In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World by Rachel Doležal, Part Six

Book: In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World

Authors: Rachel Doležal and Storms Reback

Comments: Here we are, at the end of my look into Rachel Doležal’s failed attempt to persuade America that transBlack is a thing that exists and should be respected.  If you feel like you’re missing out and want to read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five before reading this entry, knock yourself out.  I’ll wait.

Reading and reacting to this book has been like watching a clown car catch on fire.  My overall perspective has been that Rachel is fairly clueless in how she comes across and painted such a negative picture of herself in this book that I can’t imagine why her co-author didn’t at some point intervene and explain to her how terrible she sounded.  But you know, that wasn’t his duty.  He was just there to finesse the book a bit, I bet. Rachel’s intelligent and a fairly talented artist but that doesn’t always translate into the type of writing skill needed for a memoir.  This book was meant to explain Rachel to us, to enable us to see her sympathetically and understand her perspective.  Instead, his book is a sobering look at a woman who absolutely refuses to get it, to own what she did, her transBlack ruse and staging hate crimes, her disingenuousness and her nastiness, her victim mentality and how dangerous she was.  And that’s a neat segueway into what this final entry is about: Rachel was a force of danger and Rachel will never be able to understand why she’s a pariah because this book is chock-full of examples wherein she proves her complete inability to see herself as she is.

In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World by Rachel Doležal, Part Four

Book: In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World

Authors: Rachel Doležal and Storms Reback

Comments: Now begins Part Four of my look at Rachel Doležal’s very ill-advised book.  If you find her as interesting as I do, be sure to check out Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

As I went over my notes after reading Rachel Doležal’s book, I had no intention of writing a multi-part article series discussing her book.  But I found myself marveling at the way her mind works and I just couldn’t stop digging. Most of the time, when a person pens a memoir, that person has developed a certain amount of self-awareness and can analyze their actions and their motives as they make sense of their life.  There are shallow celebrity memoirs that are just cash grabs and are meant to support the reality show trainwreck of the moment or take advantage of some celebrity scandal.  I don’t think anyone is reading the memoirs from all the women in the Real Housewives franchise with an eye to understanding what makes them tick or to see if they understand the Faustian bargain they’ve engaged in, trading away their privacy and dignity for reality show compensation.  You’re reading those books because your layover in O’Hare is four hours and you have time to kill.

Not so with this sort of memoir, or at least I’d hoped this would be different.  Rachel Doležal was and is still involved in a serious look at how race is constructed and perceived in the United States.  She engaged in what most of us believe is a long-scale hoax and in so doing outraged blacks, people of mixed race, and to a lesser extent transexuals and surely the reaction caused her to experience moments of deep contemplation wherein she came to grips with who she is, who she thinks she is, and who she wants to be.  Moreover, Rachel Doležal is a well-educated woman.  She has a Master’s degree, is well-read within her specific interests, and one presumes she is intelligent enough to know when she is bullshitting herself.  One presumes wrong.

Even as Rachel lauds blackness as something that makes her life fuller, causing her to feel more alive and more connected to the world, she devalues blackness with stereotypes and commercial interpretations of black beauty and worth.  As she derides “white saviors” she has no awareness that she is herself engaging in such antics.  I will later tackle the topic of “Rachel Will Never Get It” but much of what I discuss here today can also be subfiled under that heading. She just doesn’t see herself and her actions with any sort of clarity nor can she realize when she is stepping onto ground that is not hers to occupy.

In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World by Rachel Doležal, Part Three

Book: In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World

Authors: Rachel Doležal and Storms Reback

Comments: This begins Part Three of my look at the memoir of controversial “transBlack” activist Rachel Doležal.  Be sure to read Part One and Part Two if you’ve missed them.  Part One dealt with the terrible childhood that caused Rachel Doležal to focus on and identity so closely with blackness as a means of escapism and as a means of finding a reference for the overwork and misery she felt.  Part Two discusses how I believe, as do others, especially journalists and various police departments, that Rachel Doležal staged many of the hate crimes she claims were committed against her. Part Three is going to focus on how Rachel engaged in some amazing mental gymnastics (thank you Alex for reminding me of that phrase) and weasel words to justify herself to a public largely appalled with her actions. I will also explore how deeply unpleasant and almost unbelievably nasty Rachel really is.

