Saturday, 28 May 2016

Banging Book Club | All the Rage by Courtney Summer

And it's not that she tells him it didn't happen, it's that by the time he asks, she no longer has a language of her own. But that's enough. It always is.
I'm not sure what to say about this book, except read it. I'm wary about overstating how powerful an impact this book had on me since it did so through a subtle and simplistic representation of its protagonists' psyche. To describe Romy as a rape victim is, to me, far too dismissive and limiting a description as, while a victim of others treatment of her as well as her mistreatment of herself, she has a identity which is not defined by being raped.

This is not to dismiss the impact it has on her psyche but it is because the word 'rape' is rarely said that it has such a devastating affect on her life. The audience is privileged enough to know the truth by being in Romy's head, while everyone else, with the exception of her family, shuns her for 'falsely' claiming that one of the most popular boys in town raped her . But even with this support network Romy feels isolated: 'I know I can't win because that's not what I was put on this earth to do'

The book itself is scarred from the event that it depicts in its opening pages although the event itself remains distant with the flashback interrupted by Romy, with a change in font emphasizing that 'I'm not there...I'm not there anymore. That was a long time ago, a year ago, and that girl - I'm not her again. I can't be.' The event haunts the rest of the book but is never fully articulated. Even though we return to it in flashback, there is a constant uncertainty and confusion in the narration as Romy struggles to cope with the memory. When I said the book is scarred, I meant it literally as each chapter begins with scars across its top. This and the change in font provides interesting experimentation with the form without being distracted from its central issue.

It all sounds serious and it is true there is little humour in the book - this is not a joking matter and it is treated seriously. But this is not a worthy book and is always grounded by its protagonist as we follow her living a day-to-day existence. The plot soon kicks in around halfway through as her former best friend dissappears and she contrasts her treatment to 'what happens when a girl befalls a fate no one thinks she deserves.' While this girl prompts television crews and search parties, Romy apparantly got none of that attention. It is in this contrast where the title makes most sense to me, not just because of the anger Romy feels. When I first read the title, I thought of the phase 'all the rage' as in something that is fashionable at the current moment. One could argue that popularity is a key factor to the different responses: the missing girl is a popular kid while Romy is normal, unnoticeable until she brings attention to herself. Her thoughts swing from craving attention and help to hiding herself from such attention and wanting to 'be some nobody girl with nothing to say.' This conflict is perhaps most noticeable in the much-commented image of Romy's application of bright red lipstick and nail polish - it serves to draw attention to her but also an armour to hide herself from the community and their 'soft kind of vicious,' the perfect description of the antagonism Romy continually has to deal with.

There are no caricature sexists for Summers to strawman for the sake of a simplistic argument - even the Sherrif, the most overtly antagonistic character, has dimensions to his character as he has numerus personal investments in Romy and the missing girl (I don't want this to be a spoilery post, hence the vagueness about the plot). Rather than a cutting soical commentary as in Asking For It, Summers presents the political as personal and the psychological impact of sexism. Whether its boys at school like Alek Turner - 'a boy who claimed the world, but it's not his fault; he only took what was offered' - or boys who treat her with kindness (you know, like a normal human being) like Leon who ' is nice. That doesn't mean he's safe,' Romy is unable to trust anyone to be honest around yet still has natural urges and passions towards them. As she tells herself when considering whether to make more of a connection with Leon: 'Is it weak to want to see him? It can't be wrong to want to see someone because you like the person you are when you're around them. That's probably one of the best reasons you could have.' And yet she cannot convince herself to be the person she likes to be - she cannot escape her past and she feels she can't move on even as she is presented with the possibility.

