Archive for January 30th, 2012

January 30, 2012

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

These are what I spent most of my time in Jaipur reading. Not much to say about Kaling’s book really (other than that it made me laugh out loud multiple times) but there’s quite a bit more to be said about my issues with Moran’s feminism – one does get the impression that she’s unfamiliar with most of the discussions that have been going on within feminism(s) over the last couple of decades. Which is fine, and I suppose this book could work as a useful introduction to feminism for someone reasonably first world (or third world but privileged in lots of other ways, perhaps). But it’s hard to imagine someone who would pick this book up in the first place needing to learn any of this stuff. Still; charming, funny, and as long as it isn’t regarded as any sort of feminist textbook, quite good.

This was in Saturday’s Indian Express. I haven’t seen a physical copy of the paper (household paper-getting politics are complex and often involve physical violence) but the version on the website has a major formatting issue that removes the line breaks and indents from the Kaling quote at the end of the piece and so mixes my words with hers. I’d be grateful if someone who does have a physical copy could check whether the print version also has this problem – not that I can do anything about it at this point.

 

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A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens suggested that women simply were not as funny as men. It seems facile and rather pointless to counter something so idiotic (and so objectively unprovable) with a list of funny women, but you have to wonder, at least, how many of those who idolised the man are now also big fans of Tina Fey.

In the few years since Hitchens’ controversial Vanity Fair piece we’ve had a wealth of women being funny. Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids, a movie that had its female characters getting drunk and behaving badly, being the victim of gross bodily functions, and in general just being more flawed and relatable than the women we’re usually allowed to see on the screen. There have also been any number of books by well-known female comedians – Chelsea Handler and Amy Sedaris among them. Of the various comic memoirs by women to come out in 2011 Fey’s own Bossypants was probably the most prominent. But we also had Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

Kaling is best known for her portrayal of Kelly Kapoor on The Office, the US sitcom based on the British show of the same name. But she is also one of the show’s writers, and previously co-wrote and acted in the successful play Matt and Ben.

Most of Kaling’s book functions as a memoir, with sections (divided roughly chronologically) on her time in school, what it’s like to grow up chubby, androgynous and Indian (“Kaling” is a shortened form of “Chokalingam”) and her early attempts to make it in the industry before the success of The Office and her newfound stardom. The tone throughout is rueful and self-mocking; on the subject of herself Kaling is often sidesplittingly funny.

The autobiographical chapters are interspersed with shorter observations on various aspects of life, relationships and the media, and these are decidedly hit and miss. “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real” pokes fun at the narrow range of women in the movies – beautiful klutzes (a flaw that makes a character palatable while allowing her to still be beautiful), sassy best friends and the like. “When You’re Not Skinny, This Is What People Want You To Wear” is a hilarious, infuriating take on the fashion industry. Unlike Fey and Moran, Kaling never actually mentions the word “feminism”, but there’s an implicit political stance in sections like these, and the book is all the better for them.  In “Roasts Are Terrible” she suggests that the modern phenomenon of roasting people on television is something we could all do without; and this too is a principled stance. “The self-proclaimed no-holds-barred atmosphere reminds me of signs for strip clubs on Hollywood Boulevard: “We Have Crazy Girls. They Do Anything!” We don’t have to do anything. Let’s bar some holds.”

On the other hand, a lot of these feel like padding and read like hurried blog entries (“Jewish Guys”, really?) and when the author begins to write defences of men’s chest hair and to wonder why they take so long to put on their shoes, you wonder how much she really has to say.

Unlike Kaling’s book, Moran’s is explicitly a feminist work. Moran is a British columnist, TV critic and Twitter celebrity. How to Be a Woman begins at the onset of her puberty (“Chapter 1: I Start Bleeding!”) and follows her through the perils of hair removal, high heels, love, reading Germaine Greer, encountering sexism in the workplace, and negotiating marriage, family, children, abortion and jobs.

Germaine Greer is a part of the problem with How to Be a Woman; she’s the only living feminist writer (unless you count, as you probably could, Lady Gaga) Moran mentions. The implication is that feminism stopped developing a few decades ago, when in fact it often looks like Moran simply wasn’t paying it much attention. It’s a little hard to take seriously Moran’s injunction to stand on a chair and shout “I am a feminist!”  when you’ve read enough to know that many groups who choose not to identify with the term (then again, Moran’s book is very obviously aimed at very mainstream white Western women) do so for reasons far more complex than anything in this book.

