by Jennifer duBois, March 30, 2012 11:16 AM
In promoting A Partial History of Lost Causes
, I've fielded some questions about what it was like to write across gender ? to enter the point of view of a man, Aleksandr, and stay there for 30 years of his life. Those questions have made me think in a broader sense about what writing across gender means: what it implies, who is expected to do it, how it relates to some of the most vexing ontological questions about women that have preoccupied the country of late, and how, perhaps, it can help to address them.
I don't think it's terribly controversial to note that women, from a young age, are required to consider the reality of the opposite gender's consciousness in a way that men aren't. This isn't to say that women don't often misunderstand, mistreat, and stereotype men, both in literature and in life. But on a basic level, functioning in society requires that women register that men are fully conscious; it is not really possible for a woman to throw up her hands and write men off as eternally unknowable space aliens — and even if she says she has, she cannot really behave as though she has. Every element of her life — from reading books about boys and men to writing papers about the motivations of male characters to being attentive to her own safety to navigating most any institutional or professional or economic sphere — demands an ironclad familiarity with, and belief in, the idea that men really are fully human entities. And no matter how many men come to the same conclusions about women, the structure of society simply does not demand so strenuously that they do so. If you didn't really deep down believe that women were, in general, exactly as conscious as you, you could probably still get by in life. You could probably still get a book deal. You could probably still get elected to office.
This discrepancy plays out in fiction, where it fuels a literary cycle which is both a cause and a consequence of the broader issue. Girls, alongside the variety of other ways in which they're confronting the reality of male consciousness, read and write papers about Huck and then Holden and then Jake Barnes. In doing so, they learn that male minds, like female minds, are complicated and weird and worthy of attention. Adult female readers then will often voluntarily read books by and about both men and women, whereas male readers will overwhelmingly, though of course not exclusively, read books by and about men. And female writers will often also voluntarily write books populated by both men and women. (If they don't, they will have to be ever-mindful of the possibility of being understood as writers of "women's fiction" — meaning fiction for women only.) Male writers will have the latitude to do whatever they want: many will write books about both men and women, but they can excise women entirely from their fictional universes, if they want to, without ever marginalizing their books. And all of this results, of course, in a re-enforcement of the initial problem: the production of another realm where taking women seriously — as consciousnesses, narrators, characters — is optional.
Male writers' hesitation to use women as point of view characters seems to stem in part from a prevailing sense — perhaps not entirely unfounded — that one simply can't win, and that the tiniest gesture or cadence amiss could spark a frenzy. But a larger fraction of the hesitation seems to me to arise from two premises: first, the notion that women are essentially strangers, their consciousnesses wholly foreign; and second, that this foreignness, in addition to being unassailable, is also pretty limited and boring. A male writer who careens around in time, deviates from autobiography, or takes liberties with realism believes in the potential dramatic and aesthetic payoffs for doing so. Writing from a female point of view seems to be generally regarded as something more like writing from the perspective of a deer: you might get points for novelty, but it'd be impossible to get right, and who really wants to hear a deer narrate a story, anyway?
That is, of course, something of an overstatement. But I suspect that the notion that women's consciousnesses are so alien and reduced as to be generally unknowable is actually fairly widespread, I suspect it pervades our literary culture, and I suspect it explains a lot of recent political theatrics. But I also suspect that reading books with complicated female consciousnesses (any kind, as long as someone's actually driving!) can chip away at it, to some extent. If there's one thing that's unambiguously morally elevating about fiction, it's the way it forces us to confront the complexities of the brains of strangers, since all characters are strangers to us when we start a book. By engaging our attention and our curiosity, fictional people can make real people seem more real. And that means that writing female narrators is something of an ethical issue, as well as a literary one, for writers of both
by Jennifer duBois, March 29, 2012 1:26 PM
More than a few reviews of A Partial History of Lost Causes
have described Irina as a Harvard graduate and/or lecturer, which she's actually not — she teaches at a technical college in Boston's South End, and her alma mater is lazily located in Somerville, home of my own alma mater, Tufts, though both of these facts are only briefly mentioned — and it's interesting to me how horrified and embarrassed I always am by this mistake, as though people think I'm trying to claim a Harvard connection I don't have. As though I'd have the audacity to write from a Harvard woman's point of view! But then I remind myself that I've actually done something far worse than that: I've written from the point of view of a world chess champion, when I am, shamefully, no chess player at all.
