Twitter. Today. Dear Princeharry5566. Got your message. I can answer you now. It’s already been a couple of hours, I’m sorry. Princeharry5566, thanks for following me, I’m right flattered. Princeharry5566, not many young men notice women my age, you were raised right. I’m flattered of course, who wouldn’t be, what with a real live prince? I got the message you sent asking me where I’m from; maybe you looked at profile and saw I’m English too? We’ve not met, yet, but I remember getting plastered when your mum and dad got hitched, it was scrumpy cider and we were in the Mendip hills, and us girls got a bit messy. We spent the afternoon on a horse ride until 3pm and then cleaned up and sat in front of the telly with our cider and snacks, waving our silly little flags, but we’d drunk all that cider and then those flags did naughty things and the telly went on the blink and that was that. Did we miss much after four when it was tea time, you wouldn’t know really but maybe your mum said something? It was quite the day and so much has happened since then and you’re tweeting to me about your wife and you. I read your profile and your posts but you do need to edit. Your profile is in first person and third. Like it’s copied and pasted? Well, nice chatting. To think. Princeharry5566. And me.
“I knew before he spoke.”
The first paragraph in this heartbreaking novel by Doyle brings us immediately into a state of anxiety, a tension that underlies the whole book. Paula tells of her childhood and her marriage, at first in a contented tone, one that pulls us in to her world in Dublin in the seventies. There are layers though and her throwaway asides and digressions hint at a darker truth to even the simple fact that her husband Charlo was shot by the Garda. Why did they? Why wasn’t she surprised? The story within this story is one of love, family, and her determination to regain a sense of dignity.
The simple tale of childhood in poverty, a young marriage to a charming and violent man, and the slide into alcoholism is nothing new yet Doyle gives us such a convincing and likeable narrator that we read on. Paula describes a world most of us don’t know. Flashbacks fill in the details and build up into a story of family loyalty, family fights, an acceptance of the worst another can be and a sense of her all powerful and long-lasting love for Charlo and her kids.
The style is familiar using flashbacks, hints, repetitions and it’s done well, convincingly. There are such long digressions that we’re surprised to come to the end, having been caught up in the narrative and they are so true to real conversations we follow along, unquestioning: It’s how people really do talk.
And Doyle doesn’t hold back. We do ignore abuse, bruises, accidents that bring us back to the hospital over and over, the doctors avoiding her eyes, letting the husband stay right next her, answer for her. And Paula just wanted someone to ask. “Ask me, ask me,” is her lament, her wish that someone had asked and it had changed her life for that one question. But no. No one asks.
Doyle subtly hints at darker truths throughout the novel right from the first page, “He wasn’t one I’d seen before, on the usual ones,” says Paula at seeing the Garda at the door. Her language is simple and true for one who barely left school with any education, and she describes realizing that “it was a fright finding out that I was stupid.” Her new school was tough on kids, kids bullying each other, punching each other, and she’d stepped up, not going to let anyone mess her around. She fought back. Then.
Her first sight of Charlo, first time at a dance with him, she talks of him smoking, it was “Gorgeous”, and his smoke “pushed the old smoke out the way.” How telling. Later on, Paula talks of their wedding day, the first time round it sounds idyllic, and then the second round of memories the tension seeps in, the sadness.
Paula is likeable, it’s hard to understand why considering some of the things she admits to, but we do, we care and by the time the hard stuff hits us we’re with her fully, completely and that’s the magic of Doyle’s portrayal. She’s messed up, fighting her kids, being trashed by her husband, trying to stop drinking so much and we’re with her, rooting for her. The instance of him eating his chips out of her knickers is strangely delightful, a moment of play between the two of them.
The dialogue is true, honest and painful, and we believe her, in her. Doyle breaks it up for us, it’s not one long depressing slide into anxiety but we’re caught up in the ride, “I had good friends, a whole gang.” There are moments of mischief as she delights in her power as a sexual woman, how she drove him crazy, played it up, and laughed with her friends. Her stories of reading Winnie the Pooh made me laugh, “Christopher Robin is always giving parties. It’s well for him, the little prick: he doesn’t have to pay for them.”
There are moments that delight and others when you have to breathe in and hold on.
This novel isn’t for everyone but it could be, should be, men and women, we should all read it.
Doyle writes with humor, a poignancy, and lightness that carries us along within the shadows, hoping for the best and leaving with a deep exhale in relief: “It was a great feeling. I’d done something good.”
She had. There’s hope. Dignity.
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
by Roddy Doyle
Penguin/ Viking. 228 pages. 1996. Fiction.
A review of Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel The Small Backs of Children.
