Empire Times Creativity Competition Winner: ‘On Your Father’s Toes’ (8 April 2015)

         Dante, I can’t remember what music sounds like.

         I can’t…

         I can’t…

My fingers reach yours before you can sign anything else, and I shake my head. Of course you haven’t forgotten. Time has more compassion than this. Behind you, the dinner party claps on Harper as his fingers dance across the keys and its as if we haven’t really left, only been misplaced somehow. Slip us back into the fold, darling. You haven’t forgotten anything.

Don’t be ridiculous, I sign. Music is simple. There’s the guitar, the bass, the piano—I point towards Harper—and the drums… I knock a rhythmic fist on the wall next to her head.

From the living room: “Was that someone at the door?”

“Nonsense, Aria. You’re hearing things.”

I start slightly at the voices but you only begin signing again, frantically. I can remember sounds, like…wheels, and…voices. But music is just…gone.

That last word yanks at your courage like it’s nothing. Yanks a part of you out through the back and reassembles you a metre or so from us. You are here, closer than arm’s length, and you are over there, a hand against the wall for balance, a pair of glassed eyes. Singing.

#

This other you gently lullabies us to sleep and then boisterously heralds in the next afternoon. It listens to us, flinches as I throw that box from the attic down on the floorboards. We spend hours sprawled out, going through the old vinyl records. You love them because they belonged to your Dad, and because at family gatherings he’d dust off the gramophone, lift you onto his feet and twirl you around in a world only you were ever invited into. Years later, when the radio played certain songs, you would tell me how much you missed him and your eyes would gleam with something which seemed, at the time, to be stronger than everything else.

There are songs and moments of the past all spread out around you. Everything you need to remember how to dance on your father’s toes. I know it. If the feeling of music is as powerful as the sound, then one sense will surely remind the other.

It’s not working, you eventually sign. I ignore you and reach for that green My Bonnie vinyl, the one you’re named after. It sits in my lap so my fingers can form the words. You can’t forget this one. Remember, when the drums kicked in you’d drag me into the middle of the room and make me dance…

You grab my hands and shove them back at me, shaking your head.

Remember how you always said…

D A N T E. You make each letter almost forcefully, your eyes shining with the wrong realisation. You think it’s over. If that’s true, darling, then nothing is.

Two days later I take the both of you to that music shop in the city and your favourite six-string acoustic is still there. You can play a grand total of one song and you’d always play it on that thing. You said it sounded metallic, like rain on a roof. You said a person could hear the song once and remember it for the rest of their lives.

The manager, Banjo, recognises us immediately.

“Thought you’d up and left us for somewhere glossier!” His gaze falls on the guitar in your lap. “Come on, then, play that blues thing I never stopped hearing.”

Let me, and I will. Give me one frenetic glance and I’ll explain that his words are lost on you, and we’ll walk straight out of here. But there must be a certain look about him that you recognise, because suddenly you smile weakly and your fingers fly to those same old chords. And yet your movements are mechanical. There’s no longer anything in it for you, or at least not this you. The other one’s singing along.

Banjo applauds, we flee the shop and you shatter the moment we’re out of sight. The strangers pretend not to look as they pass but I know they see us, a man comforting his wife, and they might wonder about us later but they’ll never understand. Here you are, more beautiful than them all, and yet made to live in silence; why is it so hard to help you? The music is there! In your head! Your arms are flailing in the dark, and all you need is to hit the right memory, put your fingers on the right keys…

Keys. That’s it.

I lift all the pieces of you into my arms, and head for the car.

Harper leaves his apartment unlocked and we stride straight in. He looks up in surprise from the piano.

“Hey guys, I didn’t know you’d be…”

“You’re a journalist, Harper.” My voice is louder than it should be. “You know words, yes?”

“I suppose so. What are you…”

“And you’re also a musician. So you can describe music to Bonnie; you can help her remember it.”

Slowly, he shakes his head. “It’s not that easy.”

“Yes, it is! A blind person can have a book read to them, so of course you can tell someone who’s deaf…

“Music and English are two very different languages, Dante. Music can’t be translated. Listening is the only way for us to know what it’s saying.”

“You’re wrong.” Of course he’s wrong. He doesn’t understand us, darling; he’s a stranger like the rest of them. He’s despicable. “Everything can be described…what are words good for if that’s not true? What am I good for, if I can’t help her?”

I am good for nothing. I am good for nothing.

“Dante, listen to me.” Harper pauses, then says slowly: “Tell me what words taste like.”

A phone rings in the apartment next door.

A dog barks down on the street.

Somebody sobs.

“I’m so sorry.”

And suddenly there’s a hand slipping into mine, and Harper grows smaller and smaller, and then he’s gone.

We sit down in the elevator, because you can’t hear and I can’t help and nobody cares about etiquette. We sit and we stare at each other. I can see my unborn son in the ridge of your nose and the protrusion of your ears; I can see your lips on my wrist, your fingers on my pulse. But I’m starting to forget the way your voice woke up. The way you struggled to finish a joke without laughing. The way you bought pizza.

I’m starting to forget what music sounds like.

‘I love you,’ I whisper. My voice trails over and knocks at your ears, waits, shrugs, turns away. But the knock is enough.

By J. M. Miller

 

Coast FM: ‘Five Minutes of Chandelier Fame’

In co-operation with Coast FM and Indaily, Speakeasy had the opportunity to record and air a number of short stories from selected readers. I was lucky enough to record two. Curious about how it sounded? Have a listen!

 

 

I always feel like I’m famous when I’m at a nightclub. In the centre of the room, where the floor’s not holding you up so much as electrocuting you with the beat, you inhale the sweat and the alcohol and for some reason it smells like celebrity. And then those strobe lights start to flash like paparazzi cameras, and the people around you become a thousand slightly different photographs of themselves. Frame black frame black. Like you’re watching them on an old projector.

Up on the platform, the DJ manoeuvres the turn table with her eyes closed and her headphones in. I can feel the gaze of a bouncer on me, but I stay there until she slips off her headphones and then I yell to her. I don’t know what I yell, but it doesn’t end up mattering because she can’t hear me over the music. I yell again, and this time for some reason I ask her to come and dance.

This time she hears me. As the music holds its breath, she calls out a no thanks in a chandelier voice. I ask her why not and she shouts that I don’t sound familiar. Climbing up onto the platform, I finally see that the chandelier is not just in her voice but in her eyes. Not to mean that they sparkle. I mean that they’re glassy, empty—they stare straight through me. I watch her feel her way around the turn table. She must have it memorised, like a doorknob in the dark.

You’ve made everyone famous, I want to say. You’ve turned them into old movie stars. But the bouncer is eyeing me off and there’s the sense that I don’t have much time left. So I choose the most important thing, the come and dance, come and dance, the question that most people can be traced back to, from utterly crucial to reasonably important, to quite nice, to seems nice, to a stranger and some raw courage and the question of a lifetime. Your eyes are fear-coloured and you don’t know me, but will you dance?

There’s only the beat for a few seconds. The dancefloor like the set, the actors twisting for the cameras. Without her sight the girl looks like a vacant apartment, fingers running around the turn table, slightly slower now as she closes her eyes. Clenches them tight, like she’s in the kind of pain that haunts rather than hurts. I wait. Eventually she raises her hands to her headphones, slips them off, clicks a single button on the turntable. With an outstretched hand she says, okay.

And so I lift the chandelier girl down off her platform and I lead her into the maze, peeling back layers of people with fast hearts and unpredictable limbs. And so we dance in the very middle, the beat like an electric fence and my arms coiled tight around her. At some point I wonder what it’s like to dance to your own music and I pull back slightly to ask, but I realise then that her eyes are wet. In every flash of her, every strobe light photograph, the answer is the same.

By J. M. Miller

Coast FM: ‘Nervous’

In co-operation with Coast FM and Indaily, Speakeasy had the opportunity to record and air a number of short stories from selected readers. I was lucky enough to record two. Curious about how it sounded? Have a listen!

 

There are creatures called Performance Nerves, and they live in my fingers. I don’t know what they do most of the time—hibernate maybe, like microscopic bears—but whatever they’re doing, they’ve always got someone watching me. There are always scientists studying my courage levels, statisticians measuring any recent improvement against upcoming open mic nights. And the rest of them? The Proles, as Orwell would say? I suppose they knit.

They’re all waiting for the footsteps down the hall. The walking that breaks into running, the heavy panting. They’re on their feet as the Nerve on lookout bursts into the room, as it grins, as it announces the facts—

It’s piano, it’s today, it’s the Bublé one.

The Nerves often strike deals with the Brain, which drew the short straw at the beginning of it all and was left with a creative writer. Social anxiety by day, excessive imagination by night. The Brain needs a break. The Nerves say, Go. Go, and we’ll hold the fort until you get back.