My Dead Pets Are Interesting by Lenore Zion

Book Title:  My Dead Pets Are Interesting

Author: Lenore Zion

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, humor

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because my dead pets are also interesting, and because this is probably my most self-indulgent discussion to date.

Availability: Published by The Nervous Breakdown Books in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: When I finished reading Stupid Children by Lenore Zion, I knew I’d need to read everything she’d ever written.  She writes neurosis so well that it was alarming how well she pulled it off.  Now after reading My Dead Pets Are Interesting, it’s clear Zion is writing from a place of experience.  I’m pretty calm and well-adjusted these days, or at least I look that way.  A lot of the time I play up my quirks as I write, but it’s undeniable that as a younger woman I was a complete basket case and that even now I’m a bit more nervous and loopy than the average woman.  I sit on the OCD spectrum (contamination and cleanliness and I’m certain Mr. OTC will die in a car crash if I don’t give him a goodnight kiss every night before bed), am depressive and have a sleep issues that would kill you if you had them.  I’m not exaggerating.  On the upside, pictures I’ve posted online about my soul-crushing inability to sleep have been used in articles about insomnia, so I’ve got that going for me.  That’s how I know I’m better now – I can see the upside from time to time. Plus when you get older the shit that tired you when you were a kid no longer has the power because you’ve endured it long enough and now know it’s just one of many potential personality types and that neurotics are far thicker on the ground than anyone realizes when they are in their twenties.

Zion herself is a neurotic, and engages in a lot of the same behaviors I engaged in when I was younger, behaviors that seem pathological and inexplicable to the balanced person, but make utter sense to those of us who have the albatross of obsessive anxiety hanging from our necks like… well, like an albatross.  I get what she has to say and find the humor in how she relates her mild hysteria to her readers.  For those of us who are fellow travelers in neurosis, there is a truth and compassion in Zion’s writing that reminds us that we are both not alone in our affliction and that, in retrospect, almost everything is funny if you look at it the right way. 

Oiling the Slippery Slope

Mr. OTC and I were felled by a particularly tenacious flu virus and I’m not even close to being back on my game, but there’s something bothering me so much that I feel like I need to discuss it now, in an abbreviated form.  I will throw down hard on this topic in detail and with tons of links when my mind is clear and my home is recovered from a couple of weeks of neglect.

Are you, dear readers, aware that this month Amazon removed from sale over 150 books written on the topic of Holocaust revisionism and denial?  If you are aware of it, does it bother you?

News sources state a handful of books were eliminated for sale, but the number is far higher.  When I write my examination of what free speech in a genuinely free society means, I will list them all.  Interestingly, simply being published by Castle Hill is enough for removal because Amazon removed books Castle Hill publishes that have nothing to do with Holocaust revisionism.  Funny, that.

There is a perniciously stupid meme in modern America wherein we state that the only freedom of speech we can expect not to be violated or limited is that which is explicitly granted by the government.  The reasoning is Americans can only expect to exercise freedom of speech and press as granted by the government, therefore any cultural or corporate attempts to silence free speech and the press are acceptable in a free society, that this is a form of censorship that is somehow allowable since it is outside the purview of the government.  The American left has used this meme, this absolutely false belief, to bolster their attempts to deny work to people whom they consider bad, to contact employers, schools, families and churches of people whom they consider bad, to deny access to ideas they find bad, and now they’ve managed to deny access to an entire school of thought because where Amazon goes so do all the other booksellers.

When you use methods of intimidation to eliminate ideas you find distasteful, you are engaging in censorship.  When you pressure booksellers to stop selling books you find distasteful, you are engaging in censorship.  Such methods do not violate the Constitution to be sure but they definitely are censorship and censorship is a threat to the principles of democracy that are the very foundation upon which we have built American culture.

The usual gadflies insist that Amazon and other booksellers have the right to limit books they sell.  They’re correct.  Amazon has that right.  But should they use that right, and when they do should they be answerable for what they decide?  What does it mean when the largest book seller in the USA can effectively throttle access to large swathes of thought?  Books advocating Holocaust denial were removed at the behest of Yad Vashem, and Amazon contacted authors and publishers with the following statement:

We’re contacting you regarding the following book: Book Title Redacted. During our review process, we found that this content is in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, we cannot offer this book for sale.

