Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Passing by a stack of books in a local store, a particular paperback caught my eye. It was a collection entitled The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings. You may remember The Yellow Wallpaper from school or college. It has stuck in my mind for years and, upon seeing it as part of a collected edition, I immediately set upon buying it (not only for my own curiosity, but also in the hope of spreading the horror to another – my boyfriend).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author, wrote one of the most unsettling stories it has ever been my pleasure to read. For those of you who have never heard of the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, it is in the format of a woman’s diary as she details her recovery from a “nervous” ailment. This is following the birth of her child, safely ensconced away by her sister-in-law and husband. However, her well-meaning husband has rented a home for her recovery and said husband consigns her, for her own good, to the airy (if depressing) ex-nursery of the home, partly still covered in peeling, discoloured, unsightly wallpaper. What begins as a diary of slight discontent descends into a much darker place as the unnamed woman in question starts to see things, perhaps even people, moving in the wallpaper’s ugly pattern.

It says something to the effectiveness of Gilman’s writing that even describing the plot makes my skin prickle with tension. The story quietly unfolds and builds to a terrifying conclusion whilst never being graphic or gory. It reminds me, in several ways, of the slow build of such horrific films as The Ring (the Japanese version, not the bombastically awful, shock-a-minute American version). It is also the uncertainty that jars; is the female protagonist losing her mind, or is there truly something dark stirring and rattling beneath the yellow wallpaper? The narration style leaves you only one, potentially unreliable, point of view: hers. With this, Gilman isolates the reader from reassurances as much as the main character is, shut away from outside comforts and peace of mind.

Gilman is not a recent writer. Born in 1860, Gilmore was prolific and, as I learned from the enlightening autobiography extracts within the collection, had good reason to write authentically about the madness that engulfs the female protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper – she suffered it herself. Having had a baby, Gilman suffered from similar “nervous exhaustion”, which sounds a lot like what we now call post-natal depression. You can only imagine her frustration when told by doctors and friends, essentially, to “will” herself better.

As I read the introduction to this book, a book I had been pulled to by comfortably disturbing memories, I realised one of the most vivid and affecting stories I had ever read had, unbeknownst to me, been a piece of Feminist literature. Before anyone reading this starts rolling their eyes at a book detailing how we view women in society, at the idea of female empowerment stories being needed in our enlightened times, recent evidence shows we are still far from perfect. Examples range from the outrageous recent behaviour of two now ex-Sky Sports commentators to the seemingly innocuous gender bias of the film industry encasing all “chick flicks” in pink DVD boxes in order to appeal to us women.

As The Yellow Wallpaper was the main draw of the book for me, I was unsure what the rest of her writing would be like. Sure enough, there were touches of Gothic horror in stories such as The Great Wistaria and The Rocking Chair. However, the rest of the collection, in fact, all of the stories, has a strong Feminist theme running throughout.

I am only now starting to understand Feminism and see it as engendering a very visible battle against sexual and domestic violence, against glass ceilings and unequal opportunities. Feminism waged war regarding the right to vote and work, to have equality, a war that Feminists largely won. Therefore, it is hard for me to imagine a world where this is not the case. Thanks to Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper and selected writings, I  received a thorough education in it.

The women in Gilman’s stories are all trapped in some way, seeking a way out. Initially, I found the neatness of the first few stories (Deserted among them), where women learn to be more independent and men learn to deal with it, a little grating in their simplicity. “Woman = better than idiot, brutish man” is the moral of actually one of two stories.

This black and white interpretation, based upon the first few stories, made me wary. Yet, Gilman wrote these stories centuries ago, so I decided to read the autobiography extracts also collected in this book; I hoped this would give me some context. If my history degree taught me nothing else (and I doubt I learned much else), you can only judge a document’s content when you put it back into the time it came from.

The extracts were, frankly, revelatory. Her stories make a lot more sense when you realise the majority are as autobiographical as The Yellow Wallpaper. An Unnatural Mother, for example, contains a tale of gossipy town women decrying a woman’s motherly techniques (or lack of), which mirrors Gilman’s own experience where, much to hers friends’ consternation, she disciplined her child using explanation rather than violence or threats.

Gilman’s writing goes a long way to painting a clear vision of the period she describes. The more I read, the more obsessed I became with a world where women had no control of their own lives thanks to “duty”, no money to call their own unless their husband or father bequeathed it, no business to run lest it be something surrounding domesticity, such as taking on “boarders”. Even though I knew of it, it still surprised me to read about female characters expected to give up their profession as soon as they were married.

What Gilman was trying to achieve in her writing, I believe, was not just to point out the problems; she was also trying to show the way, to inspire women to take back control. Yet, she ensures that she stays just the right side of the line without dipping into evangelical, preaching territory. Gilman does this by avoiding easy answers – for example, her tales extol marriage as being beneficial and wonderful to man and woman, but only when both are equal partners.

Gilman also uses dry and sharp humour to lighten the mood, as well as portraying sympathetic if flawed characters to avoid stereotyping. It is important to note than even the villainous characters are realistic; they are actual people, rather than caricatures. It is easy to hate them, but Gilman accomplishes the feat of humanising the “bad guys” by allowing us a glimpse at a small frailty or mentioning past examples of tenderness and strength: weak characters were not always weak; heartless men or women once gently kissed away a loved one’s fears.

The most interesting thing about Gilman’s writing is that she never lays the blame solely at the feet of men. True, there are tales where the men are patronising, unreliable or impregnating the help. However, Gilman also points the finger squarely at the women of her time for not choosing to be something more if they want to be. She achieves this in her numerous descriptions of old-fashioned women adhering to the repressive duties of the past and judging harshly those who do not; the wives obsessed with motherhood as the only contribution they should make to the world; the ladies who adorn themselves with such idiotic outfits and frivolous hats.

The funniest thing of all, or possibly the most depressing, is how relevant it all remains. I’m not referring just to the fucktastrope that was the Sky Sports scandal or my annoyance at colour-coded, segregationist rom-com DVD policies. There are continuously clashes of opinion over whether new mothers should be working or not and how this affects a child’s upbringing; the anxiety of empty-nest syndrome is still prevalent nowadays; women, even now, wear constrictive, painful and fucking ridiculous things in the interest of appearing beautiful.

We’ve come a long way. Witness, for example, the great numbers of Egyptian and Tunisian women who are not silent in the protests – they are bloody angry, educated and articulate spokespersons for a nation’s discontent and are changing some Western perceptions about Arab women. However, I somewhat fear that if Gilman were able to read Twilight, and witness Bella’s simpering limpet impression, that pride would soon be quelled. Gilman might be incensed by Bella’s sublimation by Edward; these ideas are completely at odds with the empowering messages from The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings. Oh but dude, it’s ok, Gilman’s a chick – she’ll love that romantic crap.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming...

*UPDATE Friday 4th February, 2010* Due to me being a massive girly person and giving into a crappy cold, the next blog post will be up after the weekend.

First of all, thank you to all and anyone who has been reading this blog.

Secondly, apologies that there has been very little this month. My day job has, unfortunately, been providing me with lots of work. It's like they actually expect me to do stuff...

However, all being well, there will be a new blog post by the end of this week (before Friday, I hope). With that said, I will now crack on by entering a disturbing world of Gothic horror and Feminism...

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Chew – Volume 1: Taster’s Choice by John Layman & Rob Guillory

Imagine you could bite into an apple and instantly know where that fruit had come from, who had picked it and how the pickers had transported it to the store. A person could spend a lifetime fascinated by the stories their food could tell. Now imagine that you don’t just get to experience the good stuff. Imagine that when you chomped into a burger, you would get to relive the final moments of that cow as an abattoir worker butchers it, or experience the sensation of your bones breaking from rapid growth when you chow down on a broiler farm chicken breast.

In Chew, this unappealing possibility is one Tony Chu, a Philadelphia cop, faces on a daily basis. Chu doesn’t know to begin with, but he is a Cibopath. This means that he is able to obtain psychic images from everything he eats. As a not-so-normal person, this causes problems with eating anything other than beetroots (a food that, for some reason, does not force terrible visions and scenes upon Chu). Because of this curse, he has never completely enjoyed a typical meal in his life.

There are other issues to contend with, however. Chu lives in a world where a deadly bird-flu epidemic means a government ban on all chicken and bird meats. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are generally responsible for keeping an eye on such breaches, but this duty also falls to others. For example, Tony Chu and his partner have a job to do: bust anyone buying black-market foods. Those who break the law just want to eat real chicken again, but there are also protesting radicals who believe the ban of bird-meat is part of some government conspiracy.

Unbeknownst to Chu until a revelatory stakeout, ingestion of human blood or flesh allows him to see the name and actions of the person it came from. One minute Chu is sitting down for some soup; in the next, he’s making a life-changing arrest which will see him moving to the FDA as an agent and unwilling part-time cannibal.

Yes, that’s right, a cannibal. You see, the specific way the FDA wish to utilise Chu’s talents is in having him chew on body parts to identify how crimes were committed, be they a decomposing finger or a recently deceased dog.

At this point, I imagine you may be thinking, “A Cibopath? Who eats human flesh or blood to help find criminals? All whilst tracking down the black-market sale of poultry? Ok then…” However, this would ignore greatly the dark humour and abundance of imagination that come from the world created by Layman. For one, the idea of a prohibition upon certain foods is deeply satirical, referring back to the prohibition of alcohol (the “chicken speakeasy” is an amusing corruption of the 1920s underground bars) as well as the modern-day crusade to ban some foods because they are dangerous to public health. After all, as recently as March 2010, New York politicians were advocating a ban of salt in restaurant recipes, complete with a $600 fine.

As for originality, there are few graphic novels around brave enough to run with such a risky premise (Layman even acknowledges this in the Dedications). The idea of making your main hero a man forced to cannibalise human flesh as part of an investigative job and then making it funny is, as far as comic books go, still pushing it.

That’s part of the beauty of this comic. It is wise enough to acknowledge the darkness of its story, whilst not taking itself seriously. An indicator of this would be the fact that all of the characters’ surnames have something to do with food or eating, from Mason Savoy, the elder Cibopath in the FDA, to Amelia Mintz, the restaurant columnist capable of writing reviews that allow the reader to experience clearly the meals she describes. You can only imagine the results when she chooses to write about rancid and foul-tasting food.

The story is, of course, one thing, but this darkness and humour are brilliantly conveyed in the comic’s art style. The most fundamental thing to understand about comic books is that, much like cinema, the look and the story must both work in order to create a success. They must both fit and not detract from one another in order for the reader to enjoy the experience. Rob Guillory manages to ensure the reader sees the right atmosphere all the way through the book, as well as creating some arresting visual images. If you would like an example of how powerful an image can be, I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to eat a burger any time soon without checking for unwelcome “extras”.

Guillory also achieves what all great illustrators can do – convey the personality of the character through their physical features. If an illustrator misjudges it, you can end up forgetting the traits of a character as he or she becomes interchangeable with others. In Chew, however, the characters are distinct and their appearances telling.

Chew: Taster’s Choice is the first collected volume – there are two more out there – so it’s hard to tell whether the story arc will sustain itself. However, the story and the art style are so inviting that I’ll be buying the next collection fairly soon. Whether you will find this comic appealing is another matter. This is not the book for you if you want a “normal” story, but that’s not what comic books are generally about. They’re about taking very human stories and placing them in fantastical and imaginative situations, often to devastating effect. The plot is a little unusual if you are used to reading straight-faced “dark” comics, but if you have ever read anything by Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis, you will already be familiar with the notion that serious books do not always have to wrap themselves in purely grim ideas or images. With Chew, the tongue is very firmly in cheek, though who the tongue belongs to is anyone’s guess.


Friday, 31 December 2010

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of “those” writers. You know what I mean – the ones who have the gift for story telling, who deliver you into wondrous worlds and burn characters and images onto your memory for decades. They are the authors who take you on what seems like an effortless journey, until you look back and see how your path had always been set, skilfully and painstakingly constructed from the moment you took the first step.

Neil Gaiman is one of “those” writers.

He has built up quite a legacy now (movies such as Coraline and Stardust included), yet I am still very new to his books. I consumed his critically acclaimed and extremely popular The Sandman comics and read his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. The latter is a novel, which questions what would happen if the son of the Devil were born on Earth, a la The Omen, and was accidentally brought up by a nice middle-class couple from Suburbia, instead of a powerful ambassador’s family.

However, I have been somewhat remiss about reading his novels. So let us get down to American Gods, set in the modern day United States of America.

When we meet Shadow, he is coming to end of his prison sentence. A few more days and he will be home to his devoted wife, back to a job set up by his best friend and back to real life.

A car crash changes everything and suddenly throws Shadow into a world that exists within and beneath the America of everyday humans. The mysterious Mr Wednesday quickly finds Shadow in the terrible aftermath and offers him a deal – act as Wednesday’s bodyguard, do his errands, perhaps keep his vigil and receive a hefty wage for it. Apparently, the old gods have set up shop in the U.S. and they need a hand. With little choice, a slightly numbed Shadow is soon dealing with ancient deities and mythical creatures struggling to find their way in this world as they march towards battle with the new, American gods.

I will resist going into too much detail. It is a book best read without any real clues, as it is beautiful to watch them delicately unfold as the plot continues.

And American Gods has quite a plot. The book covers many big ideas: the clash between old and new; humanity’s need for gods; the “personality” of America; the importance of death; the difference between existence and living…these are to name just a few. Gaiman handles them all with a deftness of hand, weaving them into Shadow’s story as well as into the book’s vignettes. These chapters, added sporadically, are like short stories. In them, you meet some of the old gods and discover their modern living situations in America. They range from the genie taxi driver, now frustrated and imprisoned in his yellow cab, to the fertility goddess scratching out an existence as a prostitute, whose passion literally consumes her clients.

Much as America has taken these old gods and given them life, so too does Gaiman, layering little details to make them believable in a modern world. Yet, the narrative never gets lost or tiresome. I found myself consuming this 600-plus page book within three or four days as I wanted to find out where Shadow’s journey would take him. It is a physical journey as well, one that stretches across the country and dips into pockets of surreal yet very familiar America. This is not a real America, however. As Gaiman explains in “Caveats, and Warning for Travellers”, he has drawn inspiration from landmarks, but taken certain “liberties” with them. In fact, half the fun of American Gods is trying to separate the real from the imagined.

The other half is working out who the gods are before Gaiman reveals their identities. I found myself pleased for guessing correctly at an early mention of a god’s name, but deducted geek points for not cracking Mr Wednesday sooner.

Like all Gaiman’s work, there is an edge of brutality within it. Anyone who has ever read The Sandman will be familiar by now with his ability to unsettle deeply (personally, I always found that part of the reason his ideas and words stay with you). However, that is not to say American Gods is only a disturbing book. It is a joyous and disturbing book. Gaiman’s work has always contained the idea that there is evil as well as good; however, the important thing to note is that nothing and no one is simply one or the other. In American Gods, there are atrocities and cruel acts, yet there are also moments of dark humour and genuinely tender acts of love and sacrifice.

Gaiman’s ability to acknowledge equally our darkness as well as our redeeming features makes his writing so interesting to read. If nothing else, you will come away from reading American Gods with a renewed agreement that there are no purely good or bad guys, no absolute rights or wrongs – humans and gods are, after all, far more complex than that.