Everything I’ve read about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, has been complimentary. It’s thought-provoking; it’s about the relationship of self-denial to self-destruction; it’s about how life is savage; it’s about the insufficiency of art to save us. Stefanie says it’s “disturbing” and “unsettling.” Bellezza finds it “compelling.”
The short novel is well-constructed, consisting of three novellas: the first is from a husband’s point of view, on a wife who suddenly throws out all the meat in the house and refuses to eat it, losing weight and refusing to explain, simply saying “I had a dream.” The second is from an artist brother-in-law’s point of view; like everyone else in the woman’s family, he sees her as a blank canvas on which to project his own desires. The third is from a sister’s point of view, a woman who has shut out the savagery of her own upbringing in order to live a normal life.
The vegetarian’s point of view is rarely heard; her name is Yeong-hye, but we know very little about what she wants or thinks or feels, only that she had a dream, that it is full of blood and terror, and that she no longer wants to live.
This is the point at which I can’t find much to like about this novel. Maybe it’s allegorical and “Kafkaesque” as the book jacket claims; that seems oddly outdated to me. I’m looking for a point of view on the “heart of darkness” at the center of this novel, but none of the characters are really involved, apart from the moment when Yeong-hye’s father tries to force meat down her throat and the moment when her brother-in-law penetrates her sexually, neither of which invites sympathy or identification with the character.
At first it seems that Yeong-hye is more sensitive than other people. She says “if you know how hard I’ve always worked to keep my nerves in check. Other people just get a bit flustered, but for me everything gets confused, speeds up.” Later you find out that she has been exposed to horrors that most readers haven’t, like, at the age of nine, having to watch a dog that bit her run to its death at the back of her father’s motorcycle, and then having to eat some of the dog’s flesh, “an entire bowlful with rice,” because “the saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog bite to heal you have to eat that same dog.” At the end of the first section, what she fears about her appendages has come true; they enable her to be a killer. After giving up meat and stabbing herself when her father tries to force-feed her, she has caught a bird outside at the hospital–caught it in her hand and taken a bite out of it.
At the beginning of part two, I thought maybe I could identify with the artist brother-in-law. But no, he is as much a predator as anyone else in this novel; just because Yeong-hye seems to like what he does to her doesn’t make him any less predatory than her father or her husband, as she demonstrates when “she burst into tears” at his climax.
The sister, In-hye, in the third part of the novel, goes to visit Yeong-hye in the mental institution where she is confined and force-fed. She and the hospital employees are focused on keeping her sister alive, while Yeong-hye asks “why, is it such a bad thing to die?” The question reminds In-hye of a time when Yeong-hye was nine years old and they were lost, and Yeong-hye said “let’s just not go back.” In-hye remembers that “Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings….she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.” In-hye finally understands that playing the older sister role has been “a survival tactic” for her, and her younger sister had no such “normal” role to fall back on.
In-hye wonders, briefly (as does the reader), if there is a metaphorical way to understand what has happened to her sister. Maybe Yeong-hye’s body has really become a tree: “had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the way down to the earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, had the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventually to bloom from her crotch as flowrs? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”
But then In-hye reminds herself of what is real: “you’re lying there in that bed, and dying. Nothing else.” She says “I have dreams too, you know. Dreams…and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over…but surely the dream isn’t all there is?” Although the tragedy, with the two sisters, could be like a Belle Reve moment, from A Streetcar Named Desire, it doesn’t work that way for me in the novel. Blanche wants to escape into her dreams of the past, whereas Yeong-hye wants to escape from her dreams and her past. The only way to escape from the past, this novel says, is to end your life.
Less of a tragedy than a relief, I’d say. I was glad when the novel was over. Maybe this is one problem with undirected, solo reading–I’d have been just as glad when a masterpiece like Things Fall Apart was over, if I’d been reading it on my own, for no particular reason. Maybe this is a book you have to want to learn something from.
What’s the last book you read on your own that might have been better if you’d read it as part of a discussion group, or for a class?
One of the fun things you can do while reading Riley Redgate’s new YA novel Seven Ways We Lie is to try to match up each of her seven narrators with the seven deadly sins, as the book’s cover, with its seven nametags–one for each of the deadly sins–invites you to do. And yet if you work too hard at that, you’ll find that not one of the characters fits comfortably inside a “sin” designation, but is defined by that sin for only moments of his/her life. Claire, for example, has a moment when she is defined almost entirely by wrath, while her prevailing sin tends to be envy. And even saying that about her goes too far—these are high school-aged characters! They change in big, important ways from day to day! The one thing you can know about high-school-aged people is that they are going to keep changing quickly, so it’s always a mistake to try to label them or pin them down. (Still, it’s fun, so I’ll eventually put my character/sin matches in the comments in the hopes of starting some argument.)
