Jul 30, 2015

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Today I’m at the excellent Booklust discussing The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara with Aarti. Here’s some of what we wrote by way of introduction:
The People in the Trees is written in the form of the fictional memoirs of Dr. Norton Perina, a once renowned scientist who won the Nobel for seemingly uncovering the secret of eternal life, but who has now fallen into disrepute. Perina has been convicted for sexual abuse; in the introduction, written in the voice of Perina’s friend and defender Dr. Ronald Kubodera, we’re told he’s writing his memoirs in prison. The narrative then goes back to young Norton’s life, particularly focusing on his expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, the discovery that followed, and its far-reaching consequences for the islanders.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a horrifying novel in many ways, but also one that’s very satisfying to dig into. I really enjoyed discussing it with Aarti, particularly its use of unreliable narrators and portrayal of colonialism. Do join us at Booklust for more — many thanks to Aarti for reading The People in the Trees with me, and also to Jenny for recommending it to us!

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Jul 26, 2015

Come Back, Summer: Life and Links

Come Back, Summer: Life and Links

Just after I wrote about the delights of sunny days two Sundays ago, the weather took a turn for the terrible; at the moment, I’m harbouring the suspicion that this is it for summer 2015. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t doing much for my mood. We did have one final nice day last weekend: I took advantage of it to go on my longest bike ride to date (17 miles or 27 kms, which is a lot for me) and got slightly sunburned because I forgot the English sun was actually a thing.

Some photos from my day out:


Slightly scary goose
I managed to get away in time.

Greek salad and bread
Also, look who now lives on my bookshelf:

Cosima from Orphan Black Pop figurine
She cheers me up whenever I glance her way.

Other than feeling mopey about the rain, I’ve been counting down the weeks to my upcoming travels, plus reading and writing and working and doing my best to get by. Here’s one last photo of a fun day at work. Summer children’s events are still my favourite.

Cat Duplo at the library

Links and thoughts for this week:

  • Sarah McCarry’s For All the Girls Who are Part Monster is (unsurprisingly) brilliant and moving. I need to mull for a little longer before I attempt to write about her new novel, About a Girl, but the short version is that I loved it like whoa.

  • I have somewhat complicated feelings about this Naomi Klein piece for The Nation, but it touches on something that’s become increasingly important to me:
    But the weight of the world is not on any one person’s shoulders—not yours. Not Zoe’s. Not mine. It rests in the strength of the project of transformation that millions are already a part of.

    That means we are free to follow our passions. To do the kind of work that will sustain us for the long run. It even means we can take breaks—in fact, we have a duty to take them. And to make sure our friends do too.
    There isn’t of course a sharp divide between individual and collective action — seemingly small individual choices are the drops that form the ocean of change — but I do appreciate the reminder to see our choices in proportion and not run ourselves to the ground by buying into the idea that every small misstep or failure is a sign that everything is hopelessly doomed.

  • Another one that left me with complicated feelings (which, by the way, is not a criticism, as I find working through them useful): How ‘Privilege’ Became a Provocation.
    ‘‘Privilege saturates’’ — and privilege stains. Which might explain why this word pricks and ‘‘opportunity’’ and ‘‘advantage’’ don’t. ‘‘I can choose to not act racist, but I can’t choose to not be privileged,’’ a friend once told me with alarm. Most of us already occupy some kind of visible social identity, but for those who have imagined themselves to be free agents, the notion of possessing privilege calls them back to their bodies in a way that feels new and unpleasant. It conflicts with a number of cherished American ideals of self-­invention and self-­reliance, meritocracy and quick fixes — and lends itself to no obvious action, which is perhaps why the ritual of ‘‘confessing’’ to your privilege, or getting someone else to, has accumulated the meaning it has. It’s the fumbling hope that acknowledging privilege could offer some temporary absolution for having it.

    It’s easier to find a word wanting, rather than ourselves. It’s easy to point out how a word buckles and breaks; it’s harder to notice how we do. ‘‘Privilege’’ was a ladder of a word that wanted to allow us to see a bit further, past our experiences. It’s still the most powerful shorthand we have to explain the grotesque contrast between the brutal police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the treatment extended to Dylann Roof, charged with murdering nine black people last month in a church in Charleston, S.C. — captured alive, treated to a meal by the arresting officers, assigned a judge who expressed concern for his family. ‘‘Privilege’’ was intended to be an enticement to action, and it is still hopeful, if depleted and a little lost. It is emblematic of the kinds of pressures we put on language, our stubborn belief that the right word can be both diagnosis and cure.
  • Aw, Clueless is twenty. Here’s why it continues to be great. I feel lucky that this movie and Ten Things I Hate About You were so central to my teen years.

