Women Upstairs: On Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

“My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later,” says Julia, the narrator of Claire Messud’s new novel The Burning Girl; “…everyone loses a best friend at some point.”

Julia is quiet, cautious, and sensitive; her soon-to-be-lost best friend is Cassie, a fragile-looking, “troubled” girl, much more daring and eventually more popular. As Dwight Garner observed in The New York Times, “This pairing is a familiar one”–so many other novels about female friendships, from my favorite YA novel Someone Like You to recent literary phenom My Brilliant Friend, seem to feature the same general contrast. And it seems to be the universal inclination of writers (many of whom are quiet and sensitive) to narrate from the point of view of the less daring, the less dynamic friend—the friend with less story to tell. The narrator then spends so much time looking at her friend, watching her, resisting her stories rather than driving forward her own, that the novel’s center of gravity rests between narrator and friend, rather than centering on the narrator.

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Q: A Cult Novel about the Protestant Reformation

Over in Italy this summer I picked up a book totally at random called Q. It’s a fat historical novel about the Protestant Reformation, written by four anonymous authors under the name Luther Blissett. Its protagonist is an Anabaptist theology student who becomes involved in various movements during the Reformation. The antagonist, a papal informer, is simply named Q.

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Subjectivity and the male gaze: in defense of that controversial scene in 13 Reasons Why

SPOILERS FOR 13 REASONS WHY ABOUND!

The controversies surrounding 13 Reasons Why have been numerous and well-enumerated; critics claim that the show glorifies teen suicide by presenting it as a suitable revenge for bullying, that portraying teen suicide at all (especially using attractive young actors) is irresponsible, and that Hannah’s rape scene is triggering for victims. But arguably the biggest point of contention is Hannah’s suicide scene, which is incredibly disturbing. It’s one thing to hear about a child slitting their wrists, it’s another thing altogether to see it happen in graphic detail.

But does the graphic nature of the scene automatically make it irresponsible? I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t comment about whether the show is responsible about suicide on the whole. But in regards to this particular scene, I tend to agree with 13 Reasons Why writer (and suicide attempt survivor) Nic Sheff, who wrote in Vanity Fair that they included as much detail about the act of suicide as possible in order to shatter the “myth and mystique” surrounding suicide, and especially to “dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off.” For those who are worried that the show “glamorizes” suicide, if nothing else, that scene definitely showed viewers that there is nothing glamorous–or peaceful–about the act itself. Continue reading →

Everything new is old again

The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel written by Margaret Atwood, is a devastating and sui generis entry in the annals of dystopia, which stands alongside 1984 and Brave New World in the originality of its exploration of the psychology of a totalitarian society. The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV show being serialized on Hulu, is not.

The show so far is wonderfully acted, both from expected quarters (Elisabeth Moss) and… less-expected (Yvonne Strakovsky, Alexis Bledel). The direction is excellent, and the action is genuinely moving and traumatic. The third episode’s scene of a riot, filmed in slow motion, set to a vaporously slow cover of “Heart of Glass,” was truly haunting.

For all that, though, the show has lost the heart of what made the novel so brutal and revelatory.

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The Contradiction: Some Thoughts on Lilith’s Brood

Lilith’s Brood, a science fiction trilogy by Octavia Butler, tells a post- and pre-apocalyptic story, where a few humans survive a nuclear apocalypse only to face the end of their species in a very different way.

(Some spoilers after the cut, which I figure is probably OK since these books have been out in the world almost as long as I have.)

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The end of the world

Liu Cixin’s space-opera trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past revolutionized Chinese science-fiction, and creates a vision of the future as relevant and communicative as any in the history of the genre.

Liu’s avowed poetics for the work, at least as represented for English-speaking audiences, are given in an essay published in 2014, around when the first part of the the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was first translated. The essay concludes with his claim, “I wrote about the worst of all possible universes in Three Body out of hope that we can strive for the best of all possible Earths.”

The trilogy certainly takes a dark view of some of the ways humans relate to one another and to their world, but human nature is what Liu takes for granted: humans would act this way even in a Liebnitzian “best of all possible universes.” The “worst” universe Liu creates isn’t the human characters, it is the plot he embeds them in, which is so full of misfortunes that it borders on sadistic. Humans’ difficulties with one another and with their world are the subject that he wants to examine, and hopefully improve, if our actual universe turns out to be less awful than the fictional one he has drawn.

The center of the awfulness is the game-theoretic principle (invented by Liu) that gives the second book in the trilogy its title: Dark Forest Theory. Spoilers follow.

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