Category Archives: the housewife

Gothic Short Fiction: Top 5

We arrived at the cabin yesterday, and have been doing the slow, unloosening unwind of food and fire-ful conversation. Time out from one’s life is a strange, interstitial moment, sitting in a kitchen with my mother and my husband and arguing about literature and the state of the weather and the price of beans. Mum and I started in about Gothic fiction, because we have that in common. She taught a class in Gothic fiction way back when, using primary The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. I read it along with her  at the time because I’m easy and I like books and I like short fiction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales ended up being one of the very best multi-author short story collections I’ve ever encountered. From the editorial choices to the brilliant fucking introduction, Chris Baldick knows whassup. (But, sadly, we made fun of his name a little because baldick.)

So we started arguing the top five Gothic short fictions, and Mum ended up with the following list:

“Jordan’s End” by Ellen Glasgow

A doctor goes to a remote, decaying Virginia farmhouse to treat the head of the family who is suffering from a hereditary disease. The doctor quickly realizes that not only the man, but his wife, aunts, and sons are all caught in a web woven of madness and death. Doom everywhere.

“The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorges Luis Borges

A student from Buenos Aires goes to visit his bumpkin cousin on a remote estancia during Lent, which is fall in the Southern hemisphere. To pass the time, he starts reading the Gospel of Mark to the degenerate, illiterate servants–which turns out to be a huge mistake.

“The Vampire of Kaldenstein” by Frederick Cowles

In the late 1930s, a clueless Brit takes a bicycle tour to a remote part of Germany, fails to heed the locals’ warning–to comic results. Don’t go to the castle, you idjit!

The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter

A sad, young vampire waits in darkness in her ancestral castle for her true love to come to her. Many men and boys do, but wind up as blood donors. Another British bicyclist, this time a soldier o leave during WWI, shows up and spends the night with her. Will his blood be shed there or on the battlefields of France?

The Horla” by Guy DeMaupassant

Oh my god! Hysterical first person narrator wigs out when he thinks an invisible Brazilian chupachbra is haunting him. He grows crazier with every passing day until he finally decides to do something about his unseen tormentor.

Like the joke about lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, this is a good start. But my list would look a little different. I would add “The Bloody Countess” by Alejandra Pizarnik, which is so completely dirty and perverse and freaks me out with its semi-academic tone married to some seriously fucked up content. Elizabeth Bathory, man. The husband brought up Poe, because obvs, and we decided that “The Fall of the House of Usher” was the best of his Gothics. A young man comes to visit his friend and the friend’s tragic twin sister in their remote, crumbling estate.

In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates self-absorbed teenager Connie has all these fantasies about boyfriends, and when Arnold Friend pulls his red convertible into the driveway of her family home when her family is away at a barbeque, she gets a boyFriend from hell.

And then, of course, the patron saint of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find“. A Georgia couple, their bratty children and a grandma who fancies herself a Southern aristocrat, embark on a road trip. The grandmother’s insistence on seeing a plantation (that she later realizes is “gone with the wind”) ends with their rolling the family car on a dusty rural road.  Enter the Misfit, an escaped convict, and his sidekicks.

So, given this collection of freaking excellent stories, I think you could probably say something about the shape of the Gothic. An outsider comes into an often rural location. He (or occasionally she) might be a painful doofus. The rot of the inbred rural location might spread, or it might be a counterpoint to the mechanized horror of the industrial center. Monsters have faces; machine guns do not. Gothic more than other longstanding genres has a lot of female writers, and that makes sense to me: the creeping dread, the lack of agency, the limited locales. Women haven’t have the most control over our lives, historically speaking.
List:
Autumn setting
Remote, isolated location
Night, darkness
Enclosed spaces
Decaying houses, castles
Hereditary insanity, illness
Twins (doppelganger)
Madness
Grotesque body shapes
Inbreeding
Storms, floods, extreme cold or heat

So it was fun to talk lists, and the weird convergences – bicycles, apparently? – and I look forward to more food and talk and half-napping here on the North Shore.

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

slasher

Slasher Films: Lolita

Lolita is a premonition of the slasher film by way of the Gothic novel, the point of view monster breathing in the grass as the co-educational campers couple amongst the furniture of middle America. It begins with that slasher staple, the note from the shrink, a wheezy clueless sort who mistakes fact for innuendo. This whole book occurs after the blackbird whistles, just to make an obscure poetic reference. The beginning sections reminded me of my local love, the anecdotal satirist of my youth, Sinclair Lewis, with his intricate and bawling America, laid out in sitting rooms and social climbing, Humbert the outsider, Humbert the imaginary monster, Hubert the European of our fantasies, all dissolution and our fevered dreams cum nightmares. (Har har.) 

The beginning is outrageously funny, the way horror stories are, Humber’ts parentheses side-commenting about this and that, a dagger commentary sheathed in brackets. Wait, a moment for his parentheses. Woolf may have taught me to love the semicolon, although that affection was in full bloom before I hit her mastery, but Nabokov and his creature (his Creature) have taught me to love those brief, epigrammatic asides. I await DFW to teach me the beauty of the endnote. At some point though, the whole thing grabbed me by the throat and shook, the way a dog does with prey (a cat, a wild-eyed rabbit) and I found myself shaken into another novel completely – the road trip novel, the long, undulating America, the Gothic panic of the narrow space recreated in a thousand unnamed American burgs and their sticky hotels, the mountains (which ones?) rising purple and ground down in the distance, the Oedipal struggle completely drawn with fangs that bite Oedipus in his hoary ass. Lo Lee Ta. A series of consonants and vowels that refuse to coalesce into meaning. 

