Review: “Welcome to Our World?” by Paul Spoonley & Richard Bedford

April 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

**Please note that this review is based on chapters 1-3 and 7-10 of the book; I did not read chapters 4, 5, or 6.**

Welcome to Our World? by Paul Spoonley & Richard Bedford

Spoonley, P. and Bedford, R. (2012). Welcome to Our World? Immigration and the Reshaping of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Dunmore Publishing Ltd. 

Paul Spoonley (Massey University) and Richard Bedford (University of Waikato) are two of New Zealand’s foremost immigration scholars. With Welcome to Our World? Immigration and the Reshaping of New Zealand they have created a comprehensive, useful resource for students and fellow scholars alike to learn about the fundamental aspects of New Zealand’s immigration history and policies. They trace New Zealand’s immigration history from the historic signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which represents the country’s first de-facto immigration policy, to the immigration reform introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to the characteristics of and challenges facing present-day New Zealand immigrants in a sometimes not-so-welcoming host society.

Table of Contents, Welcome to Our World

Spoonley and Bedford’s portrayal of New Zealand is remarkably balanced. They do not fully condemn New Zealand for its problematic “preferred country” (i.e., white) immigration system that persisted until the mid-late 1980s, but instead contextualize New Zealand’s immigration history in relation to its first-world peers — i.e., Canada, Australia, the United States, and Britain. At the same time, they do not let patriotic loyalty or nationalist sentiments preclude them from critically detailing New Zealand’s racist and/or xenophobic treatment of immigrants, from fearmongering surrounding Pacific Island immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, to the public concern over an “Asian invasion” in the mid-1990s, to the ongoing racialised hierarchy that persists in New Zealand, with Pacific Islanders at the bottom, those of Asian descent in the middle, and white immigrants from “preferred” countries (U.S., Britain, South Africa, etc.) at the top.

Appropriately, Spoonley and Bedford discuss New Zealand’s immigration policies as they compare to other English-speaking, first-world nations — namely, the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia. While some might consider it an oversight not to consider the immigration policies of less-similar nations, the fact is that by combining these five countries, Spoonley and Bedford are able to discuss immigration patterns typical of so-called “desirable” immigrant destinations. These immigration flows, which are dominated by “economic migrants” admitted because of their skills and education, are distinguished by unique problems. For example, Spoonley and Bedford describe how the shift from a “preferred country” policy of immigration, which privileged British and other white Europeans from the early 1800s until the mid-1980s, to a points-based system introduced in 1991 that emphasized skills and work experience — and subsequently lead to increasing numbers of Indian, Chinese, and Korean immigrants — revealed racial and xenophobic tendencies among the general population. Although immigrants are generally perceived as having a positive impact on the New Zealand economy, the shift from a largely white/British immigrant population to an increasingly Chinese, Korean, Indian, and other Asian immigrant pool has required New Zealanders to accept that their country is primarily an Asian/South Pacific one, and not a miniaturized “Britain in the south seas.” Furthermore, although New Zealand (and Australia and Canada) admit immigrants based on their potential to positively impact the New Zealand economy, many immigrants from Asian countries face difficulties finding suitable employment at a level commensurate with their skills and experience. This represents one of, if not the, primary policy issue relating to immigration in New Zealand today.

Perhaps counterintuitively, one of the advantages of New Zealand’s historic “preferred country” immigration policy is the absence of a strong sense of patriotism or nationalism. As Spoonley and Bedord explain, because New Zealanders were technically British citizens until 1948, there was no need to convince large numbers of disparate immigrants to adopt a “new” nationality, in sharp contrast to other countries like the United States which has been dominated by a melting pot ideology. Even today, the thresholds to permanent residence and citizenship in New Zealand are low compared to similar countries, and there is not a strong expectation that immigrants should hastily adopt the national norms and pastimes of their new home. Furthermore, New Zealand’s distinctions between citizens and permanent residents are relatively relaxed, with permanent residents having access to state-funded health care and other social benefits, in addition to the right to vote in national elections.

My criticisms of the book, which are few, are more or less identical to those expressed by Jane Yeonjae Lee of the Unitersity of Auckland. In a review published in New Zealand Geographer, she remarked that:

This book provides a comprehensive overview of New Zealand’s immigration history, policy development and impacts, and migration system. However, the book does not move beyond a general overview of various matters of immigration. Hence, it would not be appropriate for someone who is looking for a theoretically engaging book. (p. 80; link to source).

Published in 2012, Welcome to Our World? is especially useful — as are most academic texts — because of its extensive bibliography, which covers just about every aspect related to immigration that New Zealand scholars and academics have pursued. As such, Spoonley and Bedford point out areas in need of further research (e.g., children of immigrants; transnational immigration patterns and circular migration; and examining New Zealand’s immigration inflow and outflow in conjunction with that of Australia, paying special attention to the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement). With Welcome to Our World?, Spoonley and Bedford have accomplished something that is still relatively rare for academic texts: their detailed account of New Zealand’s immigration landscape is both appropriate for (educated) novices as well as scholars with decades of experience in the field. It is critical reading both for those wanting to ensure that their understanding of the literature is sufficiently broad, as well as undergraduates learning about New Zealand’s immigration history and policies for the first time.

Overall rating: 4/5 stars — Ideal both for undergraduate students seeking a general introduction to immigration in New Zealand, as well as graduate students and academics eager for a comprehensive resource containing a semi-specialized overview of pertinent issues and the relevant literature.

P.S. I realize that this review is a somewhat unusual one for my blog, as I usually stick to fictional texts. I’m hoping to study something related to immigration at the graduate level here in New Zealand. When I have a better idea of whether I’ll be able to do that, I’m potentially planning to create a second, separate blog with resources on that subject. But, for now, it’s useful for me to be able to record my impressions of what I’m reading here on Literary Vittles. 

Disturbing Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

February 28, 2015 § 11 Comments

This book has floated on the edge of my awareness for quite some time now. When I spotted a copy in the bargain bin at a used bookshop in Wellington, I thought, why not?

Well, shame on me! I don’t know WHAT compelled me to think I’d get along with a book containing “sisterhood” and “ya-ya” in its title. Where was MY divine intervention, to stop me from making such a grave mistake?

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - cover

Despite the fact that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is, for the most part, quite well-written, I felt dirty while reading it because of the blatant racism, classism, and sexism contained within its pages. I was horrified to learn that it sold a whopping 1.5 million copies in the two years following its publication. Who were those 1.5 million people? Why were they duped into thinking that Ya-Ya was a good novel? I think I have part of an answer, but it’s not a comfortable one.

There’s a long history of white women getting away with saying and writing problematic things. I’ve never read Gone with the Wind, but I’ve heard secondhand about how racist it is. Gone with the Wind is discussed extensively in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and it’s clear that author Rebecca Wells drew inspiration from the classic Southern novel. After all, the four Ya-Yas are essentially modernized Scarlett O’Haras, born 75 years too late to witness the destruction of the South. They still glorify and romanticize the hell out of it, though. Someone, somewhere (I can’t remember who) remarked that books and films like The Help end up being popular precisely because they are written by white women, while more critical (and important!) novels by people of color get shoved out of the market. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was a precocious middle-schooler, and I have to wonder what it was about my educational and societal circumstances that led me to think that was a good idea. At 12, I wasn’t shrewd enough to perceive the racism lurking beneath the abolitionist text, but I have no doubt that if I were to return to it today, I’d feel ashamed of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When I think of all of the wonderful stories that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood probably displaced, it really makes me wonder what kind of stories become popular, and why.

