Happy Black Friday, guys! The nice thing about being a book person on this questionable day is that you can really just buy books online if you want to take advantage of deals. You could even spend the day reading what you already have and decline to participate in the annual sensationalized commercial frenzy that smacks of classism and exploitation of the poor. Or, you could read my scintillating thoughts on the work of Joyce Carol Oates’s newest book, Pursuit.
I’ve been reading JCO since I was just a wee lass in the ninth grade. I have very positive memories of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang and later Zombie: A Novel. Apparently, I didn’t rate either of them very highly on Goodreads, though. I wish I knew why. They’ve really stuck with me, but maybe I had some of the same problems I had with Pursuit.
This book presents us with Abby, real name Miriam, whose parents, Lew and Nicola, disappeared when she was a kid. Right from the get-go, she’s got some very odd trauma, which causes her enough mental distress that she wanders out in front of a bus. Coincidentally, (I’m sure,) she had just gotten married. This is the story of how Abbey/Miriam discovers what happened to her parents and why she’s in such distress.
Bad Guys Get Pages
This book didn’t dwell as entirely on the bad guy as Zombie did, but it sure did dwell nonetheless. The longest stretches of the story were from the twisted perspective of Abby’s father. This wasn’t necessarily a bad choice. It was certainly very entertaining. I think that what irritated me about it was how predictable Lew was. He was every scary thing: stalker, violent misogynist, addicted, jealous, murderous, delusional, untreated for his mental health problems, religious nut, probably a pedophile.
The only thing he didn’t have was a mustache to twirl and any real depth. Ultimately, Lew was just a mashup of male killer greatest hits and almost entirely defined by his relationship to the main character’s mother. There’s no reason that someone this cartoonish couldn’t be a villain, but if you’re going to write someone so over-the-top, you’d better have a good foundation for them. I have to believe it. I didn’t believe this.
Foil the Patriarchy!
At the same time, Oates goes out of her way to present Willem, Abby’s husband, as the ideal man. He’s sensitive, kind, gentle, patient – my goodness, everyone needs a Willem. But ultimately this makes him as two-dimensional as Lew. They’re obviously meant to be foils, but Willem doesn’t really function well in this role. He’s not really a very interesting dude, and anyway, he doesn’t really appear much compared to Lew.
I did wonder if Oates was trying to not-all-men this story by setting up Willem as an example of the fact that good guys exist. Theoretically, I’m into it, but Willem is even flatter than Lew! This dynamic would probably have required a bit more subtlety than a five-hour listen could convey, and because I know that Oates is capable of it, the slipshod nature of the Lew-Willem contrast really struck me as lazy.
OK, then Criticize the Patriarchy!
Oates does a good job of showing the patriarchy rather than just railing about it, as I tend to do once I wind up. Willem’s family is a good vehicle for patriarchal oppression, but I am also a sucker for well-meaning but toxic religious families in literature. Toxic masculinity suffuses the book as a theme, with Willem being an example of a good guy and Lew, of course, being an example of everything not to do or be. Abby/Miriam is a nice representation of a woman who upholds the patriarchy by maintaining silence to protect a man, which is, of course, a topical point. She’s also kind of a poster child for repressed and damaged femininity, literally haunted by the effects of the patriarchy.
The self-abuse and repression that she heaps upon herself to try and become this “good girl” she thinks she isn’t is very thickly laid. I liked it to a certain extent because I could relate to it, but it definitely didn’t strike me as the performance of a subtle literary virtuoso. As with Lew and Willem, I felt like Abby was the coloring book version of a good statement about overcoming the patriarchy. The outlines were great, but in practice, it turned out kind of flat.
Nicola is a piece of the feminist pie, too: the classic Woman Who Does It All, whose aggressor is a character who could be an incel parody. There’s a really excellent statement the be made here about how generations of women relate to one another in a patriarchal environment, not to mention how men sort themselves into ally or enemy categories in a polarized environment as reactions to empowered or helpless women. I think it’s interesting that Nicola, who becomes empowered, incites rage on the part of her partner, while Abby/Miriam becomes completely disabled emotionally and physically and thereby inspires extreme support and protectiveness from Willem.
I’m not sure Oates intended to suggest that bitches get stitches while violets get princes, but that was definitely what I came away with. Maybe it was meant to be ironic, or just a face-forward statement about what kinds of women men like. Maybe it was meant to be a statement about damage and how women and men need to come together to repair the past.
