Category Archives: America and environs

dark witch

Magickal IreLand: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

When I read romance, I tend to gravitate to the paranormal ends of things – steampunkery, werewolves, (less so) vampires, superpowers, alt-histories. Some of this is just basic reading proclivities. I’d rather read science fiction or fantasy in general, so it makes sense I’d go for that edge of a genre. The other thing, for me, is that paranormal romance often allows the writer to slip her bonds and do a bunch of crazy ass shit. One a writer can start messing with the rules of physics or magic(k) or whatever, she has the opportunity to pull some compelling gedankenexperiments, but you know, about sex and the interpersonal, not about whatever SFnal idea. A lot of these thought experiments can seriously, seriously piss me off, but they tend to produce a lot of friction, a mainline down into the hind brain. When writers can rearrange the rules of the world, or your body, or the history of it all, what they reconstruct and reconfigure can be really telling.

Take, for example, Breaking Dawn, which includes about a 50 page span that is hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever read. The rest of that novel is a Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light painting wrapped in a snuggly blanket of No Narrative Danger, and ends, for this reader, in the most chillingly inert vision of family perfection I’ve ever seen. The mate-for-life trope gets me chuffed every time I see it – why would the removal of emotional agency be a desirable thing? – but it’s especially fucked in Meyer’s universe. There’s all this weird heat in the narrative, this danger that might just claw out of your stomach like a blood-covered baby with a mouth full of teeth. That you could look down on that and become suffused with love, like Bella does, is a deeply kinky thing to admit to, which is likely why the second half of that novel is an arm-wheeling attempt to cauterize the bloodletting through a bunch of speachifying and absolutely nothing happening.

Whether I like all this is not my point; my point is that is fascinating. I could reel off a dozen other examples of paranormals that have gotten my blood boiling, dropped my jaw, or otherwise surprised me with the parameters of their wish-making and the oddities of the wish-fulfillment. Which is why Nora Roberts’s Dark Witch is notable, in a way. Dark Witch is the coziest, most frictionless paranormal I’ve ever had put me sleep. The heroine is literally given a pony in maybe the second chapter she’s in, after being given a family, a love interest, her dream job, just the cutest little apartment in a cottage she’s ever seen, best friends, a sense of purpose, and magic(k)al abilities. This all occurs in the first half of the novel. By the time she’s given a new car – a Mini Cooper, squee – I was straight up laughing. I guess there’s some bother with a Voldemort-ish sorcerer, but I wouldn’t be too fussed with him until book three, when he will be – spoiler alert – defeated.

Dark Witch opens with a couple of chapters of 13th Century Ireland, where, apparently, all the kids are amazing, precocious and well above average. I mean, there’s a baby riding a stallion! I know! Anyway, housewife slash dark witch Sorcha is having problems because the evil witch Voldemort wants to fuck her or something. I’m not entirely clear on what this will accomplish, other than the obvious, and it’s the usual mumble mumble magic POWER mumble RULE THEM ALL of paranormal bunkum. (Even Tolkien, I hesitate to say. Quick: explain Sauron’s motivations, and “he wants power” is not a motivation. Why does he want it?). I’m also not entirely clear why Voldemort’s constant offers to impregnate Sorcha make her even slightly consider his offer, which it does. Sorcha has three children under the age of 7 and lives alone in a cabin in the woods with no running water in 13th Century Ireland. I would imagine that not being impregnated by an evil sorcerer would be like a get-out-of-death-in-childbirth-free card in medieval Europe, but what do I know.

Fast forward to the here and now, when Iona Sheehan has arrived in Ireland to find her extended family and, like, herself. Her parents have always been withholding jerks, but she’s still irrepressibly optimistic and zesty. She heads out to find the O’Dwyer siblings, Connor and Branna, who are third or fourth cousins of some stripe. Branna runs a candle and hokum shop called The Dark Witch, and Branna is a falconer. (I know!) Iona is immediately adopted by the siblings, who are all like, you’re our lost sister, would you like to live in this adorable room and have a pint of Guinness and scones, sláinte, Irish Irish McIrish. Then they do a jig and play the fiddle, and shamrocks explode into sparkling green confetti. It’s really cool, very Irish.

My friend Mike has this theory that we should just turn England into a theme park which would be called EngLand. There would be people in plushy Queen Elizabeth costumes (both original and New Coke flavors) hugging babies, and rides around sets of various historical periods. It would all be clotted cream and nevermind all the bother of Thatcher and Blair and the fact that England isn’t frozen in the mythic past full of stallion-riding babies. And that’s more or less what the tourist trade will sell you, if you want them to, and you probably do. Mike’s theme park is more-or-less a reality in certain tourist districts, this Disney cottage sold to visitors who pay well for its clapboard authenticity.

This is even more fraught when it comes to Ireland, as the Irish diaspora after the Famine “returns” to the Old Country looking for connection and explanations, often bumbling into political realities that surprise. My sister-in-law whose maiden name has a Mc in it was blithely amused that her family in Ireland had been Catholic, and that they were a little taken aback by her family Protestantism. How would I even know that? she asked me, and I was like, um, because…just…nevermind. There’s a great album called “The Crossing” by folk musician Tim O’Brien (no relation to the writer), which is about the immigrant experience several generations on, the Return to Ireland, and what a bust it can be. Ireland will not adhere to your grandparents’ extremely suspect idealizations of lies their parents told them, mixed in with a bowl of Lucky Charms. In the song “Talkin’ Cavan,” an Irishman says to O’Brien, “A Cavan man then…you know, a lot of people wouldn’t admit to that,” after O’Brien cheerfully relates his family line.

“Then the very next day in the hardware store
I found a cousin ten times removed or more
But he was no apparition, he wasn’t a haint – he was sellin’ nuts and bolts and paint
I told him about our family connection, and he kinda stood there still, reflectin’
I could tell he wasn’t that much impressed when he asked me with nary a trace of jest
He said, ‘How exactly may I help you, sir?
I just bought some nails and got the hell out of there.”

The Ireland that Iona has traveled to, the one with the Branna and Connor hawking and making their little charms and soups and playing fiddle certainly must be a magic(k)al one, because ain’t no Ireland ever looked like that one, not in the here-and-now, not ever. How exactly can I help you, Iona?

