Orlando — Virginia Woolf

The plot of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando hangs on two key conceits: the title character transforms from male to female; the title character is immortal. Orlando has been a staple of gender studies courses since before such courses existed, and is in many ways the pioneer text (or one of the pioneer texts) of an entire genre. And that’s great and all—there are plenty of stunning passages where Woolf has her character explore what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman and how power and identity and all that good stuff fits in—but what I enjoyed most about Orlando was its rambling, satirical structure.

Orlando functions like an inverted picaresque, detailing the adventures of an aristocrat who finds him- (and then her-) self flung into every sort of damn predicament: Elizabethan intrigues; ice-skating during the Great Frost; a dalliance with a Russian princess; an attempt at artistic patronage; an attempt at art; an ambassadorship in Constantinople; an encounter with the Fates (I suspect); time with a band of gypsies; time with Alexander Pope; a marriage to the great sea captain Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine; and, finally (if that adverb might apply to an apparent immortal), the publication of her great small work The Oak Tree. Sorry to laundry-list plot points, but, gosh, don’t you want to read this now—or at least listen to the audiobook, like I did?

Woolf seems to be channeling Voltaire’s Candide at all times, subtly ridiculing era after era, until Orlando finally emerges into Woolf’s (Modernist) present—it’s the fuzziest moment of the novel for our protagonist, as if she, or the author operating behind her, cannot parse out the post-industrial landscape. It’s also the moment at which Woolf’s prose becomes its most fluid and free—its most Woolfian, I suppose.

I thoroughly enjoyed Clare Higgins’s smart, confident reading of this unabridged production (BBC/Chivers). At not quite nine hours long, it’s a great way to spend a few afternoons of chores or gardening, or perhaps a week’s commute. It made me fish out Mrs. Dalloway, which I haven’t read since my undergrad days, and shove it into a “to read” stack. It also prompted me to revisit Sally Potter’s admirable 1992 film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton, whose very being seems like call and cause enough for an Orlando movie. I recommend both the audiobook and the film. Great stuff.

Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories — Sandra McDonald

Fantasy gets a bad rap. While science-fiction has enjoyed something of a restoration of sanctified hipness in recent years, thanks in part to the genre-bending efforts of authors like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, as well as a reappraisal of the works of authors like Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, novels that find themselves classified in the fantasy genre can often be outright dismissed as having no artistic or literary merit. Amazingly, even the work of king daddy J.R.R. Tolkien still finds itself in need of critical defense from time to time. And while fantasy certainly has more than its fair share of rote genre exercises, including countless copycat cash-ins, it’s also an imaginative space buzzing with invention and the capacity for social commentary. Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories exemplifies the best kind of invention and social commentary that we might expect from post-modern fantasy.

Diana Comet collects fifteen stories connected via shared motifs, characters, and settings. McDonald crafts a world that inverts or displaces our own. This world, with its lands like New Dalli and Massasoit, is slightly decentered from our own: we find familiar iterations of our history here—there’s war and imperialism, colonialism and poverty, homophobia and racism—but the idioms are all slightly off, displaced enough be paradoxically familiar and alienating at the same time. “Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy,” for instance, seems set in a 19th-century American milieu amidst a civil war (there’s even a poet named Whit Waltman), yet the transposition, articulate as it is, is also nebulous, disturbing even. McDonald’s spare distortion forces the reader to reconsider his own notions of cultural history, and she does this to great effect, whether taking on gender ideologies (“Diana Comet and the Disappearing Lover”), homophobia (“The Fireman’s Fairy”), or racism (“Fay and the Goddesses”). None of these issues are presented glibly, didactically, or clumsily; indeed, it’s through the slightest distortions of fantastic imagination that the reader must re-examine his own society through McDonald’s reflective lens. Most of the stories end with enumerated discussion questions, often silly or whimsical, that serve to puncture the seriousness of the tales; they sometimes force details from our “real” world into the texts of Diana Comet in a way that’s doubly disconcerting. It’s a meta-textual gambit that pays off, however, both in belying any self-seriousness to the narrative proper as well as establishing a thin membrane between fantasy and reality—a membrane of questions that allows the reader to “play,” to disrupt that boundary through his or her own imagination.

McDonald’s world-building in Diana Comet never comes at the expense of good storytelling. With a few exceptions, most of the stories here piece together the frame of a world, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in most of the gaps. Most of the stories seem to take place in an iteration of the nineteenth century, but some to be set earlier, later, and even in a displaced future, like “Kingdom Coming,” a playful apocalypse tale. McDonald’s expositive restraint does wonders; too many writers of inventive fiction feel the need to tell the reader every single detail and nuance of their worlds. I think here of Ursula K. LeGuin’s marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book toward which I believe Diana Comet bears considerable comparison, particularly with respect to the exploration of how gender and sexuality functions in a society. While LeGuin’s book is terrific and fully-realized, she spends a bit too much narrative energy transmitting every detail of that realization to her audience. Diana Comet is rewarding in its gaps and mysteries, as well as its ability to evoke a sense of the uncanny in its reader. Oh, I should probably add that McDonald can write; her prose is elegant, lively, wry, and spare.

Diana Comet is a smart, thoughtful post-modern fantasy that may appeal to the kids out there who have outgrown the narrative simplicity of Harry Potter and are looking for a challenge; it will undoubtedly appeal to fans of writers like LeGuin and Atwood, writers who know how to channel narrative traditional tropes of imaginative fiction through distortion and ambiguity and force their readers to think, even as they entertain. Recommended.

Emma Donoghue Uncovers the Six Most Perennially Popular Plot Motifs of Attraction Between Women in Literature

Rosalind and Celia -- Henry Nelson O'Neil

In her new book Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (on sale May 25, 2010 from Knopf), Emma Donoghue discusses the six most common recurring girl-on-girl plots in literature. From her introduction:

TRAVESTIES: Cross-dressing (whether by a woman or a man) causes the “accident” of same-sex desire.

INSEPARABLES: Two passionate friends defy the forces trying to part them.

RIVALS: A man and a a woman compete for a woman’s heart.

MONSTERS: A wicked woman tries to seduce and destroy an innocent one.

DETECTION: The discovery of a crime turns out to be the discovery of same-sex desire.

OUT: A woman’s life is changed by the realization that she loves her own sex.

We’re enjoying Donoghue’s book so far. It proceeds from this initial folkloric classification with a balance of erudition and wit and a keen eye for the desire writhing between the lines. More to come.

The New Feminism

Yay! Girl power!

Read this hilarious article from The Onion, “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Ever Does.” It neatly sums up all of my feelings on the current national/pop cultural understanding of what feminism is in America today.

Every time a discussion of feminism comes up in any of my graduate courses, I always manage to come off like a caveman jerk as I try to explain how I think that the term “feminism”–much like “punk”–has been completely co-opted by mainstream patriarchal commercial culture, and thus etiolated of life, its original power sucked dry. There is of course an easy solution for this, which involves a re-appraisal of feminist objectives and a general re-education of young girls and boys (okay, easy in theory, not in practice). The concern  in academia with gender studies over the past two decades has done a remarkable job of re-framing the problematics of identity, sexuality, culture, etc. beyond just “women’s issues,” but the trickle-down of second-wave feminism seems to be, well, diluted at best and completely misunderstood at worst . And as recent attacks on Roe v Wade show, these aren’t battles that were neatly finished thirty years ago–there is still much at stake today. Get empowered, yo.