The disturbing elements of the novel are too numerous to name – and far too complex for me to attempt to thoroughly dissect – so in this review I will focus on four main issues: racism as evidenced by the lack of independent black characters, classism as conveyed through the assumption of wealth, willful ignorance regarding mental health, and sexism through the relegation of men to servile, sexual, or absentee roles.


Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - title page

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood begins in 1959 on the Pecan Grove Plantation in Thornton, Louisiana. Siddalee Walker is six years old, and goes mostly unloved by her glamorous, alcoholic mother, Vivi. Vivi’s gaggle of equally-superficial, too-eager-for-a-cocktail friends refer to themselves as the Ya-Yas because of their alleged violations of Southern social codes. They are: tiny Teensy, a Cajun firecracker with a perfect body and a predilection for stripteasing at parties; bohemian Caro, who looks great in clothes thanks to her athletic physique; and mommy-ish Necie, who’s unremarkable apart from her long, beautiful hair. It’s important to note that Necie is the most conventional-looking of the four Ya-Yas, which is directly translated to mean that she also behaves the most conventionally. Physical attributes are directly mapped onto emotional ones, an unwelcome resurgence of the antiquated – not to mention false – concept of physiognomy.

Flash forward to 1993. Sidda is 40, a theater director working in New York. Her relationship with her mother has exploded thanks to an unfortunate feature in the New York Times in which Vivi is referred to as a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Vivi is furious, and refuses to speak to Sidda on the precept that her daughter has ruined her reputation. The problem is, though, that Vivi did abuse her children: she beat them so badly that she had to be institutionalized for a short period of time. Vivi makes it clear, however, that Sidda is the one at fault. Highly distressed, Sidda calls off her upcoming wedding because of the drama with her mother — a decision that, at least to me, makes absolutely no sense. So fractured is her delicate sense of self that Sidda has to retreat to a cabin on Lake Quinault in Washington State which, luckily, a wealthy friend of Sidda’s lets her borrow free of charge. Urged by her Ya-Ya girlfriends to repair the rift between herself and Sidda, Vivi reluctantly mails Sidda her scrapbook entitled “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The bulk of Wells’ novel consists of Sidda rifling through the pages of the scrapbook, remembering pieces of her childhood, and attempting to reconcile her feelings about her mother. These are interspersed with flashbacks to Vivi’s childhood and the formative years of her friendship with the Ya-Yas.

Black stereotypes, Cajun glorification, and Indian appropriation

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Ginger and hot chocolate

The portrait that Rebecca Wells paints of Louisiana and the Southern United States is unwaveringly white. Segregation is mentioned several times, but references to the Civil Rights movement are few – perhaps indicative of the way that many wealthy white Southerners ignored a movement that didn’t really interest them. Black women in particular are depicted as secondary to white interests; when the Ya-Yas take their children to picnic at Spring Creek, black women are mentioned only in passing – i.e., they prepare the picnic baskets.

In her discussion of the film adaptation of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Deborah Barker argues that the ambiguous Southern setting invokes a specific kind of nostalgia for an era in which women were not yet responsible for being aware of racism or feminism:

…many of the films are set not only in the South but also in the past, further distancing the audience not only from the 1970s women’s movement but also from the Civil Rights Movement and justifying the emphasis on white women as the subjects of film, while African-American characters play supporting roles. (93)

Sidda herself, allegedly the less-racist contemporary, claims to love both her “white mother” (Vivi) and her “black mother,” Wiletta. She makes the following grandiose claim about a third of the way into the book.

Wiletta, now almost eighty, still cleaned Vivi and [her husband] Shep’s house. Sidda and Willetta still exchanged letters. Vivi’s jealousy of their affection did not keep Willetta and Sidda from loving each other… Sidda cannot think about her mother without thinking about Willetta. And yet she can barely unravel her relationship with her white mother, let alone her black one. (114)

Despite this observation, the vast majority of Sidda’s reflections involve Vivi and Vivi alone. Sidda is not enamored of or confused by Willetta in the same way that she is by Vivi; Willetta, cast in the stereotypical black mammy role, offers uncomplicated love. Vivi, on the other hand, is permitted to develop a unique personality that necessitates deep reflection to understand.

Apart from Willetta, mentions of black characters are scarce. They are not an integral part of the story, but rather hover on the periphery, where, occasionally, they are called upon for favors by the white protagonists. In 1939, at the age of 13, Vivi demonstrates just how ignorant she is about racism in the following exchange. She is traveling with Caro and Teensy to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the premiere of the film Gone With the Wind. Ginger, Vivi’s black maid, is sent along to chaperone the girls on the train ride to Atlanta.

…then there was another knock on the door. And we all thought it was the conductor again, and so I climbed down and opened the door. It was a colored porter with three glasses of milk on a platter for us. I thanked him and he asked if we wanted our shoes polished. We all said, ‘Yes, thank you.’ And I got our shoes and handed them to him. Then he said in a whisper, ‘Ginger want to know if yall be doing all right. She say run two cars down if you in trouble and she take care of you.’ We were all surprised that he knew Ginger, but Ginger gets around, you know she does. I thanked him, and he said, ‘My name is Mobley if yall need anything.’ And so Mobley has just taken off with our shoes and he better bring them back or we’ll have to go sock-footed to the diner in the morning! (89)

This is the essence of Vivi’s relationship to African-Americans: they are there to be polite, to not ask questions, and to do her bidding when she requires it. From age 13 to age 31, Vivi only grows more racist. After giving birth to her fourth child, Vivi temporarily hires a black nurse, Melinda, and is horrified by the prospect that she will have to care for her own children after Melinda moves on. Despite the fact that she is perfectly willing to let Melinda bathe, clothe, and feed her children, Vivi lacks even an ounce of respect for her.

Melinda had stayed for three months to nurse Baylor and then she left me. She had to. She had another baby to take care of…
The monsters were all asleep for once. It was quiet. I could hear that low hum of the refrigerator. I did not want to beg a colored person to help me, but I couldn’t stop myself.
‘Melinda,’ I said. ‘I am begging you. Please don’t leave me. I cannot take care of these four babies by myself. Please, please do not leave me. I will pay you anything you want. I will make Mr. Shep get you your own car. How about that?’
I thought for a minute I had convinced her, thought for a minute she would stay. After all I had done for her and her family, I thought she might at least stay and help me.
‘Miz Vivi,’ she said, ‘they you children and you gonna have to tend them one of these days.’ (262)

Only the spoiled white woman is allowed to get tired of her kids. Not the black nanny who operates as a surrogate mother and gets paid terrible wages, all the while raising children of her own. 

While African-Americans in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya- Sisterhood are portrayed as servile, stoic, and undesirable, other “exotic” cultures are fetishized. Teensy, the dark-haired Cajun girl and one-fourth of the Ya-Yas, is continuously sexualized because of her perfect, petite body, swarthy skin, and French exclamations. So, too, is Teensy’s mother, Genevieve, idolized by the four Ya-Yas because of her beautiful “otherness.”

