Review: Difficult Women

TW: rape.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Roxane Gay’s short story collection Difficult Women. I’d heard of Gay’s novel about a woman who’s kidnapped and raped, An Untamed State, through the Tournament of Books; I knew it was harrowing. And I also knew of her work as a feminist blogger.

So: I was expecting Difficult Women to be uncompromising, or, as a colleague said of the cover, confrontational. I wasn’t expecting so many of the stories to be speculative, or at least speculative-adjacent.

What most of these stories are doing, to a greater or lesser extent, is disrupting our expectations of narrative – either by introducing speculative elements, as in “Water, All its Weight”, in which a woman is inexplicably followed by damp, or by simply not going where we’d expect the narrative to go, as in the short “Open Marriage”, in which a husband’s proposal that he and his wife sleep with other people utterly fails to precipitate a crisis in their marriage. Those formal disruptions are in service of a thematic one: all these stories are about difficult women, women who do not conform to ideals of femininity or to our expectations of how they should respond to trauma.

Let me illustrate that by talking about my favourite story, “La Negra Blanca”, in which a white-passing stripper is raped by an entitled white man. Which, I’ll admit, sounds pretty grim. It is. What’s important about it, though, is its ending. The stripper’s sort-of boyfriend wants to report the rape; all she wants is a bath, and sleep. And he listens to her. He looks after her and makes her feel safe and the whole thing is so sweet and tender it made me cry. The rapist gets away scot-free; but that’s not the point. The story is privileging this traumatised woman’s emotional needs over our readerly need for justice or closure (which is coded male, through the boyfriend’s desire to report the rape). It privileges restorative rather than retributive masculinity, and it seems to see hope in that, despite the abuse its heroine has suffered.

So: these stories are often traumatic. As well as rape, I’d mention content warnings for child death, child sexual abuse, self-harm and misogyny in all its many and varied forms. But they’re not gratuitously so. There’s horror, but there’s also fragile hope – whether that’s a way through the horror, or just the simple fact of these difficult women allowed to be difficult, and specific, and real; to resist the prevailing narratives of how women should act, what they should like, how they should work psychologically.

Unfortunately, trans women don’t make it into this collection of difficult women, which is a glaring omission given the book’s politics. (There are gay women, bi women and poly women – which possibly makes the omission of trans and non-binary narratives even odder.) That missed opportunity makes the book feel like a flawed collection – but, for my mileage, one still worth looking at. (I certainly didn’t expect to feel so protective of it while reading negative reviews on Goodreads and the Guardian.) There are just so few books in which women get to be this…individual, where they get to respond to the world so idiosyncratically without being judged for it. That’s still a privilege retained by men.

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Doctor Who Review: Gridlock

This review contains spoilers.

Gridlock‘s another new Whoepisode that made me weep when I rewatched it recently. If anything has convinced me that, no, it is not just nostalgia that makes me hate everything Stephen Moffat has ever written, it is this.

In the third episode of new Who‘s third series, the Doctor and Martha visit New Earth. True to form, instead of the dazzling cities full of glittering skyscrapers that the Doctor’s promised, they find the most almighty traffic jam in the universe. Forget the M25 on a bank holiday; the people of New Earth’s motorway have spent entire lifetimes in their floating cars. It takes twelve years to travel just five miles.

There’s a plot going on somewhere about Martha getting kidnapped and the Doctor’s search for her, but that’s easily the least interesting thing about the episode. As in much of Russell T. Davies’ Who work, it’s the imagery of the story and the feel of the world that makes it memorable. We have some great secondary characters: an Irishwoman married to a cat-person (they have kittens, it’s adorable); two little old ladies who’ve been driving since they got married 23 years ago; the improbably good-looking pregnant couple who kidnapped Martha so they could get in the fast lane out to Brooklyn. There’s a sequence in which the Doctor drops through a series of cars and we get little insights into people’s lives: it’s a way of establishing the vastness of this world, the scale of the motorway, and the defiant individuality of those who are trapped in it.

But it’s the imagery that made me cry: the way the story works metaphorically. See, the secret of the motorway is that it’s been quarantined from a plague that killed everyone on New Earth in seven minutes. The Face of Boe’s been keeping the motorway on for 23 years, all alone with his carer Novice Hame, but now the Doctor’s here he can finally let them all out. Let’s not dwell on the dodgy plot logic here: the point is the image of thousands upon thousands of flying cars swooping up out of the shadows of the motorway, up, up into the sunset and a skyline full of glittering towers. I love how this image taps into something fundamental about the idea of a journey: we sit in traffic jams and endure overcrowded trains and comply with arcane and inconvenient rules about cabin baggage because we hope that there will be something wonderful at the end of it. Home, or friends, or a place we find magical. When we travel, we are hoping, and it’s a hope that nothing earthly ever exactly fulfils.

But, in Gridlock, it is fulfilled. That time on the motorway is, finally, worth it, as the people of New New York come into their own again.

There’s something very Christian, too, about Gridlock. I don’t think I really noticed this until the very end, when the people of the motorway sing notorious weepie hymn “Abide With Me” as they fly up into the sunset, but once I did notice it helped me clarify my feelings about why this episode works so well for me. We have not one but two saviour figures: the Face of Boe, who sacrifices himself to save the people of the motorway, and the Doctor, whose presence in some undefined way facilitates this action. The opening of the motorway is a sort of harrowing of hell, in that it’s full of smoke and there are actual monsters at the bottom, and of course its denizens literally ascend to the heavens, into a paradisical and empty city. And the Doctor is hunting for a specific person, a single sinner, we might say. This is possibly a stretch, but for me it calls to mind Luke 15:7:

there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s a hidden Christian message in Gridlock; just that it uses familiar images from the Christian story to push our narrative buttons. It works for British audiences because most of us grow up with these images of hell and sacrifice and celestial cities, and it’s so embedded in our culture it’s almost invisible. Traffic jams and warm fuzzy non-denominational Christianity are possibly two of the most British things there are.

I think, though, there is a reason why the Christian stuff is there; I think Davies is repurposing it. The people of the motorway are definitely Christian: references to Jehovah pop up in passing, and they actually sing two hymns in the episode. But it’s important that their ascension is secular and rational, that it’s enabled by that figurehead of rationality the Doctor. The episode is a humanist declaration, not a religious one; it places its faith not in an abstract god, but in the power of rationality, community, diversity and love. Despite its hellish trappings, the motorway is a community. Almost everything we see a secondary character do is about respect or support or friendship, whether that’s offering a random drop-in a cup of precious water or warning a stranger about the monsters at the bottom of the motorway while being eaten by them. It’s how they’ve survived on the motorway for decades. And it’s why they deserve the secular heaven they’re eventually given. Not because they’ve followed some obscure religious commandments, but because they’ve been nice to each other, because they’ve kept faith in their essential humanity.

And that’s why Gridlock made me cry.

A Doctor Who Review: In Defence of “Fear Her”

This review contains spoilers.

TW: child abuse.

The eleventh episode in the second series of New Who, Fear Her has a reputation in the fandom that can only be described as “dismal”. According to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, readers of Doctor Who Magazine ranked it the second worst episode of all time in 2014.

That’s including classic as well as New Who. I mean. Really? Worse than everything that got made in the 60s, when special effects were basically non-existent and nothing happened for entire half-hour segments? Worse than everything Stephen Moffat wrote before 2014? Even accounting for the conservative tastes of adult Doctor Who fans, really?

Confession time, here’s what I got: Fear Her made me ugly cry when I rewatched it a few weeks back. I’m reasonably sure it made me ugly cry the first time I watched it, too. But in a good way.

