On Being Uncomfortable: Good Night, Beautiful Women

I try not to stop reading a book because it makes me uncomfortable. There are exceptions. I had to set aside Sophie’s Choice for all the reasons…granted, I was reading it while I was pregnant with my daughter, so the timing probably could’ve been better. Still, for the most part, if a book makes me uncomfortable, I try to slow down and stick with it.

That approach got me through some tough reads – A Little Life, Homegoing and An Untamed State kicked me in the face with the tragedy of living but, for the most part I got through them, (admittedly, with occasional skimming). This does not make me a reading-bad ass. I read to escape more often than not. It’s just that, some stories strike me as being important on a human level, and I want to try to witness and understand other people’s experiences as much as the constraints of my life and circumstances allow. That’s why it surprised me when I had to set aside Anna Noyes’s debut collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Books like A Little Life and An Untamed State, which are generally considered to be  triggering or, at the very least, emotionally challenging, come at an issue of global concern from a very specific, personal point of view – kidnapping, rape and economic disparity; child prostitution, trauma and abuse…. These issues are so present in our culture that they demand social awareness and discourse. They are issues that are, unfortunately, still relevant and resonant on a wide scale in the world we all live in. You could argue that the reasons novels like The Color Purple and Sophie’s Choice can be so upsetting is that they are deeply personal novels that deal, unflinchingly, with universal tragedies.

This is not the purview of Goodnight, Beautiful Women. Noyes’s collection of loosely linked short stories is quiet and deeply personal. Rather than the effects of cultural appropriation or sexual violence, Noyes drills into the uncertain tides of personal experience, like the reverberations of memory, or the deeply personal affect of a lie on the liar. Her stories reflect on the incidental choices that redirect a life; on a mother’s absence, and daughter’s subtle decline; on an injured woman’s quiet fall from grace.

The emotional tides these stories create ebb and flow, like water through a fen – quiet and almost disturbingly subtle. That’s why I found myself getting uncomfortable in ways that I didn’t expect as I read them. This wasn’t the distress at human tragedy. This was the discomfort of seeing myself reflected in the movement of those tides.

The effect is literally too subtle for me to qualify in any kind of accurate way, but it left me feeling both attracted and repulsed. While I was reading them, I couldn’t put these stories down…but I also didn’t want to pick them up again once the bookmark was in. So, that’s how it went – stopping and starting over more than a month. At one point, I even put it back on the shelf, but found myself hunting it down two weeks later, weirdly compelled to finish it.

When I first finished the collection, I gave it a lukewarm review on Litsy. Even as I did, I knew I was doing it partially out of spite…

“It’s beautiful…beautiful writing…beautiful prose…remarkable…but I’m not clear on Noyes’s point.”

In hindsight, that was bullshit. Noyes’s point is perfectly clear – the narrative arc of a life, unlike that of a story, isn’t clean or planned. It’s random, happens in shards and hinges on understandings you can’t accurately have at the time.

I edited my review to reflect this conclusion after sitting with the stories for awhile, because that’s the effect the book has had. As uncomfortable as it made me, I find myself turning these stories over in my mind, like polished stones. There is something alchemical with Anna Noyes’s prose – she unfurled my defenses and showed me to myself. It’s a shockingly intimate and deeply uncomfortable reading experience for reasons that I still can’t properly express.

Far from he lukewarm review I initially gave it, I can now honestly say that, while I have read collections that overwhelmed me with their rawness, their greatness, or their sheer inventiveness, this is the only one that has ever held a mirror right up to my face. That’s a rare thing, and the discomfort it gave me is a strange and unsettling gift. I’ll definitely be looking forward to more from Anna Noyes.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Cover image of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark for Mean Fiction by Malin James

On Mean Fiction

It took me all of an hour to read Muriel Spark’s novella, The Driver’s Seat. It’s lean and  incredibly mean in the way children can be. There’s something viciously natural in the way adolescent social politics play out, with mutable hierarchies determining social life and death.

That same, subtle viciousness underlies The Driver’s Seat, not in any textually obvious way, but in how it engages the reader’s sympathies, as well as that adolescent sense of assumption and judgment. I’ll be honest – it’s not a comfortable read, but it’s also why I loved the book. That subtle, dark, destabilizing meanness is what makes the story so very wrong, and so very good.

I don’t like doing plot summaries, but in this case, I think a brief one is important. The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who goes on holiday, ostensibly looking for her “boyfriend”. Lise’s goal for the trip deceptively simple and she executes everything with mad sort of meticulousness. It isn’t until towards the end that the reader fully grasps what her goal actually is.

What makes this book brilliant, is that the entire book hinges not so much on what happens, but on why and how it happens. In fact, Spark reveals Lise’s fate within the first few pages, but it doesn’t actually matter. The narrator drip feeds the reader a string of seemingly random oddities in Lise’s behavior, and she does it so effectively that you almost feel safe in what you’ve been told is going to happen. In fact, there were times when it felt like the narrator wants the reader to pass notes behind Lise’s back. After all, it’s obvious that Lise is unhinged but…not in the way Spark wants you to expect.

So, how does Spark play with the reader? She does it through Lise and how we’re meant to engage her. Lise’s oddness compounds itself in unsettling and somewhat ridiculous ways, from her hysteria at being told that a dress is stain resistant, to her single-minded search for her “boyfriend”. Spark plays on the reader’s empathy (or lack of empathy) in a very personal way, tapping into those early adolescent social experiences and memories – the ones that might prompt the reader to either feel sorry for Lise or laugh at her (or possibly both).

Everything in the way Lise interacts with people is not quite right. She’s a very deliberate portrait of what happens when a normal woman becomes unhinged, and the reader becomes complicit in that portrait. Our reactions to her are, in many ways, the reactions Lise has most likely experienced for a great deal of her life. We become part of the world she navigates, if only for the sliver of her life that we witness.