The Brain sighs; it’s an old hand at this. What do you want in return?

Make her drop the sheet music.

            Anything else?

            One of them pipes up, It’d be a shame if she completely forgot the beginning. They all laugh like kookaburras on cocaine. The Brain will hate itself when it gets back, but right now it’s just too tired to care. So it leaves me in front of a hundred people, shaking like a Chihuahua. Looking down at a rectangle of black and white. Wishing I was a sports person.

Later my friend tells me, “You looked so calm.”

By J. M. Miller

Review: I Call Myself a Feminist (29 Jan 2016)

I called myself a feminist out loud for the first time only last year. Mostly I felt proud, but lurking underneath this pride was an undeniable layer of guilt. I Call Myself a Feminist—an anthology compiled by Victoria Pepe, Rachel Holmes, Amy Annette, Alice Stride and Martha Mosse—helped me answer two questions at the heart of this guilt: Firstly, why is ‘feminist’ still a dirty word? And secondly, why do I not feel worthy of the title?

I Call Myself a Feminist consists of 26 personal essays written by women under age 25; they range in focus from the subtlety of sexist language to the legacy of the suffragettes. Considered individually, they provide sophisticated and passionate insights into how some of the world’s most vibrant young feminists view their ideology. But when printed together, they project something that for some reason many of us seem to forget—that beyond a belief in gender equality, feminism is different for everyone.

Many of the essayists discuss intersectionality, the notion that different institutional oppressions such as religious discrimination, racism, and sexism cannot be examined as mutually exclusive. In considering feminism, for instance, it is important to remember that a woman’s experience of racism impacts her experience of misogyny, as do her religious views. Thus, no-one can really approach feminism in the same way.

This helps to explain both why feminism is the home of such incredible diversity, and why it is so important that this be universally acknowledged. As Jinan Younis states in her essay, ‘Manifesto for feminist intersectionality’: ‘Intersectional feminism is a lens though which we can define and critique our current struggles, and it is only through intersectionality that feminism can become more inclusive.’

These essays are not how-to guides for feminists; beyond the whole women-are-equal-to-men business, they do not come with a list of what to believe and how to feel. In fact, they completely deconstruct the possibility of any such list. And that is why they are important.

Many of the essayists marvel at why ‘feminism’ is such a stigmatised word, especially when phrases such as ‘good for a girl’ are still flung into conversation without half the uproar. Why is ‘good for a girl’ a more welcome, somehow less controversial description than ‘feminist’? We ingest media and culture without even realising that the ideals they shape in people are the basis of grander-scale sexism. Has our logic grown tired of us?

Bertie Brandes expresses this frustration perfectly in her essay ‘Stripper or Shaver?’, where she asks: ‘For how long will we blindly swallow a toxic culture and then reel in shock at the reality of sexism manifest in the day-to-day?’

For someone like me, who worries constantly about the subtle sexism within language (and how difficult it is to stop using), these essays provided relief. Even the most inspirational feminists struggle to shake off how they have been conditioned to speak and act. Louise O’Neill hits the nail on the head in her essay ‘My Journey to Feminism’, in which she describes her rocky road to labelling herself a feminist. In it, she confesses: ‘The manacles of a lifetime of cultural conditioning that has tried to convince me that gender is a biological fact rather than a social construct are more difficult to shake off than I would like.’

Similar to the message delivered by Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, these essays unite to reassure the reader that feminists are nowhere near perfect. They aren’t born perfect gender equality activists, nor do they always perform faultlessly under the feminist label. Because they are regular people, and regular people make mistakes.  In ‘Women should get to be rubbish too’, Isabel Adomakoh Young says: ‘If you attribute perfection to women you pre-condemn them for failing to live up to it.’

Building the image of an ‘ideal’ feminist therefore creates the same problems regarding objectification and impossible standards involved with idealising women in general. What I adored most about I Call Myself a Feminist is its reassuring message: for as long as feminists are also people, the perfect feminist will never exist.

My response to this book will, of course, differ from another’s; this is evidently true of all books, but perhaps means more here. Different essays resonate with me, a white, non-religious Australian, than they might with someone religious or of a different cultural background. On the other hand, as someone under 25, these essays hit home in a very special way for their youthful perspectives, vigour and the general sense of finding one’s feet in ideology.

It’s easy for me to feel lost in feminist theory, and unsure of my own personal brand of feminism. I Call Myself a Feminist has taught me that it’s okay to be unsure. To disagree with, or to find faults in, any of the essays is thus only to acknowledge that the writer has walked a different path to feminism, and that different thorns have stuck to her feet along the way.