Will it surprise anyone that Amazon did not elaborate on what content guidelines were violated?  Shouldn’t the largest seller of books in the United States be willing to explain why it is that after 20 years of selling these books they suddenly did not meet content guidelines?  Or are you sanguine with this move because Nazis are bad and Holocaust denial is bad and therefore it’s fine that Amazon and Yad Vashem have decided unilaterally what data you can be trusted to read?

Do you really feel okay having forces who have no idea why you want to read a book telling you that the ideas the book espouses are too dangerous for you to see, therefore they have taken the paternalistic step of ensuring that you don’t become a rabid anti-Semite because you chose to read Arthur Butz?

The people who seem the happiest about this wretched development are those who should oppose it the most. People who are terrified of fascism applaud this measure because to them it is a nail in the coffin to ideologies that feed from antisemitic, fascist beliefs.  But censorship is one of the first steps down the slippery slope into authoritarianism and fascists love themselves a book burning.

Because Amazon and other book sellers have decided you are too unreliable to process information, you now have no easy way of countering Holocaust denial because you will not know the meat of the argument and you will not know the references and sources used to reach those conclusions.  You have been denied your power of response.

That is what happens in a free society that does not tolerate censorship: we trust our citizens enough to process information for themselves, knowing that presentation of ideas and response to those ideas are the cornerstone of open discourse and that democracy cannot exist without it.  Amazon and Yad Vashem think you are a child who cannot judge information for yourself.  They think you are such a weak thinker that having access to Holocaust revisionist texts means you will become a vicious anti-Semite.  They think that you are too stupid to read an idea and form a response, so they took care of it for you.

That’s how it boils down: a corporation on behalf of a concentrated single interest group has engaged in the ultimate paternalism.  They have patted you on the head and told you that you cannot decide for yourself what you think.

Antisemitism is foul.  I have no use for it.  And I have never read a Holocaust denial that I could not easily refute, though I admit I have not read many.  It is undeniable that racism and antisemitism have caused grave problems and that both are offensive.  I personally find racism and antisemitism offensive.  I find a lot of things offensive.

But that’s the cost of doing business in a free society.  You will be offended.  Identity politics may have convinced you that you are not expected to endure feeling offended but what they don’t tell you that the cost of never being offended involves censorship and that you have no assurance that your single-interest approach to democracy will not be the next ideology determined too dangerous for the American people to read.  Being completely silenced is the ultimate offense.  Be offended by that prospect. This isn’t about Holocaust denial, antisemitism or fascism – it’s about who decides what is acceptable and unacceptable for you to think, to read, to say and to believe.  The genius of the Constitution is that it prevents any one person from being the decider for all, and an open society finds single interest deciders anathema.

You’re either a whinging child, begging for the government or large corporations to control the dissemination of ideas and man’s independent thought because you cannot tolerate people making decisions about what they read, or you’re an adult who is willing to permit all ideas access to the democratic marketplace, however offensive they may be, remaining engaged in the cultural arguments that promote democracy.

Antisemitism flourishes in a censored society.  Democracy cannot exist in a censored society, regardless of who is the censor.  Censorship, even if it is not initiated by the government, oils the slippery slope into fascist authoritarianism, fear of which fueled this very bad decision on Amazon’s part.

I do not need Yad Vashem or Jeff Bezos to make decisions about what I read and how I interpret it, nor do I need them to guide me through the moral decisions I make regarding controversial topics.  Neither do you.

Book Gawking: Holiday 2016

We had a blah sort of holiday season this year at Chez Oddbooks.  Lots of reasons but mostly some years you are just ready for it all to be over with so you can start a new year and get going again.  We decorated but we didn’t bother giving gifts and instead just gave each other permission to buy whatever we wanted.  And of course, being who we are, we ended up buying a lot of books.

Somehow we bought 119 books.  I’m not even exaggerating.  I scanned them and put them into their own tag over on our Goodreads account.  Have a look if you enjoy browsing through other people’s books as much as I do.

I took a picture of some of my more photogenic choices from our holiday book binge.

All of these were impulse purchases, including The Fuck-Up. No one ever plans to buy a book called The Fuck-Up.

The most interesting purchases I made were not photogenic at all but I want to share them anyway.  All three were used and were just sitting there in the “collectible” section at the big Half-Price Books in Austin, waiting for me.

