Category Archives: New York

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.

Strange Attractors by Charles Soule

My husband and I were talking recently about the aphorisms that people dish at you and then act like they’re revelatory or meaningful. The one that we heaped the most scorn on was, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.” O, rilly? Pretty much the opposite of any emotional state is the lack of an emotional state, from a certain observational angle, so you might as well say, “The opposite of hate is being in a coma” or, “The opposite of feeling itchy is being dead.” True enough, as far as it goes, but not helpful. I mean, I know that this proverb is mostly deployed in situations when love’s gone wrong, but it’s just so freaking dumb and unhelpful. The opposite of irritation is slumber! 

Anyway, somewhat wobbly point being, I had classed the saying, “When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, we can get an hurricane in another,” as one of those stupid aphorisms: something someone says to you when a tree flattens your garage or something. Oh those damn butterflies! Add in the fact that since Ray Bradbury‘s A Sound of Thunder, where time travelers squash a butterfly in the Jurassic, leading to Planet of the Apes-style changes in the hear-and-now, the whole butterfly thing has become something of a hoary old chestnut in sff. 

Marge from the Simpsons tells Lisa that it's raining again, as doughnuts fall from the sky
What happens when Homer squashed a butterfly. Donuts!

But, turns out, it’s an actual mathematical thing! From the wikis:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.


Oh look! Attractors! Maybe some of them will be strange.

So the story starts with grad student Heller Wilson bopping around New York, complaining about the soulless thesis topic he was given by his adviser, and just generally having the pre-graduate crisis. The art is sepia realism with bright punctuations of color, and the scientific-y drawings are wonderful, crossing a sort of biological feel with more airless, computer-generated structures. The image I found of one of these complexity maps has decided not to work, so you’ll have to take my word for it, sadly. I’m just saying I liked the art. 

In order to kick-start his thesis, he goes to meet the old math department crank, Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who is a cross between a hobo and Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, but less sexy than the latter. Brownfield’s been working on something called “complexity theory” for the last 30 years – a mix of Asimov’s psychohistory and the Butterfly Effect – and believes himself to be the guardian of New York. He’s forever doing these inexplicable “adjustments” – things like setting a rat loose in a restaurant or subtly driving people towards a different subway entrance – which he believes keeps New York’s “immune system” robust. 

Which is my segue to talk about New York. First and foremost, Strange Attractorsis a love letter to the cityest of American cities, a place with infrastructure so unbelievably barnacled, complex, and jury-rigged that it’s astonishing that it works at all, let alone that it weathers the shocks of terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and various NY mayors. One of the many facts that blew my mind in The World Without Us was that, without the pumps working every minute of every day, the subway system would revert to the underground rivers that every inch of the underground strains to become. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent destruction were just a hairsbreadth from knocking out these pumps and flooding the system. This could be repaired after months and months of work, but. Soule and Co do an excellent job of capturing the vibrancy, texture, and fragility of life in NY, as Heller gets more and more caught up in Dr. Brownfield’s crazy theories and such. 

The plot is pretty perfunctory. Heller thinks Dr. Brownfield is a loon, but a brilliant one; he gets more caught up in Brownfield’s ideas; Heller gets in trouble with The Powers That Be over Brownfield’s influence; Brownfield asks for more than Heller is willing to give, etc, etc. The crisis and resolution is a little dorkily cheerful, with a whole pay it forward vibe that makes me gag just a little. But! Just a little. I am not immune to feel-good stories about majestic, chaotic cities repairing themselves in the wake of disaster, or in the forefront of it. I <3 cities. They might even <3 me back. Awww. 

Also, way back in the day we had a bird named Boolean, and Dr. Brownfield has a dog with the same name. Nerd pet names represent!

I received my copy from NetGalley.com.

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.

Maus: My (Grand)father Bleeds History

Grandpa and I are standing by the wooden fence that holds my cousin’s horses. They aren’t skittish, but they stand just out of reach and flick their ears with watchfulness and flies. It’s full summer in Wisconsin, all grass and the scritch-scritch of insects in the grass. We talk about my cousin and her riding, about horses. I’ve always played city mouse to my country cousins, which is slightly fraught because my Grandpa is a man who has definite ideas about right living which center on small town life. He is second generation Danish from a small town in Iowa, and while he is fiercely progressive in much of his life philosophy, he retains a certain near-stoic near-asceticism which doesn’t mesh with my nuclear family’s outlook. I knew, even as a child, not to talk about certain things certain ways with Grandpa, how he would…maybe not misunderstand, but certainly not respect our city life. And our city life is the detached single-family suburban sprawl of Minneapolis, so city is certainly relative. 

I’m not sure how we start talking about this, but we get onto the subject of SSRIs – drugs like Prozac which affect brain chemistry, which were, even when this conversation occurred, being prescribed like candy. Grandpa was a doctor in the Navy during the War, and then attached to the nascent Marines, the raiders who would go out on lethal missions onto the scads of tiny islands between Australia and Japan. He doctored for both battles of Guam and Guadalcanal, in addition to an unremembered number of conflicts spraying out into the Pacific Rim. He never much talked about the War, least not to me anyway, but I was a child and there was no place for those stories. We knew there was something wrong when the stories started, stories that had always been stoppered, for better or for worse, by my Grandma’s almost harsh pragmatism. My Grandma runs family mythology like knitting, the way she knits anyway, the quickness of her hands in sharp contrast with how bent and gnarled they are by long-term arthritis. “Chris,” she would say when he started in a vein she didn’t approve of, and then quick deflections into topics more tractable. When he could or did ignore her machinations, which are at Sun Tzu levels of mastery, it was an indication of a deeper wrongness. Senior dementia was in the process of erasing him year by year until he was somewhere near six in the year his mother died, at the piano she taught him to play before she left him. It stops my heart still to think of how much pain he still carried from her loss, ninety years later on the eve of his passing. 

