Friday, March 30, 2012

Pryne resurrected as Payne in "When She Woke"

A few summers ago, I read a novel about a young woman who moves to a farm in the south with her family and is caught off guard by the grueling nature of the enterprise. She is shaken by the heat, the loneliness, and the crags and craters of her emotions. I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed Mudbound and knew I would keep my eyes out for Hillary Jordan’s next publication. Nevertheless, when Jordan’s second novel was published I was hesitant to bring it home with me. When She Woke takes on the uncertain landscape of the future. I am often deterred by these premises. Maybe this is because Brave New World was spoiled for me by high school, maybe because I prefer to have uncertainties of the present enumerated for me, or maybe I’m just an old crank. Adding to my skepticism was the knowledge that Jordan’s second work modeled itself on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. If there’s something that makes me very nervous, it’s novels based on Classics. Despite my trepidation, there is much to be said for When She Woke. Jordan imagines a future where criminals are identified by the color of their skin. A virus has been created which alters your DNA and turns you a color that matches your crime. Green an arsonist, drug dealers blue, etc. Rather than overload the prison system, criminals are allowed into the general population. They serve out their sentence in years as their designated color. Unsurprisingly the Chromes form a new lower class. And as with all things other, they are largely despised and preyed upon. Jordan’s America is governed by a radical religious right. Abortions are illegal. If caught you are chromed red: murderer. Hannah Payne, our modern Hester Pryne, is the daughter of intensely religious parents. As a child she is shamed for asking too many questions, wanting to wear pants, sensing there is something out there bigger than her parents’ doctrinal obedience. She never quite fits into the rigid strictures of her world. Aidan Dale, her married pastor, is her undoing and her love story. Unlike Hester Pryne, Hannah aborts her child, unwilling to bring it into the world they inhabit, unwilling to incriminate her lover. After Hannah’s chroming and solitary imprisonment she is released into a religious halfway house for chromed women. Cruelty abounds, overseen largely by the proprietor’s wife. Hannah is able to build a deep friendship with another red, Kayla, and together they strike out into their own brave new world; a world full of Klan-like vigilantes and terrorists trying to give victims like Hannah a second chance at life. Jordan’s future is expertly crafted if not always fully explained. The scenarios and gadgets that fill her novel are probable extensions of current trends: biodiesel cars, restricted personal freedoms, mobile devices called ports that make calls, track your money, your location etc. Jordan’s terrain, technological and political, is familiar enough to be frightening. The roles of religion and freedom are seriously discussed and it isn’t difficult to see how the extremists arrived at their decisions. It’s abundantly clear how hard it is to win those freedoms back. In the end I felt that Jordan rushed to bring her heroines to a conclusion. Despite deviations in the middle, the story’s arc ended with a scene very close to Hawthorne’s. I found the synchronicity unnecessary, because When She Woke had taken on a strong life of its own. The novel neither reinforced my prejudices about futuristic, classic-based novels, nor assuaged them. I would like to see what Jordan does next.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Complexity of Internet Age Lost in Banks Novel

In his recent novel, Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks tackles three separate subjects: the criminality of sex offenders, morbid obesity, and his apparent love for Florida. There is certainly room for these three themes to become intertwined and accentuate each other. Unfortunately their crossings feel entirely forced and the novel is one of the few I can best recommend as a doorstop.

The protagonists are not awarded with the dignity of names. They are merely the Kid, a young, white adult male recently out of prison for a sex crime, and the Professor, an obscenely fat man who takes a scholarly interest in the ramshackle community of sex offenders living beneath the Calusa causeway. What we are meant to recognize early on is that both men are layered in misunderstandings and concealments. This clearly manifests in the Professor’s gross size, which Banks conveniently chalks up to overindulgent parents who were wowed with the brilliance of their only son, and in the Kid's secrecy about his offense.

It is easy to feel sympathy for the Kid. He grew up as little more than a mouth to feed in his mother’s house and he has a tendency to lavish kindnesses on odd or wrecked animals. His affection for his iguana, Iggy, is both sweetly touching, baffling and his undoing. The Kid basically suffers from a lack of knowhow. He can be viewed as an everyman or middle-man, but unlike other heroes he’s given no particular talents and his dispassionate if vaguely self-aware presence is fostered by an environment in which it’s possible to disappear through the cracks into various byways. The Kid chooses to quench his loneliness with sexual satisfaction and the rampant porn supply on the internet allows him to do so without ever becoming intimate with another person. The dastardly role that the web can play into modern lives is more than interesting in itself but Banks mars the easy vulnerability of his character by repeatedly patronizing him and undermining whatever dignity the unassuming Kid possesses.

