Saturday, May 09, 2009

Benighted by Kit Whitfield

Kit Whitfield's second novel, In Great Waters, has been racking up a lot of praise, including from people whose opinion I value. Since it's not out in paperback yet, I picked up a copy of her first and also very well received novel Benighted. Now I need someone who's read both books to tell me that Whitfield has improved substantially as a writer in the three years gap between producing them, because though Benighted (Bareback in the UK) shows promise in certain areas, it is ultimately a failed novel: slow-paced, overlong, rather poorly written, and not doing nearly as much as it should with its excellent premise.

Said premise offers a fascinating twist on the by-now common trope of combining the supernatural with noir mystery, as well as on the idea of supernatural creatures such as vampires or fairies living openly among humans. In Benighted's world, werewolves not only live among humans, they are human--all but a tiny fraction of the population are lycanthropic, lycos for short. Humans, or anmorphs, are actually suffering from brain damage, a brief oxygen deprivation during childbirth which renders them incapable of transforming into wolves at the full moon. The tiny population of 'nons' is tasked with keeping order during full moon nights, under the auspices of DORLA--the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. It's their job to patrol the streets and round up people who haven't properly sequestered themselves, to prosecute offenders, and to provide shelter and medical assistance to those who have found themselves stranded outdoors.

Our protagonist and narrator is Lola May Galley, a non working as a public defender, dealing mostly with winos and homeless people caught outdoors in the full moon. Her latest case, a wealthy man who mauled one of her DORLA colleagues, seems equally open and shut, but then the victim turns up dead, Lola and her partner are deliberately targeted during a full moon, the suspect in another operative's mauling is allowed to escape from a lyco hospital, and his DORLA interrogator is shot dead, giving every indication that Lola, the suspect's other interrogator, might be next. Interspersed with her investigation are Lola's ruminations about a non's lot in life--the special schools in which they train only for DORLA jobs, the alienation from their werewolf families, the poor pay, the constant risk of death, and most of all the naked resentment of the werewolf population. DORLA operates with no oversight or regulation, and their methods are brutal and unethical, including rounding up suspects and holding them indefinitely without trial or access to the outside world, or making use of violence and psychological torture in their interrogations. When Lola is accused of unconscionable behavior by a civilian lawyer, however, she explains to him the wider framework in which such an organization is allowed to exist
"People do get publicly punished here; it's good for the government to make sure it happens. But they'll never overhaul us. That would be too close to backing us up. Moon night's too insoluble a problem, and we're too good a scapegoat. It's easier to punish us at intervals than to make us properly accountable."
Nons, in other words, are simultaneously marginalized--kept out of most professional and social circles, rounded up together in the shabbiest, poorest parts of town, underpaid, overworked--and feared for their power over lycos. They are forced to perform a necessary public service which places their lives and health in significant danger, and reviled for doing so. Though there are obvious parallels between anti-non sentiment and racial prejudice (most particularly the slurs with which Lola is frequently met--bareback, skin), this situation, of a society creating and reinforcing the existence of a marginalized caste which it both benefits from and fears, seems to me to more closely parallel the situation of Jews in Europe during most of last millennium. It's an uncommon tack for stories about prejudice to take, and Whitfield does a good job fleshing out the ways in which the relationship between the two groups is self-sustaining. The more the lycos marginalize the nons, the less resources DORLA has, and the more likely it is to use expedient but unjust methods to get its job done, thus stoking resentment against its members and ensuring that the two groups separate even further and that nons have even less reason to act humanely.

Unfortunately, Whitfield's premise doesn't quite support this scenario. For one thing, she never truly makes us believe that DORLA is necessary. Getting ready for patrol on a full moon night, Lola darkly muses that some lycos think that it's nons who should sequester themselves and they who should be allowed to roam free, and though this sentiment is clearly intended to recall the frequently voiced complaints whenever a majority is forced to take the desires of a minority into consideration (why do we have to have kosher food in the cafeteria? Why should they be allowed to wear a headscarf in their driver's license pictures?) it also, given the disparity between werewolf and non populations, makes a lot of sense. The fact is, we never see any indication that werewolves pose a danger to anyone but nons. The only injuries we see werewolves sustain during moon nights are caused by their catchers, or by being kept in too close quarters once they've been caught, and families often transform together with no danger to children or the infirm. When Lola's boss recollects an incident in which a malfunctioning security system trapped dozens of lycos in a building during the full moon, then released them onto the streets, he describes the results as "Mass tranquilization, packed cells, major property damage" but says nothing about deaths or injuries.

