Hygiene and the Assassin

Dear CF,

I went into the tub this morning to warm up before heading out for a day’s work and ended up reading all of Amelie Northomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, in one sitting. Or bathing, I guess—isn’t “a bathing” so much more expressive as an interval of time? Anyway, when I looked up, the water was cold and the morning had gone, along with all my good intentions.

Amelie Northomb was twenty-five when she published Hygiene and the Assassin back in 1991. [Warning: this contains spoilers.]

I’m having trouble processing that. This little 167-page book takes on Nobel laureates and misogynist authors, dismisses Hegel in a one-off, offers a counterfactual prequel to Nabokov’s Ada or Arbor, and pulls a Charlie-Kaufman-in-Adaptation-esque move in which it capitulates to the conventions I thought it was subverting. It wraps up the phallic iconoclastic swordplay we’ve come to expect with astounding nineteenth-century melodrama. Love and Freud don’t win, but their essential relevance is reestablished. The supporting character is part Fate, part Harpy. She’s the journalist and the murderer. She pricks the author’s prick, reduces him to a heap on the floor, suffocating under the weight of his anti-aesthetic layers, makes him crawl. Is it a reclamation of sentimental fiction? Is it a defense of female readership? Is it ultimately a failure?

Whatever it is, it’s fun to read.

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An Elegy To the Printed Book

Dear CF,

When an academic book takes a poetic turn, an angel gets its wings. Or a book gets its cover. Or something. This meditation on the physical book—a dying object if ever there was one—is Anne Fadiman-worthy:

To devoted readers of print, the codex seems at once wonderfully portable, hefty, durable, and destructible. As a child, I perched atop a stack of books on a chair to reach the dinner table at a holiday meal. As a college student, I ascended a fog-shrouded mountainside once I’d torn pages from a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and placed them under rocks to guide my descent. As a graduate student, I learned how to read books not just in the bath but in the shower as well. As the mother of two small children, I have discovered anew the force that books can hold as objects and occasions for rituals. To earmark a page, to remember a passage by its placement midway down a left opening, to scribble a name on a flyleaf: all these acts depend upon the spines, bindings, and pages of printed books, which at once make and hold impressions for their readers.

That’s from Heidi Brayman Hackel’s book Reading material in Early Modern England: print, gender, and literacy. Which, ironically enough, I’m reading online.

Fondly,
M

 

Mensbodies, Menselves, Circa 1734

Dear Millicent,

While researching a forthcoming post about hair and the awkward female, I went down a few strange snickelways and ended up learning about what I can only call a royal sausage fest.  Enter the The Most Ancient and Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, Anstruther.  Founded in 1732, the club was a group of elite men that got together to get sexy and learn sexy (Merryland was their euphemism for a woman’s body). They officially lasted until 1836, had chapters in Edinburgh and St. Petersburg, and had a bit of a revival in 1912. They came up in my research because of a prize object of the group that is currently locked up in a cabinet in the British Museum: a snuffbox full of the pubic hair of George IV’s mistress. The group also protected: “one renowned Wig worn by the Sovereign composed of the Privy-hairs qf Royal courtezans.”

The idea of rich and powerful men secretly meeting to do scandalous things is not a surprise.  But finding real artifact of it is, as is being able to peek into what men were talking about three centuries ago when they were talking about sex. In 1892, about 250 copies of the Records of the Beggar’s Bennison, “printed for private distribution only” were made, and there are a few copies online. The records make for a strange compilation: half frat party, half Mensbodies, Menselves. There are songs, records of lectures, general note taking, and conversation that reminds me of women’s cervix finding groups of the 1970s.  Throughout, the Beggars appear less like a ribald stag party, and more like a group of adolescents unsatisfied with the information they’ve been given, and hellbent on figuring it all out for themselves. They jerked off, they researched how animals copulated, they looked at the morality of abortion, they wondered how conception took place, they went over basic anatomy, they really liked sex, often talk about women as respected partners with full desire of their own, and they told lots of stupid dirty jokes.  I’m not saying they’re great hedonist heroes. Their reason for being interested in birth control was to avoid bastards. Women were complete passive objects to them, and they are totally obsessed with their own dicks. But–and this is a big but–they were having conversations that pretty much took 200 years for even men to get back to, and that women are only in the past 30 years really allowed to have.  What we have in their notes here would at the least be a better textbook than what kids in abstinence only ed are getting. But, that’s another conversation.

They met twice a year to eat drink and celebrate male sexuality. It makes for some insane reading.  Here’s some highlights:

Member-ship

The Recorder and two Remembrancers prepared the Novice in a closet, by causing him to propel his Penis until full erection. When thus ready he was escorted with four puffs of the Breath-Horn before the Brethren or Knighthood, and was ordered by tiiQ Sovereign to place his Genitals upon the Testing Platter, which was covered with a folded white napkin, The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the Novice Penis to Penis.

!!! They knocked dicks in greeting! The club was apparently started in response to societal prudishness, especially about masturbation (which the Beggar’s liked to call “frigging.”) After this, they had some wine, read from the Song of Solomon, looked at their library of Don Juan, Ovid, or listened to salty stories by sea captains.

On Bibles

Theirs had a list of all the naughty parts (are there naughty parts?), erotic drawings, and a lock shaped like a vulva. They had a punchbowl with the same insignia.