I did play as a child with my father, and I've always been interested in the game — its elegance, its metaphorical power, its Old World cachet. (As a young, strange child, I think I often imagined that in my future life I'd live like some kind of fancy retired British general from the turn of the last century, which would naturally include having lots of chess sets all around. I truly don't know where I got this.) And one of the few autobiographical moments in the book comes when Irina beats her father at chess for the first time and is inordinately pleased with herself, only to realize years later that this moment in fact must have announced the beginning of her father's illness. But as an adult, I play chess only rarely and always badly; my brain basically doesn't fully register that there's a spatial dimension to the world (when I was a child, my parents were told by a pained-looking tester that my spatial reasoning skills were "within normal range;" in college I'd sit five feet away from the TV and think I was blocking my roommate's view of it.)
So in writing about chess for Partial History, I hoped I could accurately and engagingly describe what chess looks like, and possibly hazard some psychological guess at what chess feels like, but I knew I could never hope to imagine, on my own, how the games might actually work. Instead, I stole them — I lifted moves from famous matches, acted them out on my chessboard, and then tried to describe the way the games progressed with as much verve as possible, hoping to make the scenes lively and accessible for players and non-players alike. But I also wanted to include the occasional obscure reference or allusion for any serious followers of the game who might read the book — thus the Bezetov vs. Rusayev match is, move for move, Kasparov against Karpov; Kasparov and Bezetov make the same mistake in the same sequence in their fatal games against the Deep Blue computer program; and even Bezetov's match against his old mentor at the chess academy is, as a kind of in-joke, based on another, much more famous game.
Beyond the games themselves, chess solidly insinuated itself into the book as a motif. It was interesting to watch chess iterate through the story — in some ways I was conscious of, and in other ways I only saw in retrospect. The structure of the book — Aleksandr and then Irina's sections — came to feel like a chess game: one character moves, and then another. And the game provided a vocabulary for both the philosophical and political concerns of the novel — in terms of one move forcing the next, the procession against inevitable defeat. Chess became so central that I think it's debatable whether the politics in the book aren't, at least sometimes, a metaphor for chess, instead of the other way around. And the ending, as I've remarked elsewhere, has something of the feel of a chess move, I think. Writing Partial History has given me a deeper, more profound appreciation for chess, and for the terrifyingly smart people who play it well. Maybe someday one of them will teach me. But I suspect it would be an uphill
by Jennifer duBois, March 28, 2012 12:39 PM
Over the past few years of writing and workshopping fiction, I've heard and discussed the word "realism" at some length, and lately I've come to a pretty radical suspicion about it: it does not really exist. That is to say, we talk about realism as though there's an objective rubric against which we can measure a story's relationship to reality, and that that's how we judge whether a story is implausible or outlandish or incredible or otherwise in violation of certain firm parameters of how the universe runs on a narrative level. But this can't quite be the case, because different people have very different plausibility thresholds, which hugely informs the stories they tell and consume. This doesn't have to have anything to do with people's differing ideas about the state of the physical world, I don't think. And it isn't just a question of people having varying levels of willingness to suspend their disbelief, though that's a part of it, or the fact that some people are more bothered than others by the experience of encountering a detail in a story they don't quite buy, though that's a part of it, too. More fundamentally, I think, people have very different conceptions of the essential wackiness of the universe and the lives lived within it, and these conceptions can vary significantly even between people who share the exact same ideas about the nature of physical reality. This is why details that feel perfectly reasonable to one reader can feel mind-bogglingly absurd to another.
This phenomenon is something I've encountered again and again over the years in my own writing. I don't draw much on my autobiography for my fiction, a fact for which the world should be very grateful (Chapter 4: 1995: In Which I Endure the Epic Artistic Ordeal of Trying to Write Little Women: The Musical and Nobody Appreciates My Vision). But, like most writers, I will steal a detail or a situation from my own life if I think it's actually interesting. What I've learned from doing this is that if my life were a book, it would strain the credulity of a lot of readers in spite of its sedate overarching plot (e.g. Chapter 6: 1997: In Which I Try to Pretend Denim Slacks with Elastic Waistbands Are Jeans and Junior High Classmates Remain Unconvinced). Many times the autobiographical details I've used for color in a story — a sudden case of night blindness, the lights in an apartment burning out within a short time frame, a character driven to distraction by a dementia victim's tendency to leave dental floss everywhere — are the details that are scanned as surreal by readers. Yet the episodes in my own life that seem to me to be truly too strange for fiction are truly much stranger than those. I'll never fictionalize the story about how, as a small child, I correctly predicted the due date of the baby my mother would later learn she was carrying, and would then lose (in fiction, such an episode would be mystical and maudlin and annoying). I'll never try to use the fact that my father's favorite tree, an enormous one-hundred-year-old white pine tree, was catastrophically hit by lightning the same year that my father himself was catastrophically hit on the head by a falling branch, leading to the head injury that would lead to his Alzheimer's that would lead to his death (in fiction, this parallel would be too broadly symbolic).
There's nothing more irrelevant to fiction's quality than the question of whether the events it describes actually occurred, of course. But it's interesting to think about how individual's life experiences inform their perceptions of reality, and how these differing perceptions will naturally fuel diverse notions of what "realism" actually is. And this makes perfect sense. After all, our lives shape the characters we're drawn to and the narratives we're interested in — why shouldn't it shape the stories we're willing to
by Jennifer duBois, March 27, 2012 11:17 AM
Of the many monopolies once and future Russian president Vladimir Putin has held over the years — on violence, on the media, on the gas industry — one of the most powerful has been a monopoly on the expression of derision. Over the past decade, the state's stranglehold grip over television has kept public dissent to a minimum, as has the targeted assassinations of particularly mouthy journalists (such as Noveta Gazeta
's Anna Politkovskaya). But the Kremlin has carefully policed much smaller expressions of criticism, too. In 2002, the long-running satire program Kukly
was shut down after featuring one too many appearances by a Putin puppet doll. Meanwhile, state media has been fed a steady diet of press releases and photographs documenting Putin's myriad talents: his accomplishments in Judo, his facility with motorcycles, his fearlessness in the face of various animal attacks. Putin may have a good deal of KGB sangfroid, but he mightily fears the costs of appearing ridiculous. For such a confident guy, he is just not that great at taking a joke.
It's significant, then, that the protests of the last few months have been accompanied by a newfound glee in ridiculing the regime. The Internet has provided new audiences and opportunities for that mockery. Perhaps because they are wary of state television, Russians spend more time on the web than most of their Western European counterparts. Political blogging is on the rise, and the Internet serves as a forum for Russians to organize and express their frustrations from behind a protective veil of anonymity. But in addition to its obvious virtues as a tool of democracy, the Internet also has the power to transmit small moments of irony to a global audience. In February, in the Siberian city of Barnaul, protesters erected a display of dolls — including South Park figurines and Lego men — holding tiny signs demanding clean elections; officials huffily deemed this an "unsanctioned public event." International attention on such episodes grants the protesters a new and threatening capacity: to make the regime look foolish before the world.
Though hypersensitive about being an object of ridicule himself, Putin has not been shy about heaping contempt upon the protest movement. Last month, Putin compared anti-Kremlin demonstrators to monkeys from The Jungle Book. After an influx of angry comments on Putin's website was mysteriously deleted, a spokesman characterized commenters' calls for resignation as "a kind of computer game that children are playing at." And throughout it all, the Kremlin has framed the protests, rather implausibly, as the devious work of America.
But none of this has stopped the wave of mockery heading Putin's way, and this seems to represent a fundamental shift in Russian political culture. For years, the administration has been sneering at its people. The people are beginning to sneer back, loudly. Last month, a satirical news story from the future reporting Putin's arrest went viral; after Putin compared protestors to Jungle Book characters, they showed up at the next protest dressed as apes. (Perhaps registering the shift in the national tolerance level of one-way state-sponsored mockery, opposition candidate and Mikhail Prokhorov last month appeared on Projector Paris Hilton, a comedy program, and rapped about his company's new mobile phone.) Much work lies ahead for the democratic movement in Russia. But over the last few months, Russians have increasingly made Putin — Judo champion, ex-spy, autocrat — look silly in front of the world. For such an image-obsessed man, this poses a real threat.
by Jennifer duBois, March 26, 2012 11:56 AM
When my father was ill with Alzheimer's, he once brought home an enormous stuffed wolf from our town's local dump. I was probably a sophomore in high school at the time. In those days my father was still driving short distances and talking, but not remembering or judging very well. He'd gone to the dump on an errand and had seen the wolf and felt sorry for it. The wolf had probably been abandoned because it was too terrifying for a child to love; it had a menacing red mouth and crazed, slightly manic blue eyes. But somehow it had engaged my father's sympathies, and he brought it home and sat it across from him at the dining room table, where he sat for many hours a day trying to rewrite his music. He'd been a very gifted composer in his previous life. By the time the wolf came to stay with us, my mother had long ago copied and hidden my father's original scores.
This snapshot — of my father sitting across from an enormous stuffed wolf, whose horrifying eyes my mother eventually concealed with sunglasses — is probably the single best distillation of the experience of Alzheimer's in my life. It's all there in that scene — my mother's love for my father in preserving his original scores, the remnants of my father's endlessly sweet and whimsical self in his concern for the wolf (this was very nearly the kind of thing he would have done when he was well), the strange repulsiveness of having a discarded stuffed wolf at the table, and the utter futility of trying to fight any of it. And also, just as much, is the consoling absurdity of the sunglasses: I remember how my mother and I laughed and laughed over them. It was a laughter tinged with desperation, but it was real. The wolf was truly funny — dark, and absurd, and horrible, and hilarious. My mother and I engaged in this kind of laughter many times during the 13 years my father was sick, and we emerged armed with a capacity to take real comfort in absurdity. Of all the dubious blessings granted by Alzheimer's, this is the one for which I am the most grateful.
While I was writing A Partial History of Lost Causes, one of the first things I knew about the character of Irina was that she would have that quality — a hard-won capacity to find the redemptive comedy around the edges of tragedy. As Irina is confronting her diagnosis of Huntington's disease and all of its dreadful implications, she indulges in loads of self-pity without, I hope, ever losing her mordant sense of humor. She's capable of viewing her own attempts to disengage from life with a wry acknowledgment of their uselessness; she is capable of secretly and half-seriously suspecting that her own death will mean the end of the universe while simultaneously mocking herself for such epic solipsism. As she nears the end of her expected healthy life span, Irina is presented with the choice of either denying or embracing the bleak absurdity of her situation — and she doesn't only embrace the absurdity, she goes chasing it, running off to St. Petersburg to try to track down her dead father's beloved chess champion, Aleksandr Bezetov. (Bezetov, it turns out, has his own fairly absurd quest underway: a quixotic political campaign against Vladimir Putin.) And throughout Irina's travels, her own inner monologue — along with her robust sense of irony — is her most reliable companion, whether she's bumbling through a foreign political landscape or enduring the derision of a soldier in a night club. Humor is widely — and rightly, I think — understood as a kind of armor. But in Irina's case — as in the case of my mother and me — it's also a kind of salvation.
And in a small way, Irina's sense of humor speaks to the deeper elements of negative capability that she and Aleksandr — and everyone else in the world — must grapple with. We are expected to somehow live knowing that we will die. We are expected to die believing that the world will somehow pick itself up and stagger on without us. We are confronted with realities that are equally impossible to either believe or disbelieve. And sometimes — quite often, actually — things are hideous and hilarious at exactly the same time. Sometimes a stuffed wolf from the dump shows up at the table, and all you can do is offer it a pair of sunglasses.