Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tender Thoughts on Nothing

"This war touches people that your congress holds in the same contempt that King George reserves for the people of Boston. I mean women, and yes slaves too, for that matter. Though I'm sure you wish I would not mention that subject, as it might upset your southern friends."

Abigail Adams, John Adams, "Independence"
In Matt Cheney's review-slash-meditation on the second and concluding volume in M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Story of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, he expresses a sentiment that I've come back to several times in the last few months: the difficulty and trepidation with which a reader returns to an author whose previous work has astonished and delighted them. "Merely replicating the experience is not enough. Once a mind has been blown, it develops tough scar tissue, and a larger force is necessary next time." And, Cheney is sad to conclude, the second Octavian Nothing volume, The Kingdom on the Waves, doesn't quite have that necessary explosive force. Though I agree with his identification of the key differences between the two volumes--the first one, The Pox Party, is more meditative, focusing on Octavian's slow realization of the true nature of the experiment within which he's been brought up, whereas The Kingdom on the Waves, which sees Octavian escaping the home of his owner Mr. Gitney with the help of his tutor Dr. Trefusis and spending a time in British-occupied Boston before joining the freed slave regiment formed by Virginia's colonial governor, is a more traditional historical adventure novel, albeit one which maintains the first volume's melancholy tone and discursive narrative style.

Happily, unlike Cheney I found this transition not only palatable but necessary to the success of the story Anderson is trying to tell, about the role of slavery in the American revolution and America's inception, and the self-contradictory and even hypocritical definitions of liberty ascribed to by both sides, each of which was willing to deny liberty to some--slaves or colonists--in order to secure their own financial well-being. I enjoyed The Pox Party's early chapters, which describe Octavian's odd childhood among a group of free-thinkers whose scientific curiosity spurs them to acts of lunacy and cruelty, and his slow puzzling out of the rules of his world (though, I suspect, not nearly as much as those readers who came to the novel unaware of Octavian's true situation, and in fact I wonder whether Cheney's disappointment with The Kingdom on the Waves isn't rooted in part with this greater attachment to The Pox Party, as he was one of its early adopters), but it would have been both strange and inappropriate for him to continue in his childish passivity once those rules had become apparent. Already at the end of The Pox Party Octavian makes a first attempt at rebellion when he escapes Gitney's house and joins the rebel forces, only to be unwittingly betrayed by a fellow soldier and returned to bondage. Understandably, then, in his next bid for freedom Octavian dismisses the Sons of Liberty and embraces England. In so doing, he and Anderson ask a question not frequently raised in fictional discussions of the Revolutionary War--why should a slave care about their master's freedom, and why shouldn't they support a tyrant who offers to free them from their own enslavement?

Like Cheney, I was reminded while reading The Kingdom on the Waves of Esther Forbes's classic children's novel Johnny Tremain (though for my part I assumed this was because Johnny Tremain is the only other children's novel about the Revolutionary War I've read), another story about a young man coming of age during the American Revolution and finding himself by committing himself to the cause of liberty. In Forbes's novel, however, the protagonist is white and a patriot (according to Wikipedia there is only one character of color in the novel, a free woman who supports the rebel cause). What made me think of Johnny Tremain while reading Octavian's story was the realization that Forbes had, either deliberately or unconsciously, left out any discussion of slavery from her novel because she couldn't reconcile it with her story's focus on liberty and self-actualization. Because the question can't be answered in any satisfactory way, it, and the very existence of slaves and slavery, is ignored. This is, of course, a common occurrence in fiction--a story is told from a white and/or male perspective even if female or non-white characters have a more interesting, more harrowing, more complicated story to tell within that same setting. Octavian Nothing, the story and the character, are a response to this tendency. They force their readers to examine the American Revolution from a different perspective, and, in so doing, turn the traditionally accepted axes of tyranny and liberty on their heads.

