jo's Reviews > Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
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Nov 22, 08

bookshelves: trauma
Read in October, 2007

i have no idea why this book gets so much love. the writing is mediocre, the story construction weak-linked, the point fudged by so much nonsense, it's blurry and romanticized and wrapped in cheap tin foil and smelling of county fair cotton candy. and the mistique of class: i like it just as much as i like the mistique of ethnicity, i.e. not at all.
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message 17: by Mike (new)

Mike                                              Nice criticism. Disagree entirely, but it's well-written, and a strong jab.

The blur, romanticization, "cheap tin" wrapping, and stench of carnival fare--well, I actually chalk that up to voice and narration, which you don't buy but I see as not realistic but a highly-stylized 'realism'. This voice differs from some of the other Allison I've read, but throughout there is--and here I worry that I'll invite horrified flames and scorn in response--a bleak sense of humor, adroitly narrating the horrors in a manner that distances without detaching, ironizes without ever losing its emotional edge. In a way, I see it as a Southern cousin to Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy. But I think we disagree, and I don't disagree strongly enough to make more than this middling, semi-invested retort.


message 16: by jo (last edited Oct 24, 2007 05:24AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo oh, mike, and you probably read this eons ago! in a week or two this book will be gone gone gone from my consciousness, so let me respond now. i did look for humor, which i was expecting, but, partly because i am myself the earnest type, partly because southern american irony is all but undetectable to these continental european ears, i failed to find it. if i had met it it would have gone a long way towards counteracting the thick burnt-sugar-and-family-love smell.


Sassy Sounds to me like you just can't relate to the characters and don't have the ability to empathize with people you see as "other."


message 14: by Mike (new)

Mike                                              Sassy -- sheesh, that's more than sassy -- it's a bit rough, from one review of one book? Check out jo's other reviews... (Even if I didn't know--'cause I know jo materially, not just virtually--that your criticism was unfounded and entirely off-base, I think a reading of her reviews and presence here at GR would show a more complicated reader than the one you smash.)


Sassy Maybe so, but dismissing "the mystique of class" and that of ethnicity with a casual swat comes across as downright snobbish. I did a quick comparison of our book ratings and I see that Jo has no problem at all with the mystique of the upper class. It's only the poor and the "ethnic" that she seems to find uninteresting.


message 12: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo you're right, sassy, jo is entirely uncool. i don't like her either. i must say, though, that she reads a lot of "ethnic" literature and a lot of literature about poverty, for one who doesn't like it. bah!


message 11: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Hey Jo, wow this review is getting a lot of attention! I have to agree with Mike and his characterizations of Allison's highly-stylized realism. I guess I've always valued the book for the way it plays around with "poor white" cultural tropes that were made famous by Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and many others... I remember the book doing some interesting things with the idea of "trash" both literal and figurative. And frankly, I thought Bone's experiences were horrifying! I felt sympathy for her character. So I'll have to respectfully disagree with your review, although as a GoodReads friend, I still think you're quite cool :)


message 10: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo not sure this qualifies as "a lot" of attention (haha), but it's certainly led me to revisit my original review and to be quite struck by the strength of its displeasure with the book. i remember hating the book, wanting to throw it out of the window, resisting passionately the imperative to finish it. why did i hate the book so much? i can't quite remember the details of it now (even my own words don't jog my memory), but i think i had high expectations of this novel (i had intentionally stayed away from it for fear that it would upset me too much) and, as often is the case with things we anticipate with such intensity, i felt let down. that's it: somewhat pornographically, i felt let down by the tameness of the violence, as compared with what i expected. look, i teach narratives of trauma and mental illness. as you can imagine, i constantly put myself through the ringer of reading about pretty devastating experiences. i don't know if this book is autobiographical (is it?), but the "stylization" you guys refer to got on my nerves. in the face of the bare-bones words extracted one by one from a recalcitrant memory by survivors of torture, unspeakable child abuse, unendurable dehumanization, and other joyful such things, allison's attempts at getting "good writing" out of bone's pain felt to me phony and grating.

still, i'm intensely interested by what you and mike call stylization. what is it? what is a highly stylized realism? maybe i should read that zadie smith article after all, hey, mike?

here's the link for those who are getting to this via a different route.


