Nobody Reads Clarice Lispector

I came across Clarice Lispector on the Writers No One Reads tumblr. The expression on her face in that photo is probably what captured me; fierce and arrogant*. It's a face that says:
Someone read my stories and said that that wasn't literature, it was trash. I agree. But there's a time for everything. There's also a time for trash
I randomly chose a title from the TPL catalogue, and away we went with Soulstorm.

This collection really does sweep through like a violent weather event. Lispector says in her introduction that the stories in Soulstorm were written on commission, something she was not used to doing. Invigorated by the challenge, she wrote most of the stories in the span of a few days, and the collection bears the mark of her fervor; one feels pushed forward by the momentum.

The pieces in Soulstorm are quite short, for the most part, and swing between erotically-charged fantastic realism and (what I assume are) Lispector's true-to-life ruminations and re-telling of anecdotes. There's little cohesion between the two, but what's interesting, in reading Soulstorm, is a sense that one is watching the manic progress of a creative endeavor. It's as if Lispector must stop and give herself a break from the darkly speculative fictions she creates with slower—but equally distressing— observations of the world.

The first story is of a woman who decides to become a prostitute after losing her virginity to a spirit called Ixtlan. Some pages later, Lispector includes a brief anecdote, told as if she was sitting at coffee, about a woman jilted by her fiance. Of the tale, she writes:
The realism here is invented. I beg your pardon, for besides recounting the facts I also guess, and what I guess I write down. I guess at reality. but this story isn't my baby.
It's a very strange book, Soulstorm.

The most interesting piece is "Where You Were at Night," which very neatly brings together the two sides of Soulstorm:the fantastic and the ordinary. Initially, "Where You Were at Night" seems to be an interpretation of a lawless and erotically-carnivorous Sadean society**. Initially I felt this story went too far, taking the earlier fantastical themes to an overly strange place, since most of the book kept at least one foot in the Real. It's the longest story in the collection, and the descriptions of the rather grotesque Bacchanal, presided over by the androgynous god Xanthippe, seem to go on forever. Then, "[d]awn: the egg came whirling slowly from the horizon into space. It was morning[.]" We are returned to the world as we know it. Each actor in the "dream" is accounted for, and placed neatly back into their daily routine, most without memory of the nightmare acts. Nearly the same amount of space is dedicated to the mundanity of everyday life as was given to the overnight activities. I'm not sure why this affected me so much, but it's the piece that has stuck with me, weeks later. She ends the story with:
All that I have written here is true—it exists. There exists a universal mind that has guided me. Where were you at night? No one knows. Don't try to answer—for the love of God. I don't want to know your answer.

I still don't know what to make of this odd collection. It feels more like watching a process at work, than a work itself. I know that I'm going to have to read more of Clarice Lispector to get some sort of grip on how she "normally" writes, in order to put this work in context. By her own admission it was created in unusual circumstances, so I'm definitely interested to see how that affected her writing, if at all.

*Incidentally, I have a similar story about Anne Sexton and this photo.
**I was reminded quite a lot of the character Jude Mason's book in A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower

Better Living Through Short Fiction

Since it's The Year of the Short Story I'm going to try and give more attention to the collections I read. I haven't been all that receptive to short stories in the past, mostly because I liked the commitment of novels. Lately, though, I've begun to appreciate the incredible craft that goes into short stories. Getting everything—narrative, character development, setting, action, resolution—into 20 pages seems an intensely different exercise from doing it in 300 (and neither of those things I have any skill at, so both get massive respect from me). So thanks, YoSS; I'm on board.

Zsuszi Gartner's collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, relates a world just slightly different from the one we inhabit now. It's not simply slightly futuristic; there's also a bit more magic and a bit more menace in Gartner's Vancouver. That the setting is so recognizable, yet constantly just a little off, gives an unheimlich tension to the stories in the collection. It feels as if there's always something ready to explode, or horrify, just around the corner. In "The Adopted Chinese Daughter's Rebellion" we visit a wealthy cul-de-sac (one of several in the collection) where adopted Chinese daughters are the status quo status-symbol. The families are hyper-culturally aware, denying the daughters any Western influence. The reader can recognize a less hyperbolic version of this (wealthy, white families adopting from poorer countries), yet Garter pushes the current trend further, to its ultimate surprising and horrifying detail.
Much was made of the cunning little embroidered boots the girls would wear, even to bed. Some of it was a bit too technical for us, with computer-generated diagrams detailing the length of cotton (4.57 metres) that would tightly bind the feet, the degree the four smaller toes were to be bent towards the sole (180), thereby breaking them, and how similar the bound foot is to a lotus blossom (very).