Here, I knew that the process was beginning, but not where it would take him. Next to the wooden stile that penned my cousin’s horses, we’re talking about Prozac, and about medicine and psychology and all of that. He’s been retired for a long time, over a decade, maybe more like two. I know he worked for years at a low income clinic after his retirement. Eventually he had to let his medical licence lapse because there is so much need out there that he kept getting sucked into the brutal hours of doctoring he had enjoyed his entire working life. I run the line about how pharmaceutics are not candy, and SSRIs are being used to treat grief like grief is unnatural. He agrees, in the sense that his view of psychology has always been based on will. He is a man of his generation, and getting over it is as getting over it does, and they did. Unless they didn’t. 

I sure wish we had had something like that during the War though.

I was getting ready to ship out again. I had already done a tour in the South Pacific. The ship was in the process of filling up with soldiers, many of whom had not seen action, who were just out of basic training with their squeaky boots. But there were a number of soldiers who had seen combat, piling back onto a ship that would bring them back to that. One man snapped. He was in full gear, with a 70 lb bag on his back. He saluted – ten hut! (Here Grandpa snaps a salute.) And then walked off the edge of the ship into the water. Soldiers scrambled, throwing off their own gear and diving in to water to fish him out. He was screaming uncontrollably. They hauled him off to the brig because that was the only place they could contain his breakdown. His screams reverberated through the metal bones of the ship until someone knocked him out with phenobarbital, but he’d just start screaming again when he came to. All those young men just out of basic listened to the ship they were boarding scream. We had no real way to treat the injuries in the mind. 

This isn’t the voice of my Grandpa. This is me trying to remember him as hard as I can, but it keeps slipping, and I am too much me to recreate him. If you could see me, I could recreate with my body which has some of his genetic tendencies the way he laughed and held his hands and hunched, but it wouldn’t be exactly right, two generations and a gender displaced from him, all those years displaced from the War, the years from this conversation, the years from his death. So much is gone. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck – I had never heard anything like this from him. I have the vague sense that there was someone else there, maybe a younger cousin, but it might have been me simply blown out of myself with shock. We would hear more war stories as the years wore on. My sister and I would collect them and show them to each other. Did you hear the one about the shelling on the beach? About running the wrong way during a retreat and almost ending up on the wrong side of the line? “Hey doc,” the rear guard said, “Where’re you going?” I wish, in a way, I’d tried more diligently to collect them, but I know it was an impossibility. He became so frail, and there’s no way Grandma would allow that line of questioning, even if I’d thought it was a good idea. 

Which is why Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds Historytowers as a narrative about familial and historical traumas, about the way we talk to our parents and grandparents about the fucked up shit they had to endure out there in the ugly mess of history. Art Spiegelman and I are not real similar people; our parents and grandparents did not have the same experiences; we are not from the same places. Spiegelman’s parents, Polish Jews, survived Auschwitz. Maus is the strange lapping recounting of that survival, his dad on a exercise bike or fighting with his second wife, Art fighting hard against his father’s disapproval and the memory of his mother’s suicide. The story keeps folding on itself, Art drawing panels which his father sees and then comments on, this secondary conversation through the oblique public performance that keeps collapsing the narratives, rendering it all into this wash of the meaningful and unmeaningful acts that make up our familiar conversations. It puts me on a wooden fence with my Grandpa who had begun his long, slow erasure of memory to his death, and beyond. It’s bananas. 

It’s so fiercely honest, not just the history, but the ways Art and his dad fail to connect at times. I loved my Grandpa, of course, but sometimes he was a difficult and rigid man, and the ways Spiegelman captures the affection, respect, and complete irritation with our loved ones was perfect for me. My Father Bleeds History is uncompleted, the elder Spiegelmans just committed to Auschwitz, and Art and his father just beginning to talk more openly about the comic Art is creating. Of course I’m reading the second part the second I get my hands on it. 

The Wishing Cake: Adjusting Expectations

I am probably being overly generous with my starrage – three stars on Goodreads – as I adore what Ellen Meister has done with the Dorothy Parker page on facebook. Seems a weird thing to say (or do), but I follow a number of dead authors on social media. I follow some live ones too, but they tend to be overly chatty for my tastes, and the dead aren’t so much interested in getting you to buy their books. Some of the goodness of the Parker page has to do with Parker’s twitter-ready style; were she alive today, she would have burned up social media. 

“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”

“Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.”

“This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

“Ducking for apples — change one letter and it’s the story of my life.”

Indeed.