Sassy And yet, you can like Pride and Prejudice?


message 8: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo well, not much trauma in P&P, is there? (well actually, i think there is a bit, in the form of an aunt or something, but let us just say that it doesn't play a prominent part).


message 7: by Mike (new)

Mike                                              I read Bastard o-o-C after my first Allison experience, the short story "River of Names." That story's narrator recounts her present-day discussions with her lover, who advises the narrator (as I recall) to write about her past, about how she can seem kind of distant. And interwoven between these moments of the present-day relationship are relatively affectless recitations of various people (particularly women and children) in the narrator's extended family who have died, often in terribly brutal fashion. The narrator circles 'round, in the story's present, her own concerns about a tendency toward violence, as her lover pushes her to consider having kids. And in one of her final present-day moments, the narrator is told by her lover how funny she is, a comment that startled me yet made a strange kind of sense. That story kind of trained me how to read Bastard.

I think Allison at her best is stylizing in a way Qiana describes well--grotesquely capturing the tendency to make the South grotesque (and to rely upon cartoonish versions of the grotesque, rural, poor, white-trash inhabitants central to the mythology of so much Southern Lit). Yet, for me, she doesn't parody as much as use a heightened style (story structure and content, as well as the work of the sentence) which even as it somewhat estranges us from the cathartic voyeurism of so much writing about "the South" or "trauma" (again, for me) produced a sharper sense of the pain and horror. An empathetic irony, a violence aestheticized yet not anaesthetized? Faulkner and O'Connor seem to be peering over Allison's shoulders, but their influence is kept at a certain stylized distance from the different kind of empathy she has with the characters.


message 6: by jo (last edited Nov 23, 2008 07:27AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo thanks, mike. i really, really missed the irony. i think i'm not good at irony, because i always miss it! as i said on previous occasions (maybe on WLTW), i'm the queen of earnest (insert self-deprecatory grimace).


message 5: by Qiana (new)

Qiana I like Mike's description, too. It has been a couple of years since I read it. And yes, Bastard is semi-autobiographical, which maybe also account for some of its unevenness, maybe...


message 4: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo these conversations have the unfailing result of making me feel either very dumb or very ignorant. then i think, how much southern literature have you read, jo? and the answer is, not much. yay! i prefer to be ignorant than dumb!!!!


message 3: by Qiana (new)

Qiana No no no no no... don't say that! Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I haven't read many narratives of trauma and mental illness, so I don't have the same knowledge base that you do on that front. We are all catching up in one way or another! Besides, your observations aren't invalid (or ignorant or dumb) just 'cause others don't agree. I'm still trying to figure out how Junot Diaz's book won that Pulitzer...


message 2: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo "I'm still trying to figure out how Junot Diaz's book won that Pulitzer... "

me too! i'm so happy i'm not alone! i have felt an outcast on that score, too (meaning, not only in my dislike of Bastard o.o. C.). mike here, by the way, has a lot to say about that book's wonderfulness.

truly, though, regional american literatures escape me entirely. i mean, the regionality of them. i have to say that i have the wonderful excuse, on the one hand, of being a relative newcomer to this country, and, on the other, of finding the exploration of "americanness" so fascinating, that i so often lose the trees for the forest! i think i'm just more interested in "america" as a cultural phenomenon that seems to impose itself somewhat monolithically on the outside world whereas it is so splintered and questioned on the inside. and i'm interested, also, in the way this splinteredness and questioning carry on below the surface, because americans spend so much energy in proposing themselves as americans first and foremost, even though they are a ridiculously different people. see for this the palin-obama pseudo-debate on what constitutes the true america. (as i write this, i'm still somewhat disbelieving of the fact that obama is our new president!)


Sassy But that super-American-ness is absent from the literature of the old South and often the deep South, because there is that element of the Confederacy still showing through. The Boatwright family in B.o.o.C, I think, exemplify the concept of the Southern misfits. It's almost like a diaspora.

Jo,I don't think you're dumb. I think as a Southerner who struggles to teach British lit to mainly "ethnic" urban Southern teenagers, I find your take on this and other books both baffling and foreign to my tastes and experience.


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