I read Seven Ways We Lie because it’s by a Kenyon student who is managing to publish a novel and graduate from college in the same spring. Since she’s a very young author, her characterizations of high school students ring true, and since she’s a voracious reader and a writer who has worked on lots of revisions, her use of multiple points of view works well—the characters are distinct, and their perspectives comment on each others’ and build well.
We’re first introduced to Olivia Scott, whose point of view thereafter seems to be the default main one. She is involved with all the other characters, while some of them—most notably, her younger sister Kat—are not a part of the story any of the other characters tell. Olivia’s introduction might make you inclined to think that she represents the deadly sin of Lust, but as she keeps trying to tell Claire, it’s not true. The plot of the novel turns on which of these students is having an affair with a teacher at the high school, and we know it’s not Olivia, because we see the first assembly about it through her eyes, and she has no idea who it could be.
Next is Kat Scott, who is outstanding in the high school play and wants to be left alone, because, as she says, “whenever someone breaks my privacy, my head fills with panic, panic, panic. I lose my thoughts in white noise and fuzz. A short, sizzling fuse. And what comes out of my mouth is always angry bullshit.” Despite this, though, it would be unfair to say she represents wrath. As her story unfolds, in fact, it’s clear to see that in the few months we get to know her, her defining sin is sloth.
Third comes Matt Jackson, who has a crush on Olivia and does nothing about it or anything else except spend his days getting high.
Fourth we get Juniper’s point of view, which is interesting because her voice is always represented in verse.
Olivia gets a second chapter before we’re even introduced to the next three characters in the novel—first Valentine, then Claire, and finally Lucas. By the time we read Valentine’s chapter, we think we know it all. Valentine prides himself on not being like all the other high school students, saying things like “I thought we were all aware that the vast majority of high school relationships are fleeting and meaningless, but apparently not.” He has identified the girl whose voice he heard proclaiming her love for a teacher. He doesn’t know her name yet, so we don’t know who it is, but he definitely knows it all.
Which makes it fun to see him so wrong about Lucas in one of his next chapters, thinking about the kid who sells drugs so he can keep up with a rich and now largely-imaginary middle school crowd, “this kid is going to go through life and get everything handed to him on a silver platter.” Eventually Valentine and Lucas become friends, which allows Valentine to finally admit to someone that he is “bad at telling when people are lying.”
Another reason I tend to see Olivia as the main character is because she says and thinks things that a reader like me may be anticipating, like: “If it’s only been a week and a half since the assembly, and they’re already dragging the teachers in for questioning, they’ll probably be planting bugs in our cars over the Thanksgiving break.” She also describes herself as “five foot ten,” which is awkwardly tall for a high school girl.
And in the end, Olivia is the character who we get to see change. Rather than letting herself be ruled by the immensity of her wrath–“I’ve felt my share of anger. There are some kinds you can’t hold in your body. Some types burst out of your every pore at once, and you feel yourself expanding and twisting and turning into something that isn’t human. You feel hot waves of rage punching their way out of your skin.”—she learns to share it and let it go.
Olivia gets the last chapter, the last word, gets to show us the last scene and remind us, even as we are seeing it, that “we are always moving forward….We are hurtling through our lives.”
The characters in this novel spend it hurtling from one “sin” to another, and they are each learning how to move away from the one that could be most destructive. Isn’t that what we all most hope to learn, at any age? Like Valentine, I always need to keep moving away from the sin of pride. Which “sin” would be most destructive to you?
When I got back from my week in Tucson, there was a book package waiting for me in the pile of mail! When I opened it up, I found Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter, and a nice note from Jenny saying that she’d read it and immediately thought “this is a Jeanne book.” What could be more fun and intriguing?
I suspected that it might have necromancy in it, of course, but as it turns out, it has the opposite of necromancy. Rather than trying to bring the dead back to life, which never turns out well because humans are not God and can’t understand all the ins and outs of true creation, this is a book about trying to make new kinds of humans. One would think that this could be fully as problematic as trying to bring the dead back, but in Saulter’s futuristic post-Christianity world, it’s not. Humans have gained this knowledge through a fight for survival of the species. They had to learn how to cure something called “the Syndrome” which affected everyone on earth, and so the knowledge required to genetically modify humans for specialized skills, as a side effect of that research, is not presented as over-reaching or trying to replace God. Although there are a few throwback religions in the novel, represented by “godgangs” who beat and kill gems and other people they consider “not natural,” these people are a small minority of the futuristic population, and are not portrayed at all sympathetically.
