The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Jack is fifteen. He lives with his parents and three siblings, one older sister (Julie), a younger sister (Sue) and younger brother (Tom). The family seems relatively typical, at first, but the children all turn out to have their bizarre, disturbing quirks, which manifest themselves after the unexpected death of their father and slow, sickly death of their mother just two months later. The kids, worried about being separated from one another and taken from their home, commit an almost unfathomable act. They live together with this secret, in demented fashion, until Julie’s slighted boyfriend, Derek, discovers the truth and puts it all to an end. The Cement Garden is comparable only to V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic but, since these kids act the way they do almost naturally, and certainly willingly, the story is even more perverse and troubling than the horror that Andrews created in her own thriller.

For a short book, the characters were very well written. Each of the children have distinct personalities and identifiable traits. Jack is moody, self-absorbed, and physically (and psychologically) dirty. Sue is quiet, apathetic, and submissive; she is the “documenter” of the bunch, watching everything happen and writing it all down in her journal. Sue is the most observant and understands better than anyone what each of her siblings is like, and what is happening to them all. Tom is a very disturbed young boy, lost without guidance. He loves to dress as a girl (nothing inherently wrong with this, in my opinion, except for the twisted connection it holds to his eldest sister Julie and their mother). Tom enjoys being treated like a baby, nursed and coddled. Julie, the eldest, is a power-crazed beauty. She is seriously disturbed and encourages her brother Jack’s unhealthy infatuation with her, toward a place that should never be reached. Derek, the boyfriend, and the kids’ parents, though minor characters, are also distinguished with independent traits, mostly weaknesses. For example, even when Derek finally takes a stand, it is only because he feels angry and jealous of Julie and Jack’s relationship, not because he means to do the right thing for the sake of it being right.

To me, the story was highly disturbing. It will be hard for many to get through it; fortunately, I have a lot of experience with dark, demented, and disturbing literature (being a Dennis Cooper scholar and William S. Burroughs fanatic). Still, child perversity and incest are not comfortable issues and, had McEwan not been a powerful and masterful story-teller, I probably would have given up on this book. The language is well crafted, though, and the prose flows evenly and smoothly. The story too, is an important one, if hard to witness. Things like this do happen in the real world, though nobody ever writes about it or cares to think of it. So, “thanks” to McEwan’s writing ability (I suppose I should be grateful?), I was able to stay engaged enough to manage through to the end. It was certainly a wild ride – I am just glad I finished it long before bed-time.

The book certainly touches on the darker aspects of family and isolated relationships. It deals with child psychology, aberrant sexuality, fear, and immaturity. What does a group of children do, after all, when their parents die suddenly – with no guidance, no extended family to reach out to, and no nearby neighbors to look toward for support? The children were left an inheritance of sorts, which had been explained to the two eldest in advance so, in their minds, they were surviving in a way their mother had intended, on their own and together. But this isolation creates rather immoral, dangerous situations and one must believe that none of these children will ever develop into healthy adulthood. Is it hard to read? Yes, it is even hard to imagine; but, as I mention above, I believe these types of scenarios do exist, only to be heard of in brief 30-second snippets on the news. It is interesting, if rather gross, to witness these relationships in action, as it were, and to get a glimpse at the “how” and “why” of such situations.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

 

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Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).

Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

Tricks is the separate but interwoven and common-themed stories of five average teenagers, between the ages of 15-18. Eden is a genuinely nice person, though not nearly as much of a repentant Christian as her Pentecostal-Priest father and sycophantic mother would want her to be; she falls in love with a boy who, though decent and Christian, is outside their uber-stringent faith and, because of this, she gets shipped off to a religious youth prison, where the parents hope to have the devil exorcised out of her (because a teenager falling in love out of wedlock must equate to possession). Seth is a gay teen, about to graduate from a rural Indiana high school. He falls for an older man in Kentucky who eventually deserts him and, after delicate letters between the two are disclosed to Seth’s father, he is kicked out and forced to give himself up to older men in order to keep himself housed and fed.

