Norman Mailer, Whose Sorrow Lay Its Protection Over Him Like a Shawl on the Bones of an Arthritic

In our last installment of “Prisoner of Sex,” Mailer (played by Psycho-Pirate sans black leather jacket) was “attuning” to his secretary and the media to see if he’d get the Nobel Prize.

He doesn’t get the Nobel Prize, which he never wanted anyway, and starts thinking of himself not as the Famous Nobel Prize Winner but as “the Prizewinner” or the “Prisoner of Wedlock” or just “the Prisoner.”  (You see where this is headed? ‘Cuz prizewinner sounds like prisoner, see?) His fourth marriage having ended, he goes to Maine with five of his children and an “old love.”

He grows.

He understands what a woman means when she says her hair smelled of grease.

He learns the value of the cliches he’d always dismissed, like “The children almost drove me mad!” He learns that these cliches are also “paving blocks at the crossroads of existence.”

“While the Prizewinner was packing lunches this picknicking summer, the particular part of his ghost-phallus which remained in New York—his very reputation in residence—had not only been ambushed but was apparently being chewed half to death by a squadron of enraged Amazons, an honor guard of revolutionary (if we would only see them) vaginas.”

The attack was masterminded by his old nemesis, Time. Mailer thought he had won; after all, he once “captured the mistress of a Potentate of Time,” thereby vanquishing the Evil Empire once and for all. (WARNING: this might give you flashbacks of You’ve Got Mail).

If, in a story, he had once written called “The Time of Her Time,” the protagonist had been fond of referring to his sexual instrument as the Avenger, now the Prizewinner whammed nothing less than a Retaliator in and out of Vengeance Mews (thereby collecting a good share of the poisons the Potentate had certainly left behind) and was so intent on retribution it took him months to recognize that the dear pudding of a lady in whom he was inserting his fast-thrusting barb was a remarkable girl, almost as interesting, complex, Machiavellian, and spirited as himself.

Norman Mailer On The Battlefield Formerly Known as Pie

Dear CF,

This will be an ongoing series because there’s just too much stuff to put into one post. In brief, I’m reading Norman Mailer’s autobiography, “The Prisoner of Sex.” On page 1, after finding out he might win the Nobel Prize, Mailer relates, via this scintillating bit of prose, what it feels like to manpiss into the Big Time*:

“It’s impossible,” he said. After twenty-one years of public life he had the equivalent of a Geiger counter in his brain to measure the radiation of advancements and awards in the various salients, wedges and vectors of that aesthetic battlefield known as the literary pie.

Our hero is the ballsy but downtrodden offspring of (the equivalent of) Spiderman and a protractor, so he only thinks in radioactive triangles. Of VICTORY.  It’s a glorious radon-pastry of book-war!

It did remind me of something. Something to do with washing-up liquid. See 1:34-2:01.

Fondly,

M

*Mailer never won the Nobel Prize.

Oh Stein! O Toklas! Biographies and Autobiographies

You know, titling things as something other than they are might be my favorite tired metaliterary joke. I guess Eggers started the recent iteration of that trend with his Heartbreaking Work. Then there was Willett’s book, then Banksy’s movie, and this morning I’ve been flipping through Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, that Escheresque ourobouros of nonfictional genres. It’s an “autobiography” of Toklas which is actually a “biography” of Stein, except that it’s written by Stein in Toklas’ voice. I want Shari Lewis and Lambchop to read the entire thing out loud.

The Autobiography is ridiculously fun and parts of it are magical, megalomaniacal exercises. Sample view (in Toklas’ voice, obviously):

The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.

What virtuosic panache! Establishing Toklas as the authority guaranteeing her (Stein’s) genius! Writing yourself as the instrument of someone’s “full new life!” Imagine imagining your lover’s inner life this way! What verve! What delicious, delusional hubris!