Teensy had jet-black hair and eyes that were almost as dark. Barely five feet tall, she had an olive complexion and tiny feet, almost like a child’s… Teensy had a perfect body, and we all knew exactly what it looked like. One of her eccentricities (when the gang really got going, when the bourbon was flowing, when the time seemed right, when she received the call) was to stage an elaborately drawn-out, sexy, and very funny striptease… Teensy always wore the skimpiest swimsuits. The Ya-Yas called her the Bikini Queenie and she was the talk of Garnet parish with her risque little numbers. I always imagined that she received those bikinis in the mail straight from Paris. (38)

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - history of the Ya-Ya tribe

Even more egregious, however, is the pseudo-religion that the Ya-Yas construct for themselves using elements of Native American culture. The girls assume that Native Americans are inherently closer to nature, that by engaging in “Indian” rituals they can bring a flash of uncivilized excitement into their lives. How else to explain the bizarre initiation ceremony that the girls hold in the bayou?

Teensy whips the empty oatmeal boxes out of her paper sack, and we all beat on them. And while we drum, we yell out to the night and the woods and the fire that we are now The Ya-Yas. Then Necie, Mistress of Names, formally gives all of us our Ya-Ya Indian names that we have chosen ourselves. Mine is Queen Dancing Creek. Caro’s is Duchess Soaring Hawk, and Necie’s is Countess Singing Cloud… ‘Everybody ready for ceremonial paint?’ Teensy asks, with one of her bad looks. ‘What?’ we all say. This is not in the program, but the Ya-Ya tribe plays things by ear. Teensy reaches into her sack and pulls out a bunch of Genevieve’s Max Factor of Hollywood tubes and pots of color, and pencils and lipsticks… We take turns drawing on each other until we could pass for full-blooded Injuns. (71-72)

It is worth mentioning that the girls are eleven when this scene takes place. Less problematic, perhaps, than the idea of four young girls unwittingly engaging in cultural appropriation is the fact that adult author Rebecca Wells thought this was an inspiring and unforgettable way to convey a close friendship. Bits of Indo-Cajun-religious lore are sprinkled throughout the novel, from frequent invocations on Sidda’s behalf to the Holy Lady in the moon, to ritual lightings of Virgin Mary candles, to contemplations about how walnuts are “food and seed at once.” These pseudo-religious, mother-earth-praising interjections only serve to further romanticize the “natural” South and emphasize the oft-disproven notion that women are inherently more in tune with their emotions. 

Classism: Assumptions of wealth

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Vivi and jewels

Make no mistake: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is all about wealth, and how said wealth allows you to ignore the unpleasant things in life. Everyone with a significant role in the novel is wealthy. Sidda is raised on Pecan Grove, a plantation with a whopping 900 acres. Teensy inherited her money in the form of Coca-Cola shares. So, too, are Necie and Caro well-off, though the source of their wealth is not explicitly stated. Sidda is wealthy; her Yale-educated fiance is wealthy; her theater director friend May Sorensen is wealthy (and oh-so-handily owns that cabin on Lake Quinault). It gets exhausting, to be honest. And cloying. Interactions with the less-well-off are not only scarce, but actively scorned. When Vivi and her friends make that infamous trip to Atlanta to attend the Gone With the Wind premiere, they are forced to observe poor people.

There were thousands of people lined up in a little park in front of the auditorium. Uncle James said they were the people who didn’t have tickets, and that they should have stayed away like Mayor Hartsfield requested. But they were standing out there in the cold, looking like the folks who live at Ollie Trott’s Trailer Paradise at home, with bad teeth and all. When the police gave them orders to move back, they did. We just walked right by them, Necie. Aunt Louise tried to make us hurry, but we all had trouble walking in those hoop skirts. (97)

It’s one thing to write a novel about the South in which you discuss race-based inequalities with a critical edge. It’s quite another to write a contemporary book set in Louisiana that makes the whole place seem like an Angel Food Cake, all fluff and prettiness and prosperity and laughter and friends and fun. It’s Southern romanticism, and it’s a dangerous thing.

Moreover, no description of the Ya-Yas is complete without a commentary on their wealth and appearance. Their physical and material beauty lends them credibility – after all, what’s so exciting about a group of four poor female friends?

To say that Sidda was startled by the sight of the three Ya-Yas pulling into the drive of the Quinault Lodge in a teal-colored Chrysler LeBaron convertible would be an understatement… All three women wore sunglasses… Teensy wore a pair of black linen slacks with a crisp white linen blouse. On her feet she wore a pair of little Robert Clergerie sandals, which probably cost more than her airfare from Louisiana. Necie was clad in a light-blue-and-white-striped skirt and blouse, looking very Talbot’s. Caro wore khakis and a white shirt – she could have been in a Gap ad. The backseat of the convertible was loaded with the kind of luggage that one does not normally see at park lodges in the Western United States. It was the kind of luggage one associates with Southern women of a certain era who believe that it is their duty to make sure that doormen and porters make a good living, and that it is impossible to arrive in a new place without a pair of shoes to match every possible change of clothes. (282-283)

In other words, the Ya-Yas are high maintenance, and painstakingly so. More problematic is that their materialism is a source of praise, a source of whimsy; the commentary about their clothing and luggage stems from the kind of reasoning that glorifies shopping dates and other excursions in which large sums of money are spent by all participants. Isn’t capitalism just a hoot?

Mental health:
The victimization of ViviDivine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Vivi drops her basket

Let’s tally Vivi’s sins: She’s vain, selfish, racist and rude, and on top of all of that, she’s close-lipped about her mental health issues. It is established within the first few pages of the novel that Vivi had a mental breakdown and beat her children viciously, yet clarity on this point is never truly achieved. Thirty years after being beaten by her mother with the metal end of a belt, Sidda receives something like closure from Caro, since Vivi is too proud and ashamed to talk about the episode herself. Apparently, Vivi got a prescription for Dexamyl, then went on a 4-day Catholic retreat. When she returned, she decided the devil had invaded her kids, and that the only way to get rid of Satan was to whip him out. After a three-month stint in the mental hospital, Vivi returns, still shaken, and completely refuses to talk about the episode. In fact, she never discusses it with her children at all. She only refers to it as a euphemism: “I dropped my basket.”

There is never any suggestion that Vivi should own up to her mistakes. Indeed, Rebecca Wells goes out of her way to paint Vivi as a character deserving of sympathy. First, there is the fact that Vivi’s father also punished her with a belt, which left ugly marks on her beautiful true-blonde skin. Then there is Vivi’s mother, a strict, religious woman whose devotion to Catholicism allows her to criminalize her daughter. The reason that Vivi is so fragile, we are to understand, is twofold: First, her true love, Jack Whitman, died when she was 16, and she never recovered. Second, Vivi’s mother sent her to Catholic boarding school for half a semester, where poor Vivi, surrounded by ugliness, severity, and oversalted food, starves herself and ends up in the hospital ward. Physiognomy rears its head again in a letter addressed from Vivi to Caro:

Dear Caro, Every single girl at this school is ugly. I do not mean plain, I do not mean homely. I mean ugly. This is one of those schools where there are two types of girls: (1) the daughters of Catholic nuts; and (2) bad girls who they want to punish. I guess I fit in both categories. They’re all ugly and they stink. The whole joint reeks like sauerkraut and old men’s socks…

My room here is not a room. It’s not even a cubby-hole. It’s a pen, a hole, a cell… I asked the nun who brought me here where my closet was. She said,’ You have no closet.’

