Monday, July 17, 2006

Finding Beauty in the Beasts

Expectations are a funny thing, especially when you can't remember where they came from. I can't recall ever having a conversation about Sheri S. Tepper's fiction, so I must have absorbed my impression of it--harsh, strongly feminist, a little unpleasant--by a process of osmosis. And, as is the case with almost all expectations but certainly those formed in so haphazard a manner, my first foray into Tepper's bibliography yielded something quite different. Tepper's Beauty, an environmentally-conscious retelling of Sleeping Beauty (and quite a few other fairy tales) in which our heroine, instead of falling asleep for a hundred years, embarks on a picaresque adventure through time and space, switches tones almost obsessively, but it never hits the one I expected from it. It starts out, in the 14th century, almost like a YA novel, complete with a spunky young heroine whose opinions about gender roles and class relations are conveniently anachronistic. When Beauty is kidnapped into the 21st century, in which overpopulation has forced humanity into cramped habitation warrens and every square inch of soil and ocean is used to produce tasteless, textureless food, the novel becomes the most blatant dystopia--the kind that goes all the way through awful and out the other end into funny. The novel switches back to the YA mode when Beauty travels back to the 20th century, into a Swiftian pastiche when she becomes trapped in another author's imaginary world, and into traditional fantasy when she arrives at her mother's home in Faery. The one quality that these different styles share is their broadness and lack of subtlety--each segment in the novel is shaped and informed by Tepper's blaring agenda.

I could go on for another three paragraphs here, complaining that Beauty is didactic and reactionary, but I suspect that if I do so most of the reactions I'll get will be some variation on 'well, duh.' It's right there in the author's foreword, after all--Tepper wrote the novel after seeing that some of her favorite beauty spots had been overrun by urban sprawl, and the novel's most consistent quality is the repetition of a shrill, almost panicked invective against those who squander our natural resources and ignore the dangers of overpopulation (this leads to the rather bizarre conclusion that anti-abortionists are evil not because they deny a person's right to control their own body but because their actions contribute to the population boom). It seems almost unfair, after this rare display of honesty, to complain that Tepper has given us exactly what she promised, however ploddingly self-aware the result (Tepper retells several well-known fairy tales over the course of the novel, and these retelling are enchantingly airy and clever. They are not, unfortunately, the novel's point and invariably give way to more preachiness). Beauty is exactly what it aspires to be, and to criticize it for failing as a novel seems to me as pointless as complaining that there aren't enough battle scenes in Middlemarch.

If Tepper intended Beauty to be a tract then I am willing to treat is as one, and I am therefore compelled to ask: what the hell was the woman thinking? It's not just that, much like the overwhelming majority of environmentalist writing, Beauty will probably make most of its readers want to go out and club a baby seal. It's that Tepper's argument is so wholly unconvincing as to make her seem ridiculous simply for suggesting it. In a nutshell, through Beauty's observations of humans in her era and ours, Tepper argues that our capacity to appreciate beauty has been eroded and replaced with a lascivious fascination with horror. The brutalities of this last century, she suggests, are both the product and the cause of this lust for depravity, and the human animal has been taught to crave the ugliness of its urban, industrialized environment. So, right off the bat we have the notion that it is impossible to find beauty in anything modern--that no one could appreciate the glass and steel, neon and chrome that make up our cities, or that there is no beauty to be found in rock music (the argument could be made that Beauty, raised as she was in the 14th century, lacks the cultural background required to appreciate modern architecture or music. But Tepper tries to have her cake and eat it too by giving Beauty 20th century mores and a modern education, and the result is that the character is too similar to us--we can't reject her rejection of our culture on the grounds that she is too removed from it). Which is small potatoes compared to the big lie that Tepper so brazenly tries to sell--that life in the 14th century availed one of many opportunities to appreciate beauty, and that wholesale slaughter is a modern human invention.

Beauty is a very convenient character through which to present this revisionist history. As a young woman in Britain, she can't have seen the crusaders wade up to their knees in the blood of their victims as they entered Jerusalem. She wouldn't have visited the dungeons of the Inquisition. She even misses the Black Death--as her neighbors and tenants develop stinking postules all over their bodies, die in their own filth and are left to rot because there's no one to bury them, Beauty is going to college in the 20th century. She returns to the hush of death, but misses its stench. Beauty's social circle in the 14th century is made up almost entirely of her fellow nobles, thus neatly sidestepping the need to acknowledge the inhuman conditions the peasants lived in at that time. And then, of course, there's the fact that, by our standards, the life of even the wealthiest, most cosseted individual in the 14th century would be an almost unbearable torture of bad hygiene, poor and unhealthy food, unrelievable tedium and, almost certainly, an early grave (again, we see Tepper trying to have the best of both worlds. As a native of the 14th century, Beauty would naturally be less distressed than us at, say, being infested by lice, but in other respects the character's thought processes are almost completely modern, and Tepper makes almost nothing of the reverse culture shock that Beauty goes through when she returns from the 20th century to the squalor of the 14th). So, yeah, there's a lot more pretty nature to look at where Beauty's from, but who has the time, or the strength, or the inclination, to look at it?

