Friday, December 21, 2018

#CBR10 Review #63: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I haven’t read any of Sarah Waters’ works previously, though I did get about 20 pages into The Fingersmith before giving up as the language was just really difficult for me to get into (I have seen The Handmaiden a few times already anyways, and do love that movie a lot). But I watched the film adaptation of The Little Stranger recently and thought it might be worth a shot! And The Night Watch sounded interesting enough: the interwoven lives, secrets, identities, and shames of various people set within the backdrop of WWII London, living their everyday lives that aren’t necessarily tied up directly in the war in terms of fighting like you may find in a lot of WWII historical fiction, but their experiences and how things play out are still so inherently tied into this cultural context, showing the effect on lives beyond the front lines.

The twist in The Night Watch, however, is that we begin after the war has ended, seeing the point of view of four different individuals who appear to be somewhat adrift and lost at this time in their lives; from there, the novel goes back in time to see just how things played out to get them to this position they are in now, and also shows us more ways in which these characters lives have been tied together and influencing one-another all this time. The major characters are as follows:
Kay, a woman who wanders aimlessly through the city, haunted by the war wherein she worked as an emergency responder during air raids with her friend, Mickey.
Helen, a woman who works for a lonely hearts service after the war, and feels a strain in her relationship with a woman named Julia, who she had become involved with during the war.
Vivian, a co-worker of Helen who has a strained relationship with her family, and is secretly involved in an affair with a married man.
Duncan, Vivian’s young brother who was recently released from prison after the war, and now lives in a peculiar situation with an elderly man.

The setup of the novel in showing the place the characters end up after the war at first (only to then show the leadup afterwards) works to an extent, but ultimately in the final step back in time I thought there would be more payoff or punch to it: most of what occurs after the biggest section in the middle is already known, or not of much consequence in the tieback to the beginning where we first read about the end. The stories, however, are engaging and personal. They show a secret and quiet sort of life, that is heartbreaking and you would just want to scream about, but keep hidden out of necessity. Yet, despite all of the sadness and loneliness permeating the novel overall, there is still a bit of hope to be found, not at the end, but at the end of the beginning which is the end. This is another reason why perhaps the twist or defining quirk of the novel’s setup only works to an extent: after the first section I wanted to know what happened next, not what happened before: while very engaging, like I said, sometimes it’s great to just be dropped into the middle of a person’s story at whatever place in time there are at, and see how they move through it.

But in the end, The Night Watch was a good read, and I found myself caring for these characters, despite all the decisions they made, due to the complications of their situations that were out of their control: the context and setting really does play a huge role in how the novel plays out, and it is obvious that Waters put a lot of research into creating a great sense of reality to our understanding of the characters, their situations, and the overall atmosphere of everything.

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Monday, December 3, 2018

#CBR10 Review #62: Adam by Ariel Schrag

To say that this book is inelegant with the subjects it attempts to deal with is putting it kindly: this novel is obnoxious and gross. I don’t even remember how I first became aware of it, but I remember reading a synopsis and thinking, “that can’t be right?” I was baffled as to how it would work, and thought I certainly wouldn’t like it. But curiosity got the best of me (oh, also the author stating that people should read it before criticizing it, due to some backlash, and you know what, that’s fair enough), and turns out it was even worse than I imagined!

Adam is about a teenage boy (Adam, as you can imagine) who goes to visit his college-age lesbian sister for a summer in New York in 2006, where she introduces Adam to the LGBTQ scene: here, he meets a gay woman named Gillian, who he begins a relationship with after she mistakes him for a transgendered male. This is a short and sweet blip of the basic premise, but unfortunately, I feel like this review is going to get long, because I had a LOT of feelings while reading it which I want to get out. And also I apologize in advance for a few instances of significant spoilers, but I don’t know that I can really contain myself in trying to speak on a few of the points boiling in my brain.

Now, just as I found it relevant to follow the author, Ariel Schrag, in her point of not judging before reading this novel for myself, I think it is also relevant when discussing this novel to address some of the comments she has made regarding some of the controversy or criticisms surrounding it, and therefore they shall be peppered in here and there. She was certainly right when she said this book was supposed to be provocative and spark discussion about gender and sexual identity, but I don’t think this occurred in a good way. There are better ways to explore these topics that aren’t so off-putting. And as for the idea that it is supposed to be “satirical and nuanced,” I found nothing all that nuanced about it, in particular in terms of the characters throughout the book:

First and foremost, a lot of the side characters that Adam meets in New York who are LGBTQ advocates come across as aggressive, irritating, impatient, unwilling to have productive conversation, and just plain obnoxious. Schrag says she thought it was important to have characters who are self-righteous, entitled, etc, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation and I get that: all LGBTQ people or allies are angels, and maybe some of them are really based on people she has met or knows in real life, but come on. I can think of maybe one who was likeable and went beyond being a one-note annoyance. It’s like every stereotype I hear about “stupid virtue-signalling, PC-police, SJWs” came to life through these characters. How are we supposed to find nuance in what is just upfront and abrasive, and honestly makes it seem like Schrag (who identifies as a lesbian) hates a lot of people within her own community. Not to mention the fact that there is an awful lot of sexual aggressiveness on display here too, making it seem like lesbians and transgendered people are obsessed with sex at all times; that is not to say that I think sex shouldn’t be a part of the stories we tell or even be something specifically shied away from in stories about young adult characters, but I don’t need it to be so explicit when reading a scene about a 17 year old. Nor do I like the implication that LGBTQ people are inherently into wild kinks and exhibitionism, etc. It just makes me think of Pride events where certain kinks have sections walking for them in parades and things like that; the association of kink with sexuality is a pet peeve of mine, and maybe something I need to get over that, but as of right now I can’t get over the idea that people see sexual kink (aka, taboo activity) and sexuality as being parallel things. It is ideas like that which make people see being LGBTQ as being inherently sexual, explicit, and nsfw, even though there are gay and transgender children out there. It also makes people act as if they are oppressed because they like things that are a little “out there” sexually, in the same way that LGBTQ people are oppressed, even though this is not the case. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well here, but I’m getting heated now.

Aside from characters such as these (including Adam’s sister, Casey), we of course have Adam’s girlfriend, Gillian. Gillian is portrayed in a way that makes me feel like, despite the fact that she has been written by a lesbian woman, she is little more than a manic pixie dream girl, being so fun and cool and loving to play quirky little games and is smoking hot and thinks Adam is amazing and loooooooves having sex with him, with her one flaw really not being that much of a flaw at all, and only coming to be presented briefly near the end of the novel with little consequence to the actual outcome of the story or relationship. Really, she is many straight male’s absolute wet dream come to life: the lesbian who they can get-off to fantasizing about with other women, but still happen to want them (and will have a threesome with another woman with?). Okay, maybe that last bit doesn’t apply here, but it’s still the juvenile idea of the hot lesbian still somehow wanting the man, the one guy to finally break through to them. Speaking of which, let’s pour one out to all the straight women who think they can get a man to stop harassing them on a night out by saying they are a lesbian, only to receive the response “you just haven’t met the right man yet” or “let me change that”.

Now, this is just my feelings of Gillian from the pages of the novel, but apparently, Schrag’s inception of the character was based on a young woman named Constance McMillen, who made headlines after being banned from going to her high school prom with her girlfriend, and claimed herself to be a “proud lesbian”. Schrag claims her idea of the character Gillian came from wondering how someone like McMillen would feel (and also what some of the backlash from the community might be) if, say, a few years later she found herself attracted to a man. And you know what, I think there are indeed ways to explore a story like that, or even one simply about the fluidity of sexuality: in fact, I knew a girl in high school who identified as a lesbian whose partner then came out as trans, and of course as teenagers with not as much info about being trans as we do now had questions which were probably a bit uncouth, wondering what that now meant for the girl we knew and her identity. But you know what? That wasn’t our business, and it would be her words to tell about her understanding of her sexuality. And in the case of Gillian in this book if that was the idea behind the character, why is the subject of her understanding herself and sexuality barely brought up? The closest we get beyond a throwaway line here or there is a short part near the end of the book from Gillian about her thinking about falling for a man, when really the whole conversation is not even about her: it’s about Adam, moments after Gillian finds out he is not really trans, but a cisgendered male. Oh! And you know how she finds out? Obviously this is a spoiler, but after Gillian reveals a personal aspect of herself to Adam, they proceed to have sex, and while Gillian believes he is using a strap on (and indeed, asks him to use it on her), he uses his real penis. So think about that for a second. And her response is to say that in that moment she realized he wasn’t trans and at first was scared but then… wasn’t? Because she had been thinking about herself in a relationship with a man? I don’t know. But again her whole journey with exploring her sexuality and what it means to her really not addressed in a way that I think it could or should be, especially if the intent of this novel is to spark conversation about sexuality and gender.

But now, of course, let’s talk about Adam. In a lot of ways I understand what the intention was behind his character: he is a clueless teenager who doesn’t understand a lot about the LGBTQ world, he is awkward and self-centered and adores the attention he is finally receiving from a girl, and he has easily become caught in a lie. But why should I sympathize with his deceptive behavior? According to Schrag, the original idea of this story was to be about an adult male going to gay bars and pretending to be trans, but thought this was in poor taste. So why is Adam not also in poor taste? Because he is a lovelorn teenage boy? Okay. Fine. But I don’t buy it, as he knew what he was doing was wrong the whole time, and then at the end I’m supposed to feel like he’s changed even though he faces no consequences for what he did? He also deceives his girlfriend about his age, making an adult have sex with a child unknowingly (although she does say she didn’t think he was exactly the age he told her, and plays their activity off jokingly as her being a creep but still the perfect girlfriend). Oh, you may say that the consequence he faced was his girlfriend eventually breaking up with him (in a manner that seemed out of character, in my opinion, which is a big pitfall of having such a one-note “perfect” character that then needs some drummed-up conflict at the end). And okay, so he finally comes clean with another trans character who was close to him at one point about what he did, and this character is also so fine with everything that I wonder what the message of the story is really supposed to be.