As Kathleen Hanna once said: ‘There’s just as many different kinds of feminism as there are women in the world.’ They are all inspirational, and they are all worthy.

By J. M. Miller

Published 29 January 2016, Lip Magazine
http://lipmag.com/arts/lip-lit-i-call-myself-a-feminist/

Review: H is for Hawk (30 July 2015)

Earlier this year I was working at the Auckland Writer’s Festival where Helen Macdonald was promoting her critically acclaimed memoir H is for Hawk. So far it’s snapped up both the Costa Book of the Year and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. But as I glimpsed her signing books, at the front of a line stretching across the room and out the front door, I couldn’t help but feel sceptical. All this fuss over a book about birds?

I had the opportunity to listen to her talk, but I declined on the precarious basis that ‘I don’t really care about hawks.’

How I wish, now, that I had gone to see her.

H is for Hawk does indeed centre around a hawk – Mabel, the goshawk Macdonald decides to train after the untimely death of her father – but what these three hundred pages manage to do is something quite beyond your ordinary tale of grief and animals.

The tragic 20th century writer T. H. White, whose identical attempts to train a goshawk are described in his memoir The Goshawk, is a constant source of inspiration and empathy for Macdonald. He appears, a lonely, misguided second protagonist, with his yearning to be a gentleman borne of his closeted homosexuality, and his doomed attempts to train his hawk Gos a result of pure lack of guidance.

White’s narrative is a constant, exquisite reminder of Macdonald’s thematic concerns. This is one of those books where, paradoxically, absence has a great deal of presence, where each sentence has been soaked in loss, in a strange sense that the words themselves are mourning something missing and loved and permanently gone. The reader has no choice but to be swept up by this sadness, in the hope that Macdonald will pull them out the other side.

Macdonald’s father’s absence is inarguably the dominant absence in the narrative. But there are others, too, such as the disappearance of wild animal species at the hands of humanity, to the point where ‘rarity is all they are made of’. Her father’s career as a photographer is also riddled with the desire for absence – the need to be invisible, to watch without the self-consciousness of presence.

This is a trait Macdonald claims to have inherited, and which has aided her thus far as a falconer. One must create the sense that they are invisible, she says, for the goshawk to become comfortable with them.

This snatch of exposition perfectly parallels and draws attention to the “outsider” complex haunting the book’s three main characters – Helen, Mabel, and T. H. White. As the narrative progressed, it became clear what they all had in common: a lack of ease and acceptance within mainstream society.

White, as a gay man during the mid-20th century, felt that his urges were ‘revolting’ and that he could never be his true self in public. Macdonald empathises with the minority identity herself; as a female falconer, she encounters various extremes of sexism throughout training Mabel, such as when a friend’s husband speculates that the reason she and Mabel have connected is because they are both women.

The goshawk itself has, historically, been described as difficult beyond measure. Macdonald decides that they are simply misunderstood. One night, for instance, she discovers Mabel’s playful side and is shocked.

No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible. I wondered if it was because no one had ever played with them. The thought made me terribly sad.

The “outsider” complex not only creates the space for Macdonald to identify with Mabel, and T. H. White with Gos, but also a space in which the readers can recognise themself. All of us, in some way, have felt like outsiders, felt the absence of something or someone. We have all been at some point overcome by the insatiable desire for invisibility.

It is immensely easy, therefore, to engage with and understand why Macdonald chose training a goshawk as her avenue by which to grieve. Taming a bird of prey is not unlike taming grief, after all.

Once I realised this, suddenly the critical support of this book made perfect sense. Suddenly, it was clear why so many people had come to hear Helen Macdonald speak in Auckland, why they’d all lined up to thank her for putting pen to paper. For pulling them out the other side of the sadness.

It was because in H is for Hawk she had managed to turn absence into presence – to articulate the pain and the relief of having to move on from loss, in order not to lose yourself as well. In her words:

‘There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.’

By J. M. Miller

Published 30 July 2015, Lip Magazine
http://lipmag.com/arts/books-arts/lip-lit-h-is-for-hawk/

Review: Girls Will Be Girls (27 May 2015)

Many people will recall the appearance of Emer O’Toole on This Morning in 2012, where she participated in a friendly debate over the importance of shaving body hair. For those who haven’t seen it, you can watch it here.

