Review: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake was published in 2003. It is Atwood’s 11th adult full length novel. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s classified as dystopian science fiction (but unlike the earlier book, it is not feminist). Also like the earlier novel, Oryx and Crake was a finalist for the Booker Prize, and winner of the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s prestigious literary prize. Oryx and Crake has a cliffhanger ending. Atwood just published a kind of follow up, The Year of the Flood, which takes place contemporaneously with the events of Oryx and Crake, but answers some of the open questions, and is working on a third novel. This week on Goodreads, Atwood is participating in a discussion with readers about her work, YOTF especially.

Oryx and Crake begins After, and is told from the point of view of a narrator who is called Snowman.

Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.

Out of habit he looks at his watch — stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

Through flashbacks, we come to know that Snowman is Jimmy. Oryx and Crake gets its title from two other characters, but it is Jimmy whose journey is narrated from age 5 through the present. Jimmy’s parents were geneticists working at OrganInc Farms. His father was an architect of the Pigoon project, which grew disease resistant human organs in a pig host. Human customers could, using their own cells, have organs custom grown. At first, OrganInc insisted that no pigoons would be eaten, but as environmental degradation destroyed food sources worldwide, pigoon items started appearing on OrganInc menus.

In the world Atwood has created, employees of biotech firms like OrganInc live on compounds. These compounds are sterile, well organized, and heavily secured, with good schools, health care, etc. In contrast, the cities, called “the pleebands” –  are unruly, mobbish, full of vice. When Jimmy is older, like many residents of the compounds, he takes the proper immunity drugs (“supergermincides”) and heads there for some illicit fun. Perhaps ironically, Atwood never describes the city in a way that makes it sound any different from today’s New York or L.A. or Boston.

Jimmy’s father loves living and working at OrganInc, but his mother has started to complain bitterly about the way things are going, describing their lives as an artificiality, a theme park. She quits her job in protest and wanders around aimlessly at home. She’s brilliant, but, everyone thinks, a bit unhinged. It is clear to the reader, who already knows from page 1 that Something Very Bad will happen, that she is in the right. But that doesn’t minimize the pain of experiencing her neglectful parenting form the narrator’s point of view.

The future Atwood envisions is, as she says herself, really just the present. everything she mentions is happening today in one form or another. Just this week, we have news that a company that makes a genetically modified salmon called AquaAdvantage will not be required by the FDA to disclose this fact. Looking at the company’s website, (Aqua Bounty)  it is impossible to distinguish it from the companies Atwood has envisioned. Aqua Bounty will take a gene from an eel-like fish and transplant it into salmon to make the salmon grow bigger, faster. Not so different from the Pigoon and Rakunks that populate Oryx and Crake.

There’s nothing much new here for readers of distopian fiction. Even the opening scene of a lone survivor on a beach with flotsam from the old world washing up is a cliche at this point. And Atwood having her futuristic teens using email made me giggle. Email is already so twentieth century. Atwood’s genius in this book is the way she takes so many different biotechnologies (new drugs are a huge part of the story too), economic trends, security trends,  environmental trends, social trends, and the invisibility and irrelevance of traditional political structures, etc. — all of which are absolutely descriptive of our lives today — and mixes them up in a way that makes them seem terrifying.

In many ways, this is just the story of a boy growing up in a world that looks a lot like ours. Jimmy is not terribly sympathetic. He is not that bright, not unique or creative, not driven, not generous or selfless or giving. He is a very ordinary man. He is less compelling than his mad genius best friend, Crake, who graduates from a teenage obsession with a computer game in which he invents all the species on the planet to actually designing the species that bring the world crashing down.  That in the end Jimmy is the hero — or the closest thing to a hero this book offers — tells you something about how bleak the book is.  This is a sci fi novel wrapped around a bildungsroman that takes its cue from middle class tales of unsatisfying male adulthood.

The biggest flaw in this novel, from this reader’s point of view, is the portrayal of Oryx. We first meet Oryx as an 8 year old Asian girl whose sex slavery is consumed by Jimmy and Crake via pictures and videos posted of her on the internet.  Oryx and two other girls are being forced to lick cream off a grown man’s torso. At one point, Oryx looks into the camera and Jimmy is sure she is looking at him:

Jimmy felt burned by this look — eaten into, as if by acid. She’d been so contemptuous of him.

Really? An 8 year old who has been ripped away from her rural family, taken to the city, and forced into sexual slavery is contemptuous? Anyway, he is frozen in guilt (and love and lust) and saves the picture. Years later, through an unbelievable set of coincidences, Oryx comes into his and Crake’s lives. They are both in love with her. My problem with this character was that she never moved an inch from the “enigmatic Asian/maybe wise, maybe dumb/maybe in control, maybe servile/always an object of male lust who fulfills their demands without asking questions”. Here’s an example of the dialogue with the adult Oryx. Jimmy shows Oryx the picture he has kept of the 8 year old girl:

“I don’t think this is me,” was what she’d said at first.

“It has to be!” said Jimmy. “Look! It’s your eyes!”

“A lot of girls have eyes, “she said. “A lot of girls did these things. Very many.” Then, seeing his disappointment, she said, “It might be me. Maybe it is. Would that make you happy, Jimmy?”

I found everything about this character disturbing, from stereotypical features, to her lack of growth, to her flat affect, to her literary function as a cypher for male fantasy. I was shocked Atwood wrote her.

I’ll conclude this review with some quotes from the debate over whether this book constitutes “science fiction”, “speculative fiction”, literature, or something else.

Atwood has famously distanced herself from science fiction by referring to it unflatteringly, as “rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space.”

Writing for The Guardian in 2005, Atwood clarifies:

If you’re writing about the future and you aren’t doing forecast journalism, you’ll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms – science fiction fantasy, and so forth – and others choose the reverse.

and more recently, in the New York Times, she again insisted

“I don’t write about Planet X, I write about where we are now,” she said, referring to such realities as environmental decay, the creep of corporations into ever more segments of society, and genetic tinkering.