I realise I'm not explaining Romy very well as a character but as I said, the novel is not clearcut in her representation - we are stuck with her in her confused mind trying to cope with everything she is dealing with alongside her. It's not as extreme as stream-of-consiousness but the narration is certainly confused as it demonstrates a difficulty to comprehend what it sees particularly when it is unexpected. The disconnection between the body and the mind is a recurrent theme and probably one that is stated the most with sentences like, 'I wish I didn't have a body, sometimes,' appearing regularly. If the book's scarring of itself  wasn't a big enough clue, appearance is a real concern for Romy. Using make-up as an armour is one of the most positive ways this manifests itself at least when compared to when she fears making any changes to her appearance at all: for example when her mother treats her with a push-up bra, Romy only considers, 'If something happens - I don't want to be wearing it.' She hates having photos taken of her as she explains :
I didn't understand who I was looking at. I could see the beginnings of a takeover, a body turning, growing, changing into something that didn't feel like it belonged to me and every moment since then I've spent trying to hold on to the pieces of myself I still understand.
 When she sees herself 'wasted' at a party, Summers unpicks the phrase brilliantly with Romy's comment that 'The girl in the photo is a waste of a girl.' All Romy can define herself by is how she feels and so leaves herself helpless when she's at her lowest such as when a classmate accuses her, 'Jesus what boy won't you lie about?', she thinks:
My body is an alarm gone off. My body is not my body. My skin tightens enough to suffocate, keeping me in this moment where I stop and she doesn't.
 Perhaps the best example of Romy's disconnection with reality is in the following exchange with Leon:
"That's not what I saw," he says. 
"That's what it felt like."
The novel offers no emotional resolution even though the mystery of the missing girl is answered fairly definitively. That is not to say Romy does not change or is left without hope, indeed the very ending offers a glint of it. But it's only a glint and by no means certain. From a narrator who claims, 'I don't believe in forgiveness. I think if you hurt someone, it becomes a part of you both,'  a lack of a happy ending is perhaps to be expected. But unlike Asking for It where Emma feels like she is trapped within an oppressive system, Romy's story follows from the similar events that close Asking for It and suggests how even if the system can't be changed by one person, that one person can still cling to their identity and can rage, resist, and revitalize themselves into who they want to be.

Well, turns out I had a lot to say even if its just a scattering of thoughts. This is a challenging, thought-provoking book that will linger with me. You'll have noticed I've quoted the book an awful lot in this review for the simple reason that Courtney Summers is a damn good writer. In fact, I think it's best to end this post with her own words about what she thinks of All the Rage:
Sometimes, I think of my novels as letters to their readers.
The difficult, often hard-to-like female protagonists and the particular set of challenges they face may change from book to book, but the underlying message - the heart of the story - is always the same: whatever you’re going through and however you feel, you’re not alone.
One of fiction’s greatest powers is its ability to reveal the parts of ourselves we’re most afraid to show; both the ugly and the beautiful. When a reader sees their secrets on the page, there’s a chance it can make a world of difference for them. It can lessen the weight of those secrets to the point the reader can breathe just a little bit easier and to the point, even, the reader might be able to say their secrets out loud.

Sometimes, saying a secret out loud changes a life.

Sometimes, saying a secret out loud saves it.

I’m not the first person to express this and I won’t be the last: a book can be a lifeline.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Banging Book Club | The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

I don't want to start this review with the most privileged-sounding sentence I've probably ever said or written down, so I'll make it the second sentence. It is hard for me to appreciate the importance of this book in terms of its sexual politics since I consider myself a male feminist. Or if I'm being honest, a repenting sexist but let's not get bogged down in that. Or maybe we should. See, I can't help feeling that these monologues are preaching to the choir, speaking from my own perspective; I know the horrifying things done to women are reprehensible and it is unbelievable that they still go on. As I'm not a woman or someone who owns a vagina, it's hard for me to identify with the monologues on a emotional level leaving me feeling trapped with an intellectual perspective from my white male tower made of mansplaining frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails that always sounds condescending, patronising and not really providing any insight.

But Hannah directly asked in the Banging Books Club video what people who don't have vaginas think about it so I guess I'll give it a go. Especially because the thing that I think everyone will take from the book (and I imagine any performance of it) is that we need to be far more open in our discussions about sex, hence why Eve Ensler uses the vagina as a figure for this perspective. With this example, the focus becomes on the female experience of sex which seem pretty unrepresented in general in comparison to the male experience of sex (which I know explains a lot of my insecurities. Ooph this is going to be an honest blog, isn't it?) From my distanced perspective, it feels too easy to say 'It's all society's fault! Damn that patriarchy!' but just looking at the wording of the monologues and how the women speak is an effective demonstration of how much censorship there is around the word vagina and all things associated with it.

One woman explains how, after an embarrassing situation which she refers to as 'the flood,' she 'closed the whole store. Locked it. Never opened for business again.' Her reclusive tendencies is made explicit at the end of the monologue:
You happy? You made me talk - you got it out of me. You got an old lady to talk about her down-there. You feel better now? [Turns away; turns back]
You know, actually, you're the first person I ever talked to about this, and I feel a little better.
Now while Ensler used the words of real women for the monologues, the text itself is still a work of fictional drama; no matter how real it feels, you cannot ignore the artificial process. Hence, when these powerful moments occur, and there are plenty, they are clearly designed to do so. Now, I don't feel this detracts from the monologues - I fully believe that drama can have a powerful effect on people that can cause real change. And reading a woman describing herself as a 'store' and feeling both uncomfortable and liberated in being able to open herself up again was an emotional experience.

