Monday, January 05, 2015


Eden Prairie Book Club

Most of the women I know read mostly literary fiction (some would say only literary though they prefer best-sellers and prize-winners) a category that has been around since 1800 or so.  It is a reading category that is intimately linked with the middle classes, partly because reading takes time and education, and partly because books can run up a bill, though the women I know use the library at least weekly.  None reads sci-fi or sports, but a few read political analysis.

This conversation is a followup to a speech LeGuin gave when receiving an award, in which she pointed out that she has been closed out of being read by the massive female audience (a major part of sales) because of the idea that sci-fi is not a legitimate fiction category, a sort of low-class or child’s category.  If you’ve read any LeGuin, you know how silly that is.

It got me to thinking about how a couple of other categories of writing are verboten to middle class “ladies.”  One is about Native Americans -- except rarely a romantic account of the 19th century in which an woman saves an Indian.  The category can be cover for the most forbidden kind of story: that of human evil imposing dark suffering.  Genocide.  I need help to think of a name for this category of women who insist on things being pleasant because the names I can think of are pejorative. They know agonizing things happen, but they will think of them only in terms of happy cures.  They’re like that in real life, too.

Two writers have become famous for the darkest of writing.  One is Cormac McCarthy and one is William Vollmann.  Men dearly love McCarthy -- I cannot fathom it, esp. the necrophilia and child abuse.  I don’t know anyone but me who reads Vollmann, but the critics (mostly male) love him.  Both write about the 19th century frontier, but Vollmann will venture into contemporary filth, degradation, and perversion.  He's a gender bender so awful he's transcendent.  Here’s Vollmann’s newest 19th century historical novel:  a review from the Library Journal below.

How to make it pleasant: a running Appaloosa.

Vollmann, William T. The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce WarNot your standard historical: Vollmann here continues his “Seven Dreams” series, an examination of the clash between North American natives and colonizers that began in 1990 with The Ice-Shirt and now encompasses five volumes, not released in chronological order. The last title was 2001’s Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. Here, we see the 1877 Nez Perce War through the eyes of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, a troubled yet devoutly Christian Civil War veteran who led the U.S. Army in its pursuit of the Nez Perce, which dealt the army its worst defeat since Little Big Horn. Readers of Vollmann’s National Book Award winner, Europe Central, will know to expect a layered treatment, heightened language, and an illuminatingly different read.

The review suggests that it’s all right to read Vollmann because he’s intellectual and it’s history.  But what about this book by Adam Mansbach, who is famous enough to have his name above the title.  His book, “Go the F**k to Sleep” is as much a classic as “Good Night, Moon” -- which shows how times change.  I suspect it’s dad who reads the first book to his kids and mom who reads the second one.  So who reads “The Devil’s Bag Man?”  In bed at night before going to sleep?

Mansbach, Adam. The Devil’s Bag Man.  Library Journal review:  Mansbach showed off in 2013’s The Dead Run and in this sequel. Imprisoned in a Mexican jail for a crime he didn’t commit, Jess Galvan struck a nasty bargain to gain his freedom. Now he finds his mind and body taken over by the dark soul of Cucuy, a 500-year-old Aztec priest and leading drug lord who’d love to see the world destroyed. Back at Ojos Negros prison, Cucuy’s second-in-command is in a panic over Cucay’s disappearance and springs another bad guy so that he and his particularly vicious biker gang can chase down Jess. At least his possession by Cucay has given Jess superhuman strength. One of those gut-wrenching, horror-flecked, edge-of-seat supernatural thrillers.

Why is this a thriller instead of sci-fi?  Why would someone read this rather than a true contemporary account of any one of an array of horrifying and unjust experiences?  Is it the idea of finally not being real after all?  (But I suspect that most of the people who read it think it’s anthropologically accurate.)  Is that why it’s a “thriller”?  Do people who scorn sci-fi put this book in a different category, maybe “magic realism,” which is already associated with South America?  (It developed there to escape literal minded oppressors.)

A nice mom.

Prosperous and secure middle-class life is fragile and some of this library-card group knows it on a deep level, and reads about the transgressive, outrageous, unknown but sometimes nearby worlds, only as a kind of vaccination so they can hope to survive whatever apocalypse may sweep them up.  Part of the fragility -- worrying that this planet will collapse so we’d best get tickets to a spaceship -- is not having a coherent powerful vision of what human life means anyway.  (Okay -- a "religion.")  I would argue that if that vision doesn’t include everybody (and like LeGuin includes trees, rocks and the sea) it won't work anyway.  No amount of redefining the traditional institutional religious systems will ever quite account for things like AIDS or Ebola.  

Another nice mom.

Middle-class educated women in particular are committed to their own children, therefore their family system, their shelter and feeding, which makes them want to protect those things for others, but they can be emotionally limited in their ability to grasp a woman with only a length of cotton for clothing, a can for water, and a dying baby.  Their own lives are caught up in fulfilling nutrition recommendations, household maintenance, keeping up schedules, and so on.  Aside from their career, of course.

Today the current prairie blizzard (arctic vortex -- we’ve had ‘em always) has knocked out my radio streaming from Bozeman.  I can barely push the doors open to get the paper and take a bowl of food out to the feral cat, who must eat it quickly before it’s frozen too solid.  Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote lots of books about this stuff and the nice ladies love them.   They’ll read endless tales of love and long family generational sagas.  It upsets them that I live this close to the edge, teasing the universe. 

Last winter one of the local older single men who get by in small towns froze to death sitting in his armchair in his trailer.  He may have been cutting back on fuel by setting his thermostat low, his furnace might have died, possibly he couldn’t pay the gas bill, or maybe he got too hypothermic to make sense.  The homeostasis of brains has a lot to do with temperature.  Cold is lethal.  Cooling a frog until it dies is as effective as heating the water until the frog is cooked.  Is this death material for a thriller, an indignant social rave, sci-fi, a heart-warming tale about a little girl discovering him just in time and reviving him with hot coffee made in his own Mr. Coffee?

Today, but not my photo.

The man who died was Native American.  Would anyone read a story about him?  He used to cruise the town in his little old car, tilted to one side because he was so fat, hoping to find a walking person he could engage through the open car window.  Most of what he wanted to say was about the history of his family and I knew some of them, so I’d generally chat for a few minutes.  But if I’d put it in a “book,” who would read it?  If it were fancy writing, it wouldn’t be him.  Vollmann could do it.  McCarthy would not.  Mansbach wouldn’t.  LeGuin -- I dunno.  

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