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I love books. On my OkCupid profile, I say that books are my dominatrix. Nothing inspires me more, influences my writing, speaks to my soul, verbs my cliche noun, etc. And yet, I never seem to write about books. I’m trying to be better about that. I wrote one review for SF Weekly last week. But I thought, too, that I know many fantastic readers and writers, and why not start our own little series? Why not share the books we love, around a theme, and post them here? So, that’s what I’m gonna try to do. This month’s theme is: the last book that devastated you, hence the perhaps inappropriately violent name of the series: Book Clubbed. Ideally, the reviews will be short, micro-blog style, but longer is fine too. Here’s the first one, on Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.
P.S. If you’d like to participate, please do! Holla at me in a comment or on Facebook. It’d be great to have reviews cross-posted on multiple blogs and have us a right literary hoedown! One can dream, yeah?
P.P.S. The next review will be on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. So, stay tuned.
I saw Dorothy Allison read recently, and while talking about the role of violence in her writing in the post-reading discussion she smiled at the audience widely, winningly, and told us this: “I’ma fuck you up.” She smiled and we laughed and I wondered why, because is that actually funny? She was sincere, I was certain, but when she smiled at us so sweetly, just like her characters always do when they don’t trust the people they’re talking to, we still laughed. Maybe because it’s true; she does fuck you up, beautifully, terribly, magnificently, in a way that sticks with you long after the book is over. Somehow, it’s part of her appeal.
The plot of Bastard out of Carolina, her first book and yet still the one she chose to read from the day I saw her, is simple—it’s about a young girl growing up poor white trash as part of a large and publicly despised family in South Carolina, suffering through and surviving a childhood heaped with physical and sexual abuse. It sounds pretty run-of-the-mill in this age of disaster memoirs, but what sets Allison apart is her honesty, a truthfulness that transcends what we’re supposed to think about poor people, about abuse survivors, and about the people who love them. The characters are often hard to comprehend, hard to love, but sometimes also hard to hate; they are not always noble, or self-sacrificing, or even kind. They are true to their own natures, and that’s not always a pretty sight—it’s just an honest one. And honesty, for all its supposed beauty and simplicity, can also be as ugly as a bruise.
Consider Bone, the titular bastard: I love her so much, for her strength and loyalty to her mother and her sheer stubbornness, but I’m also afraid of her. She’s hard, in the way you have to be to survive sometimes, but she’s only thirteen by the end of the book and she just scares the fuck out of me sometimes. Bone is driven by what we almost can’t see—as readers we witness the physical abuse she suffers from her stepfather, but other than an initial molestation scene there’s little direct description of sexual abuse. It exists in memories and hints, lingering around the edges of the more easily definable physical harm, without words to give it form but tainting everything—her worldview, her interpersonal relationships, her day-to-day actions—just the same.
It comes out in her intense hatred of those who mistreat her: her abusive stepfather, the Woolworth’s manager who belittles her, the doctors who try to help her. But it comes out most clearly in Bone’s masturbation fantasies; they sound like something a dominatrix would whisper in your ear, visions of strength through suffering and pride in pain, and when I suddenly considered that they belonged to an eleven-year-old it shocked me more than almost anything else in the entire book. The only people who offer a solution she can accept are her blood relatives, and because they solve violence with a violence that echoes her own desires their solutions are short-term ones. Bone doesn’t believe anybody can help her, because nobody does; she knows even as a child how people act towards a poor bastard with bruises on her legs, and she wants pity even less than help.
One moment can irrevocably break your life into two pieces, the before and after, and a lot of books are about that. This one is too, but in a deeper way it’s also about the slow relentless grind, of the damage that comes from a life consisting of tiny, mostly terrible moments, one after another with no hope of escape. Bastard out of Carolina is a shattering book because it’s about violence, the violence of abuse and bodily harm but also the ongoing violence of poverty and shame and hunger, of stretched-thin food and frayed clothing and sneering looks and how all of these small pieces add up into something that can eat you alive, if not bodily than spiritually.
Here’s the scene in the movie (directed by Anjelica Huston!) where the abusive step-father gets the shit kicked out of him:
I just finished this quirky book, The Chairs Are Where The People Go, by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti. It’s basically Glouberman’s thoughts on topics he’s interested in. There’s a chapter on spam filters, for instance. There are chapters on monogamy, smoking, how to arrange the chairs at events, and changes in cities and neighborhoods. There’s also a lot about charades (He teaches a class on how to be a successful charades player. Fer real.) But juxtaposed with the sillier chapters, are insightful nuggets on art and living. Here’s a choice quote:
I think a lot of art is about creating the illusion of ease, and I think it’s great to enjoy that illusion, but I think it’s great to know that it’s an illusion, and I suspect—in my experience—the process of creating anything involves quite a lot of fear and difficulty, and it involves covering up quite a lot of that fear and difficulty.
This really resonated with me. I was talking with my friend Mac, (who’s a brilliant, brilliant writer, by the way. You should all buy her book) about the story/strap-on demo I did Thursday for Bawdy Storytelling (video forthcumming..but probably not for a while). She was surprised to hear that pretty much the whole day of the show I was awash in anxiety and stress. “But you do this kind of stuff all the time!” she said. And that’s more or less true. I perform or give a reading about once a month. But here’s the thing. It scares the crap out of me every. single. time. So I think Glouberman is spot on when he talks about creating the illusion of ease. We like to think that artists, musicians, comedians, whomever, are just naturally good at these things, that there’s no struggle involved, or if there is, then it must be minimal because look—they’re so good at it! But really, we’re having mini panic attacks about something as trivial as a strap-on demo.
It’s hard to talk about all the frustration, the revisions, and agonizing about whether you’re really any good at your craft, whatever that may be. Part of that reason is because we don’t want to seem like neurotic assholes, which is something I totally understand. I have a select few that are allowed to see me freak out about public speaking or listen to my frequent, “I’m a fraud! What if they all hate me?!” speeches.
I’m sure there are a few rare people who feel buoyant and light and effortlessly charming all the time, but the freaking out is a deeply ingrained part of my process. So is, for that matter, failure. We don’t like to talk about failure. It makes us feel like disappointments. It reaffirms all those negative feelings lurking inside of us. But failure is necessary. It’s how we learn. If we’re not failing, at least some of the time, then we’ve stopped trying. We’ve given up. We’ve chosen to never again pass go or collect $200. And THAT is the only true failure. Or the only failure that matters, I should say. Think of it in terms of relationships. 99% of relationships in your life won’t work out. They work for a while, sometimes decades, until they don’t anymore. If we believed these failed relationships were indicative of our self-worth, we’d never pursue new love interests, and we’d all be a lot more depressed and celibate. But we don’t. We move on, for the most part. We recover. Because that’s the nature of the game. Pursuing what you love and pursuing who you love are similar in that way.
So don’t be thwarted by failure. Embrace it. And better yet, don’t be thwarted by potential failure. We all play that card. It’s the one that makes excuses, puts things off, and leaves the hair in the shower drain like an asshole even though it damn well saw it there. I have a different brilliant friend who writes amazing erotica. Or rather, she used to. I’m not sure why she doesn’t anymore, except today she said she “just didn’t want to enough.” This saddened me, and not just because I’m a shameless voyeur who wants to read her smut. I think we get stuck this way sometimes because we are waiting for some divine intervention to shake us from our complacency. But that rarely happens. The universe is indifferent to your writer’s block. A creative burst is not gonna be the thing that logs your ass out of Facebook. Nor will you be struck by inspiration from reading one more Awwccupy Wall Street Tumblr.
The excuse I’m most guilty of is pretending that I don’t know how to do something. For instance, like most people, I am a procrastinator. When crunch time comes, do I sit down and do my work? No, I read a blog post on “how to not procrastinate.” I’m doing it right now actually. I’m writing this blog post about excuses as an excuse to not be writing one of my three advice columns due this week.
These are all just ways of avoiding doing the work. There’s the invisible struggle again. If you’ll permit me another yoga metaphor! The very first sun salutation that starts my practice is the ABSOLUTE WORST THING IN THE WORLD to be doing at 6:30 in the morning. It’s dark out! My body’s cold and stiff. I’m probably not even awake. Every day, I start out thinking, I won’t make it through this time. This sucks. I hate yoga. And stretchy pants. But after that first shock to my body goes away, it’s fine, and I can salute the sun all fucking day. Namaste, bitches! Change is like that. There’s no getting around that initial resistance. You will always hate the first sun salutation, the first draft, the first 20 job applications you submit. But once you’re in the thick of it, you’ll be fine. Maybe not till the whole damn thing is over, but some time, you will. The “easy” thing is almost never the right answer. Except Hot Pockets. That shit is delicious.
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Susan Sontag. It’s just two words. I wrote them on the first page of my journal and look at them often. They are: “Do something! Do something! Do something!”
You know what to do.
I’m used to the women
I date being straight, but
I’ll never forget
our first meeting. You spoke to
my very soul: Hoooooooooooooonk!
It’s redundant to
say you’re gay and that you majored
in Theater Tech.
Plus, at AlterNet I tried to figure out why I’ve had so many threesomes. The comments aren’t nearly as wackadoo this time, unfortch.
And at SF Weekly, I tried to write a righteous “I hate Kindles” post, but since I’m bisexual, or “It’s because you’re Libra” as Lauren said, which isn’t really true (I’m on the cusp!) I see both sides, and knowing me, I’ll probably own an e-reader within the year. So, pot, kettle, blah de blah, just fucking read it.
- Haiku for Adulthood: Lesbian Sex, Part II
- I’m really obvious, apparently
- Don’t tell me I can’t reference my songs within my songs
- Once more, with feeling
It’s raining in S.F. –
each drop’s hushed refrain sounds like
the end of waiting.
Bind my arms, love. What
requires no defense.
Wish you were the woman
sharing my bed, and not
It’s your suspense that
makes me forget the helplessness
of my own life.
- Haiku for Adulthood: Love 2.0
- Haiku for Adulthood: Still in love with the moon
- Suppose I kept on singing love songs just to break my own fall
I used to write a lot of quazi-academic-y blogs on MySpace (of all places). I deleted that account when it was decided that Facebook would reign supreme in social media, but I kept the blogs. I’ve been re-reading them lately and getting excited about books and sex and queer movies. Also, to prove to…someone that I can write more than seventeen syllables at a time. This was written in June 2007.
Vowel Movements: Or because even though I’m not in school anymore, I can’t stop writing papers
From a purely stimulus-related standpoint, fear and arousal produce nearly identical responses from the body—perspiration, clenched muscles, quickened pulse, dilated eyes, etc. It’s curious, the ways in which our emotions and desires manifest themselves in physical ways. In the last month, I’ve unintentionally read four books in a row that were all psychologically disturbing in one way or another. Starting with Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie, which is a jagged, visceral foray into the mind of a serial killer, based loosely on true events that took place in the predominantly white suburbs of Detroit (and do I even need to mention that the killer was never caught?). After that, I read Beloved, Toni Morrison’s powerful and heart-breaking tale of redemption, where one mother, a former slave, decides to murder her children in order to protect them from a life of subjugation. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Shirley Jackson’s last novel, a sparse and cutting story of small town New England malevolence, at the center of which are two sisters and their paraplegic uncle who relive over and over again the night their entire family was poisoned by arsenic. Jackson, who wrote one of the most anthologized short stories of our time, The Lottery, is so good at psychologically capturing her readers that the horrific becomes almost boring, commonplace even, which is why her writing is so incredible. Jane DeLynn’s novel Leash, however, is disturbing on an entirely different level—disturbing to the point that after finishing Leash, I have resigned myself to reading massive amounts of girl fluff. If anyone would be so kind as to lend me The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I would greatly appreciate it. But until then…
Leash is a sexual and psychological examination of selfhood, one that relies heavily on the masochistic notion that nothing is more liberating than complete and utter enslavement. The narrator is a nameless, middle-aged, middle-class dyke who lives on the lower east side of Manhattan and while her girlfriend (known only as the Current) is away in Sweden for the summer, decides to answer a personal ad in The Village Voice in order to stave off the increasing disenchantment of her material and romantic life. The narrator, who calls herself Chris in order to protect her anonymity (from her master or from the reader?) begins an S/M relationship with a dominatrix, a woman she has never and will never see because Chris is blindfolded throughout the duration of their time together. As Chris’ journey into submission spirals further and further into a dystopian nightmare, DeLynn challenges readers to redefine their conceptions of the erotic and the repulsive.
Part existential, part quippy, part animalistic, Chris’s world, once grounded in the mundane rituals of adult life, slowly but surely reaches its horrific and inevitable conclusion at the hands of “The Society of the Leash,” a social order of master/slave relationships where the dominants are literally owners and the submissives pets, forced to wear canine skins and leashes that not only restrict them to walking on all fours but that psychically symbolize their powerlessness. The submissives’ vocal chords are severed so that they can only communicate through howls and their hands are bound and fused together to become paws. In the words of the auctioneer, “You will achieve a position few in this world ever know—one that is both wholly slave and wholly free, wholly vulnerable and wholly safe, wholly arbitrary and wholly guaranteed. For though love between humans dies, who has ever heard of such happening between human and animal?”
As a culture, we are defined by our sexual practices. For instance, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year on federally funded abstinence-only sex programs. Until the 70s, homosexuality was considered a criminal pathology (and will still get you kicked out of the military). Transsexuality is deeply controlled by medical and psychological technologies and in Texas you can’t even legally purchase a vibrator unless you purchase it as an “educational aid” (Ed. Note: This law was overturned in 2008. Though Alabama still bans them). So it’s not surprising that BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism) has yet to be welcomed by the American Dream. Though in the last decade or so, more and more people have been talking about BDSM, grad students and gender theorists are furiously at work on it and I wouldn’t be surprised if the topic generated some sort of reality television series in the near future. “Bound for Glory” perhaps or “Fit to be Tied.”
The foundation of S/M relationships is not violence, but power and imagination, incorporating or excluding whatever its participants desire in a mutually beneficial contract that guarantees safety, defined roles and control, regardless of the seeming perversity or cruelty that desire might entail. In Leash however, the emulation of S/M exploration ceases to be mutually and erotically beneficial to both partners, indeed sex is hardly connected to the story at all once we are introduced to “The Society of the Leash.” Chris’s dissolution of personhood is manipulated by her master, who disintegrates her every faculty—her speech, her bodily functions, her movements, her consent—to the point where Chris ceases to be human, as all subjectivity and autonomy are stripped from her. DeLynn does this so gradually, lacerating opposing words like “desire” and “disgust” until you can no longer tell the difference between the two, and Chris’s transformation into canine seems not only conceivable but actually inevitable, as if she were ordained for it. “Really, it is all about perversity, isn’t it?” says Chris. “Sex is just the costume.”
Written with an honesty as compelling as it is psychically crippling, Leash is not so much a confrontation as it is an undoing, a kind of disappearing act that slowly and excruciatingly eradicates not only Chris’s sense of self but our own as well. The shock comes not from the book’s graphic nature (though it is very graphic), but from our own expectations of perversity. And DeLynn plays with our expectations, letting us know our enslavement—to her, to her words, albeit temporarily—is voluntary. “Do you want this book to end, so you can start a new one?…As you turn the pages, as your life goes on hold, what are you looking for, dear Reader, so supine and passive in my hands?”
There is an intrinsic power dynamic in everything, even between people and inanimate objects like books, and DeLynn likes to point out, in her darkly humorous fashion, that not only are we the “slaves” in this relationship but that we are utterly complicit in our enslavement. There’s nothing more masochistic than reading a book we absolutely hate or one that terrifies us or makes us cry, scream, throw it across the room, yet, more often than not, we keep reading to the bitter end because we know our punishment must end sometime. Books don’t last forever, and our reward is the satisfaction at having endured something so afflicting and moving on.
- Haiku for the Moon #92-#100
- You can spell hospitality without hospital
- Haiku for Adulthood #76-#78
- Taylor Lautner’s abs and other revelations
My BFF made a survey, like she does, of her life in 2009. It made me want to do a survey too, except it seemed like a lot of work, so I thought I’d do mine in pictures instead.
1. What did you do in 2009 that you’d never done before?
7. Where did most of your money go?
Just kidding. It was actually stuffing.
8. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
9. What song will always remind you of 2009?
11. What do you wish you’d done more of?
the answer is Tina Fey, not learn to play a typewriter like an accordion, in case that wasn’t immediately obvious
14. What was the best book you read?
19. What did you do on your birthday?
22. What kept you sane?
27. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2009.
41. Where did you ring in 2009?
42. What was your status by Valentine’s Day?
Damn, that actually took a long time! I’m changing my biggest accomplishment of 2009 to THIS BLOG POST.
- How George Bush continues to haunt my dreams
- Misconceptions About Lesbians
- Team Edward
- Things I wish I had written/invented
- Taylor Lautner’s abs and other revelations