Natural Science

1733, St. Andrew’s Day, 16 members present.  Lecture topics: ” The engendering of Toads; The menstruation of Skate; and The gender of an Earthworm”

“Posture Girls”

The Beggar’s hired local women to get naked, which was apparently a problem because the town was so small. From 1734:

One Feminine Gender, 17, was hired for One Sovereign, fat and well – developed. She stripped in the Closet, nude ; and was allowed to come in with face half-covered. None was permitted to speak to or touch her. She spread wide upon a Seat, first before and then behind: every Knight passed in turn and surveyed the Secrets of Nature.

and

Betty Wilson, 15, was hired, but a bad model and unpleasant. Resolved against such another row.

On Circle Jerks and Semen

1734, Lammas. 18 assembled^ and Frigged upon the Test Platter. The origin and performance were discussed. The Platter was filled with Semen, each Knight at an average did not “benevolent” quite a horn spoonful.

1735.    St. Andrew’s Day. 24 present. Every Penis exhibited and compared by erection and frig-discharge.

1737.    St. Andrew’s Day. 24 met, 3 tested and enrolled. All frigged. [Then they all read Fanny Hill].

On Size

A penis of five or six inches, the average length, is a good development, proportionate in mathematical circumference, — tapering from the root to the nut,—the best shape for deflowering a virgin.

Equal Opportunity Frigging

The male organ differs much in size, especially in men of small stature and fools. So some females far exceed in capacity mothers who have had large families, especially when addicted to the common trick of using their fingers, which three-
fourths of males and females practise, as the most handy way of allaying their cravings.

The contrivance is termed ” Onanism,” and is denounced as fostering insanity with other ills; but
this was not what Onan was punished for, nor can the moderate use physically cause these evils any
more than the immoderate acts in the natural way

On Boners

There is a wonderful adaptation of the parts to these functions. If the yard were perpetually in a position of erection, it could not possibly escape injury and derision, negative to its beautiful purposes ; for love and veneration are our highest exquisite passions. In our whole frame, a glance, a thought, a touch, the merest transient effort of imagination can call up the ready instrument of our desires, and endow it with a power indispensable.

On Semen

In the healthy subject it is of a rather thick consistence, somewhat resembling thick French starch, and possesses a peculiar piscatorial scent.

On Infertility

Three-fourths of women stigmatised as barren owe their condition to the worn-out or ” indiscreet*’ state of the male, who is the procreative or active agent.

On the passive and active

Sexual connexion, we all know, is effected by the Male, who is the active agent, putting his Penis in full erection into the Vagina of the Female, who is the “passive voice,” as we say in Grammar.

On Birth Control Risks

The French use ” French Letters,”  [condoms] but even the best are full of risk. The first engagement is ever attended
with nervous excitement and difficulty, and although this night-cap or sheath of fine skin which covers the Penis may fit, it may burst in the act of copulation, and do damage irreparable by causing impregnation in her whom we so much love.

[Against the sponge] But if the Penis is of respectable size in length and circumference, it is liable in its eagerness to shift the sponge to one side, and some of the seed will be lodged at the very door of the womb. Another evil of the sponge is the annoyance which it often gives to the Male by causing wounds to the Penis,

On Withdrawal, and the benefits of cuddling

Surely then, Prevention or entire Withdrawal is tiie act of loving-kindness, which in point of justice and honour we owe to her whose charms we obtain. The passion of Love has its seat in the whole body.

On Family Planning and avoiding bastards

First:—That no married people should have more children than they wish to have, and can maintain and bring up with ease. Second:—That no unhealthy or delicate women should produce children at all. Third:—That there should be no Bastards. Fourth: That sexual commerce should be independent of the dread of a conception which blasts the prospects of the female. Nine-tenths, at least, of the misery and ruin which are caused by seduction result from cases of pregnancy.


 

On not knowing what lubrication is

That a mucous fluid is poured out then by hot women is undoubted ; but the female has no seminal vessels like the male. Yet there is a stimulating something which produces the same desires and the same pleasures.

I’m fascinated by how much power they do give to the female, and how unknown she is for all of their ritual and braggadocio.  Most of these men were married, and were obviously sexually active, but these records suggest that they had to rely on ritualistic hedonism to do something as direct as looking unabashed at a naked vulva.  Apparently, a mistress or wife wouldn’t offer the same “secrets of nature,” as the posture girl with her face half-covered (and that half-covered face is completely haunting). The power structures these guys benefit from is apparent throughout the text, but their inquiries are sometimes endearing (if that doesn’t make me sound like too patronizing, speaking from almost 300 years in their future). They assure each other that their 5 or 6 inch dicks are ideal, they measure their semen on a communal platter (the platter by the way, is also at the British Museum), behind closed doors they’re making their own internet message boards of the time, defining normal by communally looking at the wilderness of sex.

Yours,

CF


How to Make Sure I Will Never Buy Your Book

Package them this way:

(Note: This probably reflects  Broadway Publishers more than it does the author. Both books are organized in exactly the same way on the inside: same chapter breakdowns, same treatment.)

Freedom, Comparatively Speaking

Throughout the Franzenfreude conversations (the best contributions of which were by Katha Pollitt (here) and Meghan O’Rourke here), I kept trying to get my hands on a copy of Freedom. It was sold out everywhere. Midway through my search, I walked into Moe’s on Telegraph and asked the clerk for help.

Me: “Do you have Freedom?”

Her: “Umm… comparatively speaking?”

When I explained, she pointed to The Corrections and tried to convince me it had just come out in paperback.