The first is Instant Lives by Howard Moss.  This is a collection of short, humorous stories about various poets and authors and composers, like Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Claude Debussy.  I purchased it because the book is illustrated by Edward Gorey.  This is a first edition from 1974 and is going into my “Gorey” collection.

The second is one I think Mr OTC is going to appreciate as much as I do, if not more.  Act Like Nothing’s Wrong: The Montage Art of Winston Smith is a book I owned many years ago but lent out and never got it back.  Mr OTC and I were once SubGenii, and I guess we still are.  Once a SubGenius, always a SubGenius, right?  Winston Smith’s strange and incendiary collages were an important part of the 80s ‘zine culture and still have a cultural punch.  I was so happy to find a clean, collectible copy of this book.  Most copies of this book I’ve come across since losing my original look like someone found them in a dumpster.  This was a righteous score.

The final book is The Secret Books, with poems by Jorge Luis Borges and photographs by Sean Kernan.  It’s a large format, soft cover collection, with gorgeous photographs incorporating Borges’ poems.  I wanted to scan one or two examples but our scanner tests my patience. But never fear!  Scroll through this site and you’ll get a good idea of what the book is about.  This is one of those books that called to me.  I can’t tell you exactly why I needed to own this book but I needed it.  Some books are yours without you even knowing they exist and sometimes you’re lucky enough to find them before someone else buys them.

How was your holiday?  Get or buy any good books?  Any awesome plans for 2017?  Have grave concerns about our next credit card bill?  Share away!

The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan

Book: The Night Country

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Type of Book: Literary fiction, fiction, novel, ghost story

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a wholly modern ghost story and part of the selection of books that I reread every few years or so. I do my best to read this book at least every other Halloween.

Availability: The edition I own is the 2004 Bloomsbury edition, which isn’t easily obtained, but the novel itself is still in print and you can get a copy here:

Comments: Stewart O’Nan is a pretty mainstream author and I doubt he’ll come up too often on this site in the future, but I couldn’t let another Halloween go by without discussing The Night Country. O’Nan is not a particularly odd writer and his stories can be remarkably prosaic but he is a master of characterization and his characters never fail to appeal to me in a very direct way. Mr OTC keeps me in middle class splendor, but I have some very working class roots (as does Mr OTC, for that matter). O’Nan captures perfectly the life of the man who clocks in and works an hourly wage. He depicts relationships in a tender manner that lacks sentimentality. His novel Last Night at the Lobster was a revelation to me – I discussed it on my old and now defunct site, I Read Everything, and that book alone cements O’Nan as one of my favorite mainstream writers.

But it was a bonus read because The Night Country was already in my to-be-reread-until-I-die rotation. I’m going to force myself to write as concise a discussion as possible because I don’t want to run the risk of spoiling this novel for anyone because I think just about everyone who reads here will like this book, and I hope you all read it after this review. That’s going to be hard because this book causes me to want to go on at length and explore every line. Let’s see how succinct I can be while honoring my desire to rave.

Here’s a quick synopsis: A year prior on Halloween, a car with five teenagers caught the attention of a patrol officer and tried to outrun him. The officer gave chase and the car crashed, killing three of the teenagers inside, gravely injuring one, while one walked away with few injuries. Marco, Danielle and Toe (real name Christopher) died. Marco is narrating this book while Danielle and Toe serve as a sort of third-person Greek chorus, chiming in with opinions and dark humor when they feel the need. Kyle suffered brain damage that rendered him child-like, and his mother is trying to hold on to hope now that she has a son who will be mentally a grade-school boy the rest of his life. Tim, who sustained no harm in the wreck, is groping through as he grimly plans to recreate that terrible night as best he can this Halloween. Brooks, the cop who gave chase in dangerous conditions, has lost everything – the esteem of his fellow officers, his wife left him and he is being forced out of his home because he can no longer afford it. Brooks senses that Tim is not going to let the first anniversary of the accident pass without some dark action but has become so uneven at performing his job that the reader has no idea how (and if) he can help Tim come out the other side of Halloween.

