Something Wrong Her, Cris Mazza

28 Jul

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(The following review is cross-posted today on HTML Giant)

This amazing “real time” memoir by Cris Mazza deserves a love-letter, and also a review or maybe six, written at different points while the reviewer is reading. Some would be awed and respectful, some would be infuriated, or in tears.  I was obsessed,  and ended up forming intense bonds to the characters, the love story, and the way of telling. It’s such a complex book, it’s taken me months to try to write about it, and even now….

The basic format is that Mazza sets out to explore what she characterizes as her sexual dysfunction, which she intends to both confess and try to explain (to herself and to us), through an examination of her sexual and emotional history. But as she’s working on the book, she gets back in touch with a high school boyfriend, and the story she thinks she remembers starts to change. She begins to include the story of their current emailing, along with old journal entries, earlier draft versions of the same chapters, and excerpts from her previous published books, which have fictional versions of real events, remembered and re-created at different points in time.

A strange note: The book was supposed to come out in fall 2013, and a cover was released and some advance reviews came in, but due to problems with the publisher, it was finally published with a different cover in April 2014.

Most of the other writing on the book has addressed its feminism and sexual politics—Mazza is a well-respected writer of experimental literary fiction with 17 books to her name, known for graphic sexual content and a feminist bent. A previous novel was titled Is it Sexual Harassment Yet? She edited a collection of “chick lit” before that was a term that meant a pink-shoe. And yet in this book she confesses that she has or had vaginismus (a spasming condition that makes penis-in-vagina sex painful) and has never had an orgasm. She also admits to many un-modern-feminist thoughts, like considering herself to be frigid, and thinking her body is dirty.

Her honesty is brave, rare, and hopefully might be helpful to other women who suffer from the same problems. Mazza found talk-therapy to be useless and something called Pelvic Floor Therapy helpful in decreasing the pain during sex. It’s refreshing to hear a woman—especially an older woman—speak honestly about sex, especially when she’s admitting to the uncoolness of not liking it. As she points out, we usually hear from women who are having too much sex, and though this is presented as a flaw, “isn’t the unspoken aura that these women are—for the same reasons—exotic, worldly, exciting, charismatic, provocative…or just plain cool?”

But for all its frankness and willingness to tell-all, Something Wrong With Her isn’t self-help book or a statement of sexual politics. The quest as Mazza writes it is not medical or feminist-political, or even psychological, but historical. She wants to know what’s wrong with her (in her own words) and embarks on “a memory-search for the reasons my sex life had been set on a path towards dysfunction or complete failure….” She looks at her early sexual experiences, her feelings about her body, and most of all, a handful of relationships where she felt violated or controlled by men. Early boyfriends pressured her or were rough. She was a band geek in college, and worked in the office for a band leader who she had a hero-worship crush on, which she feels was obscurely damaging. A later boss was sexually inappropriate. All of this is explored on an infinite loop of repetition and re-visiting, in obsessive detail.

Were these events damaging, or just normal?  Mazza, looking back, concludes that no real crimes were committed and that her problems are no one’s fault (but her own). I recognized many of the events as “normal” occurrences from my own adolescence, from the creepy and insinuating boss to the unpleasantly groping dates; for me, these were sexual wrong-things that happened along the way to discovering sexual right-things. For Mazza, they were something more. At one point she writes, “Mark, why don’t I ‘stand things’? Why have I never? Why am I not ‘over’ anything that’s ever happened or not happened?”

Perhaps that’s the right question, but it made me wish for a wider cultural interrogation. Nothing “bad” really happened to her, but on many levels the whole stew is bad. Our culture’s focus on “sex” as the act of heterosexual penetration is ridiculous. There is no one sex act that fits everyone; there is no correct assemblage of parts. Mazza’s sexuality bears this out, but she can’t say “I don’t like that; I want this instead,” so she considers that she’s a failure at sex. She also writes about her sense of failure at being a desirable woman, since she’s uncomfortable with femininity and dislikes her female parts. (At one point Mark asks her, “When did you start thinking of your body, there, as a wound?”) Is she a failure as a woman, or do we as a culture have an idea of “woman” that doesn’t fit everyone? If your assigned gender role makes little sense to you, maybe it’s more difficult to roll with the usual small violations and humiliations of adolescence. Mazza is in her late 50s, and the feminist theory she quotes is second-wave Erica Jong, but I’d imagine there are young women like her today, still feeling like failures because they don’t live up to “sex” and “woman” as commonly described.

