Cormac McCarthy's The Road is one of those books that you feel you really shouldn't miss out on. The reviews have been overwhelmingly glowing. I picke...moreCormac McCarthy's The Road is one of those books that you feel you really shouldn't miss out on. The reviews have been overwhelmingly glowing. I picked it up to read on the basis of these reviews and despite its recently being chosen as Oprah Winfrey's latest selection for her book club.
"It may be the saddest, most haunting book he's ever written, or that you'll ever read," says the reviewer for The Village Voice, who also goes on to say, "the tender precariousness of The Road's human relationships is what finally makes it such a beautiful, difficult, near perfect work."
The Guardian's reviewer comments that "part of the achievement of The Road is its poetic description of landscapes from which the possibility of poetry would seem to have been stripped, along with their ability to support life." The world of The Road is dark and bleak, uniformly dead. The people are dead, the wildlife is dead, the foliage is dead. These are not landscapes that would seem to lend themselves to poetry or to compelling description, but McCarthy manages to mine the landscapes for the poetry of their very existence.
The Powell's Books reviewer, Tom Chiarella, writes, countering temptations to read The Road as a warning, a tract, or a metaphor,
But you shouldn't read this book for the metaphoric possibilities of change in the life of mankind. You know all that crap already. Yeah, yeah, we're headed for doom. You should read this book because it is exactly what a book about our future ought to be: the knife wound of our inconvenient truths, laid bare in a world that will just plain scare the piss out of you on a windy night.
In The New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon writes,
The paradox in every part and sentence of the post-apocalyptic narrative—evoking even as it denies—is repeated as if fractally by The Road as a whole. . . . This paradox, like a brutal syllogism, leads McCarthy, almost one senses in spite of himself, to conclude The Road on a note of possible redemption that while moving and reassuring is prepared for neither by one's reading of his prior work nor, perhaps, by the novel itself. In order to destroy the world, it becomes necessary to save it.
Possible redemption? I find much of Chabon's review insightful, but I do not see any redemption in this book. The final paragraph of the novel is the only break in the bleak and overwhelming trip the father and son have made:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (286-7)
This final section of The Road may gesture toward a better world, but it is a world that no longer exists. At the end of the novel, all fish are dead, all streams are polluted and dead or dying, and the boy does not even have memories of the world that is described in this final paragraph. These "maps of the world in its becoming" are long since gone, as is the world they mapped, and this world can "not be made right again." This seems to be something other than hope. Nostalgia, perhaps. Loss. Regret. A sense of the insignificance of humanity. But not hope.
Chabon also writes, more convincingly, of The Road's treatment of the father-son relationship that is at the heart of the novel:
The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent's greatest fears. The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with. The fear of one day being obliged for your child's own good, for his peace and comfort, to do violence to him or even end his life. And, above all, the fear of knowing— as every parent fears—that you have left your children a world more damaged, more poisoned, more base and violent and cheerless and toxic, more doomed, than the one you inherited. It is in the audacity and single-mindedness with which The Road extends the metaphor of a father's guilt and heartbreak over abandoning his son to shift for himself in a ruined, friendless world that The Road finds its great power to move and horrify the reader.
Despite the earlier injunctions (in Chiarella's review) against reading The Road as metaphor, this virtually demands it be seen as such. It is certainly about this generational anxiety, this burden of responsibility, but this burden of responsibility cannot stop at the boundaries of personal relationships. The precept of the Iroquois that "in every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine" calls upon the same sense of human responsibility that McCarthy's father feels for his son. We may not know exactly what happened to cause this apocalypse in The Road, but this vagueness allows us to envision the many ways in which our actions today could condemn future generations to such a diminished and hopeless life.
In this light, perhaps most interesting is the commentary by the reviewer for The Modern Word. He writes, "Ultimately, The Road suggests that no matter how bleak our existence, we must live life as if it has meaning. As if our progenitors are watching; as if there is a line separating the good guys from the bad guys." And perhaps, as if our descendants are watching.