The excessive upper-middle class is often at literal war with the working classes throughout the stories of Better Living. A basement-apartment dweller, doing her community service in a mascot outfit, kidnaps a young boy. She's pushed into action by his outward signs of wealth (he's wearing a private school uniform), and how his parents trigger her resentment of the "Dan and Patricia"s of the world—the model perfect family seen in advertisements. In other stories the houses of the rich fall from their cliffside perches into dust. Husbands who provide "lamb popsicles in fenugreek sauce" and "ampoules filled with wild-morel cream" are emasculated by a beer-from-the-can car-on-blocks hoser type, who leaves all the wives pregnant in his wake. Alex, a woman who is hitting menopause too early and too quickly (while her husband becomes ever more childlike),
overheard a couple in JJ Bean loudly debating the pros and cons of a $25,000 residential wind turbine or a bicycle powered generator. The woman seemed particularly concerned about not losing access to Netflix. "If you want to get off the grid," she found herself saying, as if offering advice on the daily blend, "try sub-Saharan Africa." The woman called her an earth-raping, racist, Trotskyite bitch.
The upper and upper-middle classes are, in Gartner's hands, almost always caricatures, undone by their own greed, hypocrisy, and privilege-induced silliness.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is one of those lucky collections that works extremely well as a whole. Stories in collection don't have to be related, but (for me) it's nice when there's a thematic thread. All the stories in Better Living work well together; they all exist in the same (or similar) invented world, and maintain a solid and identifiable point-of-view throughout. And it's nice, as a downtown Toronto elite, to hear a West Coast voice, now and then.

Reviewed from advanced reading copy. Release date April 5, 2011


     Kelly Valen was compelled to write Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships after she published a New York Times article about the extremely poor treatment she received from her sorority sisters after she had been date-raped in college. The reaction to that article (much of it critical of Valen herself), and the communication she received afterwards, made her want to investigate dysfunctional relationships further.
Intentionally or not, I'd found myself scratching the surface of something significant. The notion that women of all ages and backgrounds were writing to me not so much about the date rape or the Greek system but to share their own hidden hurts and discomfort with other females really floored me

     She was also surprised at how many people asked her to look more deeply into the patriarchal causes of girl-on-girl hate. In Twisted Sisterhood she prefers to put these concerns aside, stating that she's out of her depth looking into feminist theory too deeply. In fact, the book ultimately suffers from this attitude, as Valen is unwilling to look into much of anything too deeply, beginning too many thoughts with "Well, I'm not saying x but maybe y?" As if she's afraid to offend, again. Instead, she spends most of the text quoting from her over 3000 survey respondents, but refuses to come to any conclusions, or even put forth any theories, other than "women must just be different somehow."

     I'm not sure what I was hoping to get out of Twisted Sisterhood. Perhaps some insight into my own actions: I too fear friendship with women due to past hurts, yet unlike most I instantly open up and share too much, too fast. I also become annoyed pretty easily, and I'm not shy about kvetching. Twisted Sisterhood made me feel ashamed of the latter, but didn't even try to give me strategies or alternatives. Instead, Valen tosses around a lot of nebulous ideas and buzzwords like "personal responsibility" and "co-operation" without really engaging with any of the negativity that the book is essentially about.
     Never once does Valen acknowledge that it's okay to be pissed off when people are shitty. Regardless of gender, I feel that I have every right to talk about being hurt or pissed off when people are shitty. It's not a "girl thing" it's a people thing. I shouldn't have to take shitty behaviour from anyone, man or woman. What Twisted Sisterhood had a real opportunity to do, and failed to address completely, is put forth better and more constructive ways to deal with these situations.