  • I really liked Jessica’s post for Book Riot about why she’s not ready to read Go Set a Watchman.

  • A brief history of homophobia in Dewey decimal classification.

  • A useful post on Orientalism and how it is also racism:
    So, in the end, one must ask whether Orientalism is racism. The answer to this question demands not only a definition of Orientalism — as I have provided here — but also a redefinition of racism, itself. Racism is not merely overt hatred or abuse of people based on race: it is not casual instances of race-based “mockery”. Racism is, more fundamentally, the institutions that perpetuate and allow acts of racial oppression to take place.
  • Vanity Fair interviews Noelle Stevenson. Why is she so perfect?

  • ...And Portland Monthly profiles Ursula Le Guin.

  • Maureen’s recent thoughtful tweets touched on something I often think about. I’ve mostly made my peace with the fact that I am and will always be stereotypically “girly” in my communication style — non-confrontational, conciliatory whenever possible, often tentative rather than authoritative. There is, of course, nothing essentially feminine about any of these traits, but the fact remains that historically they have been associated with women, are imposed on us via gendered socialisation, and are low in prestige for that very reason, as Deborah Cameron points out. Over the years I’ve also discovered that my mild demeanour is not incompatible with being assertive or speaking out, and that’s been really important to me. However, as Maureen says, I’m keenly aware that this particular gender-appropriate space I occupy has been used as a weapon against other women. I don’t have any solutions and have genuinely moved beyond feeling inadequate for being me, but I do know I want to help carve out the space for women to be people and behave in the infinite range of ways that implies. At the same time, I believe we all stand to gain from trying not to lose sight of one another’s humanity, even if I can’t always say what that translates into concretely.

  • Relatedly and via Sarah McCarry, here’s an essay that made me cry:
    But there’s a difference between nice and kind. That’s semantics I guess, but it’s how I feel: Nice is the thing that won’t hold up against meanness and coldness and cruelty; kind is the thing that does. It’s not always proportionate to the effort a person puts in either, though sometimes it is. Apply that however you like.
  • In turn this led me to these two pieces by Katherine Cross — whose writing I really need to start following more closely, because whenever I come across it she unfailingly does an amazing job of articulating things I’ve been grappling with but haven’t quite found the word for yet. Take this, for example, on how neoliberalism invisibly informs what we imagine as the only effective path to a better world:
    I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community.
    And this, which is pretty much exactly why E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars hit me so hard:
    This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.
    There’s a post brewing in my head that might never see the light of day, but it’s to do with this, too, and with how I don’t always (or often, or perhaps even ever) want to write from a place of authority. About myself, I mean, and the stuff of my mind and my life — I believe in listening and I’m not trying to claim the right to write ignorantly about other people’s experiences. But even when it comes to what touches me, very often I don’t know, and I want to find out collaboratively without fear or shame. I am searching, I am trying, I am wondering out loud.
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    Jul 22, 2015

    Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

    Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

    Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
    To all the monster girls.
    Nimona dedication
    (Which made me tear up. Just saying.)

    Nimona tells the story of a teenage shapeshifter with a mysterious past. The comic opens when our protagonist approaches wizard Ballister Blackheart and informs him she’ll be his new sidekick. Blackheart is, as Nimona puts it, “the biggest name in supervillany”, and she’s only too happy to help him thwart the plans of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics.

    Nimona is set in a world that combines elements of traditional Ye Old Times fantasy (wizards, dragons, knights in actual shiny armour) with current technology: there’s television, modern hospitals, and state of the art research labs. However, the most interesting thing about this world is how it’s obvious from the start that there’s a huge disconnect between the official narrative of heroism and villainy and what’s actually going on in the kingdom. The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, its Director, and its champion Ambrosius Goldenloin are Good because people are told they are Good — even when it turns out that the Institution is responsible for some ethically dubious plans, to put it mildly. Ballister, on the other hand, is a supervillain because he exists outside established power systems and devotes his time to exposing them. This, the official story goes, makes him Very Bad Indeed, even when his interests are aligned with those of the majority of people.

    Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
    The official narrative about Lord Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin (let us pause for a moment to consider how great their names are) is simultaneously established and fragile. Time and again, we watch the Institution engage in media spin and damage control to prevent people from discerning the truth — all as Ambrosius’ discomfort with the organisation he’s a part of grows. Ambrosius Goldenloin, by the way, has a complicated history with Ballister Blackheart: the two trained at the Institution together and were very close, until the day of the fight that declared Ambrosius a champion and cost Ballister his right arm. Getting to the bottom of what happened between them is a big part of Nimona’s emotional arc.

    This is only one of the many ways in which Noelle Stevenson subverts dominant narratives in Nimona: the most central ones have of course to do with Nimona herself. First of all, there’s the fact that this story is very much about her. She introduces herself to Ballister as his sidekick, but, well, there’s an important hint in the comic’s title. The two go on to develop a respectful collaboration that doesn’t erase her, and as the story progresses we learn more about Nimona’s past. Although her relationship with Ballister is central to the story, Nimona’s life is never portrayed only in terms of how it affects him. His care for her gives heart to the narrative, but readers aren’t invited to emphatize with Nimona solely in light of this care.

    Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
    Last year Memory wrote an absolutely perfect essay on all the things Nimona does best and why they’re important, and it’s hard to carry on talking about why I loved this comic without just quoting from it extensively. I agree with pretty much everything Memory says, but there’s a point I particularly wanted to highlight:
    Nimona’s awesomeness manifests itself in many ways, not least of which is the way she inhabits roles often denied to female characters. She’s a continually subversive force who exists on her own terms and forces the world to bend itself around her.
    This kind of traditional gender role reversal matters, and it makes me happy that we’re seeing more and more stories where it takes place. Like Memory, I’m more of a Ballister than a Nimona in my approach to supervillany (civilians out of the way first, then explosions), but I’m still thrilled to find a character who occupies the sort of gray area traditionally reserved for men and remains sympathetic. Foz Meadows also puts it perfectly in this essay about Orphan Black:
    We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.
    This is the space Stevenson claims for Nimona: she’s been hurt, and she causes hurt in return, yet it’s impossible to read her story and walk away thinking she’s not worthy of love.

    Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
    I can’t believe I’ve written this many paragraphs and have yet to mention how funny Nimona is. This is a story where humour and heart always go hand in hand. It takes a darker turn in the last third or so, but all along it reminds us that, as Terry Pratchett so well put it, the opposite of “funny” is “not funny” rather than “serious”. Nimona made me laugh out loud multiple times, even as it made me tear up only a few pages later.

    Before I finish, a quick word on Nimona’s presentation: it was wonderful to see that for all of her transformations, Nimona never shifts into a body type that fits into more conventional standards of female beauty. She’s fat and pink- or purple-haired and cute as hell, and this is how she remains through and through. The fact that this is how Stevenson chooses to draw her is yet another thing that matters.

    Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

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    Jul 20, 2015

    TV Round-Up: All My Favourite Ladies

    TV ladies: Krystal Goderitch, Poussey Washington, Phryne Fisher and Rae Earl
    TV Round-Up: All My Favourite Ladies
    I like stories about women. You’ve probably heard me say before that I agree that making women central to a narrative is an essential feminist act, yet this goes hand in hand with my belief that “But is it feminist?” isn’t necessarily the most useful question to ask about a piece of media. These two statements may appear contradictory, but I don’t actually see them as such. I like stories where I know my full humanity isn’t going to be questioned at every turn; where I can go in trusting that the experiences of a wide range of women will be considered in their own terms and not only in relation to how they affect the men in the narrative. At the same time, I know that these stories will be on dialogue with the real world in a variety of ways, and will often be filled with gaps and contradictions when it comes to how they represent the experiences of different people. To me, digging into these is one of the greatest challenges and pleasures of thinking in detail about the stories I encounter.

