"I'm gonna sing the Doom song now!"

Full disclosure*: Natalie Zina Walschots is a very good friend of mine. I actually made a sort-of rule never to write about my friends' books, and at this point in my life, I know a lot of people with books. I consider it a real privilege to know them, and I will always buy your book, I will always come to your launch (if I'm not in Paris, sorry Dani!!). But to write about your book, when I know you? Too hard. Too responsible. Too nit-picky. But this started as a Goodreads review that got away from me. So here, friends, is what I think of Doom: Love Poems for Supervillains.  

Doom is a loving taxonomy, geography, and pathology of villainy. The way Natalie places her words creates texture and sensation, and twice I lost my breath reading ("Beef" and "Purgatory"). The language of Doom is sexual and scientific both. Tricky territories each; often writers who delve into them veer to shock value in the first and wild error in the second. Natalie does neither. Rather, she communicates to the recipient of each love poem (and to the reader) that beauty is only skin deep. These opponents to all that is Good are often violently marked, superficially ugly ("forget naked", "a face only a geneticist could love" - "Doombot"). The parts, then, become the sum: dendrites and keloids, loving like “gamete and spore” “longing for polyploidy lethal multiplicity” (“Fusion”).

In "Beef," a poem written not to a character, but a disease, the host swoons into
a           mind         full   of   prion   ic    ho   le      s
It takes a lot of balls to write a love poem to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.  The poems in Doom must, as their inspirations demand, disturb. The back-stories of super-villains are rarely cute. "Clayface" is just that, something having gone wrong in an operating room: "their graft left you semipermiable / wet membrane." That is a sticky image that hurts my cheeks. In "Mr. Freeze" "my core hoards warmth/ for romantic debridement". Any time I hear or read that word, "debridement" (warning, the picture on that link is really gory, and kind of speaks to my terror), I have an instant horror scenario play out in my head. So it's stunning to me someone could conjoin it with "romantic." And yet, there are deeply sensual poems, like “Green Goblin”
my tongue to Lycra
                your ear fricative
                as liquid latex

                your every cleft a stretch
                my every thrust
a rubber gumball
or the poem spoken by the personified "Stryker's Island":
my fault lines oozing magama
you ease my tectonic plates apart

you finger each steaming caldera
kiss each metamorphic plane
And "General Zod" is everything you'd expect a poem about a mean guy in black leather to be.

I was trepidatious about reading Doom, as it is necessarily inter-textual; the characters all exist in previous works. My frame of reference is totally lacking and so I thought my understanding would be impaired. Now I realise that not knowing who these mythical and comic/graphic-novel baddies are might be a really interesting way to approach them. If all you have is Natalie's word on the subject, you're going to believe her; the poems in Doom are just that confident.  


you branded my amygdala 
laser inscribed on my hippocampus 

your drunken boxing 
     batters my limbic system 
     a vicious chemical imbalance 

you shake and secrete 
my chemically ravaged decoy 

mawkish flayer 
my jointless scare-all 
my trigger 

-Doom, (36)

*Fuller disclosure: This is also the first time I've been in an acknowledgement section, and if anyone had walked by my office when I saw that, they would have seen a teary sniffly person! 
**I've tried to recreate the spacing that is so integral to poetry, but it's sometimes a bit tough to do in HTML, and "compose" boxes. I suggest you go buy the book for the full effect. I also tend to fuck up transcription so any spelling errors are solely my own.

Biography Showdown Pt 2: Wendy Wasserstein

Right after I finished Mad World the strike ended, and my hold for Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein came in. One of the reasons it took me forever to read Mad World was that I always think I have to be in a certain mood for biography. But here was another one, and I take these things as they come.

I'd never heard of Wasserstein before, but I read an engaging review, and I'm always in the mood for a good New York story. Wendy Wasserstein, with her emigrates-and-makes-good Jewish family and career in the theatre, is about as New York as it gets. As well as the usual historical context that is involved in most biography, Julie Salamon gives the reader a good crash-course in Off-Broadway history, especially the creation of Playwrights Horizons, now in its 42nd year. This is where Wendy would get her start in the New York theatre scene. What makes Wendy and the Lost Boys wonderful to read is that amidst all the privilege of upbringing and glamour of the stage, Wendy Wasserstein is always shown as very down-to-earth, without fawning or over-critique. Wendy was never perfect, but she was tremendously funny and smart, with a stunning work ethic learned through being a child of immigrant parents (and shared by her siblings: both Wendy and her sister Sandy worked almost until the moment of their deaths.) Wendy always felt like the low-achiever in a family of super A-types, and even after she won the Pulitzer and the Tony for The Heidi Chronicles; her mother was disappointed Wendy hadn't won a Nobel. Salamon supposes what Wasserstein must have felt in her formative years:
Wendy would be such a good student, if only her work were neater, less convoluted, better.
Wendy would be such a pretty girl, if only she would lose weight.
Wendy would be perfect, if only she were someone else.
The plays Wendy wrote expressed this vulnerability, in ways she couldn't to her friends and family.
She expressed the often-unspoken, conflicted desires of her peers. Many women like Wendy rebelled against social constraints but were driven toward conventional notions of success. They wanted power and respect — and had begun filling newsrooms, law schools, management-training programs, and medical schools in significant numbers. But they still measured themselves by how much they weighed, what they saw in the mirror, and whether or not they were married.
Wendy dated, but her closest and longest-lasting relationships were with the gay men she worked with. She often crushed on the unattainable, and didn't much enjoy the relationships she had.  Graduating from all-female Mount Holyoke College in 1971, she was of a generation directly influenced by the burgeoning women's movement in the United States. Yet that feminism left a certain privileged set of women floundering: without the clear instructions of the past, how would they go about defining roles for themselves? Unlike her J.M. Barrie namesake, Wendy was the one who wouldn't conform to what society saw as "grown up" While she worked hard, she never got married, and had a baby very late in life after  IVF treatments that went on for years, starting in her early 40s.
Wendy recognized the inherent tension for women who wanted professional achievement and a family. She resented feeling forced to make choices men hadn't been obliged to make, because they had wives to take care of their children. The characters in Uncommon Women keep postponing the age by which they will be "pretty fucking amazing," because the goal seems both impossible to define and unattainable.
The story of Wendy's life comes from pieces archival and nebulous. Wasserstein had many friends, but was intensely private, often giving out made-up or exaggerated details of events.  (No one ever knew who the father of her child, Lucy, was.)  Both Wendy and her mother indulged in story-telling where the truth was something that might get in the way of a better punchline, or more impressive ending. This is the skill that served Wendy all her life.

Biography Showdown Pt 1: Evelyn Waugh

My biography reading can be divided into categories of "Never heard of 'em, should be interesting" and "I like them, and I want to know more." The former describes my extremely enjoyable foray into the world of the Mitford sisters years ago. Through the Mitfords I became more interested in Evelyn Waugh, whom I've heard of, of course, but had never read. So I picked up a copy of Brideshead the next time I saw it, and it was easily the best thing I read that year. A year or so ago, I picked up Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead from the wonderfully anglophilic Nicolas Hoare. It languished rather long on my To be Read pile until the Toronto Public Library strike forced my hand.  

Mad World sets out to do a couple things differently than previous Waugh biographies. First, author Paula Byrne proposes to look not just at Waugh, but closely at the family that inspired Brideshead (and so much other writing), the Lygons. The title, Mad World, is a description of the way of life at Madresfield, a home left entirely to the young-adult children during the furiously fun 1920s. Waugh first came to know Hugh Lygon (the inspiration for Brideshead's Sebastian Flyte) while at Oxford. Waugh's first two terms were rather quiet, but soon after he fell into a group of friends from a rather different social circle: pedigreed boys from Eton, going to Oxford on expectation rather than want. Membership to the Hypocrites' Club (an informal group, bonded more through drinking than anything else) was predicated on wit, beauty, connections, or a combination thereof. Waugh had charm to spare, and was welcomed into the fold. His life would thereafter move in hard-partying, aristocratic circles. Hugh Lygon, unlike Sebastian Flyte to Waugh's Brideshead alter Charles Ryder, would be less of an influence and friend to Waugh than his sisters, most notably the youngest, Coote*. The lives of the Lygon family are followed in close detail, from school-days to death, mirroring the story told of Evelyn Waugh (though the writer remains the main focus).

