Elly McDonald

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Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan

To be clear: this is not a book about music. This is a novel about time and technology, and change. The music business, being a fast-changing, youth-obsessed industry, just happens to provide a perfect environment for themes of change, aging, redundancy, mortality.

I would know. I spent 10 years in the rock music industry. Now I’m 35 years older. I feel it. So, I think, do my contemporaries.

Jennifer Egan says she didn’t know a lot about the music business but researched in order to write this story – or these stories, more correctly, as A Visit to the Goon Squad comprises thirteen interlocked, interrelated short stories rather than the novel’s traditional linear chapter narrative.

The stories loosely pivot around Bennie Salazar, first met as a teenage bass player in a garage punk band in San Francisco in 1979, and his long-time assistant, Sasha, who we see at her youngest as a small child from the perspective of her uncle, and at her oldest as a mother in her late 40s. Variously, we meet Bennie’s mentor Lou, a big-name, hedonistic record producer in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Bennie’s wife, Stephanie, a sometime publicist; Bennie’s protégé Alex, a one-night-stand of Sasha’s; Bennie’s close friends from his punk days, Scotty, Jocelyn, and Rhea; Sasha’s uncle and her college friend, Rob; Lou’s lover Mindy; Stephanie’s ex-boss Dolly, in her heyday known as LaDoll; Dolly’s daughter Lulu; the ex-rock star Bosco; the flailing ex-ingénue ex-movie star Kitty Jackson; Jules, Stephanie’s brother, who attempts to rape Kitty; and sundry other friends, family, lovers and clients.

The tone veers radically from satire to sour. The forms vary from Proustian to PowerPoint presentation (really).

It’s wildly ambitious and wildly, breathtakingly accomplished, in the best ways.

The title?

Quite early, we meet Bosco, once a skinny, hyperkinetic stage performer guitarist, now an obese wreck. Bosco wants to go out on tour on stage one last time, doing what he once did, but blatantly as he is now: he knows it will kill him.

He tells Stephanie and Jules

“The album’s called A to B, right?” Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen. […] Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

Later, Bennie echoes Bosco, telling his ex-bandmate Scotty, who has spent the better part of 50 years a bum

”Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”

The novel could quite easily be titled A to B, like Bosco’s album: What happened? What took us from A (then) and turned us into B (now)?

Never having heard the expression “Time’s a goon”, I like to think Jennifer Egan lifted the image from Elvis Costello’s song Goon Squad, off his album Armed Forces, which came out in 1979, the same year the fictional Bennie Salazar connected with the fictional Lou Kline:

I could be a corporal into corporal punishment
Or the general manager of a large establishment
They pat some good boys on the back and put some to the rod
But I never thought they’d put me in the

Goon squad […]

Some grow up just like their dads
and some grow up too tall
Some go drinking with the lads
Some are no fun at all
And you must find your proper place
For everything you see
But you’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me

I danced to that song at my 18th birthday party.

The way I heard it then, and the way I hear it now, Elvis Costello’s song is about paths our lives could take, and our fear that we can’t control how it’ll turn out, and our fear the way it turns out might be completely random, or conversely, that it absolutely might not be: that some of us are born to lose and some are born to survive.

These are themes I read in Jennifer Egan’s book. Among other things, it’s exploring failure and thwarted potential, and unexpected, unlooked for success; the tragedies of getting what you want, or not getting it. It’s shockingly predictive of the #MeToo movement, and predictive, too, of technological change and its effects on human relations (A Visit to the Good Squad was published in 2010).

There were characters I feared for. Please, let them live. Let them live well.

Some pray to survive.

Sometimes I read the ‘B‘ where Egan took individual characters, and sighed in relief. Sometimes I felt sad for where she left them. But if Egan’s book says anything, it says the story ain’t over, until life ends. There’s a recurring motif of sunrises and sunsets. Life ends for only a couple of these characters within the pages of these stories.

Of the arcs I found chilling, Jocelyn’s story stands out. We meet Jocelyn as a beautiful Eurasian 17 year-old Californian punk. In 1979 she has the fortune, or misfortune, to be picked up as a hitchhiker by Lou Kline the hot-shot record producer, in his red Mercedes.

Jocelyn’s friend Rhea (“the girl no one is waiting for. Usually the girl is fat […]”) tells us

“I’m two inches away on my parents’ flowered bedspread while she dials the phone with a black fingernail. I hear a man’s voice answer, and it shocks me that he’s real. Jocelyn didn’t make him up […] He doesn’t go, Hey beautiful, though. He goes, I told you to let me call you.”

Later

“A man is sitting in a round corner booth, smiling teeth at us, and that man is Lou. He looks as old as my dad, meaning forty-three. He has shaggy blond hair, and his face is handsome, I guess, in that way dads can sometimes be.

C’mere, beautiful, Lou actually does say, and he lifts an arm to Jocelyn.”

Before long Lou is forcing Jocelyn’s head up and down on his erect penis as they sit in a public booth in a nightclub. But that’s okay. Already “Lou did some lines off Jocelyn’s bare butt and they went all the way twice, not including when she went down on him”.

It is not always okay. Not once Jocelyn forms a bond with Lou’s eldest, best-loved son, Rolfe.

I’ve met a few Lou’s. Happily, I’ve never had the experiences Jocelyn has. Jocelyn is a fiction, but she reminds me sharply of the actor and activist Rose McGowan writing about her early experiences in L.A., in her autobiography Brave.

Rhea says to Lou

I go, do you even remember being our age?

Lou grins at me in my chair, but it’s a copy of the grin he had at dinner. I am your age, he goes.

Ahem, I go. You have six kids.

So I do, he goes. He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear. I think, I didn’t have sex with this man. I don’t even know him. Then he says, I’ll never get old.

You’re already old, I tell him.

He swivels around and peers at me huddled in my chair. You’re scary, he goes. You know that?