But Meister is to be credited with really fabulous curation of Parker’s jabs and epigrams, along with the occasional longer form bit. Writing such as:

I think I knew first what side I was on when I was about five years old, at which time nobody was safe from buffaloes. It was in a brownstone house in New York, and there was a blizzard, and my rich aunt—a horrible woman then and now—had come to visit. I remember going to the window and seeing the street with the men shovelling snow; their hands were purple on their shovels, and their feet were wrapped with burlap. And my aunt, looking over my shoulder, said, “Now isn’t it nice there’s this blizzard. All those men have work.” And I knew then that it was not nice that men could work for their lives only in desperate weather, that there was no work for them when it was fair.

Which I had never seen, while Parker’s more epigrammatic cut-downs are more ambient and recognizable. Apparently, Meister has written a novel inspired? influenced? by Parker called Farewell, Dorothy Parker, and in the run up to publication early next year, she offered this little story for free. I bit. 

I still think I want to read the Parker novel, because the writing on a technical level was good, and I think given a subject she obviously knows a good deal about, Meister might actually say something in the novel. The Wishing Cakewas far too slight, with too many moving parts and not enough finish. (Ugh, what is that previous sentence about? You suck at the epigrammatic cut-down, Ceridwen.) In a vaguely It’s a Wonderful Life style scenario, a Brooklyn baker is given wishing powder. She wishes herself a man, and then poof! She’s a man. Some things ensue with her shitheel of a boss. 

It’s far too easy to spoil the plot of a story this short, so I’m left being unable to complain about…certain things. The gender change is treated really bathetically, with a failed pissing scene rolling into beers with a dude that made me cringe for the characterization of dudes. The various asides about language use between the sexes weren’t bad, but overall the treatment seemed rom-comedy-esque. To phrase it poorly yet again; God. I didn’t get the deal with the older couple, or their fish/deity, and certain characters were set up too well as shitsnacks for me to believe the 26-page redemption. Altogether, I wish there were more story here, which is occasionally a good thing to want, but not so when the lacunae crater motivation and catharsis. 

Really though, I suspect my problem might be one of being a genre reader in my little cranky, black heart. A gender change in a science fiction or spec fic story is going to be treated a certain way, maybe not always seriously, but with a sense to the larger ramifications. (Whether I agree with the larger ramifications is entirely a separate issue, of course.) In pop fiction, you end up with more nut shots and worn observations about the genders, with a little gay-panic romance thrown in for fun. You know, like Just One of the Guysor Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie. Which, blah. I pretty much hate that shit forever. But! I get that this is mostly my feminist hang-ups talking, and cheesy topicality seems to play for people who are not crank nerd feminists. Well, I seem to have found my epigrammatic bitch-face after all. 

So, anyway, I will adjust my expectations of Farewell, Dorothy Parkeraccordingly, which is probably a good effect of reading this story. I will continue to love Meister’s work on the Dorothy Parker page, because she’s very good there. I find the ability or failure of writers to work within various media pretty interesting – I like John Scalzi a ton more as a blogger than a novelist, but I pretty much want to murder his Twitter feed – and Meister might be more like Parker – memorable in the shortest form, and forgettable at the long. Which is again a bitchy thing to say, and I’m sorry. I might be a bang-up review writer and a failure at every other thing I set to paper, so at least there’s that.

In the Shadow of No Towers: The Personal is the Political

Somewhere on the shelf where I store all the family photo albums, the high school year books, a stuffing of letters and other ephemera, is a copy of the New Yorker published on September 24, 2001. I find it whenever I’m digging around looking for some artifact of my family’s life, and never know what to do with it but slip it back into the jumble. I can’t throw it out. 

It came in the mail nearly two weeks late, the entire publishing machine run to an absolute standstill as we wept in our living rooms in front of a 24 hours news cycle that broke to gossip and conjecture, half watched while we called and called and called, hoping this time I would get through to my sister who I last heard right after the first plane on the lower east side and before the second. Marco. Polo. I wrote emails on emails to this person and that, forwarded messages, called moms. Pete was supposed to be in the station just below the towers that day, but due to a series of choices and accidents, was 15 minutes late. My sister walked out on the Brooklyn Bridge as the ash fell. Some of her Jewish co-workers, upon seeing the buildings fall, fell to the floor screaming. It’s happening again. Oh no no no. 


the famous cover of the first post-9/11 New Yorker, which was black on black with an image of the towers. The black of the towers was different from the the black of the background only by a shiny film

Art Spiegelman created this image. He’s been affecting my long slow digestion of that event from before I even knew he was. The first of the periodicals coming in was the beginning of the return to normalcy – that most American of coinage, put forth first by the President Warren G. Harding, an embarrassing failure who had the good sense to die in office. I was hungry in those days for something with editing, something not just reiteration and conjecture, and that first New Yorker was a sign we might be able to start doing something other than crying and freaking out. And speaking of tears, the periodical I was really waiting for was The Onion, which, as you may already know, is a satirical humor site. What could possibly be funny in all of this? After a quick google so I could write this review, I scrolled through the edition I read first and only two weeks after 9/11. Irony wasn’t dead, but it was crying its eyes out.


How have we spent the last two weeks? 1. Crying 2. Staring at hands. 3. Feeling guilty about renting video. 4. Calling loved one. 5. Thinking about donating blood. 6. Watching TV for nine hours, finally getting up, going to the corner store for Cheez Doodles, eating Cheez Doodles, realizing Cheez Doodles aren't helping, throwing Cheez Doodles away.