This book is a traditional ghost story, in a way, in that the dead come back to comment on the living, but this is a ghost story full of meta. The ghosts know they are ghosts and at times find the whole thing very tiresome but they have no choice in the matter – when the living invoke their memory, they are summoned and they cannot refuse. The three dead teenagers find themselves being pulled all over town the Halloween the year after their death and sometimes it’s miserable and sad, but sometimes the teens snark on the nature of being a ghost, invoking Dickens’ Marley, moaning and rattling metaphorical chains. But the teenagers know the fallout their deaths have caused Tim and Brooks. They also know how their deaths affect Kyle’s mother because she’s been faced with a death of her own – the black-jean-and-leather-jacket-wearing son she raised, the rebellious boy who listened to death metal, is now a shuffling, clumsy teenager who needs supervision constantly. He can’t even tie shoelaces anymore and must use velcro sneakers. He has a part time job at a supermarket that he maintains because he and Tim work together and Tim supervises him closely. But Kyle also must ride the special education bus, is gaining weight at a rapid clip and it can be said the old version of him died in that car Halloween a year ago. But his mother knows three families lost their child and feels that she must feel grateful because her child lived, even though she knows, really, that he died, too.

Tim especially feels disembodied in his life. Danielle was his girlfriend and because she wanted to sit in his lap that night the two of them moved to the backseat. Had he remained in the front seat, he would have died. Instead Danielle was thrown from the car and Tim doesn’t have a single visible scar remaining of that night. But his psychic scars tell him in no uncertain terms that he and Kyle should have died that night and is on a mission to set right that cosmic oversight. He’s going through the motions and no one but Brooks seems to understand that Tim is not okay, that he is not handling all of this well, that he needs far more from his parents than they realize, but Brooks has issues of his own. His entire life has fallen apart because he blames himself for what happened that night and so do many others.

After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

Book: After the People Lights Have Gone Off

Author: Stephen Graham Jones

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, weird fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Ultimately this may not be an odd collection but this book creates the feeling that the reader is consuming something wholly new. Too often originality in content and voice in the horror genre are somewhat odd, sad to say.

Availability: Published by The Dark House Press in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I already know, writing the first sentence of my discussion for After the People Lights Have Gone Off, that I will be using the delete key quite a bit. I find it difficult to put into words why some stories in this collection were the literary equivalent of throwing a lead weight over the side of a ship and why some stories soared, excellent examples of literary horror at its best. Some of Jones’s stories were so perfect that I felt that familiar pull of envy that comes when I read something so wonderful that I wish I had thought of it first. But some of Jones’s stories were impenetrable for me, leaving me wondering if he missed the mark or if I was just too dense to understand what he was trying to convey. Ultimately I decided I just wasn’t the sort of reader to appreciate those stories, that taste was at issue and not talent.

The hell of it is, this has been a pretty dense year for me. Sort of muddy and brackish. I don’t feel as on the ball at the moment as I have in years past. But what made me decide that my divided reactions are righteous was analyzing why I am so divided about the stories in this collection. The answer is that while Jones has a distinct voice, he is also a malleable writer who is moving around within his chosen genre. The stories that have a familiar ring to them are written in a style that makes them seem fresh, but Jones also ventures out into new territory, with strange ideas and storytelling techniques that can be maddening when one is the sort of reader who needs the conclusions to be neater. Jones may luck out and find readers who love every bit of his work, as he twists the horror genre into new shapes, but chances are he’s going to end up with a substantial number of readers who love it when he’s wearing a particular storytelling hat but less so when he puts on another.

One hat that Jones kept on throughout this collection is the “weird” hat. Much of this collection could be considered weird fiction, which may be one of the reasons why some of the stories didn’t work for me. I like weird fiction, as a rule, but this horror subset lends itself well to muffled storytelling, mushy conclusions, entire story lines that can be up for interpretation. I’ve been clear in the past how I feel about such writing. That sort of remote remove in writing irritates me because it is too often a cop-out, a lazy attempt to force the burden of storytelling onto the reader. Jones, when his writing is up for interpretation doesn’t echo the laziness of others who write this way, and this entire collection is refreshingly devoid of irony, but even purposeful, earnest writing that employs this sort of post-modernist equivocation will likely always ring false to me.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Book: Horrorstör

Author: Grady Hendrix

Type of Book: Fiction, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not too odd, per se, but it’s horror and it’s the week before Halloween so…