The surreal quality of that encounter parallels my experience of the book, which I found familiar and absorbing and interesting in the way people who tell you their life stories on planes or in waiting rooms are interesting. Some of it is poignant and compelling, much of it is dull, but the underlying claim on your attention is that what you’re hearing is real. (In the way of real-life conversations, I found myself reading something in Freedom and thinking, more than once, “Wow. Someone should write a novel about that!”*.) Franzen’s social (or hysterical) realism is, in this rather literal respect, totally successful. It tells the kind of true story you’re quite likely to hear from a stranger, and tells it exceptionally well.

Still, what started off looking like a stirring record of a nuclear suburban family’s scrabbling for (and with) freedom, or the American dream, or 9/11, or something, ends up, in retrospect, seeming more like a long EKG strip. Freedom documents lives, but it does so in a plodding, only half-directed way, charting repetitive rhythms without urgency, but also without telos. By the end, the readout might register a little angina, a little quickening of the pulse, but the EKGs of the hearts in question all return to a suburban baseline. Which is pretty damn irritating, since the unavailability of that baseline status quo is the occasion for the novel.

I certainly don’t mean that things don’t happen in Freedom, or that it was boring to read. Parts of it are pure will-they-or-won’t-they soap opera, complete with the cheats soap operas sometimes employ. While nobody comes back in someone else’s body, the ending is one that the novel spends most of its time and emotive energy constituting as impossible. What’s more, it’s an ending whose impossibility is what actually powers much of the plot. (Imagine finding out there was never a bomb on the bus in Speed.)

In another sense, though, Freedom drops bombs aplenty. For a novel that spends 200 pages chronicling one character’s interiority, the protagonists’ decisions appear unmotivated and (to me, anyway) quite surprising.  Despite the extensive ground the novel covers (literally as well as thematically—the novel traverses West Virginia, Panama, Argentina, New York, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washingon, DC), there’s a still-life quality to Franzen’s portrait of the Berglunds. They’re strangely immobile. When a character does change, the exhaustive cataloging of Berglund habits and histories—some interesting, some not—is unhelpful at explaining why. (Imagine an Absalom that ends with Sutpen adopting Charles Bon and telling Rosa he’s sold the Hundred and bought them a brownstone in Brooklyn.)

You could drown in the backstory of this novel. There’s so much of it, and it’s often well done. But, rapes and alcoholic fathers notwithstanding, it’s nevertheless the case that the novel is either sloppy or much more experimental than its form and style led this reader to suspect. It may be that Franzen is deliberately disrupting novelistic conventions, especially when it comes to character psychology, or that he’s exploring the behavioral oddities that 9/11 made possible, or that—in an homage to American anti-intellectualism—he’s showing how logic plays no role in the complex workings of the human heart, or something. The fact remains that in the novel’s present tense, the characters behave in one consistent way until, suddenly, they don’t.  Patty Berglund and Richard Katz wouldn’t dream of hurting Walter (until they do). Joey wouldn’t dream of actually loving Connie (until he does). Etc. The piles of backstory vanish into irrelevance, and Patty’s autobiography transcends its genre to become fictional even within its own universe.

Again, that might be the point: memoir has long stopped being equated with anything approaching “truth,” and a generous reader might be inclined to view all this misdirection as a domestic application of the Bush PR tactics the novel skewers (see Jonathan’s dad, Walter’s boss). Patty’s diary could be read, I suppose, as a non-explanation analogous to “We really thought there were WMDs.” It may be that the whole of Freedom is intended to demonstrate the impossibility of explaining why people change.

As is probably evident, I’m not that generous a reader. Franzen’s character development reminds me of Patty’s excuse that she was asleep when she climbed into Katz’s bed. It seems to be powered by a kind of psychic botox that wears off suddenly, an unconsciousness (or subconscious) that makes change—and smiling—possible.

This wouldn’t rankle if Franzen were (like Updike and even Cheever) committed to a vision of the middle class predicated on willed blindness and (in its more vicious portrayals) mindless hypocrisy. But he isn’t. He seems, in fact, to be recasting the middle class as painfully self-aware.

The character who best represents that middle class is Walter Berglund, who in every way constitutes an exception to the foregoing. His psychological journey is on a different order of artistry in that his reactions emerge organically from his makeup, his choices and his history. His love of birds works as a reaction to his upbringing, and the dark turns this takes later represent entirely believable beginnings of lunacy.  (It’s possible that the “realness” of Walter’s attachment to birds—with its attendant eccentricity—rings true because Franzen is such a bird-lover himself). Besides the pre-fabricated Walter-Patty-Richard triangle, Walter’s relationship with Joey is the only one that develops naturally out of the patterns we’ve seen.

Compare Walter’s beautifully rendered development—where the surprises fit what we knowto Patty, whose defining characteristic, athleticism and dedication to a “team,” appears exactly nowhere in her autobiography (possibly the strangest non-treatment of college athletics I’ve seen). Obviously, there are formal issues here; the diary allows for character development to happen at one remove, and I’ll get to how that works in a minute. But it’s noteworthy that purely in terms of content, Walter’s obsession gets huge swathes of screentime (which, in turn, develops him—the nature of his investment is clear), whereas Patty’s obsession seems to hold little interest, both for her and for Franzen.  Either she finds it necessary to omit the sport she spent her young life pursuing, or else Franzen found it expedient to make her an athlete without thinking too much about what that might mean, especially in the seventies. The autobiography chronicles a tortuous friendship with a disturbed woman named Eliza—a necessary plot device to set up the love triangle—but spends no attention on the teammates with whom Patty spent most of her time. Her affiliation to a “team” remains, therefore, faceless and abstract, the opposite of Walter’s Cerulean warbler.

