Archives for posts with tag: fiction

This is … something: Hanya Yanagihara on Lolita.


Pondering the hermeneutical process that landed Gone Girl on a list of feminist books.

More about memoirfrom The Guardian. I’m not sure the analysis in the piece makes its case very convincingly, but the title asserts something worth thinking about. Meanwhile, on the fictional side, I’ve just discovered Tessa Hadley; The Past has some women looking at themselves and noticing things that don’t get a whole lot of play in popular culture.

Edit: Compare this conversation.

Still trying to plow my way through A Little Life (I paid full price for the hardcover, so I feel obligated to finish the thing). So–it’s a spoof of JT LeRoy, right? There’s no other reasonable explanation.

It can’t be a coincidence, right? The logistically impossible academic and personal achievements—there simply would not have been enough hours in the day (in between being raped, whipped with a lash dipped in vinegar, and so on) to study French, German, calculus, piano, choral singing, horticulture, animal husbandry, etc. etc., even positing the improbable presence of qualified teachers with time to spare (in between raping and torturing him) or his own presence of mind (in between being raped and tortured) to absorb the material. Brother Luke travelling around with him, pimping him out, always with the promise of the cabin in the woods later; but somehow finding clients, shady doctors, whatever else is needed, effortlessly, while also finding time and materials to continue Jude’s excellent education. Later, the concurrent law degree and masters in math? Seriously? Law students at prestigious schools don’t sleep as it is; no saying what the MIT math department’s masters program is like, I guess, since it doesn’t exist. (“What’s your favorite axiom?” Does Yanagihara imagine this is how conversations go at MIT? Jesus Christ.) Then somehow–the icing on the proverbial fucking cake, a little on the nose, don’t you think?–he’s become a professional cake decorator, and he’s doing that on the weekends, perfectly, of course, at the same time.

The weirdest part is that it’s not simply improbable: it has the specifically unverifiable improbability of a JT LeRoy or a Tony Johnson. The absence of birth records, foster care records, academic records. The social worker with boundary/professional ethics issues, taking Jude home with her—then conveniently dying, so she can’t be interviewed later. Brother Luke hanging himself, so he never goes to a trial that could be verified in court records. The doctor who sees Jude after hours, at his home, and doesn’t bill him or accept insurance. The vagueness of the actual injuries. Jude’s concealing clothing, with what is concealed never questioned by, and never accidentally exposed to, people who actually share a bedroom with him. For years. The invisibility of Jude himself—we see his undeniable charismatic effect on others, but we never see him, his physicality, as it appears to others, even down to an ethnicity that would allow us to picture him in the broadest outlines; we see only the scars, that parts that are concealed, and those through the lens of Jude’s awareness. Jude is an absence at the center of his own story.

If this what Yanagihara intended, kudos for conceiving an interesting project and carrying it through. I am still unimpressed by her writing on a sentence-by-sentence level, but the project would explain many of what would otherwise be the book’s most egregious flaws. If it’s intended as a spoof, that is–as a commentary on the literary audience’s appetite for grue, or as a statement about the othering and consequent secondary victimization of actual survivors of abuse that the commoditization of these themes produces. I suppose it’s possible that she simply admires Laura Albert’s work, finds it powerful, and wishes to emulate it. Or that she recognizes the commoditization and her potential to profit from it.

In any case, Yanagihara’s intentions wouldn’t excuse the pronoun thing:

Passages in which Jude is the point-of-view character never use his name; he is always identified by a third-person pronoun (except within dialogue). Combine that with the fact that the dramatis personae is almost exclusively male (this thing scores negative infinity on the Bechdel test) and you’ve got some serious challenges for resolving pronoun reference. Passages with different POV characters don’t show the same mannerism; Yanagihara seems to be using it to say some specific thing about Jude. I don’t know what that thing is, though, and the result is a failure, as far as I’m concerned; it’s confusing and intrusive–an object lesson in the shortcomings of high-concept syntax.



Update: The muteness turned out to be somewhat of a red herring in The Queen of the Night; apparently it was just setting up the threat of her losing her singing voice, and thence her career? I guess? I ended up liking the book, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think it has to do with the repeated reversals–the main character discovering that she does not, in fact, control her own life. This interview makes me want to read Chee’s Edinburgh–he’s clearly got something going on as a writer.

Original post: I’m about a third of the way through Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, and I’m confused. In a novel that spends so much time talking about muteness–the main character is forced to be mute, then pretends to be mute, then actually is, but then she isn’t, then she pretends to be again, in various circumstances and for various reasons; at times she speaks but doesn’t sing, at others she sings but doesn’t speak–the absence of blocked or failed communication attempts is striking. So far, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single specific occasion where someone has something they want to say that doesn’t get through; there are only a couple of cases where it even takes extra effort.* If the muteness doesn’t have consequences for the character’s arc–if her gaining and losing her voice is uncorrelated with her ability to express or assert herself–then it’s window dressing, and, moreover, window dressing that involves violence to a female character’s bodily integrity, my least favorite kind of window dressing.

Chee shows some awareness of the metaphorical power of muteness when he says that the main character has gotten a job based on a benefit of the disability: that she will not talk back. Given that she’s been placed in the position as a spy, and that her employers are aware of the risk of spies, it seems that another benefit of muteness might have occurred to them: that she will not share information she gains at the job. But she does, effortlessly. Her surreptitious employer, on the other hand, appreciates her muteness not, apparently, because it places her above suspicion, but rather because it makes her a good listener for the surreptitious employer’s nostalgic ramblings.

Which brings us to another conspicuous absence of failed communication. After several chapters of extended conversations that are assumed to have taken place in French, with a large amount of detailed information exchanged, the narrator suddenly explains that her French is very poor, consisting largely of curses and sexual positions. Then, we quickly move on to her receiving and acting on exacting instructions, given in French. Are we to understand that the problem is entirely with productive language, not receptive?

This isn’t an exhaustive analysis of the treatment of muteness and communication in Chee’s novel, and quite possibly my own receptive limitations are preventing me from doing it justice. But I do feel like I’m starting to see a common thread in the uses of muteness in literature. There’s the violence-against-women aspect of it, of course, which I’m setting aside as intractably Sisyphean. But there’s something else, too. It reflects a deeply flawed conceptualization of communication in general. Let’s call it the “firehose” metaphor:

The success of a communication attempt is based on the force with which it is made; the receptivity of the receiver is irrelevant.

Muteness is rarer in the world than it is in literature; deafness is rarer in literature than it is in the world. I’ve come to believe that this reversal reflects the pervasiveness of the firehose metaphor. We have difficulty conceiving that a properly made communication attempt could fail. We assume that our message has been received, loud and clear. Therefore, if we do not receive a reply, we assume that this is due to a deficiency in our interlocutor’s expressive powers. That is, we assume failure of our interlocutor’s communication attempt, never of our own.

In the real world, this is a blatant and corrosive fallacy. For the writer, however, the practitioner of the art of the one-sided conversation, it is a poignant necessity.


*One case of impeded communication occurs when she’s in New York, first meeting the circus performers: she can only whisper. Another is suggested when the main character realizes that an old acquaintance may not recognize the name on her calling card, her stage name. A third is more interesting, a counterexample to my thesis with an intriguing error. When a prison guard finds that a woman doesn’t appear to understand his words, another guard explains: “She’s mute.” They switch to gestures, and she is able to follow their instructions. Is it the guards who mistake muteness for deafness, or is it the author?

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