It is almost insulting that Tepper expects her readers not to notice the inherent absurdity of her premise, but then she'd hardly be the first author to romanticize the past as a way of disavowing the present. I'll get another chorus of 'well, duh's if I start pointing out that fantasy often ignores the deep darkness of the medieval era, but I can think of very few authors--certainly none with Tepper's aura of respectability--who engage in this revisionism so brazenly, without offering their readers an escape hatch, a hook from which to suspend their disbelief. Some authors set their stories in alternate universes in which nobility means just that (there's a hint of this approach in Beauty, in that the novel's solution to the world's problems is that Beauty should establish a promised land after humanity's demise, but Tepper chooses to ignore the fact that the economical model for the community Beauty is going to build requires a terrific amount of cheap manual labor--she's going to reestablish the medieval feudal system, or at least there's no indication that she doesn't intend to do so), and others recognize that the return of wonder--the 'unthinning of the world', as John Clute puts it (which is also an important subplot in Beauty)--comes with a hefty price tag. Tepper does neither. Her novel takes place in the real world, and she pretends that Beauty's new society will be egalitarian and environmentally friendly without ever telling us how this could be accomplished.

It's almost a shame that Tepper focuses so much of her energies on convincing us that the 14th century is a dandy place to live, because the most interesting part of her argument for the transition from beauty to horror is formulated in the 20th century and repeated unthinkingly throughout the novel. As a high school student, Beauty meets the author Barrymore Gryme and is introduced to the concept of horror fiction. What follows is an almost surreal attack on this genre. "Everything in it was hopeless and terrible. People kept being mutilated or eaten or destroyed. ... If lots of people read things like this, there's something terribly, terribly wrong..." is her reaction to one of Gryme's novels. Later she tries to convince him that his novels desensitize their readers to the very real horror that exists in the world. Tepper returns quite frequently to this assault on horror writers, even placing Gryme, Dante-like, in her version of hell.
There were times, I remember, when we said certain things were unspeakable. Fantasies too horrible for words. Imaginings too gross for description. Violence too inhuman to be put into human language. And then came those who said, 'We can speak it, we can say it, make stories of it, until there is nothing that is not there on the page for the eye to see, for the mind to comprehend, for the child in each of us to be corrupted and eternally tainted by.'

Innocence. Gone, forever, with the unthinkable and the unspeakable. And innocent laughter gone as well. Now only the dirty giggle, the wicked snigger, the game of out-grossing, the playtime of the beasts.

So that when the real death stalks
When the real horror begins
It will all be familiar and we will be able to enjoy it.
If we ignore the perplexing intensity of Tepper's attack on horror fiction--she is literally saying that horror writers are minions of the devil--there is a cutting truth in what she says. We are more accustomed to horror than our ancestors. We are capable of looking unflinchingly at grossness that would have made our parents and grandparents blanche and retch. And in our fiction, we tolerate more and more depictions of violence and gore. Before I sat down to write this essay, I watched an episode of Bones (just taking it out for a test drive--David Boreanaz's character is fun, but the whole thing is so formulaic that I don't see the point of continuing) in which the camera lingered lovingly over the skeleton of a young woman mauled by dogs, flesh still hanging in strips off the bones. I didn't even bat an eye. We are desensitized to violence, and it is worth wondering why authors gravitate to fiction that revels in it--which, indeed, the authors themselves frequently do (most recently in Joe Hill's excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts). But Tepper isn't interested in a discussion of the whys and wherefores of horror fiction, and she clearly isn't qualified to take part in it--she completely ignores, for instance, the fact that there exists horror that doesn't take a pornographic pleasure in descriptions of gore and violence, and that, even though both are defined as horror, there is a difference between fiction that scares its readers and fiction that disgusts them. She has come up with her, as previously pointed out, surreal and reductive argument, and presents it as fact, a stepping stone towards her ultimate, and ultimately unconvincing conclusion--that things were better 600 years ago, simply because the environment was in better shape.

In the last week, I've come across several rather critical discussions of China Miéville's fiction and his attitudes towards fantasy as a genre. Specifically, it was Miéville's outspoken distaste for 'conciliatory' fantasy, coupled with his obvious affection for grossness and horror, that was taking a lot of fire. Was there anything inherently realistic, the participants wondered, about the deliberately dark and gruesome endings of Miéville's novels, or was he simply--as Tepper accuses horror writers as a group of doing--causing his readers pain and patting himself on the back for being clever while doing it? I came away from these discussions baffled by the notion that anyone would take the endings of Miéville's novels--Perdido Street Station was the one most frequently mentioned--as being intended to cause the readers pain. And then I was baffled by my own reaction, because clearly Perdido's ending is nothing if not cruel. For his simple, unintentional error, Isaac dan der Grimnebulin pays with everything he holds dear, and he is left alive to contemplate that loss. His life in the city is over, his career as a scientist is in shambles, and his lover Lin is irreparably damaged before his eyes. And yet I can't say that I walked away from Perdido Street Station feeling dejected or cheated or abused by its author, because the novel's actual main character--the city of New Crobuzon--survived. Miéville's later novels are also love stories to that city, and to cities in general (I'd argue that one of the reasons that Iron Council is the least successful of Miéville's novels is that it doesn't offer as elaborate a portrait of an imaginary city as Perdido Street Station and The Scar do. The Iron Council is thinly sketched, and in New Crobuzon the delicate balance between restrictive tyranny and the freedom of self-expression has been disturbed, and the city is on the verge of self-annihalation).