The Professor's formula is excess. He is a genius and has ended up as huge fish in a tiny pond and the girth to make everyone take note. His interest in the Kid feels predatory even if it's not and we're expecting to uncover some sort of darkness between his evasions. The expectation is satisfied in the most absurd manner of secret government agencies and years spent as a spy. The Professor is as opaque as the Kid is transparent and the friendship that arises is unlikely and unconvincing.

A novel can be redeemed through its descriptions, either through ripe language or visuals. Again Banks disappoints. Florida never came alive for me. Even when the Kid and Professor are caught in the throes of a hurricane I felt nothing for the crashing waves nor felt the force of the surrounding storm. If Banks harbors a particular love for the complicated culture and environment of Florida he utterly fails to communicate it or to embroil the reader in its complexities.

At no point could I divine Banks’s purpose and I was wholly disappointed by the author, whose books I have previously enjoyed. His effort to uncover the complicated role the Internet plays in our lives today, allowing us to disappear from each other into alternate but not necessarily safer realities, is crippled both by his language and the lack of dignity and thrall in his characters' stories.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Blueprints" an Explosive Portrait of Post-feminist Girls

The first story of Elissa Schappell’s collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls explodes off the pages. The vulnerability, sadness, cruelty and idiocy are like brutal scratches and the familiarity of the emotions like salt on a wound.

Heather has a bad reputation. Slut is shouted more than whispered as she walks through the halls of her high school. Ross is haunted by his recent past as the fat kid. The one in the pool with a long shirt, the one shoved into lockers, his books catapulted toward the floor. They find each other and it is a first exchange of intimacy and surrender. They are broken fledglings and their desperate search for solace is heartbreaking and destructive. “I couldn’t figure out why Ross, after taking such good care of that car, polishing each sleek curve, never seemed to clean outside,” thinks Heather, illuminating the way that all of Ross’s workouts and diets have shaved off the pounds but not smoothed whatever is inside him.

Schappell’s stories are linked by incidental crossovers between characters and my mind hopped around a bit trying to remember where Jenny had appeared before and what I knew about her. I’ve begun to tire of the six degrees of separation approach in short story collections, but Schapell’s overlaps bothered me less than some.

Joy of Cooking was good enough to make me pause. I have a tendency to react violently to narratives of eating disorders. Too often they are so wrong it feels like an insult. Schappell is at her strongest when she is writing in the first person and this is the best way to inhabit the pain of Emily’s mother. Twelve was the beginning of her daughter’s anorexia. Sit-ups, calorie counting, 74 pounds. The story hurts. The disease is an awful game where the winner dies, and this insidious disease is everywhere. Joy of Cooking harrowingly reminds us of the ripple effect, the way the obsession with food scuttles relationships and devastates multiple lives. “No one saw how much the mother hurt,” Schappell writes. “No one knew, or cared, what she’d lost.”

Schappell examines more than a few marriages, probing at the eventuality of children. She illuminates the polarizing feeling of absolute love and devotion paired with a distinct, if temporary, loss of self.

Sex itself is a vital thread in this narrative of girls and women. Unfortunately, every instance of sex in these pages is laced with ulterior motives, a promise or a deprivation. A woman bears three children to her husband and he stops sleeping with her. Another can't bear children and is similarly rejected. The anorexic is so uncomfortable in her body she can’t be touched, and a college girl tries to erase herself through degrading, semi-conscious encounters. Sex is not a success for these women, which I found upsetting and unfair. When will women, even in the confines of fiction, be permitted to pursue their sexual impulses without damning results?

I spent a lot of time thinking about these women’s relationship to sex afterward. Wanted, denied, unwanted, degraded, feared. Ultimately I think Schappell wouldn’t let sex be easy for her characters. Maybe she thinks it isn’t easy, or maybe she thinks it shouldn’t be, and maybe she’s right. But I can’t help hoping for stories about women who ask for what they desire and get it, without strings, without damage. How many times have we explained the foibles of men as boys being boys? When Heather’s son explains away a girl’s slip-up in a similar manner, her reply is devastating: “Don’t be a fool, there is no such thing as just a girl.”

Schappell unveils the frigid contours of post-feminist blueprints. The ability to have it all was somewhere confused with a directive. And as anyone knows, who has tried to be the good daughter, the temptress, and the measured prude, you simply can’t be everyone you’re expected to be.