Availability: Published by Quirk Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I can be pretty rough on horror novels. I’m persnickety. I own that. But I also have come to understand that it is bad faith for me to use the same metrics of quality to discuss every genre of book I read. It’s not that I’ve come to expect so little from horror novels that I embrace anything that isn’t overt crap. Rather, I’ve come to understand that you cannot evaluate a cat using the same criteria one uses to evaluate a dog. They’re both pets but they’re still wholly different creatures and a cat would fare poorly if one expected it to herd sheep, guard the house or stay off the top of the refrigerator. I don’t regret the bad reviews – some savage – I’ve given to the horror genre thus far because even evaluating them as cats found them lacking. But I did realize that most horror often has a different goal from that of mainstream literature and I need to keep that goal in mind as I discuss horror novels.

That whole paragraph is a long-winded way of saying that I enjoyed Horrorstör as a fun, at times silly, horror novel. This isn’t Joyce Carol Oates drifting in and out of genre as she engages in her unique brand of literary hypergraphia. It’s not Ray Bradbury. It’s a pleasant diversion with a clever concept and within those parameters this is a good book. Not a great book because pleasant diversions can still demand top-notch characters and fresh plots, but a good book because it’s entertaining – it’s a very quick read – and because sometimes having a clever-enough hook can make a book of this sort worthwhile.

Horrorstör is that book you’ve seen on bookstore shelves, the one that looks like a knock-off of an IKEA catalogue. It’s set in an IKEA-like furniture and house accessories store, called Orsk, and this location of Orsk seems to be stalked by some unspeakable evil that a handful of employees must battle in order to survive a night spent on the sales floor.

Quick synopsis: Amy, the heroine of this book, hates her life and her job at Orsk, but she is behind on rent and takes an overnight shift in order to try to make up the rent shortfall. She, another female employee called Ruth Anne and their boss, Basil, discover two other employees have remained inside the store without permission in an attempt to have a seance and contact the evil in the store, hoping to record the results and possibly land a reality show gig. They soon discover that the store harbors forces far worse than they initially imagined and that the store was built on the location of a former mental hospital run by a madman who has not let death prevent him from engaging in horrific and cruel experiments. Not going to spoil how it ends but it concludes in a manner that could result in a follow-up novel, sort of open-ended but the conflict involving Amy and Basil resolves well-enough to stave off annoyance that elements of the novel were not completely concluded.

The novel itself is visually appealing (with enormous font size, which is one of the reasons most readers will power through the book in a couple of hours) and at the beginning of each chapter there’s an ad for an Orsk product, like chairs, sofas, small clothing wardrobes and the like. The items become more sinister as the book goes on. A later promotion is the “INGALUTT,” which has the following product description:

Submit to the panic, fear, and helplessness of drowning, with the hope of death a distant dream. This elegantly designed INGALUTT hydrotherapy bath allows the user to suffer this stress again and again until the cure is complete. Available in night birch, natural maple, and gray oak.

If you are someone who enjoys this sort of thing, this will be the price of admission for this book. I for one like these sorts of silly ads and they remind me a bit of the clever ads one finds at the backs of Jasper Fforde “Thursday Next” novels. But if this is not something that rings your bell, the rest of the book may fall a bit flat because the visual appeal and scene structure based on the IKEA parody are the backbone for this novel that, while amusing, is rather familiar in concept and execution. 

Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz: A Look at Eleanor

Book: Slaves of New York

Author: Tama Janowitz (can’t find a blog or twitter account she runs)

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not odd, per se, but it is a book very important to me and I just want to discuss it here.

Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:

Disclaimer:  This is the longest piece I’ve ever written for online consumption and I am copping to the fact now that this is a length wholly unsuitable for this format.  This is a very self-indulgent thing for me to do, but I’ve wanted to write about Eleanor for a while.  This is long, but it’s also my love letter to one of my favorite characters in modern literature.  I suspect soon I will be writing a similar entry for Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen, or Fay Weldon’s Esther Wells.  I will understand completely if no one reads this, though I hope you will, and promise that the third installment will be a much more online-friendly length.

