Archive for January, 2013

January 30, 2013

Musharraf Ali Farooqi & Michelle Farooqi, Rabbit Rap

I found Rabbit Rap hard going the first time I read it a few months ago. It was easier when I reread it for this review, but it’s still a disappointing book. Particularly when one knows just how good a writer M.A.F really is. At least I was kinder* to it than Ashley Tellis?

A version of this review was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian.

 

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A fantastic (and devoid of humans) world has reached a post-predatorial era. The uninhibited use of a pesticide called UB-Next has killed off many carnivores and driven away the rest. Meanwhile the Fishermen of Urban Lands (FOUL) have been using a laser-guided system to protect their fish, thus wiping out most species of birds of prey. The rabbits, who own most of the farms benefit the most from this state of affairs. Newfound prosperity and a freedom from predators leads to a number of changes in rabbit society—most significantly a move to above-ground dwellings that marks a huge cultural shift.

An uncritical supporter of this new way of life is Rabbit Hab, a farmer and chairman of the Lapin Alliance, who aspires to wealth and social success. He is befriended by Rabbit Fud, a director of the UB-Next company, and is persuaded to become an early adopter of the company’s new product, a fertiliser called Vegobese. He is also keen to move his extended family out of the warren and into modern housing, but is foiled in this by the cunning aged matriarch, Gran-Bunny-Ma. As these new chemical products have unintended effects and things grow more and more out of control, Rabbit Hab and Gran-Bunny-Ma find themselves on opposite sides of a social revolution.

It’s clear from the beginning that Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi’s Rabbit Rap is a work of satire. It’s not always clear what it is a satire of. Ecological issues? We have here the unchecked use of chemicals promoted by big agro-tech businesses causing huge changes in the flora and fauna of a place. Entire species are wiped out, and the food produced by these new methods is pale and tasteless. Capitalism in general? Important decisions are made over games of golf. As UB-Next’s products fail or come with unintended side-effects, they are repackaged as luxury brands, and impressive amounts of spin are applied to make exploding, or radioactive vegetables seem good. Revolutionary movements? The movement initiated by the young rabbit Freddy goes off the rails almost immediately, lacking focus and easily manipulated by a number of people with their own agendas. Is the target of the satire then modern society (“a fable for the 21st Century”, says the subtitle), and can so generalised a subject make for a successful satire? I’m not sure.

Surprisingly, the most sympathetic characters here are Freddy and Rabbit Hab himself. In their own ways, each is the innocent abroad, caught in the machinations of those around him. Both rabbits, though on opposite sides of the conflict, seem to believe sincerely in their respective causes, and neither of them appears capable of understanding the extent (all too clear to the reader) to which they are being manipulated. Rabbit Hab’s desires in life may be simple and material (an impressive-looking modern lifestyle, a less embarrassing family, a membership at a prestigious golf club) but they’re not particularly evil, and they’re easily understood. Freddy’s initial motive is an unattainable crush, yet even as he becomes first an acknowledged leader of the movement and then a scholar, he’s still easily made a fool of. The real political genius here is that of Gran-Bunny-Ma.

And there’s much to be said for the image of the seemingly weak, elderly lady scheming her way to the top by means of a more powerful understanding of the world she’s in. Just as there’s much to be said for the scenes in which Freddy interacts with the “NERD-bred” rabbits; a dynamic as influenced by 1950’s “JD” (juvenile delinquent) narratives as it is by the low slung jeans of Kids These Days (where “these days” are the mid-1990s, it’s all rather dated). But none of this is relevant, or leads to anything. Then there’s a joy in the wordplay where concepts are acronymised and inverted so that FRUMP and NERD are now desirable things to be. But a setting like this offers so much scope for linguistic play that the few instances we get merely serve to draw attention to a more general absence.

It’s too easy to dismiss a story about talking animals as silly or frivolous, unworthy of serious critique. But some of our best works of social commentary have employed animals to make their point. We don’t need to go back as far as Aesop’s Fables; the twentieth century has given us George Orwell’s Animal Farm and (more recently) Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Done well, political or social satire can be scathing and powerful, or at the very least clever. Rabbit Rap is content to be a silly book about rabbits, and I can’t help being disappointed.

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* I don’t really believe that a critic’s being “kind” to books is a virtue.

January 29, 2013

Simon Crump, My Elvis Blackout

Someone I know read last week’s column and complained I hadn’t said whether or not I liked the book in question. I should probably make that clearer next time. (I did like it, if by “like” you mean feel unsettled and not really enjoy it but admire it and think it worked).