Paula Byrne also ensures that formerly too-salacious details are left in, in order to create a complete portrait of Waugh, his friends and contemporaries, and the times they lived in. Colin Firth's stuttering King George gives no hint of the womanizing, drug-taking, and homosexual liaisons he was apparently known for.
Prince George, known to his friends as Babe, was bisexual. In 1923 he began a nineteen-year affair with Noel Coward. The threat of scandal was ever present. On one occasion, the royal household had to pay a substantial sum of blackmail money to a Parisian boy to whom Babe had written compromising letters.
It's suggested that Lygon patriarch Lord Beauchamp's exile was in part facilitated by the Royal family's worry that Babe and Beauchamp would be connected. "If the stories of the earl and his footmen reached the press, in however veiled a form, the consequences could be catastrophic. One imagines the King's advisers having nightmares about newspaper headlines along the lines of: 'Royal Princes in Immoral Country House Parties.'" Lord Beauchamp (fictionalised as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead) is forced to leave England in disrepute when his jealous brother-in-law outs him, and recounts Beauchamp's serial exploits with male members of his staff to Beauchamp's wife and law enforcement officials. Despite theses sorts of  very real consequences of being found out, the homosocial/sexual  bonds of a certain set of English young men are presented as expected, normal, and somewhat fashionable for the time. (There's quite a lot about this in Sexual Anarchy as well.)
Homosexuality was considered by many to be a passing phase, which young men would grow out of once they had left Oxford and began to meet young women. In those days it was chic to be ‘queer’ in the same way that it was chic to have a taste for atonal music and Cubist painting. Even old Arthur Waugh acknowledged as much: ‘Alec called on me the other day with a new friend of his, a sodomite, but Alec tella me it is the coming thing.
Of course, this depended a lot on the sorts of circles one moved in.  I suspect the middle and working-classes didn't see it the same way.  The Hypocrites Club at Oxford was "the epicentre of what would now be called the university's gay scene."  What struck me about this aspect of the book, was the ease of (certain) men in their bisexuality.**   Moreover, these affairs aren't simply sexual experimentation; Byrne notes that "there were real love affairs" at Oxford, and that Evelyn later teased a friend for "not having a homosexual phase, saying he had missed out on something special." The difference is striking in that expected and accepted bisexuality is simply not an option today; for men you're either gay or straight, and there's little room in the middle of the spectrum. This led me to a discussion in which it was proposed (by my more learned friend) that homosexuality in general has moved from "a behaviour to an identity." This is not to say that the book examines only, or mostly, this aspect of Waugh's circle, but it was what was most notable to me as a societal comparison.

It is odd, given the examination of Waugh's relationships, sexual and otherwise, that little mention is made of his second wife and mother of all his children, Laura. She's described in teasing — almost unflattering — terms in Waugh's letters before they are married
'She is thin and silent, long nose, no literary ambitions, temperate but not very industrious. I think she will suit me ok and I am very keen on her.'
and then rarely afterwards. Even his first short and ill-advised marriage to "she-Evelyn" gets more time and attention. Byrne is a fine researcher and talented story teller, and the lack of Laura in the narrative leads me to believe that Byrne simply had little to go on. By the time Waugh marries (again), his interest is possibly elsewhere, and as in the above letter, Laura will simply be enough for a wife.  Waugh's loyalty and thoughts — not for nothing — were with the Lygons. Laura is mentioned after marriage almost always in the context of having children (she would have seven), usually while Waugh is away somewhere writing. Raising these children mostly on her own through WWII, Laura perhaps proved to be industrious after all.  When Brideshead was published, "the response of the Lygon girls was what he most wanted and feared," not just because the book contained composite characters of them (and other society ladies), but because it was their opinion that mattered most to him.

*Previous to his close relationship with the Lygon girls, Waugh had a very close — though not romantic — relationship with Diana Guinness, née Mitford (later Mosley). He even lived with her and her husband in London during an indigent period early in his career.  
**And of course it's just not that way for women, who are expected to perform bisexuality, regardless of their actual sexual orientation, for the viewing pleasure of men. Among other issues, this erases any real sexual agency of women who love women.