Increasingly, the book turns into the love story between Cris and Mark. The reveals on this story are so brilliant (one happens, unbelievably, in a footnote, about halfway through) that I don’t want to say anything more about the plot here. Except maybe, Oh Cris, Oh Mark, Oh Cris, Oh Mark. You are killing me. We’re all waiting to see if Mark can cure her. We all want to know if it ever turns out like the fairy-tale.

(My contribution to posterity here, in case I happen to be reaching any masturbation-shy, non-orgasmic women in my humble blog post, consists of two words: bathtub faucet. You will need to find one with decent water pressure. Try it. Please.)

I had long wondered if the quality of an Internet affair (Mark is married when then story starts) could be recreated in a book, if the tension of the correspondence could be made narrative. Mazza has done it, which is funny since she’s a pre-Internet age writer often using handwritten diary entries from a time long before e-mail. Yet those diary entries capture something quintessential about how people connect online, when we so often turn other people into our diaries, when the relationship is as much an exploration of self as it is of the other. The whole book is a diary, and a correspondence, and it played for me nearly as effectively as I were part of the affair, in real time.

Some of the most poignant and beautiful lines in the book concerned that morphing between writing and life. “Basically: while I wrote this book something happened. Something happened while I was writing the book I thought I was going to write, which turned it into another book altogether.” Or, “Oh Mark, what am I going to do when I finish this book? It’s the only life I’m living. How does a person who only lives when she writes, write a memoir?

The aura of dreamy, self-absorbed storytelling that many of us recognize from obsessive e-mail correspondence pervades the book. Mazza jokes in several places that she’s going into way too much detail. “Why include this barely significant vignette of a heartbreak?” she says at one point.  And in another she mentions something that (I’m paraphrasing) “no one would care about—but Mark I know you do.” I loved her for it, and Mark too, for caring, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note that there were times I couldn’t believe what I was reading—and couldn’t believe I was still reading it—like, the time the school band went on a trip and Cris’s boss, who she had a crush on, “betrayed” her by not riding on the bus, and not calling to make sure everyone was OK after the bus broke down. Sometimes I just had to laugh. The humor was deepened by Mazza’s inclusion of comments from her writing group, who rightly point out the many reader expectations that she seems bent on frustrating. Go, writing group! One particularly funny part was someone telling her that having a crush on a high school band teacher was itself humorous. (She was indignant, and didn’t agree.)

I thought she got away with it all, partially through sheer commitment and partially because she’s a great writer with an excellent grip of pacing and suspense. Anyone wanting to write a deconstructed memoir, or include e-mail and text in a book should use this as a guide. As testament to her prose abilities, here’s a snippet from her fiction, from a story quoted in the book called “Let’s Play Doctor,” that seems representative of her lucid, risky, bold approach:

“She has a magazine in her hands and Dr. Shea moves behind her, very close, his cheek against hers. The smells from the bakery at the back of the bookstore become potent. She sees a whole pan of buttery cinnamon rolls coming from the oven. She doesn’t let go of the magazine; she can feel the slick heavy pages in her hands. Dr. Shea kisses her neck. ‘Let’s check your wounds,’ he murmurs. She’s looking at the magazine but doesn’t see anything. Dr. Shea lifts her shirt and runs his finger along the line where he had cut her open.”

I’ve written all this and not mentioned the explosive political content. Is it rape if we change our minds about it later? Can we call teenage grappling “rape games”? Do we dare admit to eroticizing our traumas? Is it sexual harassment if we want it? Mazza’s experiences with authority figures, and the men in her life, raise all of those questions in ways that aren’t always comfortable. She admits to calling situations that were or turned out to be ambiguous “sexual harassment” and “sexual excessive force.” I don’t like a world where ambiguous shit like that is legislated, and at the same time I think it right and necessary that sexual harassment and rape are illegal. It’s a mess, and this book does not help clear it up (not that it’s supposed to).

What it does—wonderfully, agonizingly—is look at one woman and her experiences with sex, in a deeper, more real, more fascinating, more exposed, more sexual way than I can recall having read anywhere, and all that in the middle of a firebomb of an Internet affair. What you want in a sex memoirist, it turns out, is not a blogger with a cute Instagram, but a hard-core old lady who has written 17 well-regarded literary books and never had an orgasm. I am only pretending to be surprised by that. I am not surprised. And I love you, Cris Mazza.

Recalcitrant Language, an Interview with Ottilie Mulzet

23 Jul

Now, you all are going to think I’ve been holding out on you, but my interview with Ottilie Mulzet, the translator of Seiobo There Below, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, is up at The Paris Review Daily. How is it possible that I’m writing about a book I have not yet blogged about? Well, my 25 Points review of the book is forthcoming on HTML Giant, sometime in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’m thrilled to have spoken with Ms. Mulzet. And I am once again dreaming of translating Russian cookbooks. Many thanks to The Paris Review for being an invaluable source of writer-interviews, all searchable online.

19. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemsin

14 Jul

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So, along comes a fantasy novel I wish I’d written, a tale of high magic, a palace in the sky, a barbarian princess in over her head, a seductive god with many hands, who comes when you call him in the night…. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin is a perfect book for people who want sex, romance and full-bodied characters along with their battles and lore. I found myself marveling, as the gears started to crank and I started to be drawn into Jemsin’s world, at just how well she did everything—voice, writing, plot.

The writing is moody and atmospheric:  Heroine Yeine says, “I ran from the Nightlord through the halls of the light.” When she escapes into a wall, and asks where she is, her guide answers,  “‘…dead space in the body of the palace. All these curving corridors and round rooms. There’s another half a palace in-between that no one uses….'” One of the best set pieces establishing the atmosphere of the kingdom of Sky, where Yeine finds herself, describes her horror when a maid offers her a pair of human eyes on a wire frame as a fashion accessory. “But the masque itself was peculiar, seeming to consist only of a pair of bright blue feathery objects like the eyes on a peacock’s tail. Then they blinked.”

And, not to put the book in a niche, but this is just kind of book the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag people are talking about, since the main character is a brown-skinned woman, who is not pretty and doesn’t make much of her looks, and the overall gender and sexuality in the book is fluid—something I particularly love. We do need diverse books, and this is an excellent one.

Since I’m writing a book in the same space, it’s interesting to me to see what rules people can break, and which ones they stick to. I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms innovative in asking readers to understand a lavishly developed magical world with a lot of unfamiliar features, plus the history and intrigue of a political system, plus the active pantheon of gods taking part in affairs. That is a lot to keep straight when the task is to write a page-turner, and Jemsin pulled it off. Where she stuck with convention was in making a fairly straightforward, heroic, likeable heroine, and keeping the good guys good and the bad guys bad (with a few surprises and betrayals, naturally). I think she needed that spine of convention to tell this epic tale, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where she takes the characters in Book Two.

My favorite part was the unconventional part, namely segments, conversations, perspective-shifts dropped into the text that at first don’t make sense, and then start to later, as events reveal themselves. The first few paragraphs are disorienting (and made me put this book down about five times before starting to read it), but once I got into it I flipped back to them repeatedly throughout the book, discovering new meanings and letting them create new tension. I also really loved how she playfully inserted backstory and sometimes wound the clock back to tell or explain something—Yeine’s narrative voice let the writing have a lot of fun.

A last note is that Yeine, the heroine, is from a matriarchal barbarian society that historically treated men something like women have been treated in human society. Chauvinism feels sour to me no matter who it’s directed at, and Yeine made a few “weaker sex”-type comments about men that made me wince. At first I was tempted to give Jemsin a hard time for this, but then I thought of the 10,000-million novels about early male-dominated societies (including all historical romance) that whitewash the chauvinism, and I decided that this way is better. It was ugly; let it look that way. All fantasy novels are better with a large dose of reality, and this one was one of the best.

 

 

18. Field of Prey, John Sandford

13 Jul

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The last John Sandford book I reviewed, Storm Front, in the Virgil Flowers series, made my worst books of 2013 list, and prompted a Twitter exchange with Sandford’s son, who vehemently contradicted my claim that the Sandford books are now ghostwritten. I dropped the discussion at that point, because it didn’t seem right to accuse the son of one of my favorite writers of lying, and yet I could not believe that Sandford had written a book as bad as Storm Front, which did so ham-fistedly all the things Sandford does so well. I’m not alone in thinking so, either.

I was delighted, then, to read Sandford’s latest, Field of Prey, in the Lucas Davenport series and see that it’s back to the usual high-quality storytelling, witty dialog, colorful Minnesota location and rip-roaring plot. The criminal was one of the type Sandford does best—a deranged sex predator—and Lucas brought his A-game. We also saw the full range of supporting cast members, including Lucas’s adoptive daughter Letty, who I think deserves her own series someday, and Elle, the nun, whom we haven’t seen much of lately.

I’ve written enough about my love of this writer elsewhere. Enough to say that I think the man writes a perfect thriller, and enjoyed this one very much.

