Monday, November 26, 2007

The Maybe Islands

The Stone Gods
by Jeanette Winterson
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007
(to be published in the US by Houghton on April Fools Day 2008)

I first encountered Jeanette Winterson through her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a fairly naturalistic account of growing up lesbian in a working-class Pentecostal family in northern England. After that I read her novels more or less as they appeared in the US. (So far I haven’t gotten to Boating For Beginners, her retelling of the story of Noah’s ark, which Winterson dismisses as a potboiler, and one or two others.) After Written on the Body, which dazzled me, I began to notice what seemed to me a loss of energy in her writing. This was confirmed for me by her collection of stories, The World and Other Places. The stories were arranged in order of writing, and the earlier ones gave me as much pleasure as I’d remembered her earlier fiction doing; like her later novels, the later stories became more distanced and abstracted. Her writing was as skillful as ever, but something was missing.

Then a comment on Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For blog linked to Ursula K. LeGuin’s review of Winterson’s new novel, The Stone Gods. As the commenter said, LeGuin was “critically enthusiastic” about the novel, though I can’t recall the novel’s “characters … repeatedly announcing that they hate science fiction.” (Looking over the text, I found one such announcement, but I’m not sure it should be taken literally. If you read the book, you’ll see why.) LeGuin also complained that “to me, both the love stories in the book are distressingly sentimental”, though she conceded that sentimentality “is very much a matter of the reader's sensibility.” I disagree about the love stories in The Stone Gods, which I enjoyed, especially since similar criticisms could be (and have been) raised about the love stories in LeGuin’s fiction, as in science fiction generally. Ditto for the novel’s didacticism; SF has always had a didactic streak, as LeGuin knows, but I never found Winterson’s commentary intrusive. She’s sharp and witty, and her ideas are interesting. One word that never occurs in LeGuin’s review is satire, and like so much SF The Stone Gods is satire, the love child of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Female Man. The question about satire is not whether it’s subtle, or whether it’s didactic, or even whether it’s sentimental, but whether it hits its mark.

The Stone Gods
begins with the announcement of the discovery of Planet Blue, which except for a few dinosaurs is pristine and hospitable to human life. Since it is universally agreed that human beings have ruined the planet we have, Planet Blue looks like a great place to start over, learning from our mistakes and doing it right this time. (Are you done laughing? One reason I love Winterson is her disdain for this evergreen daydream.) Billie Crusoe, the narrator, works for Enhancement Services of the Central Power, one of three major power blocs on her planet of Orbus. "Enhancement" refers to the appearance modification that is practiced universally in the Central Power:
All men are hung like whales. All women are tight as clams below and inflated like lifebuoys above. Jaws are square, skin is tanned, muscles are toned, and no one gets turned on. It’s a global crisis. At least, it’s a crisis among the cities of the Central Power. The Eastern Caliphate has banned Genetic Fixing, and the SinoMosco pact does not make it available to all its citizens, only to members of the ruling party and their favourites. That way the leaders look like star-gods and the rest look like shit-shovellers. They never claimed to be a democracy.

The Central Power is a democracy. We look alike, except for rich people and celebrities, who look better. That’s what you’d expect in a democracy [19].
Somehow Billie is assigned to interview a Robo sapiens named Spike, a cosmetically female robot that has just returned from a survey mission to Planet Blue, and then is forced onto a spaceship taking the first human colonists to the new world.

Of course, Spike and Billie fall in love, and things go drastically wrong. There’s a brief interlude about Billy, a young English sailor left behind on Easter Island by Captain Cook’s expedition in 1774. He falls in love with Spikkers, a half-Dutch, half-Islander, “a man of forty years, yet wonderfully preserved, lean and strong, and with a cheerful, inquisitive face that reminded me of a good dog that never had a bad master” (105). Then we’re back with Billie, only on Earth this time, in a near-future Tech City after World War III. Spike is here too, “the world’s first Robo sapiens. She looks amazing – clear skin, green eyes, dark hair. She has no body because she won’t need one. She is a perfect head on a titanium plate” (132). Billie is her tutor, assigned to “teach a robot what it means to be human” (135); she smuggles Spike to Wreck City, the “No Zone” beyond the end of the tramlines, basically like the slums that circle today’s great cities except with residual radiation from the nuclear weapons that flattened the West in the war. In Wreck City they encounter a man Friday and a motley batch of post-punk dykes, mutants, and subversives, and things again get strange.

