sexuality

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.8.11
Book from: Personal collection

An ironic title: Carter’s take on “waywardness” and “wickedness” is far more subtle, of course. The women in this anthology – all written by women – are canny, worldly, self-directed. They are leery of others’ plans for them, and quietly attentive to their own desires – which is not to say that they are selfish, necessarily*, though they run the gamut when it comes to moral fiber. The mother in Elizabeth Jolley’s “The Last Crop” cheerfully cons a kindly doctor when she decides that she’d really rather keep and cultivate her inherited land after all. The women and girls in Jane Bowles’ “A Guatemalan Idyll” are capable of disturbingly calculated callousness – the youngest, Lilina, “[chooses] her toys according to the amount of power or responsibility she thought they would give her in the eyes of others.” The particular toy she considers in this story, a pet snake, ends up beheaded due to her (deliberate?) carelessness; Lilina’s only comment is, “Look how small her head is. She must have been a very small snake.”

(In a wonderfully horrible play with point of view, Bowles half-distracts us from the impending violence in this scene by shifting the perspective to another character just long enough for the snake’s death to occur in the interim. [The other character, a boy, is meanwhile observing that he dislikes Lilina “probably because he suspected intuitively that she was a person who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first.”] The aggregation of such effects in this story left me strangely unsettled, and, like the visiting traveler who eventually “escapes” from the Guatemalan women, feeling like I’d awoken from a fever dream.)

I’ve gotten way off track – there’s so much to talk about in each story. Carter’s own point about the morality of these women, questionable or otherwise, is that the range represented is a normal one. The women here are well-characterized individuals, flawed and proud individuals of varying ages and desires and backgrounds, rather than one-note femmes fatales or whores or shrews. They frequently “act out” simply by resisting, by hunkering down and continuing to dig out their own paths. The protagonist of Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Plums,” a Ghanaian student named Sissie who is touring in Europe, looks askance at the advances of a lonely German housewife, and in the end sloughs her off and keeps traveling. Throughout the story, she registers an ironic combination of pity and quiet contempt for the German woman and for whiteness in general, reflecting that “it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something.” (The German woman’s son and husband are both named Adolf, it’s worth noting.) By contrast, Sissie goes through the story shielded, observing and untouched, sometimes even cruel, behind her armor of self-respect.

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Date read: 11.30.10
Read: Online, via Nerve
Reviewer: Emera

Secretary - James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal

The 2002 film Secretary stars the incomparable Maggie Gyllenhaal as an emotionally fragile young woman who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with her lizard-eyed, hypercontrolled lawyer boss (James Spader): two very unhappy people who find that they are each other’s complements, emotionally and sexually. After seeing the movie twice, and both times loving its tenderness, quirky humor, rich visuals, and slinking soundtrack, I finally read the Mary Gaitskill short story (click to read) on which it was based.

Predictably, the movie and story are utterly different beasts, with the film departing from the story’s restless, sickly unhappiness. Gaitskill called the film adaptation the “Pretty Woman” version, which is apt, but doesn’t, I think, negate the film’s sensitivity and sweetness. In the film, the secretary (Lee) and lawyer (Mr. Grey) find a genuine connection, with Lee eventually emerging as the one with the strength to dictate the terms of their relationship.

In Gaitskill’s story it’s pretty clear that the (nameless, sleazily charismatic) lawyer is using the secretary (Debby in the story) for his own gratification because he knows she’ll let him get away with it. Yes, some part of her does enjoy it – after her last encounter with the lawyer, she remarks impassively (and hilariously), “I didn’t feel embarrassed. I wanted to get that dumb paralegal out of the office so I could come back to the bathroom and masturbate.” But the undertones of her identification with the humiliation that she experiences are much more troubling, and by the end of it, she returns home to be soundlessly reabsorbed into her dysfunctional family, who, given their “intuition for misery,” ask no questions.