Gemsigns takes place in a future full of echoes from our history: the treatment of the “gems” is reminiscent of stories about former slaves and civil rights struggles, about gay rights, and about the marginalization of Jews and other ethnic minorities. The names have symbolic resonance: there is an Eli Walker, whose first name evokes Eli from the Exodus story. The leader of the gem community is called Aryel Morningstar; Aryel is a version of Ariel, Lion of God, and Morningstar is a fallen angel cast out of heaven. A child is called Gabriel, a name for the messenger of God. The climax of the novel takes place on Christmas Eve, a holiday no longer celebrated in the future, but the symbolic significance of which is mentioned by the leader of one of the “godgangs.”
The story begins by introducing three characters—Eli Walker, Gaela, and an unnamed gem who is running for freedom. Although the story could start with any of them, the narrator explains, we focus in as “a young girl, not much beyond childhood, flees between towering trunks, bearing an impossible burden, running for her life.” It’s difficult not to sympathize with the girl who is running away. Then we focus in on Gaela, who is trying to get home through a dangerous neighborhood, although her migraine–sparked by her work using her hyperspectral vision—is making it difficult for her to see her way. Finally we see Eli on a train, accosted by a woman who represents Bel’Natur, the company that created and used to own Gaela and her talents before a recent “Declaration.” He is on his way to a conference in London, to deliver a report on whether “genetically modified humans—GMHs, or gems” should be owned by the gemtech companies or allowed to live, procreate, and work on their own, even in jobs they might not have been specifically created for.
Gaela’s home is with Bal, another gem, and Gabriel, their five-year-old adopted son who she found in a rubbish heap outside the abandoned London apartment building called “the Squats” where they and many of the other gems live. Gabriel has little memory of his previous life, but he knows enough to feel lucky that with Gaela and Bal “no one minded that he knew things he hadn’t been told; no one was afraid of him, or wanted him to be afraid of them. He guessed it was because being different was so ordinary here.” He is fond of “Aunty Aryel,” the spokesperson for the gem community living in the apartment complex. They are a close-knit community and look out for each other.
In the wake of the “Declaration” giving gems their independence from the companies that created them and before the conference that will decide whether they are fully human, the description of a young gem man leaving a club to go home in the early hours of the morning but accosted by six people brings to mind descriptions of gays beaten up in back alleys for no other crime than appearing effeminate:
“A young man with glowing orange-red hair and the pale, pouty features of a Pre-Raphaelite painting emerged, along with a blast of music, from a club on one of the roads that ran toward the Squats….Six people clustered in the shelter of the alley….He stepped back and found that the way was blocked. ‘Where d’you think you’re going?’ someone said. The group closed in around him….
’You think we can’t see what you are?’ The speaker was a man with the heavy build of a boxer, swinging a fist into a gloved hand. ‘What you’re doing in that place? You think we don’t know?’
The young man understood, with a conviction buried too deep in genetic memory for any clever tampering to touch, what was coming. He thought of pleading and knew with the same sinking certainty that it would do no good.
He summoned bravado, a last hope. Maybe sheer impudence would win him a way out. ‘That what you’re looking for, pops? You should’ve said. One at a time now.’
The curse and the fist hit him at the same time. He crashed back into the two blocking the mouth of the alley. They broke his fall with fists and feet.”
As Eli Walker becomes acquainted with some of the gems from the Squats, he finds out that there might be “gems out there discovering talents the gemtechs haven’t even guessed at.” His report to the Conference includes this analysis:
“We have become unaccustomed in the last century and a half to the levels of warfare and violent crime that used to sadly be commonplace. It would be both easy and reassuring to imagine that the shared crisis of the Syndrome, and the changes to which it gave rise, have somehow eliminated this capability; have jumped us up an evolutionary step, so that we no longer feel the need to harm each other. I have only to point to the recent, equally horrific assaults on and murders of gems on the streets of London, by those who claim to be ‘true’ humans, to refute any suggestion that the genetic distinction between gems and norms makes one group intrinsically safer—or saner—than the other.