Now, is it something I've read before? Not exactly, but pretty similar things. But this is to be performed remember, so have I seen a woman talk in this way before? Yes, in both a dramatic context and in conversations with a friend who likes to talk about these issues ('These issues.' How dismissive of me. I apologise). Is that a problem? No. It just doesn't chime with my experience - how dare a piece of art be created which I cannot totally relate to! That's not what the Monologues are there for - their playful and humorous qualities (which there are plenty of, effectively balancing the dark, real and important issues) make it accessible to a wide audience, which it has demonstrably found and which continues to grow exponentially it seems. Ultimately, the monologues provide a starting point for discussions that we need to be having.

However, a problem has been raised in recent discussions I have seen about the book: how useful it is beyond that? I was amazed, much like Hannah was, that this was published in 1998 - I was 4 years old! This book has only just turned eighteen, and while in some ways the world still hasn't matured into grown-up discussions about vaginas yet never mind sex in general, it's made a hell of a lot of progress. Is it dated then? A reason for this strange sense of datedness is suggested in Elaine Aston's 2007 essay 'a good night out, for the girls' in Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s:
What Esner does is to take a 1970s style of radical feminism and gives it a 1990s makeover: it takes consciousness-raising and radical feminism as a basis for a more up-to-date style of self-sexual-empowerment politics. In the process of this makeover, a 1970s emphasis on the collective [...] is rejected in favour of the solo (p. 119)
(N.B. the essay, and indeed the whole book is fascinating - Aston goes on to look at the work of Jenny Eclair and Catherine Johnston, the woman who created Mamma Mia! Yes, this is an academic essay analysing the ABBA musical)

Aston's argument has meant that what I initially found an honest and enlightening explanation by Ensler now hints at deep problems such as when she explains 'my favourite part of traveling with the work. I get to hear the truly amazing stories.' Interestingly though Ensler makes herself a character in one of the monologues reacting to a lesbian woman telling her story. The frankness of it all prompts many thoughts from Esner including the following:
I don't know that I wanted to talk about sex. But then again, how can I talk about vaginas without talking about them in action? I am worried about the titillation factor, worried about the piece becoming exploitative. Am I talking about vaginas to arouse people? Is that a bad thing?

I realize I am embarrassed, listening to her. There is a combination of reasons: excitement, fear, her love of vaginas and comfort with them and my distancing, terror of saying all this in front of you, the audience.

I realize I don't know what is appropriate. I don't even know what that word means. Who decides. I learn so much from what she's telling me. About her, about me.

Does talking about vaginas ruin the mystery, or is that just another myth that keeps vaginas in the dark, keeps them unknowing and unsatisfied?
For all the self-awareness though, it doesn't seem like the monologue deeps much further into these thoughts. Instead we move on to another story. Fine, that's the structure of the text, but as such it can all feel a little lacking. Perhaps nowadays we crave for deeper analysis rather than just musings. (Which explains why I wonder sometimes if writing this blog is worth it.) Interestingly, Aston comments that her student's shocked reaction to her criticism of The Vagina Monologues as a conservative text are a result of a 'I'm not a feminist but...' culture where 'feminism is assumed, is taken as a given, but is not a point of identification in terms either of politics or performance' (p. 121).

So it clearly has a different effect now then it did when it was originally performed and published. If it still has an effect at all. The frankness and honesty remains striking but with the Internet allowing similar stories to exist in their thousands, stories about vagina workshops may seem quaint or radical depending on your perspective and how many of these sort-of stories you have read.

Rather than being simplistic or reductive as some might argue, I think it might just be out of date which I think is a testament to the rapid expansion of discourse since the Monologues was launched within it. No longer are the Monologues unique in its blunt, frank and honest discussions of female sexuality - as well as Jenny Eclair, who Aston discusses alongside the monologues, there's Caitlin Moran, Jo Brand, Luisa Omielan, Cariad Lloyd, Danielle Ward, Amy Schumer and I'm sure many other female performers talking about their sexuality in a funny, accessible and intelligent manner. Moreover, these performers are talking about our current modern society which, as I mentioned above, has changed considerably since the Monologues began particularly with its concerns with non-binary genders, transexuality and asexuality. There is a fantastic video that addresses this latter point as from a non-sexual perspective, the Monologues may not be as inclusive as it appears to be with its focus on sex. As the video explains, a vagina can mean more than being a sexual organ. But I can't help the criticism is a bit harsh as this concern is addressed in the monologues (albeit briefly), see for example the opening of 'Because he liked to look at it':
This is how I came to love my vagina. It's embarrassing, because it's not politically correct. I mean, I know it should have happened in a bath with salt grains from the Dead Sea, Enya playing, me loving my woman self. I know the story. Vaginas are beautiful. Our self-hatred is only the internalized repression and hatred of the patriarchal culture. It isn't real. Pussys unite. I know all of it. Like, if we'd grown up in a culture where we were taught that fat thighs were beautiful, we'd all be pounding down milkshakes and cookies, lying on our backs , spending our days thigh-expanding. But we didn't grow up in that culture.
That quotation expresses my concern that there is a risk of over-intellectualizing this book; it is a provocative book and a thought-provoking one at that but on an emotional level.

Saying that, I agree with Leena's point in the BB video that this is a book that is difficult, if not impossible, to read objectively. This is a protest, not a statement. As Ensler herself says in her introduction, written in 2001, 'Whenever I have tried to write a monologue to serve a politically correct agenda, [...] it always fails. Note the lack of monologues about menopause or transgendered women. I tried. The Vagina Monologues is about attraction, not promotion.' It's still good for these voices to be heard than not at all and surely we can only get better as we improve on being more inclusive and open-minded in these discussions. If nothing else, this book makes you think about how you think and want to write honestly and personally about yourself. (Wait a minute...)

And that's where I want to leave this review: ultimately, what I've been trying to say is that this was something that challenged my intellectual, somewhat 'know-it-all' feminism ('Well of course women should have equal rights!')
And that's what this book club is already doing for me and the reason I've (sort-of) kickstarted this blog once again, to try and get my thoughts in order. Hopefully a better order than they were in before. I look forward to rejoining with All the Rage(really need to get round to reading it now the video is up). Who knows, there may be another review or two to tide you over between the monthly readings, we'll see...

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Asking for It by Louise O'Neill | Banging Book Club

In short, this is a book that tackles our desire to cling to our preconceptions of rape and how we should deal with it as a society and as individual people. But I have more to say about this, I think. Though if it wasn't for a new YouTube based bookclub (mentioned in the title), I don't know if I would have.

First of all, I have to say that as well as encouraging me to not be so prudish/picky about what I read, the Banging Book Club (led by three of the most interesting and intelligent YouTubers) provides a great starting point for discussions whether it was an off-the-cuff comment in their non-spoiler videos (I found Lucy's description of the book as 'a cautionary tale' interesting and worthy of more discussion) to the in-depth discussions on the podcast. In fact, I had started writing this when I listened to the podcast and I now regret not waiting - for now, it produced some Incidental Thoughts (see bottom of this post) but future posts on books from Banging Book Club will be written post-podcast.

So my initial thoughts were coloured by my slow-reading - having read the first part set 'Last year' I got a distinctly American Psycho vibe (I'll explain more below), which was then brutally stripped away when I reached the second section and the stark realism of 'This year'. As always, it's taken me a while to get to a synopsis of the book, but frankly I think the book itself tells you everything you need to know from its cover