On the book’s website (badly organized, and very hard to read or navigate), Atwood writes:

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, it invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?

Ursula Leguin has this to say in a 2009 interview with Vice Magazine:

This distinction makes most sense to me: Science fiction—and the correct shortcut is “sf”—uses actual scientific facts or theories for the source ideas or framework of the story. It has some scientific content, however speculative. If it breaks a law of physics, it knows it’s doing so and follows up the consequences. If it invents a society of aliens, it does so with some respect for and knowledge of the social sciences and what you might call social probabilities. And some of it is literarily self-aware enough to treat its metaphors as metaphors. “Space opera” is nice, but I’d call Star Wars sci-fi, because it’s what most people mean when they use the term. Sci-fi uses the images that sf—starting with H.G. Wells—made familiar: space travel, aliens, galactic wars and federations, time machines, et cetera, taking them literally, not caring if they are possible or even plausible. It has no interest in or relation to real science or technology. It’s fantasy in space suits. Spectacle. Wizards with lasers. Kids with ray guns. I’ve written both, but I have to say I respect science fiction enough that I wince when people call it sci-fi.

In October of last year, John Howell of Sci Fi World wrote a critique of the marginalization of sci fi, which resonated with me as a romance reader. Here’s his take on Atwood:

Taking even the narrowest definitions of science fiction, I’d suggest Atwood would have trouble arguing that some of her novels are not part of the genre. Apparently though, as long as you persist, you can convince the established order that your heart and mind is in the right place. Just keep insisting that everything science fiction is tacky, silly and sad and ridicule its creators at every opportunity. Disown the genre as emphatically and publicly as possible. As a writer there are tremendous advantages to avoiding the label science fiction, and Margret Atwood has successfully done that throughout her career and gained literary credibility in exchange.

Jeannette Winterson herself seems at times distancing:

I hate science fiction. But good writers about science, such as Jim Crace or Margaret Atwood, are great.

And at other times, she seems magnanimous, hoping “general fiction” can do away with genre:

“People say to me, ‘so is the Stone Gods science fiction?’ Well, it is fiction, and it has science in it, and it is set (mostly) in the future, but the labels are meaningless. I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.”

I like this last point, myself. Thanks for reading!

Review: True Blood and Philosophy

There are now two series dedicated to philosophy and popular culture. The original, Popular Culture and Philosophy series (Open Court) began with Seinfeld and Philosophy in 2000 and is now on volume #52, Manga and Philosophy.  One of my very first publications was a review of Seinfeld and Philosophy, and I contributed to the 4th volume in that series, Buffy and Philosophy.

The newer series, Philosophy and Popular Culture (Blackwell) launched in 2007 with 24 and Philosophy. True Blood and Philosophy, which I received gratis as an examination copy, is the 20th volume in the series.

Within the philosophical community, there is some debate about the value of these books. And by “debate”, I mean that some critics see these books in the same way an evangelical Christian sees a darkened sky and oceans turning to blood. For two examples, check out this post, or this one.

My own feeling is that the discipline is in pretty bad shape if two lightweight and fun book series can destroy its credibility. The trick with these books, especially for the cynical professional philosopher, is to go in with the right expectations. As Blackwell puts it:

Our goal with the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series is to get philosophy out of the ivory tower by publishing books about smart popular culture for serious fans. With each volume in this series we seek to teach philosophy using the themes, characters, and ideas from your favorite TV shows, comic books, movies, music, games, and more.

Few if any of the essays in these books constitute philosophical research. The best of them of make contributions to the academic study of popular culture. But many don’t even do that: they are content to connect up a Philosophy 101 concept or problem (free will, personhood, the social contract, the problem of identity, etc.) with an aspect of popular culture in order to help readers (fans and students) understand philosophy in light of a pop culture phenomenon with which they are familiar.

If you read these volumes with the same expectations you would have for an issue of peer reviewed academic journal, you aren’t being fair.  I suppose some critics object to using examples from popular culture to teach philosophy (and by “teach”, I mean both in formal settings like classrooms, and the kind of self-teaching average fans might do when they pick up such books at Borders). That may be because they think popular culture is harmful (we should all be reading Proust instead), or because they don’t think using popular culture to teach philosophy works.

I have no comment on the former, but for the latter I will need to see some argument. What I know, after being in the front of a philosophy classroom for 12 years, is that starting from a place where students feel knowledgeable and comfortable can work very well to introduce them to a subject they have likely never directly encountered, a subject which in the absence of direct knowledge, signifies for many students obsolescence and irrelevance … if it signifies anything at all.

So what I look for first in such books is accurate philosophy. It is not easy to teach philosophy in the bite sizes necessitated by these short essays, and brevity can distort. Connecting philosophy up to popular culture also requires knowledge of and sensitivity towards the material. In reading this series, if I get something really insightful about the pop culture object of reflection  — something that could be developed and published in a peer reviewed popular culture studies journal –  I am delighted. And if I learn something about philosophy, or am made to see philosophical connections where I hadn’t, I consider it an unexpected bonus. A final requirement is restraint in the use of puns.

On most these counts, True Blood and Philosophy succeeds. It is divided into five sections, with three essays each: one on ethics, one on politics, one on sexuality and gender, one on the supernatural and divine, and one on metaphysics. The list price, $17.95 for a softcover, may be prohibitive for some readers, but Amazon has it new for $12.21 and there’s a Kindle edition for $9.99. As is typical for such collections, the contributors range in their connection to the discipline of philosophy, from tenured associate professors in the field to an undergraduate student (the latter being the daughter of one of the editors). There are also contributions from academics trained in art history, public policy, English, and political science. A few contributors hail from non-academic life: editors, contractors, and human resources specialists.