A bit over 20 years later, Rhea and Jocelyn visit Lou at his deathbed, poolside at his mansion, as ever:

Jocelyn, who has lost at least 15 years of her life as a drug addict, and has lost the capacity to love, thinks

“Who is this old man dying in front of me? I want the other one, the selfish, devouring man, the one who turned me around between his legs out here in the wide open, pushing the back of my head with his free hand while he laughed into the phone. […] I have a thing or two to say to that one.”

In the last story, the last episode, Bennie tries to make it up to Scotty, the friend of his youth, for Bennie’s former success and Scotty’s years of failure.

Bennie organises a massive outdoor gig at Ground Zero, where Manhattan’s Twin Towers once stood. The gig has been promoted virally through social media. It’s anybody’s guess how many might show up.

In the event (as they say), the ground is packed. Scotty panics severely:

Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”

Yet, once forced on-stage, Scotty, who has been under the wire, so to speak, technologically, Scotty, who plays “ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you just knew had never had a page or a profile or a handle or a handset [smartphone], who was no part of anyone’s data, a guy who lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage”, is recognised as a signifier of The Authentic, “that now register[s] as pure”.

Scotty has the impact of a musical messiah, a Bob Dylan for the 2020s.

Scotty, who commences his set with songs for children, this future decade’s key trend, a Wiggles for “pointers” (infants) and adults alike, moves onto his punk repertoire from 1979: Eyes in my Head, X’s and O’s, Who’s Watching Hardest, and Jocelyn’s song, What the Fuck?:

You said you were a fairy princess
You said you were a shooting star
You said we’d go to Bora Bora
Now look at where the fuck we are…

Jennifer Egan’s characters each ask: Now look at where the fuck we are.

We are at ‘B‘.

We were there. Now we are here.


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Historical sex offences: the case of King Edward and the countess of Salisbury

The allegations still shock:

Come the night, when he had gone to bed in proper state, and he knew that the fine lady was in her bedchamber and that all her ladies were asleep and his gentlemen also, except his personal valets, he got up and told these valets that nothing must interfere with what he was going to do, on pain of death. So it was that he entered the lady’s chamber, then shut the doors of the wardrobe so that her maids could not help her, then he took her and gagged her mouth so firmly that she could not cry out more than two or three times, and then he raped her so savagely that never was a woman so badly treated; and he left her lying there all battered about, bleeding from the nose and the mouth and elsewhere, which was for her great damage and great pity. Then he left the next day without saying a word, and returned to London, very disgusted with what he had done.

The year is 1341. The chronicler is Jean Le Bel. The man is King Edward III of England. The woman is identified as Alice, Countess of Salisbury.

medieval-woman-with-roses

With “historical sexual abuse” and the #MeToo movement topical as I write, this tale of rape nearly seven centuries ago seems to me an intriguing case study in how rape by a powerful man in a past epoch has been recounted and responded to.

Let’s consider.

First, let’s take Jean Le Bel.

According to Wikipedia,

Jean Le Bel (c. 1290 – 15 February 1370) was a chronicler from Liege. His father, Gilles le Beal des Changes, was an alderman of Liege, where Jean himself was active.

Jean was one of the first chroniclers to write in French instead of Latin. He was a soldier and companion of Jean, Count de Beaumont and travelled with him to England and Scotland in 1327 [where he fought against the Scots in the Border Wars]. At the request of the duke, he wrote Vrayes Chroniques (“True Chronicles”), which recorded the events of the reign of Edward III. He is believed to be the first person to use interviews to confirm and supplement his facts.[citation needed] Jean gives as his reason for writing a desire to replace a certain misleading rhymed chronicle of the wars of Edward III by a true relation of his enterprises down to the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. Jean Froissart was greatly influenced by him and borrowed from his texts. […]

In the matter of style Le Bel has been placed by some critics on the level of Froissart. His chief merit is his refusal to narrate events unless either he himself or his informant had witnessed them.

Reference – Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Lebel, Jean“. Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 349–350.

Jean lived to about age 80 and enjoyed a conspicuously prosperous lifestyle.

Jean_Le_Bel_right_provincial_palace_Liege

Statue of Jean Le Bel (right) – provincial palace at Liege

So, who witnessed this event who could have been Le Bel’s informant?

Presumably, one or more of King Edward’s personal valets; or someone in Edward’s retinue in whom a valet confided; or one or more of the ladies of the bedchamber, albeit they were seemingly asleep when the assault commenced.

Second, let’s consider Edward.

In late December 1341, the time of the alleged rape, King Edward III had recently turned 29 years old (born 13 November 1312). He had been crowned king at age 14 (1 February 1327), one week after his father Edward II was deposed. For three years he was a puppet king, with power in the hands of his mother Queen Isabella’s lover, Roger Mortimer. At 15 he was married to Philippa of Hainault (25 or 26 January 1328), following an 18-month betrothal. On 19 October 1330, just prior to his 18th birthday, Edward wrested power from Mortimer, through a coup led by Sir William Montagu.

King_Edward_III_2

The young King Edward III of England pays homage to King Philip VI of France

Sir William was rewarded by being made earl of Salisbury, earl then being the highest rank of nobility in England after prince (‘duke’ at that time was a continental title, not yet in use in England). Sir William remained Edward’s closest friend and senior military commander till his death from tournament injuries in January 1344.

Edward’s marriage to Philippa was considered a great success. They were much the same age, met at about age 13, and hit it off from the outset. At the time of the alleged rape Philippa was five months pregnant with their eighth child, having already given birth to five sons. In total she birthed thirteen children, of whom six lived to have offspring: to them, we owe the Wars of the Roses (a.k.a. “the Cousins’ Wars).