 

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As I read Simon Crump’s My Elvis Blackout, the internet was venting its excitement and anger over some of the revelations thrown up by Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. The outrage over Armstrong is an indicator of how disappointing we find it when the people we look up to and idolise turn out to have feet of clay.

So how do you write about celebrities who are probably really awful people in real life? Crump’s solution – fictionalised accounts in which the celebrity in question commits crimes, acts of violence, and other grotesque acts. It’s as good an answer as any.

My Elvis Blackout has had an odd publication history; as Crump notes in the afterword it has, since its creation in 1998, been “a chapbook, a hardback, a trade paperback, a tee-shirt, a short film, a CD and even a band”. It was published in 2000, was out of print for many years, and has recently been reissued as an ebook by Galley Beggar Press. In the interim Crump published Neverland, a lurid, fictionalised account of Michael Jackson that, the author claims, was finished mere hours before the singer died and was probably a rather startling contrast to some of the fawning accounts of his life that followed.

In My Elvis Blackout Crump gives us a series of short stories (some are less than a page long) in which Elvis Presley is reimagined in a number of startling ways. He murders other celebrities, including Dame Barbara Cartland and “Lady in Red” singer Chris de Burgh – though de Burgh comes back as a zombie to complain. He stands up his high school girlfriend on the night of a dance, only to confess to her later that he has murdered a classmate and become obsessed with human hair. We hear of his adventures as a foetus, when he would escape his mother’s womb, dress in the poodle’s tartan coat and go shoplifting. Of the time he was drugged on a cooking show with hilarious results – until all those associated with the show were fired. Many of these stories are told in a matter-of-fact tone that is completely at odds with their subject matter. “It was pretty soon after the time when Elvis had been abducted by aliens and he was still very touchy about the whole topic of intergalactic space travel.” Or “convinced that Led Zeppelin had sabotaged his plane, Elvis was now on his way to teach them a lesson.”

Violence is a constant throughout the collection. Often it’s casual; out of nowhere a character’s throat will be slit or giant ants will eat the flesh off her. It is even tender; Angie Crumbaker describes the boyfriend who has just committed murder as “so handsome that my aching heart began to bleed”. Sometimes it is visceral, as when we read of cannibalistic rituals at Graceland, where “human entrails had formed a thick crust on the surface of the pool”. It’s never played for laughs, even when it could be. The abovementioned Led Zeppelin revenge plot goes terribly wrong, but it seems more to draw attention to its lack of humour than anything else.

As someone with only a mild interest in the musician, I often found names and associations that seemed vaguely familiar; such as a reference to Presley’s having to shave off his sideburns to enter the US army. This feels in some ways like a pre-internet book, pieced together from what scraps we do know about a celebrity. Crump says it was written in the mid-1990s, before the internet was quite as big a part of our lives as it is today.

But much of this, particularly what it obliquely says about celebrity culture, feels new and fresh. In his introduction to the book Jon McGregor tells an anecdote about another of this year’s “fallen” celebrities, Jimmy Savile, and his sexual harassment of a young woman who was subsequently fired for retaliating. “We used to think this was a funny story” he says, after a beat.

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January 25, 2013

A neat little dinner

For Fëanor‘s collection of food-quotes, though I suspect he has this one already. From Georgette Heyer’s False Colours; noted epicure Sir Bonamy Ripple explains his plans for a small dinner party.

‘They have a way of cooking semelles of carp which is better than anything my Alphonse can do,’ he said impressively. [...] I thought I would have it removed with a fillet of veal. We must have quails: that goes without saying – and ducklings; and nothing beside except a few larded sweetbreads, and a raised pie. And for the second course just a green goose, with cauliflowers and French beans and peas, for I know you don’t care for large dinners. So I shall add only a dressed lobster, and some asparagus, and a few jellies and creams, and a basket of pastries for you to nibble at. That,’ he said, beaming upon his prospective guests, ‘is my notion of a neat little dinner.’

‘It sounds delightful, sir,’ agreed Kit. ‘The only thing is –’

‘Yes, yes, I know what you’re going to say, my boy!’ Sir Bonamy interrupted. ‘It wouldn’t do for a large party! But I mean only to invite three other persons, so that we shall sit down no more than six to table. And there will be side-dishes: a haunch of venison, and a braised ham, possibly. Or a dish of lamb cutlets: I must consider what would be most suitable.’ A note of discontent entered his voice. ‘I do not consider this the season for dinners of real excellence,’ he said gravely. ‘To be sure, few things are so good as freshly cut asparagus, to say nothing of a basket of strawberries, which I promise you, my pretty, you shall have! But only think how superior it would be if we could have some plump partridges, and a couple of braised pheasants!’