And maybe fake, but maybe not. One story claims Stein begged Toklas for years to write her autobiography. When she wouldn’t, Stein announced that she’d buy the flowers herself, so to speak. Another story holds that Stein needed money and wrote the piece in six weeks, intending it to be a commercial hit. It’s rife with tabloid fodder—a cleverly fictionalized expose of the art world would fly off the shelves.

Whatever the real story behind the story is or was, what’s true is this: the name that shows up the most is Gertrude Stein. Not Gertrude, not Stein, but Gertrude Stein, always and forever, and always in a reverential tone.

A 1934 review of the autobiography addresses the pitfalls of this approach with kindly restraint:

“Altogether the most challenging estimate found in the book is that which the author makes of herself. ‘She realises,’ so the reader is informed, ‘that in english literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.'” He calls this opinion “preposterous” but says the Autobiography “mirrors the vigorous mind and the strong and engaging personality which have left their imprint on those with whom she has associated.”

My favorite part of the Autobiography might be this:

“In the story Ada in Geography and Plays Gertrude Stein has given a very good description of me as I was at that time.”

Outdoing Leonard Woolf, who heavily edited Virginia’s diaries, and Ted Hughes, who destroyed much of Plath’s unpublished work, Stein omits Toklas altogether. She praises her own description of Toklas without actually giving it.

Brava, Firecracker. Brava.

Why Women Don’t Make Top Ten Lists: Prose on Prose

Dear CF,

Laura Miller’s article on Publishers Weekly’s top ten list led me to Francine Prose’s article, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1998.  It’s not available to nonsubscribers but it’s a formidable piece and relevant still, though it’s equally interesting to think about the ways in which some things have changed. I want to rescue it from the archives and reproduce some parts of it here for consideration as we pound our way through the month of November. My summaries are in brackets and italics.

[Prose notes that all in all, sales are up for women writers and there are more women readers than men. Taking the broad view, all’s well.]

“So only a few paranoids (readers with a genuine interest in good writing by either gender) may feel that the literary playing field is still off by a few degrees. Who else would even notice that in this past year–which saw the publication of important books by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, and Diane Johnson–most of the book-award contests had the aura of literary High Noons, publicized shoot-outs among the guys: Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, a sort of Civil War Platoon? Of course, not even the most curmudgeonly feminist believes that accolades or sales should be handed out in a strict fifty-fifty split, or that equal-opportunity concessions should be made to vile novels by women. But some of us can’t help noting how comparatively rarely stories by women seem to appear in the few major magazines that publish fiction, how rarely fiction by women is reviewed in serious literary journals, and how rarely work by women dominates short lists and year-end ten-best lists.”

[Prose meditates on why this might be:]

“How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write ? Diane Johnson–herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy–observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear–especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women–or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

[While many little boys staunchly refuse to read stories about girls and will own up to their reasons for doing so, it’s difficult, of course, to find any adults writing on the subject. The assumption that women writers might have less to contribute to great literature than men seems to tacitly exist but is rarely articulated. Luckily, there’s always Norman Mailer:]

“If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am some. rimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure–that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”

“Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a ‘hyena in petticoats’ to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Bronte as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that ‘this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers….’ More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, ‘Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,’ and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s ‘bitchiness’ and ‘relentless cattiness,’ terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.

But why should we trouble ourselves about unfeeling, brutish critics when we have gallant defenders like Theodore Roethke, who in 1961 praised Louise Bogan’s poetry by reassuring readers that she is not a typical female poet, handicapped by ‘lack of range–in subject matter, in emotional tone–and lack of a sense of humor…. the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; Iyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God….’

[Speculating that Mailer’s “balls” refer to ambition and scope, here is Prose on the critical reception of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead in 1991, which weighs in at 750 pages and which I haven’t read, though now I will:]

“From the horror that greeted Silko’s book, published in 1991, one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this ‘very angry author’ seething with ‘half-digested revulsion,’ by her inability to create ‘a single likable, or even bearable, character,’ her ‘bad judgement and inadequate craft,’ the ‘nonexistent plot,’ and, worst of all, her ’emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggest[ing] that more than the novel itself needs remedial help.’