Edward III funeral effigy head & shoulders, Westminster Abbey Mu

Edward III – mask for effigy

That said, across the previous year – 1340-41 – the royal marriage faced a crisis and Edward seems to have engaged in some uncharacteristic behaviours. Edward had been king from his teens and had many sexual liaisons; his enemies condemned his court as immoral, while his friends acknowledged their king enjoyed the company of ladies. No one expected Edward to be monogamous. Yet, three envoys entrusted with a letter to the pope written 18 November 1340 were instructed by King Edward to inform the pontiff that the archbishop of Canterbury, the senior churchman in England, had “spoken separately to me of my wife, and to my wife of me, in order that, if he were listened to, he might provoke us to such anger as to divide us forever”.

Worse, in his letter to the pope, Edward accuses the archbishop of Canterbury of wanting him dead, possibly of attempting to contrive his death.

The accusations against the archbishop of Canterbury arise from the archbishop’s lack of support for Edward’s wars in France, specifically his disapproval of the financial costs and his opposition to the massive taxes Edward levied to raise finance.

The issue within the marriage is more mysterious. Did Edward believe Philippa committed adultery? Could he have believed her seventh child, Edmund, was not his? Edward could not have fathered the child if the pregnancy went full-term, as the royal couple was separated, in Ghent and in Tournai, at the time conception must have taken place. But sixteen days premature is not implausible. If Edmund was premature and perhaps sickly, that could explain why he was not accorded the same honours as his elder brothers as the same young ages, why he lived in Philippa’s care longer than the others, and even, possibly, why his temperament was milder than his brothers’.

Or, was what the archbishop had to say not against Philippa but against Edward? Some misbehaviour beyond the expected infidelities? Some abuse or misuse of members of her household? Of female relatives?

Baptism_Edward_III_daughter_Isabella

Baptism of Edward III and Philippa’s daughter Isabella

Third: let’s look at the alleged rape victim.

Jean Le Bel names her as Alice, countess of Salisbury, wife of Edward’s great friend Sir William Montagu.

Except Sir William’s wife was Catherine.

In Jean Le Bel’s account, Alice, countess of Salisbury, is in her husband’s northern castle at Wark besieged by the Scots. Her nephew, the castle’s governor, apparently another William Montagu, escapes the siege, seeks out King Edward and his armies in Newcastle, and begs the king’s aid, which is forthcoming. King Edward has not seen the countess since her marriage and is publicly, conspicuously, struck by infatuation. The lady declines his overtures, tactfully. Subsequently he invites her and her husband to a great tournament in London, where she dresses in a subdued manner to attempt to deflect his attentions. Then Edward visits the castle in her husband’s absence and, when the countess continues to refuse him, he rapes her.

Which parts are attestable fact?

William Montagu, earl of Salisbury, was lord of the castle at Wark. In the summer of 1342 he was a prisoner of war in France. At that time, King Edward and his armies were engaged in Border War fighting in the immediate area of Wark. The earl did die just a few years later.

Which parts are wrong?

Sir William’s lady was Catherine. She did not have a nephew named William Montagu – but her 12 year-old son, the earl’s heir, was named William. (Le Bel claimed the couple had no heir.) The earl died in England, not fighting abroad. He did not abrogate his estates, his marriage and his liege lord.

Which parts are plausible?

After the earl’s release from imprisonment in France and his return to England, he and his wife almost certainly attended the king’s great feast in London that summer, which very likely included jousts.

Which parts just don’t sound right?

It’s improbable the countess of Salisbury would have resided in a border castle while warfare with the Scots was flaring.

Sir William and his countess had by 1342 been married 13 years. It seems improbable the king had never since the wedding seen his best friend’s wife. Catherine would have been about 38 and had six children by then, four of them girls. It’s not impossible a 38 year-old mother of six could be raped by a king. Cesare Borgia notoriously raped Caterina Sforza when she was 37 and the mother of eight children. But he’d just captured her castle, with her as the enemy commander. He was not her purported rescuer, and she was not married to his closest, long-time friend.

Edward_III_and_co-conspirators

Edward III with William Montagu and co-conspirators prepare to oust Mortimer

Can these discrepancies be reconciled?

Curiously, they can, to an extent.

Sir William was not married to an Alice and his countess did not have a nephew named William. But Sir William had a brother, Edward, and Edward Montagu married Alice of Norfolk, a cousin of the king’s, in 1338. King Edward had not seen Alice since her marriage; in 1342 she was 18 years old. Obviously, Alice Montagu did have a nephew named William Montagu – her brother-in-law the earl’s son and heir, Catherine’s eldest son. William Montagu was not old enough to be Wark Castle’s governor, but it’s plausible Edward Montagu might have been the castle’s governor. Edward Montagu might have been his nephew’s guardian. It’s plausible young William Montagu might have served in his uncle Edward’s household.

edward_of_woodstock_the_black_prince_of_wales_large

William Montagu the younger, 2nd Earl of Salisbury

Jean Le Bel wrote his account about ten years after the alleged rape occurred, in about 1352. In January 1352, Alice Montagu was savagely beaten by her husband and his retainers and died from her injuries shortly after. She would have been perhaps 27 years old.

Was Alice of Norfolk killed by her husband for bringing his name into disrepute, for injuring his reputation? Was she killed because her cousin the king had sex with her, possibly raped her?

It’s tempting to surmise.

But caution is in order. Edward Montagu had a history of violent lawlessness. He had squeezed dry his wife’s substantial estates. She had given him four daughters but the male issue had died. Edward and several of his men were indicted for Alice’s killing but it appears only one henchman was convicted and he was subsequently pardoned. Edward Montagu was a veteran of the Battle of Crecy (1346), a famous English victory in the Hundred Years’ War with France. It’s probable his henchman were also Crecy “heroes”.

It’s quite possible Edward Montagu’s murder of his wife Alice was unrelated to any alleged sexual episode between his wife and his king. It’s possible he killed her simply because he was a violent murderous man and because he could.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_Crécy

From the Chronicles of Jean Froissart – King Edward III counts the dead after the Battle of Crecy

It’s possible that when Jean Le Bel wrote his account, he inadvertently conflated Catherine, countess of Salisbury, with Alice, the recently deceased wife of Edward Montagu.

It’s also possible Jean Le Bel deliberately conflated the countess with Alice of Norfolk, because by conflating the two, the story elements become so much more sensational – wife of best friend, wife of friend to whom King Edward owes his crown – and with Alice dead, speculation can run rife.

Maybe Jean Le Bel, ex-foot soldier in the Border Wars, had sympathy with Edward Montagu, hero of Crecy, and wrote the tale to help Montagu justify the killing of his wife – although this seems unlikely, given the lady in Le Bel’s tale behaves with impeccable propriety, and the king, whom Le Bel admired, and had met, behaves shockingly.

Which begs the question: why did Jean Le Bel write this tale?

It’s easy to dismiss the entire story as propaganda by King Edward’s enemies in France. But Le Bel is not a Frenchman: he’s from Hainault, home of Queen Philippa. And he’s Edward’s supporter.

The better-known chronicler Jean Froissart is more circumspect:

You have heard me speak of Edward’s love for the countess of Salisbury. The chronicle of Jean Le Bel speaks of this love less properly than I must, for, please God, it would never enter my head to incriminate the king of England and the countess of Salisbury with such a vile accusation. If respectable men ask why I mention that love, they should know that Jean Le Bel relates in his chronicle that the English king raped the countess of Salisbury. Now I declare that I know England well, where I have lived for long periods mainly at the royal court and also with the great lords of the country. And I have never heard tell of this rape although I have asked people about it who must have known if it had ever happened. Moreover I cannot believe [it] and it is incredible that so great and valiant a man as the king of England would have allowed himself to dishonor one of the most notable ladies of this realm and one of his knights who had served him so loyally all his life.

This is Froissart’s second attempt at addressing the rape episode. In the first version, he omits mention of rape and instead substitutes an anecdote about Edward being enamoured of the countess and engaging in risqué flirting with her during a game of chess. Rapey ‘flirting’, it must be said – when the countess wins at chess, because he lets her, she refuses the ring he presses on her as a gift, whereupon he allegedly remarks “she could be sure he would have taken something of hers if he had won”.

When Froissart revised his chronicle a third time, he omits all mention.

It is said a principle informant of Froissart for his chronicles was Queen Philippa herself. Queen Philippa died in 1369, before the first volume of Froissart’s chronicles appeared. But removing the rape story might have been judicious.

Queen_Philippa_of_Hainault

Queen Philippa in effigy

There is another scandalous tale about a countess of Salisbury circulating from about the late 1340s. Famously, King Edward III created the Noble Order of the Garter, with founding members knighted in 1344 and Garter costume first issued, according to the king’s wardrobe accounts, in late 1348.

Popular legend has it that the countess of Salisbury was dancing at a ball in Calais when her garter slipped from her thigh. Courtiers sniggered, but King Edward gallantly picked up the undergarment and returned it to the countess, exclaiming “Honi soit qui mal y pense!” (“Shame on him who thinks badly of it!”).

Or, as the popular twentieth-century garbled humorous history book 1066 And All That recalls it, “Honey, your garter’s slipped!”

It’s a nonsense. The Order of the Garter refers to the straps (garters) used to secure armour. “Honi soit qui mal y sense” heaps shame on him who thinks badly of the English king’s claim to the French throne.

If a garter slipped on a dance floor (and it didn’t), the “countess of Salisbury” could have been Catherine, wife to Sir William. More likely it would have referred to Joan of Kent, another cousin and protégée of King Edward’s, who had bigamously married William Montagu the younger at age 13 in 1341 and had become countess on her father-in-law’s death in 1344.

Joan subsequently returned to her first husband, whom she’d married secretly (without royal consent) at age 12 in 1340, and, after his death in 1360, despite many obstacles the Black Prince, Edward Prince of Wales, son and heir to King Edward III, made her his wife.

Their son became King Richard II. Richard II’s deposition unsettled the succession and paved the way for the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster.

Now that really was a scandal.

Jona_of_Kent

Joan of Kent – ceiling boss at Canterbury Cathedral

But still I ask myself:

If Jean Le Bel so admired Edward III, and if, as he says, he only ever knew King Edward to do one bad thing (this alleged rape – not starting the Hundred Years’ War, not hanging 12 year-old hostage Thomas Seton, not other war crimes or miscarriages of justice): why did Jean feel compelled to recount, in such grim detail, that one bad thing that Edward, allegedly, did?

King_Edward_III_3

King Edward III of England

Credit:

This blog owes everything to Ian Mortimer’s discussion of the alleged rape by Edward III in his biography The Perfect King: The life of Edward III, father of the English Nation (2006) – Chapter 8, Chivalry and Shame

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2017/06/12/lucrezia-elizabeth-and-sansa/


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Review: Grace (2017) by Paul Lynch

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_6Let’s get this out of the way straight up: Paul Lynch’s novel Grace is a tour de force. Not everyone will love it. Let me tell you why I do.

A young man, still a teen boy, stands on an open road in defiance of an oncoming speeding vehicle. The year is 1845, the place is western Ireland: the first year of an Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine. The vehicle is a horse-drawn carriage – six horses, galloping, the coachman whipping them faster.

They think they own the place, says the boy.

Afterwards, as he lies in a ditch, his head aching from the coachman’s boot, he delivers his manifesto:

He says, I am not stupid in the least. Don’t you see what’s going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-doers who don’t give a fuck what is happening to the ordinary people. You saw that village yesterday and how prosperous it was, untouched by this curse. The arrogance of that driver. This is the way of things now. It could be the end of the world for the likes of us, but to the likes of them, they aren’t bothered. Do you know what I think? Those who are starving on the roads still believe deliverance is going to come. But who is going to deliver them? Not God and not the Crown and not anybody in this country. The people are living off hope. Hope is the lie they want to believe in. It is hope that carries you along, keeps you in your place. Keeps you down. Let me tell you something. I do not hope. I do not hope for anything in the least because to hope is to depend upon others. And so I will make my own luck. I believe there are no rules anymore. We are truly on our own in all this. If they have left us to fend for ourselves then we will do just that. We should meet it standing up. I believe that if I want that goddamn carriage to slow down or get off the road I can make it happen. I really believe this. Either I win or they win. There can be no other. I will make it happen, for how else am I supposed to live? What is happening now is no different to the end of the world, the only difference is that the rich can continue to live without affliction. The gods have abandoned us, that’s how I figure it. It is time to be your own god.

About a million people died from starvation and starvation-induced illness during the four years of the famine. A million more emigrated. Two-fifths of the population were reliant on potato crops that failed; countless numbers took to the roads, hoping to find food and sustenance, some kind of salvation. The wanderers on the roads, the beggars, the walking skeletons, prefigure our cultural nightmare of a zombie apocalypse. Grace is the story of people who strived their hardest to live, asking all the time, what kind of life is this? 

Grace Coyle is 14 when her mother cuts her hair and shoves her out of their cottage on Blackmountain in Donegal. “You’re the strong one now,” her mother tells her. Go find work. Come back in a year.

Grace’s younger brother Colly runs away to join her; Colly is a resourceful, pragmatic presence supporting Grace in her quest to survive. Another ally is Bart, the young man standing in the middle of that road. For me, Bart is the most compelling character in the story.

There is love, of sorts, between Grace and Bart, as far as two young people scrabbling to survive can experience love. There are moments when “She knows they are ancient and young and will never die.”

But this is not a love story. This is a story about how the very determined insist it cannot happen to them – they will never die – and yet circumstances and history mow them down and sweep them away. It’s a story about how, to survive, we need to believe we are exceptions, and yet when the great winters, the great hungers, come, belief in itself is insufficient.

They walk past a young woman delirious in a ditch, the woman smiling now as the snow gives last drink to her lips. The snow gowning her white for the slowest of country burials. The woman becoming part of it all, she thinks, that is the sky and the earth locked together in white and forgetting. You do not look but keep walking onwards. This feeling she has. It is not that she tells herself she is different. She knows she is different from all these others on the road, that what she sees around her will not happen to her also. That she will make better choices. So why would you even look at them, they have made their choices and you made yours, they aren’t even people, just sitters and starers with their cramp hands held out like the grabby hands of the dead. They want what you want and would take it out of your hand or even kill you for it so why would you even begin to give them a sympathetic look?

Grace is identifying as a survivor, identifying with the strong. Yet when snows blanket everything and everything is hunger, she is categorically not among the privileged.

Watching such men in the coffeehouse and watching such men on the street and she thinks that these people have been born clean, born into a higher position, while all the rest of us on earth were born into a lower position and such a thing is all down to who you are and where you come from and the luck of the draw and there is nothing you can do about it but take it back off them, because a fish cannot become a bird but there is nothing to stop a fish from wearing a bird’s feathers.

Grace wrestles with the limits of transformation, with who she needs to be to survive. Earlier, she asked, “a fish cannot become a bird, or can it? Maybe it can.” Later, she asks

Tell me this, do you think that everybody in the world is born fixed into their position?

I don’t know about that. It is certainly the case that everybody takes the same position in death.

It seems to me that a fish cannot become a bird and that the bird will attack the fish if it tries to fly. Perhaps that is the natural order of things. But why must that be so? I just saw men belonging to a farmer beat to death a poor man with clubs. They dug a trap to catch him like an animal, or like a fish if you think about it – pulled him like a fish from a pond. Poked his eyes out with their beaks. Things have gotten worse now. I think it would take some kind of magical effort for the fish to leave the water–

[…] Finally she asks, do you think he was just unlucky? Do you think he made his own luck?

The transformations Grace rolls through are many, and none of her own volition. From a young girl on a mountain, she becomes a boy named Tim, a cattle drover; a developing woman betrayed by her menstruation; the target of would-be rapists; a bandit, the pirate queen of Connaught; Deirdre of the Sorrows, Grainne loved by Diarmuid; a zombie; a corpse; a miracle of God, penitent; the girl who says no; the girl who can say nothing, nothing, no word in the face of what she’s seen; the one taken by the pooka, the fairies, returning home to find centuries have past and she a ghost, unrecognized; the mother who brings new life, at the cost of letting go of the old, forgetting.

More than once, men ask Grace, “What are you?”

Throughout her journey Grace is accompanied by ghosts, mostly ghosts who help sustain her. In the end, the ghosts must go, and with them, memory.

The novel is deeply concerned with memory. Colly frets about its nature. He frets about the relationship between the soul and memory:

Like, when you die, where do your memories go– if the soul doesn’t have a memory box, how can you remember your life when you die, where do memories go–

Grace wonders

About her own soul, all that has been put in it, wonders how a soul can be of the same essence when you are changing a little bit every day, when you are no longer the same person, because you are not the same person at the end of the year as you were at the start of it, and sometimes you change during the day, depending on certain events. And if that is the case, and you die at one age rather than another, would your soul not be completely different?

The tragedy of sweeping cataclysms is that those who do not live do not get to become who they might have been. The inventor. The engineer. The philosopher. The political activist. The writer.

Colly frets about how the soul relates to the body. Is the soul embodied? Does it take its form from the shape of the body? Does the soul then change as the body changes? What if the body is radically malformed?

Grce_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_4

Paul Lynch, the writer, cares about soul and memory. In interviews he speaks of how the Great Hunger left survivors traumatized, unwilling or unable to speak of what they knew. He speaks of the legacy of trauma in Ireland.

That’s one summation of what he tries to do here: he tries to speak of the legacy of trauma left by the Great Hunger, and of the social changes, including changes in the role of religion, and changes to the heritage of supernatural belief, resulting from the Great Hunger.

I think he does this extraordinarily.

I understand from researching Paul Lynch’s previous writings that Grace is a sequel of sorts. Now I feel compelled to find his first novel (Grace is his third), which tells the story of Grace’s father: Red Sky in Morning.

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer

I opened this piece by saying Grace will not be loved by all. Against my usual practice, after finishing my reading I googled reviews and articles on the internet. Many are rave reviews, particularly those written by professional reviewers and authors. Yet, many reader reviews online about Grace are negative. Mostly, the complaint is that the story is too unremittingly grim. Readers, apparently, can’t handle grim. Others complained there is no story. These are people presumably unfamiliar with the picaresque genre, who can’t relate to themes unfolded episodically within an overarching narrative. Some readers complained the language is impenetrable. The more highbrow critics complained the characters are stock Irish stereotypes. The most highbrow critics complained Lynch’s language reads like a parody of Irish literary modernism.

Some critics writing for major newspapers took Lynch to task for language overworked, overwritten, deliberately obscure. I found some critics for major newspapers lacking in credibility: two of them misidentified characters – one a character at the book’s start, one towards its end – which undermined my confidence in their readings.

The reviewer for the New York Times started her review by quoting P.G. Wodehouse:

To twist a phrase from P.G. Wodehouse, it’s not difficult to tell the difference between Paul Lynch’s writing and a ray of sunshine, and “Grace”, his third novel, reveals an undiminished appetite for the depiction of suffering. Through its young heroine, we experience all the indescribable horrors of the Irish famine. Lynch goes where only famished dogs should go, and it’s a measure of his skill that he keeps us with him all the same.

Oh my. A backhanded compliment. Never mind that it references what for me was the most touching moment in the book and makes a joke of that. Never mind that it foregrounds a review of a book about famine with reference to a twee humorist. The suggestion that suffering as a subject is unseemly, that such suffering is indescribable, is hostile and to my mind bizarre. If this book were by a black author, about American slavery, would Katherine Grant write this way? If it were a book about the Holocaust, by a Jewish author, could she write this way?

But I digress.

Lynch’s writing is without doubt deliberately, perhaps provocatively, poetic. His language in places is blank verse. His imagery is dense, his grammar as if translated from another language. He drops in Gaelic phrases. He drops allusions to Gaelic myth and folklore that might elude a reader unfamiliar with this heritage. It is difficult to read, and sentences, paragraphs, demand re-reading.

Paul Lynch says his writing is intuitive and yet he rewrites sentences up to fifty times. He seems to ask, if I value language to the extent of rewriting up to fifty times, is it so hard to reread that sentence more than once?

He seems to ask, if people lived these experiences, and couldn’t speak of them, and if I write them, if I write and rewrite and try to honour the experiences of the dead, is it so hard to bear with the grim, and see it through?

Paul Lynch does not believe that a novel set in an historical time is necessarily a genre novel, “historical fiction”. He believes his historical novel has contemporary relevance. His novel addresses the Irish Great Famine and also every other famine, pestilence, genocide, holocaust that has reduced humans to animals and reduced life to survival.

Is it so hard to remember?

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_5


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In short: The Natural Way of Things (2015) by Charlotte Wood

Charlotte_Wood_The_Natural_Way_of_Things

5 January 2016

I finally read Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things [which subsequently won the 2016 Stella Prize for “Writing by Australian women”].

I liked the opening sequences and the final section; some of the middle sagged a bit. It’s not an easy novel to like – stylistically sometimes too gothic for my palate (the Ransom doll) and ideologically hardline. Even as an unabashed feminist I found myself squeaking “But I like men!”. Which is beside the point in a schematically rigorous parable like this.

It was very similar, thematically, to the novella I wrote mid-2012: women forcibly interred in a kind of prison camp run by men, subjected to humiliations intended to enforce the “natural way of things”, with femaleness seen as abject and subject to male controls. I liked my opening sequences, too, but my draft backed my heroine into a muddy pit and I could not devise a way to extract her. Eventually I edited it into a short story, which worked better.

Charlotte Wood has set hers in a distinctively Australian environment, anchored by Australian references (notorious true crimes perpetrated against individual women and generic misogynist scenarios), whereas mine was set in a land of fable with lots of east Asian elements. Also mine was as much a lashing out at corporate culture… oops, so is Charlotte’s.

Charlotte’s novel stayed in my mind and I remember it now, precisely two years later (to the day), with more appreciation than I felt at the time. Also, I thank her for this:

 

I’m thinking I might reactivate one or both of my blogs, Elly McDonald Writer and Telling Tales. Maybe I’ll import the content of one into the other and just retain one [which is what I did]. Last time I was writing memoir pieces that sent me into a tailspin of depression. Enough of that. Not sure what I’d write about at this point.

Turns out I write about gender politics and violence, for now.

Feral_Woman

 


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Review: My Absolute Darling (2017) by Gabriel Tallent

My_Absolute_Darling

The cover blurb sums it up:

At fourteen, Turtle Alveston knows the use of every gun on her wall; that chaos is coming and only the strong will survive it; that her daddy loves her more than anything else in this world. And he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her with him.

She doesn’t know why […] the line between love and pain can be so hard to see; why making a friend may be the bravest and most terrifying thing she has ever done; and what her daddy will do when he finds out…

Turtle is aptly named: she is both a lizard-brained creature armored by her shell, and the mythical turtle who bears the world on its back. She is at different points passive and watchful, and “the future shotgun-toting, chainsaw-wielding queen of postapocalyptic America”.

