“My mother had not believed in friendships among women. She said women weren’t to be trusted. Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tips of your fingernails. She told me to keep my nails long.”
Another Brooklyn is short yet vibrant novella. August, a Black woman in her thirties, looks back to her girlhood in the 1970s. The memories are presented to us as fragmented snapshots that perfectly capture the atmosphere of growing up in Brooklyn. After her mother falls ill August, alongside her brother and father, moves to Brooklyn and is drawn to a trio of girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi.
“How safe and strong they looked. How impenetrable.”
In Another Brooklyn Woodson explores the way in which a young girl struggles to understand her own grief, the feeling of belonging and community you feel among your friends, the highs and lows of growing up. Memory too plays a big role in these pages, as August remembers, sometimes with more clarity than other times, those years. This novella is lyrical, heady with nostalgia, and vividly renders a difficult yet unforgettable period of its main character’s life. The fragmented structure gives the novel a fast pace, a rhythm even, but it did sometimes prevent me from becoming fully immersed in a scene. Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi too blurred together and I could often only tell them apart by their hobbies (dance, theatre, and… modelling…?). Nevertheless, I did appreciate how once August becomes part of the group her voice is no longer singular but becomes plural (‘we did this/we were that’). It gave us an idea of how intense their bond was.
“And now the four of us were standing together for the first time. It must have felt like a beginning, an anchoring.”
While I wasn’t wholly enamored by this novella I would probably read more by Woodson.
Pretend I’m Dead was 50 shades of fucked up but boy was it funny.
“When he went to order their drinks, he asked, “What’s your poison?” “Oven cleaner,” she’d said with a straight face. Her sense of humor sometimes made people—herself, included—uncomfortable.”
This novel is divided in four chapters, each one focusing on a particular relationship of our protagonist. In the first chapter, ‘Hole’, we are introduced to Mona, our main character, a twenty-something who works as a cleaning lady in Massachusetts and volunteers at a clean-needle exchange. Mona doesn’t have any particular aspirations and she is fine with her job. At the clean-needle exchange she meets a man she nicknames ‘Mr. Disgusting’, “on account of his looks and dirty clothes”. Mr. Disgusting is in his forties and has clearly been through the wringer. The two get involved, and things get weird and messy fast. In the following chapter, ‘Yoko and Yoko’, Mona moves to Taos where she lives in an adobe house. In spite of her reservations, she gets close to her neighbours, Nigel and Shiori, a couple that gives some strong ‘cult’ vibes. Mona understandably ends up nicknaming them Yoko and Yoko. Mona misreads the situation and things also get weird between the three of them. In ‘Henry and Zoe’ Mona becomes convinced that her newest client, Henry, a seemingly nice guy, is a less than decent person. This chapter crosses quite a few lines, and it is bound to make readers’ queasy. The last chapter, ‘Betty’, sees Mona becoming close to another client who happens to be a psychic. Given that each chapter is more or less self-contained, these end up reading a lot like vignettes, each centring on a different period of Mona’s life. However, is only by reading all of them that we begin to understand Mona and her past. Her fraught relationship with her father is of particular importance in the overall narrative. Mona’s mind often turns to Mr. Disgusting, so that he also becomes a perpetual presence in her story. Through Mona’s ‘misadventures’ the story examines themes of loneliness, connection and belonging.
In spite of its offbeat main character Pretend I’m Dead made for a morbid, grotesque, and occasionally obscene reading experience. Yet, it was also undoubtedly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Mona’s wry sense of humor, her deadpan replies, and her mental meanderings (which lead to some freaky fantasies) were thoroughly entertaining. While none of the characters are strictly likeable, they were certainly fleshed out. With a few selected words Beagin brings her characters to life, rendering the way they look and behave with clearcut precision. As funny and absurd as Pretend I’m Dead was, the novel touches on quite a lot of serious issues (sexual abuse, drug addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, trauma, incest). It is remarkable that Beagin manages to explore these through Mona’s lenses. Dark humor indeed! I really liked the way the story was written, which is saying something as I usually don’t care particularly for 3rd person narrations that refer to the main character as ‘she’ (as opposed to her name, in this case Mona). Beagin has an ear for dialogue and a talent for portraying those thornier feelings and emotions. If you are a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, Melissa Broder, Raven Leilani, or Jean Kyoung Frazier chances are Pretend I’m Dead will be up your street. Those who aren’t keen on books that examine challenging, if not controversial, topics or cannot stand vulgar or non-PC content might want to give this book a wide breadth.
disclaimer: in the below review I am expressing my own entirely subjective opinion. I do not wish to invalidate anyone’s feelings or thoughts about this book. If you loved it or liked it, huzzah! If you are thinking of reading this I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.