But it’s a cozy painting nonetheless, this IreLand. All of the characters are relentlessly kind and decent people who enfold Iona into the warmth of their collective bosom. (Not that the guys have bosoms. Maybe it could be said that the love interest enfolds her onto the warmth of his collective…well, you catch my drift.) Everything anyone says to anyone else is devoid of subtext, just a bald and accurate statement about their internal state. Even Iona’s second act “misunderstanding” with her lover is handled with maturity (despite the stupidity of its underpinnings). I did really get a hoot out of the guys’ night/girls’ night out after said misunderstanding, and that I just called it a “hoot” is indicative of how much of a hootenanny it was. Gosh, those Irish know how to have a bottle of wine split between three women and joke about becoming lesbians and wake up with killer headaches. Golly.

It’s funny to me to read a paranormal novel so completely without high emotions of any kind, this soporific round of walks in the misty Irish spring and mature, adult conversations. There was one chapter, in particular, that detailed the making of a soup so closely that I thought maybe the soup was significant and it would burst into flames or something. No, it was just soup, which they then ate. Later I breathed a sigh of relief when a visitor interrupted a similarly detailed assembly of a pan of scalloped potatoes. (O, would that he had hailed from Porlock.) The wish-fulfillment is all front-loaded, not functioning as narrative reward. And if it’s not narrative reward, then what is it? I just don’t get it.

Dark Witch is a strange one, to be sure, almost tired of itself, of its forgone conclusions and lack of real conflict. Let’s just give the heroine a pony first thing and see what happens. It’s sweet that Roberts portrays this battle between good and evil as so forthright and cheerful, but it also isn’t any fun. Codladh sámh, dear reader.

Gospel-of-Z

The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones

There is no other monster more contested than the zombie. Call any creature which doesn’t adhere to strict Romero-style zombie epistemology – it runs, or it’s not exactly dead, or it can talk, or whatever – and someone will jump down your throat. I tend to take a functional definition of your fictional monsters, meaning I’m less interested in static attributes, and more interested in how those attributes are deployed in context. Meaning if it walks like a duck even though the text calls it a chicken, you might as well treat it like a duck in terms of how that fowl functions.

Take, for example, the vampires in Twilight. There is very little to the creature called vampire by Meyer that adheres to the folklore. They’re undead, and contagious, but they sparkle, cross running water, and can go out in sunlight with no deleterious effects. (I’m not even clear on whether they drink blood, or if they consume flesh too.) No one questions whether they’re vampires though, because the whole functional definition of a vampire has to do with predatory aristocracy, sexual and class politics, and certain kinds of body horror, especially as regards to procreation. (Maybe this last isn’t in the traditional folklore, but since Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, it’s definitely a thing.) Her vamps are just ducky, even if their attributes are only vampish.

But call the creatures in I Am Legend zombies, and you will get into serious trouble with the neckbeards, even though they (the zombies, not the neckbeards, though  them too, kinda) adhere to the functional definition of the zombie. They’re relentless; they outnumber “normal” humans (the opposite is almost always the case with vamps); they presage or have caused the end of the modern world; their body horror is not based on their sexual attributes, but on revulsion and rot. (Also, bearing in mind I’m talking about the Will Smith and Vincent Price films, not about the source novel. Those creatures are an interesting inversion.) Additionally, those movies have lots of the motifs of a zombie narrative: besieged homesteads, traumatic loss of loved ones, the slow madness of the lonely.

I guess my point is this: I’ve gotten into a lot of pointless, stupid arguments on these here Internets about the definition of the zombie, and I wonder why the definition is such a big deal to people. I wonder why people police that definition so narrowly. My pet theory is that zombie narratives are often about race and class, and we’re all pretty kinked about those definitions as well. Like when I see idiots say things like “Obama is half white, so I’m not being racist when I say this racist thing about him.” Race isn’t like swirl ice cream, but a complicated slurry of competing functional definitions. In other words, race can’t be defined by attribute; it can only be defined by function. But holy god do we want it to be defined by attribute in our biologically deterministic little hearts. Ditto zombies.

But pet theory aside, I think the other things about zombie stories is that they are new on the scene, relatively speaking, so they have a kind of same-same to them. Although the whole sexy aristocrat thing is new to the vampire – older folklore has vampires as more zombie-ish ghouls who are decidedly unsexy – the folklore is old enough to allow wide latitude in definitions based on attribute. We’ve got at least a hundred years of sexy aristocrat blood-drinkers. You can date the modern zombie to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, no question, which was filmed not long before I was born, cough cough. The motifs have yet to fully differentiate through a century of reiteration and reimagining. We’re still working out the tropes, collectively.

Which is why The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones is notable. No, the zombies are more or less your granddaddy’s Romero zombies – neckbeards take note – but there’s a fundamental weirdness to the proceedings that stretches the motifs, moves the markers, and fucks with the same-same. It’s ten years after the zombie apocalypse – or zombie apocalypses, as the end of the world was a slow, bleeding affair in this this novel, a series of last nights before the very last night. We pop into the life of the “more or less white” Jory Gray, low level schmuck who lives in the militarized encampment of what’s left of half of humanity. His girlfriend left him recently for the Church on the hill, the other half of what’s left of humanity.

It’s whispered by the working stiffs that the Church both worships and has neutralized the zombie threat, but this is the kind of whispering that occurs between all working stiffs, and it’s both envious and disbelieved. Jory works building Handlers, a kind of superzombie built out of mad scientry and bureaucracy. The Handlers are used to differentiate zombie flesh from the edible, human kind, scrambling in the dirt to eat our remains unless our remains want to eat right back. They’re also fucking terrifying, in a way, this barely restrained weapon used for the most prosaic ends. Everyone can see how they’re going to go wrong, and spectacularly, but everyone is just some asshole trying to get by

Everyone is shades of Jory Gray, trying hard not to be noticed until they are, and then fuck, maybe I’ll have to come to terms with that thing that one time. Maybe the apocalypse has more to do with one moment with a hammer than it does with anything that goes on later. Maybe we’re all working though that one trauma, and the zombies and superzombies and everything else is a memento mori, but a memento mori with teeth and a descant. Jones’s prose is nasty, pointed, that kind of horror writing that runs everyday until it escalates, and then it’s well over the fence. Catch up; keep up.

I thought the climax was confused a bit – what the fuck was that one thing – but the parts that ran everyday honestly wrung me out. So much of the end of it all is the end of the one true thing, the thing you keep trying to find once it’s lost, and when you find its reminder, you sit on the floor of the bedroom and weep. You kill something with a knife made of bone. You go to work everyday like a schmuck, because that’s what you’ve got in you. That’s the only thing left, until it isn’t. Who even knows.

The Gospel of Z feels non-functional, in a way, this fucking weird, armadillo-ridden narrative, too personal, too specific. This is something left out of the canon: a side story, an apocrypha, a letter to the Galatians. This is a vision on the road to Damascus brought on by epilepsy. This is a parking lot with a good vantage. Which makes it somehow perfect for the zombie narrative, giving you good, Romero zombies that no one could argue to do this crazy thing on the edges. God bless, and good night.

Wallbanger_Cover (1)

Review: Wallbanger by Alice Clayton

Like many – or maybe even most – romantic comedies, Wallbanger bumps along cheerfully until its third act, where the whole thing descends into unearned sentiment and willful stupidity. Situation comedies are almost always characterized by mistaken identities and misunderstandings – meaning the characters often have to be irrational, clueless or foolish to make the situation work – but the third act turn in Wallbanger towards just breathtaking stupidity and a frankly bizarre understanding of a woman’s sexuality felt egregious. This was one of a long list of fictions I’ve read ruined by its ending.

My husband asked me about this book right as I was mid-way through the third act turn, and I groused about the ending unfolding. He asked if I thought maybe I was just an outlier – lots of people like descent into treacle, obvs, or it wouldn’t happen as often as it does. And that’s a factor, sure. As with all comedy and romance, your mileage may vary. I guess I’m just annoyed with how stupid that third act turn was, incommensurate with the level of stupidity preceding. What I would like from my fluff reading is an even level of stupid and unbelievable so I can be prepared. Writing characters with a modest level of competence and humor only to abandon that for completely weird confounding action makes me sad.

Simon and Caroline meet cute after Caroline sublets an apartment from her boss. In her first week there, her sleep is interrupted by the neighbor in the next apartment having several loud assignations with several different women. (You know, not all at once, but serially.) Eventually, after weeks of trash talk with her lady friends and interrupted sleep, Caroline goes banging on the wallbanger’s door in the middle of the night to get him to STFU. It eventually turns out that Caroline and the wall-banging neighbor, Simon, are in a six degrees of separation situation, and her friends and his friends hook up while they razz each other and banter.

So far, so good. Again, comedy is personal, and this could certainly be the kind of humor to put you off, but I thought the middle sections of the novel were the kind of breezy, silly shenanigans I’m looking for from my lazy chick lit. No, it’s not particularly deep nor well written, but in terms of light entertainment, it got the job done. Simon is not a huge asshole and defends his situation credibly; Caroline clearly has seen too many Sex in the City episodes on Oxygen (the ones with the sex scenes and cussing expunged), but not in a nasty, label-obsessed way. Some of the situations made me cringe – the cabin - but mostly the interpersonal relationships were the kind of fakey, airless relationships that exist mostly to be punchlines, not profound statements on the human state or whatnot. Which is totally fine.

I’m given to understand that Wallbanger started life as a Twilight fan fiction, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you how this has anything to do with Twilight. Unlike 50 Shades, the most successful of the pulled-to-publish fanfics out there, the characters in Wallbanger seem almost sensible and evenly matched. They’re roughly the same age and success level, and while Simon obviously has a different take on the whole monogamy thing than Caroline, he’s not a stalker psycho. The person whom I assume is the Jacob character has little in common with Jacob either structurally within the novel nor in terms of character attributes, and Caroline is no Mormon housewife slash shuddering virgin. In fact, my husband and I got into a whole thing about the ethics of published fanfiction – most of which I’m not going to replicate here – but I think the usefulness of the Twilight intertext is pretty minimal either way.

What I really want to bitch about is the third act shitshow involving Caroline’s orgasm or lack thereof. This complaining will certainly involve spoilers, though of the minimal kind, because when a romance heroine tells you she can’t get off at the beginning, what are the odds she’s going to get off by the end? It’s like the Chekhovian gun, only this time it’s the Chekhovian vagina. Somebody’s going to fire that bad boy until it clicks. Caroline tells us early on that she’s lost her O, as she calls it, due to an unfortunate hook up with a dude she calls “machine gun fucker”. I think it’s a blind date set up, and MGF is status-obsessed and boorish. She eventually fucks him out of resignation, just sort of to make the date end, which I recognized from my gauzy memories of dating as an unfortunate but sometimes eventual sexual situation.

It’s not so much that you’re coerced into sex with a bad sexual partner – even though you know it’s going to be bad – but just that you shrug and figure that bad sex is better than no sex at all. This argument uses extremely suspect logic, and I’m not saying it’s true, just that it’s thought by people like younger me and Caroline at points. I don’t even mean to be hyperbolic here, but Caroline’s reaction makes me think this sexual experience is a lightly encoded sexual assault. I get this supposed to be a funny haha set-up, a fakey impediment to be overcome by fakey shenanigans, but it really seems to me that the loss of desire – of sexual response – is such a serious issue that it shouldn’t be treated as lightly as it is.

Not that long ago, I was standing out on the back porch smoking with a friend of mine. I don’t even know how we got on the topic, but she related to me that she’d recently lost her mojo, which had precipitated something of a crisis with her wife. “Why am I not responding to this person I love? Do I not love her enough?” They asked each other and themselves. She went to her doctor in despair. Turns out, she had something like a cyst or other perturbation in her lady-system, a physical explanation for a situation that had pretty serious emotional bearings on her emotional state, her relationship, and her sense of self. I related how my sexual reactions had been gutted by the double punch of breastfeeding hormones and chemical birth control in the months after I had my first kid, and how weird it was to find that my sexual response was something that could be gutted like that. I’d always thought of my sexual being as inextricable until it was extracted. “Oh thank god,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

I didn’t know either, for months, what was going on, that it wasn’t my fault or in my control. (Not that if it were psychological it would be any more my fault or under my control.) This isn’t even factoring in all the body trauma I went through simply bringing my son into the world. The process of rediscovering my sexuality was a long and complicated one, one that had as much to do with chemical changes as it did to my emotional reaction to them. And that’s not even getting into friends I’ve known who’ve lost their mojo over maybe more severe traumas – psychological or physical – who have to work and work at healing, who have had kind and patient lovers who nonetheless cannot magically repair these dampened and depressed sexualities simply through love.

So when Caroline trips the fuck out because her first time having penetrative sex with her man does not result in her elusive O, I kind of wanted to scream. I don’t think it’s inaccurate that she wouldn’t orgasm from penetrative sex - only about 25% of women consistently do - nor do I think it’s inaccurate that she would blame herself for that “failure”. What drives me fucking bananas is that she magically finds her O again in a scene played for slapstick. and from then on it’s an O rodeo. Just, fuck, I know I’m taking this personally, but this kind of easy magic that has women lit up like a pinball machine after some kind words and the old in-and-out just burns me.

I’m not trying to be unromantic or a crank, and I’m not saying that this book is particularly horrible in its sexy times. This was just the book where I noticed that so much sex writing focuses on straight up (pun intended) penetrative sex as the be-all come-all, and I just can’t anymore. Love is grand, but it’s not going to ring your bell ipso facto. Kindness and understanding – which Simon does evidence, a little – go far in healing, but they are not an elixir. The moment when you realize you’re totally drunk is not the moment you become sober. That’s a whole other process. The rest of it is work, and letting go the idea that your orgasm is a metric, and time.

The third act of Wallbanger ended up being Cosmo healing, a checklist of simple solutions to decidedly unsimple problems, using trips and tricks inaccessible to most women. Again, there’s nothing particularly uncommon about the way Wallbanger portrays a woman’s sexual response, so my irritation is more aggregate than specific. But its commonality is precisely the problem. This is emancipation by will, empowerment through bikini wax. It’s not that I don’t think such things are possible; it’s just that they are constantly portrayed as probable when I know the lived experience is so much cooler, more fucked up, and weirder than these fluff pieces let on. I’m not expecting strict reality from my fluff – I’m not a complete buzzkill – I would just dig if for once it didn’t descend to the lowest, most common narrative, this glossy tabloid psychology that has neither the bite of insight nor the sacrilege of humor. I can be amused by situational comedy up until the situation is a real one treated cheaply. Alas and alack.

tothewonder2

Posts from Overshare Planet: Unteachable

“How old did you think I was?”

“I don’t know. 25? How old did you think I was?”

“About the same.”

Both of us were lying. I was 19 and he was 31.

When I think of my body then, I have this sense of sharpness, like my skin was too tight over my bones, like the meat of my body was as thin and fine as the knife used to fillet it. I’ve always looked younger than I am. In high school, I’d go in solo and buy child’s tickets for the movies for friends because I could pass for 13 easy. I didn’t get my period until I was 16, and I was still growing, so I had that look of stretching bones, no boobs, no hips. Coltish, you’d call it if I were six inches taller; cute is the designation for the short. At five feet and some change, at 19, I could still pass for a freshman in the right light. Most of the light was right.

 

My boyfriends before him had been my age or younger, these sweet, sensitive boys who were as inexperienced with their bodies as I was with mine. One had vivid horizontal stretch marks on his back and thighs because he’d grown six inches the summer before. They were still shimmery and white. We spent a lot of time stripped to the skin because I think we needed to show someone our strange new inhabitations, like we were squatters setting fires for a night in an empty house and then found ourselves trapped. We were so tentative, like we were fragile, and we asked for permission like a hall pass. We would just go out and come right back.

The fashion that summer was baby doll dresses. They made my legs seem long and swung. I was as tan as I can get, which isn’t much, more a pink flush than a darkening, the freckles coming out on my nose, my hair bleached bright blonde like it had been when I was a girl. I had tan lines high on my thighs and the white flashed when I walked or sat. I never wore much make-up, just lipstick, often red. I knew the picture I painted. I knew who tended to be attracted to that, and was often ferociously cruel to people hitting on me. I treated people attracted to me like perverts, and they often were, which ends up being a centrifugal force of weltering shame and desire.

We met at some theater thing, at a collection of tables shoved together in an after hours restaurant peopled with friends of friends and hangers on. It was all very boho, very cosmopolitan. I was very impressed with myself. When he kissed me first, we were making our way through the dark balcony of a theater. There was theater junk everywhere, bulky and haphazard. I put my hands on his back so that I could follow his path and so I could put my hands on his back. He didn’t play coy; he knew what those hands meant. He turned and kissed me, running his hands over my body. He pinched my breasts, and I thought, there isn’t going to be a hall pass this time. When we came out later he asked me to come home with him. I said yes. I was still living with my mom.

It was only later we exchanged birthdays. He was apologetic and played at the ethical dilemma, but I knew it was theater. He said to me once when our relationship was shuddering to its death, something muttered almost like he was saying it to himself, “I wanted to be on my last girlfriend.” “I don’t,” I shot back, and his eyes were pure anime. I knew what I was and I found it surprising that he didn’t. Poor baby. Poor baby doll.

I have a friend who got fired from a gig writing porn for barely legalmagazines because he kept writing his girls too honestly. The line that got him fired was, “You smell like my grandpa,” delivered by a legally consensual Lolita to the 30 something guy who was making it with her in his car. Girls can’t break the fantasy. I loved his skin, the way it was losing its elasticity, the softness to the corners of his mouth when he frowned, his crow’s feet. I don’t have crow’s feet now so much as radiating lines above my eyebrows. I think I frown more than I laugh. His skin made me think of my grandma’s hands which were like suede and bird bones. I never said this, of course.

He wasn’t tall, and heavyset. He was rueful about his belly, the rolls on his waist, but I liked it. I liked that he was solid, like he was a person. I felt like I was made out of ballistics gel and vinyl, something carved out of plastic. I liked that his age had settled upon him. I wanted someone to set me on my knees and fuck me so that I could be fucked. I wanted someone to lie to me about how old I looked or how old I acted. I wanted my own shiny stretch marks as I swelled with experience. I wanted to use someone and then throw them away. That is more or less what I did. He wasn’t the only 30 something guy I dallied with at this age.

I learned from him, and the next affair was casual and silly. He was moving out of state in two weeks and we had quiet sex in a room full of boxes and that grew, quiet because his roommates were dour and religious. I knew he had a thing for small, mean blondes; the old saw: only God could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair. I could quote Yeats and self deprecate. Our first date was to the drive-in with the roommates. The movies were all 70s exploitation films, horror with a lot of blood splatter and casual nudity, and the woman – wife? I wasn’t tracking this sort of relationship then – decided we should leave after one of the characters bit off a man’s dick after a blow job. I thought it was funny, the way mean blondes do. I was very Hitchcock.

He pulled me away so he could explain why we were leaving. He was elaborately apologetic, about the movie, about his upset, religious friends. I kissed him while he was sputtering about some psychological bullshit and pressed him against the wall of the concession stand. He tasted like popcorn. The drive-in smelled like pee and gravel. The whole thing was ruddy. They dropped me off at home – we had all gone together – and he got out of the car and stood out on the sidewalk looking sheepish and hopeful. I was hoping we could go back to my place together, he said, gesturing at the couple in the car. But, you know, they’re religious. I smiled like a shark. I drove over and snuck in past them like the teenager I was. Most of our relationship was based on the short clock and the transgression. It was sweet in its honesty. It wouldn’t have lasted, but there was nothing wrong with it beyond the obvious.

My parents have old neighbor friends, a couple. They have kids just a little younger than me, more like my sister’s age and younger. They moved up north a million years ago back to my dad’s hometown. He became a teacher, and I think she was too. A dozen or so years ago, he started fucking one of the seniors in his class, a technically legal but nevertheless actionable offense. He was fired; his wife left him; my mother, my dad’s ex-wife, made this really specific face of disgust. He followed the girl out to college and they ended up married when she graduated. They had a baby. She went to grad school. She has a PhD, is on tenure track at a good school, and has a 10 year old boy. He’s retired. I don’t think you could call their relationship anything but a success at this point. If I wanted to sit in judgement about it, I’d be well too late.

A couple of years ago, my dad took my son up for a weekend up north, and they met with his friend and his son. The pictures of the boys on the rocky north shore beach are transcendent as they jump around like boys and throw rocks, one grandson, one son, samesies. I can mimic my mother’s face now, the one of disgust, the very specific one. Considering their relationship makes me think of dad in ways I don’t like, not that he has any culpability in this. I don’t like being reminded of the power of potential. The skin on my jawline has gone soft.  I just learn new faces when I slide them on, but under all my aging softness is that hard 19 year old girl. God, she’s such a terrible creature to consider.

Leah Raeder’s Unteachable made me consider that terrible creature, and it was full of that lying honesty I remember, the sensation and overheated meaning. Maise O’Malley and Evan Wilke meet cute at an ugly local fair, all carnies and robbed tourists, Southern Illinois. She’s a bored senior, 18, flash and skitter. They ride the roller coaster and when it drops, so do they. She fucks him on the bench seats of his hipster car and then walks away to the first day of class several weeks later. He’s her teacher. He makes feints to the ethical dilemma, but she knows who she is, what she is. She sits on the hood of his car like the trope she is, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. She can quote Nabokov and self deprecate.

Maise is almost too worldly, too allusive, this older Maise cracking through the voice. There’s a retrospective edge to it that makes her possible, but then she was possible anyway, horribly, the way I was. I have diaries of that time and they’re full of poetry and fragments, raw, stupid, cruel, funny. I like the person who wrote them, but she’s lying like I’m lying now about some things. Maise’s playing it for theater, but it’s the kind of theater that strips you, full of starbursts and skin, the kind that strips herself.

Unteachable reminded me of The Age of Miracles, in a way, though Julia from that novel is so much younger, so quiet and watchful. Unteachable has the same inexorable stretching though, the bones still growing, the marks on the skin still shiny like spider eggs. Maise and Julia are both girls, and they narrate their slow softenings: the days they look in the mirror and see their mothers; the father they replicate in sex or silence; the trying on of a hundred different faces, not all of them of disgust, so many of them of wonder at the stretching bones, the surprise of yourself, the hard and gem-like flame maintaining its ecstasy. Terrible creatures, all of us. Amen.

secret collect

Backwards Compatible: A Geek Love Story

Backwards Compatible reads like a cross between The Guild and Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist, though the comedy isn’t as sophisticated as the former (which, you know), nor the central relationship as affecting as the latter (which, also.) George and Katie meet cute at a midnight event for the sale of the newest version of a World of Warcraft-ish game. After a tousle over the last copy of the game is won by George, Katie guilts him into giving it to her because boobs and tears. The plot details a growing group of gamers, high school friends, losers and little sisters playing video games, hanging out at the mall, and learning a little something about friendship.

Both Katie and George are on winter break from college, back in their somewhat dire sounding small town, and the novel invokes that loose, awkward, timeless sense of the winter vacation like crazy. Though their college lives aren’t even detailed too closely (or at all), you can kind of see them in the negative of too much unstructured time and the growing disconnects with high school friends. No one has any money; rides must be scammed or jumped; younger siblings are suddenly giving out (extremely questionable) romantic advice. No one sleeps or showers. I’m maybe making this sound grim, but the grimness is really more in my recollection of those times, not in the novel itself. As usual, I need to lighten up.

As a comedy, Backwards Compatible relies on an incredible amount of trash talk and roughly eleventy million pop culture references. I found the trash talk tiresome, but then that’s an aspect of gamer culture that puts me off.  And as far as the eleventy million references go, some worked, and some didn’t, which is per usual with that kind of humor. The geeking is so constant throughout that you’re bound to find something funny, and there’s a really great gag executed near the end involving George’s Christmas traditions. The sequence at the second Hobbit movie, which certainly wasn’t out when this was written, was alarmingly prescient. Don’t even get me started on those movies.

The only sour patch for me was the date Katie went on a date with a gamer asshole, which, in another kind of book, would have ended in a sexual assault. It was too triggery in a way that was supposed to be funny, and George’s reactions were kind of the worst. Again, not to be too dour, and you know, haha that pushy dudes don’t know that cosplay isn’t consent. I guess. But mostly this was fun and diverting, not really trying to do too much and succeeded at what it attempted. Katie and George are likable dorks, even if they read a little younger than I would expect from college juniors. (The big THERE’S NO SEX IN THIS BOOK warning I could do without in the marketing too, but then given the state of most New Adult titles – which often read like a gyno exam – maybe a little warning is in order.)