“I see the stories of women but they are always stuck insides the stories of men.”
Yuknavitch breaks that state immediately with the opening page: Disambiguation, a word that refers to mythology as well as to “a woman who is the source of inspiration.”
Art and mythology fill these stories that are dark and compelling, stories written from the body, within the language of the body. There is nothing nice, normal, or easy. The situation starts with a photograph taken of a girl as her family and home explodes behind her in Bosnia. That’s the easiest part of the novel. Trust me.
The plot follows the desire to find and adopt that child. However, the multiple characters involved in that motivation come from such creative, messed up, raw, disturbed and disturbing lives that is not as easy as hoped.
Yuknavitch breaks other rules and expectations with confidence, telling me to trust her. She knows the forms, the usual arc of a novel, the forms and choses, consciously choses otherwise. There is a reason, I trusted her from the start. Each character is called after creative roles such as the Poet, Playwright, Photographer, Filmmaker and Writer. Chapters shift perspective, tense, and even form. There are poems, plays, split pages with parallel stories of the same experience, one person’s view on the left, the other on the right. You, the reader, have to pay attention. Read carefully. Take breaks. Devour the words slowly. Other times, when Yuknavitch knows the essence is so important, she paces the reader, one sentence per page, pause, absorb, turn the page, read, absorb.
The sexuality is raw, unashamed, violent and detailed with the stickiness, stench, and sweat of passion shared, taken, and truly in all of Yuknavitch’s work “desire is larger than god.”
The painter talks of “passion, chaos, death” within his art, using his bodily fluids as much as the paints themselves.
The performance artist, another of this extended family of friends, writes in jagged and fragmented sentences, suiting her internal processes in the past and present situation. When she receives a letter, her emotional state is disjointed, stunned and in shock. The sentences are short, abrupt, the verbs and adjectives, her use of language captures that state completely. “Her chest hollows. Her hair. Her hands. Nothing. Useless. Thoughtless.”
There’s nothing expected in this book, not in the development of events, the characters’ perspectives and histories, or the ending. You’ll be taken along and even if this is a world beyond yours, you’ll trust Yuknavitch as she writes with authority, compassion, insight and intelligence. Her stories take us to the “belly of things” – basements, dungeons, violent sex, desires, and borders of all kinds. You’ll follow her willingly.
She asks, “where do any of us come from? Is it a country? A mother? Or is it perhaps an image, a song, a story inside which we feel…named?”
Yes. All of the above. For as she says, “art, she is in me.”
HarperCollins Publishers, NY
224 pp. $24.99
A unique growing up story, Febos writes of her desires, addictions, and work as a dominatrix in New York City. She’d craved nothing beyond a taste for power, attention, control, and felt like she was hardwired to take risks. “I had no idea what I wanted. Character-building life experience?” She was a high achieving college student, an addict, and “cultural anthropologist”, or so she told herself at the time. Her writer’s mind has grappled with that darkness and drive that few live with and she’s unsparingly honest in her reflections. “I used to feel that I didn’t deserve to be an addict – my childhood hadn’t been fucked up enough.” You have to admire her honesty. I do.
Whip Smart stands out for other reasons too, it’s her intelligence, insights, and the world she takes the reader deep within. Seductive, frightening for some, familiar to others, Febos is unflinching. There are clear almost clinical descriptions of the work done, the torture, tools of the trade, and even the boredom that made her switch it up as time wore on, taking more risks, shedding more of her self-imposed boundaries.
“I have always loved having secrets.” No shit. Febos lived it to extremes and then tells us all about them in fairly detached yet empathic manner. She forgives and understands herself. There must be a great sense of peace there.
The structure is simple, Whip Smart is chronological with memories of family and childhood slipping into her years at the dungeon, all easily flowing from one time frame to another. The language is straight forward with no loss of clarity for lyricism. She keeps it real. The men, her clients, and their needs are told explicitly and in detail. Her reactions to them as well. “As I stood there in the smell, looking down at him, my stomach lurched. I didn’t vomit, but that lurching motion continued, spreading through my body, jolting my vision with ripples.”
Why are her actions so resonant for me? It’s not a culture I know directly but many of my friends have been sex workers. It’s more that her impulses and the rationalisations speak to my interior life. The need to take risks, to stay awake, to be independent and self-sufficient. So, yes, her story is reminiscent of my own twenties, leaving London and hitching across the States alone.
And her descriptions of addictions and drugs stay realistic, at times brutal, and at others she simply tells of the rush that comes. “A speedball hits you like a huge, warm wave. The back of your neck throbs, your ears ring, and everything inside of you muffles while everything outside of you sharpens.”
