Sunday, August 12, 2012

Riding the Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon; a Review.

        "Mentally retarded."  Words we said about my sister, but never said to her.

As children it hadn't mattered to Rachel Simon that there was "something wrong" with her sister Beth.  Beth was only eleven months younger and they were good playmates. But over the next two decades their lives went very different ways.  Rachel was ashamed and embarrassed at school where other children laughed and mocked the "retards,"  which led her  to a sense of separateness and difference, even resentment.  Then their father, a college dean, left the family, pointedly not taking the four children. He'd "met someone." The profoundly depressed mother eventually lost all semblance of function and one by one the older children left, but Beth on. The mother's circumstances disintegrated, until at last Beth was rescued by her father from a nightmarish situation, but not unscarred or unscathed.  Rachel was nearly forty when she began to get to know Beth, her "retarded" sister again.

There was far too little in the book about the father's ordeal during the twenty years he tried to do his best with the maturing Beth. She was not docile; she was not cooperative; she definitely did not fit that cliche about the retarded people: "God's little angels."  And Rachel Simon tells maybe too much of  her own personal story instead of the larger picture, but it's the larger picture—with Beth as the heroine, not Rachel—that makes this book worthwhile.

Beth is at last living independently in an urban setting when her sister, the author, decides to try to get to know her again.  It is not an easy decision because Beth is neither mild and sensitive. She is—at 39—overweight, loud, very often obnoxious, especially to anyone from whom she detects criticism.  She wears the clothes an unsupervised nine-year-old might choose, including shorts and flipflops if the weather's "over forty." Her diet is also similar to that of a nine-year-old.  She is not healthy.  Her main interest and activity is the city buses which she rides from early morning till night.  Its drivers are her social world and their schedules are her schedule.  Although Beth has learned to read and write, and could conceivably hold a menial job like clearing tables at fast-food restaurants, she doesn't, and from what we see of her, it would be unlikely that she would work in public smoothly.  What she does is ride the buses.  Her only friend outside the bus system is her boyfriend Jesse, also mentally retarded.  Jesse rides bicycles instead of buses.  And yes, they are lovers—that is, the forbidden and fearful topic of "sexual congress" is part of their lives.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is what seem to be accurate transcriptions of the bus trips Rachel takes with Beth; Beth's behavior and conversation were vivid in Simon's writing and certainly underlined the main point of the book:  there is no easy categorization of people afflicted with "mental retardation" according to some abstract scale--"mental age," extent of disability, or any other single factor. 

But in the same way in which the narrator hovers on the threshold between loving acceptance and frustrated rejection of Beth, so the book also hovers on the line between an empathetic portrait of Beth and objectification.  It's tricky any time a writer tries to sketch someone whose experience is foreign to both writer and reader.  However well Simon succeeds in disabusing her own ignorance and thereby the reader's, she remains—and thus the book does—noncomprehending.  She learns, and communicates, why "mental age" is an inadequate measure of the quality of life for any given individual and just how individual, even unpredictably eccentric, a developmentally disabled person can be. 

She learns how little she had actually ever understood the challenges facing Beth at every level, as well as how difficult is any assistance effort that respects the individual's freedom of choice.  And why such respect for that freedom is important.  The beginning of coercion is always the beginning of a bad story. The portraits she draws of Beth and of her boyfriend Jesse enlighten us about those challenges.  Beth is childish in her resistance to seeing a dentist, choosing a healthier diet for her weight and cholesterol, dressing "sensibly," or foreseeing danger or sickness, or understanding how her behavior offends and bothers other people because of the boundaries she violates with an almost utter lack of empathy.  But she is also childlike in her indifference to appearances, to judgments of others based on her manners and niceties;  she is childlike in her energy and enthusiasm, her enjoyment and eagerness, her tenacity and her concern for those she cares about.

We don't get to know Jesse as well although he seems more serious, more aware of consequences and sensitive to the nuances of relationships.  A display of his startling skills in a martial arts routine gives both Simon, and the reader, tangible evidence of the unpredictability of each "disadvantaged" individual. and of the complexities that should unsettle easy stereotypes.