I can think of three explanations for this:

  1. Patty is actively repressing her time on the team (which doesn’t seem to be borne out by the rest of the novel—her tepid friendships with teammates later in life don’t seem to occasion her the sort of pain that would suggest any tenderness about her involvement in athletics)
  2. she recalls her time in college solely in terms of Richard, Walter and Eliza (in which case, Patty is much weirder than she seems) or
  3. the rest of her college experience was irrelevant to the autobiography, since it’s meant as a therapeutic outlet for her to sort through that love triangle.

The third explanation strikes me as the most likely one, but there’s something basically untrue about its assumptions. As Walter’s arc amply demonstrates, this is just not how human beings process emotional events.  Everything bleeds into everything else. Given how significantly anyone’s life would change as a result of a career-ending injury, it’s hard to imagine that Patty’s dependence on Walter wasn’t strongly associated—explicitly, in her own mind—with the gap the team left in her life. (In which case, it would make it into her autobiography. To put it bluntly, Walter isn’t just a Richard-substitute; he’s filling a team-shaped hole.) The team is an incomprehensible omission: either it truly didn’t matter, or it exists as a fourth invisible point in the triangle, something that would have turned that love-triangle into a love-square.

Then there’s  Patty’s obsessive love for Joey and the repeated, faintly sinister references to their “times at the cabin,” all of which gesture at a much-needed showdown that never came. Why does Joey resent her? Is it simple adolescent detachment, or did something happen at that cabin that facilitated his escape to Connie’s house? Something central to that story remains untold.

The same goes for Patty’s treatment of Jessica, which brutally replicates her mother’s neglect of her, but which never has any consequences—Jessica (who is absurdly underdeveloped) doesn’t even seem to notice.

All this speaks to the uneven, zigzagging quality of Franzen’s handling of perspective. Frequently, after spending time in a particular character’s consciousness, the novel zooms out and blithely reports an outcome in a paragraph of only semi-interested summation. This casual indifference actually takes over from the useful sarcasm of the opening pages, where the point of view from which the Berglunds are being watched belongs to The Neighborhood—a version of America that, aside from its unpleasant womenfolk, never quite comes into focus.*

All that said, there’s much that the novel does really well, and I’m not convinced that the Great American Novel (whatever that means) is exactly what Franzen aimed to write. It’s easy to lose sight of that, given how eagerly critics have tried to shoehorn Franzen into the aspirational hubris of Great American Novelisthood.  I’d actually describe Franzen’s stylistic approach as strikingly modest: the novel rarely rubs your nose in its literariness or the brilliance of its prose. It liberally uses barely-veiled real material. It mostly ignores postmodernity. It’s not, in a word, inventive. Like Walter, it seems to be, above all else, responsible. That’s a good thing. Franzen seems to feel that his first duty is to tell a good story, with technique taking a back seat. (Some reviews have pointed this out a little brutally.)

While we’re on the subject of technique and story, I’ve been thinking about Freedom in the context of Elif Batuman’s diatribe against “program fiction” in the London Review of Books. Whatever “good writing” means, it seems it may not necessarily be coextensive with a “good books.” Of the former, she says the following:

If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

There are problems with Batuman’s argument (Andrew Seal details several of them here), but as a product of a “programme” myself, I think she’s onto something in this paragraph. Whatever its faults, Franzen has definitely written an engaging story that people want to read.

Some people have suggested that Franzen’s adherence to nineteenth-century realism betrays an ambition to write something that will transcend his own time. I’m curious to see whether this turns out to be true. I think the novel is more likely to persist as a time capsule. Freedom may be a transcendent theme, but the novel’s treatment of it is intensely, historically specific, and that’s it’s strength. I suspect it’ll do for the Bush years what Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest did for 1960s mental health.

In a 2009 interview, he says (talking about Richard Powers in this instance, but obviously gesturing at his own vision):

He’s brighter than almost anyone who’ll read him, so you can always learn something from him. But I’m not sure he’s learning much himself, and that’s the big danger of trying to use a novel to mirror the social reality.

I like this. It’s such a startlingly apt critique of the novel Franzen himself wrote. (And reinforces that old psychological chestnut about noticing the flaws of which we are most guilty.) As Amelia Atlas puts it, despite many brilliant passages, there are times when it feels “like Franzen wrote his own SparkNotes.” The moral of Freedom seems to be that there really is nothing to learn. If you drive recklessly, and even if you don’t, expect accidents.

*Andrew Seal has a great discussion on of how the novel handles, among other things, Tolstoy, self-pity, and the problem of Lalitha.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Book

Dear CF,

If Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: the Movie is a dazzling euphemism in which the stars out-sequin the sequins, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Book is a plainer, darker beast. Have you read it? I just finished it; it’s quick and smart. Anita Loos’ Lorelei is more dangerous than Marilyn Monroe’s: she’s all insouciance, all “refinement,” uneducated but pathologically sly. And a near-murderess to boot. She’s continually annoyed at Dorothy, her “chaperone” whose wit filters through Lorelei’s complaints about her, if only as reported speech. (Loos has serious formal chops—managing to voice irreverent Dorothy through “refined” Lorelei is no small narrative accomplishment.)

I don’t know how much Helen Fielding borrowed from Anita Loos when she came up with Bridget Jones; in the end, Jones’ diary is a much franker document, endearing because there’s really no apparent filter between Jones’ neuroses and her presence on the page. The genius of Loos’ Lorelei is that she undertakes to write her diary as if it were a book. Given that so many gentlemen want to educate her, she assumes (when one of them finds her particularly brainy and sends her a book), that he wants her to read it. When she finds that it’s blank, she decides, without skipping a mental beat, to write it instead.