But even if we were to assume that unchecked lycanthropes represent a major problem, doesn't the solution to the nons' plight suggest itself? Lola tells us, for example, that in the countryside werewolves attack livestock, but that in some rural areas "locals hunch their backs and put their heads together and don't speak to nons at all", and I'm sorry, but a pretty obvious way to address this problem is simply not to go out hunting werewolves one night and see how things change (Isaac Asimov wrote a story, "Strikebreaker," with almost exactly this premise). The result might be catastrophic--lyco society is highly motivated to keep nons subservient, and no struggle for civil rights has ever been easy or quick--but it beggars belief that no one has ever tried it. Lycos need nons a great deal more than nons need lycos, and the fact that no one in the novel, no one Lola has ever met or heard about, realizes this, is jarring. What I missed most in Benighted was a sense that Lola was part of a society that, like all societies, was in the midst of change and social upheaval, and that people were thinking and talking about the role of nons and DORLA within that society. We know that the concept of civil rights exists in Benighted's world because DORLA is so frequently castigated for ignoring them, but there's no indication of a non struggle for their own rights, or a werewolf struggle against the existence of DORLA. People react to nons and to DORLA on an individual level, not a communal or political level. There are no newspaper editorials, no public protests, no slogans, no landmark court cases, no Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela figures speaking out against injustice.

On one level, this is me criticizing Benighted for not being the novel I wanted it to be, and therefore unfair. Whitfield's topic is clearly not so much the fact of prejudice as the effect that living within a prejudiced system has on a person's soul, and how being oppressed can drive people to violence and to oppressing others. Though Lola had previously been aware that her colleagues were using violence against prisoners, over the course of the novel she draws closer and closer to that darkness. After the first murder is committed and her client, the victim's original attacker, becomes the prime suspect, Lola watches as he's beaten by his interrogators. When her partner is attacked, she herself beats the werewolf who mauled him. Later, she participates in a campaign of physical and psychological torture against a group of detained werewolves, who include her lover, and finally manipulates them into perpetrating the same kind of torture on a fellow inmate in order to extract information from him. Each step is justified, in Lola's mind, by her anger at anti-non prejudice and the cheapness with which non lives are held by werewolf society and authorities, both of which are further hammered in with each attack and murder.

The problem with Whitfield's emphasis on the personal effects of prejudice and violence is that it forces us to concentrate on Lola and her internal monologue, both of which are incredibly annoying. It's customary for a noir anti-hero to be cynical, hard-boiled, self-destructive and self-loathing. Lola is all of these things, but she's also neurotic to the point of being nearly incapable of dealing with the world, often finding herself overwhelmed by simple tasks such as speaking on the phone or getting up from a couch. She's also a pretty lousy cop, incurious and prone to jumping to conclusions, which means that Benighted commits the cardinal sin of mystery fiction by letting the readers feel significantly smarter than the detective (or perhaps significantly smarter than the readers Whitfield anticipated. On several occasions she has Lola recap events which occurred on page--"William Jones sits at the desk. I've met him once before, when I was warned about Seligmann's escape," but we were there at that earlier meeting and know who Jones is).

The emotional lynchpin of the novel is a scene in which Lola and her new lyco lover, Paul (the one she later arrests and has tortured) have a fight when she comes home from work, frustrated by her life and her job but unwilling to be comforted by Paul's suggestion that she put the burdens of being a non aside. It's almost a word for word reenactment of a similar argument in the film Something New, in which a wealthy, upper-class black professional, Kenya, falls in love with her white gardener, Brian. The film is a slight romantic comedy, but this scene feels real, mainly because we can sympathize with both characters: with Brian's desire to keep politics out of his relationship with the woman he loves, and his frustration at the fact that no matter how much she loves him he will always, on some level, be the enemy, and with Kenya's inability to simply put 'the black thing' aside for an evening, and her anger at Brian cavalierly suggesting that she do. When Lola and Paul have the same argument, however, we can't split our sympathies in the same manner, because as justified as Lola is in her feelings it's pretty clear that her inability to express them to Paul has more to do with the fact that she is much too far gone to cope with the intimacy of a romantic relationship than with his inability to put himself in her shoes, and it simply beggars belief that Paul is willing to put up with her craziness. As, in fact, it has since the moment they met--when Paul approaches a sloshed Lola at a bar and continues to pursue her despite the fact that she hurls insults and self-deprecating comments at him throughout their conversation. There's never any indication in the novel of what Paul sees in Lola, what she does or is that makes him love her, which makes him seem more than a little creepy--the guy who likes to fix broken women--but, since Paul is the only person who gets to know and like Lola over the course of the novel, also doesn't give us much to like about her.

