As I enthusiastically told friends I was reading and immensely enjoying this cycle of lesbian vampire stories, I would get vaguely patronizing smilesAs I enthusiastically told friends I was reading and immensely enjoying this cycle of lesbian vampire stories, I would get vaguely patronizing smiles in response–I guess anything vampire-related gets that reaction these days–forcing me to trumpet all the more Gomez’s dazzling ability to intricately braid together the stuff of history, race, desire, time, and (im)mortality into a series of narratives that are not only compulsively entertaining to read, but poignant and thought provoking as well. While there was admittedly a slight sense of diminishing returns as Gilda’s life narrative progressed over its 200+ year trajectory, the central character of Gilda herself–fundamentally invariable as the distinctive contexts around her change like so many grade school dioramas–remains ceaselessly riveting.
Selected by my boyfriend after an argument where he accused me of never reading the books he recommends to me, I was disappointed that the entire readSelected by my boyfriend after an argument where he accused me of never reading the books he recommends to me, I was disappointed that the entire reading experience made me feel like a passive witness, recognizing the undeniable literary brilliance, but only feeling it at a distant, cold remove. This was particularly disappointing considering this is one of his very favorite books. Rather than empathizing with the overwhelming despondency over the way the AIDs crisis, geographical isolation, personal circumstances, and unreciprocated desire has left the main character's life in a state of utter ruin, I was surprised to find myself more wrapped up in–and ultimately moved by–the gut-wrenching sadness hovering over his mother's debilitating health condition(s). I still find it a bit mystifying that I generally seem more capable of relating to the queer literary output of the pre-Stonewall era than the literature that blossomed under the advancement of the Gay Rights Movement, and while acknowledging its great accomplishment, literary skill and observational acuity, The Beauty of Men ultimately reaffirmed this situation yet again.
While at first glance Song of the Loon seems to be little more than an overripe sexual picaresque, very quickly the physical journey that structures tWhile at first glance Song of the Loon seems to be little more than an overripe sexual picaresque, very quickly the physical journey that structures the narrative begins taking on deep psychospiritual resonances as each handsome and hunky man the main character encounters helps him understand and embrace some part of his physical attraction to other men. The intentionally grandiose tone and mythic aspirations can seem rather overwrought and more than a bit silly when read today; perhaps even more difficult to tolerate is the representation of Native American culture and individuals, which is the stuff of "noble savage" archetypes. But by situating itself in a world beyond any recognizable historical reality, it opens up a space of fantasy and electrifying possibility superseding the bounds of what in a historical sense would have been considered socially acceptable or approbatory in regards to depictions of male/male sexuality. It makes complete sense that Amory's book became such a touchstone for an entire generations of gay men. To be quite honest, I kind of regret that my own generation hasn't really been capable of retaining a space for this type of thing within our own (tenuously maintained) queer culture.
The type of novel that slowly begins pulling the reader in two directions simultaneously until one suddenly feels caught, unexpectedly, in some kind oThe type of novel that slowly begins pulling the reader in two directions simultaneously until one suddenly feels caught, unexpectedly, in some kind of torture device. Butler's deft handling of narrative and characterization makes for a suspenseful page-turner, but the setting and story can be so painful to read that it also feels necessary to put the book down, to allow for the space to process the horrors embedded into the narrative, both those threatened and those that ultimately—and often violently—come to pass.
But that's exactly the point, is it not? Dana, the reluctant but spirited protagonist of Kindred, experiences similar tensions, but is never given the luxury to call for a time-out and time to heal and contemplate. For to do so would be almost certain death—both for herself and others necessary for her very existence.
What I most appreciated about Butler's self-described "grim fantasy" is how it constantly wandered into directions that I didn't expect. Glance through, say, the book's Wikipedia page and there's constant reference to the novel's status as "a text for community-wide reading programs and book organizations," "a celebrated mainstay of college courses in women's studies and black literature and culture," etc. Such canonization—impressively, in both popular and academic contexts, no simple feat—might seem to indicate a novel either self-righteously polemical or sufficiently simplistic to suit mainstream literary preferences, but Butler somehow manages to always agilely sidestep either potential accusation. Yes, it's written in an accessible, straightforward style but the non-linear narrative structure lends a technical sophistication and the characterization constantly defies expectations of good slave/bad master dichotomies, and instead insistently explores the more perilous terrain where overarching social systems intersect with the the idiosyncrasies of any human subject. Butler's rendering of history is infinitely complex and her characters never quite act in the manner that would seem expected of them—they are characters who seem made of the stuff of humanity, not of historical and literary archetypes and stereotypes.
In all, an impressive achievement.
"'The ease seemed so frightening,' I said. 'Now I see why.' 'What?' 'The ease. Us, the children... I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.'"
The wry and casual elegance of Didion's prose style remains quite special despite the endless attempts at imitation in the decades that have followed;The wry and casual elegance of Didion's prose style remains quite special despite the endless attempts at imitation in the decades that have followed; she also has that rare talent of being able to make you think you're reading something lightweight, even disposable and then at the last minute flooring you by unleashing an unexpected torrent of significance and resonance.
But as lovely and thoroughly enjoyable as these essays were, I will always be grateful for a disclosure Didion makes in the collection's short preface:
"I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic."
I read these several sentences at a particularly dark moment early on in my thesis writing process where I also found myself suddenly unable to string together a simple sentence, despite the fact I was writing on topic I have been thinking about for years and years and am ready to share my thoughts on. I was ready to write: and suddenly couldn't.
Needless to say I wrote this out on a index card and stuck it above the wall on my desk, and now it serves as kind of a talisman, the reminder I often need of the sheer hard work of writing and that even the very best--even those who give the impression of such effortlessness and ease of articulation--must valiantly struggle sometimes too.
The next day I started writing again. And while there is much to appreciate about this book, I will always treasure it for that....more
I was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so II was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so I was finding it something of a chore to finish, even if I always found the content itself of interest. Which means, unfortunately, that Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris is a case of constantly-diminishing returns.
In my critical writing I always try my best to take the object of analysis at hand on its own terms, attempting to come to terms with what it is, rather than what I want it to be. But in this particular case I can’t seem to get away from complaining about what it seems this book could and should have been: a sparkling and witty little rumination on issues of expatriation and experiencing a particular historic moment through the people who inhabit it. Certainly, all of these elements are present in Inside a Pearl, but as it turns out the most interesting moments of the book are not the familiar (and intriguing but not-so-familiar) names on endless parade, but White’s personal observations on the complicated cultural relationship between France and America.
An author of White’s stature who is specifically acclaimed as a master of autobiographical or autobiographically-inflected fictional forms should instinctually know that “and then I met, and then I went” is an untenable narrative structure to hang nearly 250 pages upon. Even the most fascinating of lives–and White’s certainly falls under that category–can’t possibly sustain the reader’s interest when rendered in such a ponderous way. In the end Inside a Pearl is endlessly readable and from moment-to-moment often quite fascinating, but somehow it always feels like a dutiful record instead of an account that captures what it is to vitally alive.
[NOTE: In an effort to maintain control over my writing in light of some dubious policy implementations, I am no longer posting full reviews on Goodreads on topics connected to my scholarly interests. If you're interested in reading the full review, you can find it here on my blog, Queer Modernisms. My apologies for the annoying inconvenience.] ...more