Spectacle

Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle was recommended to me by a fellow blogger with trustworthy taste and this recommendation was supported by highly praising reviews from critics and authors alike. For me, however, the promise of Steinberg’s prose fell flat. I always feel like I’ve failed as a reader when I don’t respond positively to books that others have been enthralled by. Infinite Jest is another example of this; David Foster Wallace’s ideas about literature and the failure of irony are fascinating, but for some reasons his novel just didn’t work for me. So, this post is my attempt to figure out my own feelings about Spectacle. Hopefully I’ll convince you that I’m not a terrible reader in the process.

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Steinberg’s short stories are primarily concerned with exploring questions of female identity and the roles adopted by women in their relationships with men and society in general. Although I found the stories largely devoid of any great emotional meaning, Steinberg does occasionally succeed in producing poignant remarks about her subject. One example is the comparison Steinberg makes between the reactions of two men to a female driver: the first verbally abuses her, while the second comes to her rescue. These are two very different men, yet they both respond to the femininity of Steinberg’s narrator, calling her ‘certain names reserved for women, certain names I’d been called before and would be called again.’ On the other hand, the sensitivity with which Steinberg handles the subject of female identity is not extended to her treatment of male characters. Arguably the nameless, formless men in these stories are as objectified as Steinberg’s narrators consider themselves to be.

Initially, I was taken in by Steinberg’s pithy and unadorned prose. Steinberg’s narrators (perhaps it’s incorrect to speak of them in the plural, as every story is told by the same voice) reflect on their own word choices and are careful to avoid tired metaphors. This self-awareness was enjoyable, at first, but as the same techniques are used in each story, the postmodern playfulness quickly becomes laboured. Giving each female narrator the same voice undermines the collection’s potential to present a moving piece of fiction. Elements which feel powerful and engaging in the first story have become dull and repetitive by the third. Several stories are revisited in the latter half of the collection; the circularity of its structure exemplifies the fault of the book for me: for all its early promises, the collection ultimately goes nowhere. Overall Spectacle felt like the work of a creative-writing student: not without promise, but still a distinctly unpolished voice.

Dying’s easy

First Sister was stunned. ‘Mother,’ she said, ‘You’ve changed.’

‘Yes, I’ve changed,’ Mother said, ‘and yet I’m still the same. Over the years, members of the Shangguan family have died off like stalks of chives, and others have been born to take their place. Where there’s life, death is inevitable. Dying’s easy; it’s living that’s hard. The harder it gets, the stronger the will to live. And the greater the fear of death, the greater the struggle to keep on living.’

Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Mo Yan

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The Crimson Petal and the White

Spoiler alert: It would be impossible to share my thoughts on Faber’s novel without spoiling certain aspects of the plot. While I’ve tried to avoid mentioning a few significant events, I do give away quite a lot. So, if you have plans to read The Crimson Petal and the White then you might want to give this post a miss, unless you’re one of this strange people (like myself) who aren’t actually too fussed about spoilers. 

Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White tells the story of a young prostitute named Sugar, who uses her feminine charms and unusual intelligence (a quality deprecated in women by contemporary medical tracts) to become the mistress of the aspiring, though largely incompetent, businessman William Rackham. Following Sugar’s story allows the narrator to branch out and lash onto several other interconnected characters, creating a dense and immersive panorama of 1870’s London. Along the 830+ page journey, we are introduced to, among other fascinating creations, the brothel-owner Mrs Castaway, who appears completely devoid of humanity, to the Rackham family’s obstinate servants, to a daughter whose existence is not acknowledged by her own mother, and to a would-be pastor troubled by his earthly lusts.

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A novel of this length depends upon such rich characterisation to hold the reader’s attention, and The Crimson Petal and the White is one of the few larger novels I’ve read which haven’t either sagged a little in the middle or dragged towards the end. I’d happily read another chapter, or, to be honest, even another 800 pages, if Faber ever decided to continue the story. My desire for further pages is only partly driven by my affection for the characters, as Faber challenges not only traditional ideas of appropriate literary subjects (as  the central character is a prostitute, the novel is sexually frank from the outset) but also traditional ideas of narrative closure. This isn’t a conventionally structured Victorian novel with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. It does have a structure, of course, and its characters progress along with the plot, but overall the novel conveys the sensation that the reader has been dipped into the real lives of the people depicted within the pages, and suggests that these people had lives before we met them, and will continue to live once we turn the last page.

The Crimson Petal and the White draws upon the London of Dickens’ sprawling novels, but unlike its Victorian ancestors, it subverts ideas of both narrative closure and moral order. The novel ends with the escape of Sugar and Sophie Rackham, but the story doesn’t: Faber chose not to confirm or dash the reader’s hopes that Sugar’s transformation into a warm-hearted woman would continue, and that she would succeed in providing a happy home for the young girl. Instead, the narrator draws the curtains on the story, and leaves us to form our own interpretations of the characters’ fates. The narrative technique itself represents a significant shift away from the Victorian model, as it is distinctly post-modern. The narrator guides us through the novel and derides our status as an alien onlooker. The novel is also populated by characters who attempt, with varying degrees of success, to write their own books. Agnes devours secret tomes on the subject of spiritualism and records her own transcendental journey, while Sugar writes a semi-autobiographical novel in which she brutally murders her clients. Sugar believes it to be inevitable that the heroine of her story will die in the end; she can’t fathom there being an alternative path for her story to take. During her escape with Sophie, however, she loses her manuscript and suddenly finds that the rage-fuelled work of so many years means nothing to her now. Sugar defies her own expectations and creates a new ending for herself.