Touring the Land of the Dead comprises two short stories. The first one follows Natsuko who is travelling with her husband, who after an unspecified neurological disease requires walking aids (he sometimes walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair). The way the narrative treats Taichi’s disability is somewhat…questionable? Then again, I also recognise that many countries treat those with visible disabilities as ‘undesirable’ or ‘pitiable’ (I myself come from a country that isn’t exactly disability-friendly). Anyhow, Natsuko is going to this spa with Taichi, hoping for…rest? I don’t know. It wasn’t very clear. All the while we get pages and pages of flashbacks which give us unnecessary glimpses into Natsuko’s relationship with her horrid mother and dick of a brother. Natsuko is a kind of Cinderella who is ill-treated by her awful and greedy family. They treat her poorly, throw abuse at her, use her as a monetary source, and even behave abhorrently towards Taichi, who is shown to be kind and respectful towards them. I would have much preferred for these flashbacks to be focused on Natsuko and Taichi, as opposed her unpleasant relatives. The prose was uninspiring and occasionally clunky. At times dialogues had quotation marks, at times they were in italics (and no, it wasn’t as if one indicated a conversation occurred in the past and the other in the ‘now’). I’m afraid I found this to be boring, unconvincing, and utterly forgettable. The second story, ‘Ninety-Nine Kisses’, was a mess. I have no idea what it was trying to achieve but…bleargh. The narrative seemed to equate incest-y thoughts with quirkiness…which did little other than alienate me. Overall, I had a hard time immersing myself into these stories. Usually while I read I am ‘pulled’ into a story, but here…nothing happened. I read some words. That’s that.
ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
“Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart—this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then—that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.”
I listened to the audiobook of My Year of Rest and Relaxation over the course of 4 days. During this period of time I was sleeping very little (the joys of work and uni assessment). And maybe that’s why I really felt this book. That and the fact that 2021 is proving to be just as delirious a year as 2020. Although My Year of Rest and Relaxation was by no means a breezy read (or listen) it was funny in the most fucked up kind of way. It made me laugh and cringe, it disgusted me and amused me.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a novel that has been in my periphery ever since its publication back in 2018. I even picked it up at one point, but didn’t get past the 10% mark. I have noticed that lately there have been quite a few publications narrated by ‘perplexingly alienated’ young American women (here you can read an excellent article on this trend) and I these tend to be very hit or miss for me (I loved Luster, enjoyed Severance and Pizza Girl, did not think very highly of Exciting Times, Milk Fed, or The New Me). Finally, nearly three years after its release, I thought why not give My Year of Rest and Relaxation another chance? And this time around, once I started reading (listening) I did not want to stop. As I said above, this novel is by no means ‘light’, but boy was it entertaining (and it took my mind off my own need for sleep).
Set in 2000s New York This novel is narrated by a nameless narrator (because duh, narrators with names are passé) a woman in her twenties. She’s attractive, skinny, and blonde. She can even afford not to work and has her own flat in New York. Aaaaand she is an orphan, having lost both parents in quick succession. Still, she has plenty of reasons to be happy…right? Except she isn’t. This girl is pretty fucking miserable. She’s extremely self-centred, extremely misanthropic, cruel, delusional…the list goes on. But our narrator has a plan. As she finds her life unbearable she decides—you guessed it—to have a year of rest and relaxation. In other words, she is going to be eating sleeping tables and other medications as if they were tic tacs (or smarties or popcorn…take your pick). She wants to sleep life away, believing that by the end of the year she will be ‘restored’ to health. Once a month she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, someone who is very much a menace to society let alone her patients. Our protagonist’s sleep schedule is also interrupted by her best friend, Reva, who she can hardly stand: “I loved Reva, but I didn’t like her anymore”. To our narrator’s annoyance Reva seems to revel in her own victimhood. Reva is also painfully insecure, bulimic, possibly alcoholic, and her mother terminally ill. Our narrator has little time for Reva, ignoring her pleas for help or affection, and tries to remain focused on her ‘rest & relaxation’. As the narrative progresses we learn more about her family life, her tense relationship with her mother (a real piece of work) and her on again off again boyfriend (a massive bellend). Some of the medications our protagonist begin to influence her state of mind during her waking hours, so she often seems to operate under a trance.
In spite of its relatively short length Moshfegh achieves so much within this novel. This is a brilliant work of satire. The narrator’s inner-monologue is as fascinating as it is repulsive (the girl has a sick sense of humour). And while I found most of the characters horrible, and at times intentionally absurd, this novel is disconcertingly realistic (especially in the portrayal of the relationship between the mc and her best friend….which was a weird flavour of codependency). Alienation is at the root of this story and Moshfegh demonstrates a cunning understanding of this subject. Subversive, grotesque, surreal, shockingly funny, and surprisingly insightful My Year of Rest and Relaxation is fucked up in the best way possible.
“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”
First published in 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper is a disquieting short story that has become a seminal piece of feminist literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her readers with a brief yet evocative narrative that will likely disturb even the most hardened of readers. What struck me the most about this story is that it does not read like something written at the close of the 19th century. Perhaps this is due to the way this story is presented to us. There is an urgency to the unmanned woman’s journal entries that comprise this story, her later entries in particular seem to have been written in haste and secrecy. John, the husband of our protagonist, is a physician who insists his wife ought to rest in order to recuperate from the classic female illness which consists in “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency”. John, alongside his sister and other doctors, insist that his wife ought not to overwork or excite herself so he forbids her from writing or performing any chore. He believes that nourishing meals and restorative walks will do wonders for her health. Our narrator however disagrees. Over the summer the couple is residing in a mansion that perturbs her. As the days go by her journal entries express her increasing fixation with her room’s yellow wallpaper. When she voices the wish to leave the mansion or to see others her husband insists that they should remain. John’s blindness to his wife’s spiralling health exacerbates her illness. Her morbid fixation with her wallpaper leads her to believe that something, or someone, is hiding beneath its pattern. Gilman’s haunting examination of female madness will definitely leave a mark on her readers. The narrative’s Gothic and oppressive atmosphere emphasise our protagonist’s stultifying existence. Her husband’s dismissal of her worries and his firm instance that she merely needs rests and walks outside to recover force her down a self-destructive path. The journal entries are extremely effective in that they convey their author’s deteriorating state of mind. Her descriptions of the wallpaper—from its pattern to its colour and smell—are certainly unnerving as they place us alongside her. John’s ‘cure’ for his wife is far worse that her malaise as he isolates her from the rest of society, confines her person to a room, and cuts her off from her creative pursuits and hobbies. The protagonist’s breakdown is brought about by those who wish to contain and or cure of her more ‘alarming’ emotions (such as sadness and grief) by locking her away. If you are interested in reading more about this story or the portrayal of ‘female madness’ in Victorian literature I really recommend Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.
The Lake is narrated by the quintessential Banana Yoshimoto protagonist. While Yoshimoto’s sparse yet dreamy makes for an easy reading experience this is definitely not one of her ‘strongest’ novels. Chihiro, daughter of an ‘unconventional’ couple, moves to Tokyo in order to pursue a career graphic artist. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and spends most of her time on her own. One day, as she is staring out of her window, she sees a young man staring back from a window across the street. The two quickly form a bond and begin to spend their spare time together. Nakajima, who has also lost his mother, is somewhat unwilling to discuss his past with Chihiro and when their relationship becomes more of a romance it becomes clear to her that he must have experience some childhood trauma. This short novel is definitely not plot-oriented as the narrative mainly consists in Chihiro either navel-gazing or pronouncing two-bit aphorisms. While Yoshimoto does evoke the places and sensations Chihiro visits/experiences, The Lake lacked the atmosphere and feeling of Kitchen an Umi no Futa (which I believe has yet to be translated in English). And whereas I usually enjoy how nostalgic ambience of her work, The Lake just came across as dated. Chihiro seems almost to relish the idea that Nakajima may be deeply traumatised and we also have a side-character who is affected by a mysterious illness and bed bound yet she is also omniscient and able to speak through others… Overall, this was definitely one of Yoshimoto’s more banal stories as it lacked that vital zing which usually makes her books such zesty reads.
Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.
Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.
Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages). Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.
The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.
Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.
There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.
What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.
To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.
(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)
While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.
“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”
Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education. Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.
Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).
“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”
We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.
Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place). At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’. Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox). Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions. Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour. I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap. Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows! Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things… The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.
I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front). Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking. Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.
Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content). Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:
“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”
At first I thought that The Shape of Darkness was going to be a spoof of Gothic novels. The dialogues were corny, the two main characters are exceedingly frail, and the ‘murder mystery’ storyline struck me as somewhat theatrical (or perhaps I should say more suited to a film than a book). But I was willing to read on, thinking that these exaggerations were intentional and that Laura Purcell was lampooning Victorian ghost stories…but the more I read the more the narrative seemed to try to impress upon me that it was telling a ‘serious’ story. Having now finished this novel I can safely say that it was very clichéd and unimaginative, the setting of Bath is barely rendered, the two main characters sound like the same person, and the big ‘twist’ was extremely predictable (I mean, I can think of two films—one in 1999 and one in 2001—that have a similar reveal). Also, The Shape of Darkness is yet another book that proves my least likely person is the culprit theory. Anyhow, Agnes seems to believe that she is being targeted after the very first death. Which is…okay. The plot must go on I guess.
Anyway, the story starts with Agnes a silhouette artist. She has yet to fully recover from an illness that struck her a few years prior the start of the novel. She lives in a nondescript house with her orphaned nephew and her elderly mother. Her past is ‘mysterious’ and she’s clearly suffered more than on heartbreak. Her only friend happens to be a doctor who was married to her now deceased evil sister. Her few customers start turning up dead and Agnes worries that someone is after her. Pearl is a medium who also happens to have an evil sister who forces to host seances. Pearl believes in the ghosts and there are scenes that seem to point to ‘otherworldly’ presences. Pearl is also, like Agnes, kind of sickly. The two characters in fact sound very much like the same person. They lack interiority and are mostly defined by how ‘frail’ and vulnerable they are. For quite awhile I thought that they were more or less the same age but I was surprised to discover that Pearl was 11 and Agnes in her 40s (yet they both sound like teenagers).
Agnes and Pearl end up ‘finding’ one another and Agnes convinces Pearl to help her contact her now deceased customers. We have two or three scenes in which Agnes is actually doing her job and we see Pearl doing two seances at the very beginning but after the 40% mark the narrative no longer focuses on these things.
The story takes a quite a few leaps in logic, there are a few too many convenient coincidences, the plot is dull, the characters uninspired. Although the story is set in Bath there are only a couple descriptions—a few sentences really—describing the city’s architecture. Agnes shows a surprising lack of awareness towards her norms of her time and there were a few inconsistencies. For example, a couple of pages after we are told that Agnes’ hands are swollen (possibly due to a combination of arthritis and chilblains) she does a silhouette for a customer. This requires her to use her fingers and I guarantee you that if her hands had truly been as the ‘swollen lumps’ we were told they were, she would not be able to move them very much, let alone being able to doe painstakingly controlled movements with her fingers. Instead we don’t even get a mention of her hands and fingers during this scene (we could have been told how difficult and painful it was to be using her hands when they were so swollen).
The story tries to be somewhat serious or creepy and yes, descriptions of Pearl’s father—who’s phossy jaw is rotting away—were not pleasant. But the narrative’s ‘supernatural’ undertones and ‘murder mystery’ storyline were bland and galaxies away from being remotely scary (or even atmospheric).
Here are a few examples of why I did not like the author’s writing: ‘But it cannot be, not after all of these years’, ‘her heart flutters its wings inside her chest’, the idea fills her with a sweet glow, ‘in her face are those simmering, witchy eyes’, ‘her slender trunk’ (this to describe a woman’s figure), ‘frightened whispers of her own conscience’.
Towards the end the story becomes so dramatic as to be frankly risible. There were a few scenes that were meant to inspire suspense or whatnot but they way they go down would have suited more a B movie. If you liked it, fair enough, but I for one am glad I did not have to pay for my copy (the ‘perks’ of being on NetGalley).
Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.
“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”
Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).
In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.
Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.
As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.
Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.
A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.
There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).
There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on. Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies. Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material. Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams. The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.