Comments: The second part of my three-part discussion of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York is focusing on Eleanor, the ostensible heroine of this themed short story collection. Three characters in this book have resonated with me at different times in my life and I find my changing attitudes towards these characters interesting (and hopefully others will as well). The first installment discussed Cora, a depressive young woman whose relationship with a self-absorbed, obsessive and ultimately very weak man reminded me of myself and the people I attracted as a young woman. My upcoming discussion of Marley will focus on his delusional faith in his own talent and how irritating he was to me when I was young and how refreshing he is to me now. This discussion of Eleanor is going to look at her neuroses, her logical fears, and how she is an excellent representation how it felt to be a very specific young woman in this particular time and place in America.

Eleanor is portrayed in eight short stories. Since I am discussing Eleanor as a whole rather then the individual stories, I’m numbering the stories and will use those numbers in quotes to show which stories the quotes come from.  You will find the numbered list at the end of this discussion.

Here’s a quick summary of Eleanor’s life as told in these stories: Eleanor lives in New York City with her artist boyfriend, Stash. She lives in Stash’s apartment, a one-room, seven-story walk-up, and has little money of her own. She wants to design jewelry but her ideas are not terribly unique at first and the drama of living with Stash makes it very hard for her to concentrate on her work, though she has many excuses to explain her failures. Stash is difficult to live with and is not a good boyfriend, though like Cora’s Ray, one does not hate him. He’s got his good points and bad. He and Eleanor spend a couple of years irritating the hell out of each other, eventually separating. Eleanor begins to slowly become the person she thinks she should be but even at the end she is trying to figure out how to live her life without engaging in relentless self-improvement. But as she has a short-lived rebound relationship and throws a party on a whim, you leave the collection with hope that Eleanor is going to stop spinning her wheels in her attempts to be someone she is not and placating men in an attempt to create stability in her life.

I’m a well-known neurotic and I’ve never really given much thought as to how I’ve turned out this way. I suspect it’s a nervous nature combined with the lasting effects of a less than ideal childhood. It is my neurotic nature that caused me to appreciate Eleanor even when I was a teen and had no real idea what adult life would be like. Eleanor is a character I would like to grab at the shoulders and shake, but she’s largely likeable even in the worst of her neuroses. I find my affinity for Eleanor particularly interesting because I had to grow into the character. I was too young to wholly get her the first time I read her stories. Then I experienced a slice of her life. Then I grew out of her, and can look at her and the person I used to be with fondness tinged with a hint of frustration.

Eleanor is a young woman whose neurosis is an artifact of an interesting time in American life. Eleanor’s story takes place in the early to mid 1980s, a time wherein women found themselves with many choices to make. Second wave feminism had sought to end or equalize various inequalities and one of the end results of that activism was the first generation of young women whose lives didn’t follow a prescribed historical script. Such a time should have been very heady for Eleanor and girls like her (and me). But like so many elements of freedom, the 1970s – 1980s was a time for women that looked better on paper than its actual execution.

With all the choices suddenly available for women, emphasis was made on the choices themselves rather than the need to choose. So many women didn’t choose – they saw the vista open before them and decided to try to do everything and ended up trying to balance all of their choices, creating the 1980s Superwoman caricature, who sought a career, a fulfilling romantic relationship, a couple of kids, a nice home, a bevy of interesting friends, and an array of hobbies. In the course of trying to do it all, women forgot that men, whose choices they wanted access to try on for size, themselves could not do it all. They had wives to handle everything outside of the workplace and some of the women, faced with a life quite different than their mothers’, swallowed a bitter pill of lower pay, household stress, unhappy children and strained marriages. Yet some women still needed to present a perfect face to all who looked upon them, or needed to pretend to themselves that their ideal life was the life they were living.

I understand how that happened. When you suddenly have access, it’s hard to settle on one role. When you fail to decide and try to do it all, knowing all the while that you have societal forces looking down on you, waiting to see you fail, you want to appear as close to perfect as possible. Neurosis is often caused by the chasms between our real and idealized selves and I think that chasm accounts for a lot of Eleanor’s neuroses. Eleanor would have been neurotic no matter what time in history she lived, but living in New York in the late 70s and early 80s didn’t help, what with liberal mores regarding feminist expectations and rents that were beginning to soar and price out struggling artists. The days of Patti Smith living and creating on a shoestring were over but only those at the bottom, like Eleanor, really saw the financial cultural shift. All those shifts created various neuroses that manifest in different ways as Eleanor navigates the world she finds herself in.