An initial concern I had about this volume was that at most two seasons of the TV show True Blood would have been aired before it went to press. Knowing that the book series on which it is based, Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, is now in its 10th installment, and that the show, which has great ratings, will likely continue into several more seasons, I questioned the rush to get this out. My concern was alleviated to some extent by two factors (1) most of the contributors seem to have read the books, and often make reference to them in the essays (so, a big spoiler warning for fans), and (2) the essays deal more with world itself, not on detailed character examinations or plot. Since most of the world building is complete in the first two books/seasons, it mostly works.

The volume focuses very heavily on vampires. Those looking for more on the shapeshifters, weres or fairies that populate Charlaine Harris’s world will be disappointed. Perhaps a casualty of taking their cue more from the show than the series, there is also less focus on Sookie than I would have liked. The books are written in the first person, and Sookie is a very complex and interesting character. Most of Sookie is lost in Alan Ball’s vision, which is extremely androcentric.  One essay,”I am Sookie. Hear Me Roar: Sookie Stackhouse and Feminist Ambivalence”, by Lillian E. Craton and Kathryn E. Jonell, reflects on the difficulties of feminist alliance (many of Sookie’s enemies are women), complicated by the different social locations women inhabit, some of which may place them (Tara) at a disadvantage relative to their white middle class sisters (i.e. Sookie), the double edged sword of female sexuality — both empowering and dangerous for women (Maryann, whom the authors see as the ultimate victim of female sexuality), and Sookie’s struggles to maintain her independence and autonomy while dating and working for men who have the potential to overpower her. On this last:

Sookie’s conflicted emotions about workplace relationships and her ongoing attraction to vampires complicate the potential of True Blood and the Southern Vampire Mysteries as feminist social commentary. Sookie’s biggest challenge doesn’t seem to be fighting oppression, but sorting out her own desires.

This essay raises several important issues, any one of which could constitute the subject of an independent investigation, and it is too bad the editors didn’t make room that that approach. It’s also compromised, in my view, by trying to cover both the television show and the books, which differ markedly in their treatment of these issues. Alan Ball’s version of  the character of Tara, for example, as a constantly victimized, ineffectually perpetually angry, shortsighted (to the point of stupidity) black woman is nearly unrecognizable to readers of the novels, who know Tara as a white woman with a level head who overcame a horrendous childhood (and, yes, who makes mistakes). The same goes for Maryann. And while the Sookie of the TV show is just a plucky gal with telepathic abilities, in the novels, Sookie is an incredibly astute, complex character, who recognizes that she is disadvantaged by her gender, her “disability”, and her economic status.

Some of the essays are very straightforward explications of basic philosophical concepts. For example, the first essay, “To Turn or Not To Turn”, by Christopher Robichaud, explicates the concept of informed consent using the example of Bill turning Jessica into a vampire (“vampires need explicit, informed, noncoercive consent before they’re permitted to turn the living into the undead”), while “Pets, Cattle and Higher Life forms on True Blood”, by Ariadne Blayde and George A. Dunn, is effective at exploring moral ranking among kinds of being (“The assumption that human beings occupy the highest rung on the great ladder of being ins challenged in True Blood by the existence of a species that seems to be superior to us in every way, possibly even in their kinship with the divine.”). “Signed in Blood: Rights and the Vampire-Human Social Contract”,  by Joseph J. Foy and “Honey, If We Can’t Kill People, What’s the Point Of Being a Vampire: Can Vampires Be Good Citizens?” by William M. Curtis, both consider what it would take for vampires to have rights and function as full citizens. Are vampires just another unique subculture claiming its rights, which our liberal democracy should accommodate, and what would that require (would a “life sentence” for a criminal vampire be cruel and unusual punishment?). The question of “what is natural” and how we define it, so important to debates over sexuality and new reproductive technologies, is addressed by Andrew Terjesen and Jenny Terjesen in “Are Vampires Unnatural”. Patricia Brace and Robert Arp explore connections between the social and moral status of vampires and and gays in “Coming Out of the Coffin and Coming out of the Closet”. Finally, criteria of personal identity are explored by Sarah Grubb’s “Vampires, Werewolves, and Shapeshifters: The more they change, the more they stay the same”.

A standout, especially for readers who know something about vampire mythology, is Bruce A. McClelland’s “Un-True Blood: The Politics of Artificiality.” McClelland, who has published a book on vampires and their slayers, situates True Blood within the evolving vampire lore. He wonders whether

the attempt to bring vampires into the human world  by encouraging them to consume TruBlood represents a drive to ensnare them in our same dependencies and lack of freedom that characterize our society, one that many would characterize as lacking belief, trust, or a deep link to nature.

Another very interesting essay is Fred Curry’s “Keeping Secrets from Sookie”, which explores the epistemological questions raised by Sookie’s telepathy, such as “whether anyone could possess any kind of knowledge that even the most powerful telepath couldn’t learn using her powers?”.

There is quite a bit of overlap in the essays, especially on the moral status of vampires, and their connections to other marginalized subgroups. This overlap was made even more manifest by the choice of the same quotations (Eric and Sookie’s discussion about whether humans are to antelopes and as vampires are to lions, for example) and sources (No fewer than three essays discuss Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”). Many of the essays rely on a pseudo documentary about vampires, from the first season’s DVD. something many readers will not have seen. And some of the essays, in trying to keep a light tone, go a bit too far, for example Brace and Arp’s final exhortation that:

coming out of the coffin or the closet these days requires courage. Let’s hope, pray, and act so that in the future anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, religions or race, whether living or dead, can find acceptance along with basic human and civil rights in Bon Temps and your hometown, too.

I wish the editors had waited a couple of years to publish this volume. Perhaps a few more seasons of True Blood would have drawn more essays on other aspects of the narrative, such as Sookie’s problematic conception of her telepathy as disability, fascinating communities like the werepanthers of Hotshot or the weres of Shreveport, the complex relationship of Southern identities to various forms of Christianity, to name just a few.