In a more conventional Victorian novel, the sexually corrupted Sugar would surely be punished, as she herself predicts, by dying at the novel’s close. Placing Sugar at the heart of the novel therefore sets Faber’s story apart from the Victorian classics. William’s innocent young wife Agnes is more likely candidate for a traditional Victorian heroine; in a more conventional story, the reader would champion her quiet resilience as she forgives the debaucheries of her husband. Agnes’ childlike demeanour, however, is not the result of innate innocence but instead the consequence of a poor education (even after childbirth she remains ignorant of menstruation) and an increasingly deluded mental state. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Agnes is awarded no happy ending, and it is with the seemingly devious Sugar that the reader’s true loyalties lie. Towards the end of the novel, when Sugar gives up on her dark fantasies and tries to change her reality instead, it is easy to sympathise and support her position. Overall, however, the novel lacks a clear moral centre, and challenges the very notion that any such moral absolutes are possible. While reading the novel, I tried to guess what the ending would bring, and I’d occasionally find myself rooting for a marriage between William and Sugar. I’d then quickly realise that William is no Rochester; he is not the long-suffering husband of a madwoman, but rather a self-centred and shallow man, unworthy of Sugar’s love. Sugar brings a sense of moral clarity to this otherwise unremittingly dark tale; she, alone among the novel’s large cast of characters, takes great steps to rewrite her fate.

Cupid painted blind

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

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Foreign Babes in Beijing

Foreign Babes in Beijing is Rachel DeWoskin’s account of her life as a foreigner in the Chinese capital in the 90s. As DeWoskin is both a perceptive writer and an active participant in Beijing life, her memoir presents an engaging perspective on modern China. What truly makes DeWoskin’s memoir such a fascinating piece of non-fiction writing is, however, the very particular vantage point from which she views Beijing: DeWoskin went to China to work for an American PR company but ended up starring in a Chinese television drama viewed by an audience of six hundred million.

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The TV show itself, from which DeWoskin’s memoir draws its title, tells the story of two foreign girls who visit Beijing and fall in love with local men. The most interesting aspect of DeWoskin’s unusual acting career is the parallels that emerge between the struggles of the fictional characters depicted in the show and the difficulties faced by DeWoskin and her fellow laowai as they attempt to navigate life in a city racing towards modernity. At the show’s heart is the relationship between the two American protagonists and their Chinese boyfriends. This simple premise is complicated by the political ramifications involved in depicting cross-cultural relationships, especially in a country which only recently opened up to the outside world. The depiction of Asian women in Western culture has been the subject of scrutiny recently (for example, see Rachel Rostad‘s take on Harry Potter‘s Cho Chang), so I was curious to learn how Chinese writers would handle the representation of Western women. The writers attempted to subvert the Hollywood model: ‘My role,’ DeWoskin says, ‘was to play the exotic, mysterious femme fatale, relieving Eastern women momentarily of that chore.’  The representation of the foreign girls in the show is complicated even further by the fact that the series was scripted by Chinese writers for a Chinese audience, and consequently presented the Chinese view of a foreigner’s view of Beijing; its primary focus was the espousal of a particular blend of patriotism and melodrama, rather than documentary realism.

Even if memoirs aren’t your thing, it’s worth watching the show itself. It’s hard to imagine something quite so cheesy attracting six hundred million viewers! 

Top 10 Closing Lines

10. ‘One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?”

Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut

9. ‘Time to go.’

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

8. ‘Write to me quickly to tell me that he has come back…’

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Expurey

7. ‘As I began my homeward journey, I thought of my old friend Chang Tzu, who, waking suddenly, wondered whether he had dreamt that he was a butterfly or whether a butterfly was now dreaming that it was Chang Tzu.’

Under Fishbone Clouds, Sam Meekings

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6. ‘But now it’s time to let me go.’

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

5. ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and because I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon

4. ‘But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out – somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking towards a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door – a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.’

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

3.  ‘Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

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2. ‘And so, exulting as the moonlit rocks fled by him, exulting as the tears streamed over his face – with his eyes fixed excitedly upon the blurred horizon – and the battering of the hoof-beats loud in his ears, Titus rode out of his world.’

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

1. ‘But once you’ve climbed out of this fleshy tomb, where is there left for you to go?’

Beijing Coma, Ma Jian

Top 10 Opening Lines

10. ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.’

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

9. ”What’s it going to be then, eh?”

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

8. ‘My father used to tell me that if you saw a crow it meant someone was going to die.’

The Book of Crows, Sam Meekings

7. ‘In the Square of a Thousand Winds the frost-covered players look like snowmen.’

The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa

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6. ‘He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.’

Underworld, Don DeLillo

5. ‘I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time.’

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

4. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’

Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier

3. ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

1984, George Orwell

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2. ‘There was a rock that since the creation of the world had been worked upon by the pure essences of Heaven and the fine savours of Earth, the vigour of sunshine and the grace of moonlight, till at last it became magically pregnant and one day split open, giving birth to a stone egg, about as big as a playing ball.’

Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en

1. ‘The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.’

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness