Category Archives: High Romantic

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

 

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.”

 

Jane Eyre

This is a slipknot review to hold place until I can read this again. I’ve had to read Jane Eyretwice, both times for school. The first was the obligatory high school read, and then the second was the obligatory English major read. I liked it better the second time, because the class I took it in rocked like crazy, and I do remember fun things about it, like how Rochester outlines his various romances, and how each romance is with a woman of non-English background, and how each of those women are totally wrong because they are not English. I remember wanting Rochester to die in a fire a bit, because he’s such an arrogant fucking asshole, and then bang! he totally gets burnt in a fire! That’s some good writing. 

Weirdly, the thing I remember best about Jane Eyreis going to see a production at the Children’s Theatre here in Minneapolis when I was in the 5th grade. This was back in the Children’s Theatre’s heyday, before the sexual abuse scandal almost completely destroyed that institution. I had completely forgotten about this production until I recently got free tickets to go there again, and being in the building shook the memory loose. The play was based only on the parts of Jane Eyrethat detail her childhood – her unhappy time with the Reeds, her even more unhappy time at the Lowood School, her friendship with Helen Burns, Helen’s death by typhus. 

The production was really moving to me, and I remember seething with irritation when my classmates sent up a chorus of Oooohs when Jane climbs into bed with Helen to warm her as she dies of mistreatment and disease. Motherfucking homophobia starts young, and is stupid and unsympathetic at any age. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to say that I really loved Jane for her portrait of a mistreated and abused child who develops this incredible moral compass out of her experience. She makes incredibly hard choices, like the one to leave the man she loves because he’s an amoral would-be bigamist. 

Think about it. This is not some minor impediment to marriage, the kind of thing thrown up in dimestore romances to cause more sexual tension. This is not a misunderstanding or a mistake. This is a serious moral failing in the man she loves, and, you know, a legal failing too. For the lack of love, Jane’s childhood is cruelty and abuse. It’s wonderful for her to find love with someone who can appreciate her strange gifts. But love is not an ethical elixir that will magic away the difference between right and wrong. The most famous line to come out of this novel is “Reader, I married him.” I think sometimes this overshadows the fact that, Reader, for a very long time, and based on moral choices that materially damage her life, Jane does not marry him. Marrying him would be wrong, and all the love in the world will not make it right. That’s why I love Jane Eyre. 

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist - with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete - had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” - this means Canadian - city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

mad scientist's daughter

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Collapsing Sadness

When I was in junior high, I knew this girl who claimed to be a test tube baby. She claimed a lot of fantastic things, like that she had no sense of smell because of the scientific tinkering of her experimental origins, and some other odd physical anomalies. I pretty much knew this was bullshit, but this was back before I could spend 15 seconds typing into a screen on my cell browser “first test tube baby US” and get the name and birthdate of Elizabeth Jordan Carr, born on December 28, 1981. Ms Carr was the 15th test tube baby in the world – as the NYTimes article notes,” in vitro,” the more commonplace term now, means “in glass” – born a full 7 years after the girl I knew had been born. I remember questioning my friend gently about her sense of smell: do you have trouble tasting things? Is it all just bland like you have a cold? Oh no, I taste everything fine. Oh, I thought, bullshit. We were never close or anything – in truth, I didn’t like her much – but I let all this slide.

Even with my somewhat flimsy adolescent class sense, I knew how poor her family was. They – she, her mother, and a round-robin of her mother’s “boyfriends” – lived above a corner grocery, the kind that sells Campbell’s soup for double its price, cigarettes and 3.2 beer. Her family didn’t even have a phone, but used the pay phone on the corner. They weren’t the only ones, and there was this complicated set of protocols and negotiations when you called it – gather ’round children, because pay phones used to exist, and they used to accept incoming calls: the guy who would bang on the door to the stairs leading to their apartment, leaving the phone hanging, the guy who wouldn’t, the corner store owner with an angry, thick accent who would go through periods of 86ing her family (I think for non-payment of their credit, but also for more noise-centered complaints). Corner store owners used to extend credit, young’ens, in a notebook-under-the-register kind of way. They still may, if the great gossiping neighbor center who is Mohammed at the corner store on my block is any indication. I’ve certainly walked out of S-Mart with goods I didn’t have the money for, but just because I forgot my wallet like an idiot. I could be into him for hundreds if I were closer to the edge. There but for the grace of God, etc.

So I knew what she said was bullshit, but I got why she was running that line of bullshit. The science fictional aspects of her supposed conception added a shine of dramatic ethics to her impoverished upbringing. Again, children, this was long enough ago that the whole concept of “test tube babies” had this op-ed worthy hand-wringing about it. You could still run the false-Darwinian line about how in vitro fertilization was violating the spirit, if maybe not the letter, of survival of the fittest with a straight face – nevermind any business about God and His Will and whatnot – and you could run it without hitting millions of children who have been conceived this way since then. I myself know at least a half dozen. I’m not saying that the ethics of in vitro fertilization have been solved or anything. I got into a surprisingly fractious argument with my husband about a specific messed up situation created by IVF, and we concluded our argument with the understanding that even people who generally agree about the broad moral questions are going to get tripped up by issues of gender, personhood, and ownership. At a certain point, all that crystalline logical scaffold teeters and collapses into hard core interpersonal gut-reaction.

Catarina is five years old when her father returns one day with an android named Finn. Cat is five, so she doesn’t quite get what Finn’s extraordinary assistance might mean. There have been automata and AI in this scorched, rebuilding world, but Finn is unique, more and less human than anything that came before. But five years old does not mean but be. She decides Finn is a ghost, because that makes sense to five. My daughter just turned six on Christmas, and we recently had a long conversation about how the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy are obviously me, but Santa is real. As much as I’ve always believed in not running bullshit on my kids, I just didn’t know what to say there. I figure in a year or two the world will inevitably crush her understandings of Santa’s precise reality, and it’s not like I need to be the messenger there. Which is one of the many things that clove me about this story: the way I completely empathized with both parent and child, feeling the hard shocks of understanding when Cat’s mother snaps at Cat’s choices – I wasn’t built to be a housewife; no girl is – while bleeding for the casual judgement. Jesus, what we do not in the name of love, but because of love and our studied ignorances. Finn acts as tutor to Cat, and the world and its ethical understanding changes around them as they change. They move from a world in which the term test tube babies dissolves into the commonplace in vitro fertilization, but that doesn’t mean the hard core interpersonal gut-reaction is just semantics.

I kind of don’t want to get into the mechanics of the plot, because I’m not sure concrete action says anything about the long tides of lived lives. Cat grows; she goes to school; she marries. That’s just facts. But about halfway through, I sat up on the couch and said to my husband, this is so sad, I’m not sure I can take it. I spend the next half of the book near weeping, and if I’m going to be honest, weeping. We are such disastrous creatures, humans, and it’s not such a huge surprise that the consciousnesses we create will be disastrous too. Part of this is that on a very overt level, this is an unrequited love story; this is an emotional response to intrusive technology, and the cultural scaffold is less important than the teetering and its fall into the personal.

I was very careful in the last paragraph not to use the word romance in relation with Finn & Cat, which I think belies in me a certain discomfort with love and sex and the domestic in fiction. Certainly, the term romance applies in many ways, though more in its capital-R incarnation: the Romance. Romanticism attempted to inject strong emotion into the bloody warfare of Classicism, valued folk art as authentic craft, got its rocks off on rocks, trees, and landscape. That’s all in here: a brooding, personal recollection of the world after ecological disaster, with an eye towards the beauty of that devastation; the folk art of weaving that Cat takes up, confusing her scientist parents, and on some level, herself; the near-Gothic near-Freudian setting of the family home, with the father in the basement and the android in the aerie. The opening section, with Cat catching fireflies in a jar, was almost too much for me – such vividly worn shorthand for wonder – but I promise this works long term.

Anyway, at some point, Clarke tips her hat to Kazuo Ishiguro and Maureen F. McHugh, and I smiled at the tip. We’re at the edge of science fiction here that thrills and bleeds with the literary wasteland of cool sentences and felt emotion, that understands that it’s not about whatever jibber jabber about the great Frankenstein’s Oedipal monster, but his daughter, growing up in a world that has transmuted from test tubes to in glass, but in glass in another language. There was a comment thread recently about this odd edge of genre, about how at a certain point science fiction sails over the edge into some more literary metafiction, and the literary metafiction sails right back, and they stand silhouetted on the water. Ishiguro’s clones, McHugh’s chimera, Atwood’s genetic engineering, Whitehead’s zombies, Boudinot’s Age of Fucked Up Shit – these creatures and stories all fall into this strange edge of the science fictional or the literary, one or the other or both in a quantum uncertainty.

But The Mad Scientist’s Daughteris also a romance. It is about love. It is about love in the most collapsingly personal way there is. God, and it’s so, so sad.

I didn’t understand why this novel had been published by Angry Robot, because, so far, what I’ve read from that publisher has been much more pulp sensible. (I am not using the term pulp as a brush-off or indicator of poor quality. Pulp doesn’t give a shit where it’s shelved.) But in writing this review, I get it now. The literary and the science fictional have been doing a dance since New Wave, running the ethics of technology met up with our humanity and the inherent surrealism of such a project, into a martial art of which part of the bookstore to shelve such a thing. Add in romance – the stories of love and the childhood bedroom, of uneasy marriages and disappointed parents – and the dance becomes something…maybe not new, but old, the way we who have lived through gigantic technological upheavals – and that is all of us – navigate the old, messy questions of consciousness and emotion in new mediated ways. This book takes a cell phone and calls that payphone on the corner. Who answers will break your heart. Or, in any case, it broke mine.

I got my copy from Netgalley and Angry Robot, in exchange for a fair review. Thank heavens.

genealogywuthring

Wuthering Heights: Lock up Your Dogs!

A quick disclaimer: I betcha there are some spoilers in here, but it’s tough to properly mark spoilers on books this old. Fair warning. 

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My sister and I recently got into one of those stupid cage matches about which was better: Jane Eyreor Wuthering Heights. Before everyone starts popping their monocles and baying about how this is a stupid comparison & as meaningless as comparing chalk and cheese, I know. I totally know. But five hours in a car will send conversations to really weird places. 

Anyway, I spent some time defending Jane, because I’ve read it three times. I’ve only listened to a shitty books-on-tape version of Wuthering Heights when I was 19, which was *cough* a while ago. While I may read really hard, I listen badly, and even though I wasn’t that distracted – I was on another road trip – I spent a good deal of time spacing out during my listen. Add into this the fact that the guy doing the reading used Dog Voice on all of the women, I don’t remember boo about the book.

A note on Dog Voice: my family may be cracked, but all of the dogs we had growing up had voices. Tessie, who was from Appalachia and was part-hound and part-werewolf, sounded like she had rocks in her mouth. She also sang opera. Kip has gravelly voice and a New York accent. For some weird reason, all of the border collie girl-dogs – I know the correct term is bitches, but I just can’t – have high-pitched girly voices. Nant, who has one blue-eye and one brown, and is crazy as a loon, is almost inaudible. So, Catherine sounded like a border collie dog, and then my brain kept trying to wake up from itself, and the spacing out turned into full on WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? 

So now I’m 75 pages in. This is just the funniest thing I’ve ever read. All the growling and slap-fights! By the 50th page two people had been attacked by dogs! I’m assured it gets even better. I don’t even know how. 

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Okay, so I was goofing off when I started this review talking about dogs, but dogs are all over this story. Bitches nurse their whelps in the kitchen; dogs are set on strangers in the yard; people enact the most vigorous cruelties on dogs as a manifestation of their black, black hearts. Mid-way through this novel, I had a conversation with one of my brilliant friends, and she said to watch how characters treat animals, which was smart advice. The scene where Heathcliff absconds/elopes with Isabella and hangs her dog from the neck to be rescued later by Nelly; the scene where Isabella escapes from Wuthering Heights, running past Hareton while he strangles a litter of unwanted pups: these cruelties bracket a larger brutality enacted between husbands and wives, lovers and friends, parents and children. 

Ir’s not that animals get it worse than people. Whoo boy, not by a stretch. There’s violence everywhere: masters boxing servants, parents beating children, drunks threatening everyone with guns, wife-beating, dog-fights, fist-fights, death-threats, kidnapping, coyly hinted-at marital rape, book-burning – I could go on, but I’ll stop there. The violence also has the ring of real experience – what a mouth looks like filling with blood, how the bruises change over days, how a sucker punch robs you of breath and leaves you gasping like a fish. I wonder how quiet the Brontës home life was, really. The somewhat crappy introduction to my edition, written by Alice Hoffman, indicates that the Brontës’ brother was a gambler and an addict, and then rather sloppily connects the real brother with the character of Catherine’s older brother who gambles away Wuthering Heights. This is too literal a reading by half. This is the story of addicts and abusers all, a shockingly intimate and muscular portrait of vice and obsession, and it’s only because there aren’t needles cast about on the moors that we don’t quickly recognize it as early Romantic Trainspotting

The heart is a muscle. It looks like a fist flayed of skin, stripped of all sensation but pain and bleeding and the need to clench and clench and clench. I don’t know what I expected, pretending as I had to have read this before, but I didn’t expect this series of reprisals and revenge and revenge. I’ve been thinking about Romeo and Julieta bunch recently, because a whole bunch of excellent reviews have gone past on the feed, and I’m struck by all the violence and recriminations that characterize the great romances. (I’m working hard to come up with a witty Shakespearean “die for love” play on words equating sexual climax with death, but I’ve got nothing.) Anyway, as usual, I may be a total whack-job, but for me, the pivotal moment in R&J is when Mercutio gets killed. Up until that point, R&J is a wacky lark of meeting cute and stolen kisses and having the first words a pair of lovers speak to one another resolve into a sonnet. (Squee! So awesome!) But then, oh holy hell, sometimes a sword is just a sword, and then the only person who isn’t a self-involved child gets stabbed, and at this point, just for a flash, I want everyone dead: the lovers, their confidants, their parents, everyone. You wanna see die for love, kids? I’ve got your die for love right here. 

That flash is the plot of Wuthering Heights. Solder the principles of R&J into a lead ball comprised of two houses, some moors, and a visiting goofball and you’ve got it. Oh, our unreliable narrators! Let me freak about them for a moment. Walton from Frankensteinand Lockwood from Wuthering Heightsshould have a battle to determine who is the most in love with the stories unfolding under their noses. I’m going to give Lockwood extra points for being a more comedic fellow; all of his sighing and bitching about being such a misanthrope rings hilariously hollow when he’s confronted by The Prince of Darkness Heathcliff and his sick side-show. He stumbles back to the grange after the first meetings with Heathcliff and begs Nelly to give him the goods, which she does in just the most beatific of self-serving forms. 

New Twilight-esque covers:
You totally wish, Smeyer.

And Nelly. Ah, Nelly. Walton, in Frankensteinwrites to his sister who sits dumb and mum throughout the whole tale. Here there’s no epistolary nightmare, but the outflowing of kitchen gossip: domestic, unlettered, invested, damaged as all get out. Narrators like Nelly make me freak out, because I spend waaaay too much time thinking about what really happened, and then I remember that it’s all fiction, and then I freak out some more. Then there’s the tantalizing parts that Lockwood reads in Catherine’s own words – he spends a night spooking at his shadow at Wuthering Heights, and finds a collection of Catherine’s books, where she has used every unprinted space as a diary. This makes me hyperventilate. I have a whole thing about gothic novels – hell, just novels in general – and the way they reference the form, mostly negatively, a hall of mirrors reflecting influence and anxiety. The governess in The Turn Of The Screw, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey(Catherine’s literary ancestor?) both of these ladies read too much and it made them mad, I tell you, mad. (Well, okay, not exactly mad in Northanger, but v. v. silly.) I love that Catherine writes herself into a novel, limning her words over other stories. I think in some ways the whole latter plot, once Catherine decides to marry the noodle Linton and play at the domestic, could be seen as a revenge fantasy imagined by Catherine herself, written over the more likely scenario of her having her youthful identity ground out of her by a succession of children, drudging women’s work, and the inevitable betrayal of age. 

Let’s just take a moment and think about Heathcliff and Catherine. Let’s just take it on faith that they are the same person, as Catherine most swooningly declares while she dithers about whether to marry someone else, sitcom-like, while Heathcliff feigns sleep in the next room and Nelly prods her on. Heathcliff is Catherine; he’s her wildness and anger and passion. This isn’t some Jekyll/Hyde deal because Catherine, at the start, is as wild as they come, feral, naughty & only partially housebroken. I think it’s important that Heathcliff is a foundling, born out of no one and nothing, his name the compound of two natural places, the heath and the cliff. When Catherine meets the Lintons, she’s attacked by their dog, and spends several weeks convalescing and domesticating. This troubles her relationship with Heathcliff, finally coming to a crisis when she decides to marry Linton. 

Heathcliff storms off – literally! har har – as she forsakes wildness for a certain kind of comfort, choosing the way women had to between love and money. (Of course there’s always secret options b, c, & d: impoverished marriage, servitude or death in childbirth. You can probably come up with an equally unpleasant but likely e, f & g without much trouble too.) But still these are the options more often laid before women in novels: marry for love, marry for money, or not at all. This dramatized simplicity is why I think Pride and Prejudicegets mistaken for a romance novel: finding a rich husband that Lizzie (and Jane too!) also loves smacks of wish-fulfillment. How many times has that actually happened in the history of the world? Like, twice? 

So maybe I’ve been watching too much Star Trek with its transporter accidents and multiverse theory, but this is where the plot spins off on Track B for me. In some more prosaic world, Cathy marries, gets pregnant, has a baby, and in some real way this kills her younger self. Heathcliff, her rage and freedom, transports into an emotional reality and exacts vengeance for his loss, for her loss, sucking up inheritances, property, lives, decorum, and anything else he can get his mitts on. As each person dies, he swells with life, living by punishment and annihilation. There aren’t many people in this world, and as the plot unfolds, they become fewer and more inbred, with an almost confusing doubling and trebling of names, children, marriages and blood and blood and blood. Lockwood, in the very beginning, notes a series of names carved in the window sill: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff and Catherine Linton. Read forwards, these names are the trajectory of Catherine’s life; read backwards, they are her daughter’s. After all the death and wreckage, the story comes to a kind of peace, the younger Cathy giggling in a window as she plays slap-and-tickle with her husband. (And those of you who’ve read this: I know they keep referring to Hareton as her cousin, which is gross enough, but isn’t he her uncle? Eww.) 

I have this bad feeling I’ve made this sound like a total drag, and like I didn’t like it at all. No! I’m all for this, and this is funny as hell – literally! har har – I have simply got to stop making that joke. Again, I don’t know what I thought, but I didn’t expect how robust and lusty this book was, how muscled the prose, how unflinching and violent. I don’t often go in for romantic - degraded as that term has become – because so often it’s all soft-focus douche-ad that relies on euphemism over viscera. I don’t know what to say about the Jane v. Catherine thunderdome battle, other than this: I want some academic to write a paper about phrenology and the Brontës. Okay, maybe that’s a weird thing to think, but all the descriptions of foreheads and bumps on the skull – did they have some phrenological text in the house or something? Several brilliant friends have recommended I read the third Brontë to throw a folding chair into the ring. I think I will, after I read a bunch of trash, of course.