Aggravating Lola's unlikability is her narrative voice, which is rife with purple, melodramatic self-aggrandizement by way of self-loathing, clearly aiming for hard-boiled but achieving only a tone-deaf, emo imitation of it:
... haven't I myself beaten a man bloody? We all of us have our own impulses to prowl. A prowler is the insects in your mind, the whispering demon that makes you own little wishes gigantic and imperative, worth hunting for. Every thief, every killer, every father with a leather belt and assassin with a loaded gun. This is why I can't give him the world.

Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the DORLA building. A half-full bottle, a crash of glass, a spreading ball of flame. Liquid goes so far, a spilled cup covers the floor, a single teardrop spreads as wide as a penny. Half a liter of alcohol is enough to burn a lot of people.

All the time before Paul, there was space around my body, not blank space but resilient, elastic, crackling with static, keeping me inside it. It feels so much better to be defused. His hand on my hand is a consolation I did nothing to deserve, and I owe him something for that.

The memory of Paul's skin possesses me moment to moment, and I can't predict when it will come. When I look in the bathroom mirror, though, I don't think he'd recognize my face. There are no smiles now, no concessions, my eyes don't close. It's a face that I recognize, the hollow sockets, the damaged teeth, all the ugliness that I spent a lifetime trying to hide, that I knew in the end I would never escape.
And this, in turn, is aggravated by the fact that we spend far too much time in Lola's company. Benighted is much longer than it needs to be, the mystery plot allowed to go slack for dozens of pages so that we can watch Lola's relationship with Paul blossom and then curdle, or see her repair her relationship with her sister and bond with her new nephew, or find out about her colleagues. Mainly, though, Lola's digressions have to do with the burden of being a non--the prejudice she faces and the crimes she commits and hates herself for. There's obviously some justification for Whitfield stressing these elements, but by the end of the novel she's repeating herself (one speech, in which Lola raves at lycos' simultaneous marginalization and fear of nons, repeats almost word for word in two points in the novel), and I think that a judicious editor would have cut Benighted down to two thirds or half its page count and lost very little of what Whitfield was trying to do with it.

That Lola is so miserable and self-pitying, so steeped in the helplessness of her situation, is obviously part and parcel of the noir format, as well as reinforcing Whitfield's theme of man's inhumanity to man. And here, I think, is where my complaint about the novel's missing political component gains credibility. Because of her choice to focus on the dehumanizing effects of prejudice rather than the struggle against it, Whitfield makes her novel a discussion of stasis, of people learning to live in a bad situation, and more importantly, learning that there's no point fighting it--"Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown." That's a satisfying (for various values of the term satisfying) ending only if you believe that the protagonist has actually done their best to make a difference, that they have some power--strength of will or intelligence--which might have carried the day if only the system weren't entirely corrupt. Lola doesn't possess these qualities, nor does she fight particularly hard for justice. Her giving up at the end of the novel, and her unwillingness to make some effort towards a meaningful change in her society, say more about her weakness than they do about her enemies' strengths.

The classic noir story is driven by class differences, by the rich abusing the poor (or, in Brick, the popular kids abusing the unpopular ones) and getting away with it because the system is built to favor them. Racial prejudice is not the same thing as class prejudice, however, and though there's something tolerable, in the sense that it is at least depressingly honest, about a noir ending which tells us that there's nothing we can do about the corrupting influence of money, it's something quite different for a noir novel to end, as Benighted does, by telling us that there's nothing we can do about prejudice, if only because history has decisively proved otherwise. (In fact it occurs to me that I know of at least one noir detective series with a black protagonist which spans the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and I strongly suspect that though novels in this series often show the detective accepting and learning to live within the restrictions placed on him by prejudice, they also show him observing and perhaps even participating in the civil rights movement.)

The fact is that Lola is given the opportunity to make a difference, and she lets it slip through her fingers. At the end of the novel Lola discovers that DORLA and the werewolf government have been colluding in a program to artificially create nons during childbirth in order to fill DORLA's ranks. To keep her quiet about this discovery, Lola's superiors offer her a raise and threaten to reveal that she shot an unarmed man before arresting him for the murder of her colleague, and to let her stand trial for attempted murder in werewolf court, where she will surely be given the harshest possible punishment. By this point, however, it's pretty clear that Lola hates her life even more than she hates herself, and for a moment I believed that Whitfield was going to make Lola a whistleblower, and that the frequent appearances of a renowned defense attorney throughout the novel were a precursor to him taking her case in order to allow her to expose the injustices nons live with from the witness stand, thus perhaps sparking some change in her society. Instead, Lola takes the deal, then orchestrates an elaborate performance intended to make the one doctor she knows is guilty of damaging babies feel bad ("That's how it feels on the other side." she triumphantly tells him after making him think she was going to shoot him) and walks away with her head held high as though she's accomplished something meaningful.

Benighted's ending is happy in a way that feels entirely unearned. Terrorizing someone who actually deserved it seems to have been the solution to all of Lola's problems, as she leaves the doctor's office happier and more emotionally stable than she's been at any point throughout the novel. Never mind that she's found a capacity for great cruelty in herself, and unleashed on an innocent man who loved her. Never mind that as a result she's lost that man. Never mind that she sold her principles and let a huge miscarriage of justice take place, or that new babies are being doomed to life in an underclass every day. Never mind that nons are still doing the job that nobody wants to do and catching hell for it. Lola's got a bit more money, and a stronger relationship with her sister and nephew, and that's enough for her. People have lived, and are living, happy lives in the shadow of prejudice, but Benighted's ending doesn't show us a woman strong enough to rise above her misfortune and become more than the sum of the injustices committed against her. It shows us a woman who is willing to let empty gestures and a few shiny baubles distract her from the realities of her life, just as Whitfield is trying to distract us from the emptiness of her ending by making it consoling. It might be unfair for me to criticize Whitfield for not making Benighted an overtly political novel, but with its ending she has abandoned even her non-political commentary about the effects of prejudice, and left us with nothing but a main character I never cared for feeling inexplicably happy. That hardly seems worth all of her, and our, effort.

4 comments:

Muse of Ire said...

You've articulated my objections to Benighted extremely well. Like you, I struggled with the sense that I simply wanted the book to be something it wasn't, but even on its own terms it doesn't work.

The other point that struck me is that the whole system feels artificially closed. Even in the most repressive society, there's usually some chance of escape that serves as a pressure release valve. Does every country in the world have exactly the same set-up? Are there no exceptional nons who manage to opt out of DORLA through success in sports or entertainment? Yet Lola never even dreams of a way out.

I really wanted to like this book. So disappointing that I couldn't.

jenmoon said...

This is one of the most depressing books I have voluntarily (i.e. not for school) finished. This is a fabulous review that elaborates on everything bad about it. I wish I had written my own so well.

The thing that just doesn't make sense about this book is DORLA itself. I cannot remotely imagine that this would go down with human beings. Why are nons put in charge of beating the crap out of the dominant paradigm in their society? Why aren't they just locked up in an asylum every full moon while the werewolves bay outside their door wanting to eat them? Wouldn't that make much more sense than this novel does?

Anonymous said...

I actually liked the book, but you make a lot of good points. After having read "In Great Waters," though, I think "Benighted" is the better of the two, which doesn't seem to bode well for your liking the former. Premise-ridiculousness problems return, although neither of the protagonists of "In Great Waters" is nearly as out there as Lola. Pacing gets worse.

baeraad said...

You've put some of my own problems with the book into words better than I could. The fact that the situation does not seem nearly as inevitable as Whitfield would have us believe - when the crooked doctor claimed that more nons have to be engineered because fewer are born naturally than before, I had trouble understanding just why that was, why it's actually necessary for lycos to stay indoors during the full moon as opposed to nons being the ones to stay indoors.

The self-loathing and apathy of the heroine ties in with that, too. In the end, she seems to decide that nons just really, inherently, suck. She considers it wicked to condemn people to life as a non, but she considers the oppression of nons to be so unavoidable that there is no point in even raging against it - even though the oppression is the sole reason why there is any problem at all with being a non. She ends up, as I saw it, deciding that she and everyone like her are just damned, that they'll do horrible things and live horrible lives because that's in their nature, and that the only thing you can hope for is that the real people, the lycos, can get to be happy. And that I find frankly repulsive.

(I must clarify this. I'm autistic, and despite being constantly told that wishing for a "cure" for autism is the worst kind of Nazi-like genetic elitism, I really think it would be best if we could stop any new autistic people from being born. No one should have to live like me. But the thing is, my autism is a constant source of pain and difficulty to me, and would be so even in the most tolerant and supportive society imaginable. Being a non, by comparison, seems to actually be an advantage, preventing you from turning into a wild animal one night of the month. The only problem with being a non is that all the lyco bastards keep abusing you. That means that the evil is not in the non condition, but in the way it is handled - and Lola's horror at seeing people forced to be non puts the blame squarely in the wrong place)

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