But what about the distinction within groups? It is common parlance to say that not all gems are equal; it is certainly true to say that not all gems are the same. Again I will point out that this is also true of norms, and is not of itself a distinguishing factor between us. However there is no getting away from the reality that there exists within the gem population a vast gulf between those who are most intellectually gifted, socially competent and physically able, and their brethren who suffer from mental deficiency, physical deformity, or an inability to play well with others; far more so than amongst norms, where the latter imperfections have been almost completely engineered away.
And here we come to a secret which everyone knows, which is so ubiquitous a truth we seem somehow to have concluded it to be irrelevant—the fact that, apart from a few Remnants living remote from society, none of us are unmodified. We are all gems. Engineered characteristics aside, many of the illnesses and aberrations which we (and they) find so deviant and distressing are exclusively present in them only because they were engineered out of us.
Against we must ask the question: what is normal?”
As Gaela sums up his conclusion, Eli Walker’s report indicates that “since the Syndrome they had created a homogeneous society, where there weren’t any more big disagreements around things like race and sex and religion, and everyone could expect to have good health and long life and strong kids and so on. And he said the reality of gems is a challenge to that, but a healthy challenge.”
In the end, everyone learns Gabriel’s and Aryel’s secrets, and everyone, even the politicians, are in awe of what they have been engineered to be able to do. One of them warns that
“most of us have remained profoundly uncomfortable with difference. We’re too ready to believe that people who don’t look just like us can’t possibly be just like us. We think if they can do things we can’t, they’ll inevitably use that power against us.” But there is powerful symbolism in what Aryel has shown she can do, and the peoples’ unwillingness to put her in a cage unites them in wanting to keep the rest of the gems free, too.
This novel has a strong conclusion, and can stand on its own (and by the way, we do learn who the young girl was running from in the beginning). There are two more books in the series, however, Binary and then Regeneration (hmm, will there be any form of necromancy in the third book? Come back in a few months to find out–because this definitely is “a Jeanne book” in that it’s good fiction that reflects on how we live now).
I spent one day at home after coming back from the conference in Florida before heading out with Ron to spend a week in Tucson, where we visited Eleanor and she showed us the local sights—we went through the art museum, saw San Xavier del Bac Mission, drove to Bisbee, where we took a little train tour of the copper mine, walked up and down the wooden sidewalks and had a drink in a saloon at the little theme park of a town called Tombstone, drove up Mount Lemmon, from the hot, dusty cactus-y bottom to the cool, fir-forested snowmelt-stream top, and walked through the Desert Museum (where the gray fox, black bear, and puma put on a good show for us while most of the other animals slept in the mid-day sun).
We got to swim in the hotel pool one afternoon while Eleanor had a meeting at work. It was refreshingly cool, half in shade already at 3 pm in the afternoon (my photo was taken about 10 am).
We had great Mexican food every day, from Sonoran hot dogs to the creamy, Tucson-style guacamole that is—at least to me and Eleanor—the epitome of guacamole. On Saturday, in honor of Walker’s 20th birthday (he was sick in bed in St. Petersburg, we found out the next day), we went to the Arizona Renaissance Festival, which is bigger than the Ohio one and far hotter, with a brisk business in parasols that we’d never seen before. In addition to the usual offerings, they had a birds of prey show with hawks, vultures, and owls, and a firewhip show, where he really did set the whip on fire at the end. I also lucked into a bit of a show that consisted of a guy re-telling Romeo and Juliet in (often risqué or scatological) spoonerisms.
I got to see a collection of gray, thorny sticks that grows in a lot of yards around Tucson in bloom–and it’s beautiful! I wondered why people had those thorny sticks, but when you see the ocotillo in bloom, you see why.
On Easter, we took Eleanor’s roommates and local friends out for brunch at a spectacular buffet in a hotel at Ventana Canyon, where we afterwards walked around one of their close-in hiking trails to see the waterfall.
We flew home on the Monday after Easter, which took all day and gave me a chance to finish reading one of the books I’d picked up in Florida, Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats.