Moreover, to add to the ambivalence, Rachel Simon is only too well aware that at the same time she finds Beth pitiable and criticizes her insensitivity, she sees that Beth has devoted friends among the bus-drivers and her caretaking social workers,  and unlike her older sister, does have a settled love relationship.  Simon on the other hand was unhappily single, a workaholic, and at burnout flashpoint when the bus-riding year begins.

There are at least four storylines at work here.  First, the portrait of a complex adult with mental disabilities; second, the difficulties encountered within the Simon family in relation to Beth; third, the particular dysfunctionalities within that family that further complicate their lives, and fourth, the author's use the story to increase readers' comprehension of the multiple realities of lives of the "retarded."  A fifth storyline cuts across these and blurs them: that of the author's evolution and emotional "salvation" during and because of this year of "Riding the Bus" from a lonely, unhappy workaholic to a blissful woman about to be married.  True or not, it seemed sappy and detracted from Beth's story.

All of the stories, in fact, come at some expense to the others.  The author's happy reconciliation with an ex-fiance was irrelevant hokum to me, no matter how true;  I would have preferred more reflection on the general theme of the functionally disadvantaged and their impact on families of origin and vice versa.  Her happy ending seemed to me to be of a piece with the "easy cliches" she seems to want to debunk. Now her happy ending probably goes quite a bit further:  with the Rosie O'Donnell film directed by Anjelica Huston, the happy ending  probably went all the way to the bank.

The book made me ponder how our "advanced" civilization, our "progressive" society, has made wounded, injured, invalid or nonfunctional family members an impossible or nearly impossible burden in the busy nuclear family or its remnants. In Nebraska several years ago legislation was passed which was meant to save unwanted infants' lives by offering safe haven for parents to surrender children at hospitals without penalty.  Within less than three months fourteen children were left at hospitals:  seven of them teens.  Legislators and other conservatives called this irresponsible: "they [such parents or grandparents] were tired of parenting," one person sniffed.  The truth is that severely depressed or manic or otherwise mentally ill or disabled children are almost unmanageable by parents, especially since almost all adults must be working to support the family.  Laws designed to protect children from abuse sometimes go so far that the guardians are prevented from using the only recourse, physical restraints. And with the absence of universal healthcare so that psychiatric help could be obtained and, of course, since the complete dismantling of public psychiatric care in these neo-con decades, the situation is desperate.  If you have not witnessed first-hand the craziness of a grandmother or a single parent trying to help defiant and depressed, and sometimes aggressive, children, you probably cannot imagine the circumstances.  The Nebraska guardians surrendered those fourteen children hoping that they would therefore get the care they needed.  Of course, Nebraska—the last state to pass a safe haven law—quickly adjusted it to rival the strictness of the law in other states: it now applies only to children under thirty days old. And the discussion of the desperation that had been uncovered was quickly silenced.

I've digressed.  This book will make you do that. Which is to say that it is a compelling  non-fiction examination of a largely hidden and mysterious corner of society to those of us who don't have intimacy with the mentally retarded, the developmentally disabled. It was a good book to read for the insights and information it offered.  Evaluating books is like evaluating tools.  It's not just whether or not it's "good."  It's what it's good for.  This won't thrill you as literature.  But you will probably be glad you read it.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson; a Review.

After I saw the American film with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, I immediately checked out the book which I saw I had needlessly avoided. Only two people recommended it to me, both men, and one of them, my son, said he wasn't sure I would like it because of the sexual violence; both circumstances added to my discomfort with the title which  was a turn-off to my feminist self.   A book written by a man about a "girl"—this is a bad start.   Then the title distinguishes "which"  girl by her tattoo, especially when the particular tattoo—a Dragon!-- seems baited with erotic pull.  Not my world.  Well, I was wrong, my son was wrong, and my friend was in this case right.  Great book:  good thrilling mystery, great gender reversals, solid counter-culture political grounds of feminism, class consciousness, and ethical appraisal of neo-conservatism's financial speculators.  