‘I need to hang my dresses,’ I said. (210-11)

Are the girls at the school ugly because they are unhappy, or are they unhappy because they are ugly? Poor Vivi, with nowhere to hang her party dresses! The most ridiculous thing about this overwrought scenario is that Rebecca Wells seems to expect that her readers will feel sympathy for Vivi. Well, I suppose a few million did. Wells obviously has her issues with the Catholic Church, and to be honest, many people do. But the way in which she condemns the religion is overdramatic and simplistic at best.

Sidda must constantly be on guard when speaking and interacting with her mother. As a result, their conversations are necessarily stifled, full of one-sided praise.

Afraid to say the wrong thing, Sidda said nothing. She shelled the crayfish and ate. ‘This is delicious.’ 

‘Thank God Louisiana men know how to cook,’ Vivi said.

‘Not as sophisticated in its flavoring as your etouffee, of course’ [Sidda replied].

‘Necie made sure you had some?’ Vivi asked.

‘I had forgotten food could taste like that,’ Sidda said.

‘You really thought it was good?’

‘Good?! Mama, the etouffee you sent up with the Ya-Yas would have made Paul Prudhomme weep over his cast-iron skillet. That man is a short-order cook compared to you.’

‘Well, thank you. I am known for that dish, if you recall.’ (344)

Vivi’s pride gets in the way of her being a capable, loving mother, but her glaring personal defects are supposedly forgivable because of her snarky and vivacious personality. Unfortunately, throwing regular temper tantrums does not a compelling personality make. Referring again to the episode in which Vivi begs a black maid to take responsibility for her children, Vivi subsequently takes off on a four-day jaunt to the Gulf of Mexico dressed in nothing but a cashmere Givenchy coat. She drinks, sleeps, and drinks some more, having left her children – and the caretaker – with zero explanation. Vivi argues that she was not destined to be a housewife, that she was instead meant to be glamorous and famous, and that it is unnatural to expect her to change diapers and warm up bottles of milk. It’s not that Vivi didn’t want children; she did, but is displeased with the reality and the responsibility. Eventually, she convinces herself to return home, but not without “tucking away” a piece of herself first.

I was thirty-one years old. I was still alive. I would take chunks of myself and store them in a root cellar. I would take them out when my children were grown. (281)

As though motherhood is nothing but unmitigated misery. It’s the height of selfishness to describe it that way. Nonetheless, Rebecca Wells is determined to furnish a happy ending, where Sidda weds Connor in a field full of sunflowers wearing her mother’s wedding dress. As Deborah Barker argues, “The happy ending depicts mother and daughter coming together on the porch swing in a scene that is the ultimate validation of the abused child” (110). And, as I would argue, the ultimate validation of child abuse. 

Sexism & Superficiality

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Connor McGill

In terms of its depictions of men, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is about as progressive as Desperate Housewives. The men in the book, who are very rarely mentioned, fit into stereotypical categories. First, there are the absentee fathers and husbands, who never speak to their wives, let alone help them with chores. Chick, Teensy’s husband, is the glorified exception. Because he worships Teensy’s Cajun heritage – which, as we have already discussed, is a form of racist fetichism – cooks all of the meals, and caters to her every whim, he gets a pass from Rebecca Wells.

A small wiry man of around seventy stepped toward the car. He was wearing a plaid bow tie and a finely tailored shirt, looking a little like a cross between an aging horse jockey and Mr. Peepers.

‘You must be Connor,’ Chick said, giving him a kiss on the cheek in the European fashion. ‘I’m La Teensy’s lesser half.’

‘You darling man,’ [Sidda] said to him, smiling. ‘Where is Teensy? Where are all the Ya-Yas?’

‘La Teens needed her beauty rest,’ Chick said… ‘Sidda, please don’t snitch and tell your amoureaux that I’m a faux Cajun. I can’t help it if I only married into majesty.’ (339)

Husbands are only suitable if they behave as though their wives are royalty. It’s a fantasy, nothing more, nothing less, and certainly isn’t an argument in favor of gender equality. Sidda’s father, Shep, is so glaringly absent from her childhood narrative that even her fiance, Connor, comments on it.

‘I don’t hear much about your dad,’ Connor said, reaching for his cup of latte. ‘He must be a brave man.’

‘What do you mean?’ [Sidda asked].

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘marrying a woman as strong as your mother. Finessing his own way through that band of women. What’s the French word for sisterhood? Communaute de soeurs.’

Sidda helped herself to a slice of cantaloupe. She thought of how much she’d missed her father. ‘He was never around much. I’ve been so obsessed with my mother I guess I haven’t paid much attention to Daddy.’ (329)

In Rebecca Wells’ world, only the (white) women are permitted to be emotionally complex. The men are side acts, ideally there to glorify their wives, to work and provide the cash for the women to spend, no questions asked. Because they could not possibly comprehend (or participate in) the deep, natural connection shared between mothers and daughters, they are completely cut out of the narrative.

The second role that men fulfill in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is sex objects. Connor, Sidda’s fiance, is consistently described in physical terms, and Sidda is repeatedly congratulated for ensnaring such a handsome man. Though he supports her emotionally, it is Connor’s sexual prowess that is perhaps even more important. We are told, again and again, just how well he is able to satisfy her.

[Sidda]’d had two long-term relationships, but it was not until Connor that she felt fully met and deliciously cherished. After they made love that day, they lay naked next to each other, their skin warm and flushed. Sidda sank down into the wide flannel embrace of their bodies, and she rested. For a moment she died a good little death, they died it together. And then her eyes began to fill with tears…When she stopped crying, he kissed her eyelids. Then he asked her to marry him. (22)

Perpetuating this type of fantasy scenario is unhealthy. It’s the prince charming complex dressed up in supposedly progressive terms. A woman can be highly intelligent with a successful career, but none of that really means anything until she finds a preferably attractive man who can satisfy her sexually, and, moreover, who wants to marry her. It’s written like a cheap romance novel by someone who constantly dreams of sexual satisfaction, but finds it in short supply. 

Not to be outdone, the women in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are also granted legitimacy based on their physical appearance. When Vivi returns from the mental hospital, 10-year-old Sidda is upset not because her mother sleeps all day and barely talks, but because Vivi has allowed her nail polish to chip — a grooming oversight that would normally never be permitted. As the novel progresses and Sidda moves closer and closer to forgiving her mother, so, too, do the physical descriptions of Sidda proliferate. It turns out that she is red-headed with long, luscious eyelashes and a tiny, sexy, petite body. When she finally returns to Louisiana, nobody bothers asking Sidda about her directing career; instead, they are preoccupied with her favorable appearance. 

‘You look good, mother. Really good.’

‘You look terrific,’ Vivi said. ‘I think you’ve lost weight.’