Overall, though, this is a fun book for fans of the show with no philosophical background, and a good resource for teaching our vampire-loving students some basic concepts in philosophy. The brevity of each essay left me with more questions than answers, but that’s what good philosophy teaching does.

N.E.A.R. Review: Blindness, by Jose Saramago

*N.E.A.R. = Not Exactly A Romance

I was asked ages ago to lead a discussion of this book with a group of medical professionals who get together regularly to talk about fiction. The discussion is this evening, and since nothing focuses my thoughts like writing a blog post, I thought I would share some reflections in preparation.

Saramago is a Portuguese novelist, born in 1922, and Nobel Laureate. A fairly prolific author, not only a novelist but also a journalist, short story writer, and playwright, his first novel, Manuel de Pintura e Caligrafia, (Manual of Painting and Calligraphy) was published in 1977. Blindness was published in 1995.

The plot is easy to summarize. The book begins with a man at a traffic intersection, who suddenly, and for no reason, goes blind. We follow him home — he is helped by a kind stranger — to his wife, who takes him to see his ophthamologist. In short order, the “kind stranger” (who turns out to be a thief), the wife, and the eye doctor all go blind, as well as several others connected by chance to this group. These 7 or so individuals are rounded up by the government and put in an abandoned mental asylum. they are given food, but otherwise left to fend for themselves. Armed guards monitor the exits, shooting on sight anyone who tries to leave.

Most of the book takes place in the asylum. As the “white sickness” spreads, numbers quickly swell. As conditions deteriorate, anyone who has read Camus’ The Plague, or Golding’s The Lord of The Flies can predict what ensures. Factions develop, scarcity, violence, and mayhem ensure, and the little group we have been following becomes a stronger, almost family-like unit, led by the doctor’s wife, who can still see, a fact she conceals, but uses to the group’s advantage, for most of the novel.

This is a post apocalytpic novel, with hallmarks such as panic, fear and despair, breakdown of socioeconomic structures, followed by a return to some kind of civilized aftermath. It is surely no accident that a 20th century novelist chose an epidemic for his apocalypse, what with HIV/AIDs, Ebola, SARS, technological viruses that infect computers, and even terrorist threats.

But it would be unfair to say this is just an experiment in a Hobbesian state of nature. Despite being very objective and matter of fact in presentation, it’s clear Saramago has great affection for his characters, most obviously the doctor’s wife, who is the heart and moral core of the story, indeed of humanity. at several points, we are meant to be touched by the strain of human kindness, goodness, or purity of human connection that remains. For example:

‘The blind man and the blind woman were now resting, apart, the one lying beside the other, but they were still holding hands, they were young, perhaps even lovers who had gone to the cinema and turned blind there, or perhaps some miraculous coincidence brought them together in this place, and, this being the case, how did they recognize each other, good heavens, by their voices, of course, it is not only the voice of blood that needs no eyes, love, which people say is blind, also has a voice of its own.’

Eventually, the group escapes the asylum, only to discover that everyone else has gone blind, including the guards who have left their posts. The last section follows them in a kind of post-apocalyptic world as they try to find sustenance, while attempting to return to their homes.

Saramago uses no proper names in the book, at all, and characters are referred to as “the doctor”, “the doctor’s wife”, etc. One says, “Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters…”. This makes the book read like a myth or fable. Sometimes the identifiers are ironic, as in “the girl with the dark glasses”, or “the boy with the squint”. He doesn’t use quotations, further distancing us from the characters, instead capitalizing the first word the new speaker speaks. He writes in long sentences, with little punctuation, long paragraphs, and chapters that have no names or numbers. This gave the reading an arduous and monotonous feel (others have said it helped them breeze through the narrative at breakneck pace). Sometimes I panicked that it was never going to end, because I had no sense of where I was in the narrative or on the page: he wants readers to experience some of the dislocation of the blinded characters.

Saramago never gives us the big picture, unless it is something one of the characters experiences. As a reader, I wanted to know what was going on outside the walls of the asylum: was everyone going blind? Was help coming? But he resolutely kept his focus on the individual – the doctor having to grope his way to the bathroom, and the indignity of getting excrement on his pants, for example. again, I think this choice had the effect of bringing the reader into the experiences of the characters. I also think he was making a point:

In looking at other reviews, there is some disagreement about whether to read this book as a literary allegory or as speculative fiction. I think knowing Saramago’s oeuvre would help: apparently he has written other books that clearly situate him in the speculative fiction category, and he even transports one “character’, a dog, from The Stone Raft to Blindness. Of course, it could work as both at once, and that’s probably what he was going for.

Did I like it? No, it didn’t work for me either as a novel of ideas (because the ideas have been done elsewhere and done better), nor as speculative fiction (in part because of its telescopic focus and certain of the author’s obsessions for example, with excrement, got in the way of telling a gripping story).

Here are a few themes worth noting:

1. Blurring of the lines between human and animal. The blind people in the book are typically indifferent, selfish, or even vicious.

(a) Saramago uses animal metaphors to capture these human evils.

–The doctor’s wife says, “A dog is “identified by its scent and that is how it identifies others … here we are like another breed of dogs, we know each other’s bark or speech, as for the rest, features, colour of eyes or hair, they are of no importance.” (p. 75)

–The blind move and emit sounds like animals, crawling “on all fours”, moving “like crabs”, etc.

–the doctor, filthy, thinks to himself. “there are many ways of becoming an animal, and this is just the first of them” (p. 93)

–when some internees take more than their share of food, they are called “thieving dogs” (p. 105)

–”It would not be right to imagine that these blind people, in such great numbers, proceed like lambs to the slaughter, bleating as is their wont…” (p. 109) (the narrator, in my view, is often speaking ironically. In this case, he goes on to describe them doing pretty much that)

–When the inmates are eating, it is describes as “two hundred and sixty mouth masticating” (115)

–”they were curled up in their beds like animals who have been given a sound thrashing” (p. 178)

–”listen, men, these fillies are pretty good. the blind hoodlums whinnied, stamped their feet on the ground…” (p. 179)

–”like hyenas around a carcass” (p. 179)

–”…fifteen women sprawled on the beds and on the floor, the men going form one to the other, snorting like pigs…” (p. 187).