This is precisely what the father and son in the book try to do, at some times with more energy and heart than at other times. They are driven by a desire, a need, to be "good guys," to separate themselves from those who steal others' means of survival, those who hold people captive until they can eat them, those who kill and eat children. They live to hold themselves apart from the others they encounter on the road. The horrors of becoming one of those others is illustrated most dramatically in a scene in which they come across an abandoned campsite with "a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit" (198).
In this quest to be good guys, to do the right thing, to survive, however, there are choices to be made. At what point does a father sacrifice his own son to protect him from rape and cannibalism? Can he do such a thing? How long does he have to force himself to remain alive to protect his son? How long will he be capable of doing such a thing?
To make this obvious as a decision to be made, McCarthy includes memories of the boy's mother, who killed herself before he had a chance to know her but after the event that ruined the world. "We're survivors," the father told her, but she did not believe him. "What in God's name are you talking about? We're not survivors. We're the walking dead in a horror film" (55). He begs her not to kill herself, to stay with him and their son. Her reply, over the course of the conversation, is chilling in the way that it so thoroughly captures the hopelessness and despair of the situation:
I didn't bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I'm done. . . . You cant protect us You say you would die for us but what good is that? I'd take him with me if it werent for you. You know I would. It's the right thing to do. . . . Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They'll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You'd rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant. . . . You talk about taking a stand but there is no stand to take. My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is none. . . . As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart. (56-7)
The father cannot make this choice, though. He knows the need to live, to protect his son from the horrors of this new world, to protect his life. And the son, though he cannot protect his father from the horrors, knows that he bears responsibility as well. As the book progresses and the father weakens, the son begins to watch him, guarding him, holding him accountable for eating his share and for doing the right thing. This is most revealed after an encounter with a thief. The father and son recover their stolen things, but the father cannot resist taking the thief's few meager belongings in retaliation, even as the boy begs him to leave him something, recognizing that they have just condemned the man to death just as surely as if they'd killed him themselves.
Just help him, Papa. Just help him. The man looked back up the road. He was just hungry, Papa. He's going to die. He's going to die anyway. He's so scared, Papa. The man squatted and looked at him. I'm scared, he said. Do you understand? I'm scared. The boy didn't answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing. You're not the one who has to worry about everything. The boy said something but he couldnt understand him. What? he said. He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one. (259)
He is the one who ends up worrying about and trying to care for his father. And he is the one who survives, who has to worry about living with the other survivors, who has to continue to worry about the moral obligations of survival in this changed world.
Not much happens in the novel and when it does happen it is described in a spare, understated manner. No dramatics or histrionics here. The world may have ended, but there's no point in screaming about it. This lean style, coupled with the short segmented writing (the novel is constructed from over 200 short sections, not quite chapters, some of which could be fit anywhere in the novel), the rarity of dialogue or human contact, and the repetitive nature of the story, simultaneously gives the narrative a sense of the ordinariness of affairs in this strange new world and provides a slowly but steadily ratcheted-up sense of drama. Encounters with the bizarre and horrific are described matter-of-factly, but the sheer magnitude of these things, the way the world continues to reveal death at every turn, lends them a weight that the straightforward description and delivery would not necessarily if these encounters were discrete events. This is truly a novel in which the cumulative effect is greater than the sum of its parts.
The novel is moving because it frightens with its realism and deadens with its matter-of-factness. This is a world that we want to avoid, but, despite the surface differences (post-apocalyptic barrens and roving bands of cannibals), it is a world, McCarthy seems to say, that is not so far removed from our own.(less)
I read this series once a year for a few years in a row when I was much younger (high school and into early college). I'd spend a whole weekend just r...moreI read this series once a year for a few years in a row when I was much younger (high school and into early college). I'd spend a whole weekend just reading about Fionavar. I would become so immersed in the books that I wouldn't dream when I slept (a rarity) and that I would resent any human interference in my reading and immersion. The books moved me and made me weep every time I read them.
Between then and now at least 10 years have passed in which I have read little fantasy, my tastes have shifted in many ways, and I have grown up a lot. I had fond (really, far more than fond) memories of reading the books and wanted to experience that immersion and emotional release with them again. I was terribly afraid to return to them after so many years. I was afraid they would be weak, derivative, incapable of moving me in the same way. And so I avoided them for a long time after the desire to revisit them arose, only now giving in to it.