Sidda smiled. Her mother’s highest compliment.’ (344)

Ah, there’s nothing like a trip back home to Alabama to remind me that my university GPA doesn’t matter; it’s all about the hair, the makeup, the clothes, and most importantly, the figure. It calls to mind a disturbing article that I read in The New Yorker recently, in which the daughter of a model recalls the various warped ways that strangers commented on her mother’s beauty. This passage in particular struck me, because I realized that Rebecca Wells was doing the same thing in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

One day, my mom and I were having lunch with our good friend, the Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, whom I’d known since I was born. When my mom left the table for a few minutes to use the restroom, Dorothea said to me, out of the blue, ‘Do you think the reason you’ve loved your mother so much is that she’s so beautiful?’

I was a bit stunned and depressed by this question. The answer was no, definitely not. And yet, once posed, that question troubled me, and made me wonder if, on a subconscious level, my great love for my mother might have been partly caused by her beauty. I hoped not — and I very much doubted it. (source)

Unlike the insightful author of The New Yorker piece, Vivi and Sidda trade off memorializing each other through observations about physical appearance. Vivi, for example, claims that part of the reason she loves her children is because they are beautiful. 

My children were perfect, each one of them more gorgeous than I could have ever imagined. I thank God for not giving me an ugly child. It’s so much easier to love them when they’re beautiful. I made good babies. (269)

Not to be outdone, Sidda hesitates to condemn her mother partly because she is transfixed by her anachronistic beauty. She describes her mother’s body, hair, and porcelain skin several times throughout the book, effectively mythologizing her. 

In those days I knew Mama’s body down to the shape of her toes, her toenails covered in her trademark “Rich Girl Red” polish. Her blonde complexion with tiny cinnamon freckles on her upper arms, on her cheeks… She stood about five feet four inches tall in her bare feet and never weighed more than 115 pounds… She was not like the kind of mother I saw in books and movies. Except for her breasts, which were surprisingly full for her frame, she was not plump or round in any way. (41)

It’s a sickening way for parents and children to interact. Emphasizing the importance of attractiveness often comes at the expense of other, arguably much more important, qualities. One justifiably wonders if Vivi might have grown up to be less superficial, less spoiled, and less inclined to beat her children if she had been expected to become anything more than pleasant to look at. 


If Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has any redeeming qualities, one of them is that it’s not terribly written, at least not always. It’s a shame, in a way, because Rebecca Wells might have been able to produce something worth reading had she been able to overcome the shortcomings of the society in which she was raised. The novel is also somewhat useful in promoting the idea that beauty is not evil, that desiring and seeking out beauty is not, in of itself, a sinful act. Unfortunately, most of the progress the novel makes in that direction is undermined by its superficiality and obsession with female and male appearances alike.

On the whole, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood romanticizes the South and celebrates many of the things that contribute to its backwardness: the division of wealth along racial lines, the enforcement of rigid gender roles, and the tendency to shove unpleasantries like mental illness under the rug. Its appeal is clear: it offers readers the opportunity to indulge in ahistoricized tranquility, where money, feminism, and racism aren’t real concerns. It’s demeaning and demoralizing, and nobody should read or watch an inch of it.

At least I’m not the only one who reacted this way to the Ya-Yas. This fantastic review by a cynical male moviegoer made me laugh heartily.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is for women who spend their lives looking for surrogates for significance from the Franklin Mint. They’re ladies who think empowerment comes from Oprah Magazine, Beanie Baby collections and soft, fat, harmless men with accents who can cook. They think a shirtless Fabio is sex, and that actual screwing is too messy and smells funny. They don’t allow unhappiness into their lives because there’s no room left in their curio cabinets. They try to believe in words like “closure” and “nurturing” and that the diet in the latest Good Housekeeping really will change their lives if it helps keep reality at arm’s length. (source)

I couldn’t agree more.

Overall rating: 1.5/5 stars

Works referenced:

Deborah Barker, “The Southern-fried chick flick: postfeminism goes to the movies.” In Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. Edited by Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Persistent URL

Amanda Filipacchi. “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given.” The New Yorker, 12 December 2014. Persistent URL

Randy Shandis. “Divine Secrets of the Blah Blah Blah Blah.” The Filthy Critic. Persistent URL

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Worth Reading

February 21, 2015 § 12 Comments

It’s been a while since I read a book that I really, truly enjoyed. Angela’s Ashes, by Irish-American writer Frank McCourt, was considered an outstanding example of its genre immediately upon publication. Indeed, it was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996, a fact that makes me wonder if I ought to read more books that have won that particular award (my infatuation with the Man Booker Prize ended after reading Julian Barnes’ disappointing The Sense of an Ending). After all, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of my favorite novels of all time; I’ve heard nothing but good things about Interpreter of Maladies; and my sister adored A Visit from the Goon Squad.

But enough about all that. Let’s return to Frank McCourt, shall we?

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

It is 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. Recent Irish immigrants Angela and Malachy McCourt have just been joined in holy Catholic matrimony in a shotgun wedding. Frank McCourt, narrator of said memoir, is born a few months afterward, followed rapidly by his brother Malachy, twins Oliver and Eugene, and, a bit later, his sister, Margaret. They lead the typical lives of impoverished first-generation immigrants; Angela is overwhelmed with pregnancies and births, while Malachy, Frank’s father, is more concerned with drinking whiskey than with finding steady work. The family routinely has very little to eat, but at least they have a dry apartment, a relatively clean lavatory, and helpful and concerned neighbors.

The family’s fortune takes a turn for the worse when Margaret, beloved curly-haired little sister, dies only seven weeks after she is born. Angela falls into a severe bout of depression, and Frank, now age four, tries to care for his three younger brothers as best he can. Eventually, realizing that Angela isn’t going to get any better without a change in scenery, some relatives of the family write to Angela’s mother in Limerick, Ireland asking her to send money for the trans-Atlantic fare. She does, and the McCourt family, bedraggled but optimistic, commences the journey back to Ireland.

As Frank McCourt notes on the very first page of his book, “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone” (1). As bad as things were for the McCourt family in Brooklyn, they quickly devolve into unmitigated misery back in Limerick, seemingly the status quo for the poor in Ireland. Because of his Northern Ireland accent, Frank’s father, Malachy, cannot get work either in Dublin or in Limerick, and is forced to go on the dole — which is less than 1 pound per week. The damp, chilly weather and worsening living conditions cause Angela to have a miscarriage soon after they arrive, and lead to the deaths of the twins, Oliver and Eugene, in quick succession. Running an infant mortality rate of 80% (including the miscarriage), Angela moves her family into a flat on Roden Lane — an address made famous through the publication of Angela’s Ashes and the squalid descriptions therein.

Certainly, Angela’s Ashes describes poverty-induced misery in occasionally gruesome detail, but it’s far from a miserable book. It’s lighthearted rather than plodding, thanks to Frank McCourt’s ingenious tragicomical narration style. It’s extraordinarily well-written, and deftly so; it retains a forward sense of movement and contains very little repetition, a veritable feat among memoirs. Overall, it is eminently readable.

Angela's Ashes - p. 116 - "The stick will sting, boys."

