Sunday, June 30, 2019

June Reads Part Three

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Supper Club by Lara Williams

There's a moment early in The Golden Notebook that gave me the widest smile. If I had been a white liberal on Twitter, I would have retweeted it, saying "YASSS KWEEN GO OFF," but that's exactly the kind of shit Lessing mocks in this novel. In one of the notebooks, Lessing's narrator and fellow author observes that the novel has become merely a travelogue for the bourgeoisie, a way for them to see How It Is Over There, with "there" standing in for any marginalized group exploited through the vagaries of realism. Lessing's observation is both severely acute and incredibly prescient as realism of late has increasingly lost interest in social realism, opting instead for heartwarming narratives of the poor "overcoming" their hardships by hard work etc. It's a shame the Americans with their masochistic Protestant valorizing of work have dominated the publishing world as true socialist realism seems completely antithetical to their project of naked capitalism. How else to explain the ceaseless waves of New York novels about affluent white people with marriage problems, published by affluent white people with family in publishing?

The Golden Notebook is an excoriation of bourgeois values, a call-to-arms, and absolutely feminist (second wave, but second wave feminism is better than none, I suppose). Its subject isn't just a challenge to the bourgeois—its very structure represents a provocation to the usual novel. At first glance, the narrator's disillusionment with the local Communist Party and its critique of Stalin and Stalinism might appear to be anti-communist, but dig a little deeper and you'll see the narrator loves the idea of communism and has only ire for the comrades who have twisted its goals for their own desires. Though, desire isn't quite the word. Perhaps appetites is a better word. The men in this novel are ravenous but only for exploitation. All they want is to use up women, to exhaust them of their individuality, their sex, their own desires.

My favourite sequence in the entire novel is a day in the life of our narrator. She wakes up and realizes her period has started. She's been trained to find menstruation disgusting and she does what she can to disguise it. She takes meetings with men and finds herself irritable. Is she irritated because of her period or because of men? Would she have been as irritated if she hadn't known her period had started? It's hot and sticky in London and her thighs feel gross. She takes the tube during rush hour and a man leers at her, his eyes wide, his grin lascivious. She gets off a stop early, just to avoid this man, but he follows her. "Fancy a drink, love?" he asks her repeatedly. It's harrowing and it's harrowing for its commonness. 

Later in the novel (or early in the timeline, it's difficult to parse sometimes), the narrator goes to a cocktail party hosted by blacklisted Americans hiding in the UK. This provides Lessing with an opportunity to mock Americans for their caustic humour, their aggression, their need to hurt everybody. A married couple trade some gentle barbs, but it's clear there's resentment underneath. It finally explodes:
(With a look at his pretty blonde wife wich said: Don't worry honey, you know I'm just covering up, don't you?) but it was no good their covering up, the group of protection was not strong enough for the moment of violence. Nelson and his wife were alone, forgetting all of us, standing at the other side of the room, locked in hatred for each other, and a desperate yearning plea to each other; they were not conscious of us any longer; yet in spite of everything, they were using the deadly, hysterical, self-punishing humour (469)
This little bit gives us insight into the rest of the novel's feelings about marriage and couplings. In the fractured modern world, individuals are pitted against each other, and even if they strive for harmony, the very conditions of modernity preclude it, forcing people into adversarial relationships. The whole novel is a bit second wave in many ways, especially it's biological essentialism and vague homophobia, but its clarity of purpose overrides some of the problematic aspects. It is a 60 year old novel after all. While behind the times in many ways, it's aggressively progressive in other ways, such as its frank treatment of orgasms and masturbation and periods and anger, righteous fury. 

I loved the novel until I didn't, though. The last two hundred pages a bit of a slog: the narrator gets into an emotionally abusive relationship with an American expat and while its commitment to depicting the cyclical nature of these kinds of relationship is admirable, it's exhausting. By the end, I wanted one of them to murder the other just for a change of pace. Otherwise, an astonishing book.

Supper Club is the kind of book that's going to get the most annoying press. It's already being marketed as "Fight Club for women!" which is obnoxious in the same way "Sally Rooney is a JD Salinger for the Snapchat generation" is. Lara Williams' novel isn't quite as anarchic as Palahniuk's debut and it isn't as beholden to the thriller mode, thank god. Instead, it's more of a sibling to Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation (here) in that it's a righteously angry book about being a woman in the 21st century. The characters aren't likeable, the plots are thin excuses for diatribes against the ways women are marginalized, minimized, ignored, disrespected. Like other books I've read this year, there's a pleasing attention paid to women's bodies—specifically not in an objectifying way: blood, guts, periods, vomit, intoxication, snot, clots, sweat, stink. Supper Club's narrator speaks to me on a spiritual level; like myself, she regards her body as a elastic prison of flesh, growing and shrinking of its own will, laden with semiotic meaning to the point of overburden. But there's a great sense of humour about it:
I leaned over, stepping into my pants [underwear] and turning around to look for my bra, and froze when I saw the little boy from the other family suddenly in front of me. He promptly burst into tears and ran away at the sight of my naked breasts.
"Everyone's a critic," I said and my aunt started laughing. (106)
I literally laughed out loud at this bit. The whole novel is filled with these little snatches of wit, which I'm grateful for, as the subject matter often made the novel heavy going. The women of this novel are scared, angry, beaten down, raped, abused, insulted all the time in their daily lives, a reality which necessitates the titular supper club, a space where they can celebrate their own appetites and literally take up space and be loud and be themselves without the risk of embarrassment or social punishment. These women are paradoxically alienated from daily life and forcibly imbricated into it. The supper club is their chance to wedge their desires between the scales on the skin of society.

I wish, though, that the novel wasn't quite so didactic. Much of the themes and meaning are explicated. It's superfluous and kind of slows things down, but on the other hand, sometimes being precise and clear is necessary praxis.

But I like I said, it's often hilarious:
I'd been to only a handful of weddings in my life, always marveling in their total abstraction, like finding out your friends own a yacht or are furries. I wondered what sort of people even had weddings—and how they planned and paid for them. It was like my mum was revealing herself as part reptile. (225)
hahaha

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