I wonder if this is something to do with different ideas of what Doctor Who is. My first Doctor was Ten, my first showrunner was Russell T Davies. My idea of Doctor Who is rooted in those things: it’s a sentimental, slightly rickety science fantasy show where maybe the special effects aren’t great and the monsters are a bit corny and the plot is mostly held together by reversed polarities and neutron flows and wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey nonsense, but, and this is important, it all has complex, wonderful, ordinary people at its centre, people with complex relationships and complex feelings. Like, I am not at all saying that Doctor Who was ever a showcase for world-class characterisation, but it always had that intention, that compassion, at its beating heart. The Doctor is great, but in the end he’s not really the point. We can admire him, we can love him, but his function is to introduce us to wonders, and to make them more wonderful. That’s what I always loved about the show, anyway.

And so, to Fear Her. The Doctor and Rose land in London, 2012, just before the Olympic Games are due to start. (2012 is still six years in the future for Rose, and for the episode’s original audience; even New Who is old.) The people of the recently renamed Dame Kelly Holmes Close, Stratford, are getting ready for the Olympic Flame to pass just feet from their doorsteps. There’s just one spanner in the works: children have been going missing from the street, there one minute, gone the next. Where have the kids gone? What’s the strange metallic smell in the air? And what’s 12-year-old Chloe Webber doing, standing ominously at her upstairs window…

At the heart of the episode are a lonely little girl and her mother, who have grown apart in ways small and subtle since the death of Chloe’s abusive father a year ago. Chloe has retreated to her room, where she draws obsessively. Her mother Trish is simply relieved to be free of her partner, and doesn’t understand her daughter’s retreat from reality.

Nina Sosanya’s performance as Trish is one of my favourite things about Fear Her. She plays a single mother who cares desperately about her daughter, and a single mother who’s afraid of her daughter, as the Doctor points out, but also, I think, for her daughter. She responds to the Doctor’s offer of help for Chloe with hope and fear in equal measure. Hope, because she’s worried about Chloe and doesn’t know how to get through to her. Fear, because in her eyes not being able to get through to Chloe means she’s a bad mother. And in the Doctor’s authority lies, for Trish, a real-life bogeyman: the threat of social services, the threat that her daughter might be literally disappeared from her by forces just as shadowy and unaccountable as that taking the other kids in the close.

Which is not to suggest that the entire episode is a metaphor for evil social services people swooping down and stealing children from their parents, because that would be ridiculous and insensitive. And because much of my reading of Trish is, I’m aware, subtext at best. Fear Her works, I think, because its handling of the issues it touches on – single motherhood, loneliness, the lingering trauma of abuse – is both metaphorical and literal. Which is to say: the SF elements in the episode represent and reinforce the realistic ones. Kids are disappearing because a lonely alien has given a lonely child the power to transport them to another dimension: that’s a way of talking about the degrading effects loneliness has on mental health, but it’s also a kind-of sad story about a lonely alien. Some things are universal, it seems. Similarly, when the Doctor inevitably restores everyone Chloe has drawn out of the world, the reappearance of her abusive father in a demonic drawing is a metaphor for how she’s still haunted by the trauma of him, but it’s far from the only time the episode mentions that she’s so haunted.

So: let’s talk about the Doctor and the Olympic Flame, a focus for popular ire and also one of my favourite parts of the episode. The Olympic Flame is not, I will grant you, very well incorporated into the main story; it would not be unreasonable to call it something of a deus ex machina. As for the Doctor’s carrying it into the Olympic Stadium after the torchbearer collapses, well, that’s pure theatre. (It’s awesome, though.) But the lonely alien’s use of it to escape Earth, borne on the tide of love, is both a way of combating the fear that runs through the episode – fear of unexplained, unresolved disappearance, of shadowy figures drawn on the back of wardrobes and standing in judgement on single mothers – and a beautiful image in its own right. It’s the public counterpart to the private scene a few moments earlier when Chloe and Trish sing together to defeat the rising ghost of Chloe’s father, when they heal their rift and defeat fear with love. It’s a way of symbolically healing society in preparation for the great celebration of global humanity that is (at least conceptually) the Olympic Games – just as the singing is a way of symbolically healing the relationship between a mother and a daughter.