These books are amazing. They definitely hold up over time and continue to move me. There are minor things in the language that sometimes pull me out of the story that didn't when I was a younger reader, but I love the characters, I love the world-building (the way Kay combines multiple mythologies to tell a story that is both familiar and new is wonderful), I love the emphasis on choice, and I am still devastated by the ending. I am so glad that I re-read these books and I will read them again and again in the future. (less)
**spoiler alert** Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel and deservedly so. It is science fiction in all the stereotypical ways--it includes spac...more**spoiler alert** Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel and deservedly so. It is science fiction in all the stereotypical ways--it includes space/time travel, advanced technology, planetary exploration, even an alien--but it goes well beyond this, interweaving explanation of the technology with character development, a fully realized social reality, and explorations of what it means to be human and to face the reality of death, both of the individual and of the species.
When Tyler DuPree, the novel's protagonist, is 12 years old, the stars in Earth's sky disappear. He and his friends Jason and Diane watch as they blink out. The world has been placed within a membrane that slows time for the earth while the rest of the universe ages. This phenomenon comes to be known as the Spin. For every one second that passes on earth, 3.17 years pass outside the membrane; for every year on earth, 100 million outside the Spin. The Hypotheticals (as the creators of this membrane come to be called) are mysterious, unknown. Are they benevolent or malevolent? There is no way for humanity to know. The only thing they do know is that they are fast running out of time. The sun will die eventually and then so will they. As it is, the only thing that is keeping them from dying is the membrane itself. If it disappears, all of humanity dies--pretty much immediately. If it does not disappear, all of humanity dies anyway--just a little further into the future.
Tyler, Jason, & Diane belong to a generation without hope, that expects the world to end before they have a chance to grow old and die naturally. This generational and worldwide millenarianism and apocalypticism is borne of science, though, not religious fervor. And because humanity's fate is provable and real, the world is changed, and not for the better:
"The global economy had begun to oscillate, consumers and nations accumulating debt loads they expected never to have to repay, while creditors hoarded funds and interest rates spiked. Extreme religiosity and brutal criminality had increased in tandem, at home and abroad. The effects were especially devastating in third world nations, where collapsing currencies and recurrent famine helped revive slumbering Marxist and militant Islamic movements. . . . The suicidally disgruntled were legion, and their enemies included any and all Americans, Brits, Canadians, Danes, et cetera; or, conversely, all Moslems, dark-skinned people, non-English-speakers, immigrants; all Catholics, fundamentalists, atheists; all liberals, all conservatives . . . For such people the consummate act of moral clarity was a lynching or a suicide bombing, a fatwa or a pogrom. And they were ascendant now, rising like dark stars over a terminal landscape." (190-1)
The novel explores the reactions of people to the knowledge of their certain death for uncertain reasons. Do they turn to religion? Science? Sex? Drugs? Do they veil themselves in ignorance and pretend not to see the end coming? Do they try to change the future? Or do they try to live with the full knowledge of what is coming, no anesthetic, no avoidance, nor any savior complex or false hope?
What does it mean to live in a world without a future?
For most people, growing up in this world means reaching out for faith, for something to anchor them in an increasing chaotic world. Sometimes that's religion. For Diane, this is the case. Sometimes, however, that something is much smaller.
For instance, when the world seems to be finally truly ending, as Tyler struggles to save Diane's life, this exchange between Tyler and Simon, Diane's husband and a religious fanatic, is revealing. Tyler says,
"I refuse to let her die as long as I have a choice." "I envy you that," Simon said quietly. "What? What could you possibly envy?" "Your faith," he said. (386)
Faith is not the sole province of the religious. Tyler has faith in something, too. He has faith that there is something to work for, that there is still hope, no matter how small it is. He is essentially agnostic and he has more faith in the end than the sincerely religious man does. What he has found to hold onto is nothing big, nothing that provides a real hope for the future. What he has found to hold onto is instead the present, the moment, his specific abilities and his determination to continue doing what he can do for as long as possible.