“In USA Today, Alan Ryan lamented that Silko’s book had neither plot nor characters. The normally astute Paul West had similar troubles, which he shared with his L.A. Times readers: ‘I found myself peering back, wondering who was who, only to remember fragments that, while vivid and energetic, didn’t help me in my belated quest for a family tree…. Silko does not interest herself much in psychology, in the unsaid word, the thought uncompleted, the murmur lost.’ The San Francisco Chronicle critic, praising the novel, makes this unintentionally hilarious understatement of the scope of its achievement: ‘At more than 750 pages, Almanac of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious novels ever written by an American Indian.’ And Charles Larson concludes his Washington Post review by saying, ‘So many stories have been crammed into Almanac of the Dead it’s often impossible to know when to take Silko seriously.’

“Readers unfamiliar with the novel will have to take my word for it–or that of the few critics who, like Alan Cheuse, recognized the novel as ‘a book that must be dealt with’–that one can follow the story line. Anyway, what’s at issue here is not the dismal spectacle of bad reviews happening to good books but rather the rarity with which major male writers are criticized in the same terms as women. No one seems to be counting David Foster Wallace’s characters, or complaining that DeLillo’s Underworld has too many subplots, or faulting the male authors of doorstop novels for an insufficient interest in psychology. When Thomas Pynchon’s plots spin off into the ozone, we’re quite ready to consider the chance that it’s an intentional part of his method and not the feeble mistake of what Paul West, in his review of Silko, called the ‘shattered mind of an atavist.'”

[Throughout the essay, Prose provides several passages of writing and asks us to identify the gender of the writer. Her point is usually that the qualities ascribed to “female writing” are equally present in the prose male writers. But the most effective example, in my opinion, is the one that troubles this premise of interchangeability:]

“But despite the Skinnerian system of rewards and punishments to which they are subjected, women writers seem to be getting tougher in their insistence on saying the last things men (and even women) want to hear–unwelcome observations about everything from our national attitudes to our self-delusions. Although guys such as Nicholson Baker get the credit for smudging the line between high lit and soft core, women have been increasingly open on the subject of sex, and specifically on the difference between the bedroom and the wet dream. Here, then, one final pair of quotes, on the theme of how power and control shift under the most intense and intimate pressures:

I was dealing, it seemed, with some kind of masochist, or bully, or combination…. To me belonged, as big as a thumb held up to the eye, her pallid moistened body with its thousand jigales and many membranous apertures. … I love the passive position, the silken heavy sway above me of pendulous breasts, the tent of female hair formed when her Olmec face lowered majestically to mine, the earnest and increasingly self-absorbed grind of an ass too big for my hands. Being our second time, it took longer, giving me ample opportunity to keep moaning her name. “Ann Ann! God, Ann. Oh Ann, Ann. Annnn”–the “n”s, the “a.” She took it in stride by now, making no comment; she had slept with enough men to know we’re all, one way or another, kinky.

She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.” . . . This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her…. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily…. He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her.

“No one will be fooled this time. The author of the first passage is inarguably a man, since women rarely think of the female body in terms of its ‘many membranous apertures.’ And few women, I imagine, define ‘kinky’ widely enough to include a male taking the bottom position and engaging in some spontaneous, if not exactly erotic, verbalization. The second passage goes a bit further. A breast is bitten, it’s not clear who is calling the shots, and the male character has a truly nasty moment of realization about the nature of sex. This realization so closely resembles female paranoia about male sexuality that we may suspect the writer is a woman. But that hardly matters, since in its extreme acuity it attains a shocking verisimilitude. We recognize the man’s perception not only as true of a few men, or of many men on a few occasions, but as a truth we have always known or suspected and have never before seen, quite so crisply and boldly, in print.