That’s the kind of logic that makes the diary work: it’s bonkers in a fun way, and what follows is not a confession but a delicious stripping down of society via its blonde loophole—it’s “gentlemen,” its legal procedures, its wives, its class assumptions, its “Prespyterian” reformers and Christian “science” all give way to platinum. The experience isn’t voyeuristic: you can never invade Lorelai’s privacy, any more than you can ruin her reputation. She admits to telling her gentlemen things she doesn’t even tell her diary. This has an amazing double-effect: it tells us that her euphemisms hide something without telling us what, and it makes clear that the reader of the diary isn’t a confidante, she’s a mark.

Lorelei’s brilliance lies in mixing a genius for calculation with a totally persuasive performance of authentic ignorance: she dislikes London and doesn’t think “England” will be any better, finds that Munich is full of “art, which they call kunst,” and skips town to get a marriage proposal in writing so she can persuade him not to marry her and sue him for breach of trust. Loos’ satire is feather-light. (When Lorelei meets “Froyd,” he marvels and finally dismisses her with a prescription to “get some inhibitions.”) Apparently George Santayana, when asked for the best American work of philosophy, named Gentlemen Prefer Blondes without skipping a beat.

Anita Loos, who had sold four movie scripts by the time she was twenty-four, started the book as a joke on Mencken, a personal friend who kept losing his wits around (in her words) “witless blondes.” In the course of her movie-making career she traveled with him and several other “gentlemen” who dropped everything when a blonde dropped a spoon but totally ignored brunette, ninety-pound Loos when she was manhandling overpacked suitcases.

This is all delightful. However, I have a bone to pick.

To the editor of my copy: you got Candace Bushnell to write the introduction? And allowed her to go unedited? You are, as Lorelei would say, filled with nothing but sentiment. It’s a staggeringly (and, unlike the diary, sincerely) dumb introduction, talking about the time Bushnell first came into contact with a “gold digger” (her term). Bushnell, pursuing a misguided parallel, sees herself as a “Dorothy” and characterizes her gold digger friend as a vapid, semi-conscious mythomane who “paints a picture of herself as the heroine of some Gothic novel, complete with evil villains from whom she must be rescued” who understandably “ended up in a straitjacket.”

“Nicole was, I suppose, a product of the eighties, but even so, she could have been straight out of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Bushnell says.

No she couldn’t. Ms. Bushnell, read the goddamn book. If you actually read GPB and think Lorelei is anything like Nicole, I have a genuine diamond tiara I’d like to sell you. Lorelei is not a gold digger, she’s a diamond digger. Lorelei is anything but melodramatic; she drastically underdramatizes everything that happens to her—“gentlemen” “educate” her. She has a “debut” party. Her beaux are not dukes; they sell buttons. They’re “Prespyterians.” They are, moreover, absolute party-killers. If she’s a mythomane, she’s a mythomane of the opposite kind. WHICH IS WHAT MAKES HER INTERESTING. Unlike your Nicole, she does not sensationalize. She thrives not on cocaine but on the moral power of the bland Midwestern euphemism—her calculations are so covert she even masks them to herself. She is not paranoid. She would never mistake herself for the heroine of a Gothic novel. At no point does she see or present herself as persecuted. She is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and even when a French lawyer breaks into her hotel room to scream and weep at her, she watches for awhile in incomprehension until she gets bored. Over and above all this, however, Lorelei is funny. Nicole, as you describe her, is not.

The point: Lorelei doesn’t belong to the Sex and the City universe. This is important and true, and it does Loos a huge disservice to suggest the connection. A much closer descendant of Lorelei’s is The Book Groups Fist, whose wide-eyed brainlessness and awareness of others ebb and flow in totally unpredictable ways but have this much in common: they always presuppose her intelligence and her effect on men. For the love of Pete, have Annie Griffin write the introduction to the next edition! Or Helen Fielding!

For Odd Saint, I propose Anita Loos, who saw fit to write complicated women even when she joked.  Would that there were more of her in the movies.

Fondly,

Millillillicent

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Your Body’s a Wonderland: Underpinnings

Dear Millicent,

There has been a lot of shock at the recent report that teens are using the rhythm method as a form of birth control.  The CDC reports that 17 percent of teens report using the method, up from 11 percent in 2002.  There has been criticism about how teenagers define the rhythm method, the likelihood that they are actually taking basal temperatures and checking their cervical mucus, and how abstinence-only education could be responsible for the upswing.  These are all good points, but I write in defense of the rhythm method, and to suggest it can do that thing that Gossip Girl can’t: empower teenage girls.

Here’s why: the amount we don’t know about our own bodies is astounding.  I am a 29-year-old woman who actively researches women’s health.  I have a poster about the menstrual cycle on my office wall.  I had the luck of attending school in counties where comprehensive sexual education was part of the curriculum. I have access to knowledge, resources and healthcare.  And for 15 years, I thought I had a monthly yeast infection.