 

January 23, 2013

Sarah Gorely, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron

Yes, well. I apologise?

Last week’s column. On the site here; worth reading because they went with the most entertaining pull quote and because of Chris Braak’s comment.

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It is “a dark and windy night” when we first encounter Miss Priscilla Butterworth. Miss Butterworth is no stranger to tragedy—she was born in a town ravaged by pox, a disease that robbed her of most of her family including her father. Her mother would eventually follow him, pecked to death by pigeons. Priscilla also breaks both legs, and is nearly sold into slavery. Worse, she appears to be persecuted by a mad baron.

Naturally, Priscilla Butterworth is fictional. She’s the protagonist of the cliché-ridden Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, a romance novel by one Sarah Gorely. Sarah Gorely does not exist.

Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron first makes its appearance, as far as I can tell, in Julia Quinn’s 2005 comic Regency romance novel It’s In His Kiss (readers of this column will by now have gathered that I read a lot of romance fiction), as the sort of lurid novel enjoyed by an elderly countess. The book surfaces again in the same author’s later Regency novel What Happens in London, in which it plays a part in averting an international diplomatic incident. In her Ten Things I Love About You we discover not only the true author of this volume, but also a list of her other works.

So far, none of this is that surprising. For an author to spoof a genre within a book that is purportedly within that genre itself is something that writers have been doing since at least Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It’s funny and self-aware; it’s a way of sending up both the genre itself, and those who condemn it based on stereotypes. What is perhaps more unusual is that Quinn’s fictional book shows up again, but this time in a book by another romance author, Eloisa James.

Fans of horror fiction will be familiar with the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whose universe was populated with ancient and terrifying intelligences far beyond the comprehension of man. Later writers built on these stories so that nowadays what is considered the Cthulhu Mythos (Cthulhu being one of Lovecraft’s most memorable creations) consists of the work of several authors. These are not mere sequels, this is the sharing of a universe. Horror writers are neither the first nor the last to do this; comic books from the same publishing house are often set, broadly, in the same universe with characters from one series often crossing over into another. To those of us who are mere casual observers the plot gymnastics needed to keep all this making some sort of sense are mind-boggling. Somewhat more recently, writers of fanfiction have embraced the crossover, creatively manipulating plot so that characters from one book or movie may find their lives plausibly intertwined with those of another.

Readers of the Regency romance often complain that novels in this genre are historically inaccurate in their language and attitudes, particularly with regard to such areas as sexuality and politics (you’ll find few Regency heroes in support of the slave trade, for example). Modern language often creeps in, including Americanisms. To be fair to these authors, many of us (myself included) are probably basing our ideas of the period entirely on Georgette Heyer anyway. Nowadays I find it easier to simply see the Regency romance as a specific sort of fantasy novel instead—to imagine these books set in an alternate universe where there’s less slavery and more cunnilingus. When authors initiate their own crossovers, when they pay these small tributes to one another, it’s easy to conceive of all of these stories as existing in one, densely populated world.

A prominent feature of the Cthulhu Mythos is the Necronomicon, a book that contains terrifying and dangerous knowledge about Lovecraft’s universe and the beings that populate it. Lovecraft’s contemporaries cited this book as well, and it has since often been referred to in popular culture. Lovecraft approved of this; apparently he felt the multiple references gave it “a background of evil verisimilitude.” Perhaps Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is Regency romance’s Necronomicon.

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January 20, 2013

Mayank Austen Soofi, Nobody Can Love You More

Here’s the thing: in the last couple of years we’ve had a few genuinely good non-fictional books (I’m thinking particularly of Aman Sethi’s A Free Man and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers) in which a person of relative privilege has written about a person or people of relatively less privilege without the results becoming cringeworthy. A big part of this is due to how the narrators of these books place themselves within the text; the ways in which they’re conscious of their position when they say what they say. BtBF is not about Boo, and A Free Man is not about Sethi, but we always know who they are, and what the text’s relationship with them is.

