Welcome to Smugglivus 2011! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2011, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2012.
Who: Jessica, of Read React Review. One of the most thoughtful bloggers out there, writing reviews as well as discussion posts about gender, genre and ethical criticism. A good blogging friends of ours, we couldn’t have Smugglivus without her now-traditional Hanukkah post.
Give it up for Jessica, folks!
Memorable Violence in this Year’s Reading
When we talk about Hanukkah, we tend to focus on the spiritual victory and the miracle of the oil: In 168 B.C.E., the Syrian/Greeks seized the temple and tried to stop the Jews from practicing their religion. A group of Jews fought back, retaking and rededicating the temple. As a reminder that the true victory is not physical, but spiritual. Zechariah 4:6 says, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” When the Jewish rebels, known as the Maccabees, reclaimed the temple, they had just enough oil to keep the eternal flame burning for one day. However, it lasted the eight days needed to ride out and get more oil. It’s a reminder of the trust that Jews placed in God that they went for it, instead of just sitting there and letting the flame burn out. Today, we light the menorah for eight days, and eat foods, like latkes, cooked in oil, to commemorate the “rededication” of the Temple and this miracle.
The spiritual victory, and the bravery and commitment of the Jews are very important, but there’s no getting around the fact that Hanukkah celebrates a very violent episode in Jewish history. The Greeks sacrificed pigs in the Temple, one of many desecrations, and ordered Jews to violate their own religious beliefs, on pain of death. In response, Mattathias refused to obey, and when another Jewish villager offered to cooperate on his behalf, a Mattathias killed him, then slew the Greek officer. He then forcibly circumcised Jewish children in the area, and ran into the woods to launch a rebel offensive with his five sons. A lot of blood was shed during this period.
Thinking about this aspect of Hanukkah reminded me of some memorable violence in this year’s reading:
1. Stephen O’Connor’s short story collection, Here Comes Another Lesson (Free Press, 2010), begins with “Ziggurat”
A ziggurat is an ancient square mountain of stone, serving as a temple. The Tower of Babel was a ziggurat. The Minotaur has been hanging the bar section of the labyrinth and he sees a new girl. She’s casually playing video games. She’s not scared, she’s very savvy, and she’s not a virgin. The minotaur likes her, and she manages to talk him out of eating her. She then disappears, and he begins to search for her, building the structure of the title. The interesting thing about the violence in “Ziggurat” is that it’s more horrific for being alluded to, as when the minotaur returns to the bar to chat with the new girl, and “there was a trickle of blood descending from the corner of his mouth and pinkish flecks of gristle in his beard.” In “Ziggurat”, the violence, expected of a minotaur in his labyrinth after all, serves, paradoxically, as a kind of anchor in a story that, like the ziggurat itself, keep spiralling in strange and unanticipated directions.
2. Lynn Fried’s 2010 short story, Sunshine beings with the innocent line, “they told Grace they’d found her in a nest of leaves.” The “her” is a wild child, captured in the woods and brought to the master, who buys and grooms girls for his personal use.
It’s a difficult, but potent story, and while the violence perpetrated against and by the girl is predictable, that doesn’t make it any less shocking. As with “the new girl” in Ziggurat, there’s a moment when the female victim turns the tables on her aggressor. It’s violent, but satisfying. Still, the story asks us to consider all of the accomplices to the girl’s capture, captivity, and eventual rape. How is one particular episode of violence generated by a society that is divided between those who profit from it, and those who look the other way?
3. My (male) students have been trying to get me to read “Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk (first published in Playboy in 2004) for years, and this year, I finally did.
It’s the story of three acts of teenage male masturbation gone badly, and grossly, awry, so graphically portrayed that it has caused scores of listeners to faint dead away. I’ll just allude here to the carrot and the thin piece of wax and let your imaginations do the rest. The violence in “Guts” is harder to categorize: it’s self-caused, and not, as in the above stories, an obvious expression of injustice or justice. Perhaps it is a commentary on our repressive attitudes towards sex, such that violence is being perpetrated by the culture on these boys, all of whom are, of course, masturbating in a guilty secret space.
4. In Catherynne M. Valente’s 2011 The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making,
the threat of violence done to our heroine or her friends hangs over the entire book, thanks to the evil Marquess. But it was a scene mid-book that stuck out to me, when September, sailing in the ship of the title, has to kill and eat a fish to stay alive. Valente describes in gory detail the hooking, bludgeoning and gutting of the fish, but what makes it hard to read is the personification of the fish: “its eyes bulged huge and emerald. It gaped pitifully, suddenly forced to contend with air instead of water.” September whispers, “I don’t want to chew up another creature just to keep on for another day! You’re alive. But I’m alive, too! Alive doesn’t care much about anything but staying that way.” This scene invites the reader to wonder whether violence upon other living creatures justifies the cost of survival.
5. The Portrait (Dell, 1995) is a historical romance by Megan Chance set in New York City, in Fall of 1855.
It begins with mousy, quiet Imogene Carter being brought by her godfather, Thomas Gosney, to the studio/school of famous painter Jonas Whitaker. Jonas sizes her up in an instant, deciding he would enjoy “destroying her with a word,” he tries various forms of intimidation, some of it sexual, none of which works. Jonas suffers from bipolar disorder, and this is a difficult, dark romance. I mention this one for two reasons. First, because the most memorable violence in it occurred prior to the time the book is set, when Jonas tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists, losing his hand in the process. This episode, and his subsequent institutionalization, has significant effects on Jonas, showing how the effects of violence, even when self-inflicted, reverberate throughout a life. Second, because The Portrait, which describes Jonas as a violent man — even his still-lifes are violent — suggests the way violence can dominate an entire personality and life. As a romance reader, I had some mixed feelings about this one, but one of the things that made it worth reading was the complex way it deals with the concept of “violence”, as not just an act, but an attitude, an effect, and a way of being, made it worth reading.
When I think about violence in fiction, I have certain requirements. First, I have to care about the characters, and it’s the writers job to depict them in such a way that I do. This requires that the reader is given insight about a character. Second, the violence should feel inevitable, given the plot and circumstances: it has to make sense within the narrative. Third, the violence should be challenged by an
equal and opposing force. It should show that some values are really worth the struggle against the forces of evil, nihilism, entropy, and whatever you want to call the darkness.
Although I am on the fence about “Guts”, I think these requirements were met in the stories and books I mention here. Good fiction needs good conflict, and violence is one exciting way to provide it. When I think about Hanukkah, I try to make the different strands – the violent battle, the resolve of the Maccabees, the trust and hope of the Jews on the rededication, and the question of how far one should go to defend one’s values (peaceful nonviolent resistance was one option Mattathias chose not to pursue) — speak to each other and inform one another. I think violence in fiction has to work that way, too. It can be implied or in-your-face, vaguely described or graphic and disturbing. But if it’s just there, gratuitous and nonintegrated, I feel insulted as a reader. But since violence is an inescapable part of the human experience, I’m grateful when talented authors weave it in a meaningful way into their stories.