And that kind of echo, that call and response between the literal and the metaphorical, the real and the fantastic, the public and the private, is what Doctor Who is all about. For me.

Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Probably it will surprise nobody to know that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again occupies basically the same place in the world as the original Mamma Mia. It is an excuse for some moderately famous faces to have a wonderful time singing the cheesiest songs in the world and hanging out on a Greek island, and for audiences around the world to have a jolly time watching them.

I’m not convinced that Mamma Mia actually needed a sequel, but the profit-driven logics of late capitalism are inescapable, and so here we are.

The story opens ten years after the events of the first film. Donna has died recently, in a non-specific manner. Her daughter Sophie is about to open the hotel that was Donna’s dream, while having some romantic drama with her hunky husband Skye, who wants to take a permanent job in America, which is not part of Sophie’s life plans at all, at all. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, we learn how Sophie came to have three fathers – that is, how Young Donna slept with three different men around the same time and ended up pregnant.

Like its predecessor, Here We Go Again wants to be a kind film, a film that embraces the wide weird quirkiness of humanity and sings “I Have a Dream” softly into its ear like a lullaby. The first film is one that doesn’t judge its female heroine for being a single mother with a sexual past; it’s one that embraces the possibility of having multiple fathers; one where an old woman flings aside her burden to go join in a Bacchanalian parade of women all singing “Dancing Queen”. It even has a gay character. Like, it’s a soft-focus, peace-and-love kind of inclusivity, but even that was unusual in 2008: a blockbuster film that actually treated women like people with their own subjectivities and messy histories and agency.

It’s 2018 now. Things have moved on a bit. Here We Go Again does stuff that maybe looks a bit more radical, but the actual narrative structure doesn’t bear it out. Structurally, it’s a much more conservative story than the first film was.

A micro-example: in the opening number it’s revealed that Donna is bi. Yay, bi representation! Sadly, the opening number is “When I Kissed the Teacher”, and it appears that Young Donna had a relationship with a female tutor at Oxford. Which everyone is fine about, because free love, youthful experimentation, whatever, yay, colourful costumes and fabulous dance moves! Like. Not to be a party pooper, but can we maybe not trivialise inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships in the same breath as announcing that a beloved character is queer? K. Thanks.

Later on, there’s a big dance scene (choreographed to “Waterloo”, no less), which features a wheelchair user and a gay couple among many others. These are nice touches! But they are only touches. These are only backing dancers. It’s not like there are any disabled characters with speaking lines; and as for queer representation, well, we hear nothing else about Donna’s queerness, and the only nod to Harry’s sexuality is a brief flirtation with a fisherman.

The big structural problem with the film, though, is how much emphasis it places on the men in Donna and Sophie’s lives. To recap, the first film is very much about a mother and a daughter (again, think about how unusual it is to watch a mainstream film about mothers and daughters). Both Donna and Sophie are constantly surrounded by female friends who advise them, support them, sing and dance with them. Think of that rendition of “Dancing Queen” again: these are women embracing their femininity, and each other. The men of the film are very much interlopers; not unwelcome, but vaguely out of place.

Whereas in Here We Go Again, the focus is squarely on Donna and Sophie’s relationships with men. It’s interested not in the bond between Donna and Sophie, but in Donna’s three lovers, in Sophie and Skye’s marriage, in Sophie and her fathers. Donna’s old friends are there, but their roles are very much downplayed (in fact, Young Donna literally abandons her friends to go travelling and sleep with strange men); Sophie’s female friends are nowhere to be seen. When a new female character does turn up, it’s Cher, at the end of the film, playing a stereotypically uninterested grandmother who only relaxes when she runs across an old flame (whose name is, yes, Fernando).

I don’t want to pretend that Here We Go Again isn’t fun, because it kind of is. It makes for a cheerful evening out. It’s so relentlessly feelgood that you actively ignore its regressive politics. But I wouldn’t want to see it again; I think the shine would wear off pretty quickly.