More than that I won’t say, because you should read it for yourself. The Stone Gods is more fun than any book of Winterson’s I can remember. Admittedly she’s not for all tastes – at her wildest she’s a bit dry – but she seems to have let loose here. If she hasn’t quite regained the energy of her earlier work, she’s acquired a new verve that is very encouraging to see. The satire is sharp and, I think, hits the mark. And oddly, The Stone Gods was published at about the same time as Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book, Making Money, which is also satirical and also features a female (though heterosexual) love interest named Spike.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I'm So Confused! The Whole World Is Spinning!

Oopsie! Tom Tomorrow is P.O.'d about the right-wing radio claim that Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign neglected to leave a tip to the Iowa waitress who served her at a Maid-Rite diner. "Well, big effing surprise," Tom huffs: "like pretty much everything else you might hear on right wing talk radio, it was not only untrue, it was demonstrably untrue." Of course I agree about the reliability of right wing talk radio, so I followed Tom's link to Steve Benen's The Carpetbagger Report, which huffed and puffed some more, and followed its link to this New York Times story, which included some information that neither Tom (maybe because he didn't click through to the Times story) nor Benen mentioned.

Clinton's people claimed that "the candidate and her aides had in fact left a tip: $100 on a $157 check at the diner. The restaurant manager, Brad Crawford, confirmed in interviews, including with The New York Times, that Mrs. Clinton, of New York, and her retinue had indeed left a tip, though he did not say how much." Interesting, but even more interesting was what the waitress herself had to say:
Reached at her home in Iowa, the waitress, Anita Esterday, said that neither she nor a colleague who helped serve Mrs. Clinton recalled seeing any tip.

She said a local staff member of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was in the restaurant on Thursday to tell them that the campaign had left a tip.

She said that when she and her colleague said they had not seen a tip, the staff member gave each of them $20.

Myself, I believe the waitress over her manager or the Clinton campaign. Especially since she had more to say:
“You people are really nuts,” she told a reporter during a phone interview. “There’s kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there’s better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn’t get a tip.”
Tom Tomorrow quoted that line, as did Jonathan Schwarz in a nice posting about the misuse of terms like "lunatic" in mainstream political discourse. It's a good'un. But suppose that the same story were to circulate about George W. Bush; the liberal blogosphere would have been up in arms over the Rethugs' attempt to rewrite Mrs. Esterday's memory with that paltry $20 bill. (More likely they'd have sent her to Guantanamo until she remembered better.) What I like is that Mrs. Esterday refused to be bought.

I must say I'm surprised that a well-oiled (and funded) machine like HRC's campaign would have forgotten to tip her waitress. And of course, the right-wing pundits don't care about waitresses any more than Clinton does. But "demonstrably untrue"? It doesn't sound like it to me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another!

Another of my GCN book reviews, from 1981 or 1982.

A Smile in His Lifetime

by Joseph Hansen
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $13.95 hardcover
292 pp.

Last summer Mike Peters of the Dayton News published an editorial cartoon of a woman who, though “underpaid, sexually harassed, passed over for promotion and stuck in a stereotyped role,” opposes the ERA. Why? “She likes being treated special.” Someday I intend to draw a cartoon of one of those neo-butch gay men who haunt the johns, the dirty-book stores, the backroom bars, but won’t have anything to do with the gay movement. Why? Because they believe in being discreet about their gayness.

Joseph Hansen is the author of a series of mystery novels starring a middle-aged gay male insurance investigator named Dave Brandstetter. Brandstetter has his crotchets, but he’s a reasonably likable, competently functioning human being. Like many gay men of our parents’ generation, he has learned not to let hostile Society cramp his style much – a task made easier, no doubt, by the fact that he lives in Southern California. When gay activists do appear in The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, the most recent book in the series, they are depicted as crazy fairies completely out of touch with reality. This is a bit odd since Mr. Hansen himself, according to the dust jacket of his newest novel, “was a founder in 1965 of the pioneering homosexual journal Tangents.” Surely he knows better.