Naming matters in this novel. There is a worldview debate between Turtle’s daddy and his father, Turtle’s grandpa: do we know a thing by first naming it, or, in order to know it, do we need to approach it with complete openness, study it, examine it, understand it, before we can name? Martin, Turtle’s father, is, in addition to being a “narcissistic sociopath”, an avid reader of philosophy. He tells Turtle she is the Platonic ideal of herself: his perfect imagined survivor. Daniel, Turtle’s grandpa, teaches her to observe and intuit and recognize the truth from her observation.

This isn’t an abstract debate. Martin warns Turtle against allowing other people’s interpretations to corrupt her understanding: he wants his version of the ‘truth’ to remain unchallenged. Challenging Martin’s ‘truth’ could be fatal. Challenging Martin in any way brings painful retribution.

When we meet Turtle, she is wholly Martin’s. She is silent, sad, almost non-verbal. At school, she fails vocabulary tests again and again. She cannot reach for the appropriate words. Her worldview, mirroring Martin’s, is of a hostile, menacing environment. She has no sense that people might care, or cooperate.

When presented with the sentence ‘The _________ enjoyed working with children’, Turtle surmises ‘suspect’. Of course. “The suspect enjoyed working with children”. Turtle, whose father has had sexual relations with her for many years, whose father refuses her any contact with medical professionals or counselors, has no concept that the more obvious choice might be “The paediatrician enjoyed working with children”.

Turtle cannot find appropriate words, so inappropriate words speak for her. She is unable to speak of other girls or women without hissing misogynist violence. “Bitch.” “Whore.” “Cunt.” “Slit.” Turtle believes these words say everything there is to be said for femaleness, everything there is to be said about her. She believes her father, accepts everything he says. He calls her “kibble”: dog food.

Sometimes, Turtle has an urge to break free, to at least temporarily slip the leash, even knowing she’ll beaten after her day AWOL. On one of these free-range rambles, she encounters two boys, boys lost hiking, and protects them from the elements, maybe saves their lives. If Turtle is to have a life, this might be the moment she saves herself. This is the moment she chooses friendship.

Where will friendship lead?

We know from the outset chaos is coming. We know there must be a showdown. We don’t know who will live or who will die. We realize early on that Turtle needs someone outside herself to fight for; fighting on her own behalf will not be sufficient to survive her father.

Gabriel Tallent loves language and the boys Turtle meets are hyper-verbal. They’re very funny, and their linguistic joking provides much needed relief in an intense, extraordinarily poetic novel, filled with excess language thick like impasto paint technique, like the tidal wave and its debris-filled aftermath that is this narrative’s turning-point episode.

Turtle at times is a cartoon superhero(ine).

“She doesn’t feel cold.”

“Or pain.”

“Only justice.”

“We think she might be a ninja.”

“She denies this.”

“But of course, she’d have to deny it.”

“If she said yes, she was a ninja, we’d know she wasn’t.”

“I wouldn’t describe the ninja theory as definitive, but it’s a live possibility.”

“Anyway, she led us out of the valley of the shadow.”

“She can see in the dark.”

“She can walk across water.”

We can know a thing by looking at it closely and describing it. Then we might name it. Say, “ninja”.

But would we stake our lives on naming truthfully?

Gabriel_Tallent

Debut novelist Gabriel Tallent

 

Valar Morghulis (26 February 2014)


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Review: The Stranger (2017) by Melanie Raabe – Die Falle, translated from the German by Imogen Taylor

The_Stranger_Melanie_RaabeWhat if your spouse went missing for seven years then apparently returns – only it’s not him, and this person who claims to be the man you loved appears to have a mysterious, vindictive agenda?

I sat up past midnight gulping this book, forgetting I had work the next day.

I didn’t plan to write a full review, mostly because I can’t do that without spoilers.

Suffice to say, on the best seller, airport reading level, essentially it’s a nightmare, gender-reversed version of the Hollywood staple My Favorite Wife/Something’s Gotta Give/Move Over Darling, though the author casts it in terms of classic dark folk tales, primarily Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. There are chips of ice in the heart. Lost love. Dark woods and winding paths.

On serious levels, it’s a meditation on love, guilt, and memory. On marriage. With Radiohead as its soundtrack. (The beloved also loved Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits. There might be an echo of Orpheus and Eurydice here.)

The novel is rich in allusions: The Return of Martin Guerre, the 1982 French film starring Gerard Depardieu, based on a sixteenth-century incident. Sommersby, the 1993 Hollywood remake starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. Homer’s Penelope and Odysseus. The scar on Odysseus’s thigh, the testimony of the aged dog, the knowingness of the marital bed.

Is this man who returns to Sarah, Philip? (The names are significant: Phil being the ancient Greek etymology for ‘love; lover’; Sarah meaning ‘princess’, which was Philip’s nickname for her. There is also the shadow figure, Vincent. Vincent means ‘conqueror’.) Is this man her husband? Or is he a psychopath? Or is this stranger both?

I kept thinking of Hamlet. Hamlet is on a mission of revenge. He is fuelled with righteous rage, based on his belief in murder, conspiracy and betrayal. Yet Hamlet is uncertain. Uncertainty stays his hand. Who is this woman, this woman he claims as his wife?

When I outlined this plot to my sister, she insisted even after twenty years apart she could never not recognise her husband. She could never confuse her husband with a stranger. No ambiguity.

Melanie Raabe stacks the decks to create a plausible context. But her central inquiry – who is the person I married? who is the person I claim to love? – resonates broadly.

I’m not so certain myself.

Melanie_Raabe

Melanie Raabe

 


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#MeToo and the angry women

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I don’t remember the joke now but the punchline was something like “I’m long and thick and I come fast”.

The joker was my boss. I was his assistant. The mediator our company provided when I made a formal complaint began by explaining he was internal to the company and had worked with my boss previously on leadership trainings and was his mentor, but that there was no conflict of interest. He then explained to me that a boss-assistant relationship is like a marriage: it was my job to make it work.