    I know it’s only July, but I feel I can safely say that The Wire is going to be the major event of my TV year, much in the same ways Friday Night Lights was last year’s. I loved it to bits, even if its blind spots when it comes to how it treated its female characters were impossible for me to miss. When I finished it I was worried I was going to have a TV hang-over for a while — that I’d try series after series, but nothing else would measure up. My rescue ended up coming in the form of a return of four of my favourite TV series from recent years (all in their third season, as it turns out), every one of which is centred on girls or women. Since I’ve written about all of these in detail before and the things I like about them remain pretty much the same, I thought I’d so a quick round-up post with brief thoughts about the new seasons. I’ll try to avoid any major spoilers, but be warned that I’ll likely end up giving away a few plot points. Here goes:

    Orphan Black S3:

    Orphan Black: Helena in S3
    I continue to believe that Orphan Black kind of lost the plot after season one, and I’ll admit I found this especially noticeable during the first half of this season. However, I have long since realised that I watch it for the characters and for the possibilities the premise puts forward rather than for the specifics of how the plot is executed, and as a result I enjoyed Orphan Black’s latest season as much as always.

    Two things I especially liked: first of all, Orphan Black is good at reconciling women in ways that feel genuine but are not simplistic, and that was particularly noticeable here. Gracie and Helena, Helena and Siobhan, Sarah and Rachel in a sense: this series has a tendency to turn conflict around and display alliances between women that seem unlikely at first but then become the most natural thing in the world. This has the effect of normalising the ups and downs of human relationships in a primarily female universe, and I find that a powerful thing.

    The other thing I liked was Crystal’s introduction, particularly the fact that the series acknowledges that she’s smart and scared and human even though she’s a woman a lot of people would be inclined to patronise. I was moved by the scene where Felix tells Sarah that of course Crystal suspects her life is not quite like other people’s, of course she’s more than capable of putting two and two together. I hope we’ll see plenty more of Crystal in the fourth season.

    Orange is the New Black S3:

    Orange is the New Black S3: Tiffany and Boo
    This was a difficult season to watch, especially with (spoilers ahoy) Tiffany’s sexual assault and the transphobic violence against Sophia. Sophia’s storyline made me particularly sad. I didn’t find it poorly written or exploitative (though other viewers may of course feel differently), but it was hard after the first two seasons, where the fact that Sophia was never misgendered was a standout. Trans women do often have a especially difficult time in prison, and it’s important to acknowledge this and to show how even when someone is accepted transphobia might still emerge when there’s a conflict — it’s prevalent and insidious and people default to it when they want to cause hurt. But at the same time, there are so few prominent trans woman characters on TV that I really wanted to see a story that showed that a character like Sophia could be okay (in a limited sense, of course, considering this has always been a series about being in prison).

    What really fails Sophia, though, is Litchfield Prison as an institution, and I really appreciated that we got to dig into the reasons why. This season was actually a great follow-up to The Wire: even if I found some of the individual characters’ narratives less compelling than in the previous seasons, I thought that the overall themes were stronger than ever. We see a major private corporation take over the prison, and then we watch how prioritising strategies whose aim is to maximize short-term profit (“What matters”, the big boss says, “is this quarter and the next”) affects the lives of the characters we love in concrete, tangible ways. Unsurprisingly, this hits the most vulnerable especially hard: there’s Sophia, of course, but also Soso, who is suffering from depression and whose access to quality care is made far more difficult than it needs to be.

    With privatisation come labour rights struggles, and continued measures that decrease the inmates’ quality of life as the bottom line is chased — all leading to a horrifying ending with the prison’s population about to be doubled. The denouncement of prisons being run for profit is as smart as it is loud and clear, and I look forward to seeing where the next season will take us.

    Lastly, I loved some of the new relationships we got to see develop this season. Two gift sets that hit me right in the heart: Soso and Poussey (YES, please) and Tiffany and Boo (best friendship).

    Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries S3:

    Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries season 3: Phryne Fisher and Dot
    ...or: why Jack and Phryne continue to own my heart. This series was more of the same, but that’s not by any means a bad thing when what I mean by “the same” is “an amazing story about a woman solving mysteries in the 1920s, living her life in her own terms, and not caring even a little bit what society might think”.

    As I said last year, I really appreciate how Pryne’s relationships with other women, namely Dot and Mac, are part of this show’s emotional core. At the same time, I’m 100% into Phryne and Jack as crime-solving partners. Another thing I wrote about last year was how as much as it would have been satisfying to watch Phryne constantly thwart a Police Inspector who expected her to be incompetent, the dynamics she and Jack end up developing are much better: Jack trusts Phryne, he acknowledges her expertise, and he comes to rely on collaborating with her to solve cases successfully. It only takes about two episodes for nearly everyone in the universe of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries to start taking Phryne’s excellence as a detective seriously, and that was just so restful to watch.