And then there’s Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District, for which I’ve just done a short review for The Hindustan Times. As I mention in the review I found it a bit baffling trying to work out what Soofi was doing with his own character here. Have we reached a point, culturally, when something that sounds naive and/or patronising can simply be assumed to be a purposeful, self-conscious decision on the part of the narrator? The “Soofi” of the book teeters constantly between empathetic observer and hopeless outsider. He shudders at the excess oil in the food he’s offered and turns down buttered toast because it has excessive butter (really?); twice he looks at the women to whom he’s talking and wonders why any man would pay to sleep with them; he insists on following them about taking notes while they’re soliciting customers (I’m sure that’s not making the business awkward at all); he presses women to talk about things about which they’re uncomfortable then interrupts them to lecture them on how to cook dal. In between we have sections in which he ponders upon the difference between his life in “posh Hauz Khas village” and that of his friends on GB Road. If this is unintentional it’s terrible; if intentional it’s badly structured.

Also, there’s the issue of audience, and the necessity of constantly translating Hindi to English. I’m not comfortable with the automatic assumption that any author who does this is automatically pitching his book toward a foreign audience (plenty of Indians don’t speak Hindi and that’s fine) but I’m also not sure why we need, for example, snatches of song lyrics that Soofi hears. Translating them does them, and the book, no favours; “Munni badnaam hui” really does not work in English.

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The myth of the completely objective observer is one that has been busted several times over and even the driest of non-fictional subjects can reveal to the reader much about the author. With a subject as socially fraught as prostitution this is even more the case. Mayank Austen Soofi’s Nobody Can Love You More is an account in words and photographs of life in Delhi’s red light district. Based on an acquaintance spanning a few years with the inhabitants of kotha number 300 on GB Road, Soofi’s book attempts to explore the lives of sex workers as well as their families and other acquaintances.

Since the book is not arranged chronologically it’s not clear how far the book’s tracing of Soofi’s own journey is intentional – or even whether there’s an element of self-consciousness in his portrayal of himself here. The “Soofi” here is sometimes prejudiced and often naïve; he is disgusted by the food he is offered, he ponders why people would pay to have sex with an elderly woman. He’s a little too willing to provide us with accounts of his social life.  At times we’re offered trite insights, such as the information that women who come to work here are more likely to arrive for the first time from the railway station than the metro station, or that there’s nothing at the nearest station to indicate that the red light district is nearby.

Despite all this the voices of some of these characters shine through—particularly those of Sushma, a sex worker who lives in number 300, and Omar and Osman, two children conflicted about their parents’ professions and their own religious beliefs.

“Her husband left her. I think he was not a good man. But he did not tell me much. And I didn’t ask her. Maybe he was a good man … who knows?” Thus Sushma discusses the circumstances of a former colleague. Sushma understands that people’s lives don’t always fit into easy narratives. In the book’s final chapter Soofi finally raises questions of narrative, of storytelling, of truth, but when he suggests that perhaps “it is fulfilling enough for a writer to get a sense of GB Road without stripping bare the lives of its people” it feels less like a disclaimer than a throwing up of hands in despair. Nobody Can Love You More may want to gesture toward the complexity and chaos of the human lives it documents, but it feels merely muddled and unsatisfactory.

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January 17, 2013

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

I was writing all these Christmas and children’s lit/YA-themed columns and thought it would be a good idea to write about sex in toilets instead. One doesn’t want to get into a rut. Erm.

From Sunday’s column:

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Friends and well-wishers have over the past few years occasionally expressed shock that I haven’t read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. I’ve been both intimidated and a little sceptical about the sheer brilliance they claim for this novel; at any rate, it was enough to make me curious about DeWitt’s latest work. Lightning Rods was written a decade ago. If the delay in publication was due to the difficulty in finding a publisher, considering the novel’s subject matter it’s not hard to understand why.

Joe (he has no surname and the most everyman-ish first name he could possibly have) is a not-very-successful salesman of vacuum cleaners who has previously worked as a not-very-successful salesman of encyclopaedias. Almost the only thing he seems exceptional at is masturbating, which he complicates through the imagining of erotic scenes which have to sufficiently adhere to their own internal logic before they can serve their purpose. Joe’s great moment of inspiration comes when he decides to use his strengths to get ahead, utilising his own masturbatory fantasies as the basis for a scheme to get rid of sexual harassment in the workplace; a scheme that essentially involves the installation of high-tech glory holes in the disabled toilets. The “lightning rods” programme soon spreads to offices across America, running into all manner of problems that Joe had never anticipated (the difficulty of preserving anonymity where race is involved; the complications that arise when people use the toilets for their stated purpose), yet somehow this utterly ludicrous idea is a rampaging success.

