Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

Christopher Hitchens once said that there are certain books which appear not to have been written by human beings. For Hitchens, these books included Middlemarch, Ulysses, Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh; for me, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li falls firmly within this category.

Gold Boy Emerald Girl

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is a collection of short stories, loosely connected by the themes of kindness, isolation, and the ties which bind the individual to society. The stories are concerned with the impact other people have in shaping both the courses of our lives and in defining our own selves. In the opening story, Kindness, the narrator suggests that her life has been shaped by the people she has encountered:

I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself. The people I carry with me have lived out not only their own rations but mine too, though they are innocent usurpers of my life, and I have only myself to blame.

Curiously, the effect of these connections is not represented as an entirely positive one. The nameless narrator feels that her life has been diminished by the interference of outsiders; although their intrusions may be innocent, her life has been usurped nonetheless. Other people become burdens, twisting the courses of our lives. Kindness itself is a tie, a debt that must be carried with us (‘Kindness binds one to the past as obstinately as love does’).

Throughout the stories, characters are haunted by past cruelties, whether the harm inflicted upon others was intentional or otherwise. Mrs Lu, for example, is followed by the ghost of the girl she once inadvertently pushed to suicide:

The girl sneaked into the dorm building a month later, when Mrs Lu was busy with the mail, and jumped from the top floor. The thud, ten years later, still made Mrs Lu shiver at night.

Connections can spring even from seemingly distant sources: literature, both Chinese and Western, features within several of the stories. A line of ancient poetry is discovered by a daughter scribbled inside one of her mother’s novels, and she initially believes it to have been written for her father, but a later discovery prompts her to rethink this assumption. Dickens, meanwhile, is transported from Victorian London to 20th-century Shanghai, which leads, in turn, to the suicide of Siyu’s mother in the final tale of the collection.

While these ties, of literature, kindness and cruelty, may appear to be a burden, a debt which keeps the bearer beholden to others, the stories ultimately suggest that isolation is not a useful response to this problem. The roles played by others, whether positive or debilitating, cannot be escaped, and so can only be embraced.

Still, seeing her through other people’s eyes, Hanfeng realized that all that made her who she was – the decades of solitude in her widowhood, her coldness to the prying eyes of people who tried to mask their nosiness with friendliness, and her faith in the notion of living one’s own life without having to go out of one’s way for other people – could be deemed pointless and laughable.

Prince with a thousand enemies

‘All the world will be your enemy, Prince with A Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.’ And El-ahrairah knew then that although he would not be mocked, yet Frith was his friend. And every evening, when Frith has done his day’s work and lies calm and easy in the red sky, El-ahrairah and his children and his children’s children come out of their holes and feed and play in his sight, for they are his friends and he has promised them that they can never be destroyed.

Watership Down, Richard Adams

Watership Down

The Erlking

Who rides so late through the night and wind?
It’s the father with his child;
He has the boy safe in his arm,
He holds him secure, he holds him warm.

“My son, what makes you hide your face in fear?” –
Father, don’t you see the Erlking?
The Erlking with crown and flowing robe? –
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.” –

“You dear child, come along with me!
Such lovely games I’ll play with you;
Many colorful flowers are at the shore,
My mother has many a golden garment.”

My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the Erlking promises me so softly? –
“Be quiet, stay quiet, my child;
In the dry leaves the wind is rustling.”

The Erlking,  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Hyde Flippo

Erl_king_sterner

The Erlking by Albert Sterner, ca. 1910

Tipping the Velvet

Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet presents the story of Nan Astley, a young girl who moves away from her family to follow Kitty Butler, a male impersonator with whom Nan has secretly fallen in love. Although this sounds like a standard Bildungsroman plotline, Tipping the Velvet is far from the conventional coming-of-age story. Nan’s journey takes her from the London stage to the back-alleys, to becoming first a rent-boy and then a mistress, to the abandonment of her family, and finally, to becoming embroiled in the socialist cause.