He asked me why I persisted with my complaint – my complaints. Why didn’t I just find another job? I explained it was 2008, it was the middle of a GFC (Global Financial Crisis, for those with short memories), and as a 47 year old single woman with no savings I was not about to voluntarily resign and make myself unemployed just because my boss was a jerk.

I voluntarily resigned and made myself unemployed.

I am reminded of this farcical episode in my employment history by the current #MeToo debates on social media. Anyone who’s read other blog posts by me knows gender politics is my recurring theme, and that a number of my memoir blog posts engage with workplace and institutional sexual politics. I am now revisiting my blog posts adding in a new Category: Gender politics.

I’m particularly gripped by the recent upsurge of debate about women and anger. (Note: additional new Category?) How do women express anger? How can women express anger? Is an angry woman automatically an hysterical woman, an irrational woman, an ugly woman? Is she a turn-off? If we turn off, is there some way she can make her case heard?

Australian novelist Charlotte Wood wrote an excellent piece about women and anger for The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/18/charlotte-wood-were-told-female-anger-is-finding-its-moment-but-i-cant-trust-it?CMP=soc_567

There was also an excellent piece in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/all-the-angry-ladies/545042/

2007 Young Australian Muslim of the Year and 2010 Young Queenslander of the Year Yassmin Abdel-Magied – who in 2012 was also awarded Young Leader of the Year in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac’s inaugural 100 Women of Influence Awards and was an InStyle ‘Cultural Leader’ and a Marie Claire Woman of the Future, and subsequently honoured as Youth of the Year in the Australian Muslim Achievement Awards – has faced the consequences of expressing anger publicly.

She writes about the blowback in her autobiography, Yassmin’s Story (Penguin Random House 2016), published at age 24: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/yassmins-story-9780857986177

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard did a classic angry woman speech in parliament in 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOPsxpMzYw4

Yesterday while I was filing for my current boss (male), we commented on our mutual admiration for Gillian Triggs, former professor at the Melbourne Law School, former Dean of the Sydney Law School (Challis Professor of International Law 2007-2012), Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner of Australia’s Human Rights Commission 2012/2013, till 2017 President of the HRC, currently the Acting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

My boss and I were present when Professor Triggs spoke last month about how as a woman she’s perceived it necessary to present a studied veneer of rational calm, even when discussing egregious human rights abuses.

Yesterday I told my boss I see Professor Triggs, along with Hillary Clinton, as one of my “Elizabeth I women”:

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” (attributed to Queen Elizabeth I of England addressing her troops at Tilbury, on the eve of the expected Spanish armada invasion)

Hillary Clinton writes about this carapace of calm and rationality in her most recent book, What Happened. https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/tag/hillary-clinton/

In her book Clinton never mentions the characterization of Claire Underwood in the U.S. Netflix series House of Cards. I always wondered how actors who are publicly Democrat activists could collude in a fictionalized hatchet job on the Democrats’ best recent prospect for presidential election. But then, political journalist Joe Klein already did that number on Hillary, back in 1996, with his roman a clef Primary Colors, which painted Hillary as an abusive, conscienceless harpy. Guess nobody likes an angry woman, huh?

Promoting her book, Clinton unleashed years of pent-up anger:

http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/hillary-clinton:-the-interview/9055256

But for me, the most rivetting expression of women’s anger in the current #MeToo furore is Uma Thurman’s initial response on being questioned about Harvey Weinstein, her producer in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrWG6UmqkBw&feature=youtu.be

What I find most interesting about Thurman’s initial response is her awareness of how her anger might be heard and her willingness to take responsibility for the expression of her anger.

Famously, Uma’s father is the prominent Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. It’s not inconceivable Uma’s response to public questioning owes something to Buddhist teachings, such as those expounded by Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Anger: Wisdom for cooling the flames.

Thay (as Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers call him) views the unmindful expression of anger as analagous to pouring gasoline on fire. Social scientists back him up: research suggests that when we “rehearse” anger – that is, when uncontrolled expression of anger is our habitual recourse – anger becomes our default. Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, is not a useful mode for problem-solving or bridge-building. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings influenced Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violent protest during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Thich Nhat Hanh promoted non-violence – in thought, word and deed – as the basis for workable peace talks during the Vietnam War.

Through this Buddhist lens, it’s not that we’re not entitled to our anger, it’s not that our anger is not justified – it’s the pragmatic issue, how does our anger serve us in this situation? Does it energise us to pursue justice and equity in productive ways? Does it help clarify the issues for us and others? Does it inspire and engage?

If the answers are yes, go right ahead: anger is working for you.

If on the other hand anger consumes us and immobilizes, cancels us out of the conversation, creates barriers to solutions, then maybe we might reconsider how best to get our objectives met, to best serve our cause.

It doesn’t need to involve un-sexing ourselves (like Lady Macbeth), or becoming an Elizabeth I woman, if being an Elizabeth I impairs us.

You don’t have to buy it. But here, for interest, are some words by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Anger is an unpleasant feeling. It is like a blazing flame that burns up our self-control and causes us to say and do things that we regret later. When someone is angry, we can see clearly that he or she is abiding in hell. Anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made. […]

When we are angry, we are not usually inclined to return to ourselves [i.e. to remain aware]. We want to think about the person who is making us angry, to think about his hateful aspects—his rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on. The more we think about him, listen to him, or look at him, the more our anger flares. […]

It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger. Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire.“Breathing in, I know that I am angry. Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.” So we avoid thinking about the other person, and we refrain from doing or saying anything as long as our anger persists. If we put all our mind into observing our anger, we will avoid doing any damage that we may regret later.

When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self. When we are joyful, we are the joy. When we are angry, we are the anger. When anger is born in us, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can accept that energy in order to transform it into another kind of energy.

Then again. In my own life, there’s not a great distance between how Charlotte Wood writes, in her novel, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2016), and how I wrote, on the same themes. Tea, anyone?

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2016/01/14/tea-2012/