Much to my disappointment (Pohl is the author of the greatest-ever SF cat short story, “Space-Time for Springers”), this book has nothing to do with cats. The title reference is to a code name for people in a world where some of them are just learning how to travel between parallel universes. They have conversations about history just to see what kind of world they’ve arrived in, like:
“after the nuke war, when the Chinese did the decapitation bit in 1960, bombing Moscow and Leningrad—“
“but, you see, in their time that didn’t happen. We’ve pieced that all together, from the things we found out when we were questioned. The Soviets had only one big outside war. Around 1940, I think. They got into a war with Finland and the Germans got involved—“
There are four main characters in the novel, two of them versions of the same guy–Dom, as he’s known in many worlds, and Ricky, as he seems to be known in just one. The female character is called Nyla; she is a concert violinist in Dom the senator’s world and an ex-convict who has had her thumbs cut off for stealing and worked her way up in the police force in Ricky’s world. The other main character is the scientist, Larry, who figured out how to travel between the parallel universes. When Nyla the cop catches him in one world, she demands that he explain how the travel between universes works. He tells her that ”the portal device generates a stream of green-dip chronons which heterodynes against the natural flux of red-flow chronons.”
As they learn more about how travel between the universes works, a Larry from a technologically advanced world warns that “if x amount of energy or matter goes from my time to yours, then x amount has to come back out of it again. Not necessarily back to mine. It may go to a third time entirely. It may go in fractions to several different ones.” So, in the end, versions of the four characters are sent to an empty world to stop them traveling between universes. They are taken via “hovervan” to what they recognize as an empty and ruined New York City, where they are told that “the good news is that within the next ooty-poot days you will be able to move freely anywhere in the world you like, and it is rather a nice world. The bad news is that you will never leave it.” They are allowed to ask their significant others to join them on that world, and the concert violinist Nyla agrees to join Dom, while Ricky’s girlfriend Greta declines. Ricky learns to do binary arithmetic and becomes a farmer, which makes him successful on this new world, and he eventually courts and wins an unlikely character as his wife.
I love their last conversation. She asks him “isn’t this a kind of scary world to bring kids up in?” and he replies “you bet it is….But was there ever one that wasn’t?”
I took a photo of Eleanor and her friend-from-Grinnell-and-roommate Andie to show how big some of the saguaro cactuses are. Really big.
It’s always a pleasure to have time to read on airplanes, and it was a pleasure to be in warm climates while Ohio is still cold, and to see new and interesting things and try new foods. The biggest pleasure, though, was getting to see how our adult child could navigate through unfamiliar (to us) streets and show us new things that she believed we would like, including some things she’d already seen. It’s an interesting reversal for a parent, after all those years of introducing the kid to new things. We’re in the turnabout years.
I got an advance copy of All Stories Are Love Stories, by Elizabeth Percer, from HarperCollins, and enjoyed it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t visit San Francisco often—it’s the story of what happens to a handful of San Francisco residents when the big earthquake comes. Quotations from the ruins of Pompeii and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake preface some of the chapters.
Told in third person but from multiple points of view, the novel starts out with Max Fleurent, who is talking to his mother on the phone on the morning of his thirty-fourth birthday and admitting that he doesn’t have any romantic prospects in mind for a birthday dinner. Then we switch to an academic, Gene Strauss, who is giddy at the prospect of going home to tell his partner, Franklin, about getting a tenure-track job in the area of earthquake prediction at Stanford. Then we’re thrown into the nightmares of Vashti Shirah, who is a night baker and still dreaming of Max Fleurent, although these dreams are tangled up with dreams of a dead husband and child.
These three people are going about their days, and the narration makes it clear that each of them is about to experience an earth-shattering event, that there is going to be an earthquake, one that Gene didn’t predict.
We learn that Vashti lost her mother when she was young and developed a compulsion to eat dirt, that Gene’s partner is dying, and that Max’s father left him and his mother after moving them to San Francisco, where “the whole city was riddled with blossoms whose colors he had not known could be found in nature: fuchsias and limes and golds.”
Gene is on the highway when it happens: “all around him, vehicles slid and crashed into each other like bumper cars in an amusement park, the confused sounds of horns going off unwillingly and alarms shrieking and metal crunching metal and glass exploding piercing his ears.” He spends the rest of the story trying to walk home to find Franklin and reproaching himself for being “far more concerned with his reputation than the good he might do with it” predicting the next earthquake. But “Franklin would say he was being too hard on himself. Maybe that’s what love was: teaching your beloved to see himself as he saw you.”
Vashti and Max have just passed each other in the lobby of a theater, where he grabs her hand and tries to run when a second earthquake happens, bringing the balcony down on top of them. There’s some confused description from Vashti’s point of view, with a dream of her mother using one hand “to deftly scoop the dirt from her daughter’s mouth….It was a movement so gentle and quick, as natural and strange as what Vashti often found herself doing to clear her infant daughter’s mouth, using her fingers to open her throat or her fist to press into her rib cage because there wasn’t time to reach for anything else when she aspirated or otherwise choked on something sudden and simple and life-threatening, or simply stopped breathing yet again.” We find out that Vashti left Max because she wanted to give birth to a baby that could not live long, and he was not as committed to the idea. As he holds her hand and talks to her, underneath the rubble of the balcony, he regrets letting her leave and never seeing his baby.