How? Okay, after the initial shock at 14 of realizing that tampons go in an entirely different hole than the one we pee out of (it was like the first time you notice there is a pocket on the inside of the blazer you have owned for  years), I took to heart all of the health class info.  We were told to not wear wet bathing suits too long because being a lady meant one day buying Monostat 7.  “Discharge” was a newly relevant and terrifying word. Hell, it still is, and is way too vague.  The idea of menses was alarming enough, but at least I knew what blood looked like.  And it’s not like you can show your dirty underwear to your friend and say “does your discharge look like this?”  And then there were pantyliners.  I understood their purpose, but could never tell if real ladies wore panty-liners every day, or what (like, were they for your period, or for your dirty dirty dischargery?).

So, you are on the watch for a yeast infection which is described as itching with the infamous “cottage cheese like discharge.” This again is really abstract, and again, terrifying. And, vague.  Sometimes it might not itch, sometimes it might be another kind of infection, and sometimes it might go away on its own.  Sometimes Monistat might make it worse. Sometimes it might hurt. Sometimes you might never know you have a yeast infection.  And if you think you do but aren’t sure, you should go see your doctor, which means the hassle of a pelvic exam just to figure out what the eff is going on down there, because something is going on down there.  So, for the majority of my reproductive life so far, I thought I had a strange mysterious appearing and reappearing yeast infection or vaginitis. Turns out I was just a reproductive age female doing what I do: ovulating.

Here is what nobody ever told me, or at least ever told me in a way that I understood: something is always going on down there.  I knew about ovum and fallopian tubes and all that. But I never knew about cervical mucous.  I didn’t know that as you near ovulation, your estrogen levels rise and make this mucous.  More estrogen means more mucous.  I also didn’t know that without this mucous, sperm doesn’t have a chance in whahoodle to make it to the egg.  Sex does make babies, but mucous is the real moneymaker. At our most fertile, this mucous looks like egg white, and if you put it between your fingers, it should stretch to 3-5 inches without breaking.  This happens every month! We have superstretchy goop every frickin’ month, and nobody ever told me!

I found this out by reading Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility.  TCOYF is a revamp of the rhythm method, and looks at how to use the info to both avoid and accomplish (is that the right verb?) pregnancy. If you prescribe to her regimen, you take your temp every morning before waking up, and also note the state of your delicate flower. The range of adjectives for cervical mucous was a life changer for me:

dry, nothing, sticky, tacky, crumbly, gummy, creamy, lotiony, cloudy, milky, eggwhite, stretchy, clear, watery

There’s another set for “vaginal sensation”:

dry, nothing, sticky, wet, moist, gooey, cold, lubricative, slippery, humid

It all changes every day as you near or retreat from ovulation! It is never the same! We have stuff coming out of us practically all the time!

And it’s not just about knowing what you make. It’s about knowing where you are in your cycle, and what your chances are of getting pregnant.  It’s about knowing how your hormones are acting, if your headaches are cyclical, what the great circuit of being female means specifically to you.  It means I actually feel empowered, and it has nothing to do with my politics or family planning intentions.  It has to do with I actually understand what the hell my body is up to.

And this is why I am for teenagers taking on the rhythm method.  I hope it’s not their only form of birth control, but if all girls had this kind of personal knowledge, I think they have a better chance at sexual autonomy.  I was just at Women Deliver, a conference on maternal healthcare (which pretty much means the economic, social, cultural, and physical injustices that need to be addressed to help less women die from preventable deaths). On a panel on modern contraception, Ward Cates, the President of Research for Family Care International, referred to The Standard Days Method (basically the rhythm method) as “an underpinning at the least…letting women know about their cycle.”  It seems that this knowledge is missing even in developed countries, and if it could exist as an underpinning of our own sexual health knowledge, teenagers and old hags like me are lucky to have it.

I want to crack a joke here about John Mayer and mucous, but I like my mucous too much.

Yours,

CF

Insomnia: The Search for Tonight’s Agatha Christie

Dear CF,

It is 1:30 in the a.m. and I am wandering my hallway/library searching for an Agatha Christie to usher me into sleep and the bunker-like summer camps I’ve been dreaming about for months. (In last night’s installment I spent a good chunk of time searching the beach for Mr. Millicent’s laptop, which he’d trustingly left there and which seemed to have been either buried in sand or stolen.) The dreams are boring but the reading isn’t, although I’ve read every Christie in my possession at least fifteen times. On nights like this, when I can’t sleep, nothing soothes like a good Jeeves or Christie story.

Tonight, after realizing that I want to read Mrs. McGinty’s Dead but have literally just finished it, so it’s too soon to enjoy the rereading, I took to the interwebs and found this great little story on Slate about Agatha Christie’s “Secret” Notebooks which seem to have been so thoroughly unsecret that both her husband and daughter Rosalind used them, the former for calculations, the latter for penmanship drills.

Poetic, isn’t it, that the genre that organizes the mess of the world into an explicable order would come from a totally haphazard process?

But now I have read that, and am still not asleep. What should I read? For the record, I reread part of George Saunders’ Pastoralia in an effort to break my habit, but I find it overstimulating. Under its influence, my bunkers will not come.

I basically know my Jeeves Omnibus by heart.

Agatha Christie it is, then. But which?

Evil Under the Sun: not quite right. Arlena Stuart’s big white hat does decent camouflage work and the comparison of women’s bodies to slabs of meat is clearly one Christie loves, but the drug-running subplot isn’t the right flavor and self-tanner seems beside the point this evening. Ten Little Indians? Too dire. Murder at Hazelmoor is interestingly pathological but Nick feels unfinished and the painting that falls on the bed has made it impossible for me to ever hang anything over mine. Easy to Kill develops the obsessions with house and heritage (and class and mobility and taste). Mr. Ellsworthy is a strange and sinister concoction and the cat is a character all its own, but Luke Fitzwilliam is—let’s face it—a one-shot wonder. That said, there was a time when I ached to be seen exactly the way Christie sees Rose Humbleby but I wanted to be described the way she described Bridget, who seemed like she wore pants.