–”His cry was barely audible, it might have been the grunting of an animal about to ejaculate. “(p. 189)

–”No one dares go out into the corridors, but the interior of each ward is like a beehive inhabited by drones, buzzing insects…” (p. 211)

–”they were constantly bumping into each other like ants on the trail” (p. 225)

–the doctor’s wife thinks, “people get used to anything, especially if they have ceased to be people, and even if they have not quite reached that point…” (p. 225)

(b) A developing compensatory sense of smell is frequently mentioned in the text.

When the doctor’s wife wonders if she should reveal her sightedness, her husband cautions her against it, saying she will become their “slave, a dogsbody”.

The term “dogsbody” is interesting, since later in the book we meet the “dog of tears”, who licks the doctor’s wife’s face when she cries, and sticks with the little group for the remainder of the novel. This dog is basically a character in his own right: he is anthropomorphized by the author, who writes, “the dog continues to be the dog that he is, an animal of the human type.” (p. 268)

(c) Hygiene — the blind humans become increasingly unclean, and their world becomes filled with trash and human excrement. To the extent that rituals around bodily excretions mark human civilization, the process of becoming filthy in the novel, and losing all sense of propriety around privacy in elimination, is a process of becoming more animal like and less human. (Of course, if you own a cat, you are aware that there are nonhuman animals who are quite fastidious in their elimination habits, so I am not sure how well this point holds).

2. So what is it about? I think the novel is open to a lot of interpretations, something you either love or hate about it. Here’s what Saramago himself said accepting his Nobel Prize:

Blind. The apprentice thought, “We are blind,” and he sat down and wrote Blindness
to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate
life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the
universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself
when he lost the respect due to his fellow creatures.

I think the “white sickness” in the novel is a metaphor for our times: current and very real breakdowns in respect, empathy and restraint of selfish impulses. We are diseased.

I think he is trying to say things about the connection of our fleshly bodies, our excrement, our sex, our five sense, with social and political organization as well (but I don’t have time to explore them): what is the relation of the community of sight — of seeing the other both literally and figuratively — to moral and social and personal and political relations, and to community or indeed our humanity?

A few quotes:

Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are.
Blindness
The Doctor.

I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.

In 2008, a film adaptation of Blindness was released, starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover, and Sandra Oh. I have no earthly idea how anyone could think film would work for this novel, and most reviewers agreed. The director was Fernando Meirelles of City of God and The Constant Gardener fame. Those two movies I really liked, and I can absolutely see why a director who works with the tension between self interest and social interest, egoism and altruism, was attracted to this project, but I don;t see how one could retain the abstractions that make this novel work with recognizable actors (or any real humans).

Both the novel and film were criticized on political grounds, criticism which I think is quite apt:

1. US National Federation of the Blind (NFB) criticized Saramago’s work. In a banquet speech at the organization’s annual convention on July 4, 2008, in Dallas, Texas, NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer.

Blind people are depicted as unbelievably incapable of everything, including finding the way to the bathroom or the shower. Saramago wants a world view that serves to offer an allegory for the worst description he can possibly imagine. He selects blindness as his metaphor for all that is bad in human thought and action. He describes the blind as having every negative trait of humanity and none of the positive ones. He argues that this is an allegory for a picture of the reality of the world today. …

The depiction of the blind in this movie is fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, blindness does not denote the characteristics the author attributes to it. The capabilities of those who become blind remain essentially the same after they lose vision as they were before they lost it. Although the loss of any major asset (including vision) will bring a measure of sadness to some and despair to a few, it will also stimulate others to assert their will. Blindness can be a devastating loss, but it also has the power to galvanize some to action. The reaction to blindness is not the least bit one-dimensional. Therefore the description is false.

In addition to this, the viciousness attributed to the blind is inconsistent with the assertion of incapacity. Viciousness demands both venality and ability–at least organized viciousness does. To say that the blind are completely incompetent and to assert that they have the ability to organize for the pursuit of vice is a contradiction in terms.

But leave the internal inconsistency. The charge that loss of vision creates a personality alteration of sordid and criminal character is in itself sordid and defamatory to an entire class of human beings. …

The description in Blindness is wrong–completely, unutterably, irretrievably, immeasurably wrong. That such falsity should be regarded as good literature is revolting and amazing. We know the reality of blindness, we know the pain it can bring, we know the joy that can come from correcting the misinformation about it, and we are prepared to act on our own behalf. We will not let José Saramago represent us, for he does not speak the truth. He does not write of joy or the optimism of building a society worth calling our own. We do, and we will.

2. From an article in Natural Health:

A number of people have asked if what the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is so angry about is more a matter of political correctness than anything else, and I suppose that if blindness were not already so stereotyped, it might be. It has even been said that we are overreacting because Seramago intended blindness, because it so often represents darkness, to be a metaphor for all the evil that resides in human nature. He intended to show how trying circumstances could bring out the evil in people. However, what would happen if a movie was produced wherein having blonde hair was a metaphor for stupidity. Every blonde in America would be incensed and protesting because the film stereotyped them as being stupid. Blindness is a physical characteristic, no more significant than being blonde or left-handed; why should it being used as a metaphor for evil to go uncontested?

The blind community has a rate of unemployment or underemployment of over 70 percent. Much of this stems from the bureaucracy that makes it nearly impossible for us to obtain the proper blindness skills and from the stereotype that blind people are unemployable and that their abilities are less than those of their sighted counterparts, which is patently untrue.