(Slightly More Than) 50-Word Review: Don Giovanni

So I did the BP Big Screen thing in Trafalgar Square again in July, with a couple of friends. Don Giovanni is an 18th-century pick-up artist who sleeps with women and then abandons them, until he kills the father of one of his conquests and vengeance catches up with him. Gorgeous costumes, nice set design, lovely evening. But opera’s surely the least accessible of all art forms: no tune, to modern ears; and most people (including me) don’t have the knowledge and background any more to appreciate it. In other words: I don’t like it. And I’ve made my peace with that.

Review: The Pig Who Sang to the Moon

Jeffrey Masson’s The Pig Who Sang to the Moon was handed to me by a vegan colleague of mine. I’d promised to read it: I know that the meat industry is a monstrous thing; I believe that most Western people should be trying to eat less, and higher-quality, meat, for the sake of the planet, the animals involved, and our own health; and I’m very ready to believe Masson’s basic argument, that farm animals have emotional lives that are far more complex than we like to admit.

I am very probably the ideal audience for this book.

I was not convinced.

That’s partly because of mismatched expectations. I wanted to read about scientific studies and research by zoologists and similar experts. Or I would have been quite happy with a well-thought-out, well-supported ethical argument.

The Pig Who Sang to the Moon is not that kind of book. Each chapter discusses the emotional life of a different farm animal – pigs, chickens, sheep, cows and ducks. I say “discusses”. What I actually mean is “speculates”.

Because what this book is, mainly, is a collection of anecdotes. Many of them are nice anecdotes, the sort you read about in the kinder parts of Twitter or that get shared endlessly on Facebook. Pigs running for help to save their owners, chickens following their humans around, and so on. These are spliced with information about what goes on in factory farms, and with some brief evolutionary background – the idea being that going back to these animals’ ancestors will tell us something about how they are “meant” to live.

What’s frustrating is that none of this tells us anything new. It’s obvious to anyone who has a pet that animals have fascinating and private emotional lives. Information on the undoubted evils of factory farming is available to anyone with an internet connection. And I’m not even sure why Masson included the evolutionary stuff, since the only solid conclusions he manages to draw from it are common-sense ones.

The real problem with the book, though, is its partiality. Masson’s mind is made up from the beginning. That’s true of any book, of course; but the purpose of an argument, surely, is to walk a reader through the steps the author took in coming to their conclusion. A good non-fiction book or essay replays the decision-making process; a really persuasive one convinces us that the author is discovering things at the same pace as we are. Whereas Masson’s bias is manifest in the way he chooses his sources. Most of his anecdotes come from sanctuary owners and animal rights activists. Where he quotes farmers he does so dismissively (because their opinions that their animals don’t have emotions don’t support his argument). In one case he outright ignores someone whose opinion he’s canvassed – and says so.

But Masson’s conclusions aren’t just obviously biased; they’re also largely completely unfounded. He leaps too easily from “animals suffer in factory farms” (a claim I think few people would dispute) to “animals’ emotional lives are just like ours”. He anthropomorphises constantly, with little evidence that isn’t anecdotal or biased. This isn’t an approach that helps animals. Western cities are full of dogs and cats that are harmfully overweight and dangerously misbehaved because their owners treat them like little furry humans. If the evolutionary history of domesticated animals teaches us anything, it should surely be that these beings are fundamentally different from us; their emotional lives have evolved to deal with social structures, habitats and food sources that are very different from our own, and so we’d expect those emotional lives to look different from ours.

So Masson ends up treading an odd tightrope. On the one hand, he’d like us to think that animals are worthy of the same respect and freedoms as we are. On the other, he is patronising and sentimental about their lives and histories. If it isn’t already clear, I don’t think The Pig Who Sang to the Moon is a good book. It contributes nothing new to conversations about animal rights and capabilities; it has nothing original or well-founded to say.

Review: The Adjacent

This review contains spoilers.

The Adjacent is the second Christopher Priest novel I’ve read; the first was The Islanders, a gazetteer of the fictional Dream Archipelago which hides a murder mystery and a love story. The Islanders was a story about liminality, isolation, art and the constriction of landscape; it was fun in a geeky way, but also possessed of a delicious and somehow melancholy menace.