But Tyler's faith is a small faith, not a big one. He may believe in his ability to do what he can, but he no longer believes in "Big Salvation." As the Spin lasts longer and longer, he realizes that his faith in such salvation is gone.
"All the brands and flavors of Big Salvation. At the last minute we would devise a technological fix and save ourselves. Or: the Hypotheticals were benevolent beings who would turn the planet into a peaceable kingdom. Or: God would rescue us all, or at least the true believers among us. Or. Or. Or. Big Salvation. It was a honeyed lie. A paper lifeboat, even if we were killing ourselves trying to cling to it. It wasn't the Spin that had mutilated my generation. It was the lure and price of Big Salvation." (340)
He already intuits what Jason says to him later, that we are all as "ephemeral as raindrops." The danger, this reveals, is not a lack of faith but too much faith. Too much faith is blinding, misleading, and eventually harmful.
As Martian Wun Ngo Wen says, "the question is how to look at the sun without being blinded" (323). The question here is how to have faith without ceding the ability to ask questions, how to believe in the future without ignoring the truth of our tiny place in the universe and denying the inevitability of death.
Jason writes in his final letter to Tyler,
"Our generation has struggled for thirty years to recover what the Spin stole from us that October night. But we can't. There's nothing in this evolving universe to hold on to, and nothing to be gained by trying. If I learned anything from my 'Fourthness,' that's it. We're as ephemeral as raindrops. We all fall, and we all land somewhere." (428)
Diane provides even more illumination of this idea, though from a very different perspective. She says to Tyler:
"There's a phrase Pastor Bob Kobel liked to use back at Jordan Tabernacle. 'His heart cried out to God.' If it describes anyone, it describes Simon. But you have to parse the sentence. 'His heart cried out'--I think that's all of us, it's universal. You, Simon, me, Jason. Even Carol. Even E.D. When people come to understand how big the universe is and how short a human life is, their hearts cry out. Sometimes it's a shout of joy: I think that's what it was for Jason; I think that's what I didn't understand about him. He had the gift of awe. But for most of us it's a cry of terror. The terror of extinction, the terror of meaninglessness. Our hearts cry out. Maybe to God, or maybe just to break the silence." (440)
Diane and Jason both confirm the fact that we have no savior to turn to, no God, no hope to grasp a foothold in this universe. Even the Hypotheticals are not aliens with godlike powers; they are actually an evolving form of technology that is part of a larger network. They are neither benevolent nor malevolent. The Spin may be protecting humanity, but even still, Jason points out, "The Spin membrane isn't God--it can't see the sparrow fall. It can, however, prevent the sparrow from being cooked with lethal ultraviolet light" (411). The Spin membrane is a protection, but it isn't a savior. Ultimately, what happens to humanity is left in the hands of humanity. For some unknown, mysterious, and perhaps self-serving reason, humanity has been given a second chance. And a third. And perhaps even more.
But the evolution of those chances is neither predetermined nor protected. As Tyler, Diane, and the other refugees cross over the Arch to the new world, Ina says, "It's as if one history has ended and another has begun," while En (a child with his whole future ahead of him) disagrees, saying, "History doesn't start until we land" (452). Neither of these statements is quite right, though. Human history has not ended. A new chapter may be opening, but these humans carry with them to these new worlds the baggage of terrestrial history. That cannot be erased. There is still a burden to carry. Can humans learn to live responsibly, ethically, sustainably with a fresh start? Or will this planet be devoured in the same way the earth was? If the same people and the same cultural values are being transported to a new planet, what will keep humanity from repeating this process?
Wilson provides the reader with a vision of what might be necessary in order to avoid re-creating this history. The "Fourthness" described by Tyler and Diane is not just a physical state. It's not just that their bodies have changed, gained years of life. The Fourth age also includes a deeper sense of empathy, a sense that pain occurring to others is occurring to the observer. It is this empathy that might give a new world a chance. This extended sense of self provides possibilities for change, possibilities for living more ethically in a new world, possibilities for a more sustainable environmental policy and more peaceful political relations.
