Play It Again, Sam
When I was a child, my father bought the house that his father had built and then lost during the Depression, a lovely old place on Kingsway Avenue in Winnipeg’s south end. There we had “Communists” living next door. Bourgeois Communists, I guess: the father of the house was a professor of mathematics who had been drummed out of the U.S. for his political beliefs during McCarthy’s circus, the Red Scare.
But at the time, as a kid, I knew our neighbours were Communist because they had cats, whereas we had dogs. My mother knew they were Communists because the man’s wife had a thing for my dad, and would seek any occasion to brush up against him in the back yard. After the neighbour’s wife put her hand into my father’s pant pocket purportedly looking for a finishing nail to fix the fence, my Liberal mother began to call the Communist mother “Busy Fingers.” I would associate Communism with carpentry for years thereafter.
In this way, a Canadian child comes to politics. Through sensuality, through shenanigans, through deceit, through farce. The real stuff, our neighbour’s political convictions (or the way our neighbour’s politics were construed by the FBI) that had forced him to leave his country and go into exile in pleasant Canada – this material is run through the sieve of human perception, by the hall light left on at night to alleviate what that well-known 19th century satirist Karl Marx once called “the tradition of all dead generations that [would] weigh like a nightmare” on my ten year old brain.
One of the most interesting satirical observations by Karl Marx is this: “… all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Farce is a comedy of exaggerated and improbable situations – such as the disingenuous Mike Duffy’s possible sabotage of the next federal election – with incomprehensible plots comprised of many twists and random events, purposefully convoluted to mask its own futility. The farcical quality of history that our friend Karl Marx so deftly identifies is tragic and relentless, a “march of folly,” as Barbara Tuchman has written. A horrible example is the current reiteration of revolutionary ISIS, with its bizarre costuming of pathological murder in the language of religion, a video game in real life.
Political rhetoric, often silly yet disturbing, comes out of Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk. Human relations are wildly uncertain, as if conducted through semaphore. This makes it complicated to get along with one’s family. And it appears to make peace impossible between “civilizations.”
But fiction thrives on betrayals and secret codes, finding its nutrients in the schisms, the doubts, that private sense of fraudulence and other manifestations of self-consciousness in human beings. Fiction seeks the heat created by secrecy and thwarted desire, and it is innately, often tenderly ironic. It’s an interesting place to live, fiction. It helps us gird our loins for the real stuff, to get a handle on things.
#2. Alcoholic Misogynists
I grew up reading the Hardy Boys series. This is where my gendered education began. Did you know that to “ejaculate” means to speak earnestly? “‘He must have been driving forty miles an hour!’ Frank ejaculated.” I might be misquoting.
Too early, I graduated from the Hardy Boys to James Bond, from whom I learned that a woman who has been drinking Dom Pérignon is a classier sexual conquest than a woman who has just brushed her teeth.
My most recent novel, Mr. Jones, was inspired in part by my childhood love of 1950s and 1960s fiction of Ian Fleming, and the steamy novels of John O’Hara and Robert Ruark. Surely this has happened to many others: sex education – and sexism – is acquired through novels, yes? Did this fade out in the 80s?
I was very young when I read Robert Ruark’s novel called The Honey Badger (McGraw-Hill 1965). Here’s the copy on the dust jacket:
“[The Honey Badger’s] title is taken from [the male protagonist] Alec Barr’s own searing comment:
‘There’s a bloody brave little animal called the honey badger in Africa. It may be the meanest animal in the world. It kills for malice and for sport, and it does not go for the jugular – it goes straight for the groin. It has a hell of a lot in common with the modern American woman.’
The Honey Badger is an honest and full-bodied novel – a story whose truth no man can ignore and few women will dare acknowledge.”
Brrrrr. Bracingly masculine. Ruark, perhaps not coincidentally, drank himself to death that same year.
The Honey Badger was normal pop-literary discourse in those days, strange to say. Women were dames, untrustworthy, rotten to the heart. Women understood the world with sexual radar, making tiny beeping noises in the dark.
With all this Ruark’ian propaganda, how does a woman begin to write female characters? I don’t like “gumption” as a sole motivator. Who wants Pippi Longstocking? Even the contemporary hip versions of Pippi can make your teeth hurt. Ideology (including feminist) sucks the life out of literature. Fiction needs to be unstable, as vivid and precarious as the shadows of falling leaves thrown across the floor.
I hesitated to write a novel till I was in my thirties because I didn’t realize that often a page-turner is one long chase scene. This isn’t only a masculine imperative. Mary Shelley’s brilliant Frankenstein (written when she was nineteen years old) is in large part a chase scene (as well as an allegory of the Enlightenment and many other things).
I still like Ian Fleming. Ruark? Not so much. Fleming wasn’t blind to his own sexism; he celebrated and parodied it. But there’s something downright psychotic in Ruark’s work. I leave you with this bit of him to stew in.
“‘Did you really shoot all these animals yourself?’ Penny’s voice was a little awed. ‘Like all those great big black ugly things on the other wall? Weren’t you scared to death?’”
Well, yes. I guess he was really was.