Octavian joins the loyalists simply as a matter of expediency--the Virginian governor Lord Dunmore has struck upon the idea of using the patriots' own slaves against them, and offered freedom to any slave who takes up arms in England's cause (while simultaneously guaranteeing the property rights of slave owners who remain loyal to the crown). Among the members of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment Octavian continues the journey of self-discovery begun in The Pox Party. Having grasped what it means to be a slave, he now learns what it means to be part of a community of slaves. From his fellow escapees he learns about life in Africa, about the different African nations and their customs and traditions, and most of all about the cruelty endured by enslaved Africans during the passage to America and at the hands of their masters. The more Octavian discovers about himself--about the culture stolen from him and the suffering spared him--the angrier and more despairing he becomes, so that by the time he first takes arms against patriots he is as staunch a loyalist as one might imagine, and outright dismissive of the rebel cause, which he thinks of as the crying of infants who know nothing of true suffering. A "mob of slave-drivers," he calls the rebels at one point, "baying for liberty and offering none themselves" he thinks of them at another. Torturers, preachers of lies, traitors and instigators of chaos--soon there is no imprecation vile enough to suit Octavian's wrath at the patriots.

But The Kingdom of the Waves is more than an exercise in subverting the received distribution of good and evil in the Revolutionary War. Though Octavian eventually arrives at an outright rejection of the patriot's reasons for rebellion, the novel itself, I think, takes a more nuanced approach. Among the soldiers of the Ethiopian Regiment Octavian finds Pro Bono, formerly a servant in Mr. Gitney's house who had been a cross between a father and big brother to Octavian. Having been given to one of Mr. Gitney's investors and following the outbreak of revolution and the news of Lord Dunmore's offer of emancipation, Pro Bono escapes his owner, makes his way to the regiment, and renames himself William Williams. His and Octavian's reunion is initially joyful, but a strain soon begins to creep into their relationship. As fond and protective as Bono is of Octavian, he often seems resentful of him, teasing him about his sheltered, luxurious upbringing, and undermining Octavian's efforts to be accepted as one of the men by revealing details of it to other members of the company. Octavian's suffering, Bono seems to be saying, is sub-par, not worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as his own or that of the other former slaves in the regiment. Though on one level this is true, the pain Octavian endures as a result of this insistence on quantifying injustice might easily be used as a counter-argument to his own dismissive attitude towards the rebels' complaints--just because other people have suffered more than you have doesn't mean that you haven't suffered and don't deserve redress for that suffering.

More importantly, the struggle between Octavian and Pro Bono over Octavian's right to demand justice and liberty is an expression of what is, to my mind, the two volumes' central theme--the tendency of all humans to construct a narrative of their lives in which they are the central character, and the liberating and destructive effects that these narratives can have when imposed on others. When Lord Dunmore's regiment prepares to retake the city of Norfolk, its members are shocked when the fleeing rebels' sack the city, but declare that in having done so, the rebels have undermined themselves. The people, Pro Bono declares, "will finally see what species of criminal is parading through the streets, calling themselves friends of liberty." But when Octavian's company is sent into the city to round up any remaining rebels, and catches one of them in the act, he responds with a tirade that simultaneously sheds a light on his own perspective on the balance of power--no less slanted and no less fiery than Octavian's--and on the very real truth that those who control the perception of facts, who determine the narrative that people accept, control the facts themselves.
"When a man sits starving and he watch the citizens of a town lick His Lordship's black arsehole like a cur with hopes of stroking, a man starts to resent their flattery and groveling, and maybe if a man see His Lordship's going to light a little fire, a man reckons, Maybe as I should light a little fire myself. ... A man reckons, Here's showing Norfolk our high opinion of people who don't love their countrymen as much as they love despotism. ... A man reckons, We do this, and we ain't going to get the blame anyways. Because Lord Dunmore, Governor of the Negroes, started the burning. So when they say, 'Who burned Norfolk?' ain't nobody going to answer nothing but, 'Lord Dunmore and his Ethiopian Regiment.' Welcome, boys, to the annals of tyranny."
Of course, this very tendency to edit our personal narratives to suit our purposes and convenience is the reason that stories like Octavian Nothing aren't more common, and though such self-serving narratives may be the salvation of some--the rebels themselves, or even Octavian's mother, who upon arriving at Mr. Gitney's house fabricates the story that she is an African princess in order to protect herself and her son from thinking themselves enslaved--they are often the undoing of others--the slaves who, as Anderson concludes in his afterword to The Kingdom on the Waves, were the reason for the American experiment's survival during its tenuous first decades, or Pro Bono, forced to watch with seething resentment as Octavian is treated with a gentleness and deference he deserves no better than any common field slave while Bono himself lives an ordinary slave's life.