Oh, and big points for having George drive a Geo Metro named Crimson Lightning. Geo Metros are the best. Mine was named The Flying Pickle before it got cracked up in an extremely low impact accident many moons ago. RIP The Flying Pickle, and my lost youth.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC.

beautiful-disaster-239x300

Beautiful Disaster: Most of this Title is Wrong

There’s this old joke from the Simpsons where Bart sees the movie based on the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and then quips, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” The beautiful part of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is most certainly wrong, but I think the disaster part is also a misnomer. Disaster implies a sudden destruction, something out of the hands of the affected, but this novel is a long, Mordorian slog through the absolute worst character traits that bloom into their inevitably dreary conclusion. Beautiful Disaster is like slowly adding chlorine bleach to ammonia, and the toxic fog that results is both unsurprising and cheerlessly boring. That I’ve struggled for nigh on three months to come up with a review is probably more due to my burnt throat than anything. What do I even say about a novel this fucking dumb?

Which, now that this act of spleen is out of the way, onto the novel. I don’t really have much to say about the plot, being, as it is, the pointless, motivationless histrionics of characters without sense or coherence. Much of the romantic drivel published about young white women and their non-problems follows this sort of plotting: two acts of interpersonal hand-wringing followed by a more pulp-sensible third act. (Think Twilight, where not much happens for most of the book, then a badly blocked action sequence to remind you that there are “real world” stakes intrudes.) Abby Abernathy’s dorm showers break, so the most reasonable solution is to shack up with her friend America’s boyfriend and his psycho roommate, Travis. Due to reasons, she ends up having to share a bed (you know, like, platonically, not that any of these assholes have a clue who Plato was) with Travis for a month. An artless and witless courtship ensues, complete with an unconvincing love triangle and a lot of drunken screaming.

Though I really could go on about this – and I could, believe you me – dogging the complete incoherence of the characters is probably not terribly fruitful. Like so many of these pulp romance slash New Adult characters, Abby and Travis inhabit a magical land where athletes who smoke and never train are just the very best at boxing; where shy good girl virgins can drink, card shark and fuck like a pro; where openly cruel & violent psychotics can command the admiration of everyone; where there are no legal ramifications to getting people killed and precious few emotional ones, short of “phew, glad it wasn’t anyone I know.” So many of these bottom barrel romances (or whatever this is) are peopled with incoherent sociopaths, the selfish and solipsistic edge of romantic love acted out by reader (and writer) proxies who can be all things and therefore nothing. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Not once. Not even if you should.

Like Ana from 50 Shades, Abby can be everything to the reader – virgin/whore, shy/brazen, competent/confused – without having to own any of it. Travis, like Christian Grey, exists solely to facilitate the heroine’s feels and/or vagina, driving her to actions that she wants/doesn’t want. Travis enacts the most vicious misogyny I’ve seen in a while from a character I’m supposed to like, which is then redeemed by magical ladyparts aka love. On some level, I get it: women spend a lot of godamn time dealing with threats of violence or actual violence. Just put up a female avatar and make two lightly feminist comments on Reddit and watch the rape threats roll in. A narrative that vaccinates one walking date rape through love has an appeal, I guess. (The bff of Abby, America,  who spends a lot of godamn time girl-hating and slut-shaming is more confusing. Maybe it’s just self-loathing? Who even knows.)

So, here’s the thing. I’ve said this before, so I’m paraphrasing myself here, but whether I like this sort of girl pulp has a lot to do with whether I like the main character. The characters are always incoherent and the worlds badly build; that’s just table stakes. Sookie Stackhouse reads to me like a 60 something lady who hasn’t been laid in so long she’s forgotten how the mechanics actually work, in addition to having terrible fashion sense. I find her fakey cluelessness frustrating, but I don’t dislike her. Bella Swann reads to me like a housewife desperately trying to reconnect with a libido twisted by religious dogma – Edward as both saint and stranger. I want to trip Bella, but I also empathize. Ana from 50 Shades is more of the same, but worse; it’s wedgie time for you, Ana. Harry Dresden – though that series isn’t girl pulp, technically – reads like a black-duster-wearing nerd who didn’t get much in high school because he was a jerk, and is making up for it now. (Making it up for now by getting some, not by not being a jerk, to be clear.) The women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood recede before the men, who enact a lot of hyper alpha stuff, but almost as a drag show, which I find stupid, charming and hilarious. I could easily go on.

Anyway, point being, the person Abby most reminds me of is the unhinged sorority president whose letter to her sisters was brilliantly performed by Michael Shannon for Funny or Die. (I’ll let you go take a look: Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter [NSFW]. The difference is that Abby doesn’t have nearly Rebecca Martinson’s flair for profanity, profanity I grudgingly respect, even if I think it’s seriously lame she got a writing gig on Vice [NSFW] out of the deal; ugh, and of course.) Mean-spirited, cruel, condescending, vulgar, and I want to underline this again, vulgar. Abby, like the sorority prez, spends a lot of time talking about drinking and shoring up her prowess in this incredibly juvenile way. Abby at one point takes 19 shots – 19 fucking shots! – and isn’t rushed to the hospital dead because she’s so good at holding her liquor. She trashes other girls for their awkwardness and their stupidity while solidly doing the very same things she castigates. Her priorities are completely fucked, her ambitions skewed, and her empathy nonexistent.

People like Abby make my late model third wave feminist self want to punch a baby. Not everything a girl does has to be a feminist act, and maybe it’s a good sign that girls can treat their relatively insulated lives so cavalierly. Maybe that’s one of those horrible signs of progress that people like Abby can roll around acting like they’ll never get hurt, that psycho date rapists like Travis can see fit to slut-shame a girl for wearing a shirt. These are characters who have never once had to hold a hand, or have gotten that call, or watched when someone’s eyes shift when they decide to tell you. They have zero fucking clue. What kills me is characters like Abby and her bff America running their condescension on the girls who don’t get out safe, who get taken in by abusers – and make no mistake, Travis is an abuser – because they thought they were safe but weren’t. After Travis doorsteps a girl after banging her, and the girl is unhappy about her treatment.

