Monday, September 26, 2011

reflections on of wyrms and women pt 15

The hardest part of putting an old project online is going through with posting the parts i find embarrassing. i think this section about Sam & Nora was one of the earliest, influenced by reading lots of novels where the lives of grown women are shaped by the terrible shit that happened to them as little girls (Ann-Marie MacDonald's novels are the perfect example, I had read them as an undergraduate student, written about how the dead women in her novels become screens for the projected anxieties of the people around them.). Bad things happening to little girls is a tactic that Star Trek uses when its time for a teary episode. It's an easy way to generate emotion. But i committed to putting up the manuscript as it exists without alterations, and i think its important to reflect on how and why my position on this particular scene has changed.

One thing i no longer like about this tactic in terms of literature is the direct causation: Sam was maybe abused by her best friend who herself was being abused, so she becomes a dysfunctional adult. It's predictable. If i were to rewrite now, there would be no childhood trauma. Sam would be allowed to just be depressed and lethargic and uncertain without an obvious cause. Nora would probably just disappear from the story. Or she'd be a very different character.

At the time, though, i thought this kind of scene was necessary to establish character. A glimpse at a past that hints at abuse. Sam's mother's reaction here is off, too. She's heard that there was abuse occurring in a household her daughter frequently visited, and she doesn't flip out about whether or not Sam was in the house when this was occurring, she doesn't ask if Sam knew what was going on or was herself a victim? It could be that Sam's mother figures she knows her daughter and would see if something was wrong, but it still seems like a very subdued, controlled reaction. And who is misreading the situation? Sam? Her mother? Both? This was meant to be an untidy scene, but it's too vague to work i think.

Besides, is Sam sexually inhibited because she's been abused by her friend or because she's an uptight narcissist. i'd like to think the second, but this scene seems to indicate the first. Which is a problem when the story is focalized through one character. i'm not certain anymore that well-adjusted Tia counterbalances the uncomfortable idea that sexuality is determined by childhood trauma, and that's not an concept i want to endorse. not to say that sexual abuse doesn't have an impact on a child's sexual development, it can, but there are a range of possible reactions and developments, and really this scene is too simplistic to address all that.

The point is that i now think that sexual abuse shouldn't just be thrown into my manuscript as a plot device or as an explanation of character. It makes me think about the way some comic book writers use rape as a shock mechanism to show how grown up and dark comics are now. Yes, rape happens alarmingly frequently in the world. But writing about rape requires awareness of the repercussions of how and why rape and the lives of people who have been raped are depicted.

Maybe a few years ago i wasn't quite so critically aware. Or maybe i was just not applying that awareness to my own writing. In either case, here's one of the instances where putting a first draft out into the world makes me think about taking a lot more time to refine future texts so that my stance on the literary & political worth of the writing doesn't shift quite so drastically upon later reading (though to what extent is that avoidable? hrm. makes me happy i was never a prodigy who published at 16, that's for sure).

Of Wyrms and Women pt 15

[part 1] [part 2] [part 3][part 4][part 5][part 6][part 7][part 8][part 9][part 10][part 11][part 12][part 13][part 14]

I hated going to Nora’s house. I went over because she was my best friend. But her mother used to stand behind me and dig her talons into my scalp; they were long, red nails—probably artificial, although I didn’t know such a thing existed when I was that young. Nora was a pretty girl, everyone said so. Everyone wanted to be her friend, but I lived on the same street. We were automatic best friends. Bosom buddies, I used to say, because I was enthralled by Anne of Green Gables and her wild, unrestrained passions. Nora had long, blond, wavy hair. It was perfect for braiding, for pigtails, for barrettes. I was jealous. My Mom used to keep my thick, frizzy hair short, for simplicity. Nora’s went down to her bum, and I envied her.

Nora’s mom was a witch. I never told anyone, but I was sure of it. Her pointy nose, her thick brown hair, and her thin lips convinced me. And then of course, there were her fingers, which were long, bony, and always reaching for me. I much preferred it when Nora slept over at my house, although really I just wanted Nora to go home when it got dark.

But we were girls, and we were supposed to have sleepovers. So we did. We would get into our pyjamas and sit up as late as we could before my mother sent us scurrying to my room. Where, in the dark, under the blankets, Nora would ask me do you want to be best friends forever, well then prove it, my mom says that if you want someone to stay, you have to do what they say. Now let’s play Truth or Dare.

I always did what Nora said, although I secretly didn’t want her to stay. Once I got out of bed, dressed, and tried to sneak out in the middle of the night. Nora caught me while I was tying my shoes. She told me I didn’t love her enough. If I didn’t get back to bed she’d tell her mom. So I trudged back upstairs and got undressed. Naughty girls don’t get pyjamas. You have to sleep naaaaaaaked. I wondered if it would be better not to have a best friend.

Then one day, Nora and her mother were gone.

My mother sat me down with a bowl of chocolate ice cream in the middle of the afternoon. Ice cream before dinner was never allowed. She told me that Nora was gone, her mother had taken her and left their house. My mother told me that sometimes Daddies can be bad, that maybe it was good for Nora to get away. But Mom had it all wrong; Nora’s Daddy was nice. He was gone a lot, he travelled for work. He brought home Nora lots of neat presents, sometimes Smarties from England, sweeter than the ones here, or Chelsea Yogurt Scotch candies from Japan. Nora would share the scotches with me, she thought they were too chewy. Nora had been snatched by the witch.

They were gone, and then her father moved away too. The house was empty for a long time before an older couple moved into it. I never had another best friend.

After Nora went away, I became afraid of hands living under the bed. Mom would tuck me in tight, but I knew if the blankets came loose, the hands would crawl up and get me. I pissed the bed every night, but I’d never make a sound. I wake up wet, and shiver back to sleep.

“Why didn’t you call me?” Mom would ask. “I could have given you dry sheets, and you wouldn’t have this rash.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

i have been meaning to read this book for a very long time. And i wasn't disappointed. This tale of two young Jewish men who create a comic book empire during WWII has a great blend of realism and fantasy. Josef (Joe) Kavalier escapes Nazi-occupied Prague but leaves his family behind. He manages to reach his relatives in America, among them Samuel Klayman (Sammy Clay), who discovers that Joe is a good artist, and manages to get them a chance to create a comic book. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that transition into the comic book world, though i wonder about the way these chapters always make the ekphrasis apparent by mentioning ink or pages. What would happen if the immediacy of the story of Luna Moth, for instance, was never disrupted with the revelation that the reader is reading a comic book translated into prose? The reader would still *get* it, because these characters are discussed elsewhere, but it wouldn't put neat little boxes around the events, creating a visible separation between reality and art.

There's also exploration of sexual identity and sexual politics that relates to alter egos and hidden identities. Sammy is homosexual, though he decides to hide that homosexuality and marry (the marriage itself is a complicated situation arising from Rosa's need to choose whether to abort or keep Joe's baby when he leaves to join the navy; Rosa loves Joe but won't tell him about her pregnancy, Sammy loves an actor but decides not to go to LA with him, so Rosa and Sammy marry so that they can raise the baby together. They maintain elaborate fictions to keep their life functioning, neither completely satisfied though they do value and love each other). The reactions to his homosexuality are varied. Sammy is condemned in a variety of ways: by a society where being gay is a crime leaving Sammy vulnerable to predators who wear the guise of the law, by himself because he doesn't want to be a "fairy", and then his work is condemned by senators who panic at the suggestion of homoeroticism in comic books and who see "sidekicks" as pedophilia. But Sammy's friends, his mother, even his wife have more complicated reactions that range from acceptance to careful self-imposed blind spots.

Kavalier & Clay constantly interrogates the reality of magic, through the stage performances of Josef Kavalier, the comic book superheroes, references to Harry Houdini, and the Golem of Prague. Which magic is real? Who controls the trick? When will it succeed? Kavalier's inability to pull off an escape early in the book has a tragic consequence, but he is able to escape Prague with the help of his magic teacher. The Golem of Prague is transported to prevent Nazi capture, but it is inanimate and cannot protect the Jewish people of Prague against Nazi invasion (though its transport allows Joe to get out of Prague, so its existence enables one survival. Joe experiences survivor's guilt as one after another of his relatives die or are killed during the occupation; to him this escape was a mixed blessing.).

i can't help but think about Art Spiegelman's Maus, the bleak comic book autobiography about Spiegelman's father surviving the Holocaust. Maus seems like it's missing from Kavalier & Clay because so many comic books & comic creators are mentioned. But Maus was published in 1972, after the conclusion of this novel. But when Kavalier writes a large graphic novel about the Golem, it points towards Spiegelman.

One thing that i disliked about the novel was that the reader gets to see Joe's mother's final letter, even though Joe never does. The reader receives the comfort of knowing that Joe's family did not expect to hear from him further, that they want him to move on with his life. i felt that this distance between Joe and the reader, while it created sympathy, kept the reader from getting close to Joe's violent rage against Germans. Again there's an irony that lets the reader outsmart the character, a type of distance that i have been working on minimizing in my own writing (which is perhaps why i notice it so much here, and why i feel that removing that distance would be more effective at letting the reader understand the character, because the reader would not be above or separate from the character's misreading of situations or the character's mistakes. then again, comic books often make liberal use of this irony, so it might be appropriate to a book that often becomes a textual comic. i would prefer less of it, and the letter was the moment that most pulled me out of the narrative when Joe didn't get to read its contents.).

In any case, i thought this was a good book. It addressed the anger and violence of a young person who escaped the violence in a way that i found poignant and unique because the book doesn't have a dark or morbid tone, though dark and morbid things happen frequently. Good doesn't always triumph, but there is a kind of cautious optimism that at the right place and at the right time magic works even though (or perhaps because) the world has gone to shit.

"I remember when you first got here. That first day we went into Anapol's office. Do you remember that?"

Joe said that naturally he remembered that day.

"I handed you a Superman comic book and told you to come up with a superhero for us and you drew the Golem. And I thought you were an idiot."

"And I was."

"And you were. But that was 1939. In 1954, I don't think the Golem makes you such an idiot anymore."

Friday, September 9, 2011

Of Wyrms and Women pt 14

[part 1] [part 2] [part 3][part 4][part 5][part 6][part 7][part 8][part 9][part 10][part 11][part 12][part 13]

An old grey-skinned woman sits beneath a gnarled tree, nestled between two craggy roots. The woman has a shar-pei face, and her sparse white hair is long and unbound. She is knitting. Multicoloured balls of yarn surround her. Her hands are almost still. The needles are a wooden blur. She stops knitting, and her left hand snaps up a pair of scissors. The scissors glint, although there is no sun, and I see a pair of green eyes reflected in them. I see the woman’s fingers; they are unblemished, younger than the rest of her body. The nails are crimson and sharp. The woman cackles, and cuts down the middle of the rows she has just knit. Everything unravels.

I jolt awake and take a deep, gasping breath.

“Are you okay?” Tia is beside me. I can’t see her face in the dark.