The end of The Kingdom on the Waves finds Octavian sunk into a deep gloom, not only because of the abject failure of the Ethiopian Regiment and the loyalist cause, or the depravities he has witnessed and committed (the latter parts of the novel find Octavian, Bono, and several others of their company trapped behind enemy lines, and are the kind of bleak depiction of the chaos and senseless brutality of war that is more often associated with WWII or Vietnam stories), but because he's lost hope in the possibility of compassion. Human beings, Octavian concludes, are avaricious and cruel by nature. They will always tell themselves stories in which they are the heroes, and others are either villains and therefore deserving of exploitation, or cheerfully willing to be exploited, or simply not mentioned or even thought of. Some faint hope is held out when Octavian gives his own narrative--the two volumes of the duology--to Mr. Gitney, in exchange for the results of seventeen years' worth of observations of Octavian's growth, which the boy has burned for warmth, and the old philosopher is moved by what he reads to beg the Octavian's forgiveness, thus suggesting that our self-narratives can sometimes be an instrument of furthering compassion and understanding. But it is surely no great cause for rejoicing that the only character in both novels to grow past their preconceptions and develop compassion for someone they had previously seen as a means to an end is a half-mad, penniless invalid.

A possibly unintended consequence of The Kingdom on the Waves's emphasis on self-serving narratives and the disappearance of the disenfranchised within them was to make me aware of the people Octavian thoughtlessly left out of his own narrative. There are a handful of female characters in both Octavian Nothing volumes, and the issue of women's difficult circumstances in that era is left largely unexamined. Though there are several depictions of women suffering indignities unique to their sex--Octavian's mother, we learn, was repeatedly raped during the passage to America; a pregnant slave is beaten for stealing food and delivers a stillborn child; the plantation where Pro Bono is sent is crawling with its master's half-black children--these are described as crimes against slaves who happen to be women, not crimes against women enabled by those women's enslavement. (Towards the end of the novel Octavian witnesses his commanding officer rape a white patriot woman and kills him for it, but this is treated as yet another example of that officer's unworthiness--and by extension, the unworthiness of Lord Dunmore, who will soon betray the Ethiopian Regiment--than a commentary on the lot of women in wartime.) Neither reading is inaccurate, of course, but the primacy of one over the other makes it clear that even Octavian is a person of his time, and that there are forms of prejudice and enslavement that he simply doesn't see.

Which is why The Kingdom on the Waves is well-companioned by Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan's first novel to be published outside of Australia, following several well-received short story collections. As the Octavian Nothing duology is to slavery, Tender Morsels is, at least at first, to the disenfranchisement of women. Like Anderson's novel, it is a story about people in a society which is designed to deny their personhood and to justify physical and emotional violence against them. "There are plenty would call her a slut for it." is the novel's opening line, setting the novel's tone with Lanagan's characteristic directness. Tender Morsels is littered with examples of women doing things they might be called sluts, or suffer a much worse fate, for doing or enduring. A quick, no-strings-attached roll in the hay, walking unescorted in a bad part of town, or, in the case of young Liga Longfield, a campaign of abuse and cruelty so vicious and so unflinchingly described that it makes the early chapters of Tender Morsels almost too much to get through.

When we first meet Liga, she is thirteen and has been left in the cottage she shares with her father beside a roaring fire, which begins to exude a foul-smelling smoke. The smoke causes Liga to experience terrible cramps, but when she tries to get away from it her father bars the door, and doesn't let her out until her guts threaten to drop away.
But it was too late for the cold, clean air to save her; her insides had already come loose. She could not run or she would shake them out. Already they were drooling down her legs. ... She fell to her knees in the snow. Inside her skirt, so much of her boiling self fell away that she felt quite undone below the waist, quite shapeless. ... She heaved and brought up nothing but spittle, but more of her was pushed out below by the heaving.
By this point we don't need to be told what Liga's father has started doing since her mother died, but it takes Liga one more forced, unwitting abortion before she understands what's happening to her, and she's pregnant for the third time when her father, on his way back from procuring the means to get rid of this child as well, is killed by a passing coach. Even his death, however, isn't the end of her suffering, as when her pregnancy is discovered by one of the town boys, Liga becomes fair game: "The whole aspect and stance of him changed. He had the coin to buy her, the set of him said. Was she the kind he would buy?" Though even buying, it seems, is too good for Liga--a few months after her child is born, the boy, with four of his friends, arrives at her cottage to take by force what he's decided she's lost the right to withhold.

Regardless of the genre of her story, Margo Lanagan is first and foremost an author of horror. No other author looks as steadily at the muck and mess of human cruelty and depravity, at the violence that we inflict on one another and the blood and guts that spill out as a result. The first chapters of Tender Morsels read like an expansion of her story "The Goosle," which was also told from the point of view of a victim of sexual abuse who has barely enough force of will and independence of thought left to know that they don't like what's being done to them. And, just like "The Goosle," these chapters are at one and the same time a punishment and a tour de force. By the time Liga has dragged herself, sore and bruised from her latest ordeal, to a nearby cliff, we are too steeped in her pain and despair to offer much resistance. Then a measure of mercy is extended--a supernatural entity (never particularly well-explained, as is most of the magic in Tender Morsels) gives Liga two jewels, and tells her to plant them at either side of her cottage and sleep between them. When she wakes up, her home is clean and well-tended, her body is healed, and, most importantly, every person who has ever hurt or insulted her has disappeared from the town, and the ones remaining are kind and accommodating.

Liga has been transported into her own heaven, which in her mind is a place of women: herself and the two daughters left to her by her father and her attackers, and the women of the town, the matrons and grandmothers with whom she trades and from whom she learns crafts. What men there are are bland, biddable creatures who do their work and don't give her a moment's distress. Here Liga raises her daughters--Branza, soft-hearted and kind, and Urdda, strong-willed and courageous--who grow up happy and carefree, completely innocent of the horror that drove their mother to shelter in a dreamworld or the more complicated, more dangerous world outside.

But as all idylls must be, this one is shattered when a local witch (the 'her' of the opening line) concocts a spell to transport a friend to the place of his heart's desire but sends him to Liga's heaven instead. Once the barrier is breached, it is vulnerable to further incursions (or, as Lanagan not-too-subtly terms them, punctures or perforations), particularly on the Day of the Bear, a local fertility ritual in which four young men from the town dress up in bearskins and chase the young women of the town. Two of these men fall into Liga's paradise and are transformed, for a time, into actual bears. The first is a sad, serious boy named Davit Ramstrong, whose infatuation with Liga is half-romantic, half the love of a child for its mother. The second is a wastrel who sets his sights on Branza (the times between the two world are out of alignment, so that though only a few years pass between Davit's visit and this one, the women in Liga's heaven age ten years), who responds with an uneasy mixture of attraction and fear. Urdda, meanwhile, uses the second bear's appearance to discover the soft spot between the worlds, and makes her way back into reality.

Before long, all three women are back in the real world (though, again because of the different speeds of time in the two worlds, Liga and Branza age a further decade in the year Urdda spends without them, so that when the family is reunited they are 40 and 25 to Urdda's 15), and here is where I start to argue with myself about this book. On the one hand, only a masochist would wish for a repeat of the novel's early chapters to be inflicted on these blameless and quite lovable characters. On the other hand, there is something disappointingly mild about the family's adventures in the real world. Upon her arrival, Urdda is discovered by Davit, now older and a married man with children of his own, who recognizes the little girl he played with as a bear, and takes her to the witch who started the trouble. Between them, they form an instant family around the homeless girl, one which expands to include Branza and Liga when they are retrieved. Liga's blatant falsehood about Branza and Urdda's legitimacy is unthinkingly accepted in the town, and she and her daughters quickly become respectable figures.

The second half of Tender Morsels is a story about learning to live in the real world after a lifetime spent in heaven. The choice, as all three women learn, is between a life that is safe but devoid of passion, adventure, or surprise, and a world which offers as many dangers and sudden heartbreaks as it does pleasures. Interestingly, it is the obedient Branza who chafes against the restrictions placed upon her as an unmarried woman, who must never walk anywhere unescorted or expose herself to comment by behaving in an unladylike manner, while headstrong Urdda, perhaps because she arrives in the real world at a younger age, quickly adapts to its rules. When Branza tries to find her way back into her mother's heaven, she is told that she mustn't: "You are pure-hearted, Branza, and lovely, and you have never done a moment's wrong. But you are a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks your heart." The novel's ending is a sort of genteel parallel to its grim beginning. Davit, now widowed, asks Liga for Branza's hand in marriage, a quasi-incestuous request given that he played with her when she was a child and he a young man, and that like Liga's father he is placing a girl in the role once reserved for her mother. In so doing, he causes Liga, who has begun to entertain hopes of him for herself, great pain, but at the same time he is clearly a good man and a good potential husband. His marriage to Branza cements the family's return to the world and reacceptance into the community, giving the women the stability and security they enjoyed in Liga's heaven while still allowing them to live in the real world.