Told in a tone that is equal parts uncritical biography and business report, Lightning Rods documents the phenomenal success of Joe’s project. One of the targets (and there are many here) of DeWitt’s satire is the language of corporate culture, and all the meaningless platitudes of Human Resources, all the euphemistic rubbish that any of us has ever put on our CVs, are employed here in the most artfully-unselfconscious of ways. Some of this language has become so normal a part of the way we communicate that we barely notice it here – which is, of course, part of the point.

It’s hard to entirely dislike Joe, even as the novel tears him, and everything he stands for, apart. There’s a sense throughout that he’s earnestly working all of this out from first principles, as if there were no studies of sexism in the workplace, no research of psycho-sexual urges, nothing for him to cling to. He even buys himself a Programming for Dummies textbook in order to develop the rudimentary software the programme requires. Naturally he gets things very wrong, but it’s easy to believe that he genuinely wants men to harass women less at the workplace (or at least, not to risk getting into trouble for it; Lightning Rods is as much a skewering of workplace gender norms as it is anything else), or that he really believes that his height-friendly toilet is going to revolutionise the lives of little people and people with disabilities.

By the end of all of this, Joe’s ideas begin almost to sound plausible, even healthy. Men stop calling in sick to work. Productivity is increased. We read of one male employee whose ability to relate to women on a personal level is enhanced by  his sexual satiation in the workplace, another couple whose relationship proceeds independently of their anonymous sexual encounters with one another. Naturally everyone cannot benefit equally – only one woman in a thousand, Joe claims, has the temperament to face this job with equanimity.

Corporate language and culture, workplace sexism, pornography; Lightning Rods has a wide range of targets, and it manages to bring them all down. More, it does this in a detached, deadpan style that is a joy to read. I’m not sure how she’s done it, but DeWitt has managed to write a cliché-ridden, bloodless book, and have this somehow be the greatest possible proof of her skill as an author. I’m left delighted, and also shaking my head in disbelief.

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January 12, 2013

Deaths in Venice

It’s been six months, and so this is the penultimate “Paper Trails” column for the National Geographic Traveller (India). It was out in the December issue of the magazine. Short version: I am flippant about Thomas Mann.

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The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, according to a number of unreliable sources, was given its name by the English Romantic poet Lord Byron on a visit to the city. The bridge leads to the New Prison, and though it is enclosed has windows so that convicts could take one last look (and presumably sigh) at the beauty of the city before being incarcerated. One legend associated with the bridge is that couples who sail under it together and kiss at sunset will be in love forever – this forms the plot of the 1979 Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane film, A Little Romance. If a bridge that carried convicts to jail seems a rather inappropriate venue for such activities, there’s probably something profound to be said about tragedy and love always going together.

That is certainly the case in Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered. Caudwell’s four comic crime novels (about a group of barristers who solve mysteries under the guidance of a pedantic Oxford scholar) are some of the funniest in existence and have nowhere near the following they deserve. In this, the first, Julia Larwood decides to go on an art tour of Venice that she cannot afford instead of staying home and paying her taxes. Immediately she meets and falls for a fellow tourist, an unimaginably beautiful young man named Ned. Her attempted seduction seems doomed to fail (not least because Ned is accompanied by his boyfriend) but he finally succumbs to her charms. Later that day he is found dead and it appears Julia is the only person who had the opportunity to kill him.

Beautiful young men might have cause to avoid Venice altogether. The German author Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice also features a protagonist, Aschenbach, who is besotted by a boy named Tadzio with a face like “the noblest moment of Greek sculpture”. As Venice is overtaken by an epidemic of cholera Aschenbach chooses to stay so that he can continue to gaze upon this perfect youth. For obvious reasons this is a terrible idea; it’s unclear if Tadzio succumbs to cholera, but Aschenbach himself dies at the end.

Death in Venice has been adapted into multiple films as well as an opera. For reasons that ought to be obvious adaptations of the book tend to make Tadzio a little older – in the original novella he’s only about fourteen. But the book is also so famous and so influential that later works set in Venice often seem to be paying tribute to Mann’s novella.

Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Ganymede” is an obvious tribute, in which an English academic becomes smitten with a Venetian waiter. Apparently du Maurier used “Venice” as a code word for her own attraction towards women. She wrote another story set in the same city; “Don’t Look Now” which was turned into a film in 1973. In this a couple mourning a recently-dead child comes into contact with a strange pair of sisters. It may not be as obviously related to Mann’s work as “Ganymede” is, but here again there is love twinned with tragedy and an uncomfortable sense that we’re on the verge of the supernatural.

Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers has this in common with both du Maurier and Mann. An English couple on holiday in Venice are trying to rekindle their relationship. Colin and Mary spend most of their days in a dreamlike haze, getting lost in the city’s confusing streets. Then they meet Robert, a Venetian, and his wife Caroline. Robert and Caroline show a disconcerting interest in the couple and in Colin’s beauty in particular. Predictably, things end badly.

A story with a comparatively happy ending is that of Alexander McCall Smith’s German philologist and academic, Moritz-Maria von Igenfeld in Portugese Irregular Verbs. On a visit to Venice to mend a broken heart von Igenfeld notices a family staying at the same hotel. He pays particular attention to the beautiful teenaged son, a boy named “Tadseuz”. He also notices the suspicious insistence of many Venetians, seemingly apropos of nothing, that there is nothing wrong with the city’s water supply. He investigates, and soon learns that some form of radioactivity has seeped into the canals. But von Igenfeld is no Aschenbach; he very sensibly scans all his food for radioactivity, warns Tadseuz’s mother that her son has become “un peu radio-actif” (I cannot vouch for von Igenfeld’s French but I laughed) and leaves the city.

McCall Smith spoils it all at the end by having von Igenfeld think of Thomas Mann and how similar the two stories are; it’s a terrible shame to ruin a clever joke with a crude explanation. Yet it’s true that all the stories I mention here are in a way paying tribute to Mann’s powerful work. Venice is often talked of by those who do not belong to it with a flood of clichés, as if all that the city had to offer were gondolas and cheesy romance. Mann gives us another literary tradition through which to see the city. It isn’t a particularly happy one, but it’s one in which love, beauty and grief are all intertwined

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January 10, 2013

Jenny Overton, The Thirteen Days of Christmas

Despite my distaste for a particular aspect of this book (see below) I’m curious to read Overton’s other work. I’ve heard her compared to Antonia Forest (whom everyone who reads this blog is probably sick of hearing me gush about), and I’d really appreciate it if someone who had read both writers could tell me a little more. Just … not this book again, please.

Last weekend’s column:

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Tradition dictates that it’s acceptable to leave your Christmas decorations up until Twelfth Night – the 5th or 6th of December (yesterday or today) depending on who you talk to. Surely this ought to apply to Christmas reading as well.

Jenny Overton’s The Thirteen Days of Christmas is set in England at some unspecified time in the past. Certainly long before the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was invented; this purports to be the story of how it came into being.

Annaple Kitson is the oldest child of her family, and since the death of their mother has looked after the rest. Her father and younger siblings aren’t always happy about this; for one thing, Annaple is a terrible cook. For another, she is romantic and tends to go off into daydreams – or to inconvenience the rest of the family by demanding that they do things in the most proper or most picturesque ways. Luckily the very rich Francis Vere wants to marry her. Francis’ wealth means that Annaple would never have to cook again, but she keeps turning him down for being insufficiently unromantic. At Christmas, therefore, Annaple’s younger siblings advise Francis to be as strange and creative as possible. And so he shows up on Christmas morning with a partridge and a pear tree.

Annaple may find this gift unusual and charming, but her reactions to those that follow grow progressively less amused. Three French hens may be useful, but the cumulative nature of Francis’ gift-giving (as those familiar with the song will be aware) means that she ends up with thirty. The house, presumably quite small, is soon crowded with poultry, songbirds and visiting dancers and performers. What is a family of five to do with the daily delivery of eight pails of milk, or over forty swans? Worse, as the gifts get more and more out of control, all the neighbours show up to enjoy the tamasha.

It’s all very absurd and, told in Overton’s matter-of-fact style, it’s easy to see why this is so many people’s Christmas read of choice. It’s also interspersed with the lyrics of some beautiful old carols. But it’s this spectre of an appreciative audience, gleefully watching the heroine’s downfall, which made me very uncomfortable while reading.

Because everyone but Annaple herself seems to really want this match to happen. Annaple’s insistence on romance is portrayed as silly and perhaps it is, but she does have the right to turn a man down if she doesn’t wish to marry him. Worse, her family consistently blames her for his excesses—she should never have told him her favourite nursery rhyme or her favourite fairy tale. We are never sure if Francis is aware of how much he’s inconveniencing and upsetting his chosen bride; since he’s an idiot if he isn’t and manipulative if he is, the outcome isn’t promising for Annaple either way. The vast crowds on the street outside all appear to be on Francis’ side, much like the back-up dancers who materialise in a Hindi film song to support the hero’s play for a girl.