 

17. One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson

12 Jul

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I had to make an instant selection at the newsstand in Heathrow airport recently, which is difficult since I’m not a huge bestseller-reader, and find most crappy mass-market thrillers or romances to be painful. (With plentiful exceptions for good genre writing.) I  grabbed two, one an Elizabethan man-thriller whose name I can already not recall but was dull, gruesomely violent and I read 15 pages then left it on the plane. The other was this one, One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson. My split-second thought process was to remember that my mom loved A Walk in the Woods, and raved about what a great author this guy was. And…. I can now agree with her: Bill Bryson is a wonderful writer with wide appeal and richly deserves his place of pride as a huge bestseller.

This book, One Summer: America 1927 is a fascinating portrait of America in 1927, told through the stories of some of the great events of the time: Charles Lindbergh flying from the U.S. to Europe in the first successful transatlantic flight, Babe Ruth batting an unprecedented number of home runs (I’ve already forgotten), the invention of television. Bryson has a humorous, conversational style and is a fantastic storyteller with an excellent grip of narrative tension. I found myself pausing ever 3o pages or so to relay something interesting I was learning to my husband. Like, in the 20s the parks on Park Avenue were much wider, and lost 17 feet on either side to make room for more lanes for cars. (They shouldn’t have done it!). Or, the strange fact that before mass communication, people turned out in giant, enormous crowds for things. Like, hundreds of thousands of people would come out to watch a train carrying the president go by. The book was informative, educational, evocative of the historical period, and seemed like the kind of thing that would interest almost anyone. I couldn’t put it down until it was done, several days post plane-ride.

16. Demons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Apr

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This is one of those books I ranted about, while reading, to all who would listen. It’s a terrorist novel, from the 1850s, set in a small Russian town where the egoism and blindness of the local elite plays into the hands of the so-called revolutionaries. The stakes are petty, the crimes are sordid, the workers and the common people are used and abused, and a more brilliant, foul, hysterical and deranged atmosphere has rarely been established in literature.

It’s a cliché to say so, but people just do not write books like this anymore. My favorite element was the choice of narrator–he’s a minor, unnamed character who lives in the town. Thus everything that happens either has to take place with the narrator in the room (a third party, since he’s only tangentially a player), or be related as gossip—what writer would dare to choose something so challenging and limiting today? The majority of the text is speech—hardly dialog, even, since characters hold the floor for pages. There’s one long segment in the middle where more and more people keep rushing into a drawing room, making successive confessions and allegations. It’s so brilliant, it’s practically a farce.

Another favorite sequence was a drawn-out suicide and confession, set in a series of dark little rooms, involving a dropped candle and a bitten finger. Evil here is squalid and petty, and the Demons of the title are a series of fools who let themselves get drawn into a nonsense anti-establishment plot, for nonsense reasons. The plot’s leaders are the wastrel children of the rich, and the public intellectuals, leading the students and the local middle class astray. These were the people Dostoyevsky thought were destroying Russia, and his loathing of them knows no bounds.

Here’s what happens when the revolutionaries succeed in an aspect of their plot. One of their number, Lyamshin “began to scream in a voice that wasn’t human, but animal-like. Squeezing Virginsky with his hands tighter and tighter from behind, convulsively, he kept shrieking incessantly and without pause, his eyes goggling at everyone and his mouth wide open, his feet pounding on the ground as if he were beating a drum. Virginsky was so frightened that he himself began screaming like a madman, and in a kind of frenzy so vicious that Virginsky was the last person you’d expect it of, he began to wrench free of Lyamshin’s arms, scratching and pounding him as much as he could with his hands behind his back. Finally, Erkel helped him pull Lyamshin away. But when the terrified Virginsky leaped some ten steps to the side, then Lyamshin, on seeing Pyotr Stepanovich, suddenly began howling again and went straight for him. Tripping over the corpse…”.  Demons, truly.

Possibly the book’s most wild structural anomaly is that a central chapter, the confession of the book’s main antagonist, a rich playboy named Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, was considered too risque to publish at the time, and was written-around. But it’s now included as an appendix! Don’t miss it! Stavrogin has committed a terrible crime, and the reader is invited to contemplate forgiving him, or at least, to contemplate God’s forgiveness of him.

The crime, and its tacit sanction by the church, will play differently in modern times than it did when written, so this chapter will not be a moral touchstone for me the way, say, Alyosha Karamazov’s kiss is. (Though an argument about that would be interesting).  It’s understandable why this is the less-taught of Dostoyevsky’s great novels, but it was a surprise to me as one of his most-fun to read.

 

15. Kill Marguerite and Other Stories, Megan Milks

28 Apr

My review of this book just published on HTML Giant. Read it here.

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