     Here's my own personal theory on mean girls, and I certainly don't expect you to agree. In fact, I'm not even sure how valid it is, but it's honestly the best thing I've been able to come up with. (Other ideas are, of course, what the comment section is for. Have at it!)
     Yes, women are worse to each other than men are to other men. At some point* we had to compete with other women, and other women only, for resources. Those resources being men. Without a man the world was a dangerous and unfairly difficult place for a woman. Valen is correct when she relates that women now feel that they're not competing for anything; for the most part, women are just competing. However, to me this seems like a hangover from the bad old days, which didn't end that long ago.
     My cohort's mothers would definitely have learned it from their mothers. Our grandmothers might have had the vote, but didn't have many opportunities outside the home. Even those of us lucky enough to have grown up in a more feminist household still encountered the larger majority of kids who didn't, and who learned those lessons of female competition from their mothers. And so on down. I think, I hope, that this might lessen through successive generations, as we women realise that the behavior we've learned isn't getting us anywhere, and is an antiquated reaction to conditions that, for the most part, don't exist anymore.**
     We've lost what we were fighting for and now we just fight. This can be especially evident at work, as it is a place where there is tangible reward for "winning." Valen does report that in her survey, many woman did not like working for a female boss, or that they feel a lot of tension in the workplace between females. Though, it's possible too, that women have to work harder, and overcompensate in being seen as less emotional and tougher than the men (think the Anna Wintour boogeyman), if they are to be taken seriously enough to rise to executive levels. (Depends on the workplace of course, but ask your nearest female CEO about her experience. Oh, never mind. Maybe there's a VP handy?)
     There's still a patriarchal element at work of course. Valen is also correct when she says that many women lash out because they are insecure in themselves (our Moms were right about that). Insecurity is also very, very good for business. Valen knows that "we can, to some extent, be counted on to [...]compete, compete, compete" which serves to "drive our purchasing decisions." Again, she lays this at the feet of women, who "notice, evaluate, and one-up each other" without examining where this behaviour might come from. Since men are still over-represented in owners and executive branches across these — and most — businesses and corporations, when we buy to improve our self-esteem, we make those men richer. My feeling is that it's not a direct "How can we screw women over?" ploy, but women feeling bad about themselves is a well-known revenue stream, one I'm sure corporations won't be giving up any time soon. And given how ingrained the current capitalist method is, I don't think this would change if women were in charge. Women CEOs will be just as responsible for the bottom line as male ones. Again, cultural hangover.

     The overriding message in Twisted Sisterhood is that women are ultimately responsible for the way they treat each other. While I think on an individual level this is true, and that as individuals we have a responsibility to think and do better, there's more at play on a societal level. Women are not mean just because they're women. Something has made us so, and it would be helpful if we had more insight into what that is; fighting an invisible and unacknowledged opponent will only be an exercise in futility.
     Valen's thesis, if there can be said to be one, can be drawn from a quote in the last chapter, called "Betting on the Power of Females and 'Sisterhood'." She quotes a man who says "Women are mean to each other because they're slaves to their overblown insecurities. It's in your nature and it's your greatest weakness." (Emphasis mine.) Valen sees nothing wrong with this analysis, that women are simply weak and insecure, not bothering to question who benefits from this condition (which I absolutely refuse to believe is innate). "This kind of in-your-face diagnosis of our female culture might rub you the wrong way," she says, "but it's hard to disagree with this fellow, really." Maybe it's hard for Valen to disagree, but that's in keeping with her inability to show any strength at all, even in a chapter with "Power of Females" in the title. If women follow Valen's trend of shying away from firm opinion and action out of fear of causing offense, then we will continue to be weak and insecure. The answer to female aggression is not knee-jerk passivity.

*I admit this point in time is pretty tough to pin down: when did we lose property rights, if we ever had them? When did we become chattel, if we ever weren't? When did we become regarded more for our bodies than brains?
**Though our rights are still under backlash-y attack. Not to mention those places in which women are still second-class citizens.
This is extremely frustrating, because while Valen refuses to place any blame on the way women have been treated at the hands of men, she is, in the end, really concerned with how "our brothers, husbands, bosses[!], and fathers of girls are feeling about the females in their lives."