Yet this is easily forgiven because when Moran talks about herself she is utterly charming. I am all the better for knowing that occasionally food falls out of her mouth while she’s laughing at 30 Rock, and that she spent her late teens “like a sexed-up lady Pac-Man – running around flapping my mouth open and closed, gobbling up people’s faces”, just as I am for knowing that Mindy Kaling works out to elaborately plotted revenge fantasies.

As for the ‘are women funny?’ issue? Moran never mentions it, but it’s quite clear what her answer would be. Kaling does explicity mention it in an FAQ section at the end of her book.

 Why didn’t you talk about whether women are funny or not?

I just felt that by commenting on that in any real way, it would be tacit approval of it as a legitimate debate, which it isn’t. It would be the same as addressing the issue of “Should dogs and cats be able to care for our children? They’re in the house anyway.” I try not to make it a habit to seriously discuss nonsensical hot-button issues.

 So there.

 

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January 30, 2012

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

I tend to think I’m not harsh enough on most things I review, but have recently been made aware that this is not an opinion shared by everyone. So for last week’s column I went with a book I could gush about – either from laziness or from a sort of see? see? I don’t hate everything! instinct.

 

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Perhaps there’s nothing quite as tedious as the enthusiast. I have pressed Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies into the hands of friends, accosted them and demanded to read bits out to them, and generally conducted myself in a way that would alarm anyone. Some of them eventually read it, cowed into submission, and have admitted that it is marvellous. But this is not enough. I still mutter angrily about its inexcusable exclusion from the Booker shortlist in the year in which it was published (it did make the longlist) and its failure to win the Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize for comic writing. It’s just not right.

During a doughnut-eating contest with his friend Ruprecht, Daniel “Skippy” Juster falls to the restaurant floor. He manages to write his last words (“tell Lori”) on the floor, using jam from a doughnut, before he dies.

The title of Paul Murray’s book reads like a massive plot spoiler (Skippy dies, Bruce Willis is a ghost, Darth Vader is Luke’s father) but the death that gives Skippy Dies its name takes place at the very beginning of the story.

Skippy and Ruprecht are students at Dublin’s prestigious Seabrook College school. Ruprecht’s main interest is science; Skippy’s is Lori, a beautiful, unattainable girl from a nearby school. Murray takes us through the last weeks of Skippy’s life and the fallout of his death. The book is divided into three volumes – Hopeland and Heartland focus on Skippy and on another character, the colourless history teacher Howard “the Coward”. Ghostland, the final volume, takes place entirely after Skippy’s death and focuses on Ruprecht’s attempts at dealing with the loss of his best friend. Skippy Dies is a school story (at least it draws on the genre) and a tragedy, but it’s something else as well;  a vast, weird story that brings together such disparate elements as string theory, druids, action figures, pop music and Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

It seems odd that a book about a death should have been nominated for a comic writing prize. But Murray delights in language and takes a particularly Wodehousean joy in metaphor. So we have Father Green (once known to his French –learning students as “Pere Vert”) who travels about with “two or three bodies’ worth of empty space around him, as if …accompanied by pitchfork wielding goblins”. As his title character lies dying, Murray tells us that “Doughnuts scatter the ground like little candied wreaths”.

There’s much about Skippy Dies that is joyful – the sex-obsessed schoolboys and the frequently-dreadful puns, and a masterful account of a school concert that literally brings the roof down.

And yet the book never forgets that it is about the death of a child. “The universe at this moment appears to him as something horrific, thin and threadbare and empty; it seems to know this, and in shame to turn away.”  Murray’s finest achievement is in how he balances the humour and the exuberant language with the tragedy of the horrifying incident that underlies the whole book. Often he shifts swiftly between the two registers, but he’s at his best when he somehow manages to access both at the same time.  An early example of this is a scene in Father Green’s French class in which a student is called upon to explain to the priest some explicit rap lyrics.  This ought to be hilarious and it is, for a while, until it dawns upon us that this boy is breaking down in front of us. Skippy Dies is brutal but never cruel – the concerns of these characters can be trivial or clichéd (Lori’s refuge in sugary pop music; Skippy’s dying wish to tell a girl he barely knows that he loves her) but they are always treated with respect.  We’re not allowed to dismiss these characters. It is this more than anything else that makes the novel emotionally exhausting – it’s also what makes it brilliant.

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