Apart from the entirely divergent emotional experience, what struck me most on reading the story is how successful the film was in capturing Gaitskill’s written style. Debby’s narration is flattened, almost child-like, but interspersed with bursts of ungainly, oddly vivid imagery: “There were no other houses or stores around it, just a parking lot and some taut fir trees that looked like they’d been brushed.” “He clapped his short, hard-packed little hands together and made a loud noise.” And my favorite – “A finger of nausea poked my stomach.” Gyllenhaal’s Lee, with her wise-child face, shabby graceless suburbanity, and propensity for awkward remarks and fits of snorting laughter, recreates the experience perfectly, particularly when juxtaposed with the plush, hushed interior of Mr. Grey’s office. I expect most audiences will prefer the transformative love story that follows in the film, but Gaitskill’s original is stylistically memorable, bitterly intelligent, and draws lingeringly unsettling character portraits in a few terse pages.

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Mary Gaitskill: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 11.1.07; reread once or twice since
Book from: Library originally; now personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

(There is nothing about this cover that does not amuse and please me. Consider it an honorary Bad Book Cover Friday?)

Tanith Lee‘s The Secret Books of Paradys are among the most exquisitely aestheticized and unabashedly Gothic works I’ve ever read, which means of course that I’m obsessed with them. The series is set in a parallel-universe version of Paris, known variously as Paradys, Paradis, Par Dis, and Paradise. (Lee has also written a more recent series about a para-Venice, The Secret Books of Venus, though I’ve yet to read them.) Each of the four volumes comprises interweaving, thematically unified stories. The books stand alone well, though they’re seeded with references to a few recurring elements within the universe – locations, names, a certain poet – and the fourth volume has a climactic finality to it. Each of the books is further themed by color (see what I mean about aestheticized?), frequently embodied in significant pieces of jewelry and, in The Book of the Damned, stained-glass windows. (Always makes me think of “The Masque of the Red Death.”)

The Book of the Damned takes as its themes sexual transgression and ambiguities of sex, gender, and identity, considered in three novellas. The first, “Stained with Crimson,” follows an ill-fated poet, Andre St. Jean, on a journey of sexual obsession in 19th-century Paradys. St. Jean is given a ruby scarab ring by a dying man on the hills of the Temple Church; soon after, he is introduced to the ring’s owner, the ineffably unobtainable Antonina von Aaron. Cue a game of predator and prey in which role reversals are linked with a cycle of death, rebirth, and sex changes. Oh yes, and vampires. I mean, obviously. This is perhaps my favorite out of all the Paradys tales, both for its sentimental associations, as it launched my Tanith Lee obsession, and for its no-holds-barred Gothstravaganza, ladled out in the most sonorous, decadent, purple-saturated language imaginable. Further layers of allegorical imagery incorporate Greek mythology (a Pan symbol, a trip down a deathly river) and the elements, the latter perhaps complementing the book’s primary-color triad.

“Malice in Saffron,” though little less wrought and hectic, takes a much grimmer turn. As with many of Lee’s works, its events are incited by sexual violence and abuse of women. The protagonist, Jehanine, is assaulted by her stepfather and rejected by her beloved brother. After fleeing the countryside, she finds shelter within a nunnery in medieval Paradys, but by night transforms herself into capricious, murderous Jehan, who roams the backstreets of Paradys with a gang of thieves. Like many of Lee’s vengeful heroines, Jehanine nears the brink of being consumed by her own desire for destruction, but ultimately finds peace and redemption. Jehanine, I suspect, is a distant Paradysian extrapolation of Joan of Arc/Jeanne d’Arc; her story also heavily references Cathar beliefs.

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Date read: 2.8.09
Read from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Young, unworldly, and hopelessly shy, our nameless narrator finds herself swept off of her feet by the widowed and much older Maxim DeWinter while working as the companion of a wealthy American woman on the French Riviera. Maxim takes her away to his estate in England, Manderley, where the soon-disenheartened narrator learns that her lot is to live in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Rebecca was glamorous, flamboyant, the consummate wife and hostess; Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is fiercely devoted to her memory, and regards Maxim’s second wife as an interloper and a poor replacement. Between Mrs. Danvers’ cruel manipulations and Maxim’s moody secrecy – which the narrator fears is a sign that he still loves Rebecca – the narrator finds herself without allies in Manderley, and is driven both to uncover the truth of of what happened to Rebecca, and to come into her own as a woman.

Hmm, awkward summary. Anyway, I read this following Isaac Marion’s The Inside, and together they ended up being a one-two punch of delicious, delicious suspense. I couldn’t read Rebecca in anything less than 100-page chunks – addictive to the max, it is.

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