There are no obvious reasons that drove her so far into living on the edge, the multiplicity of how she presented herself and how she perceived herself. There are so many layers in Whip Smart. Febos has a strong compassionate voice, one that recognises her own actions for the lies we tell ourselves to keep stepping forward, as well as her need and fight to get sober, the moments of clarity that hit her, and the challenge to stay true to being a good person, in actions and inside herself. “What traumas had I suffered that led me there? I surmised that it didn’t really matter, just as it hadn’t mattered why I became an addict, or whether I was born one or not. It just was, and where it would lead now mattered more.”
The trick in reading unflinching memoirs like this is to remember we don’t know Febos. There is so much more to her than this story, these details. We don’t know the writer, not really. There are boundaries and limits to what Febos wrote and we have to respect those so if ever you meet her, see the rest of her, listen to her now, and don’t get lost in a well written and compassionate memoir. Or rather, I should remember this. It’s always easy to get lost in that written intimacy.
All in all, Whip Smart is a powerful book, well told, and her experiences are intriguing, unsettling and inspiring. Whatever your own path is, Febos’ tale will help you find self-acceptance and peace, hopefully. Probably.
Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press, NY
2010 278 pp ($24.99)
The snow didn’t melt, would not melt for another three months and you’re scared, scared to sit with yourself, the memories slamming away, keeping you up at night, haunting your eyes so that the barista hands over the coffee with no chitchat, she takes the money and turns to the next in line with a glance of relief at his normality, the average build, short brown hair, brown eyes, winter hat and scarf from Walmart up the road, nothing unusual to him. Your Russian fur hat and ski instructor jacket from the seventies with the words Polite written across the back and your accent, that not-quite-right English accent, it’s too much, so you sip a mug of dark coffee and stare out the window onto main street, unsure what to do with yourself for the next few months, next few days perhaps, you are restless but why? Why when nothing is different but for that clock inside, the one with the loud ticking relentessly reminding you that you live on borrowed time, too many died the last few months, eight to be exact, eight friends and you’re only fifty, for fucks sake, you’re only fifty but you’re scared that time is running out, speeding past and you’ll never get all the words out before you die, never get the stories out and onto paper, onto screens, that they’d end up rattling around in the afterlife but as an atheist, that’s no help, not for you so you sit and sip coffee, take notes of conversations around you, twist them up to make them warp and burn in your brain, and then you trudge home through the snow drifts in sub-freezing weather, up the hill and back to your desk. You’re living on borrowed time and someone might knock on that door stop that clock inside and be done.
A few of the things you wish you’d said and done in that bathroom
It’s been a good night, a fun night, you’ve been drinking with your friends at a diner in Tennessee, Friday night in the next county over. You need the bathroom. A public bathroom. Not your favourite place to visit, even in the city, and well, you’re here in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, a Baptist enclave of reluctant drinkers, or at least – unpracticed drinkers. You go to the women’s, do your business, flush, and then stand at the sink to wash your hands. The door opens behind you, closes, opens, closes. You look up into the mirror, a woman stands there, stepping back to check the sign on the door. She looks you up and down, the jeans, boots, sweatshirt, and short brown hair. Think Amelia Earhart, slender, scruffy, and a woman in your own right, that’s you. This woman in polyester and hairspray takes you in slowly, her eyebrows raising up as she notices you staring back. She closes the door behind her. What are you, she asks? Why, you reply, what are you? She steps closer, taking a big inbreath, a sigh of impatience, but you smile, friendly and polite as usual and turn off the faucet. You reach for a towel from beside her, and she flinches. No, what are you? She persists, and points her lacquered nails in your vague direction, not too hard to do in this tiny linoleum lined bathroom with only one stall. Are you a man or a woman, I can’t tell, she says with a snarl and snark, too close, too mean in the eyes, all fire and righteous religion, I can’t tell, she insists, am I in the wrong bathroom? You laugh, how would I know unless you show me, and you look her up and down, saucy and slow, a firey anger building in your gut as you take in the pink blouse, puckered lips, and blue eye shadow, the hennaed hair and mouthful of her toxic perfume. She spits, are you a man? You counter with, well, what are you, a drag queen? She squares up to you, her heaving chest to your flat one, stands too close, spitting and spouting, cursing like a backwoods heathen, calling you the devil’s work, as pure evil, a pervert, a disgusting specimen, you you you, you should be killed looking like you do, you should die, what are you, what are you, what are you? She yells at you, GET OUT! GET OUT! but you say, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, and she swallows, as you slowly, with hands on your belt, unbuckle, unzip, and drop your pants.