But What A Bone Structure!
Regardless of her relative ability to discuss feminism through the medium of a thriller, Oates can structure the hell out of a novel. Despite the story jumping between several different points of view, times, and situations, I never once lost the thread. That’s why I’m going to come down on the positive side for this book after all. It’s effectively a feminist thriller, and although I don’t think it’s the smartest thing Oates has ever written, I don’t think she meant it to be an intelligent treatment of male violence and female victimhood. I think it was just supposed to be entertaining.
So if you want a dark, entertaining book with a scary villain, a damaged heroine, and a kinda half-baked feminist message that works if you blur your eyes and squint at one corner of it, then Pursuit is probably perfect for you. Read and enjoy. It’s short enough to hold you over the weekend plane or train ride back home from the holidays.
May your families be healthier by far than Nicola and Lew’s. Happy Holidays, feminists!
Still with me? Not done with Dhalgrenyet in the critical sense? Could it be that Dhalgren is not yet done with you? Are you being actively observed? Are you sure that you exist??
Whatever the circumstances, awesome! I knew I wasn’t riding this roller coaster alone. Welcome back, sciencefictionados!
Here’s Part 1 of my DHALGREN review. In case, y’know, you’re new to this epic madness.
Also, swift programming note: a family member is visiting me this weekend. That means that I won’t be writing much, if at all. Part 3 will be out as soon as my house guest is. Until then, knock off a few hundred more pages and console yourselves with an author interview.
We talked about perception in the last post. Art is one way that people make themselves known in Bellona, so you can look at it as kind of an attempt to shape their own personas and identities, or as a grab at self-preservation as Bellona faces down a rolling existential crisis.
But what happens when people don’t bother to examine that art? I’m mainly talking about the public’s reaction to the Kid’s debut poetry book, BRASS ORCHIDS. Everybody reads this thing, but even the sole critical jerk who the Kid talks to is reading it in search of references to themselves. (The critical jerk is internally comparing it to his own book of poetry, so y’know. Still self-referential.) As we talked about in the last post, everybody in Bellona needs to be seen – possibly, they need to be seen to exist.
But many of them don’t have the ability, confidence, or motivation to make themselves visible through art. Granted, art isn’t the only way you can be visible in Bellona – Madame Brown provides therapy, for example. But one person in particular produces nothing, does nothing, and secludes themselves from most of the rest of Bellona, even by reputation. I’m talking about Mary Richards, whose main accomplishment is the facade of normalcy that she maintains over the Richards family.
Her husband and kids help validate her existence, of course, even as she refuses to validate the existence of Bellona’s transformation by observing it. But she’s really a leech – without her family and her pet artists to observe her, she flirts with meaninglessness, and therefore the void. That’s why she kind of collects intelligent people with whom to surround herself. The gang members, on the other hand, don’t need to make art because they can cultivate notoriety. They’re all awed by a famous person and curious about their own depictions in art, but neither have nor need any sophisticated understanding of the meaning behind the poetry. Why duplicate effort? They’re famous and feared and consistently make it into the paper. Plus, there are enough of them that they can observe one another, no art needed. Their continued existence in Bellona is assured.
The Kid doesn’t completely understand his own poetry either, but that does bother him, possibly because he senses that there should be a reason for it. And isn’t his reason the same as everyone’s? We’ll all die someday and the memories about us will disintegrate faster than our hollowed-out bones, but if we do something meaningful, and then write it down, we achieve some kind of immortality. People still talk about Homer. The Kid is grappling with what might be an immediate loss of existence in a place that’s existentially unstable, but that’s really just a short-term metaphor for what will eventually happen anyway.
Frustrated by his own lack of insight, and possibly concerned that anything he does will qualify him as delusional, the Kid tries to glean the quality of his poetry from others, even asking the established poet Ernest Newboy if they’re “good.” Almost nobody gives him any solid answers. Many say that they like the poems, but the only useful critical feedback he receives is brutal and unreliable. And, for what it’s worth, probably accurate. The Kid himself points out that people are partially enamoured of his poetry because they like the idea of a young poet. (Most of the Bellonans seem to think that the Kid is around 17, even though he’s closer to 30.) It would follow that the poetry is stylistically immature to support the misconception.
This begs an important question: how much of the Kid’s art is a lie? Half of BRASS ORCHIDS wasn’t even written by him, and he never finds the author. We may get the most genuine version of the Kid’s artistic expression when the narrative switches to the first-person perspective in the final part. Even there, he edits his version of reality and discusses his relative ability to recall and fabricate conversations with Lanya. This, my dear Watson, is important because gradually we only see Bellona through the Kid’s eyes. It may as well not exist if he’s not telling us about it because he is the storyteller.
He’s controlling Bellona in a whole new way. The Kid levels up creatively in Part 5, even though that advancement is clearly not meant for any eyes but…his own? Lanya’s? The scholars’? Ours? Maybe he means it to be a record for his lucid self in case he loses awareness again. If that’s the case, then Katy bar the door. We know nothing about non-lucid Kid except that lucid Kid is terrified of him. That guy, if he exists, could have an entirely different priority set than the Kid we read about in parts 1 through 4. We don’t know if he experiences continuity with lucid Kid’s actions at all and there’s no telling how truthful his representation of Bellona is.
That said, the diary references things that have value to lucid Kid. There’s a good chance that the lost time that we discussed earlier was actual lost time in a real sense rather than a memory break. It’s tantalizing to imagine that we might be dealing with an unreal or unreliable version of the Kid in Part 5, (god, so tantalizing) but I consider it a stretch.
Call me blind, but it seems like the Kid doesn’t intend for the diary to ever see publication, even though he does edit his word choice as though the diary is creative writing. (Hell, maybe it is!) It’s also got to be a distinct work from his second book of poetry because that one goes up in flames prior to publication, whereas this one ends up being examined and annotated by scholars.
The Kid’s shift from publishing his poetry to keeping them (and his diary) a secret may indicate his progression from needing others to validate him to being capable of observing himself – developing the ability to navel-gaze. His ultimate progression to the monastery, with its meditative associations, suggests that he’s forming a sturdier sense of self.
Now we’re getting into the juicy stuff! Blood! Beatings! Gangs! Violence!
Except that violence in this book is kind of an unusual event. When it appears, it’s an artifact of the general chaos, sort of a side effect of being in the city. Sometimes, it’s how people acquire optical chains, as when June kills her brother and takes his. It also tends to appear at moments of transition, but isn’t that true for the outside world as well?
The Kid’s introduction to Bellona includes a random beating by some Scorpions, but afterward, he generally doesn’t encounter trouble unless he goes looking for it. This is true even after he takes over the gang himself. The exception is the book’s conclusion, where he’s chased out of the city by worsening fires. Kid enters, gets beaten. Kid gets beaten, and leaves. HMMM. Maybe Bellona is pushing him out of the nest now that he can fly. Maybe the Kid is running into a new challenge: actual reality, where he’ll probably need to wear shoes on both of his feet.
That’s not to say that the Kid’s presence in the city is unmarked by violence. In fact, he experiences (and causes) his fair share. He hears about even more, often racially motivated or rumored to be so. The people who hole up with guns in the department store are one example, as is the mass shooter. But for all of Captain Kamp’s nervousness about the city, for all of Mary Richards’s terror, for all that the city is known far and wide for its violence, Bellona doesn’t seem to be too much more dangerous than New York in general.
I do think that it’s interesting how everybody in Bellona walks around armed with orchids when firearms and ammo are abundantly available. Any weapon will tie up one of your hands, but the orchid literally cages it. Lanya is fond of slipping her fingers through the blades to reach the Kid’s actual, ugly hand and hold it. Metaphor? If so, it’s oddly clunky for this book. It strikes me as more important that the Kid often finds the orchid on his hand despite his having not consciously donned it. In some cases, it’s impossible for him to have put it on given the circumstances – it just appears there, ready for action. As the novel continues, and the Kid self-actualizes, he walks around with it hanging from his optical chain more and more often. It randomly appears on his hand less and less.
But it’s not even really his orchid, is it? The Kid gets it from someone who’s leaving Bellona when he enters, and when he leaves, he gives it to someone else. Is the orchid power? Influence? Insecurity? It’s a cage, so it could represent the way that the Kid is imprisoned by his own methods, not only of violence, but of generating any influence, notoriety, fear. His desire to save himself from harm, which in Bellona requires him to take off the orchid and take up the pencil.