This video went viral, and O’Toole’s surprise at her fame led to the writing of Girls Will Be Girls. A collection of writings on gender performativity, the importance of experimenting and the illusion of ‘binary’ genders, the text is framed by anecdotes from O’Toole’s own life, in which many of her awkward, funny and thought-provoking experimentations have been documented.

This combination of personal and academic writing makes for an entertaining and empowering read—something which, admittedly, I do not often find when I read nonfiction.

O’Toole turns constantly to Judith Butler for a theoretical framework; namely, Butler’s theory of gender performativity, or the idea that our gender codes are a construct rather than an instinct. The entire book is essentially an exploration of this theory, and what it means for modern feminism and our contemporary ideas of gender and self.

The first section of the book deals with O’Toole’s childhood, and is a contemplation of the ways in which society implants the concept of ‘girlness’ into young girls from birth. Things like gendered baby clothes, toys and parenting choices—for example, the compliments paid by parent to child, and how this differs between boys and girls—all contribute to our senses of masculinity and femininity.

Once we have learnt our gender system, O’Toole explains, it becomes difficult to remember that the system was never there from the beginning.

O’Toole begins to experiment with gender in her teenage years; at nineteen she decides to dress up as a boy for Halloween. What follows is a fascinating study of semiotics and how seemingly small things (such as walking style and hair length) add up to fulfil the social requirements of a gender.

After a night of adopting ‘masculine’ traits in a nightclub, O’Toole ruminates on the fact that everything we perceive to be gender is built up of socially constructed decisions and actions:

Once I was a girl dancing. Once, I was a girl dressed as a boy dancing as a girl. I was an act acknowledging that I was an act, in so many competing and conflicting layers that neither I, nor anybody else, knew where the act began or ended. It was the coolest thing.

In the same chapter, she explains the Bem Sex Role Inventory, which revolutionised how we think about gender. The test (which can be taken here, if you’re interested) judges how well a person fits into their traditional gender role. The BSRI showed that androgynous identities—those taking positive traits from both genders—are often the most well-adjusted, thus disproving the idea that ‘feminine’ females are happiest.

O’Toole uses the BSRI as a stepping stone into a discussion of the gender spectrum, and the fallacy of masculinity and femininity as the only “true” gender identities.

A few years ago, O’Toole decided to give up removing her body hair. After all, as she says, why should women have to do it when men can boast hairy legs and underarms without any judgement? This experiment takes up quite a large chunk of the book and is a fascinating insight into what it is like to play with gender norms; how extremely the world reacts to it, and ultimately how ridiculous that is.

Body hair was, says O’Toole, accepted on women until the early 1900s, when the shaving razor was commercialised. Scarily, it only took a few years for body hair to became taboo on women—for society to forget there had ever been a previous set of norms.

It is terrifying, how quickly something once accepted as part of ‘femininity’ can become something ‘disgusting’. Even when it’s something as natural as body hair.

Girls Will Be Girls is the kind of book that can empower an entire gender. What O’Toole’s experiments teach us is that it is important to play with the spectrum and develop our own gender identity, rather than trying to fulfil any presupposed requirements of ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Ultimately, O’Toole urges us to question our own assumptions of both gender and sexuality, and be aware of the performance we put on through our genders. While we can’t ever fully escape our performative natures, we can dabble in new and challenging performances in order to rewrite the rules of ‘girlness’ and ‘boyness’.

In other words, don’t stop the show—change characters. It’s much more fun.

By J. M. Miller

Published 27 May 2015, Lip Magazine
http://lipmag.com/arts/lip-lit-girls-will-be-girls/

Review: Hausfrau (2 March 2015)

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel Hausfrau opens with the line, ‘Anna was a good wife, mostly.’

This ‘mostly’, read like an afterthought, hints at the entire novel’s focus—the good wife as a platform for exploring patriarchy, free will and the psychology of adultery.

Anna Benz is the trademark oppressed woman more commonly found in Flaubert and Tolstoy than in the contemporary novel. Living in Switzerland with her gruff, strict husband Bruno and her three children, American expat Anna has no driver’s license, no job and no money of her own. She only has a slight grasp on the language; Switzerland itself is an oppressive character.

Bored and desperate for some control, Anna embarks on a series of intense sexual affairs with three different men: a Scotsman, an American and a Swiss. As Anna implies constantly, this is the only power she feels she has over her husband.

And it is the love of this power which tips the dominos, hurtling the narrative down a path of secrecy towards the presumed reveal.