And even before the whole “pretending to be trans” thing, Adam is not a likeable character. He is a sullen teen who objectifies women and is rude and judgemental to his sister and friends, and I’m supposed to root for him? I read that Schrag thought of this book as a challenge to write a character doing inappropriate things but remaining sympathetic, but unfortunately, I didn’t find anything sympathetic about Adam. Kind of shot yourself in the foot with that one when you made him come up with the idea for him and one of his friends to try and spy on Adam’s sister and her girlfriend having sex right there in the first chapter of the book. He never did anything to improve, in my eyes.

There is also the idea at the end that Adam is now so aware and understanding of what it’s like to be trans. He also calls himself an expert on the subject due to all his research on talking points and facts so he wouldn’t slip-up in his lie, and I think this is supposed to be a joke, but this is really a thing that people believe, isn’t it? That they can somehow know more about being a part of an oppressed group than a person who is actually in said oppressed group? There are few things I despise more than those stories about people effectively putting on a costume to “be” an oppressed group for a day and finally see how it feels, rather than, you know, actually listening to and believing the people who are actively oppressed like this on a daily basis. Because they get to take the costume off at the end of the day or whenever they so choose, whereas those they are dressing us as don’t.

Schrag asks, “[…] what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity? […] what’s terrible is that people are oppressed.” Yes, I agree that it is terrible that people are being oppressed. But you know what adds to the oppression? People utilizing these identities for their own gains, without ever experiencing what that oppression is like themselves. I think about a lot of bathroom controversies nowadays, where cisgendered men will say “if they start allowing trans people in the women’s washroom/changeroom I will just say I’m trans and go in there myself to see some boobs hahaha”. Like, okay, so you are admitting that if given the chance you would be a creep? You don’t see how it’s not trans people here that are the problem, but people who want to take advantage of a situation in order to be a creep and predator, but oh nooooooooo, it’s the trans women who will harm everyone’s daughters!

You know what else this appropriation of a trans identity may do? Add to the unreal amounts violence that transgender individuals face: it perpetuations the idea that trans women are just freaky men in dresses, that they are people playing pretend in order to get into places they shouldn’t be, etc. And such violence is also why it’s an unequal comparison to say “well then trans people should disclose that they aren’t cisgendered on a first date”: perhaps, due to all the literal murders that these individuals face, some may want to be sure they trust a person before disclosing something like that? Or to be seen as a person and who they are before being seen as some kind of othered being with a big “trans” label plastered on it. This is all to say, I think Adam pretending to be trans is an irresponsible portrayal of trans issues, especially today given all the “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (terf) ideas being spread around, claiming that trans women are just men trying to invade lesbian spaces, and all other kinds of nonsense. And these ideas are gaining traction, so yes, a cisgendered male pretending to be trans would be an issue in how it just plays into the hands of these gross ideas.

“But Lisa, it’s just a fiction, so why does it matter?” Because the way we portray things in media develops ideas in people’s heads, and such ideas can have real-life consequences. We know this. That said, I do understand that the portrayals in this novel (and a lot of the offensive terms and language) is a depiction of the timeframe it is set in, in 2006. Maybe this presentation of the community and how people are in it is based on Schrag’s own experiences. But then, this novel was released in 2014, so not that many years ago: you would think that some of the concerns I touched on in regards to the trans community would have been more thoughtfully considered by Schrag. And she does mention the violence faced by trans people, but the part that does this the most is one wherein again, the activist sister and friends get to act all high-and-mighty about their position on the subject over others, not in a teaching manner that has any real influence on the novel until much later, at a moment where once again it is more about Adam and his relationship-built-on-a-lie problems rather than the actual issue.

Now, these are all just my own feelings on this novel and the way things play out in it: maybe I was a bit biased from the start, though I tried to keep an open mind and hoped things would play out in a way that I could feel better about. But they didn’t. And no, I myself am cisgendered and am therefore also not an expert on trans issues, so maybe I’m out of line in spouting all this anger towards this novel. But I do read a lot of LGBTQ books, and watch a lot of content in the same realm (being bi myself and all), and for the most part I usually like it, though I wish more weren’t so focused on the “struggle” and how awful things can be for the community. I guess it just feels especially disappointing to see what I feel is such an unmindful novel being written by a fellow member of the LGBTQ community: don’t you know better? Or is this your way of showing how not everyone in the community gets along, and you also happen to be a part of that?

I don’t know, but Adam personally made me angry, and in those moments I wasn’t angry, I was cringing. It’s not fun, the characters are annoying, and I felt no love towards the love story (and you know I love a good, cute love story!). Though Schrag certainly accomplished her goal of being thought-provoking, as you can see I had many many thoughts on all of it. But if I want a story that creates a conversation about the fluidity of sexuality, I’ll just watch Kissing Jessica Stein again, which honestly seems less-dated than this, even though it is clearly a product of the early 2000s.

(Oh, and I see this novel is in the works to be a film? Full offense, but I hope it goes straight to video and flies completely under the radar, because it was gross enough having to read this, but to watch it play out with real people, too? Thanks, I hate it!)

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]