With its gruesome descriptions of gore and violent deaths, Miéville's fiction is clearly the kind that Tepper recoils from in Beauty. And Miéville has made no secret of his objection to Tepper's brand of reactionary past-worship. His fiction is strongly focused on confounding the expectations that readers have from traditional fantasy--or from fairy tales. And yet, in spite of the fact that Beauty has a happy ending and Perdido Street Station a sad one, and notwithstanding that Miéville is the better writer, that his characters are more believable and that I find his politics more appealing--although these are all true--I still feel that Perdido is the more benevolent novel. Beauty is ultimately a novel of restrictions. Tepper proscribes any way of life that doesn't conform to her very rigid standards of correctness, and implies that any person who doesn't accept her criteria for beauty has been damaged by the world. Miéville recognizes that there are as many definitions of happiness as there are people. He revels in humanity's capacity for difference, for wanting different things, and his cities are havens for those in search of a place that will suit their unique desires (admittedly, his characters don't always find that haven, and sometimes it is snatched away from them)--which is why New Crobuzon's survival at the end of Perdido Street Station offsets the sadness of Isaac's individual story. Through the eye of this beholder, Miéville's dark, gruesome fiction is preferable--more conciliatory--than Beauty. In Miéville's hands, horror is made beautiful. In Tepper's rigid, uncompromising definition of it, beauty is turned into something horrible.

7 comments:

telepresence said...

Never been a Tepper fan. I had a strong, viscerally negative reaction to Grass, which gets praised inexplicably. I tried another one of her books, I'm blanking on the title, and again found it to be mostly an unpleasant read. I don't find her so much feminist as misanthropic.

Jennifer R said...

After reading Beauty, I swore never to read another one of the author's books again.

Nic said...

I enjoyed Tepper's books a great deal in my early/mid-teens: they resonated well with my angry young environmentalist outlook at the time. (These days I'm just a mildly-cross one ;-)) _Beauty_ ws never one of my favourites - the dialogue jarred, I didn't much like Beauty herself, and the anti-horror writing seemed shrill even to my 13-year-old ears. _Grass_, however, is an entirely different matter, mostly because it remembers to have a plot as well as an agenda.

I suppose I see Tepper's novels as thought experiments: a given idea pushed to its logical - if unpalatable - extreme. While I suspect she generally does agree with the majority of what her (good) characters say and do, I don't think this is always the case - referring back to _Beauty_, for example, Tepper has written several horror novels herself (perhaps still does). And her later novel, _Fresco_, has all the hallmarks of deliberate self-parody (and the result is very funny, particularly if you've read a bunch of Tepper's work). Typically, of course, a lot of readers assumed feminists can't possibly have a sense of humour, and took it too seriously...

Matthew said...

I've read one Tepper novel, which I believe is called Gibbon's Decline and Fall, many years ago. All that stuck with me was a subplot that concerned aborition (the novel itself is about magical space lizard people, or something?).

The subplot concerns a somewhat mentally challenged young woman who has become pregnant. This is a hook on which to hang a speech by one of the urbane, sophisticated female characters about why we need abortion. Because, of course, some people should never be parents.

I'll grant that there are some who should never have children, but I don't remember Tepper explaining who would decide, or how, what made a fit parent. The argument seemed to skirt dangerously close to pro-eugenics territory.

On Mieville, I think he sketched the nature of the Iron Council out so sparsely for ideological reasons. It's a true socialist society, and he doesn't believe that it is possible to actually imagine what such a society might really be like - a piece of dogma I've always found puzzling. Still, I found the ending uplifting more than depressing.

Alexander said...

Fascinating review here, one of your best. I read this a bit ago, then again recently more closely. Having now read Mieville, it has a lot more impact, and I love your comparisons (as with DS9 and Babylon 5, and Slings and Arrows/Studio 30). Very effective stuff.

Tanith said...

i actually really enjoyed beauty, i think all writers put them selves into a book their ideals and ethics. i think beauty has some right ideas but put to the exstreme. and yes i agree with you that she seemed to have somewhat white washed over many horrors that would of been in the 15/ 14th.this is a very good reviwe and a good perspective on the book.

treehouseman said...

Matthew, I'm not quite sure you're remembering Gibbon's Decline and Fall quite accurately. The "abortion" subplot came up during the trial of an intellectually disabled child charged with murder - for abandoning her newborn baby, conceived in rape. It made a lot of sense in context.

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