Humbert is aggressively contructed, a narrator so damaged that the character is so fictional, so unreal, that it shimmers with the hot road mirage of truth, just up the bend, just under the bed. Humbert is awful, gross, a fraud, on so many levels; his Lolita, his Dolly, a work of the most perverse art. Like a character in a Browning monologue, we cannot believe anything he says, about her, about himself, the rough Freudian gloss muddling on about bad hearts and the newspaper, about childhood and its damage. Grrr, my heart’s abhorrence. No. Unlike a Browning poem, we can’t simply reverse Humbert’s statements to see past to the facts. Messy, like a mind, like knees in the dew-wet grass. Like any good Gothic novel, the bracket of the doctor’s statement is unclosed, and we end with Humbert and his musings on immortality. (Spoilers, I say, but that is ironic, at best.)

When I was 12, I had this friend. I still have her, as they say. We were not close at that time, just near in the surname alphabet, sitting close to one another, a desk away, two desks away. We liked each other; we were friends of the giggling sort. One day, she opened her purse, a denim number that looked like my own, and showed me the contents. Her eyes slanted away from mine. Look. Inside was a knife, in with the lipstick and tissue. Why do you have a knife? I asked, round-eyed, not understanding. My step-father…and here is an ellipses of details that are neither your business or mine, in the end. We slant our eyes away. I urged her naively to seek out an authority and tell, as children say. She did. It did not go well. 

You can write it in yourself, and I will not disgorge the hard details of this revelation or its rending conclusion. Her story is so commonplace as to be cliché, which makes it all the worse. That is not what this book is about. This book does not mistake fact for innuendo. It is the story of the madness of storytelling; the madness of the way we construct ourselves and others; a madness that won’t adhere to a lineal, Freudian causality. My friend’s step-father, the real monster, was a plump, useless, banal man with a beard and fat hands, may he roast in hell forever. Humbert is not this. He is fire and words, a long prissy, fated monologue that turns fiction on itself, a long slow gin of puns – there I made one, do you see? – an unclosed bracket on the American dream. Schwink schwink schink.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

I am coming down with something bad. I could feel the cement hardening in the cracks in my skull all day, and now my brain is both solid and lacy with an underwater stupidity. I had started reading some trash fiction this morning, as usually illness sends me crawling to comforting junk, but it didn’t suit this time. It turned out my misery wanted miserable company, which made There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya more or less the perfect companion. 

Sometimes short stories can be really constructed things, like a spring-loaded trap that snaps down hard on form or concept or what have you. These short stories are instead morbid and wry anecdotes, told with a sort of uniformity of structure, in a uniformity of locales. Which isn’t exactly true: when I could tell the time period, these stories ranged around from just post-War Soviet state to the now Russian Republic grumbling about New Russians. But poor, miserable, drunken, bureaucratic assholes are a time-transcendent fixture, as are the drear cabbage-redolent apartments and disconnective, though central, family structures. At a point, the whole collection started feeling like an extended rake joke, and I kept stepping and stepping on the tines that would aim the handle straight for my cement-filled head. Whether this will work for other readers is, as usual, up in the air, and it’s possible my single-sitting reading of this work helped my sense of the dark humor. 

One of the best set of classes I ever took was a Russian Literature and History two-fer in high school, and we decided to stage a reading of The Cherry Orchard. We didn’t know much about it, and the teacher (in a very interesting and, ultimately, rewarding choice) didn’t read up on The Cherry Orchard‘s very long history on the stage; she was not directing our impressions. It’s a pretty dire story, in terms of plotting, a family broken up and sold off, dashed hopes, dissolution. And we couldn’t stop laughing as we read, not at all. It got to be a pain in the ass because we couldn’t even get our scenes completed as the giggling took up from on to the other like an infection. Then we would all wonder, why the hell are we laughing at this? Though there are elements of farce, The Cherry Orchardisn’t unserious in its treatment of its characters, not running them as some kind of broad parody. 

Turns out, Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but its tragic aspects are inescapable. The laughter it provokes is uncomfortable, the burst of laughter after a startle. Many folk smarter and better’n me at theatre history have droned on about this at length, so let’s have an end to that and get back to Petrushevskaya, who manages to hit a Soviet version of the Chekhovian tragicomedy in a blur of miserable similarity. And who manages to do it turning Tolstoy’s famous aphorism on its head: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Here, this is what happened,” so many of these stories start, and then not quite tragic but nonetheless inconsequential lives continue inconsequentially until they end, or the narrative does. 

The whole business reminded me of the Grandma Dory’s ironic anecdotes of her childhood, her Bestamore locked in by a stroke for the last 20 years of her life, left minded by teenage granddaughters who had better business to attend to. Bestamore had a tendency to push herself out of wherever she was propped, rolling down hills and gurgling in a way my Grandma would imitate. I guess she was trying to say something, Grandma would shrug with an old woman’s shoulders, laughing past her childish cruelties. Grandma’s lessons are always subtle. Petrushevskaya has an almost dismissively reductive narrative voice – “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. The girl was used to it and didn’t get too upset” – but the opening dismissals are almost always belied by strange, glancing connections and the fact that she is focusing on these dismissed lives at all. 