The Adjacent is…some of these things, but none so successfully. The novel opens in the IRGB, the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. Our Hero is Tibor Tarent, a photographer recently returned from an Eastern Anatolia ravaged by climate change-induced drought and terrorism. His wife Melanie has been killed by a weapon that leaves a perfect triangular crater of blackened earth; nothing else. Back in the IRGB, much of north-west London has been ravaged by a similar weapon. Tibor is directed around the country by unnamed officials, for nebulous debriefings, through a landscape afflicted by violent storms and unspecified oppression.

Then the narrative shifts to WW1: a stage magician is summoned to the front to help the Allied forces disguise their planes so the Germans won’t shoot at them any more.

Then, again: WW2, a young RAF man meets a Polish female pilot who he quickly becomes besotted with. He looks her up much later in life, and finds that her family history doesn’t quite check out.

Then: Tibor again, in a kinder England, meeting a scientist who’s devised what he thinks is the end to all wars.

Then: a man crossing a strange desert with an enigmatic woman. He can’t remember how he got there.

Then: a woman searching one of the islands of the Dream Archipelago for her lost love…

…you get the idea. It’s a sort of sub-Cloud Atlas thing: a set of stories nebulously connected, with eerie echoes and half-connections that you clutch at but never exactly grasp. We intuit that the stage magician and the RAF man and the man in the desert are all versions of Tibor. There are also several versions of an enigmatic woman who won’t reveal anything of herself but really wants hot no-strings sex with Tibor and his sub-versions. There are lots of mentions of triangles. Several definitions of “adjacent”. An abiding interest in utilitarian vehicles and how they move through the landscape.

Which is undoubtedly all very interesting. But what is it for?

Adam Roberts suggests that it’s all a big stage trick: Priest distracts us with these tantalising connections, these various versions of history and the future, in order to return Tibor’s dead wife to him without us raising an eyebrow.

This is a convincing reading. It’s certainly more convincing than anything I’ve come up with. But it kind of depends on how invested we are in Tibor as a character, and in his relationship with Melanie. It’s also structurally problematic, in that it constructs Melanie as a thing, a plot device, a cipher: she has no existence in the novel except through Tibor’s memories, and so bringing her back can only be about him, not about her.

And I didn’t find Tibor a compelling enough character to overlook this. I think this is partly deliberate: some play is made with the idea that Tibor, as a photographer, is a passive observer, unable to intervene in the situations he records. And that’s similar to how we experience the novel: we chase down a nebulous concept of truth by observing, by reading, but we can’t intervene. The truth always recedes away from us, into the interstices between each narrative, the missing Polish woman, the memories of the man in the desert, NW6, a tower at a military facility in the IRGB that flickers in and out of existence. There’s always that indefinable, unresolved something missing, unexplained; the nebulous Real which cannot be found or recorded or pinned down in its entirety.

I enjoy this sort of thing in a novel, usually; I love art that records the numinous, the things that lie beyond explanation and rationalisation, what Todorov would call the Fantastic. The adjacent, you might say. But…I also don’t have much patience for Priest’s unexamined Islamophobia (Islamic Britian as Orwellian dystopia) or his insidious sexism, the way the women in his narratives are reduced to ciphers for the men to chase. (An exception is the narrative set in the Dream Archipelago, which is written from the point of view of a woman; not coincidentally, this is the best part of the novel.) The world(s) of The Adjacent is (are) too thinly imagined; there are far more absences than the ones Priest actually wants us to look at. That’s why, I think, I can deal with sexism in things like M. John Harrison’s Viriconium or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, both of which channel ideas of the Fantastic that are similar to those in The Adjacent: these worlds are rich and lush with fecund, rotting detail, the better to point up the glaring absences at their hearts. I want to be hypnotised by the Fantastic; I want it to draw me down into the depths of its unknowns. The Adjacent just didn’t do that for me.