Max and Gene live, and meet each other, but the scope of the disaster is so vast that one news reporter has to explain to another that people “don’t want to see someone’s grandma trapped on the twentieth floor of the Mark Hopkins with no one in sight. They don’t want to see the dogs people had to leave behind, the abandoned fire trucks, policemen shooting first and asking questions later because they’re panicking about crowd control. People only say they want to know everything because it makes them feel good about themselves, eyes wide open and all that. So we make them think they’re getting an edge on information without bringing them too far out.”
At the end, the problems of three little people—Max, Gene, and Franklin—do amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world; Franklin wants to tell a “bunch of twentysomethings with spades and rakes” that “the soil’s way too uric on Castro. Unless they want asparagus.” Max and Gene visit Vashti’s apartment, which she has left to Max, and he sees a photo of his baby. Gene offers to pass on what Franklin is teaching him about cooking and they agree that it’s not too late for Max to be a father: “Gene shrugged. ‘Hey, anyone can adopt these days. Even broken-hearted, gimpy bachelors.’”
If I lived in San Francisco, or even visited there more often, this novel would terrify me, in spite of the small-scale happy ending. How do people live with the daily possibility that the earth could open up beneath them? Are there really people like Gene, who think that “it was both comforting and awful to dwell and die in a place where any one person’s life, no matter how important, was insignificant compared to the place where he lived it”?
Last Wednesday I flew to Orlando (singing the song from The Book of Mormon in my head) and arrived at the hotel where the conference for the Fantastic in the Arts was being held in time to get the conference program and take it out to make my choices beside the pool in the Florida sunshine. Eleanor arrived around 8 pm that night from Tucson. She was the first and third runner-up for the Dell Young Writer’s Fiction Award, and I was presenting a paper on satire in The Highest Frontier, by my friend Joan Slonczewski.
Friday morning at 8:30 I presented my paper, followed by one on Felix Gilman and another on the work of Daryl Gregory. Joan was in the audience to cheer me on, and Daryl Gregory was in the audience to cheer on the guy who’d written about his books (he focused on Raising Stony Mayhall and We Are All Completely Fine). Eleanor and her friend Irene also came, and Eleanor asked one of the few questions afterwards, about how close to real life some of the talk about politics is in The Highest Frontier.
I went to several presentations on Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels, which—as I was telling some of the Dell Young Writers when he walked by out at the pool—caused an entire generation to choose white gold wedding bands. At one of them I asked a question the presenter couldn’t really answer, so then I got to ask the author himself, as he was standing there in the aisle. (He couldn’t give me a good answer either, and said “there’s your paper topic for next year!”)
On Saturday morning, I met an older couple who were looking for the table to attend a breakfast Joan had arranged. I showed them the right place and then they introduced themselves—it was Gay and Joe Haldeman, the latter a figure seemingly right out of my bookshelf and into real life.
Holly Black was here and there, her blue hair always in the middle of an adoring group. I saw Patricia McKillip on a panel, wearing a tiara and a sparkly bodice. Rachel Swirsky came over and said hello to us, remembering our names from last year. I went to listen to Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, and Peter Straub read from fairy tales they have written, and Ellen sang a song from her text with a kind of rhythmic breathing that made it seem like she never stopped to take a breath.
As I was walking to the awards banquet, Daryl Gregory saw me and said that he had enjoyed hearing my paper, and I said oh thank you and that I enjoyed his books. After the banquet, where I had been identified as the mother of one of the fiction writers, he saw me again outside by the pool bar and said something that was probably more clever than I remember but meant “oh, and good job with the talented kid, too!” My heart was going a million miles a minute.
The talented kids, a group of six, including one from Kenyon who works for me in the writing center, got lots of congratulations after the awards banquet. It was flattering, because here were all these authors from our bookshelves materializing out of the dark to wish them well. I also imagined the people who came over as readers desperate for new fiction, and depending on the young writers to come up with something new.
Now I am home, with my cats and my bookshelves, and must read and shelve all the books I brought home from the conference. That is definitely The Work of Happiness, like the title of this May Sarton poem:
The Work of Happiness
I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall—
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
A shelf of books…The Forever War is sitting on mine, waiting for me to re-read it in the wake of seeing its author emerge and walk towards me in the brightness of a Florida morning.