 In the Shadow of No Towerswas written in the weeks and months after 9/11, not so much a critical examination as a reaction in the wobbling search for meaning in the first normalcy after that event. Spiegelman is best known for his graphic novel Maus, which, if you’ve only read one graphic novel, this is probably the one. I read it at 15 or 16, probably because it was assigned in class, but maybe because it was ambient at the time. Maustells the story of the Holocaust in the medium of the paneled comic, but what I remember most is the the ways Spiegelman wrote himself into the narrative, worried about his father and mother, Holocaust survivors, their stories and feelings, the audacity of telling a story as serious as the Holocaust in a format called comics

I’ve lost much of the story in the intervening decades – godamn it, decades – but I know it’s brilliant, using both the latent didacticism and implicit spectacle of the comics medium to both instruct and – and I am aware how loaded this word is – entertain. Little Artie drawing himself as a mouse, at the knee of his father who then speech balloons a narrative so awful that it makes irony cry. The political cartoon is a longstanding form – hundreds of years – but it was mostly a single panel – a caricature, a punchline – not a moving vaudeville of the brutal slap-stick of how the political intersects with the personal. To make the political cartoon move, that’s a stroke of genius. 

I mention Maus because it’s probably not possible to come at In the Shadow of No Towerswithout knowing who Art Spiegelman is and what he has written. This is Art Spiegelman’s story of 9/11, raw and only barely filtered. He deliberately echoes Mausat points, his cartoons of himself morphing into the mouse-self of his story of the Holocaust. That Spiegelman is a Jew, and the child of Holocaust survivors himself is a vital part of how he reacts to this event. My father always said the smell of the smoke in the camps was indescribable. Now I understand what he meant. That he is a New Yorker is another; the revelation that he is not a rootless cosmopolitan, like he always fancied himself to be. He’d learned to keep his bags packed from his parents, but in the event, he realized he had more invested than he thought in that most cityest of cities. I understand now why some Jews did not leave leave Berlin, even after Kristallnacht. 

I read it today on the couch while my daughter played Barbies and bugged me. “That book is for kids,” she said, gesturing to the over-large board book format. 

“No,” I said. “It really isn’t.” 

“If it has pictures, it’s for kids,” she retorted, decisively. Five is a very certain age. 

The sparse panels of this sparse book were intended to be a weekly output, but the ways of trauma and its aftermath would not run on a timetable. Weeks would pass, and Spielgelman would smoke a thousand cigarettes and watch a thousand hours of the news cycle and the images and their attendant words would be unwritten. Nothing runs linearly in this book, it’s just or essentially a series of narrative snapshots, the kind that are absolutely and completely impossible years after the event. There’s a moment somewhere where he talks about reading Philip K. Dick in the aftermath, and I totally felt what he was about, the feeling I had of alternate history at the time. This cannot be so. When Spiegelman would write himself as the mouse character from Maus, this doubly, triply third person, even while the I is all over this book, I don’t even have a verb to contain this clause. 

This book ends more in gesture than in conclusion, a final essay on the comic form as developed in the days when Hearst and Pulitzer went after each other in the Sunday Special. It made sense to me how this ended in backward-looking cataloging of the form, made so uneasy by all these events we humans keep enacting on one another. I’ve been waffling on how to assign a star rating – certainly, this isn’t perfect by any stretch, but as an imperfect reflection of a time that has been digested down to a sleek narrative that we’re not going to talk about – it’s perfect. It’s perfect because it’s so decidedly personal, the kind of personal that gets where it is coming from, and has no idea where it’s going. 

On 9/11/01 time stopped. On 9/12/01 clocks began to tick again. But everyone knew it was the ticking of a giant time bomb

The other shoe has yet to drop. 

Review: Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson

I took the kids to the zoo on Friday because sometime late Thursday, I discovered they had the day off and we were suddenly at loose ends. The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St Paul is an old school, Victorian zoo, a municipal pasture that was fenced in to hold three deer gifted to the city in 1897. Various attractions were added over the years, such as the ominous sounding “Monkey Island” which must be where the flamingos live now in the summer, or Archie Brand’s Seal Show featuring a succession of sea lions named Sparky. There’s a statue of the original Sparky, as well as one of the first resident lowland gorillas, a male named Don, who lived out his days at Como Zoo. He’s currently stuffed and in a case at the Science Museum of Minnesota across town. 

a woman in what looks like 1920's garb with a huge fur wrap around her shoulders feeds a black bear
Watch your fingers. 

The zoo has changed a lot since I was a kid. Mum used to joke that you more or less pulled open a fridge to see the penguins, which continues to be true, but the polar bears recently got a multi-million dollar upgrade on their previous, frankly appalling enclosure. Two black bears and a grizzly were visiting from someplace upstate that had been washed out by flooding. But I like how the Victorian bones of the zoological garden are still showing at Como, all this post-Civil War Age of Industry and Expansion, that drops a fence over a pasture and then calls it tame.

an undated black and white photograph that shows three large metal enclosures in a grove with lots of people milling around and looking. It's not possible to tell what's in the cages.
(The two above photos are from the Como Zoo website, and do not have dates.) 