The author of the first passage is John Updike, known for his lyrical-ribald, celebratory, and honest depictions of sex. The second is Mary Gaitskill, a gifted younger writer who, one can’t help noticing, is rarely invited to give her opinion on quite the range of subjects that the media routinely solicits from John Updike. Indeed, Updike is considered a pillar of our literary culture, whereas Gaitskill–whose talent is widely admired–is perceived as slightly transgressive, even slightly nutty, on the subject of sex.

As should be clear by now from the passages and reviews quoted above, fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions. Male writers are rarely criticized for their anger; Philip Roth is beloved for his rage, and rightly so. Few reviewers warn Robert Stone against mucking about in parts of the world where CIA operatives masquerade as businessmen. No one dares propose that William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is in many ways as kitschy, manipulative, and inauthentic a historical novel as, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And, with its forays into the maudlin, it’s hard to believe that A Fan’s Notes by Ms. Frederika Exley would be called, by a Newsday reviewer, ‘the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby.'”

Prose suggests that good writing manages to transcend the accident of gender; I don’t know if that’s quite true, nor do I think people are as forgiving of Styron (for example) as she thinks. But her main point stands: I think it is the case that when a man with a way with words produces a convoluted mess with literary and transcendent aspects, it’s greeted with an assumption of readerly inadequacy. The mess is intentional and artful unless strenuously shown to be otherwise. The burden of proof is on the reader. The converse is true for women, for whom stridency and expansiveness (firecrackerness, too) are undesirably marked qualities. Not bad in themselves, but noticed and questioned. The fact that Beloved tops the Best American Novels list the NYT published some years ago only proves my point. Morrison’s book is a mess that only pretends to be messy: it’s actually obsessively neat, neat to the point of compulsiveness. Every symbol, every apparently stray word, every unpunctuation is part of an overdetermined attempt to create the illusion of mess while betraying an absolute and frankly (to me, anyway) exhausting penchant for authorial control.  Not surprising: the burden of proof is on Morrison: she needed to be able and ready to show her work.

One of the most interesting things about writing a novel (as opposed to a short story) and writing it so quickly is that one has a rather Pynchonian or Silkoian right to mess. And mess is fun. I’m taking the month to write it.

Fondly,

M

Whip It: Girls Need to See This Movie

Someone once said they would go out tonight but they haven’t got a stitch to wear, and I’m feeling that way after watching Whip It: in need of clothes and a destination.

Having seen it, I’m predictably fascinated by roller derby, awed by Juliette Lewis, and delighted with Drew Barrymore and Kristin Wiig. I’m all-around pretty darn happy with this uncloying and montage-free female comedy. At last: a movie that isn’t ironic cheesecake, Bratz, Rival Brides or a warmed-over version of Clueless.

The main character, Bliss, really wants something seriously scary that demands a toughness not usually demanded of someone of Ellen Page’s build. It isn’t sensible and isn’t sex. God, that’s a relief. Girlish wildness so rarely gets channeled anywhere else.  (Incidentally I’m tired of sensibleness tonight. It’s boring, and my protests against my sensible self are even more boring. Wouldn’t it be great to take an actual risk? I ask myself and answer sensibly, yes. Yes it would.)

I want to say this: It has flaws, but it fired me up.

A tangent (if disinclined, skip to here*): If on a winter’s night a traveler is a “novel” whose plot is that you, the Reader, are trying to track down the rest of a novel you’ve started and instead you keep starting different novels that have the same title, or purport to be the one you want in translation, but aren’t what you started reading at all. They trail off in turn just when you start to get interested and you, the reader, end up frustrated—both in real life and in the novel. Instead of investing in the stories themselves, you start caring about the frame narrative: the story of the reader (you, male) tracking down the stories with the Other Reader, a woman.

When they started the book my students cared a lot about the novels-within-the-novel: they really wanted to know what happened in the first novel to the man waiting to hand off a suitcase to a fellow undercover agent at the train station. Or to the woman who ran the leather goods store. They were a little upset by the interruption. Now, midway through the book, I asked them where their investments lie. They say they don’t care about the interrupted stories at all. They express surprise at the very suggestion.

When I remind them of how interested they’d been in the man at the train station their faces change into that frown-twist of recognition that strikes when you remember a childhood feeling. It’s a look that dredges impressions from very long ago. They explain, then, that they didn’t know yet. But now they’ve learned not to invest in the beginnings because it’s clear, at this point in the novel, that they’re never going to get a full story.

Not surprising; we’re creatures of habit and we’re easily trained. What is kind of surprising is that they don’t remember the initial interest they felt until they’re reminded of it. Even their memories of the experience have been trained out of them. They forget that once it was otherwise—once upon a time they were more interested in the story than the frame.

(Exeunt Tangent, chased by a bear.)*

I feel that way tonight—startled that I can experience something as silly as a roller derby movie directly without having to transpose it into a different key, without experiencing it at one remove. I can’t remember the last time I felt anything but mildly depressed by a sports movie—elated in translation, maybe, in my imaginary incarnation as the boy the movie was meant for, but pretty convinced that those bodies and those possibilities aren’t mine.

These aren’t either, but they’re much, much closer, and that matters more than I thought it did. Not all movies are meant for identification, but this one is. Girls need to see this movie.

In addition: I feel like driving. And I miss L.A. And part of me wants nothing more than to work in a really plasticky commercial mall, the kind with Christmas ornaments the size of beach balls already hanging from an enormous tinsel tree. Another part wants to spray-paint a bicycle and start a zine. A third part wants to fight. A fourth wants a haircut and contemplates doing it herself. And the last part, the part that lets me sleep or not, wants me to finally get to the work that matters.

Four years ago someone wrote me asking me to fill out a survey about writing. It was the kind of thing I scoffed at—the hokey sort of “what is your ideal writing space?” quiz that forces you to come up with positive terms on which you will actually work instead of complaints or excuses. Hokey or not, I’m taking it seriously.

How would you whip it? Where would you go to write?
M

The Pleasure of Reading: Beginnings, Newness

[I’m rereading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. It’s a reminder of things I’d forgotten now that I do so much reading on my computer. From time to time I’ll post an excerpt here.]

You derive a special pleasure from a just-published book, and it isn’t only a book you are taking with you but its novelty as well, which could also be merely that of an object fresh from the factory, the youthful bloom of new books, which lasts until the dust jacket begins to yellow, until a veil of smog settles on the top edge, until the binding becomes dog-eared, in the rapid autumn of libraries. No, you hope always to encounter true newness, which, having been new once, will continue to be so. Having read the freshly published book, you will take possession of this newness at the first moment, without having to pursue it, to chase it. Will it happen this time? You never can tell. Let’s see how it begins.

The Bitch

Dear M.,

I just ate two tamales happily microwaved into melty Trader Joe’s delight, and feel fortified to write what I was going to originally try to work into my earlier post.  On one of my recent library scavenging hunts, I picked up Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing.  I read it yesterday while waiting for Glee to buffer on Hulu (to no avail).  Yes, dearest, the majority of my literary intake happens while I wait to watch shit television without interruption.  It was an appropriate window for Mr. Mailer, who stoked my ire triple time for every nugget of ye olde writing advice.

He is a self-mythologizer, very much in love with the idea of the hungover writer who understands the virility of being.  Writing is dangerous: you risk alcoholism, depression and madness if you let yourself go into your art.  Writing is dull: only stupid people choose it as a profession (but this is so much in the vain of self-de/precation that we are supposed to begoggled).  The world doesn’t want your art, but you have to dare to look in that great void and understand it will takes its toll for doing so.  Picasso was a jerk, Vidal Gore could have learned some things from him, The Last Tango in Paris needed actual cock and vagina.  He adores Hemingway, but understands what got him killed.  Mailer reads like the writer that the young men in Mad Men are hoping to be.

I would like to say his sexism is part of his generation, but as the book was published in 2003, I’m surprised there wasn’t more editing.  Generally, when he refers to an aspiring writer, it is a he.  He also mentions that women “might be less comfortable” writing about war:

How often have women shown the same inventiveness and hellishness that men have at war? How can they approach the near psychotic mix of proportion and disproportion which is at the heart of mortal combat?

However, we can write about bravery (he goes into a long example how brave an old woman must be crossing a street, so therefore, women do have bravery in their lives).

Some other doozies:

  • He is anti-masturbation, calling it a “miserable activity…all that happens is everything that’s beautiful and good in one goes up the hand.”  And then, “it strikes me that masturbation, for a variety of reasons, does not affect the female psyche as directly.”
  • In a chapter on writerly identity, he tells a story where a friend was at a party where he didn’t know anybody.  He apologizes to Mailer because is a moment of recklessness, he decided to introduce himself as Mailer at the party.  He took a girl home. “Were you good with her?” Mailer asks. “Yeah. It was a good one. Real good,” the friend says.  “Then I’m not mad.”
  • “The novel is like the Great Bitch in one’s life. We think we’re rid of her, we go on to other women, we take our pulse and decide that finally we’re enjoying ourselves, we’re free of her power, we’ll never suffer her depredations again, and then we turn a corner on a street, and there’s the Bitch smiling at us, and we’re trapped. We know the Bitch has still got us.”
  • “Every novelist who has slept with the Bitch (only poets and writers of short stories have a Muse) comes away bragging afterward like a GI tumbling out of a whorehouse spree — –“Man, I made her moan,” goes the cry of the young writer. But the Bitch laughs afterward in her empty bed. “He was just so sweet in the beginning,” she declares,”but by the end he just went, ‘Peep, peep, peep.”

I think the heat that rises when I read this is the sexiness of it all, the great drama of writing.  The great manfeat of it all.

But, some of his advice is really helpful. For example, he says that if you tell yourself that you are going to sit at your desk and write tomorrow, it is important that you actually do it.  Otherwise, you unconscious quits trusting you, and won’t show up as reliably.  This is why it’s hard to get back in the habit of work after letting it go.

The rule in capsule: If you fail to show up in the morning after you vowed that you would be at your desk as you went to sleep last night, then you will walk around with ants in your brain. Rule of thumb: Restlessness of mind can be measured by the number of promises that remain unkempt.

So, there’s that.

Yours,

CF

Open Secrets, Indeed

Dear M.,

I haven’t read Open Secrets, but am puttering through The Lives of Girls and Women.  I picked it up specifically because it is The Munro’s only novel, and I want to see why she never returned to the form.

The NPR interview with Lorrie Moore sounds horrid, but worth the quote about Iraq.  That moment captures a great misunderstanding about feminism for me, and is delightfully helpful as a snapshot.

I very much agree with your observations about Munro’s use of angularity, silence, surface and depth.  I always come away from her work thinking that she has written about women in a way that is uncomfortable, and right.  Sometimes,  I feel like she is giving away my secrets.  There are stories of hers that I have recommended that Mr. Carla Fran read because of their very good fiction, but hesitantly because I felt exposed in doing so.  And then, the stranger disorientation that he noticed no flash of hard truth; to expand the exposed metaphor, to stand naked in the living room, and get compliments on the design of the coffee table instead.

What are the great secrets, exposures? That we don’t give all ourselves, that there is little romance and abandon even in moments where we act as though there is.  That we calculate, and are usually calculating choice, leverage and present circumstances in an underlying hum of fright or flight. That the pleasure in our lives is neither as grand or as simple as the majority of storytelling assumes.  That we often choose ungenerous action.

Which brings me to Moore.  The Munro and The Moore both paint women in three dimensions and allow them to be ugly and cruel.  Moore’s are ugly almost as quirk; their actions are supreme faux paus and consequential misconceptions.  Munro (whose women are usually handsome, or they live far out in the country and are lumpy and unkempt), illustrates the selfishness and the closings off–again, the ungenerousity.

