A Turd of Hope, A Steaming Pile

When I first read "The Gutter Years" in the latest issue of CNQ, I just thought "gross," and moved on. Then the Globe and Mail chose to highlight this piece over the weekend, and I felt the need to make a rebuttal. The G&M notes the "refreshing and brutal frankness" of "The Gutter Years." Refreshing is certainly not the word I'd use. Though Marko Sijan's willingness to dirty some names is certainly uncommon in a small industry where everyone knows everyone else, I wouldn't consider that a revolutionary cool breeze. The rest is not exactly brutal honesty. Rather, it's bragging about "bad" behaviour, though it never comes across as the sort of decadent debauching the quoted Oscar Wilde might approve of.

Disclaimer: I do love CNQ for a lot of reasons, not least of which is its dedication to having very diverse pieces on theme in each issue. As a consequence, not everyone is going to love every piece. That's the point. This piece, I did not love, to put it mildly.

My first impression of "The Gutter Years" was that it was a Henry Miller hack (despite Sijan's note that Faulkner was his hero). Upon second reading, the judgment remains. Miller wrote real, intense filth, full of sex and destitute depravity. Sijan tries to be a tough guy that gets a lot of pussy, while admitting that Mommy and Daddy still pay the rent. Tossing in the odd superfluous scatological reference ("he'd given me just enough to float my turd of hope") does not real filth make. Friends, Miller is alright by me; filth in literature is alright by me, great even. Sijan is just posing.
Do me, Henry.
Miller begged for money too, but one never thinks that he's able to just call up the 'rents and have them bust him out of squalor. Sijan's piece reads almost like a Pulp song: "You could call your Dad/He could/Stop it all." There's no real struggle, just the assumption that slumming it might give Sijan some material, and ways to continue to act like a rebellious teenager. Even his one long-term partner is picked to make Mom cringe. The love interest is from Mexico, and he has decided to return to her country to live with her.
My parents tried to dissuade me from moving to Mexico: "A dangerous place," according to Mom, "full of ignorant peasants." When I showed her a picture of Alma, she said, "Oh, she's really Mexican."
He doesn't bother to disagree. Sijan's treatment of Alma, the woman he supposedly loves, is pretty loathsome. In a culture where a woman living unmarried with a man is—by Sijan's account— a pretty big black mark, he tosses her aside when it looks like things will work out with his novel back in Canada. And the only cited reason for not cheating on her is not his "love," but his feeling of being "[s]hamed and castrated for lacking her father's integrity." In the end, it's suggested that she's a bit off. I think. The scenes of their final time together don't really make much sense, but I'll give Sijan a break and assume that he meant to do that, to insinuate that at the time, Alma wasn't making much sense either. Then again, she had to go back to her town with a big strike against her. I wonder what became of her.

The Globe also chose to quote the first bit I found extremely troubling:
I was very busy teaching English as a second language and having sex with my Japanese, Korean, Brazilian and Mexican students.
Now, I don't care if you're heading up a yoga class, or teaching a graduate English course: fucking your students is pretty wrong. There's a power differential there. Those can be sexy, sure. Power games are common role play themes. But taking advantage of that power differential in real life is creepy; bragging about it is douchebaggery. To Sijan, though, women are just there to be used. The women in his life are either fucked, or handy go-betweens that can get his book seen by publishers. The only ones that don't fall into these two categories receive poor treatment: Anne McDermid is slandered with the insinuation ("The rumour was") that she's got a casting couch for young male authors—he accuses her of hitting on him, but he declines because, ew, cougars with fake hair colour and fake eyebrows! Tamara Faith Berger becomes a bad writer based on nothing but her reaction to his sexual invitation.
I tried to hit on her but she took no interest in me. Good. Your book is shit. I hadn't read it.
At this point I need to wonder about Sijan's purported sexual magnetism: if you're so fuckable that all these ESL students are letting you have their way with them, why are none of the four pictures in the article of you? I mean, yes, Russell Smith is pretty, but let's see your face, irresistible one*. Women would die without you, right?

Sijan draws Smith into conversation at a party, telling him of the crazy bitch ex-girlfriend who threatened to kill herself, should they break up. Weirdly, Sijan declines to name this ex-girlfriend (probably because she put out). Smith would like to know the identity of this mystery crazy woman, but Sijan is a cock tease. Really he should know better, since he enjoys Smith's "honest explorations of male sexuality." He thinks. He hasn't actually read any of the books.

There's a lot of casual racism in "The Gutter Years" as well. While Sijan is living in Mexico, he refuses to learn the language, which is high irony for an ESL instructor. He finds work teaching English to Mexican kids that he dares call "spoiled and arrogant" while still getting a stipend from his parents. Everything in Mexico is dirty, but not the fun kind, and is whittled down to the presence of roaches, Alma included. In a ridiculously sloppy passage, he compares to the clicking of a mouse to the sound of a cockroach twice within a few lines. Best of all, that cockroach of memory "scuttled between [Alma's] legs." Subtle! On another note, if your friend from Pakistan calls himself a "Paki" that does not give you license to use the term "Paki food" a few paragraphs later. No 'hood pass for you, kiddo.

But so what, right? He treats women like shit. He also hasn't got anything nice to say about Sam Hiyate or Ed Sluga, the two men who are really the focus of this piece. These are the guys who hold Sijan's first novel in their hands. These are the guys who can't get it published, and are the source of frustration for years. There's real venom for them in "The Gutter Years" and understandably so. Sijan is caught is a terrifically frustrating situation, in limbo forever, with the only piece of work he's completed.
I saw myself as a victim whose drive to succeed had been crushed by publishing industry charlatans.
Despite the description of this feeling as one of "epic delusion," I'd argue given the tone and content of "The Gutter Years," he's still feeling this way. Yet in the end, they're forgiven.
It took me a long time to understand that Sam didn't betray me. He was a friend and mentor who introduced me to an exciting world and facilitated many happy memories. [...] As for Ed, his "personal crisis" could have involved any number of issues, and he may have been powerless against the juggernaut of his own dysfunction
Hey man, it's okay, I understand. Buds? I'm still wondering what happened to Alma.
* * *

I hesitated to write this post, because inevitably I'll be told I've missed the point. I've tried to find one, really, I have. Unlike the G&M writer, I didn't find anything new and interesting here; it's the same tired Entitled Dude** attitude I've been exposed to time and time again. The piece isn't shocking or ground-breaking, or even that well-written. It's just, to reiterate, gross. I get that Sijan's looking at the audience with big eyes saying, "I've been a vewy baaaad boy!" But so what?

Why do I give someone like Henry Miller a pass, when Marko Sijan just makes me feel slimed? I think part of it is authenticity. Marko's just slumming it. There's no artistic integrity here, he's just a filth tourist, and worse, he's no good at it. Telling me you fuck isn't dirty; everyone fucks—and everyone poops. (Hopefully, "we had sex in the manner of dogs" was meant to be hilarious.) Smoking pot isn't depraved, it's the Canadian national pass-time (and pretty benign at that). Slagging random CanLit names is just sour grapes. The rest is just sexist, classist, racist bullshit.

Sijan does note throughout the piece that he's aware his ego is large, and that he acts in ways that feed it. However, "The Gutter Years" is no mea culpa. There's absolutely no indication that Sijan is any less of a dick (and showing some sympathy for the dudes that fucked your career over doesn't save your soul when everyone else is still under the bus), and he doesn't apologise. He doesn't have to, of course. But if not, then why does this piece exist at all? One can argue that it's one man's look back at his attempts to create that decadent life, to be in the "gutter but looking at the stars," and failing in that pursuit. Why else mention his inability to provide for himself, his ego, his acknowledgment he was a liar? If this is the brutal honestly I'm supposed to admire, I'm not buying it. Admitting you're an asshole doesn't automatically make you interesting. You need to be interesting, asshole.

This character is at once so vile and so boring, that the admissions don't mitigate judgment, like I assume they're supposed to. Again, it just seems like he's bragging, rather than acknowledging his shortcomings. Worst, in the end, I just don't give a shit. (I don't give a shit enough to write 1500 words, right?) Probably, the piece exists mostly to promote the fact that his book is finally being published. Because as we all know, sensation gets attention, and I've played right into it.

*Oh, there you are. "Marko’s two specialties are in helping students develop proficiency in oral and written communication." IYKWIM!
**Note this is a specific Dude Type. I'm not saying all men have the same entitlement issues. However, this Entitled Dude is not an uncommon worldview.

The Little Lady Pt 2: Elizabeth Siddal

I was first introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a second year English lit course called "Victorian Sexuality in Poetry and Painting." It was taught by an elderly Brit who looked like he'd been there, and had decided to tell us the tale. Despite his sometimes meandering lectures (I remember he'd often veer off into talking about Marlene Dietrich), he had such amazing knowledge of the subject, and a real obvious love for the era. It was infectious. Soon, we were all in thrall with Tennyson, William Morris, Waterhouse, Burne-Jones*, and Dante Rossetti. Especially Rossetti, because he had that fantastic macabre tale attached to him: when his wife died, he buried his unpublished poems with her, then exhumed her years later to get the poems back. It is said that when Elizabeth Siddal's casket was opened it was discovered that her hair had continued to grow after death, filling the casket with red-gold. We saw slides of Beata Beatrix** in that class, we looked at some of Siddal's sketches and self-portraits, and we read as many of her poems as were available (few exist and are rarely anthologized). It was impossible for me not to fall for Elizabeth Siddal's tragic, romantic legend.

It's the stories and myths surrounding Siddal, and the way she's portrayed visually by male artists that draws people in. In The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal Jan Marsh does an admirable job attempting to fleece out the verifiable details of Siddal's life, of which there are surprisingly few. However, the book is less a strict biography, and more a study of the way in which biography is influenced by the times. Marsh looks at the renditions of the legend, from Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries, to modern scholarship (including her own first forays into Siddal's story). The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal is able to piece together facts about Siddal while illuminating biases that went into earlier biographies (and biographical sketches, since early on Siddal was rarely given much space or attention at all, other than references to her relationship with D.G. Rossetti). It's a bit disappointing to realise that we'll never know much, comparatively, about Siddal, and Marsh is extremely clever to take on that lack of knowledge, and how others filled the spaces, as the basis for her book, rather than attempting another biography filled with guesswork.

This is not to say that there aren't any facts to be had. One does learn a great deal about Elizabeth Siddal, reading The Legend. There aren't many books devoted to Siddal specifically, and even more modern explorations of the PRB, like Desperate Romantics, relegate Siddal to little more than girlfriend/wife. In fact, Siddal studied and produced art in her own right, as well as being muse for Rossetti, and model for Millais' famous Ophelia (below). The common idea that Siddal committed suicide is disputed, and her life before "discovery" by Walter Deverell is examined as much as possible. Indeed, any "fact" of Siddal's life (including the spelling of her last name!) has at least two published versions, and Marsh examines all possibilities, keeping in mind the circumstances under which they appear.

The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal is excellent reading not only for those interested in the PRB, or Siddal specifically, but as a very interesting look on how biography —especially biography of women—is created within a societal context. Says Marsh in her Postscript:
The quest for the 'real Elizabeth Siddal' reveals more about the changing ideological context, and the uses to which the legend is put in the redefinitions and negotiations in the realms of gender and art. [...] [B]iography is not reincarnation, but a form of exhumation.

*My favourite PRB work: Burne-Jones' The Depths of the Sea.
**I saw a Beata Beatrix in Chicago a couple years ago and almost wept. I suppose this sounds dramatic, but I did get a great lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Art, AMIRITE?
The painting of Ophelia, prior to her taking up with Rossetti, gave rise to another often told story about Siddal, who was painted while floating in a bathtub of freezing water, while Millais painted her. "As it was now winter, he placed oil lamps under the tub to warm the water, but was so intent on his work that he allowed them to go out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her father later sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses. According to Millais' son, he eventually accepted a lower sum"
And now I feel like I need to re-read The Biographer's Tale.

The Little Lady Pt 1: Anne Roiphe

One of the complaints I've read about Anne Roiphe is that she's written mostly (too many?) memoirs. Since I've not read any of them, Art and Madness was all new territory for me. Like Patti Smith's Just Kids, Art and Madness deftly captures New York at a certain time, for a certain set. Though unlike Smith, Roiphe's cohort is privileged, though no less creative for that. It has been written, as well, that there's some feminist content in Art and Madness, but I don't quite agree. While Roiphe is a known feminist, her actions in this book are anything but. She willfully rejects some of the constraints her society insists she fit into...
It really is true what they said about the fifties. You really were supposed to behave.[...]Don't ever let a boy see menstrual blood. Don't ever let him get to second base. Don't ever admit you need money, love, a lawyer. Don't ever be seen carrying a bottle of liquor.[...]And all of this was to keep life at bay, life like the big waves at the shore, to be rushed into, to be ridden up and down, life that tasted of salt and could pull you out over your head head, that kind of life was to be avoided at all costs and that was just the life I was seeking.
...however, her life is still lived for men, her actions and drive all in service of men. Likely it's her examination of this time that raises her feminist consciousness in later years, but as I say, I haven't read any other works. Art and Madness does note and examine the roadblocks for women, but this is hindsight. Mid-century Roiphe is too young and too excited about breaking free of one set of societal chains to realise she's playing the same script as the middle-class housewives, just in swinging downtown Manhattan instead of a suburb.
He was an artist and she would bear his children and wash his clothes and care for him because there lay her own immortality, there lay her own contribution to the great effort to speak the truth, to shape the words, to write the novel that by existing would justify her human endeavor so clearly in need of justification. I know this because I felt it too, all of it.

In pursuit of this life-less-ordinary, Roiphe begins to haunt City bars, driving in from her safe and secluded college campus. It is at one of these bars, she meets Jack Richardson. Though they must have been intimate, as they produce a daughter, Roiphe writes more of her loneliness, and her sacrifice in dedication to his art. She pays for his booze, she drives him home, she takes him to Europe so he can work, and in a move that my 19-year-old self understands, falls in love and marries him, without any acknowledgment (physical or otherwise) that he cares for her. All this in service of his art.

The now-famous scene in Art and Madness is no less shocking and sad for being quoted and talked about. Roiphe is carrying a typewriter home for Jack, and she goes into labour, in the middle of a blizzard which makes transit impossible, and taxis scarce.
Suddenly I feel a wetness down my leg. The water has broken. I need to go to the hospital. I rest the typewriter on a car fender and consider what to do. I struggle on. I make it several blocks. I stop at a pay phone. Jack is sleeping and he doesn't wake up. I walk on to the hospital. It's another twenty blocks. I will not leave the typewrite behind. I am afraid I will give birth in the snow. I do not. From the hospital pay phone, I call my mother

What one is left with, is that Roiphe is desperately lonely. At a time when she's expected to "behave," her soul simply can't conform. Because she is not allowed, for myriad reasons, to acknowledge the artist she wants to be (and it's interesting that she makes note of what she's reading at each point in the book), she is willing to spend her money (rather, her parents' money), her time, her youth, and her life, hitching herself to a man that is attractive mostly for his writerly potential. She's in love with the art, not the man. This is "madness": she does not yet know the option exists to be the artist herself.

Full confession: I did not read the foreword by Katie Roiphe, because Katie Roiphe is an asshole.