This path is punctuated with short conversations between Anna and her psychiatrist, Doktor Messerli. These exchanges introduce the theme of fatalism versus free will, clarifying the difference between words such as ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ as well as ‘obsession’ and ‘compulsion’.

Having spent most of the book deciding whether she could have stopped herself from having affairs, Anna decides that it was fate. That becoming an adulteress was in her all along.

But here’s the paradox: by believing that her one act of free will (adultery) is out of her control, Anna effectively strips herself of that same free will. It is her agency of belief which revokes her agency.

But in following the thought that her adultery is another helpless compliance, one must consider compliance not just to fate, but also to patriarchal double-standards. History has often claimed that a man having a mistress is much more socially acceptable than a woman having a male lover. It is this standard which gives Anna’s lovers—Archie, Stephen, and Karl—control over Anna, and of course they expect her to submit.

If Anna had refused, then, and stayed loyal to Bruno? Would this have been her definitive act of agency? Or would she only be backing away into another male-imposed stereotype of the meek, loyal housewife: a stereotype after which the book is named?

It is interesting, also, to consider the other side of the coin—that Anna is not as helpless as she claims. Doktor Messerli continually reminds her that she has choices. As she tells Anna, in a tone leaning towards exasperation:

‘‘I cannot change the intractable Swiss,’ you whine. ‘There’s nothing I can do to make Bruno more attentive’—Anna, have you tried just simply asking him for more attention?…There’s nothing you can do to change your life? That’s the biggest excuse of all.’

A proper analysis of Anna would be far too long for this review. Essbaum herself took a whole novel, and I suspect she barely scraped the surface. But after all, what would good storytelling be without complexity?

It does, however, make the book slow and difficult to engage with at first. Anna’s retrospective narration stagnates the first few chapters, and I spent the first hundred or so pages waiting for something to happen. Despite the snappy intrigue of the opening sentence, it is not an immediate page-turner.

I also found myself deeply agitated by Anna herself; by her refusal to confess to Doktor Messerli, and by her prioritising. She routinely puts going to meet lovers over taking proper care of her children. Granted, as these unlikeable traits of Anna’s do ultimately have dire consequences, we are obviously supposed to disapprove of her. But I felt more like putting the book down than finding out how she would pay for it.

I do, however, have a favourite sentence: a revelation Anna has, towards the book’s end: ‘Look to the mistakes…The mistakes a person makes tells you everything you need to know.’

Whilst this describes perfectly how Anna views herself in terms of her adultery, it is also an apt description of the book. Sadly, I will remember this novel not for its poetic contemplation of free will or for its depiction of patriarchal oppression, but for its slow beginning, and how it would gain my interest only to lose it again a couple of chapters later. The mistakes are what will stay with me.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read it. Hausfrau is a thought-provoking novel, mostly.

By J. M. Miller

Published 2 March 2015, Lip Magazine
http://lipmag.com/arts/lip-lit-hausfrau/

Review: Still Alice (20 Feb 2015)

‘I’m losing my yesterdays…so what I have to say today is timely.’ – Alice Howland

 

It is a brave thing to write a book about Alzheimer’s disease. The topic is heartbreaking enough in itself, as the disease has no known cure. It is also a dangerous representation to get wrong, as with all representations of mental illness. But it can be achingly beautiful if successful.

Lisa Genova’s Still Alice is all three: brave, heartbreaking, and achingly beautiful.

For the novel’s protagonist to not only be an Alzheimer’s patient, but also the book’s sole narrative voice, is a fascinating exploration of both the ‘unreliable narrator’ device and the intimacy with which mental illness can be presented on the page.

‘Still Alice’ is a New York Times bestseller and has recently been made into a film starring Julianne Moore. I’m yet to see this movie, so this review shall be based entirely on my experience of the novel, but let it be known that I will be buying my ticket the second I have the chance.

Our protagonist Alice Howland is a Professor of Psychology at Stamford, as well as a wife to John and a mother of three grown-up children. At 50, she is at the peak of her professional, personal and physical life when one day she forgets a single word during a lecture she has given multiple times. After a few months of downplaying the increasing gaps in her memory, Alice reluctantly consults a doctor and is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

This turning point sets the course of the novel. Alice struggles to maintain the speed and responsibilities of her old life, and ultimately, inevitably, to let that life go.

This journey would be emotional enough without the first-person, present tense narration. But the author chose this perspective for a reason.