Over the last couple of weeks most of this country has been engaging in a conversation about our attitudes to women and the ways in which our cultural products reflect or perpetuate them. Certainly not the most conducive background against which to read a book about a silly young girl being publicly humiliated (since Annaple sees it this way, I must too) by an entertained crowd, all because she has chosen to reject the eligible man who wants her.

Luckily Francis’ twelfth day present turns out to be something Annaple loves, and we’re not presented with the spectacle (which at one point seems quite likely) of her marrying him just to get the harassment to stop. The thirteenth day is the wedding, and for the first time we see the Kitsons as a loving family. But even the lovely, warm scenes between Annaple and her sister Prudence (finally!) were not enough to allay my deep discomfort.

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January 7, 2013

Studies

In school in Delhi in the mid/late 1990s it was a commonly done thing, when boys asked girls out, for the girl to explain that she had no time for a relationship, that she was “busy with her studies”. I didn’t do this; for one thing, no one would have believed it (exhibit A: my maths, physics and chemistry marks). But then, I can’t imagine anyone believed that was the real reason anyway, even when someone smart and quiet and capable of good grades said it. If I thought about it at all (I didn’t, much) I assume I thought it was a way to let someone down kindly; it’s not you, it’s me. Now I wonder if letting people down kindly was the problem. To turn down one teenaged boy you had to make an excuse that left you unavailable to all teenage boys, you couldn’t reject a relationship with this boy without rejecting relationships, full stop.

Perhaps we should have stuck with that other classic form of Indian maidenly rejection- the adoption of the rakhi brother* that at least acknowledged the individuals in this relationship/non-relationship, rather than reducing us all to our component genitals. (We were, of course, working on the assumption that everyone was heterosexual and cisgender, even as some of us were learning that we weren’t).

This is possibly reading too much into teenaged girls’ perfectly kindly impulse to spare people pain. But I think of it when rape culture suggests that a woman who has consented to a relationship with one man is therefore available to all men. I think of it when Delhi police, in last year’s horrifying Tehelka piece, explain that a woman who was going to have sex with her boyfriend anyway is hardly justified in crying rape when a bunch of his friends join in. I think of it when we still haven’t gotten rid of the “two-finger” test, in which someone can shove a couple of fingers into you, decide that you are “habituated” to sex, and therefore cannot have been raped- because all men, and all sexual encounters, are the same thing really. I think of it when Anurag Kashyap thinks it reasonable and natural that “the lament of a boy who has been rejected by a girl and is expressing his feelings musically” should take the form of the generalised violent hatred of women displayed by Honey Singh’s “Choot”.

And I suppose I think of it to a far less serious extent when family members and friends of family members treat marriage as a goal in itself, independent of who the person one marries is (assuming of course, that he’s a he, and not of the wrong caste or social background. Or at least not muslim or black – or, my grandfather insists, american). This not wanting to get married is just a phase, insists a cousin (my age!) when I tell her I don’t have plans to do so in the near future, you’ll be lonely if you’re not married to someone. An unspecified someone, whose only attributes are broadly generalised negatives- not the wrong gender, not the wrong caste, not the wrong degrees from the wrong colleges, not cruel, not ugly, not fat, not shorter than you — and if you have found this man why are you complaining? My parents still sigh over the end of my last relationship with someone who was for many reasons exactly what good Indian parents are supposed to want; but those reasons weren’t why I loved him. The (tragically) recently shut down “Nice Guys of OK Cupid” mocked the stereotype of the Nice Guy™ who believes himself to be entitled to sex from the women he’s attracted to because he’s a nice guy; he’s not like those other guys who stupid women inexplicably choose over him. He’s been so kind for so long, when is he going to get the sex he’s owed? The only way any of this makes sense is if women as a whole are fundamentally flawed, and foolish enough not to want him. As if nothing about individual men mattered except that they not be violent or openly horrible.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that when the patriarchy (or the kyriarchy, generally) makes it hard for us to believe that women are human beings with individual subjectivities, it also in a wayturns men into an amorphous blob — to me, this is the natural conclusion of the “if him, why not me?” logic. And this isn’t a “What About The Mens?/The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too!” conclusion because while this logic may be demeaning to men, it’s proving to be life-threatening to women.

And I’m not sure what any of this means; I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this “why not me?” attitude to women doesn’t come from a place of the grossest entitlement, and I don’t think my family wanting me comfortably “settled” is necessarily propping up the patriarchy. I don’t know if gendered violence (or indeed racist violence, or classist violence or or or) is going to just magically vanish if we all take the radical step of treating individual people as if that is what they were, but then the sheer amount of structural change something as simple-sounding as this would require is terrifying.