“Every time!” America said. She looked at the woman. “How are you surprised by this? He’s Travis Fucking Maddox! He is famous for this very thing, and every time they’re surprised!” 

Uh, okay? First off, I believe in casual sex, insofar as if it’s your bag, go for it. I don’t think you should have to enter into a long term relationship with someone after you have sex with them, and I think a lot of shitty relationships could be avoided if more people could have the sex they need without having to justify it with love or even commitment. Travis is a huge dick about giving this girl the brush off, but fine, probably better for her overall. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not clutching my pearls over the thought of casual sex at all.

What I question about this scene is the fact that Travis is swimming in pussy, even though he had a well established rep, even though all these women have to couch-fuck him because he won’t let them in his bedroom. (Red flag, ladies: that’s where he keeps the heads.) What I question is that “every single time” all of these women who are willing to couch-fuck a guy in his not-too-clean sounding apartment are so enamored of him that they lose their damn minds? And need to be scolded by America? I’m completely willing to believe that there are women who would have sex with Travis; that’s not my issue. (“He was hot and I haven’t tried scabies yet.”) My issue is that McGuire is asking us to believe this Cro-Magnon is universally treated like some kind of catch, when, uh, no. That the couch-fuck was so good that every woman who gets one is gagging for round two. I guarantee you this: Travis couldn’t find a clit with both hands and a flashlight, and for sure he never tried. He cannot be that good in bed, ever. But I guess this is the romantic ideal? I don’t know.

The person I don’t even get is America. She alternately pushes Abby on Travis, and then drags her back off, loudly breaking up with Shep and getting back together, shrieking in clubs, judging, and generally acting like the worst bff ever. She’s the constant counterpoint of Travis’s awful misogyny, and the two of them have a game of one upmanship throughout the book of who can say the most terrible thing next. This is one of those left field thoughts, but bear with me. So you know the Book of Job, right? From the bible? So the commonest reading of the section where Job’s friends show up to tell him to curse god and die and all that is that the friends are psychological aspects of Job himself, the oldest recorded example of the devil and angel on your shoulder. I keep seeing this kind of divided psychology in these shitty romances:  Ana with her “Inner Goddess” and “subconscious”, Jacob stepping in to voice Bella’s fears in Breaking Dawn because she can’t. Much as I’m dogging on Abby for being horrible, mostly she’s just milquetoast, not evidencing any kind of real emotional reaction to anything around her. It’s all this flat affect and observation, and the real emotional reaction gets off-loaded onto America so we can identify more readily with this car wreck. No.

Anyway, blah, I hate these people. Because I’m tired of trying to make coherent observations, I’m just going to note a couple things about this book that suck, in no particular order. I groaned aloud and put my head on the table when Travis bought Abby a fucking puppy, whose existence then blinks on and off throughout the book as McGuire remembers him. The trip Abby takes to meet Travis’s nightmare of a family turned me into my great-aunt Edith for about 50 pages, completely mortified by their boorish squalor. I wanted to cover all the chairs in that crinkly plastic, douse everything in bleach, and then take off and nuke it from orbit. As disgusting as Travis’s bachelor pad sounded, the mothership was a million times worse. The staph infection doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wanted to punch myself into unconsciousness when the singalong happened in the cafeteria. Who the fuck are these people, vomit Glee? And Pigeon is the worst name bestowed on anyone ever.

Oh, but I guess that reminds me. I see justifications for shit like Beautiful Disaster that runs something like: you don’t have to like the characters for a book to be powerful or well done. And in the abstract, sure. Psychologically astute portraiture of monsters can be devastating to read, especially when they lure you into identifying with the monster. But that’s not what’s going on here; this isn’t an adroit manipulation of readerly expectations. All of the major characters are psychologically impossible, and most of the plot is patently ridiculous. Nothing that could possibly happen that way enacted by people who can’t exist? That’s not a cool dramatic monologue that causes the reader to reexamine what she thinks about human nature; that’s a shitshow. I don’t come to end feeling like I’ve learned anything about damaged people, and I sure as shit don’t buy that happily ever after. Gross.

Oh, and also? That piece of shit Travis Maddox should not be attributed with lines from Song of Solomon like I see all over the damn place, idiots. (I did find the blog Bad Hebrew Tattoos though, which is my new favorite thing, so it wasn’t all bad. ) “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine” was written by King Solomon. And as far as tattooing that particular line on your skin, like douches Travis Maddox and David Beckham have done, the line correctly translated from the Hebrew reads, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine. He browses among the lilies.” You can make that gender neutral in English easily enough, but the Hebrew unmistakably refers to a male lover. So unless Trav is a gay Jew – which would make this book considerably more interesting – this line has no business being on his body. Moron.

merkner_scandamerican

The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

I picked up David Merkner’s debut collection, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, solely on the basis of the title. “Hey,” I said to myself, “I’m a Scandamerican domestic!” I mean, whatever that’s supposed to mean, because, as far as I’m aware, Scandamerican isn’t a recognized word, and using domestic as a noun is a little off-label. Or you can use the term domestic as a noun, to mean a servant (domestic staff) or a fight between family members (a domestic dispute), but it rings weird in the title, like a stutter or something bitten off. As it turns off, my lame close reading of the title is a pretty accurate encapsulation of the book for me, this uncoined yet immediately recognizable term rubbing up against the non-normative and ambiguous servitude and dispute of Midwestern domestic life. The whole thing was alarmingly close to home and disturbingly kinked, and I felt a little like, Jesus, man, shut the fuck up about our business in front of guests. Uff da.

I didn’t love this collection, but probably more because I felt an itchy, too tight familiarity with it than anything, a sweater washed and then blocked wrong. The stories themselves have an almost prosaic surrealism, where shit that could never happens happens not because the events violate the rules of physics, necessarily, but because they violate other less conspicuous but nevertheless ironclad rules of social reality. I almost don’t want to give examples because each time I tried to with my husband, I turned into this “and then, and then, and then” idiot, laying out inexplicably related events, then back-tracking and trying to tie up the connectives which just made it worse. A man tries to make out with his mother’s pot-bellied pig after murdering her brother by accident. A couple tries to paint their house which ends up being this slippery metaphor. A man slits a dog’s throat at a funeral. Which is all somehow funny in ways that I can’t explain, don’t really think is funny, but am nevertheless laughing at. And I’m not laughing haha, I’m laughing fucked. I’m laughing grief. This may be more me than it.