Often the body does not appear in Munro, unless as a teenager finding her sexual power (there is a story about a girl untying her bathing suit and swimming, marveling at her breasts), or adult women dealing with gynecological issues (an unexpected period, cramps).  There are often older women, seen from a girl’s perspective, who have some kind of female trouble that becomes their idea of what sex and a woman’s future may be. Sexual histories matter, and most characters have had their life changed by some encounter, either violent or passionate.  I immediately thought of Munro when in The Golden Notebook a character gets her period and looks for a tampon in a rush as she is already late to work.  It seems so obvious that women in fiction would menstruate as part of their daily life, but it is a shock, and a claim of their physicality, to see it on the page.

Perhaps these women are writing full, unattractive tellings that ultimately give women the same space as male characters.   Perhaps Mr. CF reads them not as revelations, but as part of the spectrum of the human condition.  Maybe it’s male privilege, or a ready acceptance of rotten and sweet, but Mr. Carla Fran isn’t looking at the women when he reads Munro– — like Moore assumes of her readers (and interviewers), the larger context.

Which may be why Mr. Carla Fran does not shudder when he reads my highlighted Munro and ask me questions about our  mutual happiness.  Open secrets indeed.  In his reaction, or the male reaction to women’s announcements of self, great truths are either accepted as instantly as biological facts (of course you sweat, we all sweat), left unseen (I’m sorry, did you say something?), or one part of a larger thing (the big idea, the human condition, the breathtaking story, the living).

Yours,

CF

Open Secrets

Dear CF,

Did you catch Michael Krasny’s interview of Lorrie Moore on NPR? He’s a fool, and she suffered him. Having seen Moore eviscerate fans, I was unprepared for this warmer, more pliant Moore whom Krasny repeatedly and unctuously described as having a gorgeous voice. When she said her latest novel was about how we got to where we are, he said “Women?” She said, “No. Iraq.”

As we gear up to read Munro and Moore’s latest, I thought I’d post some old observations on Open Secrets, Alice Munro’s 1994 collection of stories.  (Warning: unless you’ve read it recently, none of the following will make sense.)

Munro creates all these women whose angularity and silence never ceases to amaze, and yet they are never quite as ugly as they might be. Not as ugly as Lorrie Moore lets hers be.  And it’s not nostalgia that protects them—I almost used that word, and it’s quite, quite wrong. It’s about surface and depth. The woman often stays shiny and hard and impenetrable, and there are really very few bodies. And yet Munro’s rendering of the female experience of male sexuality might be the best I’ve seen.

So much of the collection is about the (semi-desperate and impossible) miracle of right timing and how, even in meal-making, it can only exist when there’s something unspoken about it. She gets, too, at the assumption of shared assumptions. In Munro married life is always and at best (or worst) that, and never a true sharing.

The obvious mysteries in Open Secrets: who actually killed George Herron’s brother and Annie’s husband? What exactly was the “reality” of the relationship between Liza and Ladner—did she inflate those moments of contact and shame, or were they real? And why is it that the most effective moment of transgression in that story is when Ladner jumps into the pool and mimics Bea? Incredible how, like lightning, that cruelty and all-or-nothing risk of discovery stands out. Did it all really happen to Charlotte? A bigger mystery, perhaps: why would she go see Charlotte in the hospital three days running? The closeness of the friendship is never explained.

What she says about girls wanting to carry the joke just a step further, disappearing for a little longer: so true. I’m puzzled and not quite satisfied with the character of Mary Johnstone, though. Or Maureen.

Dorrie is extraordinary. So is the other—not Millicent. The other M who dresses in blue. Dresses alone have so much power in Munro’s work.

