Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Notes on two Joanna Russ books

I recently finished reading The Zanzibar Cat, a collection of Joanna Russ short stories dating from 1962 to 1979. The stories cover a wide range of so-called genres, some of which I thought were excellent, others more of a chore. . . she certainly demonstrated here that she could do just about anything. There were a few clear science fiction stories (one with some connection to her novel The Female Man), a few "fantasy", at least one ghost story, at least one vampire story, one that might be a little of both. . . Then there was one that didn't seem like any of those at all, about a character named "Joanna Russ" living in New York ("The Precious Object"). Very experimental in form, hard to get a handle on any kind of coherent "ongoingness" (to borrow a word from Gary Lutz, though Russ' sentences are in and of themselves not odd like Lutz's can be - though she wasn't afraid to be ugly), even as individual sentences were not in themselves difficult. Then there was the title story, a kind of fable, in which questions of, problems of, authority are introduced in entertaining fashion, with one of the characters, the Miller's Daughter, revealing herself as being "the author". I wondered, as I often do, what Gabriel Josipovici would make of that one.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back I'd read her early novel, And Chaos Died. Surely one of the very few science fiction novels dedicated to Vladimir Nabokov (she was a student of his), I have to admit I spent a large portion of this novel actively disliking it. It is at times a very difficult read (yet, again, individual sentences are frequently beautiful). Again, for me, there is the problem of ongoingness - in the sense of trying to piece together what the point might be of all the phenomena or sensations being described. Among the overheated blurbs ("A stunning achievement!" - Fritz Leiber) is this paragraph from Samuel R. Delany:
Many novels have dealt speculatively with psi-phenomena, describing the effects on people and society. Ms. Russ has taken it on herself to put the reader through the experience. She is wholly successful. And Chaos Died is a spectacular experience to undergo.
Well, ok. The book begins with a mission to a planet apparently colonized at one point by humans, now populated by descendants, who have developed certain abilities. The landscape appears to shift randomly - it is unclear whether this shifting is a function of these abilities - nothing is as it seems, little is grounded in any discernible reality. The main character, Jai Vindh, is at some point endowed with these abilities. The action - or, setting, at any rate - returns to earth. Here, when at one point his consciousness seems to meld with that of a lizard's in the desert, and even the rocks, here is where I finally, roughly two-thirds into the book, felt I had a handle on things, that I could piece sentences together to make them meaningful to me, that the phenomena being described felt worth describing. Perhaps this is just because of the grounding of being back on earth? amid recognizable surroundings, even if fictional, and in a science fiction book from more than 40 years ago? Regardless, from here, for the next few dozen pages, I was genuinely enjoying the book, before it went off the rails and I again had little idea what she was on about.

Before I read the novel, I'd been warned that it was "bad" on homosexuality - that in this regard it was disappointing, in particular given Russ' other work on gender and sexuality and the ways in which she has explored these issues in her other fiction. So I read the book, in part, on the look out for this badness. I was thus mildly bewildered when it sort of didn't come. The Jai Vindh character is gay from the start, and there are conflicts with the Captain of his mission, who seems wary of him, and afraid he's going to be attacked sexually by Vindh. Vindh, for his part, openly mocks the Captain's homophobia. Then he ends up having sex with one of the women on the planet, and it is after this that he begins to experience the "psi phenomena" for himself. I did wonder whether this - that this openly gay character repeatedly has sex with a woman - might be the problem, but the idea struck me as dubious. But I was very conscious of my not being gay while thinking this, and also of the book being more than 40 years old. Much has changed. Even so, I was a little confused. Then I came across this 2011 review at of And Chaos Died, by Brit Mandelo, and along with points about the book's "psychic phenomena, mind-bending imagery, nearly impenetrable—but beautiful—prose and an experimental sensibility", there is this extended passage:
Jai Vedh, the only male protagonist in Russ’s entire oeuvre, is introduced as a “homosexual.” At first, it seems that Russ is going to explore homophobia and prejudice against male queerness—the military officer who Jai crash-lands with is a big-macho masculine guy, who’s constantly responding badly and violently to Jai. There’s a lot of tension; Jai derisively tells him at one point, “I won’t touch you. Not even in your sleep. Calm down…” The captain’s response is to get even antsier and eventually try to physically throw him out of the small escape-pod spacecraft. So far, so good, I suppose; the explorations of masculinity and homophobia are interesting.