The Kid’s poetry derives from the wounding of Bellona as a city by the strange disaster that has made it as it is. The poetry that helps to manifest the city and cement its reality is a result of its very instability, and it is the observation of this strange town that may just be keeping it alive. It’s a GODEL, ESCHER, BACH eternal golden braid recursive creativity situation, an Escheresque rendering of reality and its denizens locked in a delicate existential balancing act – and no, I’m not even going to try and review that book. You do it.
Originally I was going to talk about sex and sexuality here, but I’m preoccupied with my weekend plans and not likely to do a good job with that topic right now. So I’m saving that (and race) for the next part, the part I’ll write after my dear visiting relation is happily on their way back to where they came from. Mmkay? (Also, not to put too fine a point on it, I’m at work right now and I’d prefer that my boss didn’t see what I have to say about George and June.)
There are a number of items that appear in the book which seem to be unique to Bellona. The orchids are an excellent example. The light shields that the Scorpions use are another one, and of course, the optical chains appear to only exist within and near the city. Bellona also features frightening red eyecaps and a kind of color-changing fabric that Tak turns into a dress for Lanya. We can infer that these are Bellona-specific items by context. When the Kid gets his optical chain, he’s not quite in Bellona yet, but his acquisition is uniquely Bellonan and he later asks Madame Brown what the chains mean. Speculation about that is rampant, but I suspect that they’re indications of trauma.
At no point does the Kid ask “what is this,” even when gifted an orchid or finding the optical chain in a cave. Certain items awe him or freak him out, but he doesn’t really question them in the moment. He never seems to have seen a light shield before, for example, but just accepts that it’s a thing the first time he sees one. From a techie perspective, those little boxes are really interesting. They’d have to be extremely advanced technology even by 21st century standards. Not only do they project a freaking hologram, but they project a freaking unbroken, wraparound hologram from a single point located on the wearer’s chest. Including behind their back! It must be capable of bending light itself. That’s next to miraculous! Even so, these marvels of engineering are light, battery-operated, and turn up all over the place. Considering that nobody in Bellona knows what the exact date is, I think the existence of light shields help make the case that Bellona is actually located in a postapocalyptic future. More on that later.
Make no mistake: the light shields are products. Someone’s manufacturing them. Tak, who might be the only person in the city who actually knows what’s going on, shows the Kid a warehouse full of orchids, optical chain, red eyecaps, color-changing fabric, and – yes – light shields. It’s not clear whether they’re being shipped in or were made in Bellona prior to the disaster, but in many cases, they’re all that the Bellonans actually own. And there is enough stuff in that warehouse to keep many, many more Bellonans stocked with the essentials.
We know that the city, originally meant to hold millions, now houses only thousands, but what a weird assortment of things to sell to an ordinary urban populace! Banks and banks of eccentric handheld bladed weapons? Wearable holograms that obscure your identity? No city in the world would stand for that kind of thing. We’d see it being imported if it was being manufactured outside, despite the “Made In” tags on the optical chains, and since nobody in Bellona has a job, their source is a mystery on a mystery. The orchids and light shields, at least, may be metaphorical for the deceptions and perceptions that limit our engagement with the world. Then again, I might be overthinking it.
The stuff might also represent Bellona levels. Think video games. The Kid levels up when he gets an optical chain because he sets his intention to go to Bellona, then again when he enters Bellona and acquires an orchid, then again when he takes action with the Scorpions and gets a light shield. Every Bellona object he gets seems to be some kind of reward. But he never finds the eyecaps that Tak wears, and nor does he ever take advantage of Lanya’s color-shifting fabric himself. Does that mean that Tak and Lanya are on different quests? They’re certainly among the most realized characters in DHALGREN, aside from the Kid, and either could populate their own Bellona book with no trouble. (Mr. Delaney, if you’re reading…) It makes me wonder if there are other Bellona-specific things that they’re encountering that the Kid is not. If I could get one thing for Christmas, it would be a DHALGREN video game where I can puzzle out the rules. That, or another Bellona book so I could start to triangulate the references in this one and expand my fan theories. (Mr. Delaney?)
Other than these items, Bellonans treat general consumer goods with utilitarian disrespect or a casual lack thereof. The Scorpions just like to smash things, for example, and the Kid actually urinates on his notebook of poetry at once point. Mary Richards is the exception to this rule. Her non-Bellona consumer goods aren’t just important to her, they’re her tether. I find it significant that her daughter kills her son with one of Mary’s pointless decor objects, a rolled-up rug. Of all the people we meet in Bellona, Mary’s the only one who has a relationship to her stuff that’s not utilitarian or artistic, and that relationship is toxic as all get-out.
In a place where nobody uses money, consumer goods are pointless. In a place where the only objects of value come to you on a meritorious basis, it’s action that’s currency. It makes me want to plunge into the economic aspect of DHALGREN, because of course that’s a thing. (This is the man who wrote Nova.) But I already promised to get into the sexin’ next, and it’s been 2700 words, so here I’ll leave you.
Have a lovely weekend, sciencfictionados!
I’ve been a fan of Bryson’s since I was literally in middle school. My sisters and I listened to audiobooks together as a kind of collective bonding activity, especially during the rare moments during the summers when everyone was home from school, camp, work, and wherever else we were all constantly detained. A Walk in the Woods was one of our favorites, and I think I probably listened to it about 3.423 times. Not four, mind you – in fact, I doubt I ever finished it completely because whenever an errant sister returned from wherever she’d gone off to, we had to go back to the last place we’d all heard. Then there were some parts that were just lame, like any part where Bryson wasn’t doing dumb stuff in nature, so we eventually learned where those were and skipped those tapes. We listened to the bits we liked over and over, and the bits we particularly liked were the parts about Katz being an ass and saying “fuck” and Bryson being terrible at hiking. (I should mention that we were a hiking and camping family, as in *primitive* camping and hiking *for weeks.* We lived in a world where a child of ten could be trusted, even expected, to safely start a fire by themselves.)
That was the thing about A Walk In The Woods. There was some good info, particularly about the EPA, but the best part was listening to the author’s misadventures in Appalachia. Recently he’s departed somewhat from the personal approach, but in my opinion, that’s still his best writing.
It’s also my main objection to The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Bryson’s done a fine job with his research, especially for someone with no medical background, but there’s no hilarious personal experience here. It’s just a layperson’s rundown, punctuated by things about the human body that are baffling and unknown. Why do we sleep? Baffling! What does the appendix do? Unknown! Why do we need chromium? Baffling again! It’s a skim. The most interesting mysteries are left unexamined, and there’s not even any personal misadventures to distract us from those burning, unanswered questions.
I should mention that I listened to this book as an ALC I got from Libro.fm, my new bestest buddy on Earth. Because I’m a librarian and a Book Rioter, they’re giving me free advanced listener copies now, and because my commute consumes two hours of every single god-lovin’ weekday, I have plenty of time for listening. So listen I do! This is the first ALC I’ve tried, and I really do like the service. In my personal hagiography of book reading apps, it’s effectively competing with Libby and has blown Librivox clear out of the water.
Also, it allowed me to finish this book. If I didn’t chug through The Body in the car at double speed, I’d have stopped reading fifty pages in. It’s not that Bryson’s a bad writer. He’s still got it. The subject matter is interesting enough too. But this book has got very little of the funny above the level of incidentals and wordplay. It’s well-researched and entertaining enough for someone who knows practically nothing about their own horrifying body (vis a vis moi.) Still, I can’t help but wish I’d grabbed a newish Mary Roach instead. Incidentally, Bryson cites Roach twice and depends very much on other popsci and popmed nonfic as references. My reference librarian heart goes eehhhhhehhhhhhh.
Bryson is 66 years old now. Many of the people he discusses in the book, both historical figures and people of medical interest, have died around that age. Even though medical science will likely keep him alive for a good while yet, discussing death, as he does, appropriately, at the end, is a look straight in the face of the fact that human beings don’t last forever. I wonder how it felt for Bryson to pen this book. I know for a fact that it’d wig me out, and I’m still in my thirties. Here’s a story I’d have liked to read from this author: the body’s many fallacies and superpowers as seen through the lens of a well-regarded writer’s yet-distant but cresting mortality.
I’m not sorry that I got it. It’s a nice little repository of body trivia and now I know that you can actually put a catheter through your vein and guide it to all the way to your heart and actually touch your beating heart with it and your heart will not explode. Now off to give it a try!