31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 17: “We So Seldom Look on Love” by Barbara Gowdy

May 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From We So Seldom Look on Love

In his Preface to the New York Edition of The American, Henry James writes of the principle by which artistic genius may produce, unconsciously in the making but evident in retrospect, a work that tugs in two directions at once – romance and realism in the case of James’s own novel (it being typical of the author to impute the condition of artistic genius upon himself). Art, James supposes, is greatest when the artist commits himself to “the law of some rich passion in him for extremes.” James continues:

Of the men of largest responding imagination before the human scene, of Scott, of Balzac, even of the coarse, comprehensive, prodigious Zola, we feel, I think, that the deflexion toward either quarter has never taken place; that neither the nature of the man’s faculty nor the nature of his experience has ever quite determined it. His current remains therefore extraordinarily rich and mixed, washing us successively with the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock, as may be, of the far and strange.

While in one sense it seems utterly foolish to compare Barbara Gowdy to Scott, Balzac, and Zola, her fiction nevertheless embodies the kind of “rich passion … for extremes” that James admired, and it is possible to locate in her work, as with few other late 20th or early 21st century authors, “the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock … of the far and strange.” Unlike the authors James mentions, however, these conditions are not successive – that is, discrete – in Gowdy’s fiction: they are inextricably mingled.

If Gowdy’s preferred mode is one of mimetic realism, her subject matter is often limned from the margins or the extremities of polite society. She finds sympathy and solace in outcasts and freaks, people (or, in the case of The White Bone, creatures) who are the focus of derision, hatred, or fear: the child abductor in Helpless, the brain-damaged (possibly reincarnated) albino daughter in Mister Sandman, and, not least of all, the necrophile protagonist in the title story of Gowdy’s 1992 collection, We So Seldom Look on Love.

Told in the first person, and employing a light, almost conversational cadence, the story traces the unnamed narrator’s experience with corpses, from her childhood fascination with dead birds and chipmunks, to her eventual obsession – beginning at age sixteen – with making love to human cadavers. Neither an apologia nor a justification, the narration is an exploration of the narrator’s attempt to harness the “energy emission” that occurs in “the act of life alchemizing into death,” and the concomitant transformation that can be effected at such a moment. “I’ve seen cadavers shining like stars,” she says.

At the story’s opening, the narrator explains this energy transference in terms that echo James: “There is always energy given off when a thing turns into its opposite, when love, for instance, turns into hate. There are always sparks at those extreme points. But life turning into death is the most extreme of extreme points.” The equation of sex and death is axiomatic (the French metaphor for orgasm, la petite mort, invoked particularly by literary critic Roland Barthes, literally means “little death”), and certainly has no short history in literature. Arguably the most famous novel to equate the sex act with the condition of being (un)dead is Dracula, but the correlation has also appeared in the work of writers as diverse as Charles Baudelaire, William Shakespeare, and Christina Rossetti. Woody Allen has said that “all great literature is about sex and death.” Gowdy simultaneously reflects and extends this tradition by emphasizing the moment of transition between life and death and the way death (in her story, quite literally) bleeds into life.

Indeed, blood is the signal bodily fluid for Gowdy’s narrator. As a child experimenting with death, the narrator develops numerous rituals to help pay respect to the bodies of the animals she buries; one such ritual involves dancing around with the carcass in her hands (this she calls “Anonitment”). On one occasion she appalls her best friend (and future sister-in-law) by stripping naked and rubbing the corpse of a chipmunk over her skin: “Carol stopped dancing. I looked at her, and the expression on her face stopped me dancing too. I looked down at the chipmunk in my hand. It was bloody. There were streaks of blood all over my body. I was horrified. I thought I’d squeezed the chipmunk too hard . But what had happened was, I’d begun my period. I figured this out a few minutes after Carol ran off. I wrapped the chipmunk in a shroud and buried it.” Carol reacts to the sight of her friend’s blood with horror and disgust. Whether she has also assumed the blood belongs to the chipmunk is unclear; what is abundantly clear is that the narrator’s menstrual blood is a symbol both of her transition into womanhood – her ability to carry and birth a child – as well as her loss of an unfertilized egg: literally, life and death are commingled here.

When she begins making love to corpses, the narrator uses blood from the dead bodies as a lubricant, something that her lover, Matt, is the only person to comprehend: “He was a medical student, so he knew that if you apply pressure to the chest of certain fresh corpses, they purge blood out of their mouths.” Rather than reacting to the narrator’s admission in the way Carol does – that is, with revulsion – Matt is fascinated, and seems to understand the essential connection between blood and sex, life and death: “Sperm propagates life,” he says. “But blood sustains it. Blood is primary.”

In Carol and Matt, Gowdy has provided another set of extremes: the former is disgusted and horrified by the narrator’s obsession, the latter is sympathetic and non-judgmental. These are, of course, the two poles that the reader is offered. One of the essential aspects of Gowdy’s fiction in general, and “We So Seldom Look on Love” in particular, is its refusal to provide any pat moral or to imply any “correct” reading. Because she also traffics in the extremes of human behaviour, it is hardly possible for a reader to adopt an ambivalent position. In this case, she has confronted us with a narrator who acts outside the confines of what society considers normative or acceptable, but she has done so without casting moral judgment. Any moral outrage brought to the story is the reader’s, not the author’s. As readers, we are given a choice: we can side with Carol or we can side with Matt.

The latter choice is fraught, since Matt’s unrequited love for the narrator can only be returned if he dies. True love, the story posits, is dangerous, sacrificial, and potentially fatal. Matt’s desire for the narrator can only find its reflection in her through his death: “He was playing with fire,” she says, “playing with me.” Matt finally commits suicide, albeit with help from the narrator (exactly how much help is another matter that is left indeterminate in the text), whereby he hopes to effect the transformation that will allow the narrator finally to love him.

The end of the story returns us full circle to the beginning, to “the most extreme of extreme points,” when life transforms itself into death. “I think that all desire is desire for transformation,” the narrator says, “and that all transformation – all movement, all process – happens because life turns into death.” This insistence on process belies the idea of polarities – between life and death, love and hate – that have been identified previously, but the final line of the story finds a return to a juxtaposition of extremes in the “torrid serenity” the narrator discovers making love to cadavers. If Carol and Matt represent the poles of conventional society, the narrator is in some ways the synthesis of these poles, these extremes. She represents otherness, which may either be embraced by society or shunned, but cannot be ignored. James would have approved.

(This piece first appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries)

How to make it as a writer: be a man

January 6, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

The shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize was released yesterday, and it consists of four books:

  • The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son by Ian Brown
  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000 by John English
  • René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin
  • The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Life of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte

Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you’ll notice about this list is that all four books are written by men. Not only that: all four books are written by men writing about men. The authors are all white, all of a certain age, and in all but one case (Brown’s) the books’ subjects are dead white guys.

This is particularly noticeable coming so soon after Publishers Weekly released its list of the ten best books of 2009, not one of which was written by a woman. Much was made of the longlist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which contained 12 names, only two of which were men. Both made it onto the shortlist, and one of them (Linden MacIntyre) went on to win the award. Indeed, in Giller’s 16-year history, the prize has gone to a woman only five times, and there have been only four female honourees (Alice Munro won twice). In a December 30 op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Julianna Baggott points out that there were only two women in Amazon’s top ten for 2009, and four in the top 20.

The raw numbers seem to point to an ingrained institutional sexism, which is odd for an industry supported by women (who statistically consume more books than men) and powered by women (who make up the vast majority of influential acquisitions editors in Canada – think Louise Dennys, Ellen Seligman, Iris Tupholme, Nicole Winstanley, Alana Wilcox, Lynn Henry, Anne Collins, etc.). Baggott does not limit her analysis to a recapitulation of the numbers; instead, she attempts to settle on an explanation as to why books by men get trumpeted more often and more loudly than books by women:

I often hear people exclaiming that they’re astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What’s interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly – war, boyhood, adventure.

The idea that “men get points for simply showing up on the page” is fatuous, especially given that many novelists, such as Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marcel Proust, who historically trafficked in books of deep – not to say extreme – psychological depth, were possessed of a Y chromosome. I hardly think that James, Dostoevsky, or Proust are given points “for simply showing up on the page.” In a similar vein (since we’re speaking anecdotally), I’ve never heard anyone say of Kazuo Ishiguro’s extraordinary 2005 novel Never Let Me Go (a mainstay of the ubiquitous “Best of the Decade” lists that have been cropping up in the last few months), “That’s a terrific novel. I can’t believe it was written by a man.” Most people I’m aware of (both male and female) would stop after the first of those two utterances.

What’s more interesting is Baggott’s theory that women get passed over because they don’t write about masculine themes – war, boyhood, and adventure. One 2009 novel written by a woman – Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean – features all three, and was nominated for the Giller, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (it won the last of these). By contrast, Bonnie Burnard’s highly anticipated second novel, Suddenly, also published in 2009, is about three women whose lifelong friendship is changed when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It wasn’t nominated for any major awards. Does this have to do with the respective themes these two authors chose?

It’s tempting to say yes, until you realize that one of the four female Giller Prize recipients is Bonnie Burnard, who took the award in 1999 for her debut novel, A Good House. Set in the aftermath of World War II, that novel is about three generations of an ordinary family. In other words, Burnard’s first novel contains none of the themes Baggott specified, yet it went on to win this country’s richest prize for English-language fiction. Is it possible, then, that her follow-up was passed over for award consideration not because of its subject matter, the gender of its author, or an institutionalized sexism, but because it simply wasn’t as good as other novels from the past year?

Perhaps. Of course, one book is too small a sample size to be statistically significant. So we can look at the five books by females out of 16 Giller Prize winners since 1994, as well as the number of women over the same period who have won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction (five), the Man Booker Prize (six), the Pulitzer Prize (six), and the National Book Award (six). The largest of these numbers – six – accounts for 37.5% of the total winners of any given prize for the period.

If the numbers don’t lie, and if Baggott’s explanations are unsatisfactory to explain them, where do we go from here? Writing in the Norfolk Books Examiner, Lydia Netzer engages with Baggott’s analysis and comes up with three possibilities to explain the exclusion of women from the Publishers Weekly list:

1. The list is sexist, purposefully oppressing women. The solution in this case would be, I guess, to burn down the list. Make a new list. Get those bastards. This seems kind of weak and paranoid.

2. The list is false, reflecting a lame and lingering cultural bias that is on its way out. The solution is to wait. After all, we didn’t count the black writers, or the South American writers. It will all come around, given more time. I guess this is what I would like to believe.

The third possibility is more alarming than the others, because it is the simplest explanation, and therefore the most viable:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

It is this last hypothesis that Netzer ends up endorsing: “The lesson of the [PW] list is that nobody’s going to do us any favors. We’re not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books.” If women want to get their books on the major prize lists and roundups of the year’s best, they need to “address the important stuff, the big stuff: death, war, sex, adventure, as it pertains to women and men.” Which brings us full circle to Baggott’s idea of “masculine” themes – i.e., the big stuff, the earth-shattering warp and woof of history.

Except that one of the women writers Netzer mentions as being historically relevant is Virginia Woolf, who didn’t exactly write about “adventure.” On the contrary, Mrs. Dalloway is the prototypical domestic novel, focusing on the title character’s preparations for a dinner party. (Yes, this is the crassest of oversimplifications, but I’m attempting to make a point.) The novel is resolutely interior, yet it has been heralded as a modernist classic. Another classic from the early 20th century, this one written by a man, takes up similar quotidian themes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is not about war or adventure, it’s about two gents who wander around Dublin while one of them gets cuckolded. It would appear the whole focus on “masculine” subject matter is a bit of a non-starter, then as now.

While I’d like to believe that Netzer’s second hypothesis is the correct one, my suspicion is that the truth is closer to her first suggestion. It’s probably the case that there is an unconscious sexism afoot in our literary culture, which props up the work of men at the expense of equally worthy books by their female counterparts. There are female writers working today – Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alice Munro, A.L. Kennedy, Barbara Gowdy, Monica Ali, A.M. Homes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lynn Coady spring immediately to mind, all of them writing about different subjects and in wildly different styles – whose work is easily as good as that of their male contemporaries; they deserve greater recognition than they have historically received.

31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 10: “Ninety-three Million Miles Away” by Barbara Gowdy

August 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From We So Seldom Look on Love.

9781883642006In Canadian literature there are those writers who focus on the quotidian and the ordinary: Carol Shields springs immediately to mind, as do Bonnie Burnard, Alice Munro, and Elizabeth Hay. Mary Swan and Margaret Atwood both employ Gothic elements in their writing, pushing the envelope in various directions. But Barbara Gowdy is a rarity in CanLit: not just a practitioner of Southern Ontario Gothic, but a writer who lives on the extremes of experience and subject matter. Gowdy’s fiction is populated by grotesques and eccentrics, and the stories in her collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, resemble a carnival of circus freaks: a two-headed man; a female necrophile; and an exhibitionist who persistently masturbates for a stranger who watches her from the window of an apartment opposite hers.

The last of these, Ali, the protagonist of “Ninety-three Million Miles Away,” is an empty vessel looking to be filled up. Her only problem is that she doesn’t know what will fill her. Ali doesn’t worry about money; her husband, Claude, is a cosmetic surgeon who provides her with a generous allowance. Yet, “aside from trying on clothes in expensive stores,” Ali is at a loss to settle on anything that might potentially fulfill the void she feels in her core, or, to invoke a more explicitly religious term, her soul. As Philip Marchand has written of Gowdy’s characters:

[Their] prayers are never answered except in darkly ironic ways, [and they] behave as if they are, in fact, damned. Something in the desperate way they cling to their distractions, whether knitting or woodwork or compulsive sex, is suggestive of people who know that they are missing the answer to an overwhelmingly important question in their lives.

Ali attempts to find her answer first in music, then in learning: “she began a regimen of reading and studying, five days a week, five to six hours a day. She read novels, plays, biographies, essays, magazine articles, almanacs, the New Testament, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, The Harper Anthology of Poetry.” None of this works to fill the chasm she feels inside her, and she decides to take up art, specifically self-portraiture. Responding to the signs she sees in a dream, she paints in the nude, and eventually notices a man observing her from the window of the apartment across from her. She begins to perform for this man, engaging more and more what she sees as her exhibitionist nature.

The sexual acts that Ali performs under her observer’s watchful gaze are initially exciting for her, but Ali’s excitement increasingly becomes confused with her idea of self-abnegation at the stranger’s hands. She becomes “so devoted to his appreciation that her pleasure seemed like a siphoning of his, an early, childish indulgence that she would never return to.” Her episodes at the window “were completely display, wholehearted surrender to what felt like the most inaugural and genuine of all desires, which was not sex but which happened to be expressed through a sexual act.”

And, importantly, Ali is only comfortable with her performance so long as the man in the window remains anonymous to her. When she finally meets him, she is repulsed by “his shoes, his floor, his formal way of speaking, his voice, his profile.” In order to provide her with heat and light, he must remain like the sun, ninety-three million miles away.

This is not really surprising, given the ways in which Ali – significantly the wife of a cosmetic surgeon, who earns his not inconsiderable salary by providing women with the artificial veneer of beauty – obsesses over her own appearance. The voyeur’s appreciation of her nakedness stands in stark contrast to the way she sees herself, as “a pathetic little woman with pasty skin and short legs.” She paints herself with “flat eyes and crude, wild proportions,” and when her husband tells her that she is lovely, she thinks that perhaps he means “lovely when [she’s] in the next building.”

In the story’s final stages, Ali sits on the sofa with her husband watching TV, and she prays, “Let this be enough.” But, like so many lost and dissatisfied souls, she realizes that the possibility of finding succor, of grasping anything that will ever be “enough,” is most likely an illusion:

As Claude was always saying, things looked different from different angles and in different lights. What this meant to her was that everything hinged on where you happened to be standing at a given moment, or even who you imagined you were. It meant that in certain lights, desire sprang up out of nowhere.

Nothing new under the sun

July 28, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Even for Nobel Prize-winning novelists. Word has it that José Saramago’s new novel will feature elephants, not people, as characters. (Given the Portuguese writer’s assessment of humanity in books like Blindness and The Double, this is perhaps unsurprising.)

From the National Post‘s Afterword blog:

On Monday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced it had acquired Saramago’s new book The Elephant’s Journey, which is “based on the real-life epic journey of an Indian elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in the 16th century.” The novel, which will be published fall 2010, will be translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull.

An elephant as the lead character, embarking on an epic journey? Where have I heard that one before?