I would like it if this happened to someone else. I would like it if someone else was ruined too. I wouldn't be alone.
For those of you not familiar with American Psycho, there's a good summary here (oh and it's by me! how funny!) but the reason I thought about it is that both novels use the first-person narration to create an entirely superficial world where true emotions are bubbling underneath exploding through in scenes of sexual violence. Now, in terms of the violence, Asking for It is far more palatable and less nauseating than Ellis provides in his novel but is no less uncomfortable. The event is so heavily signposted from the cover onwards that when it happens there is a horrifying sense of inevitability; almost as if Emma was asking for it. The novel is clearly playing on this sense of inevitability and addresses it head on in the second half as Emma transforms before our eyes:
Maybe she [her mother] wishes that I had died too. Would that have been an easier grief than this, looking at me every day and knowing that this was only a shell, that Emmie, the real Emmie, was never coming back and that there was a new Emma that she had to learn to love all over again? 
While I said there's a shift into realism - and there is, in that we dive deeper into Emma's psyche rather than the fleeting hints and clues buried under her desire to be popular - it's only that the flashy superficiality of Emma's life is replaced by a 'realist' aesthetic. It is more strip-backed but is no more honest as there are no easy or honest conversations - whereas before there was a routine as part of a game everyone was in on, here it is more stilted as Emma claims, "I don't know what to say. Tell me my lines please" and that her mother 'doesn't like it when I [...] go off script." This need to find the right way to talk about rape and the stigma that affects how we talk about it is something that concerns me particularly and I think is interestingly addressed in the novel. Rather than lecture about the morality of how we should treat rape victims (and how damaging that label can be regardless of good intentions), it remains observational in presenting its reality as Emma evidently struggles to cope with how she is treated, whether it is through supportive hashtags or judgemental condemnations - it's all unhelpful and raises the question: "When did we all become fluent in this language that none of us wanted to learn?" Even writing this review, I'm worried about writing the wrong thing or, even worse, falling into the cliched phrases that surround this topic and so are becoming increasingly useless as they become more generalised. Is there a right language for discussing this? I can't answer this, and neither does O'Neill, instead she goes for honesty - she, and Emma unsurprisingly, show an awareness of how her victimisation is treated and represented, and to me, that is the novel's greatest strength: addressing the issue head-on rather than trying to judge as pretty much every single character does.

Right from its front cover, the novel shows an engagement with what seems to be the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) social issue of rape, consent and why its all got so complicated.  O'Neill uses the phrases that sound so cliche and stereotypical yet all too familiar in order to attack them (and the attitudes they represent) with a scalpel (to borrow Jeanette Winterson's description of O'Neill's style) that it is also necessary to at least address them in any exploration of this subject matter. What is particularly impressive is how Emma remains a three-dimensional character with O'Neill just avoiding her becoming a passive victim in her own story, even as she explains how
 my brain is crammed up with that word and those photos and those comments (her tits are tiny, aren't they?) and I don't have any room for anything else.
Her life has been consumed by this event so yes she is passive, but she is by no means willing to be a part of this narrative even as there are no signs of escape.

Saying all that, to develop the above description, while there is a fierce yet controlled satirical edge to O'Neill's writing which warrants Winterson's cover-friendly quote, I don't think it is as delicate as the phrase suggests - this is a pointed attack and there are plenty of scars made by O'Neill. She does not hide her her horrified viewpoint on the situation Emma finds herself in which I'm in no position to deny or praise in terms of accuracy. What that means though is while I am on O'Neill's side, I feel some subtlety was lost and the novel felt less realistic and more polemic. Although perhaps my unease really comes from the fact that the novel sits between those two positions - I never felt lectured but then I couldn't quite believe in the reality of the novel either. (NB While Emma's situation is not exclusive to women, I doubt being a man helps with my identification problem which I notice few female readers claim to see)

And perhaps that's the point. We can't understand this situation because it is so remote from our lives even though it isn't as remote as we think - indeed our careless attitude is precisely the problem. Seeing it from Emma's perspective means we naturally sympathise with her struggles while never being sure how malicious the intent is by those who cause her suffering. No doubt this is an uncomfortable read, but like American Psycho, it is made somewhat palatable by its satire. But this is not feel-good satire - to walk away from this book feeling educated and smug at seeing a new perspective ignores what the book tries to do. This is harsh satire, stuff that is painful to laugh at but the urge is there regardless. This is satire with bite and proof that satire doesn't have to be uproariously funny as long as it takes a side swipe at the world it is depicting.

One last repetition to end this review on: A provocative take on an uncomfortable subject matter that reminds us we should never be comfortable discussing this subject, which is why we must.

Incidental Thoughts from the podcast
  • It struck me that there is a famously unlikeable literary character called Emma - Jane Austen's Emma. Makes me wonder if O'Neill's Emma could be read as a modernised version of Austen's Emma who is unlikeable but not unsympathetic, except she is not given a happy ending.
  • I found Hannah's question about whether someone could read this and think she was asking for it fascinating - I think it could be very easily read as a one-dimensional reactionary polemic, either in glorifying victim shaming with a 'she had it coming' attitude or glorifying victim shaming with a 'pity the poor rape victim because she's a rape victim, not because she's a human being' attitude. (I realise I've probably expressed myself poorly there, but hopefully the two extremes are clear)
  • I can't help wondering if the novel is being manipulative - I mean all art ism but developing from that above point, does the subject matter dominate the novel too much? Is it too much of a social issues novel? Is that even a criticism? As I say, it is certainly provocative so the fact it raises so many questions, I can only consider a good thing.