The following library books are currently sitting on my shelves: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds, God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. As special guests I also have 10:04 by Ben Lerner and The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. Subconsciously or not, I’ve been reading a lot of books by women this year. Is this even worth commenting on? Is it genuinely “out of the ordinary” for me in terms of my reading habits? Do I really want to make the effort and look at my reading lists from previous years and “tally up” the gender balance? The answer to that question is “no, I am lazy.” BUT needless to say this year I have genuinely been enjoying pigging out on the gluttonous diet of fantastic books by contemporary women writers: Hilary Mantel, Jenny Offil, Jenny Erpenbeck… It’s a trend that I want to keep going until the end of the year. Here are some fantastic books I’ve read recently that happen to have been written by women, books I feel so excited about I can’t NOT write about them:
The First Bad Man (Miranda July)
Wow, did this book blow me away. HIGHLY recommended. I liked her short story collection, but wasn’t the world’s #1 biggest fan of it. Her films were also A-OK (especially the talking cat, and the sense of melancholy). However, this book is really something else: the brutality and emotion of it is like a drop-kick in the face.
The narrator of The First Bad Man is Cheryl Glickman, a woman in her 40’s who works for a woman’s self-defense non-profit. She harbors a crush on a board member named Philip who is pursuing an affair with a sixteen-year-old girl. Cheryl also believes she has a karmic connection with a soul called Kubelko Bondy, who reappears in the bodies of newborn babies that she randomly encounters in grocery stores, on sidewalks, etc. All this makes the novel sound much “quirkier” and contrived than it really is, but believe me, the emotional authenticity is there. The plot of the novel basically begins when Cheryl’s bosses ask (demand?) that Cheryl host their twenty-year-old daughter Clee. Clee is a blonde bombshell with enormous breasts who watches TV all day, drinks giant bottles of Diet Pepsi, never bathes, eats Thanksgiving-flavored microwave meals and has a terrible foot odor problem. She is also physically abusive and begins beating Cheryl up. And then…
“And then” is the part that is hard not to spoil but it is also the point in which the book becomes gloriously, deliciously risky and weird. I LOVE reading books like this one, or A.M. Homes May We Be Forgiven, books that just throw ALL CAUTION TO THE WIND and just write WHATEVER regardless of the fact that some people may find it tasteless or gross. It’s a section that’s hard to summarize… um, so essentially to defend herself from Clee’s punches, Cheryl begins re-enacting scenes from the self-defense videos released by her non-profit. And slowly but surely the “roleplaying” potential of these scenes get more and more interesting, but not quite in the way you might expect. It’s a section of the book that raises fascinating 21st-century questions about consent, love, boundaries, communication and how to be an adult in relationships (especially in the light of books like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, two books that my high school students this summer sneeringly call “abusive” and dangerous to society). It’s not just a kinky S&M question–how do you “self-defend” yourself from love and the inevitable pain that follows?
Sometimes I looked at her sleeping face, the living flesh of it, and was overwhelmed by how precarious it was to love a living thing. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant. (213)
What I loved most about this book were the humorous sentences, similes I’d never read before that made me shake my head in awe and snort in delight. I found this one particularly memorable: What would be the emoticon for ‘Carry me to your penthouse and tend to me as a husband?’ (pg. 90) The book also deserves praise for being so readable; it’s almost a literary thriller: a lot of things HAPPEN, major events, in almost every chapter, which keeps the pace brisk and gripping. The novel also did a good job of tying threads together in a satisfying way, so items or characters from early scenes (like Richard the homeless gardener and the snails he asks Cheryl to order) end up having a big emotional payoff. I loved the overall message of this book (at least, the message that I got out of it): that it’s okay for a woman to be “everything.” Motherly and sexual, needy and loving, ugly and brutal. We can be many things all at once, and that’s okay. Also, I don’t know the last time I read such a moving ending: yeah, some people might find it sentimental, but I thought it was an absolute stroke of genius.
There were some things in this book I could have done without. Cheryl’s relationship with her therapist, for example, was something I never quite “got.” I guess the therapist and her Secretary–like relationship with her boss was supposed to be a contrast to Cheryl and Clee? I really didn’t need the scene where the therapist invites Cheryl to pee in an empty carton of Chinese food rather than use the elevator to go up to the bathroom, though–that was probably the one moment that took me out of the novel’s “reality.”
But in the end who cares? I love the final paragraph in this NYTimes review of the book, with its emphasis on loving messy, flawed brave books rather than scared shitless shiny perfection. I’ll take a jagged, wild book like this any day over anything that’s smooth or comforting. Like any modern woman, shouldn’t a modern book deserve to be all things at any time? Gloriously perfect AND flawed?
But as the sun rose I crested the mountain of my self-pity and remembered I was always going to die at the end of this life anyway. What did it really matter if I spent it like this–caring for this boy–as opposed to some other way? I would always be earthbound; he hadn’t robbed me of my ability to fly or live forever. I appreciated nuns now, not the conscripted kind, but modern women who chose it. If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have? (220)
The Days of Abandonment; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Elena Ferrante)
Much has been written about Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan novels online (including myself, albeit badly & sloppily, LOL). I came to her by way of James Wood and have subsequently recommended her to my mother, sister, sister’s book club and probably many, many other individuals.
Let’s start with The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel. This book follows the simple premise of what would it be like to be “the abandoned woman,” the one who is “known to be left” (as Sharon Olds puts it in one of her poems). I remember feeling “left” in college. Oh, to be dumped at twenty years old! There’s nothing quite like it! Especially with the extremely jolly existence of social media. How miraculous to look back at it now and feel so distant, the memories of library weeping and obsessive livejournal and facebook stalking. That is both the miracle and brutality of time: the fact that things that can feel SO emotionally important and raw to you at one point can after a certain number of years feel like… well, nothing.
This novel very much focuses upon the “raw” period of a break-up, beginning with the scene in which the husband of Olga (the main character) announces that he is leaving her. From them on it is all intense emotional territory, as Olga reflects upon the stories of lost love she heard from her mother, neighbors and books, stories about how “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything, female stories of the end of love, what happens when, overflowing with love, you are no longer loved, are left with nothing.” The woman-who-lost-everything figure that Olga remembers from these stories is referred to as a “poverella,” an unhinged, emotional figure who would strike an icy chord of fear in the hearts of all my ex-boyfriends: “The poverella was crying, the poverella was screaming, the poverella was suffering, torn to pieces by the absence of the sweaty red-haired man, and his perfidious green eyes.” Initially, Olga is resolved to not follow in the “poverlla’s” path: “Don’t act like the poverella, don’t be consumed by tears. Don’t be like the women destroyed in a famous book of your adolescence.” In an extremely self-reflexive statement, Olga reflects upon the abandoned, Madame Bovary-like heroines she read about in the novels of her adolescence:
These women are stupid. Cultured women, in comfortable circumstances, they broke like knickknacks in the hands of their straying men. They seemed to me sentimental fools: I wanted to be different, I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife with her lost love at the top of her thoughts. I was young, I had pretensions. I didn’t like the impenetrable page, like a lowered blind. I liked light, air between the slats. I wanted to write stories full of breezes, of filtered rays where dust motes danced. And then I loved the writers who made you look through every line, to gaze downward and feel the vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno.
What ends up being ironic is that The Days of Abandonment is definitely NOT a book about one of these “invincible” characters (which is not to say that Olga herself is not resourceful). There is no “light” or “air between the slats” and “breezes” in this book. A key sequence in the novel’s second half has Olga literally trapped in her apartment by a double-lock that she herself has installed, a hysterical sequence that could almost be a slapstick comedy sequence in a mainstream Hollywood film but in this book turns into a suffocating nightmare. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had as big of a physical effect as this one did: at times, I felt like I was having trouble breathing as I frantically clicked the turn-page button of my kindle. This is a sign of great literature, I think: when it makes you feel physically sick while reading (haha!).
The other primary emotions conveyed by this novel are Olga’s gradually increasing disgust and rage: against her husband, his new lover, her friends, her downstairs neighbor, her own children, and all those with “the satisfied faces of those who do nothing but fuck.” Boy, would my 20-year-old bitter college self have connected with that line!! These sentences, so savage and blunt! “To blow away the past as if it were a nasty insect that has landed on your hand.” “My husband had rolled up the sense of my beauty into a ball and thrown it into the wastebasket, like wrapping paper.” “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping… No matter how much I washed, that stink of motherhood remained.”
Profanity and crudeness plays an important role in this book. As Olga puts it to her husband, “I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife ? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?” There is a cruel fascination when reading these scenes: you feel like a spy, an eavedropper, a witness to a terrible break-up in a public space. Olga is normally the person that you feel sorry for from a distance, someone who makes you raise your eyebrows and press your lips together, someone your ex-boyfriends would fearfully call “the Glenn Close character from that stalker movie.” Here, though, you are inside her head, witnessing and experiencing without narrative distance, and as a woman writer myself, there was a genuine sense of liberation to that–an “oh that’s right” sense of recognition. She’s the kind of character that John Cheever and John Updike would have written disparaging stories about in the 50’s, but through Ferrante, the figure of the “damaged, abandoned” woman finally gets her say. And boy does she say a lot.
We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and who has recognized us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalize it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded titillation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives.
This is a brutally powerful book that I will likely never forget, and that I recommend to pretty much everyone.
The Neapolitan novels have a much grander and more ambitious scope than Abandonment (especially since you’re not trapped in an apartment with a character for 50+ pages!). While the first story in the trilogy, My Brilliant Friend, follows the story of Elena and Lila in childhood, The Story of a New Name follows them through the early days of marriage and coming-of-age, while Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is firmly grounded in university years, adulthood and motherhood (two very big “‘hoods” indeed). All novels are set in Naples and can be seen as “Big,” “Ambitious,” Jonathan Franzen-type books in the sense that the small-scale stories of the characters (their relationships, their goals, their families) are closely intertwined with the bigger story of Italy in the 1960’s onwards.
The focus is definitely on Elena and Lila, though, and this is what makes the series so pleasurable and powerful to me. I can’t remember the last time I read a book this affecting and realistic about a close female friendship… if ever. Emily Gould? Judy Blume? See, I’m straining here. The relationship between Elena and Lila is definitely at the heart of the novel–the way they both love and need each other is contrasted with their fear and jealousy, their attempts to both help and sabotage each other. Elena especially struggles with the feeling that Lila is truly the “brilliant” one of the friendship, and that if only Lila had had the same educational opportunities as Elena, it’d Lila who was the famous writer, not her. As Elena herself puts it, when reflecting upon Lila’s troubles, “This is the life that could have been mine, and if it isn’t, it’s partly thanks to her.”
The social context of Italy shines through especially in Book #3, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, particularly through Lila’s wretched job at a sausage factory. Many of the same themes from The Days of Abandonment, especially that of women being defined by men, are also present. What I love most about this series, though, is that is is a book that you feel rather than read; it is something you live through and experience rather than witness. Elena and Lila are passionate, fierce characters who make mistakes and hurt each other and are all too human and familiar, and this more than anything is a mark of great writing.
The End of the Story (Lydia Davis)
Yet another brutally honest book about the end of a relationship. How many times have I typed the word “brutal” in these reviews?! Ouch, ouch, ouch. There were so many moments while reading this book that I thought “THIS IS ME.” So many folded-over pages to mark memorable passages that it bordered on book vandalism. At one point I even inhaled my breath sharply in self-recognition, as though I’d been stabbed.
This is an utterly unique, devastating novel with no plot–the closest thing it has to a traditional structure is the narrator’s obsession with a disintegrating love affair. If The Days of Abandoment is about raw in-the-moment emotions, this book is more focused on distance, organization, and analysis. Even the narrator’s lover remains fairly anonymous by the book’s final page (we never learn his name). The lack of affect and emotion in this book! And yet somehow it still makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut! The numbing repetition that can’t help but remind you of your own paralyzingly negative, self-defeating thoughts! The ruthlessness and bluntness with which the narrator observes her motivations! The dark, dark humour!
Like Davis herself, the narrator of this novel is a translator, and is obsessed with what she calls “the dry, precise voices” of the editors of the dictionary she uses–a razor-sharp, dictionary-like precision that is reflected in the style of the novel itself. I had so many “oh god, this is ringing true” moments while reading this… the way she relives/replays moments of their relationship in her head, her dependency/obsession with drinking, the way she won’t get dressed or shower until she feels “thoroughly ripened.” (22) (What a way to describe depression-induced body odor: “ripened!”) The terrible barbecue she and her lover host with too many guests and not enough chicken, the way they become “frightened” by the guests’ hunger. The invasion of her house by insects at the end, the way she saves a moth from drowning “so that it could continue annoying me. But for all its persistence and energy it would not live much longer anyway.” (216)
There are WAY too many quotes that got me while reading this, so I am going to be really ruthless and only type up a few here… the weird thing with Davis is that the power of a lot these quotes is lost without the context, IMHO… her prose is definitely dependent on a build-up, cumulative effect and don’t work too well on their own. But here are a few:
“Another thing that bothered me more acutely now was the way I changed when I was with him, into a person I did not quite recognize, even though I told myself I did not have to be the same… I would often play the part of a person I hardly recognized and usually did not like, and the more uncomfortable I was, the nastier this person became. I wasn’t even playing a part, really, since I did not do it deliberately… It was not a different person who appeared at these times but a side of myself that did not appear when I was alone or with other friends, one that was flippant, condescending, self-centered, sarcastic and mean. To be all these things was quite natural to me, even though I did not like them.” (102)
“I could not always do what I had to do. For instance, I could not always do even a small cleaning job, and I stepped in my own messes. Once it was a wide smear of tomato pulp I had left on the kitchen floor. I was walking around in my socks talking out loud to him. I stepped in the tomato pulp, and instead of changing my sock I lay down on the bed and read a story, a quiet, well-written, but dull story about deer hunting, while my damp foot, hanging off the edge of the bed, grew colder and colder.” (160)
“What did boredom mean then? That nothing more would happen with him. It wasn’t that he was boring, it was that I no longer had any expectations for this companionship with him. There had been expectations, and they had died… what had once been so complete was now so incomplete.” (131)
“I didn’t have him, but I had this writing, and he could not take it away from me.” (197)
Just like all the others, I highly recommend this book. Long live women writers!