As a character, Lise feels dangerous and unpredictable, but only because she subverts our expectations of what a lonely spinster should be. Spark gives her a dismissable, almost laughable veneer and then slices it away to reveal an almost terrifying degree of personal agency in Lise. It’s that determined, single-minded agency that is, in fact, the novel’s central threat.

That trick of drawing the reader in and then destroying their expectations it what gives The Driver’s Seat it’s deep, satirical bite. It’s also what makes it such a marmite book – people either love it for its meanness, or they hate it. Becuase it isn’t a comfortable read – I knew that going into it (thanks to this awesome discussion) but I was still shocked at thoroughly I was manipulated, even as I admired Spark’s subtlety in pulling it off.

The triumph of all of the darkness and bite is that the reader becomes complicit in Lise’s fate, and her fate is not nearly as simple or straightforward as Spark implies at the start. It’s what makes this novel an experience as much as it is a story. In the end, it’s a tremendous portrait of a woman’s desperate, single-minded pursuit of autonomy, but whether or not she’s successful is left unclear. I may need to read it again to sort that out.

51FB7KX99ML._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Side Note: 4/12/16

I just finished Aiding & Abetting, also by Spark, and it’s another example of author manipulation and reader complicity, though in a totally different (completely hilarious) way. Ultimately, in both novels, as different as they are, it’s Spark’s brutal lack of sentimentality that makes the dark, serrated edges work. She has razors in her fingers and I love it.

She once wrote that she “aims to startle as well as please” and, for my money, so manages both like a boss.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Woman in a library art nouveau for On Confronting Literature by Malin James

Dig by Sadie Wendall (1909)

On Books that Quietly Confront

I’ve had On Chesil Beach since it released in 2007. It’s a lovely little hardback and I picked it up without even looking at what it’s about because I love Ian McEwan. I remember taking it home and doing the rare thing of sitting down to start it right away (I usually buy books and put them in the long, long, long line of my TBR). But I got two pages in and stopped. I felt vaguely ill and I stopped. I slowly closed the book, set it on the shelf with my other McEwans and moved on without trying to think too much.

In the years since then, On Chesil Beach has sat on my shelf, biding its time. I say “biding its time” because it felt like an active presence in its own quiet way. I’d pull other books off the shelf to read, or to cull or consider, and think – I know you’re there. I’m going to read you, but I’m not ready yet. 

I couldn’t pick the book up, but I still mentally addressed because, in an odd way, it didn’t feel like an object. It felt like an experience I was going to have to have, one that was waiting patiently for me. It’s the most gently confrontational book I’ve ever read because the confrontation was very specific. Two pages in, it was clear that the experience of reading On Chesil Beach was going to be deeply personal. So I set it aside until I could process why. Here’s why:

I recognized too much of myself in those first pages. The situation in that narrow book resonated in a way that drew a personal line for me between literature that confronts by design (think Tampa or American Psycho) and literature that resonates to the point of confrontation. For me, On Chesil Beach is the latter, and it’s a very different thing than the former.

Literature that confronts by design is meant to challenge – you know what you’re getting into before you even start. Whether the challenge is emotional, psychological, moral or social depends on the book, but regardless of how it challenges, its intention (at least in part) is to challenge. I love a great many books that do this – The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; Tampa by Alyssa Nutting and loads of others – some that I’ve actively enjoyed and others that were difficult but which I appreciate nonetheless.

That appreciation comes from the distance the intended effect allows me to have. If I pick up A Little LifeI’m going to brace myself for the experience of reading it. Same with An Untamed State. That doesn’t mean I won’t be emotionally affected – far from it. What it does mean is that the effect will very likely be tempered, somewhat, by two things – the fact that I was expecting it and the fact that others have been similarly affected by the book.

Cover of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan for On Confronting Literature by Malin JamesLiterature that resonates to the point of confrontation is different. For books like this, the confronting element is purely accidental and often deeply personal. On Chesil Beach is a perfect example. Nothing about it is directly confrontational – it’s about a young couple and their disastrous wedding night. No one gets killed, maimed, or traumatized. However, when you scratch the surface, it’s about a young woman’s complicated relationship with sex in the wake of sexual abuse, and the damage it does to her relationship. While it isn’t about trauma, it’s about the effect of trauma and that resonated with me in a deeply personal and challenging way.

Though the situation in the book is very different (and quite a lot simpler) than mine, it reverberated enough to feel dangerous when I first bought it. I’d suppressed a great deal and was, at the time, unprepared to examine large chunks of my childhood, my sexuality, my personality and my sexual / romantic relationships. This subtle, gentle book hit close enough to home that I knew within two pages that it was going to make me confront things I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, so I set it aside and let it wait for me.

The fact that I was drawn to reading it now signals an important shift. I avoided it for years with the conscious understanding that I would “read it when I’m ready”. That I pulled it down from the shelf last week and read it in two days means that my relationship to those things I was trying to protect – memories of my childhood, my sexuality and my perceptions (of both myself and my relationships) – are strong enough now to bear the acknowledgement reading the book would mean.

Literature intended to confront is an important part of how you might understand experiences beyond your own. It’s a way to engage empathy and understanding and broaden your mind. Literature that resonates to the point of confrontation has the opposite effect. Rather than looking outward, it’s a passage inward to your personal experiences, one that can deepen your understanding of how you move through life.

Sometimes that’s a joyful thing. Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult. Either way, there’s great value in the challenge – so much so, in fact, that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re able to process that value in a healthy productive way. It’s the difference between engaging your history and triggering yourself. When in doubt, opt for the approach that allows you to engage without hurting yourself.