My kids and I stood out in the weak November sun and watched sea lions circle their rocky tank. They were the only seasonal animals still out; the single desultory ostrich and his warm climate peers disappeared into basements or wherever they go when not on display – and the flash of the dark body, knifing silently through the water to nose up with the sound of breaking surface tension (not a splash) and then disappear again moves me in that enclosed way of all zoos. They remind me more of dogs than anything, with their big brown eyes and doggy snouts, but I can feel the fur just under my skin, like I could strip off my hairlessness and dive in. Lord, but do selkies do it for me.

a line drawing of a selkie skin, empty and discarded

Mermaids are a little different. They aren’t layers of wildness and domesticity, but a bifurcation of the two, an uneasy stitch between scale and skin. Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudsonby Mark Siegel takes place slightly earlier than the founding of this zoo, 1887, on the Hudson river. Sailor Twain (“Don’t call me captain”) plies the river in his steamer in the employ of a drunken Frenchman named Lafayette. The story starts with layers though – a broken Twain sought out for his story by an enigmatic woman, all shadows and cloaks, and then tells the tale lappingly, incidents building, reversing so that you apply new information to old assumptions, reimagine as you imagine. The Hudson, like the Thames, is a tidal river, and it flows both ways depending on the moods of the tides. Twain’s recountings start with his offhand observation of a stag in the river, and then the discovery of mermaid on his boat.

a charcoal drawing of a stag's head rising from the water in silhouette, a steam ship in the background

My husband called the art here “sophomoric” because he’s a jackass, but I do see his point. Twain is rendered almost naively, his big round eyes and unruly hair under his captain’s hat offset by his almost Puritanically dark figure. The mermaid – her name is unpronounceable, but translates to South – is both fishily sticky and voluptuously sexy. They enact their doom on the charcoal canvass of Industrial Revolution America, all smog and late evening. It took me a while to cotton to Twain’s rendering – why so cartoonish, so simple? – but I eventually dug it for its childlike lack of wonder, its earnest simplicity. 

Twain in the background while the mermaid sleeps in a bed.

I’m waiting for someone to flag this image, because Goodreads has a no nudity clause (something which I generally agree with – the pornbots are bad enough without encouragement) and I’m pretty sure that’s a nipple slip there. But it gets really tricky with creatures like mermaids. Their strange unconsummated sexuality is the seam of their existence – it’s what holds them together. The mermaid in Sailor Twainis bare-breasted in most of the panels she occurs, and it is frustrating me no end that I can’t replicate them here. I went and dug around the history of the Starbucks mermaid for a while this morning – I knew she had run into trouble in places like Saudi Arabia and with Christian groups for doing things like having breasts and being a woman-ish creature. 

original Starbucks cigar-band logo, with the mermaid's breasts uncovered by her hair
Now I’m just being a scofflaw.

Like the strange Starbucks mermaid with her fishy “legs”, there are a lot of doubled storylines and doppelgangers – Twain’s wife convalescing from some unnamed illness that has her legs tucked unworking into a blanketed wheelchair, her church solo like the siren song of the mermaid, but pious and tamed. Siegel makes use of all the metaphorical possibilities of a steamer captain named Twain – so much so, that I occasionally laughed at how they were deployed. But I think I was supposed to in these little odd moments of levity. Mark Twain himself wasn’t afraid of the narrative wink – although his tended to be whole body gestures.

I pretty much loved this story because I love inevitable tragedy – mermaid stories never end well – and doppelgangers, and Industrial Revolution America, and strange sublimated sexuality and doom. I love it like watching sea lions in an enclosure thousands of miles from the sea. 

The Hidden Goddess: Second Verse, Same as the First!

Second verse, same as the first! 

Just kidding. 

Sort of. 

I liked the first of this series, The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, almost despite myself. The opening is rough, like a chainsaw working out the bite into the flesh of the log. But it finds its bite partway through the book in a way that treats American history with respect, even though I wish a little more of that history made it into the book. Or, you know, in a way that mattered. 

Second verse, same as the first. By which I mean, this epilogue starts with some seriously interesting stuff about Grant’s presidency and alt-history stuff about the sources for the American Civil War, and then, and then, well, nevermind all that! I’m not really complaining, I guess, because Hobson took some things about the first book that I really sparkled on and expanded them – like the effects of gender on the credomancy explained in the first book – the magic of belief – in the character of Miss Jesczenka. I almost wanted her to chuck Emily – our heroine from the first book – and focus on the spectacular Miss Jesczenka, who articulates an astonishingly personal and accurate ambivalence about the experience of being a woman in a misogynist society. Just, good Lord, she’s so awesome. 

It’s not even so much that I’m bagging on Emily – she is a fine main character, with her fish-out-of-water folksy ways – but I felt like the inevitable second book issues between Emily and her paramour, Dreadnought (oh, just barf on the names here, even though they are explained better in this outing) fell into a lot of lameness traps. Emily and Dreadnought (ugh) spend a lot of the first book sniping at each other in that antipathy-is-attraction way, while here, they are kept apart by a bunch of logistics and the occasional bullshit misunderstanding. Some of the misunderstandings were valid – Emily’s search for her birth parents, and the varying allegiances and mis-allegiances found and lost by her questings were spot on – but sometimes it was like, ZOMG IMMA MISUNDERSTAND SOMETHING I JUST WALKED IN ON THAT IS EASILY MISCONSTRUED. Bah. 