Now Mr. Hansen has moved into “mainstream” fiction with A Smile in His Lifetime, his first non-mystery novel. Whit Miller, the book’s protagonist, is gay but unlike Dave Brandstetter, he is a psychic basket case. Whit is married to Dell Everett, a straight woman. As the novel begins, Whit and Dell are living in near-poverty in the hills back of Los Angeles. He is a struggling and unsuccessful writer, she is a former teacher turned antiwar activist. She takes care of him, since they both agree he can’t take care of himself. It is the mid-1960s. First Whit, who married Dell in full flight from his adolescent homosexuality (at 19 he had already had at least two intense relationships) tumbles ambivalently into bed with a neighbor boy. Then he reels from lover to lover trying to regain his lost balance. He finally publishes a best-selling novel; Dell leaves him; he becomes famous; falls desperately in love with a beautiful hippie youth named Jaime who moves in with him and goes mad after a bad acid trip; Whit’s house is burglarized by one of his subsequent tricks; his novel is turned into a film; he is nearly killed by a gang of queerbeaters. Throughout, Whit marinates in self-loathing seasoned with contemptuous remarks about “faggots,” and I suppose the reader is supposed to conclude that if you hate yourself, bad things will happen to you. By the end of the book Whit seems to have learned little or nothing from his suffering; presumably the reader, having read the cautionary tale, is expected to.

I keep reminding myself that Whit Miller’s distrust of politics (he can’t get interested in his wife’s antiwar activism either) and Dave Brandstetter’s contempt for radical fairies are probably far more common than my ideological commitment to militant gay pride. And I have to admit that there is a lot in Whit Miller that I can identify with: the rage turned inward against oneself, or outward at lovers, rather than at the real enemy, is something that ideology has only partially alleviated for me; Whit’s alienation and his flights from the intimacy he also craves come uncomfortably close to home for me. Yet there is a difference between us that I think is crucial: for me the rise of a militant gay movement in the late 1960s (part of the period the story includes) was exhilarating and liberating, but Whit is unaware or unconcerned that a new attitude toward being a faggot is being born. This might very well be exactly his problem, but if Mr. Hansen thinks so there is no hint in the texts. Nor is there any other positive alternative, it seems. Whit rejects the offer of at least one man to replace Dell as the nursemaid in his life, and I think he’s right, because Whit needs to learn to take care of himself. But it is clear that he can’t, at the close of the novel he seems to be withdrawing into hopelessness, unless the closing sequence (in which he rescues his cat Polk from his crumbling beach house) is meant to symbolize Whit’s new strength and courage. If so, I don’t believe a word of it, having watched Whit snatching defeat from the jaws of victory time after time for the past 290-odd pages. I’m not sure I’m asking for a happy ending; I’m not sure how I think the novel should end; but I’m pretty sure this ending resolves nothing – and if it wasn’t meant to, why bother to write at all?

Contrast, say, Daniel Curzon’s frankly propagandistic Something You Do in the Dark, first published ten years ago. Cole Ruffner, that book’s hero, never comes into contact with the gay movement either, but he does begin to learn to turn his rage outward, even if he does so too late. Or compare James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, first published in 1967, in which the theme of the consequences of turning away love is carried to more baroque extremes – which is the point: A Smile in His Lifetime say nothing, it seems to me, which Purdy didn’t say fourteen years ago. Or consider Dancer from the Dance, in which Sutherland squelches every “slightest sign of complaint, self-pity or sentimentality” by saying something like, “Perhaps what you need is a good facial.” Perhaps what Whit Miller needs is a Sutherland in his life, instead of solicitous friends eager to shelter his sensitive artist’s soul from the stormy realities of life.

Mr. Hansen writes a spare prose that is sometimes beautiful:

Whit likes driving freeways after midnight. It is one of the times when he lets himself feel a little bit romantic. The long trail of red taillights curving away from him is beautiful and mysterious. He wants to know where everyone is going. It is more than wanting. He sickens with yearning to know where they are going and to go with them. … He knows nothing about their lives, but they are all beautiful and terrible to him, boxed up in those dark, hurtling cars. That he can’t be with them makes him ache. (p. 222)

A Smile in His Lifetime reminds me of Woody Allen’s film Interiors, an equally bleak and hopeless “serious” work. Mr. Hansen can do better, I know. Now that he has shown he can write a real novel, maybe he can go back to writing fiction in which the gay characters aren’t relentlessly punished throughout. There is a tendency nowadays (actually it goes back to the beginnings of the gay movement, and probably beyond as well) to claim that we don’t need gay pride any more, that gay guilt is a thing of the past. I’ll believe it when we start getting some gay male fiction where homosexuality is a given, not a problem. Mr. Hansen has already taken steps in this direction with his mystery novels; I hope he will go further in his future novels, whatever the genre. But A Smile in His Lifetime, as far as I can see, is a step backward.