I ran across—oh, well, all right, I saw it on Wikipedia--a great article by Laurie Penny in New Statesman (9/5/2010) entitled "Girls, Tattoos and Men Who Hate Women" which more articulately echoed my reaction to the title, and which pointed out that the Swedish title, Män som hatar Kvinnor, would translate to Men Who Hate Women.  Definitely a less sexy title, and definitely less sexist in implication but therefore truer to the spirit of the book, which is subversive and outfront, "simplistically," about the ubiquitousness and hideousness of misogyny's crimes.  Penny also expressed regret that  the book didn't deal enough with ordinary social misogyny, or maybe that's the problem with gender hatred and objectification—it's not all that dramatic most of the time.  She manages a savage little quip about the English title too:
            [M]ost men who see women as objects don't dismember them
            and stuff them into rucksacks.  They visit strip clubs. They watch
            degrading pornography.  If they work, for instance, in publishing, they
            might reject a book title that draws attention to violence against women
            and replace it with one that infantilises the female protagonist and focuses
            on a trivial feature of her appearance. [emph. mine]

I disagree with her complaint that the book doesn't deal with ordinary misogyny; that's like saying that a book about the Holocaust is problematic because it doesn't deal with mundane anti-Semitism, or that the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site can be criticized for not talking about everyday racism toward Native Americans.  But her point is valid that it is hard to make people clearly see the link between "ordinary" prejudices and their ugliest expressions. All in all, however,  her essay is entertaining and intelligent  and her site worth visiting.

Of course, there is sexual violence in the book, as charged, and quite graphic sexual violence in the movie, but if a writer's intention (and a director's in the case of the film) is to make such violence repugnant, rather than erotic and entertaining, then I have no qualms about it and don't see any moral or ethical grounds for objection. Especially when both writer and director have the skill to make their work serve their intentions.  There are some relevant objections to particular kinds of graphic presentation of suffering, but I think they are mostly not applicable to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  

For example, the scene portraying Lisbeth's rape by her "guardian" attorney avoids all the subtle cues that can eroticize and make literary and cinematic sexual violence pornographic:  for one thing, Salander's hostile resistance, kicking,  pounding and shrieking into the gag is quite the opposite of the deer-in-the-headlights white-eyed distress of an eroticized victim. Screaming in rage is not empowering to the aggressor. Her response is not "girlish" in the least, or–in the context of The Hunger Games—perhaps I should say that it redefines "girlish."  And a later  scene in a cellar, with its unexpected and anti-stereotypical "victim," subverts and overprints the "expected" with grim grotesqueness.  Trust me on this, which is all I can say without "spoiling" the climactic hunt for a murderer. 

Lisbeth Salander's refusal of victimhood, her strong agency in her life, stunned me: it's so unusual in a script that an "oppressed" character takes charge realistically and without emotional drama, a true turning of the tables.  She doesn't become the oppressor: she uses his oppression as a step towards greater control of her own life. That section of the book is entitled, by the way, "Analyzing the Consequences," a title that further lays out the strategy of self-empowerment.  Some might see her actions as vengeance; I saw them as self-defense, the one area in which I am not a pacifist.  She also uses the attacker's criminality to protect his future victims.  Gruesome it is.  So is biting off someone's tongue or gouging out their eye, or crushing testicles: but in self-defense against a violent attacker, it's "by any means necessary."

It's also noteworthy that both the book and the film avoid the kind of sexualizing or salaciousness or even melodrama that could quickly condemn these scenes to "Adult Entertainment" category.  Look for the words that are not there, the camera's careful masking,  and the subtly sophisticated choices of shots:  book and movie aimed for realism, not for sensationalism, and there is a world of difference.  

I saw Director David Fincher's movie first, so I admit that my thoughts about the book are inherently contaminated with images from the film and its altered plot lines.  Most particularly film actress Rooney Mara played the role of Lisbeth Salander so vividly and with such eccentric, such visceral realism that any discrepancies between the cinematic Salander and the book version are in my mind resolved in favor of Mara's performance.  In other words, where the book Lisbeth differed from the film Lisbeth, the book was just plain "wrong."  (I overstate the case for emphasis, but my memory insists on retaining the movie's images.)