3. From “Saramago’s BLINDNESS: Humans or Animals?” by David Bolt, in The Explicator (2007) (click here for PDF).

Saramago’s blind humans are more than doglike; they are inhumane. Humanity “will manage to live without eyes,” says the narrator, but “then it will cease to be humanity” (241). The expected retort is that the reading has missed the whole point of the novel, that the representation of people who are visually impaired is purely allegorical. The trouble is, however, that the tenor of the allegory relies on the stereotypical assumptions of its vehicle, meaning that people who are visually impaired must be perceived as helpless if their portrayal is to represent the metaphysical bewilderment of humanity convincingly. In other words, the
allegory will not bear scrutiny because it is grounded in the mythology of blindness as opposed to the facts about visual impairment.

A literary response, an “anti-sequel” to Blindness, “The Sight Sickness” by Christine Faltz Grassman, an attorney and mother of two who has been blind since birth. Synopsis:

Faced with an epidemic of “the white sickness” — an apparently contagious plague in which random citizens become blind — the government rounds up those afflicted, caging them like animals in lawless and inhumane quarantine facilities in this novel. When the crisis finally subsides, the officials in charge of this government response are put on trial — and acquitted. Unsatisfied with the verdict, a vigilante group responds by kidnapping seven people and keeping them blinded so that they can experience the fears of those blinded in the plague.

I’m sorry I don’t have time to be more organized here or to say more – and believe me, I have more to say. I just chatted with a colleague about it, and it didn’t work for her either. It feels good not to be alone. Anyway … off to the meeting!

Random Thoughts About the Hound of the Baskervilles

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I recently read this Arthur Conan Doyle classic, first published in 1901, for a book club I am in. In case you don’t know, Sir Charles Baskerville dies under mysterious circumstances at Baskerville Hall, located in Devon, along the moors of Dartmoor. Charles’s friend and neighbor, Sr. Mortimer, contacts Holmes for help. Mortimer explains that there is a curse on the family involving an ancestor, Hugo, who chased and locked up a young woman. The girl escaped, running across the moor, and Hugo called on evil spirits to help him capture her. Both the ancestor and the girl were found dead, their throats ripped out by a giant hound standing over their bodies.

Henry Baskerville, heir to the Baskerville estate, arrives form Canada to claim his inheritance, and is warned away by a strange letter. Holmes and Watson are on the case. Watson travels with Henry as a kind of bodyguard/sleuth to the Baskerville Estate, while Holmes remains in London. They meet the Barrymores, a couple who have long looked after the house, and the Stapletons, Jack and Beryl, a brother-sister neighbor family. There’s a deranged killer on the loose upon the moors, which is of course, a red herring.

One of the tensions in the book is between Holmes’s scientific approach and the mythic tale of the demonic hound. Holmes refuses to accept that that a scientific worldview cannot capture and explain the events, but the people of Dartmoor are more inclined to believe in supernatural phenomena. Holmes, of course, ends up right.

I didn’t hate reading the book, and I appreciated the storytelling gift Doyle possessed. We also watched the 1988 film starring Jeremy Brett, which was excellent (it is one of 24 film versions of the novel). I was struck by some similarities and differences to the romance reading I have been doing. The following comments are about this book, not about mystery as a genre.

A similarity is the use of folk tales to frame the plot, something I have seen in a lot of romance. Also, of course, you can feel the genre constraints — you are secure in knowing that the mystery will be solved and justice will prevail. This last point raises a question I had: what does a book have to have to be called a “mystery”? Does justice have to prevail? Does the reader have to be able to solve the mystery (no reader could have figured out who the culprit is in this book — Holmes gathered information off stage). Does the culprit have to be unmasked and the main questions answered about motive and method, etc.?

The differences from romance struck me even more. For one thing, this is a very male-centric book. Not only do you have a central relationship between two men who have no women in their lives, Holmes and Watson (there is a ton of slash fiction, I discovered, about these two, much of it BDSM, with Watson the subordinate to Holmes’ controlled domination. It fits really well with their personalities in the book.). But all of the other women in the book are victims or tools of the men they are with. Women’s sexuality is a prop for the generation of crimes, an item of of exchange between men dueling for masculine supremacy, but never explored in its own right. Women in this book are used, killed, beaten, betrayed, and deceived. And yet we are never told their stories in the detail we are told the men’s –  what motivated them? What did they hope for? The moor — which is unpredictable, dangerous, easy to get lost in  — it actually sucked the culprit to his doom — symbolizes femininity, women’s sexuality, women’s fertility, and the danger they pose to men.

I realized in addition to the HEA, there is something I can count on when I read romances:  they take the experiences of women seriously. Extract the perspective of female characters from romance, and you no longer have a book. Or at least not a book I would want to read.

NEAR Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby

NEAR: Not exactly a romance

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My Take In Brief: An amazing book. A difficult and wonderful book. A quick read that will stay with me for a very long time.

You can read the first chapter and the NYT Review here.

Amazon.com:  4.5 stars after 161 reviews

This brief (132 page) 1997 memoir by former French Elle editor Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome as a result of a massive stroke, was made into a widely acclaimed film (by American Julian Schnabel who directed Basquiat and Before Night Falls) in 2007.   That was when I first heard of Bauby’s story. I bought this book a few months ago, and when I started reading it the other day, I found it impossible to put down. The book is divided into very short — 2 or 3 page — chapters, and has a very gripping, propulsive feel, despite the fact that much of the “action” takes place in Bauby’s head — his memories, or his impressions of daily life in the French seaside hospital that has become his home.

The title refers to Bauby’s description of life with locked-in syndrome: he is mute and paralyzed, and communicates by blinking his one good eye (1 blink for “A”, 2 blinks for “B”, etc. — except the order was actually the most used to least used letters in the French alphabet). This entire memoir was transcribed in this painstaking way, a phenomenal achievement, even if the result hadn’t been this transporting book.  His useless body is his “diving bell”, his mind is his “butterfly”.