Tipping-the-Velvet-by-Sarah-Waters-VMC-Edition

Little is known about lesbian culture in the Victorian period (the novel, published in 1998, takes place during the 1890s) and so the sub-culture that Sarah Waters presents is largely fictionalized. Yet the novel’s portrayal of history is an extraordinarily convincing one. The novel vividly evokes Victorian London, and demonstrates a Dickensian ability to provoke the senses of sight and smell, especially in its descriptions of the city’s more squalid districts. The vibrancy with which the city appears is perhaps due to the power of the narrative voice, as Nan, herself a stranger to London, acts as the eyes and ears of the reader. Her voice engages the reader straight from the outset:

Have you ever tasted a Whitsable oyster?

Nan’s voice feels confessional, and the sense of honesty which emerges from her tone enables her to appear a sympathetic character, even though she is frequently revealed to be slightly selfish and often thoughtless.

In addition to Nan’s exploration of her sexuality, the novel’s primary theme is the question of identity. Nan herself takes to the stage as a male impersonator, and frequently dresses in costumes to fit her changing identity throughout the novel. By dressing as a man, Nan feels a sense of empowerment; she is fascinated by the admiration her altered appearance elicits in others. She fashions herself anew through the adornment of costumes, until life itself becomes her stage:

But all performers dress to suit their stages, I recalled. And what a stage was this – and what an audience!

For a more Gothic evocation of the Victorian era, I would highly recommend Sarah Waters’ Affinity. I intended to write a post about the novel once I finished it, but it would be difficult to discuss without spoiling the plot, and it’s far too brilliant a plot to run the risk of spoilers!

Jabberwocky

‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood a while in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

‘And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.

Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll

jabberwocky

The Ugly Sister

Joanne Harris’ The Ugly Sister is a short story from Jig & Reels, a collection of stories which combine the magical and the everyday in myriad unsettling ways, whether it’s the school reunion of a class of witches, or a role-playing game which descends into a killing spree.

Joanne Harris

The Ugly Sister presents the Cinderella story from the perspective of one of the step-sisters. To complicate matters somewhat, the ugly step-sister in question is currently playing the character in a pantomime, yet she is not merely an actress; the reader is required to follow the fantastical logic of the story’s world and accept that our narrator truly is the ugly step-sister. In this way, the story plays with the conventions of both realist and fantasy writing; it grants too much attention to the mundane to fully transcend into a fantasy realm, yet to view the narrator as delusional actress is far too reductive a reading.

The narrator has existed ever since the story of Cinderella came into being, and has evolved alongside it throughout its various reincarnations. Joanne Harris astutely notes the ways in which fairy tales evolve to match the mood of the time, from the cruelty of the Grimm Brothers’ vision (‘the old days were savage, with crows to peck out our eyes’) to the triviality of the pantomime villain. Modern cinema, too, fashioned another angle on the story:

Nowadays, of course, we have trial by Disney, which is almost as bad: evil becomes ridiculous faced with so many pratfalls and flour bombs. There’s no dignity left in being a villain.

Granting a voice to an otherwise marginalised character enables the reader to appreciate a very familiar tale in an entirely new light. Cinderella is presented as irritatingly perfect (‘Mistress Smuggerella was toned, sleek, a perfect size eight’) while the sisters are ordinary, not the hideous caricatures they have become in the popular mindset. It is easier to perceive them as villains, and, by extension, the blonde, petite Cinderella as the downtrodden, oppressed heroine, by rendering them monstrously ugly.

The narrator uses her own treatment at the hands of her biographers to raise a slightly unsettling point about history: that it ‘favours the lookers’. Throughout human history, an association has been made between beauty and virtue; to be ugly is to have your sins written across your face. The theory of Physiognomy, for example, may appear out-dated and pseudo-scientific to us, yet have we truly moved on from believing we can read people’s characters in their faces? Although the story of Cinderella has been rewritten countless times throughout the ages, our attitudes towards ugliness seem to have remained static. In The Ugly Sister, Joanne Harris draws upon the reader’s knowledge of a conventional fairy-tale to probe our understandings of the connections between internal virtue and exterior appearance.

The Kraken

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

The Kraken, Lord Alfred Tennyson