The question remaining at the end of the novel is whether or not this is enough. Perhaps this is just a reprieve after all. As Tyler notes,
"we had never conquered death, only engineered reprieves (the pill, the powder, the angioplasty, the Fourth Age)--enacted our conviction that more life, even a little more life, might yet yield the pleasure or wisdom we wanted or had missed in it. No one goes home from a triple bypass or a longevity treatment expecting to live forever. Even Lazarus left the grave knowing he'd die a second time. But he came forth. He came forth gratefully." (234)
Spin is a novel of fear and warning, but also of very cautious hope.(less)
The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, a black woman who finds herself in one abusive situation after another...moreThis is one of my new favorite books.
The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, a black woman who finds herself in one abusive situation after another. Her stepfather molests her, her husband beats her, and she is worn down by bearing and caring for children. Over the course of the book, however, Celie learns to stand up for herself and, more importantly, learns to love. Celie's personal development is prompted by her relationship with Shug Avery, a singer and her husband's former lover, who comes to live with them for a while during an illness. Their relationship shifts dramatically, from competitors for Celie's husband to friends, then lovers, and finally family. As Shug says, "Us each other's peoples now" (189). Her personal development is helped along even further through her correspondence with her sister Nettie, who is working as a missionary in Africa with Celie's children that she was forced to give away. Through Shug, Celie learns about love, physical pleasure and desire, and the possibilities of creative outlets; through Nettie, Celie learns about the larger world and begins to see that her life is only one of many possibilities. She learns that her life could be different and through that gradual realization, she makes her life different.
Some of this may sound corny, but it really, truly works in this novel. Walker is able to provide a vision of redeeming love that isn't simplistic or even easy for the characters involved. Celie's growth comes with pain, as does the growth of her formerly abusive husband into a real human being who is able to love both Celie and Shug and his children in a way that he could not before.
What is most meaningful or moving for me in this book, though, is the vision of God and faith that Walker provides. At one point in the book, Celie announces that she no longer believes in God. She tells Shug, "the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown" (199). Shug responds by telling her about her form of God. She says, "God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. . . . God ain't a he or a she, but a It" (202). Furthermore, she describes her experience of God by saying, "one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. . . . It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh" (203). For Shug, God is love, joy, pleasure, beauty. God wants admiration and wants us to enjoy the things it has created. "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it" (203). This kind of pantheistic version of God in nature and in our experiences is one that resonates with me and one that provides plenty of opportunities to use religion in positive, life-affirming ways (as opposed to the sometimes frightening ways in which traditional religion--with its white male God and its proscriptions against sex and other forms of pleasure--can be used). This version of God is not distant and judgmental; it is internal and pleasurable, creative. Shug illustrates one way in which this God can be useful: "Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock. But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don't want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it" (204). In this way, prayer and God become part of a larger struggle for self-determination and the ability for women like Celie to fight back and claim their own lives back from those who would abuse them or take advantage of them.
Some people object to The Color Purple on the grounds of its pantheism or its lesbianism or its frank sexuality or its violence and abuse or its representation of men. Some people see Celie's attitude toward men (she is totally uninterested at best, with the exception of the friendship that finally develops between her and her husband--and that bonding occurs over how much they both love Shug) as a condemnation of men in general. But Walker's real concern here is love--love for oneself, love for others, and love received from others. As Celie's husband says while they sit and talk and sew together, "When it comes to what folks do together with they bodies . . . anybody's guess is as good as mine. But when you talk about love I don't have to guess. I have love and I have been love. And I thank God he let me gain understanding enough to know love can't be halted just cause some peoples moan and groan" (276-7).(less)
I'd read one of the stories in this book before, "Desertion," and loved it. I still think I love that story best, but the whole book is definitely wor...moreI'd read one of the stories in this book before, "Desertion," and loved it. I still think I love that story best, but the whole book is definitely worth reading. In fact, this is one book that I would love to teach, for several reasons.
