdress and a fur collar, animistic eye make-up fanning out over her stark blue eyes. It’s almost too easy to rip this easy equation of female bodies with cattle for the slaughter, the invocation of bestiality, the dehumanizing furriness. Or the dreary Orientalism of the model for District 3, all made up like some cyberpunk fantasy, denuded of hair, even her eyebrows replaced with sharp triangles. When I think cheap electronics, I think Asian woman, amiright?

District 3 look: technology

Or the District 1 “luxury” model whose look invokes Marie Antoinette. Which, okay, maybe that’s hilarious. Maybe that’s the only look here that isn’t repulsive, that gets on some level the symbolic structure of the districts to the Capitol. I don’t even know what to say about the model for District 4: Fishing, which dresses up a black woman as a fish.  Or the District 2: Masonry look which puts Kabuki slash Mod make-up on a white woman. I just…my feminist background has no ways of dealing with this mess.

I’m kind of getting rage fatigue thinking about these looks, and the fact that probably dozens of people, maybe hundreds, were involved in their creation; that thousands, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars went into this campaign, and not one person said, “You guys, we should be ashamed of ourselves.” These aren’t, presumably, teens who have an excuse when they miss the point completely, but grown ass adults. I’m not even trashing the models or peons – we all have to work, and eat – I’m trashing all the damn people with the power to greenlight such a complete disaster. Who have no sense of irony. Who can’t even read.

District 1 luxury model

 I’m not even saying I’m not a Capitol dweller myself. I am. I’m not even saying that shame is enough of a political act to counter the wrong in the world. It isn’t. The wrongs in the world are staggeringly large and crushingly intractable. But compounding them by playing poverty dress-up is disgusting, and worse than that, it’s the wrong kind of subversion. 

Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me. 

But I’m not buying it this time.