Tag Archives: reading

Freedom: rip it up

freedom

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault

A suburban comedy-drama, monumental in the way only a middle-aged, middle-class straight white American man would have the audacity to write. In this case, as in most, the monument does not yield the audacity it promises. Not even close. Here, the problem is not that the characters are simply unlikeable: they are dull, cliched, and not even believable. None of the truth, ugliness, attraction of most unlikeable characters in literature. The plot is a mess, but not a beautifully chaotic postmodern mess, simply a directionless, pointless collection of events nobody cares about. Franzen’s social realism is proudly middle-brow, what he seems to consider ambitious, without any sense that his execution of the mode is highly conventional. Yet even his realism isn’t believable: convenient events and plot holes abound. His language is trivial, ugly, too repetitive to justify six hundred-plus pages. The structure is fundamentally flawed, switching between the “autobiography” of one of the main characters, Patty, and the various viewpoints of three men, in a charade without function or finesse. If it was written by a woman, it would be read as a gossip column, dismissed as “chick lit,” hardly a Tolstoyan masterpiece of social realism. At the heart of this novel’s problem is its meanspiritedness; what Franzen sees as irony is slathered indiscriminately across the pages, the kind of sarcasm only a middle-aged white man can apply to everything that crosses his path, until the final pages when he seems to want us to care profoundly for his characters. Too late: the snow-love he wraps his ending up in is only sentimentality. In this vein, to read this book without being painfully aware of the almost unremitting misogyny is to inhabit the same world that Franzen does, the world that praises “Freedom” as a contender of the “Great American Novel.” A sexual assault early in the book is represented so gratuitously, so callously, with such a lack of understanding, that it undermines every attempt Franzen makes to cite this trauma as the “reason” for the myriad of Patty’s later issues. Women are described in terms of age, attractiveness, and pliability to men. Numerous references to men’s genitalia as cognisant conquerors and women’s as passive receptacles grow tiresome. Women and girls are the root of all of men’s problems. Later in the book, a rape fantasy is described lovingly. Every sarcastic pot-shot is a cheap shot: rather than being a sweeping, ambitious tome, it is an outdated triumph of the conventional, liberal, white, heterosexual American male in a world of (thankfully) splintering perspectives that offer far more interest and insight. But it is a high price to pay to realise, again, that the most worthwhile writing comes from women, people of colour, queers, all of us on the margins. If misogyny isn’t enough to turn a reader off this novel, let it be the presumptuousness of six hundred-plus pages of misplaced irony, directionless satire, complacent liberalism.

Insomnia

insomnia

Free will, destiny, a cosmology without answers. Senior citizens play chess and wear panama hats, deaths are preordained and wanted, carried out by bald doctors. An old man mourns his wife, cannot sleep, falls into a universe of auras and violence. The opportunity is missed to render the true horror of insomnia, cheapened and never threatening, a mere discomfort, never consuming, torturous, painful, insane. A strange plotline about reproductive rights, King’s misogyny never far from the surface, until a shrill, selfish, aggressive feminist meets the fate that is the second-best fantasy of every misogynist: decapitation. Peopled by the silly, beautiful-or-ugly women of so much men’s fiction, shaped by the paternalism of old Ralph Roberts, who sympathises with the abuser but saves a women’s shelter from the lone wolf on a shooting spree. Long, as always, too long, crowded with explication, repetition, one too many interjections from the dead wife. But 90s commercial fiction at its best: read at an airport, addled with jetlag, in a time-warp, expecting nothing.

The Timeless Land

thetimelessland

The opening of a trilogy, once-popular, antiquated: a 1941 take on white invasion/settlement (balanced awkwardly between ideology), 1788 to 1792, but always more 1941 than 1788. A canvas that struggles to contain the people it depicts, black and white, Wangal, Wullumedegal, Burra-matta-gal, Cammeraygal, officers, convicts, rich, poor, women, men, and the country it holds: the waves of Port Jackson, headlands, Parramatta, the Blue Mountains. Historical figures loom large: Arthur Phillip, Bennelong, Barangaroo. A “silent,” “frightening” place where the “natives” do not understand change, live blurred with the land itself, childlike, static. The self-congratulation of white transcription of Aboriginal experience. An attempt at understanding the conflict, the varied perspectives that merged and struck on Koori land, but, ultimately, a colonial act itself, a muffling of language, the words of the coloniser returning decades later.

The Daylight Gate

thedaylightgate

The 1612 Pendle Hill witch trials, as real today, wilder than Salem, rich on paper. The August Assizes, Lancaster Castle, Daemonology, 1605 Gunpowder Plot, Hogton Hall, the Rough Lee, the North and its darkness, severed heads, poverty, women’s power crushed again and again, and still frightening. The foolishness of patriarchy, the banality of violence against women, children, the poor: all of this moves in a swampy sump, shifting point of view and allegiances. Spitting in the wind, galloping on horses, a woman with fire for hair, the inventor of magenta dye. She writes, rescues, and queers your dull grey Protestantism. Not only the gothic, but patriarchal and feudal oppression, fearfully resonant.

The Use of Pleasure

foucaultuseofpleasure

How did sexuality acquire its relation to truth? (In construction alone). How a decipherment of the self by the self, how a hermeneutics of desire? How in the 21st century did sexuality come to signal a revelation of the soul as a realm of knowledge about the True Self, where the smallest pieces of desire must be examined and analysed? Ancient Greece, on the other hand, turns to sexual practices themselves, not as moral/immoral, but as moderation, self-mastery, the superiority of the free man and his need to exercise his birthright as active, as ruler. Boys are the most beautiful, women are in a political relationship of ruler/ruled. All a juridico-moral codification of acts, arts of existence, regimen – for “free” men only.

Mateship With Birds

mateship

That default 1950s rural town, a place of kookaburras and few neighbours and a brief isolation. Spaces and boundaries and tracks across properties: a clunky crossover of human and bird life. The unexamined strangeness of heterosexuality is half-examined as the neighbours cross paths, murkily examined and deliberately disturbing, sometimes sickening, delicately unpeeled and undressed. From milking to tea. Small ornithology and kookaburra poetry. Slippage in point of view. Boyhood and bestiality, weird codes of heteronormativity.

The Luminaries

theluminaries

Knotted into the signs of the zodiac, the gravity of the heavenly bodies, the waning of the moon. The opening is dense, elegant, pitch-perfect, the end is urgent, a slice of light. Numbers, prices, dates sink into the consciousness until, finally, the threads settle. Caught in the ruined beauty of 19th century New Zealand gold mines, opium dens, séances, prostitution, silk dresses, hotel rooms. The narrative voice is present and Victorian. Always beautiful, always on the cusp of confusion. The language holds me. So many pages I begin to miss them. Intricate, intelligent, ever-expanding as the late skies.