It starts to get bad when the psychic society comes in, because Jai ends up getting together with a woman who uses her powers to “cure” him of his sexuality, which is framed as a dysfunction. They become lovers, and he’s all fixed from being gay, because when his mind begins to expand and he develops abilities like hers, he becomes heterosexual. It turns out, being gay was just a problem caused by his society, and when he’s mentally healed he’s straight. In this construction, straight equals healthy, straight equals better, straight equals right. It’s exactly the party line of the psychiatric associations of the 60s and 70s: gay is sick, straight is healthy.

I had a fairly visceral “you have got to be fucking kidding me” reaction to that scene. I nearly threw the book. It’s hard to believe that Russ, about to publically become an advocate for queer women’s sexuality in her next novel, could make such a nasty implication—that all a gay man needs is a good woman to make him straight. How many times do lesbians have to listen to the reverse, that a good man is all they need to give up other women? Hell, deconstructing that myth is part of the point of The Female Man.

Is it because Jai is male? Does his gender really make such a categorical difference in the validity of his identity and sexuality? There are threads of this tendency in second-wave feminism, so it’s not like it’s new; I likely shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. It felt like a betrayal.

That’s in addition to the fact that nearly every sex scene or sexual scene has elements of non-consent, on the parts of both men and women; Jai isn’t really willing to have sex with the woman the first time, but she makes it happen. Perhaps this is supposed to feed into the point that Jai’s society is so absolutely wrecked, socially, that aggression and violence are the only possibilities for interpersonal relation. If it is, it only succeeded in making me extremely uncomfortable and a bit disgusted—the sex scenes don’t seem to be written to be icky on purpose, and there aren’t many hints in the text that there’s anything wrong with the dubious consent. It’s just—there. It’s how sex is in And Chaos Died.
At first I wondered, again, if it's just me being the straight white guy in the room: I just don't see it. Still, my sense was that this was an over-reading of the material, and a reductive one at that. If nothing else, it had seemed to me that Jai is unwillingly drawn into both the sex and the telepathy (as, indeed, Mandelo's review suggests - in fact, re-reading her review, it strikes me that she was in part answering her own concerns). But given the fact that I'd been a bit at sea for much of the book and was not really much enjoying the experience till rather late in it, I wasn't inclined to argue the point. Then I read the comments to her review, and was very interested in this one, from more than a year after the review appeared, in which a DavidGolding says he'd "just read the second chapter of Rhonda Gilliam's master's thesis from 1988, which argues that the telepathic society should not be read as utopian [this, by the way, tracks with my reading of the society - RC], and that the 'cure' is intended by the author to be considerd [sic] an act of violence against Jai's personhood." Again, this latter idea isn't too far off from what I was thinking about Jai being an unwilling participant, nor does it diverge from Brit Mandelo's (accurate) characterization of the sex in the novel as such. Mandelo, for her part, replied that she herself now disagrees with what she'd written, in part because of letters from Russ, and also an essay by Delany about the book that appears in his Starboard Wine collection, and that she has revisited these questions in her recent essay, "We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling", which along with the Delany, I'm curious about reading (though neither, admittedly, are high on my list of reading priorities).

I don't really have a point here, except to let you in on some of this discussion, should you be interested. It seems to me that And Chaos Died calls out for a re-read in order to be appreciated properly, yet I strongly doubt I have a re-read of the book in me (I'm much more likely to re-read the stories in The Zanzibar Cat, or the later novels, The Female Man and We Who Are About To. . . ). Brit Mandelo's review, incidentally, is part of a series of "Reading Joanna Russ" articles at In fact, I just noticed an essay on The Zanzibar Cat. . .

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Blogger Ethan Robinson said...

I'm poking my way through Delany's Starboard Wine now. An aside in the essay on Heinlein suggests that Russ had James Blish's critique of Stranger in a Strange Land in mind when she wrote And Chaos Died. I haven't read Stranger or Blish's critique of it, but coincidentally I'm also poking my way through the book (The Issue at Hand) that contains the critique (Blish's criticism is so far simultaneously snobby and terribly naive, but perhaps it'll get better later on?)--and before too long am planning an And Chaos Died re-read. Might get back to you on all that!

Russ richly rewards rereading (ooh, alliterative). I may have mentioned to you before that I've read We Who Are About To close to ten times, finding much new in it each time. And I'm definitely thinking I need to re-read some of her stories, with which I've had a great deal of difficulty...

March 11, 2013 4:32 PM  

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