And, to be honest, I don't care for this ending. It feels too neat and too convenient. When I started reading the first Octavian Nothing volume, I noted that it began just like the variety of young adult novel which inevitably ends with the unappreciated, put-upon youthful protagonist discovering that they are special in some way, and being rescued from their mean circumstances by a parent or guardian who took them to a better life. Clearly, Anderson was working hard to recall these kinds of stories because he wasn't going down that path, wasn't going to appease his audience by essentially saying that the suffering of all slaves was made less terrible because this one particular slave, the one he had made us care for, had found an escape hatch. It broke my heart when I realized how unlikely a happy ending for Octavian would be, but I think I was even more saddened when I realized that Tender Morsels was going down the path Anderson had avoided.

Liga, Branza and Urdda live in a world in which what happened to Liga can happen to another girl, who will have just as little recourse to justice, and meet with just as little compassion and assistance, as Liga did, a world in which the local constable will arrest Branza for attacking one of a pack of boys who swarm her for the crime of walking on her own, but of whom Davit thinks that "Crimes against women he had no sense of at all." It's hard to begrudge the women their happy ending, but they earn it with a lot of luck, and by slotting themselves neatly into the chinks of the world-machine, and accepting the roles assigned to women (Urdda becomes the apprentice of a powerful, out-of-town witch, and thus takes on a non-traditional and powerful feminine role, but there's something not quite believable in the degree of respect and independence accorded to this character, especially when juxtaposed with the complete lack of respect accorded to almost all other women in the novel who are not wives or widows). Before Branza accepts that she can't return to Liga's heaven, she angrily tells Urdda that "other people's desires are so wrong and so cruel" and rages at a man for beating his donkey, but one of the effects of her acceptance of reality is that she seems to have forgotten the suffering of others. What's important is that "she was to be loved and protected by Davit for the rest of her life".

This is now the second time that I've taken a novel for children to task for not having a bleak enough ending. One more and I fear I'll become one of those people who think that only grimness is realistic and only misery worthy of being made into art. What rankles about Tender Morsels's ending, however, isn't its realism--people have carved out good, happy lives for themselves in the shadow of terrible injustices, and that's something that ought to be celebrated--but the fact that it depends on a sudden shift in gears, from one kind of story to another. Tender Morsels starts out as a story about a character who endures terrible injustices because she lives in a world arrayed against her, and who escapes into another world. It ends as a story about that character learning that life in the real world, though fraught with dangers, is worth more than life in a dream. The problem is that the lesson learned from the second kind of story--acceptance of the inevitability of heartbreak and pain--is precisely the lesson one shouldn't learn from the first kind of story, which strives to elicit rage and indignation. It's one thing to say 'unhappiness and misfortune are the risks you take if you choose to live in the world,' but it's quite another thing to say 'being made into a sex slave by your father and then gang-raped by men who think that having been impregnated by him makes you fair game is the risk you take if you choose to live in the world.' In their time and place, it may very well be that the choice placed between Liga and her daughters is between a real life in an antagonistic, dangerous world and a life that is no life at all in a dream world, but this shouldn't be presented as a happy ending simply because they've managed to luck into a good compromise.

For all my problems with its ending, Tender Morsels is a good read. Even its less exciting segments--the bucolic idyll of Liga and the girls' life in the dreamworld, the mundane domestic arrangements they establish when they return to reality, the passage of time as marked by village rituals--are never less than hauntingly rendered, and when she wishes to Lanagan can turn on the terror at the blink of an eye and strip away the women's security as if it were nothing but an illusion (which of course it is). She also does a good job with secondary characters, diving into the points of view of Davit and another village bear who suffers terribly as a result of the increasing permeability of the boundary between worlds. Tender Morsels is a bit shapeless, as novels go--there's almost no tension in its second half, after the women return to reality--but despite this it is entirely fascinating, because of the liveliness of its characters and because by that point Lanagan has taught us to fear for their safety. Still, it is less than it might have been. Towards the end of The Kingdom on the Waves Octavian begins to wish for a promised land, where no one suffers and everyone is kind to one another. There is no such place, Pro Bono tells him, and the novel's ending holds out little hope that Octavian will find any sort of haven, or that if he does he'll be allowed to keep it for long. Tender Morsels concludes that, even if such a world exists, life within it is no life at all, but it suffers a crucial failure of nerve when it fails to conclude, as Octavian Nothing does, that this is a tragedy.

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