The plot hinges on the conviction of reporter Mikael Blomkvist on libel charges for an exposé he and co-editor Ericka Berger publish at their magazine Millennium. Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is sentenced to a hefty fine and a short prison term, besides having his reputation seriously tarnished and the magazine itself embarrassed.  Coincidentally, it seems, he is invited to a meeting with Henrik Vanger,  the retired CEO of once-mighty Vanger Industries.  A  job offer is made: a search for the murderer of Vanger's young niece forty years ago, a seemingly impossible goal.  Blomkvist's sleuthing is to be masked under the pretext of writing a biography of the 80-year-old millionaire, for he is assured that the murderer must have been someone in the family.   He is lured by a dazzling salary for a year, and above all, with documented information incriminating the financier who had won the libel case, Hans-Erik Wennerström. 

Blomkvist accepts, partly to make it seem that he has left his magazine in shame and defeat to induce Wennerström to lighten his attack on their advertisers.  Mostly, however, it's the temptation to get material on Wennerström with which to redeem his career and reputation.  It's also true that he is exhausted and depressed after the proceedings, and not looking forward to prison. "Let it look like running away," he suggests to co-editor Ericka; in a sense, it is.

What Blomkvist learns about the Vanger family empire in interviews with Henrik, a widower with no children of his own, is the kind of information that relates to Stieg Larsson's background  as "a leading expert on antidemocratic right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations" (blurb).  Vanger's family is a rat's nest, by Henrik's own account; two of his three brothers were in the vanguard of the Nazi movement in Sweden, one having early on joined the Swedish National Socialist Freedom League. Henrik (played beautifully by Christopher Plummer in the movie) remarks drily: "Isn't it fascinating that Nazis always manage to adopt the word freedom?"  Further, he says, he detests most of his family: "They are for the most part thieves, misers, bullies, and incompetents."  This is consistent with Larsson's minimal respect for the upper class;  he is guilty as charged of writing about "the moral bankruptcy of big capital,"  although his main target will be unveiled in the final showndown with the Wennerström Group.

When Blomkvist uncovers enough intriguing leads in the Vanger family research, he asks for a research assistant.  His employer suggests they turn to the person who did the background on Blomkvist himself before Vanger hired him.  Blomkvist reads the report, sees that it is flawless and expert, and knows that the only way the researcher could get some of the material was by hacking his computer.  Instead of being angry, he secures her assistance by asking for her  help "finding a murderer who kills women."  She is Lisbeth Salander.  She has a photographic memory, investigative intelligence, computer savvy and "undercover" contacts who provide her with equipment even beyond the arsenal of the Security company she works for. She is twenty-four, and only the English title of the book/movie and those characters who judge appearances wrongly refer to her as a "girl."  She is neither naive nor innocent, and certainly not flirtatious and sweet.  She is not infantile, in other words. To go much further gets into the unfolding of the plot which is wickedly convoluted and sinister.  

I read somewhere a justification for altering the title from its original with the excuse that the title seems to "oversimplify" the book.  I don't think it is an oversimplification to find the book explicitly feminist in many regards.  Background biographical information intimates that Larsson witnessed a young woman gang-raped when he was young, and that he never got over his sense of guilt for not intervening.  The woman's name was Lisbeth.  I don't think we oversimplify to see Män Som Hatar Kvinnor as a gesture of atonement and an expression of his personal revulsion toward sexual violence.  Certainly the book's four "preface" statistics about the prevalence of violence against women and sexual violence explicitly as well as its underreporting emphasize the feminist intentions of the text.  The statistics are from Sweden, of course.
            1) Eighteen percent of Swedish women have been threatened by a man.
            2) Forty-six percent have been subjected to violence by a man.
            3) Thirteen percent have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside
                        of a sexual relationship.
            4) Ninety-two percent who have experienced sexual assault have not reported
                        the most recent violent incident.