I would be lying if I did not admit there are some very sad passages in this book, the one when his children come to visit being the worst for me.  But the amazing thing is that you come away thinking what an incredible memoirist and prose stylist Bauby was, and since he didn’t publish anything prior to this book, you wonder by what miracle it is that this unspeakable tragedy created the irony, ruefulness, reflectiveness, focus, and space that it took to give Bauby something to write and a voice and a means to do it.

Here’s Bauby reflecting on something his condition has taken away:

“Want to play hangman? asks Théophile, and I ache to tell him that I have enough on my plate playing quadriplegic. But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter. So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of all its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball — and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition.

Whenever I entertain fantasies of being a writer, it is never as a fiction writer, but as a memoirist. Just the way I bet many of you feel when you read a wonderful piece of fiction, that uplifting feeling of the possibility of creating a moving narrative, is how I felt while reading this book. It’s somehow awe-inspiring and galvanizing at the same time.

In many ways The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is about narrative, and about writing more specifically. Bauby was a voracious reader before his accident, and literary references come easily to him. His grandfather reminded him of Victor Hugo.  He compares himself to a character in Dumas. An especially moving memory has him traveling with a female companion on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. But Bauby is more interested in his 600 page book which he cannot stop reading. The trouble he has looking out of the car window, walking to an observation point, or leaving the book in the back seat will feel familiar to any of us who has become obsessed with a story.

The ways that narrative and identity are shaped and contituted by memory is also a crucial theme. Bauby’s memories are the wings of his existence – they don’t merely keep him buoyed by recalling good times, they keep alive his sense of who he is, helping to connect the witty fashion editor he was then to the invalid he is now, and by helping him to make current sense of his existence. A memory of a visit to a racetrack when he got so caught up in the atmosphere that he forgot to place a bet prompts this reflection, which is one of the passages that I think will always be with me:

Today it seems to me that my whole life was nothing but a string of those small near misses: a race whose result we know beforehand but in which we fail to bet on the winner.

There are many many breathtakingly beautiful (and often heartbreaking) images in this book. If you love words, and reflection on words, you will love it. I close this review with my favorite image, one that brought tears to my eyes in delight. Bauby is reflecting on the letters his friends and acquaintances send him in the hospital:

I hoard all these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.

NEAR Review: The Diving Pool, by Yoko Ogawa

ogawa-diving-pool

About NEAR Reviews: One of the nicest things about reading romance is that it has awakened my interest in reading all kinds of books.  When I review a book that’s neither a romance, nor a book or author that the romance community has embraced (like Charlaine Harris or Sharon Shinn, for example), I’ll label it with NEAR, for Not Even A Romance.

Fun Factoid: This was a Reading the World 2008 title. In 1990, Yoko Ogawa won the Akutagawa Award, one of the most important awards for fiction in Japan. I love the short story form, and while I’m no expert in Japanese literature, I love Ryunosuke Akutagawa (two of whose stories were the basis for Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon).

Word on the Web:

Britain’s Independent, very positive

Masculine clarity has no place here. It is the irrational that comes naturally to Ogawa’s women. The narrators of “The Diving Pool” and “Pregnancy Diary” commit atrocious deeds – tormenting a toddler, possibly poisoning a pregnant woman – as if by reflex, barely aware not only of the consequences, but almost of the act. Rarely have first-person narratives been so opaque. This may be one source of their power to disturb. Is it possible to be a monster, all unknowing?

Booklit, Stewart, not so positive

“[That t]here’s much to appreciate here, and that Ogawa has a back catalogue ripe for translation, is reason enough to dive in, even if these three novellas are the shallow end.”

Japan Today,  Bryan Hartzheim (reprinted from Metropois Magazine) (this is the best positive review, IMO)

Ogawa’s prose calls to mind that of a Truman Capote or the later Junichiro Tanizaki, capable of pairing beautiful metaphor and vivid description with the coldest and most grotesque of human thoughts and behaviors.

The three stories are also unmistakably framed by Ogawa’s approach at an ironic interiority — ironic because, while the stories are presented in the first person by female narrators, remarkably little is revealed by their thoughts alone. Rather, we learn about them by the simultaneously minute and monstrous actions that they themselves barely register, not because they aren’t conscious of their cruelty, but possibly because they don’t realize — as Ogawa frequently questions — the incomprehensible reasons for how or why people treat and mistreat each other.

Pedestal Magazine, positive

Some of Ogawa’s language choices will startle. Few fiction writers make such unique choices and achieve so much by them.

Entertainment Weekly, B

Washington Post, Janice P Nimura (another excellent review)

Ogawa writes stories that float free of any specific culture, anchoring themselves instead in the landscape of the mind. Her hallucinatory, oddly barbed stories snag the imagination, and linger.

Amazon.com: 4 stars after 7 reviews

The Racy Romance Review:

The three stories in The Diving Pool were published in the early 1990s. The English translation by Stephen Snyder came out in January 2008. I first read Ogawa, who is a very prolific Japanese writer of novels and short stories, in the New Yorker, where Pregnancy Diary (full text at link), one of the novellas in this book, was first published in English (You get a lifetime subscription to the New Yorker when you get your PhD in the humanities. It comes with the secret handshake.).

On terminology: I am going to use “novella” and “story” interchangeably in this review. You can say novellas are 50 or more pages (this is how publishers see it), and short stories are – um – shorter, and you can point to other differences, like that conflict needs to be established right away in a short story but not in a novella, but I am going to blithely ignore all of that here, except to say that in (English) length these are novellas, but in the unresolved endings, they feel like short stories to me.

During a visit to my local library a few weeks ago, the beautiful cover of this collection caught my eye, and I took it home (maybe because I spend a lot of time in the winter poolside). It has taken me quite a while to finish this collection. It’s not long (each story is about 50 pages) but so disturbing that I needed recovery time between each one.