Emily and Dreadnought’s (ugh) relationship is never anything more that paint-by-numbers – right down to the argument-ending kisses he plants on her more than once – which, I would like to know if that has ever actually worked for a dude irl. I’m not sure why the wisdom is that lovers have to be kept apart in book two, but I’ve see it often enough for it to be a thing. Shame, really, because there were a number of developments that I could easily imagine Dreadnought (ugh) and Emily tackling together, because the implications had more than enough potential for conflict between them to arise – real conflicts, rather that logistical bumbling and iffy misunderstandings. The baddie here is so over the top she’s maybe hard to take seriously, but certain political situations were neat enough to keep me from focusing on the unreality of the bad guy’s motivations. 

It’s been a while, but I felt like the tone of this book was more consistent, and more consistently goofy than the first, though I do not mean that as a dig. A failing of the first book might be that that it expected me to take some very silly stuff seriously, while here there’s some very serious stuff that might have been treated more lightly than it should have been. The question of tone is a tricky one, one that I don’t have an easy answers for, though I get the difficulties of managing a story that is equal parts end-of-the-world, banter-y romance, and alt-history. That the tone is managed as well as it is is certainly something. 

The ending dot dot dots to a certain kind of romantic completeness, which both irritates and satisfies in equal measures. I went to look for the next book in this series – that’s how on the hook I am – and it looks as though the narrative of Emily and her Dreadnought (ugh) will be skipped over to writhe in the stories of their kids. Which, boo a little bit. Given the end, I would like to hear some stuff about how Dreadnought (ugh) deals with…some things, how he copes with losing something fairly vital to his personality. Love is the answer and all, but, as the narrative here says, it’s just a start. Too bad that’s all we get here.

Bickering as Courting: The Native Star

This was another insomnia read, picked up in the dark hours when no one but me is awake. Pretty much with an insomnia read I’m just looking for readability, which is one of those terms that is probably not that helpful. Maybe I should go onto Karen’s Reader’s Advisory group and try to define this readable beast.

Tone: light to medium
Pace: fast
Setting: not contemporary, possibly with magic, aliens, gadgets or other neat ideas that are fun to watch play out
Romance: light
Narrator: inobtrusive

Admittedly, these are just my criteria, but this is my insomnia and I’m sticking to it.

The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, on the dust jacket, is likened to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I think works insofar as they are both mild alt-histories with magic as the alternate part of history, but the tone and pacing are very, very different. I would not want to read anything with footnotes, as much fun as they are in Strange & Norrell, in the odd hours. And as much as I love Strange & Norrell , the pace is glaaaacial. (And not to be be bitch, I think Strange & Norrell is a better book, by whatever odd metric I have for judging writing and content, fwiw. Just not better in the middle of the night.) 

But! The other thing I like about likening this to Strange & Norrell is that neither one is steampunk, a label I see applied to this one. Forsooth, arguing about genre is a losing business, but just because something is an alternate history set in the late 1800s, that isn’t enough to make it steampunk. Magic ain’t gadgets, and a certain kind of fetishized retro-technology porn is an inextricable part of the (sub)-genre. But! I’m willing to concede that this is in the odd dash-punk edge of alt-history. I noticed some similarities between the sanguimages from this book and the warlocks in Bitter Seeds - indeed, both are termed warlocks, a nice double entendre on their need for blood to perform magic, and their usefulness in wartime. Tregillis’s book also has magic and something like steampunk – though maybe it’s more gaspunk? Sorry, Ian, wherever you are. I don’t know how to class your book, or this. 

It’s like there is a cluster of dash-punk genres – alternate histories that keep coding and recoding history with various magics and the magics of technologies, pushing the true history to reveal itself. Mike has noted that most alt-histories have alt-histories written within them, and Native Star is no different: here, it is a series of pulp novels that comment on the magic-working characters, which is not dissimilar to the pulp novels in Raising Stony Mayhall. I have said this a thousand times before, but I do not care about originality, so if it seems like my comparisons to other books are intended to cut this one down, that is not my intent. This is a genre exercise, whatever that genre may be, and the parameters of the world and characters are individual enough to put down any talk of being a poor copy. I mean, points for a giant oil-soaked killer raccoon alone, if novelty is your bag. 

So far, this is the worst book report ever, me blathering about things only interesting to me. So, to the plot summary: 

The Native Star starts with a small town witch, Emily, with money problems putting the whammy on the town babbitt, in an move that backfires into zombies and some irate townspeople. She ends up with a magical stone lodged in her hand – don’t ask – and then the story is off and tumbling in a post-Civil War Old West. Her compatriot through these tumbles is a man called Dreadnought Stanton, which is possibly the stupidest name ever, and I never did figure why Emily was the only character with a non-stupid name. The beginning rankled a bit, what with the silly names and the poor characterizations – yes, Emily is smart but uneducated; yes, Dreadnought (ugh) is a stuffed shirt patrician type, but with seeeekrits. But – and this so rarely seems to happen for me – the characterizations completely tighten up as the book progresses, the stock characters thawing into something resembling humans. The action is well-written, and the banter ranging from not-distracting to super fun. I was expecting certain inevitable twists that ended up being different enough from my expectations to be satisfying. I’ll just say: fuck yeah, hubris! 

I even came to peace with the names, which end up being often Dickensian and sly. There’s a lot of really funny hat-tips in this book, like the bounty hunter with an Italian accent who seems to have walked off the set of a Spaghetti Western. I found this delightful, especially because it was underplayed. And – this is going to be huge tangent – but can someone please write on of these dash-punk action thrillers in the Reconstruction South? There seems to be a lot of fictions that center on the myth of the Old West in narrating our American discomfort with Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, and – you know – all that blood let to forge the melting pot in the first place. And how the culture wars still rage along lines set down at the time. 