I thought a fair amount of the term “magical realism” while I read, wondering, as I do, about genre and what a mess it is. I’ve gotten my back up about the use of the term magical realism in the past, because I’m a nerd, and I end up thinking, bitch, that’s just a nationalist fantasy novel. And all fantasy novels are nationalism fantasy novels, from Twilight’s Volturi Catholic panic down to there won’t be a Shire, Pippin. The term seems too specific to a certain era of South American fiction, and used only on North American writers when they don’t want to get genre cooties on their weirdness. But Scandamericans would be magical realism if the Midwest had such a thing. (The Midwest doesn’t have old money or history either, being one of the problems of the Midwest, but the kind of problem that eliminates some and creates others.) It’s not fantasy fantasy, but more weirdly personal; a private life of the domestic wars.

Maybe the less coherent observation I’m groping for is that Scandamericans runs its harsh (sur)realisms in collection because we can’t even bring ourselves to novel length. We have to run at our fantastic, coded history in collected short fictions because we aren’t even a nation, but an interstitial accident of geography and inertia. We’re not even the conquest of useless but something worse and therefore more comic. We shouldn’t even be here, and what we have to cling to, as a people, is our anecdotal longevity in a place not actually made for people. (My bitterness with the Midwest right now may have more to do with the punishing cold I’ve been stuck in for the last forever, no end in sight.) I thought of Winesburg, Ohio a fair amount, and the ways MFA programs in the Midwest push the shit out of that (or did in the Jurassic Age when I was in college), and the ways the stories in Scandamericans triangulated a specific kind of person – a dude, maybe kids, a wife, a house in the Madison suburbs – instead of a place.

And speaking of MFAs, this collection has the the shine of the MFA all over it, that rock tumbler which grits prose in a way that often embeds itself in my nails. This is good MFA writing to me though, the kind that moves from rough to shine, and the endings positively fucking gleam. I don’t know why I’m being a bitch about craft – but I am, don’t mistake me – because this is some well written stuff, the kind of thing that winds and then strangles. It’s good. For whatever reason (and this phrase means “for reasons I know but won’t divulge”) the subject of Freud’s concept of the narcissism of small differences kept coming up this holiday season in my conversations. Talking to my brother and his newly minted fiance and casually calling him a hipster and watching that tightening in his eyes. I don’t care about hipsterism, because I’m the wrong gender, age, and BMI to give a shit about that. But he’s not, and I used the term, and it probably bugged him. Sorry. That was this book, Merkner to me.

lolfreud

The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic hit me in the narcissism of small differences, in that place of close but not quite close enough. I can see see his truth because I hate it like I hate all things close to my truth but just across the kitchen table. I kind of hate this book because I get it. I kind of love it for the same reason. Not all of the short stories work, but the ones that hit me hit me in the face. The one about the couple painting their house hit me right in my profession as a house painter, all the notes I leave on a kitchen table over the course of a painting project turned over and written back. I feel priest-like in the things I see in my clients’ homes – in the sense that I see them but can’t relate them because it would be a violation – but I see them. I see them and keep silent. I don’t snoop, but I don’t have to. We wear it all on our sleeves but then tuck them hard into pockets. The connectives of course are surreal.

I got the violence in the story of the funeral, my cousin and I holding onto the back of one another’s necks, forehead to forehead, while he laid the most immaculate guilt trip on me like fine fucking china.  He wanted me to go to the second funeral, the one to be attended by people I despise. I resisted and drove home, and everyone in the car fell asleep. I watched the landscape go past like the only person who could, and later got the story of it, the second funeral. I would have murdered at that event, slit the throat of a dog in the back bedroom, and then I would have passed it off just the like the protagonist of the short story, the way you can pass off the murder of a dog in the back bedroom. You can pass off anything in the right social situation, stand like a mask and joke. It’s not funny haha but funny apocalypse. It’s funny Revelations according to Hans.

And although it looks like I’m dogging on this collection, I’m really not. There’s a story about a man who goes with his daughter down into a mine in “the only mountain in Wisconsin” – mountains being something the Midwest doesn’t have either – and sees a vision of her as an adult. Sounds lame when I relate it, but that last image, the daughter waving silently from a rock like a siren, and the daughter waving back just scrambled me. The candlelight vigil in another, all of the people turning away from the woman in whose name they are there. I can relate my irritations easier than I can my affections, because the affections are so fragile and inexplicable. The old saw about familiarity and contempt.

Fuck, I don’t know. The best and most true thing I can say about this collection is that it hit me where I live in ways that I usually only find in sex writing by the French or narratives of the zombie apocalypse.  (Make with that what you will.) I’d like to see Merkner do something long form, because he fairly kicks the shit out of the short form (except for the microfictions, but then me and microfiction are not friends, so it might just be me.) It was kinda perfect to read a short story or two in the middle of the holiday shitshow, parceling out this deranged comedy of the domestics after living through the same. Well done, me. Perfect timing.

 

 

 

World War Z: The Movie

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks’s journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don’t use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks’s take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society - societies - would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless – the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived – and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks’s book simply wouldn’t work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier’s narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers – which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities – to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn’t lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt’s Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt’s surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling – like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn – one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel – explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse’s explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn’t much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that’s maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I’ve been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren’t really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn’t flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They’re about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It’s not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that’s not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane’s wife. I’ve noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane’s wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There’s a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn’t want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don’t. I’m using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she’s got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it’s Gerry’s war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don’t listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don’t. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film – in the arm, jeez – why wouldn’t she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don’t freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies’ hair out of their eyes? You’re in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don’t you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane’s story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he’s on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Pro life tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed – good men! – just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don’t text me right now because I’m in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back – I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children – but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that’s all we can do!

I don’t know. It’s late, and I’m tired, and maybe I’ll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn’t much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

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.

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.”