Here are brief reviews of each of the three novellas:

The Diving Pool

Aya, a teenager in suburban Tokyo, is obsessed with her adopted brother, Jun. Aya has been raised in the orphanage run by her birth parents, and feels, paradoxically, like the odd one out, the orphan herself. Jun is on the diving team at the high school, and watching him is the greatest, most secret joy in Aya’s life:

Sometimes I wish I could describe how wonderful I feel in those few seconds from the time he spreads his arms above his head, as if trying to grab hold of something, to the instant he vanishes into the water. but I can never find the right words. Perhaps it’s because he’s falling through time, to a place where words can never reach.

Aya is bitter and sad, overlooked and lonely, with a cruel streak and a deep desire for love and acknowledgment that is twisted into obsession and a sadistic desire for power over others. She’s lyrical and astute in her observations of others.

What I loved about this novella (and the other two) was the imagery. It’s poetical writing. Many of the images are grotesque, and often involved food used in very unusual ways. Here are just a few examples:

…I can never hear the words “family” and “home” without feeling that they sound strange, never simply hear them, and let them go. When I stop to examine them, though, the words seem hollow, seem to rattle at my feet like empty cans.

***

Her lips were like two maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my two fingers.

***

The tiny legs protruding from the elastic hems of her pants looked like past of smooth, white butter. Whether they are dark and blotchy, covered in a rash, or rippling with rings of fat, I am always fascinated by a baby’s thighs. There is something almost erotic about their defensiveness, and yet they seem fresh and vivid, like separate living creatures.

The imagery tells us a lot about Aya, and often about its subject. It’s not just there, but connected to the author’s subtle and vivid renderings of human psychology. There’s something very wrong with Aya, that she sees her mother’s lips and this innocent baby’s thighs, in this way.

I was drawn to this book in part because one of the reviewers on the back cover referred to it as “on the edge of the unspeakable”, and the touches of horror in the Sookie Stackhouse series, which I am now reading, have made me more interested in reading for the grotesque and horrific.

Aya ends up tormenting the baby whose thighs are described above. I was worried that baby torture would seem exploitative or just too much, but I was able to read those passages with relative ease. There were there for a purpose, and the purpose was met.

I wasn’t thrilled with the way the story ended: it seemed a bit moralistic for an author who had explored the human psyche with such complexity.

The Pregnancy Diary

In this story, the first person narrator, again a young single woman, lives with her pregnant sister and brother-in-law.  The cover copy suggests the pregnancy is a hallucination, but the text of the story did not suggest that to me at all.

Again, we have a narrator with a cruel streak: her sister packs on the pregnancy pounds thanks to the narrator’s constant grapefruit jam making, knowingly using imported fruits may contain toxins that harm developing fetuses.

In some ways this was even more awful to me to read about than the baby torture, because the narrator keeps preparing the jam for her sister after she discovers that it may harm the fetus.  It’s not even planful or emotional. It just … happens.

I like to think of evil as intentional (the fruit of human desire in some way). I guess this provides a source of hope that it can be deterred. In this novella, evil just drifts in to the scene without forethought or hope for gain. I found it terrifying.

The sister experiences two very common pregnancy symptoms: morning sickness, and, later, weight gain. Ogawa manages to make both commonplaces seem grotesque and unique.

Again, thanks to Ogawa, I will never look at ordinary food the same way again:

Half-cooked egg dripped from her fork like yellow blood. My brother-in-law was eating slices of kiwi. I can’t stand kiwi — all those seeds make me think of little black bugs, and the kiwi this morning was particularly ripe and soft. Beads of sweat had collected on the surface of the butter.

Ogawa takes things that are supposed to be supreme human comforts: food and pregnancy, and turns them monstrous.

The way all of the characters relate to the pregnancy is so unusual. In so many ways, pregnancy is terrifying and absurd.  At one point, the narrator tells us:

My sister and her husband never talk about the baby in front of me. They act as if there’s no connection between the pgregnacy and the fact that there’s a baby in her belly. Which may explain why it has no concrete existence for me.

***

[The pregnant sister is speaking] I’m filled with sadness, and I realize what scares me the most is the thought of meeting my own baby.

This narrator is even harder to read than the narrator of The Diving Pool. She works at a supermarket, she seems to love her sister (in her unique way), and that’s about all we know. Is the author telling us something about late twentieth century Japanese suburban ennui?

The ending of this once, while ambiguous, was much more satisfying to this reader.

Dormitory

In this story, a young woman whose husband is in Sweden visits her old college dormitory with her younger cousin. There she meets the Manager, a triple amputee, and learns that the dorm has been suffering declining occupancy since a student disappeared from it months prior.

This narrator is as depressed and low affect as the others, but easier to sympathize with. She also suffers from a curious detachment. She can’t picture Sweden, where she is to join her husband soon — it’s too abstract and different. Her days are “swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” She feels “like a silkworm in a cocoon.”

Her husband sends her a list of practical tasks to accomplish, like getting her passport in order, and it baffles her:

Somehow I couldn’t really understand what he was trying to say. The words — “market”, “squirrel”, “passport”, “moving company” — were like obscure philosophical terms.

She becomes attached to the Manager, tending to him, and this little world of the collapsing dormitory seems so at odds with her husband’s in Sweden that she can hardly believe they both exist.

Ogawa pays a lot of attention to bodies (lovingly, obsessively, hatefully, monstrously) and the Manager’s body is attended to with a level of detail that I felt bordered on exploitative.

The ending of this one was not at all what I expected.  The way it connected nature, insects, horror, and food, with fear, hope, mystery, wonder, and cruelty was pure Ogawa.

You know how, in romances, you get smells, sounds, touch, taste, sights — and it’s all usually fairly positive if not downright enticing? Ogawa is like the anti-romantic author in the ways she shows us how our senses oppress and mystify us.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book, but I loved it. I think I’ll assign Pregnaancy Diary in one of my feminist theory courses where I teach Julia Kristeva’s “Stabat Mater”, or in my ethics and fiction course.

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