The bestest of these fictions, to me, is the HBO series Deadwood, but there’s plenty more stories in that well, from Eastwood’s Unforgiven to the sublime moody weirdness of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This book opens with magical carpetbaggers slitting the throats of conciliatory but angry Southern merchants, and, hot damn, I really wish there had been more of that, as much fun as the Old West stuff was. But the dash-punk genre seems to encode these anxieties into magic or gasmasks or whatever, so I guess I can’t expect them to take on the Reconstruction South, when pretty much no one wants to touch that live wire, genre or not. Hobson does take on Grant’s presidency and the war obliquely, in a way I haven’t completely teased out yet, so that is something. (And I’m shit for history, really, so it would be cool if someones like Eric or Matt read this and gave me a book report. I’ll totally mail this to you. Kthxbai.) 

So. There are things I could bitch about (not excited about the Native characters) and things I could praise (excited by the proto-feminist characters), but what it comes down to is that this was the right book at the right time. And not just to sound like I’m faint-praising this book for being a pretty midnight tumble, I spent the day thinking about the characters and the alt-history, unknotting some later plot developments and choices. There’s a lot of smart and funny here in all of the relentless action. Hot damn, that’s something, insomnia or not. 

Wifey: Not Jumping but Hanging

Not jumping but hanging. 

First off, I’d like to note that Wifey was chosen as a group read for a romance-reading group. This is seriously funny-sad, in retrospect, because I think this novel is the anti-romance. Which is not to say it doesn’t have some commonalities with the romance novel: female protagonist, concerned primarily with sex and relationships, trappings of consumerism and status. This book also shares a commonality of usage with romance in that many, many people about my age stole this from their mothers at an impressionable age so’iz they could read the sex bits over and over. Having read this as an adult, I find this somewhat hysterical, because it is possibly the least romantic book to be classed as such. If a romance novel is primarily an act of wish-fulfillment, where love conquers all and sex is cauterized through marriage, then this succeeds in only one of these things. And I can tell you it’s not the love bit.

I have a pretty severe allergy to this time period in American fiction, and I realize a bit of this is learned and a bit of it is just general cultural anxiety. Writing from the sexual revolution can’t work for me, generationally, because things that are couched as stunning revelations – women feel desire – read like cliché. Of course we do! Durr. Then there’s a boomer friend of mine likes to lean in and make jokes about that time period, in this upsetting way, because he’s the father of a friend of mine, and shouldn’t be talking about sex to me: the sexual revolution was all about getting into the pants of those not inclined. Hey baby, why do you have to be so square? I take his point: sometimes people equate free love with the sexual revolution, when I think that’s super reductive, but that equation is one that has a long history, and I think this book cuts a slash though that equals sign. The parts of the sexual revolution that I love have to do with the interrogation of gender roles and social expectations, and I think this book hinges on the equation of sex with liberation, and shows how hollow that idea can be when there isn’t a corresponding change in assumptions. There’s all kinds of social panic in this book: gay panic – apparently having a woman touch a man’s nipples makes him gay; racial panic – there are several enlightening conversations about what constitutes a “good” minority, red-lining, white flight, etc; gender panic – having sex with a woman on top makes her a “women’s libber” (god, I haven’t heard that term in a dog’s age). Sandy’s miserable in her roles a housewife and mother, and sleeping around may put those roles into crisis, but it doesn’t make those roles go away.

I recently read The Crying of Lot 49which was written roughly ten years before this, at the other end of the country and at the very beginning of the sexual revolution that is about to crash into the Jewish New Jersey suburbs in Wifey. I think that Oedipa from Lot 49 and Sandy from Wifey have strains of the same DNA in their blood. I’m feeling a little stupid comparing Pynchon to Blume here, but seriously. Oedipa is a useless housewife, as is Sandy; despite their transgressions, both are incredibly socially conservative; they both go on their little journeys of sex and discovery, and both novels fall completely apart, in the end, although one is much more personal a failure than the other. There’s other commonalities too – I think that the Nazi shrink in Lot 49 has something in common in creepiness with the gynecologist brother-in-law in Wifey, both of them trying to enact their institutional fuckery on the principles of these books. (I’m not using the term Nazi metaphorically here, although Pynchon might be. Dr. Hilarious was a bona fide Nazi doctor.) The difference may be that Pynchon treats his Oedipa with disdain & misunderstanding, in a gendered, satire kind of way – I’m pretty sure the only thing that makes Oedipa a woman is that her heels clack – Blume treats her protagonist with the pointed cruelty of understanding. Sandy does not just have clacking heels, she has an itchy vagina which she scratches to bleeding. Sorry, this is gross, but it’s the vagina-that-shall-not-be-named, the spooky specter of female libido.