Occasionally, I’d break out into laughter while reading the book. Frank is enrolled in Catholic boys’ school, which is about as progressive as you’d expect. The instructors at the school are quick with the lash and embody the old mantra, “spare the rod, spoil the child.” They’re equally concerned with history, politics, writing, and the damn English as they are with their students’ souls and ability to recite the catechism. First Communion is an enormous event, and all of the boys at Frank’s school spend weeks preparing (those passages brought back memories of my own First Communion, which was just as bizarre, if not as serious, as Frank’s). In one of my favorite passages from the book, Frank recounts his first confession:

I try to listen to Willie’s confession when he goes in but all I can hear is a hissing from the priest and when Willie comes out he’s crying.
It’s my turn. The confession box is dark and there’s a big crucifix hanging over my head…
The panel slides back before my face and the priest says, Yes, my child?
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my First Confession.
Yes, my child, and what sins have you committed?
I told a lie. I hit my brother. I took a penny from my mother’s purse. I said a curse.
Yes, my child. Anything else?
I, I listened to a story about [mythological Irish hero] Cuchulain and [his wife] Emer.
Surely that’s not a sin, my child. After all we are assured by certain writers that Cuchulain turned Catholic in his last moments as did his King, Conor MacNessa.
‘Tis about Emer, Father, and how she married him.
How was that, my child?
She won him in a pissing contest.
There is heavy breathing. The priest has his hand over his mouth and he’s making choking sounds and talking to himself, Mother o’ God.
Who, who told you that story, my child?
Mikey Molloy, Father.
And where did he hear it?
He read it in a book, Father.
Ah, a book. Books can be dangerous for children, my child. Turn your mind from those silly stories and think of the lives of the saints. Think of St. Joseph, the Little Flower, the sweet and gentle St. Francis of Assisi, who loves the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields. Will you do that, my child?
I will, Father.
Are there any other sins, my child?
No, Father.
For your penance say three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, and say a special prayer for me.
I will. Father, what was the worst sin?
What do you mean?
Am I the worst of all the boys, Father?
No, my child, you have a long way to go. (141)

One of the reasons I love this passage so much is that the humor is conveyed through several levels. There’s Frank, the kid, saying weird stuff to the priest. There’s the priest himself, full of platitudes and all of the stereotypical Catholic warnings. There’s the absurdity of the old-fashioned, and mostly meaningless, ritual that both are forced to enact. And then there’s Frank McCourt, the writer, remembering the scene decades later in amusing detail. It’s extremely difficult for an adult writer to remain faithful to his or her childhood emotions, but McCourt is a master at simultaneously conveying child naiveté and adult cognition, and does so consistently throughout the book.

Of course, as McCourt warns on the first page, Angela’s Ashes is terrifyingly sad at times. Frank has a fractured relationship with his father, Malachy, who drinks the dole money more often than not. Malachy has a talent for writing and for telling stories, but has never had an opportunity to utilize those skills. Frank seems to suggest that his father drinks partly because he fully comprehends the misery of their situation, and realizes that reducing said misery is impossible. As such, most of the scenes with Malachy contain part sadness, part anger; it’s clear that Frank wants to love his father, but he has a hard time forgiving a man who will drink half a dozen pints at the bar knowing his wife and children will starve.

I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O’Connell’s shop but I don’t want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I’m up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won’t wake up the rest of the family. Mikey Molloy stole Cuchulain, the Angel on the Seventh Step is gone someplace else, but my father in the morning is still mine. (237)

Eventually, when WWII commences and the German Blitzkrieg means that London is being bombed day in, day out, the English government starts recruiting Irish men to work in the factories. Despite their long-seated hatred of the English, many of the poorest residents of Limerick flock to London, the promise of bread, jam, electricity, and dignity strong enough for them to swallow their collective grievances. After much persuasion, Frank’s father decides to go as well. Instead of sending home money like the responsible fathers, though, Malachy squanders his paychecks on alcohol. He comes back once when Angela becomes gravely ill, and again for a horrifyingly depressing trip over Christmas. Functionally, though, he is entirely absent from Frank’s life, and with no income (or even the dole) to live on, Angela and her children are evicted.

I could go on, but, really, you ought to just read the book. It’s wonderful and haunting to hear Frank describe how he fell in love with Shakespeare and literature during a three-month stint in the hospital for typhoid fever. It’s hilarious and disturbing to read about Frank’s pubescent body, the guilt and gratification he experiences while committing masturbatory sins. It’s impossible to imagine how terrible Angela must have looked after cigarettes caused her teeth to rot and fall out, how bad the unwashed boys must have smelled, how thin and raggedy the entire family must have been. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while, and, for once, the lack of quotation marks doesn’t irritate me. If you’re as skilled of a writer as Frank McCourt, then quotation marks are optional.

I finished the 426-page book in a matter of days, a pace that is becoming increasingly unusual for me, and it commanded my full attention the entire time. Any lingering doubts I have about the book are mostly borne out of the usual gripes that memoirs have to face: How much of it was true? How much of it was exaggeration? Could Frank McCourt possibly be as hilarious and brilliant and humble and wonderful as he came across in his book?

To be honest, I’m not too fussed about the book’s veracity, as personal memories always find ways to warp themselves. It seems like people go out of their way to “disprove” the contents of famous memoirs, and frankly, I’m not interested in that kind of witch hunt. I wasn’t surprised to hear that it outraged some of the residents of Limerick, though. People generally don’t like it when their hometowns are the subjects of seriously negative depictions. For all of its miserable descriptions and sympathy-inducing title, Angela’s Ashes doesn’t read like a condemnation of Limerick. As Nina King observed in her review for The Washington Post,

Angela’s Ashes confirms the worst old stereotypes about the Irish, portraying them as drunken, sentimental, bigoted, bloody-minded dreamers, repressed sexually and oppressed politically, nursing ancient grievances while their children (their far-too-many children) go hungry. It confirms the stereotypes at the same time that it transcends them through the sharpness and precision of McCourt’s observation and the wit and beauty of his prose. (source)

That wit, after all, had to come from somewhere, and McCourt’s unique mixture of irreverence, earnestness, and humor makes me want to explore Limerick myself. Even the most outraged readers could still agree on one thing: the book is beautifully written.

Overall rating: 5/5 stars

P.S. Want to read more about Frank McCourt? Here’s a fascinating interview he gave about the public education system in the United States. His obituary in The New York Times is worth reading as well, and makes me wish I could have taken a writing class with McCourt when he was still a teacher at the Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Photos by G. 

Review: ‘The End of the City’ by David Bendernagel

February 11, 2015 § 10 Comments

I’ve put off writing this review for a couple of weeks now. Normally I’d preface it with the usual disclaimer, e.g., “I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review,” but I’m starting to wonder if anyone can truly maintain impartiality when they’re given free books/clothes/services/etc. I mean, for goodness sake, I communicated with the author directly via email! It seems unnecessarily cruel and vindictive to write a damning review of the book, even if that’s what it deserves. It puts me in an awkward situation, and I generally try to avoid those. So, from this point forward, I don’t plan on accepting any more free books in exchange for reviews, because I prefer that my book-bashing be guilt free.

But I feel obligated to write a review of The End of the City. And, who knows, maybe a negative review will be useful to the author in the long run.

The End of the City - front cover

photo courtesy of author

Based on the title, the front cover, and the brief descriptions I read of the book, I half expected David Bendernagel’s The End of the City to have a post-apocalyptic setting. It does not. But the writing style is so opaque that it took several chapters before I could discern that the book was, in fact, set in a contemporary Washington D.C. suburb.

Tip #1: It is generally useful to let your readers know the setting of your story as quickly as possible. Unless, of course, you’re doing something wickedly creative or intentionally disrupting the reader’s expectations, such as in absurdist fiction. Unfortunately, neither is the case with The End of the City, whose opening paragraphs read as follows:

“In the beginning, there is nothing.
In the end, the same.
This is a place. It is in the middle, and that’s all.
A place called Reston. That’s the slogan. It’s printed on the phone book. Check it out. Watch as the cover changes — last year’s photo of Lake Anne by night, lantern light reflected as scribbles in the dark water, is replaced by this year’s photo of Barton Hill with its birch tree spine scrubbed of its yellow leaf cover by winter wind…
2001: the phone book that changed everything (and nothing).*

*Please note that I read the Kindle edition, so unfortunately I don’t have page numbers for the quotes.

There’s a lot more about the phone book, along with some random interjections that make no sense because zero context has been offered regarding the story. Eventually, a date is offered: September 2002. The faux Catcher in the Rye narrator is faux drunk at kickoff party for senior year of high school. Ben Moor is captain of the cross country team and something of an athletic prodigy. He also lost his father the year prior, sometime around September 2001, and is struggling to recover despite the fact that he and his father didn’t have the closest relationship. He has a younger brother, Bobby (nicknamed Bobby Jihad for no apparent reason), and a mostly out-of-the-picture mother who, we are to understand, doesn’t do or say much of anything because she’s depressed.

Ben is allegedly drinking spiked ginger ale at the party. He sees a cute girl across the room, Kitty, and proceeds to stumble down the front stairs, then fall into the bushes and contemplate his lot. The strange stream-of-consciousness narration style, coupled with a constant hodgepodge of obscure and well-known science fiction and pop culture references, lends the text a jolting, spasmodic tone. It’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on, who’s being discussed, how quickly time is passing, and whether Ben is lying about certain elements of his life. It’s frustrating, to say the least, and for seemingly no reason.

Remember how I said Ben fell down the stairs because he got drunk at the party? Well, this is how that brief episode is recounted:

Know this: I am going to stumble down these stairs. It’s been written. Bobby Jihad slices another lime. The wedge fits back but can’t go back. This party, meanwhile, is dead and doesn’t know it yet. I land on the ground, in a thicket of prickly green cables and berry clusters, on my back with  my face to the stars. My skull hurts. My ribs hurt. My crooked-out hand opens, and the bottle rolls away. I’m banged up in multiple ways, and the season hasn’t even begun. Hurt from the get-go. Hurt in the future. These pains happen in sequence and all at once. It’s string theory.
The universe begins with an explosion. It ends with an implosion.
A heart valve bursts. A collision crushes a black sports car.
Jet fuel goes up. Two towers collapse.
A dream is assessed and found to be without value. It must be woken up from. Abandoned. Or destroyed.

I should have stopped there, when I was 3% of the way through the book. But I persisted, thinking that, surely, it would start to make sense at some point. Maybe when Ben sobered up, so, too, would the book.

And then I started chapter two.


It turns out that Ben is one of two people narrating parallel story lines. In 2002, Ben runs cross country and muses about death and nihilism and pop culture and describes every single thing that happens to cross his mind. In 2011, an unnamed assassin shoots someone called Bando and then feels guilty about it. As I wrote in my notes, Who is Bando? Why was he shot? Who is the narrator who shot him? Is he a bad cop? He’s not a cop? Who is Jenner? Why is the narrator, who apparently killed Bando, riding in the car with Jenner? What is going on?!

The perspective shifts in each chapter, alternating between 2002 (Ben) and 2011 (assassin). The two story lines are not integrated, not in the least.  But, occasionally, there are bizarre overlaps between the world of Ben Moor and the bleak landscapes that the unnamed assassin inhabits. For example, Ben is learning German in high school. Suddenly and inexplicably, the assassin starts to express a handful of his thoughts in German. Back at that party in 2002, Ben was mesmerized by the way Kitty lit a match using the zipper on her jacket. Then, in 2011, the assassin makes a random reference to the way Kitty struck the match — What in the hell is going on?! Ben owns an ill-fitting suit from Men’s Warehouse. The assassin does, too. The assassin apparently survived a catastrophic car wreck. Ben’s father died in a car wreck. Wait a minute.

I tried to organize my thoughts and compiled a list of possibilities:

1. Is the assassin an imaginary, alternative version of Ben’s dad?

2. Is Ben the assassin, 9 years later?

3. Is Ben imagining the assassin? Is the assassin a tool for Ben to work out his grief?

4. Is the assassin an imaginary version of Ben? Does Ben wish he could be an assassin, powerful and swift, seemingly without a care in the world?

5. Is the assassin real? Is he Ben’s father? Did Ben’s father survive the crash, and then become an assassin?

6. Does the assassin know that he’s Ben’s father? Was he too ashamed to go back to his family? Or does he have amnesia? Has he forgotten his former life?

7. Did Ben’s father have connections to the mafia? Was the assassin riding with him in the car when it crashed? Did the assassin survive, even though he wasn’t supposed to?

8. Is the assassin a completely unrelated entity? Are the two stories genuinely parallel? Do they happen to offer the same lesson, communicated by two different narrators?

9. Is this a time-travel novel? How does the assassin know random things about Ben’s life, and vice versa?

I considered each of these possibilities multiple times while reading the novel. The thing is, I am still not sure which of these scenarios, if any, the book was trying to convey. I got to 50%, thought, ok, surely by the time I reach 60% I’ll know what’s going on. I reached 60%; nothing. 70%; nothing. At 75%, something like an explanation was offered.

This is what happened.

Two nights after his father’s funeral, Ben sits alone, in the dark, in a chair in the living room. Suddenly, Ben hears something hit the window. He goes to investigate and discovers that a bright red cardinal killed itself by hitting the glass. The bird sparks an epiphany of sorts, and Ben “invents” the assassin.

…there was something out there. Someone I couldn’t make out but recognized regardless. He did not emerge from the darkness. He did not speak, but I could hear him all the same… He had seen all that I had seen but from different angles. He was there when my father’s body was placed in the white marble tomb. He had seen my mother cry, seen my brother sit down next to her and place his hand over hers. It seemed to me then that he had been there through all of it, that each minute of my life we had only missed one another by seconds, like young Kent and the Man of Steel, always together and forever separate. He knew of God sending small birds to their deaths through darkness… He knew death like I now knew death… This energy in the darkness — this  madman — he was my life’s secret witness. I imagined the bird’s pulse fading away, his energy spreading through the glass that had repelled him. I closed my hands into fists, for I discovered what would be the subject of a thousand subsequent dreams, an antihero, an alter ego, the assassin.

But this doesn’t resolve my questions. Ben calls the assassin an alter ego, but is he the alter ego of Ben, or of Ben’s father? Furthermore, I still want to know about the ginger ale. Why are both Ben and the assassin constantly chugging ginger ale? Is it ginger ale? What alcoholic drinks are made with ginger ale? Let’s see. You can combine vodka, ginger beer, and lime to make a weird version of a Moscow Mule. Is is a euphemism for Ciroc, which the assassin buys at one point? Or, despite the fact that both narrators keep insisting they are drunk, are they really just drinking non-alcholic ginger ale? And if so, why?