Genova said of her narrative strategy:

‘I thought it was the most powerful choice. In telling the story through Alice’s lens, I sit the reader right up against her Alzheimer’s. It should feel uncomfortably close at times. You should feel her confusions and frustrations and terror right along with her.’

And I did. The slow mental deterioration of Alice’s mind instils a growing panic in the reader, especially when eventually, with a rush of pity and dread, you can feel her mistakes coming.

Alice’s doctor says at one point that Alice ‘may not be the most reliable source of what’s been going on.’ A simple statement to give an Alzheimer’s patient, but in terms of the novel it forces us to consider everything she has described for us so far.

Are there small mistakes in her expositional paragraphs? Are there large ones? How many degrees have we been deviated from the truth?

Little by little, we lose our faith in Alice. Eventually we feel that we know more about her life than she does, and the fact that only a hundred or so pages can give us such a sense of authority over Alice is sadder still.

Additionally, the fact that Alice was a highly successful and respected female Professor, in a field dominated by men, brings a fresh sting of melancholy. Alice says many times that she is proud of her academic achievements, at one point going on to wonder if her husband John would have achieved as much, had he also gone on maternity leave three times.

All her accolades have been fought for in the face of the patriarchy.

And when, inevitably, her Alzheimer’s leaves her incapable of maintaining this professional standing, it feels as if the significance of all these victories are fading along with her memory.

It is horrifying to watch a strong, intelligent female character like Alice being stripped back by mental illness.

Despite its overtone of heartbreak, however, Still Alice is anything but bleak. It is lovely to see how Alice’s relationships change with the people around her: how she slowly exchanges work for family on her list of priorities. This is clearest in the case of Lydia, her youngest daughter, who at the beginning of the book is frowned upon by her parents for choosing to pursue acting over a university education. Just about my most favourite part of the book was watching Alice become accepting of Lydia’s choices, and learning to love her for the passion of which she once disapproved.

Alice’s husband John was also an incredibly real and complex character; it was painful to watch him initially refuse to believe that Alice was sick. His love for Alice surfaces through his fear of watching her fade away. This is presented with such intimacy and precision that even though he is physically distant throughout much of the book, I never doubted him.

Of course, ultimately, Still Alice cannot be expected to have a happy ending in the traditional sense of the word. But I do believe it ends on a hopeful note.

As Alice says, her yesterdays are fading, so today is all she has and that must be enough. To live for (and love) the contents of single moments; to focus on what we can do now rather than what we have done.

If nothing else, read it for that.

By J. M. Miller

Published 20 February 2015, Lip Magazine
http://lipmag.com/arts/lip-lit-still-alice/

Review: Paint Your Wife (22 Dec 2014)

New Zealand author Lloyd Jones seems fascinated by art’s capacity to bring men and women together.

It’s a theme which drives his 2008 novel Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance in which the tango becomes a way to survive WWI.

The idea also surfaced as the focus of his novel Paint Your Wife. Spanning from WWII to present day, the narrative tells of the love affair between Harry Bryant’s mother, Alice, and the local artist Alma. Alice poses for a portrait ‘in lieu of payment’ after Alma rids her house of rats; hundreds of portraits are subsequently produced, as the women of New Egypt discover a way of being appreciated whilst their husbands are at war. A generation later, with Harry as mayor, the now dying New Egypt finds itself in need of Alma’s art yet again.

This is a deeply beautiful book, set against such a rich landscape of countryside and sea. The residents of New Egypt seem almost blown about their lives, at the mercy of nature—this shows most when Alice’s husband George sets out to move a hill to prove his love for her. The town is shocked; as an outsider remarks, ‘Hills don’t move.’ The New Zealand landscape proves a more prominent character than many of the people, creating a highly textured, almost alive, narrative.

I will admit that I had doubts about the theme of the book; writing about the painting of women runs a high risk of coming across as voyeuristic. Indeed, the women often pose naked for Alma’s drawings, which becomes steadily creepier the older Alma gets. The fact that these drawings were ‘in lieu of’ payment—i.e. for money—formed the crux of my wariness.

I was also disappointed with Lloyd Jones for conveying drawing as something only the men are capable of. I would have liked for one of the town’s women to take up the art as well, to subvert the gender roles if only slightly.However, despite the signs this is not a voyeuristic novel. Whilst having the potential to represent women as objects for male appreciation, the thematic context of these drawings leads to a much deeper interpretation.

In my opinion it is not a voyeuristic novel—it is a paying of respect to the female identity. I finished the book feeling not as if women had been ogled at, but as if they had been appreciated for every shape and size that they were.

