Ok, here is an awesome book:
May I assume that most readers of this blog will accept without much fuss that fact that masculinity is what we call in my old biz the default subject position? Meaning, “person” usually implies a male person. Just like it usually implies a white person. A straight person. A middle- or upper-class person. An able-bodied person. What am I missing? A Christian person, in the US.
For other types of people you have to add an adjective. In general.
So what happens when a woman person is a reader and writer? Can she redefine the default subjectivity?
Is it possible to transform women’s lives into universal experience?
Do we want to?
If we do, how might we do it? And what the cluck might it even mean?
Swamplandia! tried it: its tween girl is a mythic hero, riding a boat to the underworld and emerging scathed but restored.
The Middle Stories takes a different approach. The fairy tale. But while Angela Carter went all feminist Marxist Freudian on the genre (did you know that was possible? Angela Carter knew), Heti’s warped the fairy tale into a nearly unrecognizable, burned out husk of a few pages. Then filled that husk back up with meditations on contemporary gender relations that have little to do with yesteryear’s virgins, crones, or, in Carter’s case, shapeshifting wolfwomen and men.
So what’s so fairy tale about them? Generic characters, sometimes named “Susan” but often, instead, something like “the blind girl” or “the giant” or “the novelist.”
Short short short length.
Specific, individual situations made resonantly universal. Like here’s that blind girl:
After that month of suicide thoughts she had three of the best days of her life. She met a boy, fell in love, lay out in the sunshine and held his hand and kissed, and fucked behind a video store, and after those three days she had the worst year ever, the worst year of her whole entire life, a year she would look back on when she was eighty and still think, “Yep, that was the worst fucking year of my whole entire life.”
And later, the last line of the story: “She had a big, bright, curly head of hair that made her look like a clown, and nobody ever told her.”
This woman’s life is narrated so sparely, with such economy of detail (people say that about lots of writing but here it’s just about the best descriptive phrase ever), that it is both individual and universal.
Which is the short story trick? Right? The slice of particular whose depth and beauty open up unto a universal. A universally shared pain, probably. Not much majesty in joy. (I am mostly just quipping, here, but I can’t think of a short story about joy. Not that this tops my list of problems with contemporary literature. But it’s curious.)
But Heti slices you up, refusing to let you think of her stories as realist, or fantastic, or magical realist, or postmodern, or however else you want to box them up.
She shoves in the ugly, the difficult, the genuinely unlikeably. The cyborg cockroach (which is in fact not fictional and is totally ready to save your life in an earthquake. A scenario that might be one of the Middle Stories, especially because they wear little backpacks, except modernity in her book is ostentatiously non-technological.)
Here’s some unlikeable, the opening of “Janis and Marcus”. But it’s also funny, so maybe it’s not all grody-face cockroach:
There was condensation on the windowpane.
“The philanthropists will continue their verbal and written exposition,” Marcus noted wearily, not speaking into the receiver as he put down the phone. Janis, on the other end, hung up hard. She hated when he would talk to his cat.
Unlikeable! All the stuff from postmodernism that we don’t like anymore! Quoting major thinkers out of context! Flat characters! Affectless narration! Gimmicky jokey juxtapositions!
But then, after a decent sized space between paragraphs, comes the gripper: “Now it was just one of those sunny days when everyone was outside being happy.”
Bam. Do you have a feeling yet? Good, because Heti’s got more for you:
There were strollers on the streets and babies clenching their fists at each other, dogs sniffing each other up and down, and mothers stopping to chat with cool drinks in their hands, rich with caffeine and sunglasses on.
Reviewers have described this book as unremittingly bleak, and these passages certainly seem pretty dang bleak. But she’s also so funny: those babies! Those rich mothers!
And her images are so startlingly new:
Every plan fails. That’s what the man had refused to tell him. Every single body’s. But that, my friend, is precisely life’s sorrow.
And now that he had it, he clutched it like a penny.
To me, this is not bleak. Clutching life’s sorrow like a penny. A fittingly naive, hopeful closing to a story about an annoying wannabe writer dude. An image that turns sorrow into a shiny object, like these stories are that penny.
And there’s her economy of detail: “Every single body’s”: making “body” its own word, pulling it out of the more commonplace “everybody” so that we feel what I may call a more feminist perspective about the embodiment of consciousness and experience. Even though the story is about a male stereotype.
I read many of these stories twice, trying to pull meaning out of these types of details. Trying to find in the yellow hat or the curling toes or the bowl of ice cream.
But these stories resist conventional readings. Like, I want to say that the bowl of ice cream infantilizes the woman who eats it on a date. But then she turns out to have quite a bit of sexual agency.
And though the book starts out focused on women characters and more female experiences of love, sex, violence, and loneliness, she eventually gets around to giving men the same treatment.
I’m still thinking through this idea of feminizing universal experience. I’m not sure if this book quite gets to it, but it comes damn close.
This is what it feels like to be a woman right now, and maybe even what it feels like to be a man.