Whitney seems to come from the most stable place. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her mother and sometimes with her father (who spends most of him time in San Francisco, on business). She has an older sister who is on college and who tends to steal the lime-light; but Whitney meets a nice boy who treats her right, until she gives him her virginity. After that, she is never quite the same. She becomes vulnerable to the types of advances that a handsome, well-practiced pimp might play on her. Ginger has had a horrible life, since about the age of ten, when her hooker mother started selling Ginger to her clients as well. Ginger is still a decent girl, though, who loves her grandmother and who does all she can to help take care of her mother’s other children, since no one else will. She escapes with her girlfriend (lesbians – to clarify), only the escape isn’t much of an escape at all. Ginger is forced to turn herself into her mother in order to survive.

Finally, we have Cody, a well-meaning, typical teenage boy – he has friends, girlfriends, and a dopey job. He likes sex and gambling and driving around in his car. He has a troubled younger brother, but a great mother and step-father. Then, the step-father passes away, the house is threatened to be taken from them, Cody’s gambling problem leads them further and further into debt and, suddenly, Cody realizes he must find ways – even the most horrifying and degrading ways to a teenage boy – to care for his family. These five characters are “the tricks.” They all find their ways – willingly or not – from their hometowns across the country (Indiana, Idaho, California) to the breeding ground of sin and depravity, Las Vegas. Here, their separate stories are woven into one harrowing song.

Each of the characters’ stories is well-developed and believable, though terrifying and sad in its own way. While it can be a bit difficult to follow the timeline, since each small chapter is a new narrator, it is still possible to distinguish between the two male characters, for instance, and the three females. Still, much of this is due in part to the scenery and the characters surrounding them, not to mention the subject matter. When sexuality is one of the main forces, it makes it much easier to recall which character is in play at the moment. The characters’ language and tone –dialect, slang, inflection, vocabulary, etc. – were nearly identical, though they were all from different social, religious, and economic backgrounds and from different parts of the country. This was, in my opinion, one failing of the novel. That being said, each of the characters did show some growth (negative or positive) throughout their own portions of the book. Each character changed in some way, and so was distinguishable from his or herself when comparing the start of his or her journey to the end of it. Had this not been accomplished, I do not know whether the book would have served much purpose at all; fortunately, the argument is moot because the characters did experience much, and changed in many ways, even though it was hard to tell who was talking when (I sometimes had to flip back a few pages to see the name of the speaker at the start of the segment).

I was intrigued by and happy with the prose and style over-all. The narrative is broken up into little pieces of intermingling story-telling. Each character’s story progresses in time but the stories are split up so that the characters have equal speaking time, and so the reader gets to see where each character is and what he or she is doing as time moves forward. Also, it is written in a type of free-verse which, fortunately, is actually just free prose. There are interesting short poems that start each chapter and that (I noticed after two or three) contain a one-sentence subject matter indicator taken from each poem. Also, the final line from one story becomes the entrance line and/or theme for the next character’s story. It was all quite cute – I’m not sure how else to put it. It works very well, it is engaging and it moves the story along very well. Though the entire book also appears to be written in verse, due to the structure, it is not. Given the sensitive subject matter and the need to connect each of these individual characters with an over-arching thematic element, I think the style was a good choice – it allows the book to work as a cohesive collection rather than a hodgepodge of inter-connected but spliced short-stories.

I truly enjoyed the many ways which the book’s structure allowed the story to work together as one larger element. The short poems and creative threads which wove from one story to the next, though the characters had nothing to do with one another, was great – because the characters were all dealing with the same issues: survival, sexuality, abuse, and making adult choices. Being a J.D. Salinger fan, I cannot help but think how horrified he would be to read a work like this, which places young adults in such dangerous, precarious situations, with no real hope in sight. A majority of the five characters do not “get out” of their situations and this, in a way, makes the book hard to like. It also garners a great respect for the author. The subject matter she delves into here is not fun or light-hearted, so one would hope for a happy resolution, at least, particularly since the subjects are children. Hopkins knows, though, that un-happy endings do happen, particularly to these groups of children impacted in such a way – forced to sell their bodies to survive; caught in an inescapable web of drugs and abuse; lost to any chance at resolution or reunion with their families. As an end note, I can understand why parents would not want their children reading this book. It is scary and it is dangerous. If I were a parent, I would be horrified to learn that my children were exposed to these types of themes, this type of language. That being said, if I were a teenager – I would absolutely pick up a book like this, in part because of the dangerous elements and also in part because I was a teenager like these teenagers; I knew kids who were in trouble, kids whom no one knew how to talk to, whom everyone whispered about. Perhaps, if I had more exposure to responsible literature, done for a purpose and not just to be shocking or pornographic, I might have had a better understanding of what was happening around me; of how to deal with it; of where to get help.

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0

Review: Tampa by Alyssa Nutting

17292511Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 48

Tampa is the much-talked about, widely reviled, and heavily debated inaugural novel from writer Alissa Nutting.  It is based on the real-life events of a Florida teacher who had sex with her underage students.  In it, we are introduced to one of contemporary fiction’s most unbelievably cold and calculating sociopaths, Celeste Price.  While most of literature’s psychologically imbalanced men and women tend to be masochists and/or murderers, Celeste is instead an obsessive-compulsive sexual deviant and addict.  She just cannot get enough of the fourteen year old boys.  Yes, you read that right.  She, a 26-year-old high school teacher, preys on adolescent boys.

Indeed, Tampa is likely to be one of the latest and greatest in a long line of books that are sure to face (or face again) censorship and library ban requests.  Why all the drama?  Well, let’s begin at the beginning:  Nutting’s principal character (the young, first-time teacher, fresh out of her education program) opens her story with a masturbation scene, which leads into her recounting an anecdote about her first sexual experience with a boy, when she (and he) were just fourteen.  Thus the scene is set for her lifelong fascination with youthful teenage lovers.  Everything is told, by the way, in graphic, explicit, highly imaginative detail.

Shockingly, this reality is probably not the most unappetizing element of the book.  After all, there are places in the world where 14 (or younger) is the age of consent.  There are some nations and religions which marry-off their girls before they have even reached puberty.  So, while the age issue might be nauseating to most of us in certain political and social circumstances, it is not the worst of the story.  What is truly disturbing is Celeste Price’s narcissistic self-involvement, her willingness to do absolutely anything, to anyone, in order to get her way.  Maybe that means whoring herself out to a student’s father.  Maybe it results in psychologically damaging a young man, probably permanently, by making him believe that he is responsible for his own parent’s death.  Anything goes, as long as Celeste gets her sex.

At first, I was put-off by the very cold, clinical narrative approach.  The prose is distant, almost willfully antagonistic.  It is such as makes the reader not at all sympathetic to the Celeste’s “plights.”  But, of course, that is entirely the point.  Celeste is a cold woman who sees things in a very bizarre, unnatural way.  Life, for her, bends toward one direction – sexual gratification.  Her next fix is almost always on her mind, so all other matters fall off, like rain on a thrice-waxed automobile.  Are all sexual predators as entirely consumed as Celeste?  Probably not; however, creating a grotesque so as to make a particular point is one of the oldest narrative techniques, and it still works (as long as we do not fall into the trap of taking everything so literally).

Overall, I was satisfied with the book.  Perhaps satisfied is not quite the appropriate work, given the subject matter.  I think Nutting pushes the envelope – she is bold and daring in an environment and climate which, currently, is ever ready to pounce and condemn.  Unfortunately, her characters are quite lacking in breadth and development, which does mean the story falls somewhat flat emotionally, but I am not convinced that that is not somewhat intentional (I do feel for Celeste’s primary victim, sometimes, but that is about the extent of it – even her husband leaves much to be desired in terms of empathetic ability).

Cameron-Diazthe-sexy-teacher-1It is easy to understand how some have mistaken this novel for pornography.  After all, nearly every page (and certainly every chapter) is littered with sexual innuendo, sexually explicit inner-monologue, or actual depictions of (sometimes insanely wild) sex acts.  But, pornography?  No.  The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse a person and stimulate them to orgasm.  That is not the purpose of this book.  Yes, it is graphic and, yes, it is detailed – it is, as much as I hate the word, highly taboo.  But its purpose is much greater than “to be daringly titillating.” In fact, that is not the point at all.  The narcissistic, sociopathic machinations of this school teacher may seem unbelievable, but that is exactly the point – there are people in the world like this (or near enough), and we, Nutting seems to say, remain happily and almost intentionally blind to this fact, particularly when it comes to viewing young women as potential sexual predators.  How do we imagine pedophiles, after all?  Creepy middle-aged white men?  But, what if that ridiculously attractive young woman happens to have a sexual preoccupation for young boys?  Or young girls?