I’m lucky in my immediate family, in that they’re far less invested in my adherence to the trappings of ordinary adult life than many I know. If I can scrape together funding I’ll be starting a PhD later this year, and at the back (and occasionally the forefront) of many of my conversations with them has been the terrible fact that this means I’ll be in my thirties before they can reasonably bring up the marriage thing again. Finally, a good decade-and-a-half later, I’m using the “busy with studies” excuse to opt out of heteropatriarchal relationships.

Except if there’s one thing the last three weeks in Delhi have reminded us (as if we needed a reminder beyond mere existence in this city or any other) it’s that opting out isn’t an option. And I think it’s amazing that my entire country is coming out and having this conversation, and that we can finally hope for things like police reform and better laws (and please, please make marital rape illegal) but beyond all of that there’s the thing where we need to initiate the personal and structural reforms that allow us to conceive of people first and I’m not sure how to even begin.

 

 

*Yesterday “spiritual leader” Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim of the recent gang rape in Delhi was to blame for not calling her attackers her brothers. Such is the power of the Rakhi, it seems.

January 5, 2013

Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts/ The Brides of Rollrock Island

The copy I have is titled The Brides of Rollrock Island. I refer to the book by this name below as a result, but I much, much prefer the title that doesn’t sound like it just married Kate Winslet.

A version of last weekend’s column:

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Margo Lanagan’s last novel, Tender Morsels generated some controversy for its unflinching and often stomach-turning depictions of rape and incest, particularly since it was in many places marketed as a young adult novel. Tender Morsels was a take on the Snow White and Rose Red story; Lanagan’s most recent novel takes its premise from the selkie myth.

Sea Hearts, also published as The Brides of Rollrock Island, tells of a small island often visited by seals. Local legend has it that these seals can occasionally be transformed into human women, and that a number of those who live on the island have seal-blood in them.

One such resident of the island is Misskaella, a young girl with ‘seal-magic’. She has the power to draw forth women from the seals, a power she is willing to exercise for the men of the island for an exorbitant fee. For the ‘sea-wives’ thus obtained are beautiful and docile; nothing like the individual, flawed, assertive women who otherwise live on the island. Over the book’s seven sections, told by different narrators, we piece together a partial history of the island over two generations. As more and more men succumb to the temptation of Misskaella’s sea-wives the human women leave, until the island is entirely populated by human men and seal women. The sea-wives alone cannot leave this place; though they pine for the sea, the men have hidden their sealskins so that they cannot revert to their original forms.

Particularly in the chapters narrated by Daniel Mallet, a child of one such union, what Lanagan offers us is a portrayal of a community built entirely upon gendered violence. The sea-wives have been forcibly ripped from their natural bodies and habitat to live with men whom they did not choose and whom they cannot escape. The adult men are all party to the conspiracy that keeps their wives’ skins hidden, that keeps their wives entrapped in human form. Everyone but the children is fully aware of the deep wrongness that lies at the heart of this situation, yet the men continue to pay for wives, and to attempt to build family and community over what is essentially rape.

Lanagan manages not to present the men of the community as entirely evil, though what they’re doing clearly is. They are criminally weak as is Dominic Mallet, who is ‘forced’ to take a sea-wife despite having a life and a fiancée on the mainland. For men like Dominic the sea-wives represent another way of life – something calmer and deeper than the rapidly modernising world around them. Caught up in the beauty and romance of that ideal, it seems, they are able to (mostly) forget that their wives are unwilling captives and that their marital bliss is someone else’s rape and imprisonment.

It’s the sons (daughters of sea-wives, being unable to live on land, become seals themselves) who piece things together, and who have the moral courage to put an end to it. Lanagan captures the bewilderment of the child who comes to realise that what he holds most dear is built on a foundation of ugliness. She leaves open the question of whether the boys could still have done this had they been old enough to claim sea-wives themselves. The wives are released from their bondage and return to the sea – taking their sons with them and leaving the men grieving but the community cleansed.

Over all this Misskaella towers; a sinister figure in the eyes of many (and who would not want a convenient scapegoat for this situation) but also wounded and -when the sea-wives finally abandon their men- triumphant. We’re never allowed to see her as anything other than deeply human, and there’s a vicarious pleasure (and does that mean the reader is implicated in her crimes, including those against other women?) in her victory over the community that has rejected her. The Brides of Rollrock Island is messy and complex and horrifying because gendered relationships can be all of those things, but it’s also quite wonderful.

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