There’s a moment in Lot 49 when Oedipa confronts what to any good social conservative is the inevitable horror of societal sexual permissiveness when she watches a mother and son tongue-kiss their farewells in a bus station – they’ve been using the evil, subterranean postal system to telegraph their transgressive love – and Oedipa falls into a dream-swoon, unsure if this real or imaginary. If it is acceptable to cross one line, then why not another? But Oedipa is mostly a satirical creature and Pynchon’s poking fun at her perceptions – I think it’s no accident that she ends up floating around Berkley or wherever it is running into gays and hobos and Vietnam veterans after she has her extramarital affair, because it’s almost like Pynchon is rubbing her nose in how she takes one part of the social movements going on by giving herself a pass to have an affair, and discarding the rest. The sexual revolution had as much to do with Stonewall or custodial rights or whatever as it has to do with giving already privileged people the permission to do what they want, which they would do anyway. When she finally returns to her husband, he’s lost in drug-perceptions, and the pinwheeling satire of 49 draws to its unfinished conclusion.

But Oedipa is a satirical creature and Sandy is not; Sandy has an inner life much more fully realized than Oedipa. Pynchon comes to judgment on Oedipa, and Blume does not. While there are elements of social satire in Wifey, it’s not satire, a frustrating muddle of realism and satire, of burlesque and social commentary. It’s aggressively straightforward, almost to a strange degree. I’ve read me lots of genres, and there’s usually a moment, even in the most prosaic of fictions, when the writer tries some writerly zig-zag, just to make sure you’re paying attention. I don’t feel like that ever happened here, and it makes me think about the female diarist in Possessionwho never writes what she means, and that not writing it is an act of subversion. I’m groping, again, as I have been in all of this review, because I feel like a definitive reading of this book is severely impossible. But as I’ve found in reading this women’s fiction in the group, I take Sandy a lot more personally than I do Oedipa, which is sometimes a mistake. If I’d written this review the minute I finished reading, it would have been one-star outrage – I would have read myself, as a wife & mother, into Sandy, and I would have taken personally the outrages committed and perpetrated by Sandy. I never had that reaction to Oedipa, because she’s not really a woman, and I’m less sensitive to what I perceive as sexist twaddle coming from men, rightly or wrongly.

Blume writes a portrait, a character, and refuses to tell you how to read it, which is absolutely the strangest thing ever. I held off reading the intro until after I read the book, and that fucked me up in all kinds of ways. Blume wrote this after she left her husband in the 70s, and Sandy makes all the choices that Blume did not: to stay by her husband, to hide in her Jewish, suburban enclave, and fuck, I don’t know what. I hate reading books through autobiography. (I have almost zero interest in the lives of writers, maybe because I’ve been tainted by the New Criticism of my mother, who is my internalized reader, my readerly super-ego.) The subversion in the writing is the lack of gloss, in the lack of artistry. Here it is, she says, think what you will. Blume might have written Sandy as an elegy to the choices she never made, because there was a moment there, somewhere, where she could have become Sandy, and she understands and empathizes. Maybe not. There are good arguments against the polemic novel, one that tells you what to think and why, but this is anti-polemic, letting you twist wondering why choices were made and conclusions come to.

Here come the spoilers.

When Sandy and her husband come to their agreement, and choose to remain in this horrid, soul-killing marriage, I died. In a year, Sandy will kill herself too, inevitably, awfully. My husband and I screamed out this conclusion: why does it have to end like this? A shared bed is a horrible capitulation – this is not a happy choice. This may be me bringing too much literary reading to my reading, but I was horrified by Sandy’s offer to shave her puss so that her husband could endure it. I think of all the literary hair: Ruskin freaking at his wife’s pubes, Humbert Humbert and his smooth girl, the hard, alabaster Edward, J. Alfred Prufrock noting the hair on the arms of the women coming and going, and on and on. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, because I do not have a woman to hem them. Maybe I’ve just articulated one of those insane personal pet theories, but hair and its metaphorical stand-in for real sexuality, for libido, for the deeply anti-social nature of love seems to be a running thread not just in fiction but in life. Sandy will hem her husband’s trousers, and hem her cunt, and I hate that it comes to that. I hate that I just said “cunt”, like her husband did to Sandy when he found out about the affair. I hate all things that seem like choices but are not, or are choices but the wrong ones.

Another component of the romance novel is one of the exceptionalism of its principles: a love that knows no bounds, love that turns transgression into acceptance, the kind of love that turns someone as soulless & inconsequential as Bella Swan into the heroine of a grand plot. It is the inner life turned out, made manifest in the men who can see the exceptional nature of the protagonist. Sandy is not exceptional: not smart, not talented, not healthy or spunky or robust. But she is character with the only reality, and her rich fantasy life is almost a commentary on the dangers of mistaking wish-fulfillment narratives of love & romance with hard realities. If this were a romance, her affair with Shep would have concluded with their happy marriage and some more babies. But Shep is just some schmuck, like her husband, and wishing for happiness, hoping that love will magic away her obstacles for happiness continues to put the agents to her happiness in other people. As crushed as I was by her conclusion, for her to stay by her horrible shit of a husband after he smacks her and calls her a cunt, I can’t imagine her making the choice to run away and find a less inconsequential life. This story interrogates the idea that romantic love can change your life, and lays it bare. Sandy should, by all rights, chuck this dreary shit and strike out on her own, but she’s been bound by a narrative of domestic harmony and consumerist comfort that makes such a choice impossible. In short, she’s swallowed the barb that’s in a lot of women’s fiction: that you cannot do this on your own. Love will set you free, but if there is no love to be had, then you remain in your cage, and she does. I hate her choice. I think it will kill her in the end, but I appreciate Blume’s lack of judgment & her compassionate portrait of Sandy. Sandy is the road most traveled. May we all look on her and despair.