My problem with the way it begs this question (and it is a good question), is that it does seem to fetishize, in a way, pedophilia or sexual predation from this vantage point.  That is to say – a traditionally written book about a sexual predator would likely make the villain wholly repulsive – and that villain would usually be a middle-aged white man.  Here, when the tables are turned and it is a female sex villain, she is almost unimaginably attractive, so much so that it is not just the young boys, but also their fathers (and maybe even some female colleague teachers) who want to devour her.  It’s a dangerous tightrope Nutting walks, and it leaves open for discussion some additional, important questions.  How do we view problematic sex situations, and how do we envision the “bad guys?”

The book isn’t supposed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of every young teenage boy (most would probably enjoy this book, actually) or their parents, but it is supposed to open the dialogue, and it does so by creatively re-imagining events that actually happened. It is a groundbreaking piece of work, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to stomach it.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adults+
Interest: Pedophilia, Sexual Predators, Abuse, Sociopathic Behavior, Narcissism, Psychology of Sexuality, Sex Addiction, Creative Nonfiction, Crime, Gender Roles (Stereotypes).


The Beats of Summer: A Reading Event! (Sign-Up Post)

Welcome to the sign-up post for:

BeatsOfSummer-ButtonThe Beats of Summer: A Reading Event!

Summertime is coming, and what better time than Summer to immerse ourselves in the works of the most rebellious, daring, and “hot” generation of American writers??

For this event, the goal is to read as many pieces of “Beat Generation” literature as you want to, from June 1st through July 14th. Audiobooks, fiction, poetry, and non-fiction all count, as long as the writer is considered to be a part of the Beat Generation.  Memoirs, biographies, essays, theory/criticism or other works of non-fiction written about The Beats are also acceptable!

Update: We are looking for volunteers to provide Guest Posts and/or offer Giveaways throughout the event. If you would be interesting in participating in this capacity, please fill out This Form. And Thanks!

What is the Beat Generation?

“In American in the 1950s, a new cultural and literary movement staked its claim on the nation’s consciousness. The Beat Generation was never a large movement in terms of sheer numbers, but in influence and cultural status they were more visible than any other competing aesthetic. The Beat Generation saw runaway capitalism as destructive to the human spirit and antithetical to social equality. In addition to their dissatisfaction with consumer culture, the Beats railed against the stifling prudery of their parents’ generation. The taboos against frank discussions of sexuality were seen as unhealthy and possibly damaging to the psyche. In the world of literature and art, the Beats stood in opposition to the clean, almost antiseptic formalism of the early twentieth century Modernists. They fashioned a literature that was more bold, straightforward, and expressive than anything that had come before.”  –The Literature Network

I will post throughout the event to  discuss different subjects related to The Beat Generation, its writers, and its influences on later movements in literature, film, and music, as well as my own reviews of the Beat Generation books that I finish.  I will also be offering giveaways, and I am hopeful that some participants will be interested in writing guest posts or hosting giveaways of their own, to make this more interactive!

Below is a  list of writers and works of The Beat Generation.  This list is by no means comprehensive, it is simply a starting point.

Major Writers:
Richard Brautigan
William S. Burroughs
Neal Cassady
Gregory Corso
Diane DiPrima
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Allen Ginsberg
John Clellon Holmes
Joyce Johnson
Hettie Jones
Jack Kerouac
Joanne Kyger
Gary Snyder
Carl Solomon

Important Works:
Dharma Bums
Gasoline (poetry)
Howl (poetry)
Minor Characters (memoir)
Naked Lunch
On the Road
Queer
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (memoir)

Affiliated Writers/Biographers:
James Campbell (This is the Beat Generation)
Carolyn Cassady (Off the Road)
Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Brenda Knight (Women of the Beat Generation)
Matt Theado (The Beats: A Literary Reference)
Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

In the meantime, if you would like to host a giveaway or provide a guest post, please: CLICK HERE.

And if you want to sign-up to participate in The Beats of Summer (yay!), just leave a comment on this post saying YOU’RE IN! Maybe include some of the books you hope to read.  I plan to read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac.

Please also post the button somewhere on your blog (in an announcement post or in your blog’s side-bar) so that we can spread the word, gather excitement, and encourage participation.  It goes without saying that this is meant to be a positive, fun, and educational event – it’s an at-will project, so negativity is a no-go!

Sign-ups are open from now through June 15th.  If you sign-up after June 15th, you can still absolutely participate, but you may not be eligible for some of the early giveaway prizes.

To Share/Discuss on Twitter, Use Hashatag #BeatsOfSummer

Thoughts: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

12222A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 24

A Streetcar Named Desire is my first experience with Tennessee Williams.  Going into this work, I knew very little about it and I knew very little about the writer.  As it turns out, I may have just discovered a new favorite.  Williams was a semi-openly gay man (at the time of this publication – he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations.  A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text.  The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the “New South.”  It is also about Stella’s husband, Stanley.  He is disturbingly sympathetic – an evil man who one can’t help but identify with.  Not since reading Lolita and encountering Mr. Humbert Humbert have I felt so simultaneously enthralled by and repulsed by a literary character.

Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet.  It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career.  These secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable. Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze.  This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play.  Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering.  The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say – Stella.

What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and I hear this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about story (though that is there too, obviously).  The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (and, to my knowledge, it has only been done perfectly well in one instance – with is that of the first staging, including Marlon Brando).  Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male – the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home.  Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.

He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control.  This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, I would argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace.  The film, though perfectly cast and lovingly produced, unfortunately changes the ending and one of the most important dialogic moments, which eliminates the modern and tragic elements of the play.  This is a great disappointment, as the play itself is perhaps perfect – which is simultaneously why it is one of the most often produced, most sought out by high-profile actors, and most disappointingly delivered.

This is one of the most moving, enjoyable, disturbing, and surprising works that I have read this year.  I am eager to read more from Tennessee Williams, hopefully in the very near future (I’m considering pursuing him as a project, after finishing with John Steinbeck).

Notable Quotes:

“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely.”

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Thoughts: Sodom on the Thames by Morris B. Kaplan

1025812Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times by Morris B. Kaplan
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 20

Sodom on the Thames is a descriptive and argumentative essay divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on one element of male same-sex love and/or sex in the late-Victorian period.

Part One, “Sex in the City,” deals with the infamous Boulton and Park case.  In it, the history of two men (Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park) who were also crossdressers and likely prostitutes, known as Lady Stella Clinton (Boulton) and Fanny Winifred (Park), is given and their trial for intent to commit the act of sodomy is relayed.  Kaplan employs readings from court records, newspapers, personal correspondences (diaries, letters, etc.) and a famous pornographic novel written by John Saul to reconstruct the world of Boulton and Park, including the way male-male love and sexuality manifested itself.

Part Two, “Love Stories,” recounts the story of William Johnson Cory, a master at Eton College who had intimate relations with some of his students.  It also relays the story of those students’ relationships with each other (and other male and female lovers) as they aged and moved on from college (high school).  Kaplan again relies heavily on primary source documents, such as letters and diaries, to reconstruct their friendships and romantic and sexual relationships.  He also discusses linked fears and perceptions between the Boulton and Park case and the pederasty and effeminizing nature of all-boys schools (where boys were encouraged to play the role of women in plays, for instance).

Part Three, “West End Scandals,” and Part Four, “Wilde’s Time,” both deal with sexual and romantic scandals of the period, not all of which were homosexual in nature (many were about Irish divorce cases, for instance).  His primary investigation here is not just how homosexual acts were persecuted and prosecuted, but how class and wealth impacted one’s treatment by the law and by the press.  Kaplan makes the case that the aristocratic and powerful “criminals” were often given preferential treatment under the law, but the press at this time became more publically outspoken against such biased treatment and often pushed prosecution of offenders when the legal authorities might have otherwise turned a blind eye.  Such realities set the scene for Oscar Wilde’s trial and are likely why he was eventually convicted and sentenced to such severe punishment.

The introduction, epilogue, and conclusion are, like the intermediary chapters, very interesting and add much to Kaplan’s overall argument.  He discusses in these sections, for instance, the role that queer and feminist theories play on the construction of this work.  He also supports his decision to relay these histories in story form as a way to add depth and honesty to the discussion, elements which historical analysis or theoretical approaches might typically lack.  Kaplan is clearly passionate about the subject material –sometimes arguably to the point of bias- and anyone interested in sexuality and gender issues of the late-Victorian period will likely gain much from reading this book.  Though it is not in the strictest sense a historical synthesis (the lack of a works cited/bibliography speaks to this), Kaplan’s argument for adding storytelling narrative to historical analysis is well-taken and well-received.