    There’s a wonderful scene in this season where Jack receives a phone call from a superior officer commanding him to stop letting civilians (aka Phryne) get involved in police investigations. His response? “You’re now a Special Constable of the Victoria Police Force”. When traditional male authority directly orders him to exclude Phryne Fisher, he forces this authority to recognise her instead.

    Also! (Spoiler:) At the end of this season we get the long awaited Phryne and Jack kiss, but I can’t tell you how much I love that it’s immediately followed by Phryne getting on an aeroplane and flying away as she’d planned. These, this scene tells us, will be the terms of whatever relationship they might develop: a passion that coexists with freedom and respect. Phryne Fisher is and will always be an independent person with a life of her own. Jack may be invited to share this life, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be put in a position where she’s expected to cast it aside.

    Oh, this series. I love it so.

    My Mad Fat Diary S3:

    My Mad Fat Diary season 3: Rae
    I confess I had some mixed feelings when I heard there was going to be a third season of My Mad Fat Diary: the ending of season two was so perfect that I wasn’t sure I wanted more. It only took about two minutes of the first episode for all my ambiguity to disappear, though: this series has so much heart and humour that all I was left with was gratitude that there was more of it for me to watch.

    (Spoilers from here on) As before, I loved Rae and Chloe’s friendship. I teared up when Chloe woke up in hospital, saw Rae sitting next to her, and the first thing she asked was, “You okay, babe?” There’s so much care between the two of them, so hard-won and so genuine, and so openly and unapologetically expressed. We watched them get to this glorious, delicate place of trust and non-stop support over the course of the previous two seasons, and it was a triumph to now watch them stay there.

    On a less positive note, I could really have done without the Katie-the-false-friend-who-is-actually-out-to-steal-your-boyfriend storyline. It felt like a step backwards in a series that had thus far done such a wonderful job of subverting clichés about how girls interact with one another. Likewise for Kester and Rae’s relationship: it had moved away from the questionable crossing of professional boundaries of the earlier episodes, only to revert back with added red flags. I desperately wish we had more stories that show that adults can (and obviously should) act professionally around the teenagers in their care and still genuinely help them.

    Still, all in all I thought that the three episodes that form this short final season made for a thoughtful and bittersweet coda to Rae Earl’s story. And as much as I loved the perfect happiness of the season two finale, there was something powerful and subversive about watching Rae on a train, moving towards the rest of her life and all the unimagined possibilities it offers her, single but by no means alone, and with a newfound sense of her own resilience all around her like armour. The season was also a reminder that progress towards mental health is not a straight line: relapses are not a sign that everything has been lost, and the key thing is to develop coping mechanisms that work and get you through the rough patches.

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    Jul 17, 2015

    “The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson

    “The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson

    Shirley Jackson author photo
    As is often the case with Shirley Jackson’s writing, there are two layers of horror at work in “The Daemon Lover”. The story is named after a Scottish ballad — one that tells the story of a mysterious man, James Harris, who returns to an old lover after a long absence and persuades her to come away with him, leaving her husband and child behind. It is, in sum, a story about women who stray from the path of normative social expectations. Jackson’s version, published in 1949, is not a retelling, but it makes very effective use of literary allusion: the protagonist, an unnamed woman in her thirties (thirty-four, though her marriage license says thirty), wakes up on the day of her wedding to a man named Jamie Harris and drinks cup after cup of coffee until it’s time to get ready. However, as the hours pass it becomes obvious that her mysterious fiancé isn’t going to turn up. We then follow her as she leaves the house and asks about Jamie Harris, trying to resolve a possible misunderstanding about where they were supposed to meet, until we reach an ending where “no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door” — a resonant image of exclusion that hints at the many ways unmarried women have been shut out of society.

    The first reason why “The Daemon Lover” is an effective horror story is that it does such an impressive job of evoking a state of mounting anxiety. From the first line — “She had not slept well” — we can tell that despite the appearance of normality the protagonist is in a state of considerable nerves. As the hours pass, we watch her slips into forced optimism and rationalisation, of the kind we cling to when we know admitting something’s wrong might very well undo us — especially as it becomes increasingly obvious that it is. “The Daemon Lover”, then, is a powerful study of subdued panic, of having your worst fears confirmed but delaying the moment when you acknowledge it because of everything it implies. It also captures the psychological harm inflicted by lack of clarity: it’s not just that Jamie Harris leaves; it’s that he doesn’t say he’s going and instead leaves her to piece this message together as the hours drag by on her wedding day.

    However, I was even more interested in the second layer — in everything that’s bubbling underneath the surface. There are sociological reasons for our protagonist’s mounting anxiety and for all the little moments that reveal her fear of ridicule; there’s also a hidden layer of fury in “The Daemon Lover”, particularly as the story gives voice to what she could not say. Shirley Jackson exposes social attitudes towards women who are single, who work, who leave the house in search of the man who left them waiting, who have the audacity to exist in public, and the result is as effective as it is infuriating. Here’s a passage that I think captures the story’s core especially well:
    There was a policeman on the corner and she thought, Why don’t I go to the police—you go to the police for a missing person. And then thought, What a fool I’d look like. She had a quick picture of herself standing in a police station, saying, “Yes, we were going to be married today, but he didn’t come,” and the policemen, three or four of them standing around listening, looking at her, at the print dress, at her too-bright make-up, smiling at one another. She couldn’t tell them any more than that, could not say, “Yes, it looks silly, doesn’t it, me all dressed up and trying to find the young man who promised to marry me, but what about all of it you don’t know? I have more than this, more than you see: talent, perhaps, and humor of a sort, and I’m a lady and I have pride and affection and delicacy and a certain clear view of life that might make a man satisfied and productive and happy; there’s more than you think when you look at me.”
    It’s important to add that her fears about the policemen’s potential ridicule are not unfounded: they come after the woman at Jamie’s building whose “voice sounded amused”, and the newsdealer whose “smile was knowing” and whose “eyes shifted over her shoulder to the man in back of her”. To describe the protagonist of “The Daemon Lover” as paranoid, then, would be gaslighting at its most insidious: her wariness is an all too human reaction to a social context that does mock women like her. Fear is an entirely appropriate response. Her counterarguments, the ones she can’t bring herself to make, are still ones that reduce her value to her ability to make a man happy, but that’s the point and the horror, really — the weight of patriarchal assumptions forces you to debate your humanity in their terms rather than your own.

    Trying to imagine a story like this with a straight male protagonist makes for an interesting thought experiment. Imagine all the tragic glamour we’d assign to a man searching for his missing bride; imagine the layer of romance that would permeate his hurt and confusion. Imagine, most of all, how the possibility of deliberate abandonment, hurtful though it might be, would never really call his humanity into question. He would have a right to walk the streets asking questions. He would be allowed to exist. It’s nothing like the thinly veiled scorn we reserve for women in the same position: a woman left by a man, or searching for a man who might not want to be found, is assumed to be desperate and pathetic. She becomes the punchline of a joke nobody is quite making but that is in everyone’s minds. The weight of all these dehumanising assumptions is what the protagonist of “The Daemon Lover” is up against — it is, again, the story’s real source of horror.

    “The Daemon Lover” is the kind of story I’ll always want to rewrite in my head, giving it an ending where the protagonist tells the policeman, the porter and the newsdealer “well, screw Jamie Harris and screw you too”. She then goes home and greatly enjoys having a cup of coffee on her own while reading the newspaper or a good book, before getting ready to go out with her friends in the evening. However, I appreciate that Jackson is writing about a world where such a simple, ordinary possibility is outside the imagining of a large portion of the world. This world is one where “chronically unmarried women have long endured the injustice of being set aside, ignored, dismissed, made invisible”. Defiance, small or large, is far more difficult in isolation, and “The Daemon Lover” is powerful because it shows us how patriarchy can get inside our heads and relentlessly assault our sense of worth.

    Shirley Jackson Reading Week
    This post is my contribution to Shirley Jackson Reading Week, for which I have been a not very efficient co-host. Do stop by Simon and Jenny’s blogs for excellent posts and round-ups of what everyone has been reading.

    Links of interest: that one time I invited a bunch of friends over to talk about “The Lottery” (that was fun).

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