What makes Paint Your Wife so heartbreaking is the theme of abandonment. Harry’s father runs away;  the town’s steadily shrinking population; women abandoned for war. In this light the drawing suddenly becomes less about the men watching, and more about the women posing, finding themselves again.

As Harry observes, ‘in learning how to draw what you really learn is how to see. Once you learn how to see, good or bad or better doesn’t come into it. Yearning just flies out the window. The only thing of consequence is what sits before you.’

Drawing ultimately becomes a way for the genders to look at each other and, for the first time, properly see what is there.

This depth of meaning and content is what makes Jones’ writing prize worthy (his novel Mister Pip won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2011). In fact, Paint Your Wife is so bursting with plot and character that I wished many relationships had been developed further. Alice, for instance, hardly appears in present day, let alone her relationship with Alma. With a counter narrative focusing so heavily on their affair, it was disappointing to see so little of them in Harry’s narrative. But is this not the case for all great books? No matter how many pages it has, you’re always left wishing for more?

The fact that I as a woman was left with this feeling confirms the work for me, not as a work of voyeurism, but as a literary tribute to women.

The title Paint Your Wife does not compel husbands to remove his wife’s clothes and idealise her–it instead implores him to see her for who she really is, and love her for that.

By J. M. Miller

Published 22 December 2014, Lip Magazine
http://lipmag.com/arts/lip-lit-paint-your-wife/

Review: Not That Kind of Girl (25 Nov 2014)

Lena Dunham: media darling, outspoken feminist, director of and actress in HBO’s Girls, and now, author.

Not That Kind of Girl is a memoir, a compilation of twenty-eight personal essays that has set fire to a media storm. This is mostly due to the sexual content—at one point Dunham describes her seven-year-old self discovering sexuality via an exploration of her infant sister’s genitalia, which she explicitly describes as something a sexual predator would do. A few chapters after this, she writes of a sexual encounter akin to rape, although it is not labelled as such until much later, and by somebody else.

National Review writer Kevin Williamson goes so far as to call the writing of this encounter a ‘gutless and passive-aggressive act’. Dunham, after all, never filed charges, but is quite happy to condemn ‘Barry’ on paper. In interviews, Dunham has been quick to downplay the extremity of this maybe-rape—which, considering her bold views on feminism, is a strange contradiction. And it is this this double standard which has caused most of the talk.

I came to Not That Kind of Girl with all this buzzing in my head. As a 26-year-old memoirist, she is often accused of a certain generational arrogance that Williamson calls a ‘bloated sense of self’, which furthers the lazy opinion of a narcissistic generation. Admittedly, Dunham had a privileged childhood. Adversity is expected in modern life writing, and on this note she fails to deliver. Despite this, the writer is capable of producing a memoir that is funny, insightful and honest.

A huge portion of the appeal lies in her revealed imperfection, her willingness to present herself without hiding flaws. So many modern autobiographies skip on the awkward humiliations of everyday existence—Dunham, in contrast, is all too eager to describe every stain on every dress, the time she vomited all over a playwright’s carpet; the time she dealt with a hangover by lying on the bathroom floor and consuming half a block of cheese. In these moments, as filmmaker Miranda July describes, we find ourselves ‘shivering with recognition.’ Dunham’s got this remarkable way of finding the most vulnerable part of the reader, and letting them know it’s okay.

She is also seemingly fascinated with herself in the third person, which lends well to her self-deprecating tone. At one point she describes her past self: ‘There she goes, backpack on, headed for the subway or the airport. She did her best with her eyeliner. She learned a new word she wants to try out on you.’ Dunham invites you close, points at her self and says, ‘She’s ridiculous. Let’s laugh at her.’

The book’s structure is interesting, too—the essays often consist of unsent emails and lists, flicking back and forth between subjects and timelines. Dunham will drop a single name, with enough flair to make us curious about this person; what a joy it is, then, to discover later on that she’s allocated them an entire section in her book.

The writing bursts with energy, with a sense of love for the words. Reading it feels like riding a horse blindfolded—you don’t know where you’re going, but the rhythm takes you there before you can refuse.

In the face of sexual and literary controversy, then, Not That Kind of Girl excels. It makes me wish I worked in a high-end baby fashion store; makes me wish I went to more parties—but most of all, it makes me wish I’d grown up in New York.

By J. M. Miller

Published 25 November 2014, Lip Magazine
http://lipmag.com/arts/lip-lit-not-that-kind-of-girl/