I often try, when I’m writing up collected short stories, to sort them individually: this one, this theme; this other, its voice. I’m not going to do that here because I think this functions best as an album, in the old school records-slotted-in-a-cardboard-box sense, but also in the sense of family album, all those nameless and half-remembered ancestors, sitting in a row of schoolchildren or dapper in their military swag or holding armfuls of children destined to die before the age of five. Here are the stories of unremembered lives lived in squabbled over apartments and stupid jobs. Amen.

a line of people in a black and white photo in front of building, one of which is my great-grandfather (though I don't know which) on the eve of his running from Lithuania during the Revolution
One of these men is my great-grandfather, on the eve of the Revolution which will send him out of Lithuania. I don’t know which one.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

About a third of the way into Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie, I had to fold back and check the publication date. I was pretty sure this had to have been penned in the 80s, given the attitudes and assumptions of most of the cast. Nope! 2004. I’m not saying this is retrograde or backward or anything, just that it feels like a period piece of women of a certain class from my mother’s generation, and, in fact, it might make more sense if it had been set earlier than the late-90s. But, then, I’m not really a member of the socioeconomic milieu presented her, so maybe it’s entirely on the nose. I do totally know these women though, or I knew them 20 years ago. 

Nell is a year past her divorce when she gets a job at a detective agency. She’s mid-40s with a grown son, and pretty mopey and gutted from the divorce. There are a lot of very broad hat tips to Noir plotting and tropes, in a way that was very goofy and fun, played for comedy instead of machismo. And probably explains some of the period piece feel of the novel; Crusie seems to be working out some things about the genre. Even the title is a misnomer, because these women are anything but fast, more a collection of stay at home moms, trophy wives and the tragic widows. I mean, who even uses the term secretary anymore? Even the broadest caricatures, like the girl who’s putting the blackmail to some assholes, is treated sympathetically – spoiler coming - even if she is ultimately fridged. But I get where Crusie is coming from, because I think the scene in Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade’s secretary rolls him a cigarette and then holds it out for him to lick the paper is damn near the sexiest thing I have ever seen, even though my late model feminist ass doesn’t…well, it just doesn’t. 


Rwwrrr. 

If you think about it, a lot of the comedy from the Noir stuff in Fast Womenis turned in a domestic direction, more about dogs and affairs than about money and international political whatever, which is an interesting shift, the kind of thing I think women’s fiction can be attuned to. And, in fact, the murder plot was the least satisfying, feeling almost incongruous with the tone of the thing. But given all the sublimated feminine rage and violence – there is a fair amount of kitchen and office smashing & burning – I don’t think it’s ultimately out of place here, even if it’s kinda badly plotted. I am not a slick mystery reader, and I saw many things coming miles away. 

And, speaking of money, money what may be the weirdest part of this book, for this reader anyway. I’m going to refrain from telling divorce horror stories – you’re welcome – but I will just note that many women, especially of my mother’s generation, were deeply, personally, and financially fucked by their divorces. I’m not saying that divorce doesn’t suck for men too or anything – it is a drag when love dies, and the basic economic unit in America gets busted up – just that, if you look at the statistics, women fare much worse after a divorce, and especially if they have children. So this coterie of ladies who are swanning around post-divorce with no nevermind of money issues felt weird. 

Or, that’s not really accurate – there is some nevermind – just that the exact nevermind felt very specific to a certain demographic, one that assumes dudes provide, and then dudes do. (And not the demographic that assumes that because of the bible and Jesus, but just because that’s the way men and molls have always done it, if you catch my distinction.) Again, some of this is the working out of Noir tropes, but then how those tropes intersect with suburban upper middle class values. My eyes still goggled a bit when Jack gets all bitter and pissy when Suze gets a checking account. (???) Or, Budge was seriously paying the bills for Margie for the last seven years, even though they are not married. (???) Who are these people??? In 2004???

Still, though, even though they are aliens, they are in some ways familiar aliens to me. I enjoyed? is this the right word? the parts where the ladies talked about all their china in vivid, personal detail. I am not, nor have I ever been, a dish person, but I know these women. I have been served tea by these women in their stately St Paul manses, after coming in the back door, because that is how the working class is to enter such a home. I remember talking with Sarah and Atherton – these are not their real names – Sarah relating to me that she had married Atherton assuming he had old money, and he had assumed the same of her, and then, knot tied, it turned out that, whoops! they were both socially climbing on each other. But they sucked it up and, 60 years later, had clawed their way into St Paul society. Their bridge partners kinda hated Sarah and her feisty red hair and real estate. (God, Sarah was feisty. I really dug her.) 

But most of these women are gone now, these wives of Mad Man with steel in their spines and hard appraising looks. Maybe these women are their daughters, insulated from ways the world changed by money and society. Maybe the hardcore society ladies are different from the more middle class version here, but there’s still that sense of the whole wealth displayed through domesticity thing, or maybe it’s power, or who even knows what it is. Which is part of the exploration going on in this novel, even if is occasionally silly and weird and not something that makes any sense for me personally. 

I mean, I don’t require novels to be about people who look just like me, and it can be cool and fun to slip into narratives that are earnest in their examinations, even if that examination is a breezy, screwball comedy about sexual slash financial power dynamics and screwing your secretary. Sure, there’s probably lots of more literary examinations of these things, something with, like, elaborate plotting and tense deconstruction of Noir tropes, instead of comic inflection. And those would be fun, but they wouldn’t be fun in the way this book is, which is chatty girl-talk and goofing about sometimes serious matters. Nice.

Seed by Ania Ahlborn

I have this compulsion to call Seedby Ania Ahlborn “cute”, which I think might come off as bitchy and insulting. I don’t mean it that way though. Seedis a riff on The Bad Seed, which has been iterated many times since its mid-century publication: stage, film, and even Macaulay Culkin vehicles designed to “show his range”. (Also, whoa, looks like Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay for The Good Son. Trippy.) Anyway, The Bad Seedis this slightly hysterical examination of the whole nature/nurture where-does-evil-come-from? question. A perfectly adorable Aryan moppet from a good family – good in this case having the usual class/racial overtones – turns out to be a conniving sociopath. Being a product of the 50s, there’s a lot of Freud talk and socially Darwinistic stuff about criminality which doesn’t read too good anymore. 

But scary, creepy kids are a horror mainstay for good reason, which is that raising children is probably the scariest thing I can think of. If you don’t have kids of your own, then other people’s kids are just objectively creepy. (Sorry, other people’s children.) It’s all so confusing, and everyone is so judgmental, and there are days when you get that call from the school about an “incident” and just close your eyes and try to sound like a grown-up, but you know you’re just a fraud. 

Jack Winter is driving his family home one evening when a swerve to avoid the flashing retinas of a creature on the road results in a car accident. Nobody is killed but the car, which for this slightly less than politely impoverished family is a pretty serious financial blow. The youngest daughter starts behaving strangely, and Jack begins to ruminate on his own childhood encounters with whatever sharp-toothed beastie hides in the grass and the walls of the house. There’s never really a question as to whether this is anything but supernatural in origin – this is Old Scratch, not new psychology.

Seed is very Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park Southern Gothic, with all the requisite touches: crumbling house, sins of the father, trailer homes, card reading, religious in-laws. I thought the family sketches were very nicely drawn, with a naturalistic sense of the mixed irritation/affection of the long married – how fights get shorthanded and truncated, each knowing what the other will say and then nodding at the wheel-spinning with something like understanding. I liked the kids, who felt – when they we’re being creepy and evil, of course – like actual kids, not the truth-speaking moppets who drive me mad in many supernatural tales. Hell, if you get right down to it, I even liked when the kids were evil, because I think most parents have at least the one moment when they look down on their child having a nuclear tantrum and think, this child is possessed by the devil. One of mine had a creepy relationship with an imaginary friend who seemed less than imaginary sometimes. (I have a portrait drawn of Ghosty, which is a blank spot on the paper. When I asked about this, the answer was, “Oh, you can’t see him, but he’s there.” Shudder.) 

Jack is so strangely passive in the whole business, for reasons I found murky at best. On one level, I guess I dig it, in that it’s such an unbelievable bummer seeing my less-easy personality quirks visited upon the next generation – sorry about that introversion! and the social anxiety! – but on the other hand, seriously dude, you know what’s going on here, just say it out loud. At times it felt like his lack of affect was being treated as a supernatural quiet, like the hand of the devil was closing his throat, making him play out these scenes. When it wasn’t diablo-ex-machina – which I don’t exactly like, existentially speaking, but can accept in the confines of the story – Jack’s passivity just didn’t track for me. 

But, I still want to call this cute. It may be that the cuteness I am feeling is the very old school nature of the plotting, which serves up a series of reveals and visitations with a stair-treading escalation that isn’t really surprising. I mean, there’s a pet dog: where’s that gonna go? I’m sure he’ll get lots of treats and go live on a farm somewhere. Which isn’t to say I’m bagging on this, and as a slender (one might almost say cute) piece of atmospheric horror, Seedtreads the creaking Gothic stairs very competently. But given the straightforwardness of the plotting, I think this could almost be trimmed to deliver its gut-punches more quickly, like the truncated arguments between the parents. Everybody knows the dice are loaded, just roll them already.

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A strange book, to be sure. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord wears its influences on its sleeves so much that it’s more patchwork quilt than whole cloth. Star Trek (lots of Star Trek), Ray Bradbury, possibly Bujold (though it could just be similar influences, but the central characters remind me very much of Aral & Cordelia), the Janes Austen and Eyre (and I know it is monumentally unfair to conflate a real writer with a fictional character just because they have the same first name, but still I do it), the obvious Voltaire (or possibly Candide), LeGuin’s anthropology that often quests for the humaneness in our humanity. This is not going to work for many readers, especially after giving the usual your mileage may vary disclaimer about the influences. But the quilted quality, for me anyway, worked pretty decently with the the overriding themes of the novel: hybridization (as Mike notes, and you should read his review), the intersection of the domestic with societal, and love, love, love, baby.

This is the second science fiction novel I’ve read in the last month that focused at least as much attention to their interpersonal and romantic upheavals as to the more traditionally science fictional elements, and I find I like this a good deal. (And, the science fictional stuff here – like aspects cribbed pretty hard from some of my least favorite things, like Star Trek’s The Chase - were the least interesting part of the story for me.) Space opera especially can be very dudes-in-smoking-jackets-avuncularly-solving-society-with-reason, and that this book takes that reasonable computation – here is how we will solve our problems with Science! - and then puts the rubber to the road is actually quietly subversive. Yes, that’s a very nice theory you’ve got there, but when you resolve that plan down to specific human beings, who tend not to run to spec, you’re gonna have some problems. And the problems are not with the people, but with the plan.

Speaking of Star Trek, the opening is very much what happens in the third act of the most recent Star Trek movie – so spoiler alert on that, if you haven’t seen it – where the entire planet of Vulcan is destroyed, leaving a smattering of Vulcans in exile traumatized by genocide and weighted with the monumental task of rebuilding/preserving an entire culture. (I suppose this also happens in Star Wars when Leia’s home world of Alderaan is vaporized – seriously, that is not a spoiler – but that’s treated so topically as to be callous. Hey, a boy’s quest to manhood is way more important.) Ms. Lord notes in her afterward that this idea for her was sparked by reading about the lingering effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more. Because of a quirk of timing and culture, women were killed disproportionately, leaving sometimes whole communities of family-less men. A culture without women, without children, is not one that going to survive. (The reverse is true, certainly, but that’s not what happened.) So this is where we are with the Sadiri as well, and Cygnus Beta is suddenly a pioneer settlement filled mostly with Sadiri men.

Because the Sadiri are pretty much Vulcans – cool, mannered, intellectual – they build a little plan to entice (functionally) mail-order brides from the pluralistic society of Cygnus Beta to act as the new mothers of Sadiri. Ambassador Spock is tasked with surveying outlying communities for quanta of Sadiri genes, and mid-level Cygean bureaucrat/scientist Grace Delarua is sent along with him and his team. This is a pretty terrible idea – the whole assessing ladies for their breeding/genetic potential – and Grace even knows it. But whatever, road trip! We’ll just sort this shit out on the way. There’s a lot of sly commentary on racial construction in the novel – how the ways people look define how others respond to them, how racial characteristics are constructed and enforced, etc. (I actually laughed when someone exclaims “But slavery is illegal!” when the dawning realization that they are dealing with a culture predicated on slavery hits the group.) Which makes the white-washing of the cover that much more discouraging; I don’t think there is one character in this novel described as having white skin, and certainly Grace (who that is?) does not. But this has been going on in sff covers for a long time, witness the very dark-skinned Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea who has been subjected to whitewashed covers and “color-blind casting” (snort, as if) for decades. I kind of can’t imagine Ms. Lord had anything to do with this cover decision, and boycotting her work is punching a bystander, so I don’t really know what the solution is here. Strongly worded email to the publisher? Vocal bitching? Heaving dramatically ironic sighs?

The story is told mostly in Grace’s voice, which, as I gestured to in my last paragraph, is pretty breezy and chatty, sometimes irritatingly so. Sometimes less than snappy banter goes on for too long, and there are occasional dips into preciousness. But I think part of it is deliberate. Grace has an encounter with someone (trying not to go spoiler here) which is a pretty brutal assault on her mental autonomy, and it took me several chapters to have the magnitude of the assault sink in, partially because Grace jumps up and dusts off. Well, are we getting back to work or what? She’s got the glossomania of the traumatized, running scads of cheerful commentary on everything but the injury (not unlike Rae from Sunshine.) Mr Spock is doing the same thing, in his way, retreating into logic and genetics as solutions to a problem that is cultural, and therefore infinitely more non-linear. (To put it super dorkily; jeez.) It’s only through a series of glancing conversations – ones not about their traumas at all – that I began to see the avoidance mechanisms at work. Very subtly done.

Anyway, I predict that there will be many reviews of this book that dismiss it as just a love story, but The Best of All Possible Worlds - very overtly in places – reads to me as that sly kind of women’s fiction that says occasionally dangerous things about how we construct our societies, very gently and chattily drawing out our idealized visions of how people work and resolving them down to individuals. The syllabus is not the moment of insight. That Ms. Lord pulls this off in the historically all-male fantasy playset of the space opera is charmingly subversive as well. So, as I said in my opening, an odd book, patchy in places, with the kind of narrator who can even set the teeth of those inclined to like her voice (and for those who aren’t, forget about it). This book puts the soap in space opera, and I enjoyed greatly what came out in the wash.

I received my copy from NetGalley.com

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.

Breaking-dawn-2-bella-forever

Breaking Dawn: Narrative Tension Goes Fsssst

I read Twilight more or less on a dare, mostly so I could swirl my chardonnay and get my schadenfreude on. While I can certainly snob out about how horribly Twilight is written on so many levels, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me. Meyer captured itchy, awkward adolescence with such an evocative squirm, and then she relieved that adolescent discomfort with a monstrous romantic bliss. I can see why so many people responded to this, even though I was still too busy breathing into a bag having flashbacks to middle school to relax and and get swept up in the romance. When she’s good, she’s good because she is not in control of her subject, not able to stop the outpouring of discomfort and terror underlying the domestic bliss that is a woman’s expected relief, and while Twilight ends with a certain romantic harmony, Meyer doesn’t perfect the ending. All impediments to Bella and Edward are not swept away, and they don’t fade out to domestic harmony.

If you think about it, that’s fascinating. I think if Meyer had been a seasoned writer, following the rules of mass market romance – and yes, I know that Twilight isn’t mass market romance, but it does share some commonalities – she would have written a series of books shifting to other points of view, working out other romances within the Forksverse. Edward’s coven would have been all unattached, the tribe would be introduced, and they would have hooked up pair by pair: Mike with Alice, Jacob with Rosalie, that one chick with Jasper. Edward and Bella and then the later couples would cameo in epilogues and picnics with their babies, doling out advice to the new lovers while they writhed in romantic incompleteness until they didn’t, and then the sparkle ending could have been repeated ad infinitum. But Meyer is not that kind of writer; her strengths, such as they are, reside in her uncalculating evocation of…I’m struggling here…the terrors and pleasures of American femininity? The inherent conflict between the self protagonist and traditional gender roles? Some shit like that. 

Fascinating or no, I had zero interest in reading any more Twilight books after the first. But because Twilight talk is pretty much what fuels the Goodreads engine – although this is changing a bit, thank heavens – I’ve followed roughly 89 kajillion conversations about the series, spoilered myself on the plots of each book, and spent more words on books I haven’t read than is wise. I’ve wanted to read Breaking Dawn bad for a while, because I’ve been assured that Breaking Dawn is where the wheels come off, where Meyer’s unexamined domestic panic goes insane and burns the house down. Those assurances were not wrong. I’ve been hamstrung by my disinterest in plowing through nearly a thousand pages of love triangles, cheesy stand-ins for the Catholic church, and racist, Rousseauian garbage about how Native Americans are in touch with their inner furry beastie to get to this book. (Also, Edward is not Heathcliff, he’s Linton, and I’m not sure I can handle watching Meyer act out that mistake in Eclipse.) Anyway, point being, thank god for movies, because I got good and drunk and watched the movies of the middle two books with Elizabeth, who explained the stuff that they missed, and I was good and ready to read this. 

I can see why they split Breaking Dawninto two movies, because it is two books. One is a shockingly naked expression of procreative terror, an effective horror novel which is effective because it is so completely, so thoroughly, so devastatingly unconscious. The other is a boring, mechanical attempt to cauterize the previous blood-letting, an act of wish fulfillment so severe it almost negates the power of the previous installment. The wish is to unsee the terror of the previous entry, but whoo boy, there is no unseeing that. Before reading this, I tried to think of novels that detail the process of pregnancy and childbirth, and I mean embody, not just use as grist from some guy’s mid-life/Oedipal crisis, or mention as the conclusion to the novel. I blanked for a long time, but eventually I came up with two: BelovedToni Morrison‘s ghost story of slavery, and BarrayarLois McMaster Bujold‘s court intrigue of the domestic. I find it interesting that the pregnancies in these fictions are all metonymous in some way, dissociated. From Beloved, I have a vivid image of Sethe’s water breaking in an unstoppable stream of piss, while her daughter-ghost rises in her high-necked white dress, or from Barrayar, Cordelia helping a woman deliver a baby during a battle, while her own swims in a tank, his fragile bones breaking. But neither of these births are normal by any stretch: disembodied, metaphorical, political, even while they have a fierce physicality that I can remember years later. 

The dissociation in Breaking Dawncomes from the fact that the point of view shifts to Jacob for the whole of Bella’s pregnancy. The book starts with the Swan-Cullen wedding, a dreary obvious affair with requisite reference to clothing. The newly minted Cullens then whisk to Brazil to a desert island, and a series of sexual encounters that feel like S&M literature written under the Hays Code. I found them alternately hilarious and unsettling: a bedroom filled with white downy feathers after Edward has pillow-bitten his way through the grind; Bella waking covered in bruises that she can’t remember receiving, and begging a remorseful Edward into doing it again. She gets knocked up – pun intended – on the first try, though doesn’t realize it for nigh on 100 pages of snorkeling, eating eggs, and trying on lingerie. We’re in kill-me-now territory, for this reader. But they eventually figure it out, Edward making a tight-lipped phone call to Carlisle, his father/doctor, and Bella going completely fucking insane with baby fever. 

Here’s where the point of view shift happens, and it’s breathtaking to behold. I try to avoid speculating about authorial motivation, but I think it’s obvious that Meyer is bound up in Bella, at the very least as a wish-fulfillment vehicle, if not a full-blown author proxy. (Breaking Dawndoes goes full Mary Sue in the last half though – more on that later.) And Meyer, for a variety of reasons, can’t have her stand-in express the terror and discomfort of pregnancy, the doubt and fear, the sheer towering life-and-death of it all, so she turns to another who can. Jacob performs his task admirably, giving voice to thoughts that by all rights Bella should be having, would be having, if she weren’t silenced by her standing as idealized womanhood. The pregnancy is breakneck, almost literally, a week of gestation collapsed into a day. Bella grows hollow-eyed, starved of nutrition by her fetal parasite, her ribs cracking by the sudden ballooning of her body, sipping blood out of a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. In one awful scene, her pelvis snaps. 

Holy fuck. I’ve had some babies, and I was harrowed by these descriptions. While I found much of pregnancy novel, and enjoyable in its novelty in some regards – when else can I experience being kicked in the bladder from within my own body? – pregnancy was also uncomfortable and scary, on both physical and existential levels. My son gave me an umbilical hernia, which necessitated surgery; I am riddled with stretch marks; I had never once experienced heartburn before my nascent kids pushed my stomach into my throat. (What is this sensation I am feeling?? My heart it burns! Oh, so that’s heartburn. Sucks.) And I had it easy compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from friends, bedridden with a variety of leaking, potentially lethal pregnancy-induced conditions. I’ve been dithering for the last half hour, trying to figure how to say this out loud, this unspeakable truth, but I believe that every pregnant woman, regardless of her politics or her beliefs, thinks to herself at some point, this thing inside me has no right to kill me. I resent that I may have to choose between my life and another’s. I resent that I am expected to love someone more than myself, sight unseen. I love myself. I choose me. 

Phew. I’m feeling a little gross after writing that, but there it is. Bella doesn’t say anything like this, and Jacob twists and howls, saying it for her. I thank the starry heavens that we make it through Bella’s pregnancy in another character’s head, because she is freakishly placid and resigned. Bella is surrounded by unwomen – the barren, the childless – who protect Bella’s wishes to go through this unwise, fatal pregnancy because they don’t care about her at all, they only care about the baby. The sterile werewolf who hates Bella and Jacob, Rosalie who has been opposed to Bella’s transformation into a vampire on the grounds that Bella will not be able to have children, these women give voice to the conundrum that they are giving Bella what she needs to become a woman, in this traditionalist mindset, but that the woman is disposable in that act of creation. Good gravy, think about it, it’s so fucking sick and perfect that it kills me a little. 

At the end of Jacob’s pov section, Bella goes into labor, such as it is. Honestly, I have never read anything scarier in my life, the placenta detaching, Carlisle, the doctor, conveniently off set. This is a mutant, remember, encased in a placental sac so hard that it can only be gotten through with teeth, the infant’s teeth. It is a shower of blood, one that had me flashing back to my own deliveries, and not in a good way. This following bit is gross and overshare: I had repressed this memory, but after 42 hours of labor, and a nail-biting finish where I nearly bled to death, I remember being wheeled out after all the stitches and happy conclusions (in that neither I nor my son were dead) and seeing the river of blood and fluid on the floor, leading to a drain. I remember lying in bed, two mornings before, after waking up to my water silently breaking, and thinking, holy shit, there is no way out of this now. I have to experience the next 12 hours – this was hope talking, though I didn’t know it – and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. It was the moment before the roller coaster went down the hill, and I didn’t know if there were tracks at the end, and that was panic, pure panic. 

The birthing sequence is told twice, once from Jacob’s pov, and once from Bella’s, and it’s fascinating to compare. Jacob is angry and horrified, like you are when you are a rational human watching a mutant baby eat its way out of a woman you love. Bella’s perspective is batshit insanity. I went back and re-read this part today, after I finished, because I have this horrible image of Bella’s child smiling at her with a full set of teeth – seriously, close your eyes and imagine an infant with a full set of teeth, smiling – shudder, shudder – and I couldn’t remember whether Bella noted this, or Jacob. It was Bella, and that image fills her with joy. I’m running out of expletives, but holy cussed godamn fucking shit. I’m losing the capacity to talk about this coherently, because this is so fucking bananas. 

So. Baby born, who is flawless and perfect. Bella transformed into vampire, now flawless and perfect. From here on out, the plot could not be more boring, more impossible, more unnecessary. There’s some thing with the Voltari making a power play for the baby or something – seriously, I’m not detailing the plot because it makes so little sense. I barked out some laughs when Bella and Edward go at it like marble rabbits every night when the baby goes to sleep – haha, such an accurate depiction of new parenthood. I completely lost my shit when, after roughly seven hundred new characters are introduced, Jacob says something to the effect of: how am I going to keep all these people straight?! Next to his statement is a little asterisk.*

*See page 756 is written below, and I am sent back to an index – hahahahahaha – that is a list of characters complete with helpful little strike-throughs for the characters who have died in previous books – hahahahaha. Holy shit, woman, have a little more faith in your writing. 

It’s like Meyer squeezed out this horrible truth, and then panicked, canonizing Bella and stripping out all the narrative danger, all the reality. We don’t really hear again from Jacob or the wolves, which is incredibly frustrating, because obviously Sam and Jacob make up at the end, but all of that occurs off-stage. And there are a bunch of new wolves??? And they are not really werewolves, we learn in an infodump?? Everyone recedes into a prop for the perfect child, one that makes everyone instantly love her. Meyer spent all her truth on the trauma of childbirth, and once we’re back in Bella’s head, she can’t express the impolite notion that infants can be difficult to love. I do believe in a certain amount of parental instinct – we wouldn’t make it far as a species without it – but for most new mothers, we are struggling with exhaustion, blood loss, and a dizzying hormonal stew when our babies are at their neediest: screaming, feeding, pooping on a loony schedule. Teeth or not, they do not smile for weeks, and while that first smile is intensely satisfying – I can still remember the first time the boy laughed, and that was sheer joy transmitted by sound – the weeks before are managing an uncommunicative alien who has consumed your life. 

Oh shit though! How could I forget the imprinting?? Sweet zombie Jebus. Jacob does express this impolite anger at the child at the end of his section, stalking down to murder the infant for what she has done to Bella. It is the cheapest, grossest cop-out ever that his anger is magicked away by some sort of gross sexual soul mating. (I know I’ve used gross twice in that sentence; sue me.) I’m way ZOMG about the idea of imprinting – this is what I get for not reading the previous books, where they explain why only guys imprint, and why imprinting isn’t the most kinked idea ever. Edward’s convenient mind-reading keeps telling us that Jacob only has pure thoughts for his infant bride, but come on. I suspect that Meyer pulled this stunt to give poor, rejected Jacob a consolation prize, and to keep him from running out of there. One of the last chapter speeches is about the power of family, and how family is choice and a bunch of other garbage. Jacob would never choose to stay with this family Meyer has constructed without magical duress. But with imprinting, now the cult can be complete! (And, though these thoughts lack coherence, I think there might be something in this imprinting business that is about sexual competition between mothers and daughters, and the uncomfortable reality that all children grow to become sexual beings. The imprinting puts a tight leash – pun intended – on the child’s inevitable adolescent sexuality. Best mother ever!) 

Bella goes full Mary Sue in the end, even her trademark clumsiness erased, her beauty perfected, her talents blooming into story-destroying weapons. She’s so good at everything that she makes conflict impossible. I was sorely disappointed by the big “battle” with the Voltori, who succumb to her perfect motherhood in the most boring episode of Vampire Matlock ever. Which is super funny, because Alice’s clairvoyance is obviously the real reason that any of that worked out, but that’s the trouble with clairvoyant characters – they really know how to spoil a plot. I spent a fair amount of time laughing when Alice bails, and everyone is like, nooooes! That must mean we are dooooooomed!! Because, you know, there’s no other good reason for a clairvoyant to head out on some super secret mission when there’s a big throw-down on the horizon. Certainly she won’t arrive at the perfect moment with some major trump card. That’s not more likely at all. But Alice’s decampment serves as grist for the emo mill, and without all the hand-wringing brought on by her leaving, there would be almost no emotional drama – clearly fake as it is – to the any of the boring, perfect proceedings leading up to the end.

Much as the last section bored me to tears, at least when it wasn’t grossing me out, I was zero to the bone on the last page. Bella and Edward’s forever and evers to one another, the vision of this family locked into an unchanging perfect stasis, unable to sleep or dream, fundamentally cut off from the larger world, this hit me like a ton of ice. Good god, who wants this? Who aspires to shed every single vestige of their humanity in the attainment of domestic perfection? And having gotten there, who thinks this perfection is anything but a horrible nightmare? Edward was right at the first: an existence of unchanging perfection is no life at all. Throughout this book, the people in Bella’s life disappear on by one: only a brief mention of her school friends at the wedding, then silence, her mother considered and then discarded again, her father brought in in the most ancillary way possible, the concerns of lives of the werewolves dropped after Jacob is neutered. Breaking Dawnis a chilling portrait of the most self-serving narcissism, that old Freudian saw about procreation as immortality turned monstrous in its perfection. I just went and tucked my kids into bed, and I feel fiercely in this moment how transitory their childhoods are, how precious it is that they grow and change, what a gift it is that we fight, and even that we inevitably die. It’s quite a feat Meyer performed here, making me cozy up to my death while I tuck my kids in. Grief is the left hand of happiness, to misquote my beloved Ursula K Le Guin, and I hold my children with both hands. Anything else is as dishonest as it is awkward.

Review: Walking Dead: Killer Within

Whooo-ey. Spoilers EVERYWHERE. Both hark and behold.

I said somewhere in my reviews for this season that the writers were punishing me for my bitching about last season, and that holds with a bullet this episode. They pretty mercilessly take down both T-Dog and Lori, the first who has been a walking punchline of tokenism – a fair number of reviewers have been doing a T-Dog line count, which is not pretty –  and the latter a fan un-favorite to the n-th degree. On the one hand, that’s probably nifty, clearing the ground of characters like the rotting walkers that the Rickocrats are working on clearing in the opening scenes, so they can plant the ground for new crops. On the other it’s a bloody chicken out on characters who the writers generally suck at writing, and forget trying to improve on them, take ‘em down.

Oh wait, nevermind.

I mean, we have already two other poorly sketched black characters, so buh bye Theodore Douglas. We didn’t know shit about your life previous to the zombie apocalypse, we could rely on you to stand blackly in the background, and maybe utter a line or two that literally anyone else could for the entire show. Sniff. Smell you later.

Which brings me to Lori. Her arc with the pregnancy has been riddled with some gender bullshit, down to whatever magical drug she sent Glenn off to get in whatever episode when she made the baby Jesus cry for even considering abortion in the zombie apocalypse. And Walking Dead isn’t the first or the last show that pulls out the egregious birthin’ babies scenes, but come the fuck on. The average labor takes twelve hours, which doesn’t do when you’re parceling out some ham-fisted dialogue and bloody body horror. OMG!! TEH BIRTHIN’ BABIES. 
Okay, whatever, I’m calming down. I wrote on an envelope near my computer the following lines, spoken by The Guv: “The scenery has changed, the landscape, but the way we think…” He doesn’t complete the thought, but my widdle ears perked up at this statement because of some personal wacky theories that are mine and mine alone. 
What’s up, Monty Python?  

Zombie stories are on some level landscape pictures that run the slow pan over the American landscape and take our pulse or the lack thereof about what we think about soil and race and movement and teh wimmens. Landscape pictures tend to be male holdouts, Alamos of homosocial enclaves – like a prison? Just saying – and it’s not a huge surprise that a show that is setting up a soft-spoken lunatic against an ironically not-so-effective badass – seriously, Rick, make sure the dude is dead when you consign him to death, lest dramatic irony bite you (or T-Dog) in the ass – would spend this domestic death this way. Zombie narratives are hell on domesticity – they tend to make it shallow and worthless – but it really could have been something if Lori could stick around to do something other than die valiantly and womanly in a big freaking gross out. Jesus Christ.

Ugh. 
I’m acting like I hated this episode, which isn’t really accurate. Lincoln continues to impress, with his near wordless reactions that cut more deeply than his wife’s loss, though Carl’s flinty-eyed pre-teen of death routine I could do without. I thought most of the scenes with The Guv were unnecessary – Andrea is being a big dumb girl; Michonne can scowl and make lamely leading statements – but other than my usual racial and gender bitches with the writing, the action in the prison was taunt and fun to watch. And I’m going to give the writers mad props for writing in this level of character death on episode freaking four. Let’s just hope it isn’t for nothing. Killing Lori off certainly clears the ground, but we’ll see what they plant in her place.