1. It's a fun read, with some interesting conceits (a future Doggish society [made up of a race of intelligent speaking dogs], space travel, a society of ants, etc.) 2. It demands close reading skills, not just in the stories themselves but in the Doggish commentary on those stories, which reveal a great deal about the future Doggish culture as well as providing some incisive critiques of humanity. 3. It raises several really fascinating questions: What counts as intelligence? What is the ultimate value and worth of humanity? How is humanity defined? Is progress worth more than happiness, or is progress necessary for happiness? Is violence inherent within humanity? How intelligent are animals? What would happen if animals had humanly recognizable intelligence and society? What are the possibilities of a "Brotherhood of Beasts," a recognition of connection and commonality across species lines? And is a truly nonviolent world possible? Is it really "better that one should lose a world than go back to killing" (252)?
Simak himself says that this book was "written out of disillusion" (1) after World War II. He says, "City was written not as a protest (for what good would protest do?) but as a seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing" (2). He goes on to recognize that he "peopled the fantasy world with dogs and robots because [he] could see little hope of mankind arriving at such a world" (2). I'm not sure I agree with the cynicism of this statement or with City's insistence that violence is an unavoidable part of human nature, but I do agree that the humankind of the 20th century deserves to be indicted for its behavior. Simak argues in his introduction to the book (from which I have been quoting) that humanity is beyond saving and, further developing this argument, creates in this book a world in which humankind disappears, leaving a more peaceful, kind, and empathic world of Dogs and Robots; I would argue, on the other hand, that Simak's creation of this world shows the possibilities of nonviolence, even for humans, because it shows through this contrast what changes would need to be made to have this kind of world. The Doggish commentator on the stories asks, "If Man had taken a different path, might he not, in time to come, have been as great as Dog?" (146). Despite the violence of the 20th century (and the opening of the 21st) and despite Simak's loss of faith in humanity, I believe there is still a chance for us to take a different path. And the kind of criticism of humanity levied by Simak is an important part of the process involved in finding that path.(less)
This book is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts and intertwines the stories of Joanna (a 1970s...moreThis book is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts and intertwines the stories of Joanna (a 1970s feminist of a world much like, if not identical to, our own), Jeannine (a young, fairly stereotypical woman of an alternate timeline in which the Depression never ended), and Janet (a woman from the distant utopian future of Whileaway, a world with no men and only women), showing multiple variations on the issue or problem of sex difference alongside multiple responses to inequalities. Joanna is outspoken and sees clearly the inequalities that surround her, even if she is not always certain how to best address them; Jeannine is thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology that says a woman needs a man and has neither the strength nor the apparent inclination to challenge this ideology; and Janet, from a world without men, doesn't fully understand what the problem is. After all, it has never been a problem for her. She is what all women could be if sexist inequalities no longer existed.
Through Joanna, Russ is able to openly critique contemporary society. For example, Joanna says, describing her education as a woman,
"I love my body dearly and yet I would copulate with a rhinoceros if I could become not-a-woman. There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? I failed miserably and thought it was my own fault. You can't unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter; they are designed to not to be stable together and they make just as big an explosion inside the head of the unfortunate girl who believes in both." (151)
Joanna is the angry woman, and, more importantly, the woman who has every right to be angry. She is "a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater" who doesn't "consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss" but who violently destroys them (135). She speaks the anger of all oppressed women when she says,
"Alas, it was never meant for us to hear. It was never meant for us to know. We ought never be taught to read. We fight through the constant male refractoriness of our surroundings; our souls are torn out of us with such shock that there isn't even any blood. Remember: I didn't and don't want to be a 'feminine' version or a diluted version or a special version or a subsidiary version or an ancillary version, or an adapted version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves. "What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?" (206).
Jeannine and Janet each function in very different ways to illustrate the problem that Joanna rails against. Jeannine is lost, unable to stand up for herself, unable to figure out just what she wants or what she should do when the things she should want do not satisfy her:
"She hauls at the valise again, wondering desperately what it is that other women know and can do that she doesn't know or can't do, women in the street, women in the magazines, the ads, married women. Why life doesn't match the stories. I ought to get married. [...] "The lines of her figure are perfect, but who is to use all this loveliness, who is to recognize it, make it public, make it available? Jeannine is not available to Jeannine. . . . If only (she thinks) he'll come and show me to myself (108-9).
Janet, on the other hand, is thoroughly herself, competent and capable (even as an expendable member of Whileawayan society), untainted by the evils of sexism and gender inequality. As a result, she has trouble truly seeing the problem and recognizing why it is that Joanna and Jeannine are the way that they are. She is constantly questioning and challenging the assumptions that underpin contemporary society. For instance, she says,
"Now you tell me that enchanted frogs turn into princes, that frogesses under a spell turn into princesses. What of it? Romance is bad for the mind. . . . After all, why slander frogs? Princes and princesses are fools. They do nothing interesting in your stories. They are not even real. According to history books you passed through the stage of feudal social organization in Europe some time ago. Frogs, on the other hand, are covered with mucus, which they find delightful; they suffer agonies of passionate desire in which the males will embrace a stick or your finger if they cannot get anything better, and they experience rapturous, metaphysical joy (of a froggy sort, to be sure) which shows plainly in their beautiful, chrysoberyllian eyes. "How many princes or princesses can say as much?" (154-55)
Her matter-of-fact approach to the world reveals just how silly and useless sexist ideology is.
The Female Man is challenging not just because of its ideas (which are challenging enough for many readers, to be sure) but because of its structure as well. Russ alternates quickly and frequently between these three perspectives and narrative voices and also includes another narrative voice and perspective that remains mysterious until the penultimate chapter. It can be confusing. Most characters' perspectives are presented in first person, which makes it even more difficult to tell who is speaking. But in the end, this difficulty pays off. It is worth the extra effort in reading to have been able to see the world through so many different sets of eyes.
The experimental narrative style includes intrusions by the author as well, ranging in tone from the defensive to the hopeful. In one passage, Russ includes fragmentary predictions of the criticisms her book will receive:
"Shrill . . . vituperative . . . no concern for the future of society . . . maunderings of antiquated feminism . . . selfish femlib . . . needs a good lay . . . this shapeless book . . . of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond . . . twisted, neurotic . . . some truth buried in a largely hysterical . . . of very limited interest, I should . . . another tract for the trash-can . . . burned her bra and thoght that . . . no characterization, no plot . . . really important issues are neglected while . . . hermetically sealed . . . women's limited experience . . . another of the screaming sisterhood . . . ." (140-1).
And there's still more that I haven't quoted. Here, Russ quite simply beats her critics to the punch. Call me and my book shrill and hysterical and you're making my argument for me, she says, in essence. Dismiss this as merely political, merely feminist (feminist as a bad word here, of course), and you prove me right. The thing is, however, that this is not a mere trick on the part of the author, not simply a way of maneuvering her way to a victory over her critics; this is a clear-sighted recognition of the kind of response this kind of book had received in the past and would continue to receive in the future. She shows the reader just how deeply engrained the ideas she battles are, for only ideas that are in some way important to the culture would be defended so strenuously. If the sexist ideology she criticizes in The Female Man weren't fundamental, her criticisms could be ignored.
In the end of the book, Russ as author returns again, this time to address the book itself, sending it forth upon its mission to "recite yourself to all who will listen" and to "not complain when you at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmores, and The Son of the Sheik" (213). She says,
"Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses. "Rejoice, little book! "For on that day, we will be free" (214).
I have heard many people criticize the feminist movement as problematic because it will, of necessity, make itself irrelevant, destroy itself. I've never understood why these people saw this as a problem. That, after all, is the point. The feminist movement is a political movement to create change in a specific arena. Most (if not all) feminists would rejoice if they no longer needed to call themselves feminists because the movement had done its job and Russ reminds us of that truth. The feminism of Russ's The Female Man, even in its anger, is not a feminism of misandry or hatred but a feminism of hope for the future, a future that will require anger and a struggle in order to be reached. This is a criticism that reaches toward utopia, an acknowledgement of the problem in a practical attempt to create something better. Russ writes,
"Remember, we will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be free. I swear it on my own head. I swear it on my ten fingers. We will be ourselves" (213).
This freedom to "be ourselves" does not require (as in Whileaway or the other future world described in the last part of the book) a world without men; it does, however, require a world without the sexist ideologies that have benefitted men and harmed women. And this world would be, as the allusion here hints, Heaven. It would be utopia. (less)