The familiar characters that appear over and over:

  1. the near-paralytic old man whose condition encapsulates some secret sexual power that gets some of its force from the bodily fluids and smells of senility. Both the old man with the young man who is his lover in the Jacaranda hotel and the lawyer who’d had a stroke fit this.
  2. The adulterous couple whose erotic relationship develops around the young ambitious slightly silly man’s staging of a play. The presence of a Mediterranean type woman—sometimes the protagonist and sometimes her competition.
  3. The woman who has been left by her husband.
  4. The woman who left her husband.
  5. The abandoned wife who remains close friends with her mother-in-law.
  6. The girl who “parks” with one bright winsome boy who respects her and
  7. her attraction to his less reputable friend/brother.

Next I will read “Home.” Your thoughts?

Fondly,

M

The Duggars and Casanova

Dear Millicent,

In honor of the Duggars’ announcement of expecting their 19th child, I offer some of the interesting tidbits I have gathered while reading Medical History of Contraception by Norman E. Himes.  I got the book while on a lark at the public library, and have enjoyed it immensely.  I have no idea how sound its findings are, as it was published in 1936, and Himes, an economist,  writes in his introduction how difficult it was to find many resources because of their blue nature, delegated to a library’s private collection, uncatalogued (and locked in private cabinets!), where the masses wouldn’t stumble into such knowledge.

He set out to gather a global history of contraception.  He wrote to experts world wide, and pulled from travel narratives and historical texts.   His overall thesis is that contraception  has been a universal aim since the beginning, with each society working towards the desire of “adequate parenthood.” [emphasis mine].

In response to the rising democratization of birth control at the time, and the moral outcry against it, he says of the “propagandists,” “They have merely crystallized a discontent–or, if you will a constructive desire–which dates from pre-history.”

Some highlights:

  • “A rather unusual practice, that of the male sucking the semen from the vagina, is reported as in vogue among the Marquesans of Oceania.”
  • But wait, there’s more: “When a group of men went out with one woman, and had intercourse in rapid succession, publicly, which was a common amusement, the last man had to suck semen from her vagina. This was sometimes practiced in individual intercourse as well.  I believe it that this is true,” writes a visiting doctor, “although it sounds improbable; for the excitement of women with the tongue was a regular part of love play.”
  • Some groups held that babies were made from layers of semen that accumulated over time.
  • Some groups didn’t connect babies with sex as much as with cohabitation.
  • In the Indian archipelago and East Indies, women purposefully tilted or retroflexed the uterus through massage.
  • Aboriginal women in Australia “expelled semen through violent abdominal movements after coitus with white men.” This technique appears again and again as the book continues, and made me think about belly dancing.
  • The Talmud suggests that the sponge was created to avoid coitus interruptus, which had the fascinating euphemism “ploughing in the garden and emptying upon the dunghill.”
  • Casanova recommended the use of a gold ball to be inserted “at the temple of love” before sex.  He has three made by a Genovese blacksmith, the idea being that the supposed alkalinity of the metal would do some good work.  Himes wonders, “would it tend to fall out by virtue of its weight?”
  • A more effective technique of Casanova’s was the half lemon cervical cap.

Oh, there is much more.  The classics seem to be the withdrawal method (from Brantome’s The Life of Gallant Ladies, “like the noble lady said to her lover “Do what you will, and give me delight, but on your life have  a care to let no drop reach me.”), drinking mysterious roots that only certain people know how to find, vaginal pessaries and washes (all usually chemically harsh for such a sensitive area), and special oils rubbed on the penis (pretty rare, again showing the historical lack of male birth control…there are a few alternatives, but the women seem the most concerned, throughout).

As for the Duggars…I’m ready to see less of the fertility parade.  This old book proves that procreation is not such a simple drama of announcements and corporate sponsors.  Faith and science are part of the cultural package, especially highlighted by the range of fertile reality television families.  My reaction to their countless Today Show appearances is much like when my grandmother pursed her lips whenever a pregnant woman wore tight and revealing maternity clothes.  “When I was a kid,  you never saw those shapes,” she said once, “you kept it to yourself.”   I disagree with her degree of prudery, but I can see the source of the irritation–there is something arrogant in procreation, arrogant and incredibly vulnerable.  To see it treated lightly and righteously is disconcerting.

Yours,

CF