Death on the Nile is racist beyond belief, although Tim Allerton’s relationship with his mother is one of the only times sons escape the fact of filiation without major psychological damage. Also, Linnet is twenty (!!!) years old, which makes her famous princessy self-possession and poise much harder to understand.

Funerals are Fatal posits that all middle-aged women look roughly alike, even to family but smashes the illusion that feminine psychology is equally interchangeable: [spoiler alert!] the lady who might put wedding cake under her pillow might also hack someone to bits to make her tea shop a reality. Bonus: a scary nun motif! A Murder is Announced would be perfect, but I can’t seem to find it. One word: goiters!

What then? I feel like I’ve given Miss Marple short shrift.  A Pocketful of Rye doesn’t appeal right now—too much yew and Tennyson, although I don’t think Christie ever had more fun naming than she did in that novel: Rex Fortescue. Percival. Lancelot. Adele. Marina Gregg bores me, so no Mirror Crack’d. (Too much of a coincidence that Heather’ husband was Marina Gregg’s ex, I think. My favorite part of that one is Miss Marple’s acid relationship with her nurse.)  

I can never think of Paris Hilton without thinking of a tangential character in A Murder at the Vicarage. This ruins part of the novel for me, but at least we get Miss Marple’s gossip gang and the inimitable Griselda, who admits to unresolved sexual tension with the artist to her husband.   

The Body in the Library: no. The deaths in Thirteen at Dinner are uncharacteristically distressing—I’m truly saddened by the deaths of Donald Ross and (especially) Carlotta Adams. The ABC Murders: Not particularly pleasurable if you remember the ending. Plus, it starts with Mrs. McGinty redux, which I resent on her behalf. Cards on the Table? I’ve always thought this one inspired the movie Clue. Such a nice little brain-teaser and the weapon used to kill Shaitana, a stiletto, has gone in “like butter,” which is an appealingly incoherent description that is making me very hungry. So that’s no good. Murder on the Orient Express is much too memorable. Murder on the Links is really Christie’s homage to/revenge on Sherlock Holmes, nice as it is to see poor Hastings find his Cinderella. The Mysterious Affair at Styles sensationalizes the effects of strychnine but doesn’t do all that much else.

It’s a shame Ariadne Oliver and Miss Marple never met. I wonder what they’d make of each other.

Perhaps one of the short story collection. I just read Double Sin, so The Twelve Labors of Hercules, I think.  

Goodnight and happy sleuthing, dear friend. Or in Bertie’s words, which lull me not tonight: Pip pip, what?

Millicent

Julie Powell: Teaching a Self to Fish, How to Sell Fish, The Great Bitch

Dear Carla Fran,

Since writing you about how it seems like men and women handle absorption differently, I got interested in the intricacies of Julie Powell’s position as the Fallen Blogger. (You know, I assume, that her second book, Cleaving, is all about how she went into butchery and had an affair with a man who was not her “sainted husband.”)

I read most of her Julie/Julia blog. She’s gotten a lot of criticism, much of it no doubt deserved, but when I look at that blog, I’m amazed at the sheer volume of her output. How, after working a twelve-hour day and spending four hours cooking, did she have time to write that much?

And it’s good! It’s not Crime and Punishment, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s detailed and engaging and sometimes witty, it’s honest in a way that doesn’t seem to be angling for your approval, and if it’s sometimes blunt, it’s also sometimes really funny.

Her blogging and online writing (on Slate and elsewhere) since then isn’t as pleasurable to read. It’s slightly defensive and so aware that it’s being judged while insisting that it doesn’t care about your judgment that it collapses in on itself like a bad souffle.

(I know. I’m sorry. No more food metaphors, I swear.)

Still, the tone is significantly different. I wonder how much it’s due to the ways her life has exploded into a peculiar success story. She’s a much-despised celebrity figure (the Blogger) who got The Book Deal, The Movie Deal, got played by Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, had the nerve to complain about how she was represented and is ALSO guilty of admitted, thoroughly dissected infidelity with that clownish but beloved figure of domestic bloggery, the Dear Husband, and is in fact profiting off her misdeeds and trying to turn them into literature.

Food bloggers dislike her because she is a) not a Real Cook (though she never claimed to be one) and b) because trend pieces keep crediting her with shaping the food blog as a form, when actually The Julie/Julia Project preceded the explosion of that particular genre by a good year or two. She is also, some of them complain, insufficiently communal (did not interact with other blogs, etc.), and indefensibly opposed to organic vegetables.

So, I mean, there’s plenty not to like: you can accuse of her exploitation. Of insensitivity. Of falling prey to her own success. Of not being much of a networker, blogwise. Even of being a bad writer (I haven’t read either of her books, so I have no idea how her voice translates to book form.) But the main crime laid to her charge all over the interwebs is that she is a Narcissist. She is a Selfish Narcissist who Overshares.

Some qualify that assessment. They say Julie Powell seems to think that self-awareness means calling herself all the names she knows people will call her first. If she labels herself a whore before anyone else does, she vaccinates herself against judgment by being the first to confess herself guilty as charged. This set of critics complain that this is pure defensiveness; she doesn’t really think she’s a whore. Therefore, she doesn’t really feel guilty. To admit guilt without doing anything about it, this set of critics feels, is, well, it’s downright Catholic! It’s as if she expects absolution just because she says something that’s true without feeling, in her heart of hearts, its truth and changing accordingly.

This latter charge strikes me as probably true. It’s also what Woody Allen (for example) built an entire career on.

It’s one thing to say that reading the book is boring (which some have said). Boredom is unforgivable. But what these critics are clamoring for is a redemption story. They want her to be punished and they want her to emerge a better person.  Instead, they get a story that’s hard to swallow, written by a Selfish Narcissist who Overshares.

Back to Woody. Nobody would deny that Woody Allen is a selfish, unregenerate narcissist whose every project is a paean to his own ego. But neither is anyone suggesting that his career should end because of it. Narcissism does not necessarily make for bad art. In fact, to my everlasting despair, it seems like great artists almost have to be Firecrackers—it might be the case that great artists are constitutionally shitty people.

You may think that Julie Powell is not an artist, great or small. In that case, there’s no more to say—those are grounds for dismissal.  The shittiness of her writing is fair game. But the shittiness of her person is irrelevant.  

“But she wrote a memoir!” people like to say. “So her person is fair game!”

In the immortal words of G.O.B. Bluth, “COME ON!” We know it’s more complicated than that. We like to say that “memoir” exists in a world apart and that people who take on this genre openly invite our judgement and our scorn. And they do—as writers. We can judge them as people too, of course, and we do (hi Norman Mailer!). But to mistake one category for the other and start reviewing  the person instead of the piece—to suggest, for example, that Norman Mailer shouldn’t write because he’s a misogynist oversharing narcissist and a sociopath to boot—well, if we did that, we would be calling for the burning of most of Western literature. And art.

Most writers are narcissists, most artists are egomaniacs, and most memoirs are fake. The sooner we reconcile ourselves to that, the better. Memoirs are faker than (for example) Facebook profiles, and if you think your Facebook profile is in any way a representation of the real you, well—the deposed King of Nigeria desperately needs your help. 

This is one many reasons why it’s so damn hard to write—how absolutely great, but also how absolutely selfish it feels. That’s the wrong word. “Selfish” is really the wrong category. We’re all selfish in different ways all the time, and most of those ways should be worked on.  They can hurt the people around us who we genuinely care for and have reason to treat well. But this kind of selfishness, the writing kind, is strange in that it’s basically victimless but feels especially objectionable. It feels (and I speak only for myself here) like a HUGE taboo.  

While narcissism in male artists gets painted as brilliantly iconoclastic or even excused—Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso were just raw, ready to sacrifice convention (read: their partners) for the sake of great art, Roman Polanski anally raped and drugged children but made great movies!—women are severely punished when their desires or demands cross the line of the reasonable and prudent. (My God!!! Julie Powell cheated on her husband!!!)

I even found myself mimicking that mentality in my last letter to you. When men focus on their work to the exclusion of others, I described that as “admirably absorbed.”  Julie, who did something similar in Julie/Julia, was self-absorbed. She’s too interested in her own story, people complain, with all kinds of vicious modifiers. How dare she complain that Amy Adams portrayed her as something she isn’t, quite? She should be on her knees thanking God that anyone bothered to read her drivel. (Never mind that she earned that audience because they voluntarily read what she was writing, and that what she was writing was therefore, on some objective level outside her bitchy, selfish, narcissistic control, interesting to someone besides herself.)

I don’t find her recent online writing as interesting, and those are legitimate grounds for criticism. I hope she hasn’t gotten so caught up in the dynamic between an anonymous reading public and her public persona that she’s started writing at them instead of about something that arises from her bitchy, narcissistic self. But she might have. (I would.)

This isn’t a defense of Julie Powell, the person. I don’t know her. Do I care whether she and Eric make it as a couple? Only to the extent that she’s made me care about the literary version of them.  But I am criticizing the criticism. And I want to defend absorption as a principle and what Powell  actually did as a writer, which was, in that oldest of cliches, teaching herself to fish and selling that fish. Here’s to you and me being that “selfish”.

Fondly,

M

For J.D., With Love and Squalor

Dearest J.D.,

I hated the Catcher and the Rye. Maybe I was too prudish; I wasn’t yet not inclined to admit that I knew the first names of certain people. I believed adults organized things. I hated you when you were being hopelessly super-male and retiscent (sp?), and if I’d met you at a train station I would have emptied my face of all expression.

On a long car-ride to a wedding in Dallas many years later I read another one of your books and let me tell you, I was not impressed at first. Too clever, I thought. Lane was horrible, and you spent such a lot of time on people’s hands and foreheads. You taught me to want to launder tablecloths and smoke. Not that I ever did (I don’t have a working iron), but I wanted to. And (or but) what I’m trying to say is that those conversations were maybe the most real conversation I’ve read. I know they say that about Hemingway, but he would never list the contents of someone’s medicine cabinet and he was such a faux-Spaniard at heart.

You didn’t leave kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings. At least, I don’t think so, even though someone’s prying open that drawer in your house. I hope that when you left the place you knew you were leaving it. I doubt anyone will write “fuck you” on your tombstone. I bet instead they’ll  show up with cigarettes and chicken sandwiches. Maybe a bathrobe.

Write a letter if you can—an overwritten, teaching, repetitious, opinionated, remonstrative, condescending, and embarrassing one. If they make a play of your life I doubt it’ll be beautiful, but I’ll rent a tuxedo and a rhinestone hat and solemnly come round to the stage door with a bouquet of snapdragons.

Fondly,

M