I cannot fully account for the way in which these epigraphs function to alter the perspective from which the novel is read, but they do. They also should be an early cue to a reader in search of entertaining sexuality (I mean, after all, Dragon Tattoos!!) that he [sic] has come to the wrong place.  The statistics introduce the hovering presence of a political and moral fable in the story.  Moreover, the perpetrators here, I think I can say without giving much away, are not lone psychopaths of the underworld, homeless tramps or obsessive loners but socially respected and amiable professionals and businessmen.

In fact everything in the story subverts U.S. Media-Ideology about criminality: who is heroic and why; who is a victim and why; and above all what "they" look like.  The smartest, bravest, most cool-headed characters are not the handsome male investigative journalist and not even the magazine editor Ericka, a tall, sleek blood, wealthy and intelligent and sexually liberated.  In other words, not Bond and not Charlie's Angels either.

The film visuals, by the way, are brilliantly suited to the primary thrust of the book, which is subversion.  Reviewer R. Dessaix in a Sydney newspaper, 2008, succinctly wrote that Larsson's  "targets are violence against women, the incompetence and cowardice of investigative reporters, the moral bankruptcy of big capital, and the virulent strain of Nazism still festering. . . in Swedish society."    Toward the end of the book, a reporter asks Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) if his exposé of a financier was worth driving the Swedish economy toward a crash.  "The idea that Sweden's economy is headed for a crash is nonsense," Blomkvist says. "You have to distinguish between two things—the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. . . The Stock Exchange is something very different."  But doesn't it matter, the reporter urges, "if the Stock Exchange drops like a rock?"
            "No, it doesn't matter at all . . . It only means that a bunch of heavy
            speculators are moving their shareholdings from Swedish companies
            to German ones.  They're the ones who are systematically and perhaps
            deliberately damaging the Swedish economy in order to satisfy the
            profit interests of their client."

Refreshingly, and sanely, the rich and middle class are not under threat from sinister foreign agents or underclass discontents.  Women are the victims of misogynist insanity, true, but they are not merely victims.  We never once have to endure the annoying and ubiquitous scene in which a terrified heroine runs, stumbling, tripping and falling as she flees the pursuing villain.  The movie takes this even further in reversal, with heroic Daniel Craig  (a faint trace of James Bond ambience floating about him) in the clumsy flight  role.

Salander's role in the climactic challenge to the financier/speculator  Hans-Erik Wennerström is essential for Blomkvist's victory, and then she goes one step further on her own.   Her shrewd maneuvers to bring the Wennerström Group down completely are impressively intelligent, shrewd, and gutsy.  Moreover, the visual power in the film of Salander's transformation from sullen punk rocker (or is it Goth?) to a masquerade as a million-dollar moll is a stunning reminder that Rooney Mara is an actress, not just someone who "happens to look like" Salander's usual self.

All in all, I thought the book much less outré than the buzz, and at the same time a better mystery, more subversive of genre and crime ideology, more feminist, than I expected.
The movie, however, was the knock-out; it read the tone of class clash and gender-bender in the book and translated that tone to a brilliant handling of standard class and gender cinematic codes.  The cast was uniformly wonderful; kudos to director David Fincher. The book, however, is what enabled that movie and I look forward to reading the next two in the Millennium trilogy. 

It is sad that Larsson died without seeing the impact of what he wrote, and before he could write more.  I did find myself wondering about Stieg Larsson personally and how in the world a man wrote this book.  There has been bruited about recently unconfirmed rumors that Larsson's mistress/lover/companion claims some amount of authorship.  It might explain how this book developed its quality of being equally masculine and feminine—or, better, of coming from a mind both male and female, as Virginia Woolf suggested was necessary for a powerful writer.  She saw Shakespeare as one such writer; I would suggest Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace.  And—although the Larsson Girl trilogy is "merely" a complex take on the mystery genre, perhaps Stieg Larsson, or Larsson and the woman he loved.  Or in retrospect, considering the story about the girl he failed to save from gang-rape, perhaps that girl, also named Lisbeth, was the female component, the woman in the man's mind.