I won a copy of Mona Awad’s novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl from Dolce Bellezza. It has sad parts, as you’d expect, but what I didn’t expect is that it’s comprised of 13 different chapters, snapshots from throughout the girl’s life, complete with different iterations of her name (Elizabeth) until they add up to a complete picture, much the way the poem from which the novel takes its name works (Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird).
In the first chapter the fat girl is high-school aged, sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant after school, hatching fantasies with her friend Mel. She isn’t even named until eight pages in, when she and Mel escape to the bathroom to giggle and re-do their make-up, and Mel calls her “Lizzie.”
In the second chapter, the guy who tells the story can’t even remember the fat girl’s name. “Liz, Liza? Eliza? Something –za maybe.” His girlfriend think she might be seventeen, but he’s not sure and she is not taking his calls after he had sex with her and left her a note saying it was a mistake. At almost the end of the story, he overhears her tell another man that “most people call me Lizzie.”
In the third chapter, Lizzie wants to transform herself into her skinny friend China, who is occasionally kind enough to draw on her eyelids to make “smoky eyes” but isn’t all that interested in spending half a day helping her friend pick out an outfit and find a pose for a full-body photo that makes her look less like a person who can be summed up with the one word “fat.”
In the fourth chapter, Lizzie begins a sexual relationship with a male co-worker, Archibald, mostly because she’s so surprised and pleased that he finds her sexually attractive.
In my favorite chapter, five, we find out nine pages in that Lizzie likes to be called Beth now and she has gotten serious about losing weight after meeting a man called Tom. She is telling Mel about a friend at work that she goes to lunch with and kind of hates because of the way the girl (she nicknames her “Itsy-bitsy”) can eat everything and still have “stick legs” and “aggressively jutting clavicles.” This is how the chapter opens:
“So I’m eating scones with the girl I hate. The scones are her idea. She says eating one of them is like getting fucked. Not vanilla-style either, the kind with whips. She’s eating the scones and I’m watching, sipping black tea with milk but no sugar. Actually, she hasn’t quite started yet. She’s still spreading clotted cream on each half of the split scone, then homemade jam on top of that. As she does this, she warns me she might make groaning noises. Just so, you know, I know. That’s fine, I shrug, feeling little bits of me catch fire. I’ve got the teacup in my hand, my finger crooked in the little handle that’s too small for it, so the circulation’s getting cut off. I watch her bite into the scone with her little bunny teeth. I watch gobs of clotted cream catch in either corner of her lips. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, starts to make what must be the groaning noises. I pour myself more tea and cup it in both hands like it’s warming them even though it’s gone cold.”
As any starving woman would, Beth thinks about the scone episode more than once after it is over. She says “all afternoon I have the waking dream where she gets so fat on scones, she explodes.” Later, when she is lying awake in bed, she replays the scene and imagines saying “Listen, you little skank! Not all of us can eat scones and have it turn into more taut littleness! Some of us are forced to eat spring mix in the half-dark of our low-ceilinged studio apartments and still expand inexplicably. Some of us expand at the mere contemplation of what you shovel so carelessly, so dancingly into your smug little mouth.”
The sixth chapter takes place in that portal of hell for a fat girl, the clothing store dressing room. Beth is trying on clothes under the supervision of a super-helpful store clerk named Trixie to whom “even the apocalypse is cute. Scorched earth. Galloping black horses foaming at the mouth. The shadow of the scythe-wielding dealer of Fate bearing down on her. All super cute.”
In the seventh chapter, Elizabeth, now thinner and using the complete version of her name, has to deal with her still-fat mother’s excitement over her weight loss, and her attempts to dress up Elizabeth’s new figure, sometimes in her own vintage outfits. She is also thinking about the effect of her weight loss on her father; Elizabeth thinks that “my father has always felt that being fat was a choice. When I was in college I would sometimes meet him for lunch or coffee, and he would stare at my extra flesh like it was some weird piece of clothing I was wearing just to annoy him.” The part of the chapter that rang most true to me is the scene in which Elizabeth’s mother is watching her pack to go home: “All the satiny strappy shoes I’ll never wear again. Clothes that will ring wrong against my skin in terms of texture, in terms of color, the minute she isn’t there to tap her toes and clap for me, like the sight of me is music, is the song she loves best.”
The eighth chapter is the story of how Elizabeth goes to the local cleaner’s after her mother’s death and finds out that the dress she has left there has “an attractively scooped neckline. Sleeves and hemline a length and cut you would call kind. Buttons in back like discreetly sealed lips. Good give in the fabric. Double lined. The sort of dress that looks like nothing but a sad dark sack on the hanger, but on the body it’s a different story. Takes extremely well to accessories. My mother loved this sort of dress. At whatever weight she was—thin, fat, middling—she owned an iteration.” Elizabeth also remembers all the times her mother went to pick up the dress and found out that it was too worn to repair. Like picking out a receptacle for her ashes, the task of shopping to find another all-purpose dress was always “to retrieve the least offensive of the ill-fitting options.”
Chapter Nine is told from Tom’s point of view. He calls her “Beth,” although she reminds him that she wants to be called “Elizabeth” now. The chapter is permeated with his wistfulness about her struggles with her weight. “Even though he himself has borne witness to her transformation over the past three years, he is still getting used to the severely pared-down point of her chin, the now visible web of bones in her throat, how all the once-soft edges of her have suddenly grown knife sharp. How they seem pointed at him in perpetual, quiet accusation.” He thinks of “his Beth” as separate from “the new her….looking pared down and stiff, clad in tight-fitting, sharply cut dresses of every shade.”
In the tenth chapter, Elizabeth lives every formerly fat girl’s dream. She tries on the kind of dress she’s always wanted to wear. She says “I didn’t know it was a von Furstenberg then. I only knew it was precisely the sort of dress I dreamed of wearing when I used to eat muffins in the dark and watch Audrey Hepburn movies.” It doesn’t fit and she can’t afford it, which is a problem because she can’t get it off. The chapter ends with her thinking “maybe, if I wait long enough, if I’m patient, I’ll just ooze out. First the fat, then maybe we’ll find a way to coax out the organs. Some organs I won’t even need, like my appendix.”
Chapter Eleven is about Elizabeth’s fascination with a full-figured woman who works at a nail salon. She goes there during her lunch hour to avoid eating and hear the stories of what the woman bakes and how happy her life is, fat and all. When she gets back to work, she has to “inspect my own facial hollows and angles. It’s a relief to see they’re all still there. That I didn’t get fat by proxy.” When Tom calls her Elizabeth in this chapter, she thinks “I told you I go by Liz now. Why can he never get it right?”
In the twelfth chapter, Elizabeth returns to the plus-size store where she had to shop when she was fatter and looks through the clothes, thinking “only when you look more closely, observe the generous cuts, the longer hemlines, three-quarter-length sleeves, do you see how they give themselves away as clothes for those with something to hide.” She watches the other customers “pawing through the racks, presumably hunting for The Least of All Evils: a black cardigan without rhinestone jetties or webs of pearl across the front; a stretchy unadorned V- or scoop neck.” She tries on a dress like one she wore for an occasion when nothing else would fit, thinking that “the space between where I ended and the dress began would be miles and miles and miles. But even in the dark, I feel how it’s closer than I thought. Dangerously close.”
Finally, in chapter thirteen, Elizabeth starts to feel like all the time she spends at the gym and denying herself food has been a waste of her energy, imagining herself as “some woman walking for the sake of walking. With actual friends. She’s happy.” She wants to tell her dieting friend “that while we’ve been sitting here, there’s this angry, hungry maw in me that is fathoms deep.” She does not, though, because “even though Ruth’s only a hair thinner than I am, she’s way on the other side of the fat girl spectrum, looking at me from the safe, slightly smug distance of her own control and conviction.” Elizabeth helps her neighbor, the newest incarnation of “Itsy-bitsy,” rescue her cat, symbolically named Toffee. She thinks about where fat goes after we lose it and remembers telling Mel “I think it even comes out in our breath.” She considers varying her workout “so that it always feels like I’m getting somewhere” but ends by feeling “dangerously close to a knowledge that is probably always ours for the taking, a knowledge that I know could change everything.”
The thirteenth chapter is a nice wrap-up to this little character study, a perfect ending for someone who, at any size, still thinks of herself as a fat girl. It does not strike me as a realistic ending, though. The slide from hungry and angry to fat again doesn’t take very long, and it starts with a psychological flick of a switch. Unlike the blackbird, who is perched on a limb while the afternoon is passing almost unnoticed (“It was snowing/and it was going to snow”), Elizabeth is defiantly either one or the other, either fat or thin, no matter what in-between-weight she might happen to be at any particular moment in time.