But I’m forgetting Iraq, of course, and 9/11, which are also part of the story, and also not part of the story.

9/11 interjections - The End of the City

Ben and his brother are obsessed with 9/11. Bobby records news footage of the Twin Towers falling down and watches it over and over. Ben casually mentions 9/11, the Iraq War, and his father as though they are related.

I’m Ben Moor,
Looking at a mountain of the same name,
Pushed into its present form by eons [sic] old subterranean activity,
Magma escaping the mouths of ancient volcanoes,
Lava once molten now frozen like carbonite,
A reminder of cosmic matter coalesced, unsolvable mysteries
I can’t settle on a reading of the wreck,
My dad’s or everyone else’s.
That’s why we watch the towers collapse again.
And again.

Then, several chapters into the book, it is revealed that Ben’s father did not, in fact, die during the attacks — either in New York or in Washington D.C. — but had a heart attack while driving on the freeway that lead to a car crash. His association with 9/11 is tangential at best. Ben’s father was a lawyer working with a company whose office was destroyed when the Twin Towers fell, but he died some time after 9/11, while driving back from a meeting in New York City. Confused? The way the book is written, though, you would think that Ben blames the terrorists for his father’s death.

Near the end of the book, and shortly after Ben’s red cardinal revelation, the assassin visits Ground Zero in New York — even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the story — and attempts to extract several crucial life lessons from his visit.

I’m at Ground Zero.
New York, New York.
Multiple square blocks brushed like a blank slate.
Concrete the color of bone powder.
Emptiness fraught with unrealized intentions:
Firemen going to save brothers left behind, lost
When the building folded like an accordion.
Nurses trying to revive people without discernible pulses,
Signs of life:
Civilians running and running
And failing to outrun a column of ash,
Asbestos, paper records of secured transactions reduced to confetti, the air full of bits,
Like a television signal that will never be collected into any home’s set.
Forms buckle, become pixels
Falling and flying in multiple directions, jamming individuals’ attempts
To locate themselves in space.
Is the center of a city?
An end?

I do not object to books that attempt to explore the repercussions of September 11th in creative and fictionalized ways. I do, however, strongly condemn random interjections of unrelated tragedies, pseudo-poetic passages that have no place in otherwise (supposed to be) conventionally written novels, and generalized accounts of atrocities that simultaneously cheapen and appropriate others’ misfortunes. Ben thinks about the Iraq War from time to time, which I suppose makes sense; after all, high schoolers living near D.C. were no doubt inundated with reminders of 9/11 and the War on Terror on a daily basis. But there is no reason for him to peg his sadness to the calamity of the war as a whole. There is no reason to send the assassin to Ground Zero. He is an American assassin working for a private, non-military, unidentified company. He has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. Attempting to link dead birds, the color red, the Iraq War, a father’s death, the cross country team, ginger ale, a curly-haired girlfriend, an imaginary assassin, frisbees, and time travel ends up being as jumbled as you would expect. It is not profound, but it thinks it is. It is not inventive, but it thinks it is.

I often felt, while reading this book, like I was having a stroke. I started taking pictures of the text to refer to later. I read sections of it out loud to my sister via Skype, looking for confirmation that I wasn’t crazy — the book was. Other reviewers have likened The End of the City to Junot Díaz’s masterpiece The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is an insult to Díaz. Díaz successfully invented an entirely new and audaciously fresh writing style, but Bendernagel’s writing is confused, garbled, and uncontrolled. If the quotes included above have not convinced you, here is one final, damning example:

But scouring the rubble of my mind, my history, there are no signs of a primordial unity. There is no ancient crystal of which we are only shards. We may be wanderers, but there is no Eden from which we have been cast out, to which we can return. The Big Bang is a pinhole camera, drawing the light of a past universe through its aperture, now a reflection of a reflection that will someday be reflected again. And now it’s all explosion, all asteroid field, going back forever, continuing forever, and it’s jamming my shit, overloading my hard drive, each data bit rattling around my black box skull like a .22 caliber bullet, all I know coming out in stolen phrases, recycled material, filtered through me, run through my clenched teeth, not just recycled, 100 perfect recycled, formed into language, like heroin laced and shaped into porcelain dolls for transport across the border, bite-sized intoxicants fit for speech bubbles, word boxes, text messaging. The name’s Moor, Ben Moor.

According to the epilogue, which I read because I was desperate for answers, Bendernagel worked on the book for over ten years. I couldn’t believe it. Ten years to produce something with so little clarity? I found an interview with Bendernagel conducted by Scott Whitmore, which shed some light on the situation. According to Bendernagel:

During my first year of graduate school in the early 2000’s, I wrote two short stories that were (on the surface at least) very different from one another. One, entitled The Human Highlight Reel, is about a teenage athlete who is angry over the loss of his distant father. The other story, which shares the novel’s title, The End of the City, is about a nameless assassin who suspects his teacher is trying to kill him. Neither of these projects was entirely successful as a short story, but when I put them next to one another I felt I had something really compelling; I had stumbled upon a novel. The book’s two stories are in dialogue with one another—overlapping, contradicting, and supporting each other as the narrators reveal their feelings on loss, survival, and heroism.

This, I think, was the primary mistake: trying to shove together two stories that — in spite of what Bendernagel may have thought — have very little to do with each other. It’s extremely difficult to use “loss” and other abstract emotions to link disparate stories and situations.  I’ve seen it done successfully only a handful of times, and only in cinematic format (e.g., Babel, Pulp Fiction, and Requiem for a Dream). It’s difficult enough to tell one story well, and if it’s your debut novel, then you’re basically strangling yourself trying to communicate two.

My main advice would be: Don’t write two separate stories and then try to combine them. Work on a better dialogue-to-text ratio; i.e., have the characters engage in conversation more frequently, instead of filtering the story through (an) unreliable narrator(s) jumbled stream of thoughts. Don’t drag in current events unless they are legitimately related to the story. Abandon the majority of the pop culture references, especially the obscure ones. Don’t attempt to build profound connections across the space-time continuum; Christopher Nolan attempted that with Interstellar and look at the mess that turned out to be. More relevant, perhaps, is the case of David Mitchell, an extremely talented writer who attempted to write an opus with Cloud Atlas; his conceptually & structurally simpler Black Swan Green is infinitely better. Read fewer experimental novels; focus on classics and conventionally written books in order to bring clarity and focus to your writing. Chill out. Think about what you want to convey before you start writing.

The thing is, I don’t object to the core concept of the book — in theory. It makes sense that a kid suffering from his dad’s death would invent a superhero, an assassin, an alter-ego, as a way to work through his sorrow. But I still don’t know what happened in The End of the City. And that’s not ok.

Overall rating: 1/5 stars

Photos of the Kindle by G. 

Traveling, Tramping — LV

February 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

We’ve been on the road again for the past couple of weeks, and now we’re about to undertake an extremely challenging hike. See you all again on the other side. Thanks for bearing with me through the sporadic posting schedule as I volley around New Zealand.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 531 other followers

%d bloggers like this: