Monday, 28 December 2009

I Read A Bad Book

Hello! The book is going very nicely, thank you, and I have lots of things to say about it, but not in this post, which is about another book, one I have just read, called I Did A Bad Thing by Linda Green. And yes, she did.

I began having dubious feelings about it on the acknowledgements page, because of the juxtaposition of acknowledgements to:

my husband Ian for... never losing faith and waiting eight years... for the widescreen television I promised to buy when I got a book deal

and to:

my creative writing students for providing such a welcome break from the rejections.

Which I guess put me in a suspicious and uncharitable frame of mind from the start: like, if you're going to teach creative writing despite never having produced any publishable fiction in eight years, I'm going to be looking for evidence that you at least have the kind of technical skills/craft that can potentially be passed on. But on that technical level, the book's kind of a mess: there are unintentional tautologies and awkward phrases like the mental image I had of Nick in my mind, or I am filled with an overwhelming sense that I will never see him again. Maybe it was the way he said goodbye with such an air of permanence. (What, like when he said 'Goodbye forever', or 'Goodbye, we won't meet again?' Gosh, maybe it was.)

Also, it's all written in very short sentences. Except that it isn't. Really the sentences are quite long. Grammatically they are. But the sub-clauses are all marked by full stops. And capital letters. Instead of commas. Irritatingly. (I felt the ache grip me again. Mixed with a fresh shot of guilt.; I sat there for a long time. Probably an hour. Seeing it all in my head, the images still vividly real).

The pitfalls of the very-short-sentence technique became particularly clear very early in the book, though, on p.6:

The door opened and he walked in. Resplendent in his Burberry trench coat. Hair the colour of Bourneville chocolate. Stubble caressing his chin. Shit. He looked even better than I remembered.

Which is a particularly impressive feat given that 'he' (Nick) appears to have shown up for a job interview covered in poo (really, it took me about three reads of this to figure out that 'Shit' was not grammatically parallel to 'Hair' and 'Stubble', but in fact belonged with the following sentence and marked a shift into the narrator's own commentary.)

Anyway, none of that is a giant deal, really. What made me decide I had to post about it was the way the plot actually revolves around the idea that vegetarians and people who do political work relating to people outside the First World are (at worst) just putting it on to make themselves feel smug or (at best) victims of psychological trauma. I was having a conversation with a friend recently who's training to be a counsellor, and she was telling me about how common it is in academic work in the field for vegetarianism to be seen as a symptom of some sort of mental disorder. (so, you know, you go to a counsellor about your post-traumatic stress disorder and he starts telling you to eat more bacon...) So I guess my brain was primed for this, a bit, but as the book went on, I was just more and more amazed and appalled at the way that vegetarianism and/or engagement with non-British politics were themselves constructed purely as the sign of a character's being inadequate, stupid, traumatized, infantilized, status-obsessed, and/or hypocritical.

So, okay, examples? Well, one of the prime ones is a comparison between two dinners out in the book. The first is a birthday dinner for Sarah, the narrator: she's there alone with her boyfriend, Jonathan, who takes her to a nice restaurant but before ordering his own food, checks whether the wine is vegetarian (not filtered through isinglass); whether the soup is made with vegetarian stock; and whether there's gelatine in the cheesecake (there is); and whether the coffee is fairtrade. He's polite and helpful (he has a list of vegetarian wines with him, in case the waiter doesn't know which of the restaurant's wines are okay), and at no point does he have a go at the restaurant for not labelling its menu properly, as I might have done (this novel is set in Birmingham in 2006 or 2007, by the way). But this, in the novel's terms, constitutes 'making a fuss', and Sarah is so incensed at his behaviour that she walks out of the restaurant, shouts at him in the street, and gets a cab home on her own:

I stood for a moment, gulping the damp night air, trying to stop my body from shaking. Jonathan emerged a few minutes later.

'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I didn't mean to upset you.'

'Well you have. It was supposed to be a quiet birthday meal, not a party political broadcast on behalf of Friends of the Earth.'

I lowered my arm, conscious that I was jabbing a finger at him. Jonathan stood staring at me... The cab pulled up outside. I opened the rear door and got in. Jonathan was a few steps behind.

'Sorry,' I said, turning round and slamming the door behind me, 'the cab driver filled up at Esso. I'm afraid you'll have to walk.'

I hated doing it. But it was the only way he'd learn.

By contrast, this is how Sarah behaves at her works Christmas dinner where she's ordered a vegetarian meal in advance:

Even the waitress looked embarrassed as she lowered the plate containing a round brownish object down before me. I looked up at her questioningly.

'Stuffed onion,' she said.

'What's it stuffed with?'

'Er, Stilton,' she replied. 'And it's dressed in a vegetable gravy.'

'And what about the other eighteen pounds I paid?'

'Sorry?' said the waitress.

'Well, that and the soup must have cost less than a couple of quid to throw together. I wondered what had happened to the rest of the money I paid for my meal.'

She decides to have the poached salmon instead:

The bemused waitress removed the offending onion and scuttled away... The salmon arrived. It tasted good. Better than I remembered. Some things were worth breaking the rules for.

[You get the foreshadowing, right? By ordering the salmon, she is signalling her intention to chuck nice Jonathan for Nick, the guy who came to a job interview with poo on his head. That, by the way, is the plot of the novel, which is 375 pages long: she used to go out with Nick, who was going out with someone else at the time and left her for the someone-else; she felt guilty about sleeping with a girlfriended man, so tried to exorcise her guilt by going out with Jonathan; she doesn't actually like Jonathan, though, so when Nick turns up again she chucks Jonathan and goes back to Nick, although not for an unaccountably long time, cf above about the 375 pages.] Anyway, though, Sarah's behaviour at this dinner, for some reason, is not 'making a fuss' or 'a party political broadcast on behalf of the Value For Money Party': it's a blow for freedom! For individuality! It's 'breaking the rules' in order to gain more pleasure and more joy in life! And if you have to be loudly and publicly rude and sarcastic to an innocent waitress to get that pleasure, then so be it! That's all just part of your charming, rule-breaking, happy-go-lucky, meat-eating transgressiveness! (Imagine - eating fish! How many people are brave and free-spirited enough to break our deep-rooted English cultural taboo against eating fish? NOT MANY.) No-one would ever be embarrassed by that behaviour, compared to a polite request about whether there's gelatine in a cheesecake!

Oh, but wait - Jonathan himself has admitted that his behaviour at Sarah's birthday meal was very poor:

I'm sorry I upset you,' he said, his face suitably apologetic. 'I guess I was a bit distracted with the stuff at work. And wanting you to enjoy it made me a bit anxious and when I get anxious I tend to babble and, well, you know what happened.' He threw his hands out wide as he said it. His way of begging forgiveness.

Begging forgiveness, may I remind you, for being left outside a restaurant in the rain by his girlfriend. Later, Jonathan says:

'Thank you... for putting up with me. I know I can be hard work sometimes. Especially when I'm feeling insecure. That's when I start coming out with all that stuff.'

'What, like in the restaurant?'

'Yeah. I get anxious in unfamiliar surroundings. So I revert to what I know best. What I feel safest with. It helps to disguise my lack of confidence... I must really piss you off sometimes.'

So there you have it. Asking about gelatine reflects a deep-seated psychological problem (to do, we learn, with wanting his mother's approval) - not, as one might have thought, reflecting, oh, say, a desire on the part of a vegetarian not to be fed dead pig. And it is something which would piss off any reasonable person, and something which has to be 'put up with'.

At this point, by the way, I keep being tempted to make cheap comparisons and say 'Would Sarah/Linda treat an observant Muslim who asked about pork products/alcohol like this, and insist that religious observations are also nothing more than showing-off and making a scene?' Luckily, however, I don't have to speculate, because Linda Green has helpfully provided a Muslim character, so that we can answer that question. With, as it happens, a resounding yes. For when what I will call, with about the same level of cultural sensitivity and research as the novel itself, 'Muslim cultural stuff' clashes with white middle-class liberal values, Muslims are indeed expected to ditch the Muslim cultural stuff immediately and decisively, as it is but an obstacle to white middle-class liberal values... sorry, I mean an obstacle to shagging white men. Sorry, I mean an obstacle to fulfilment and happiness, obviously.

Here's how it plays out. Sarah (our waitress-abusing, fish-eating, vegetarian-scorning narrator) has a friend called Najma, who in turn has a boyfriend called Paul. But, we find out, Najma also has a boyfriend called Surrinder, who sees her with her boyfriend called Paul and relays to her the message that if she stays with Paul, her parents - who are 'devout Muslims' - will disown her for good, for she has 'brought shame on the family'.

'Oh, God. You poor thing. Is there no way you can reason with them? Get them to meet Paul so they can find out for themselves what he's like?'

'No,' she said. 'It doesn't work like that. You have to stick to the rules.'

But this novel is nothing if not consistent. Whether choosing salmon at the works Christmas dinner or estranging oneself from one's family for life, 'sticking to the rules' is wrong, whereas breaking the rules is the way to happiness and fulfilment (or whatever it was, I forget). And so, following Sarah's advice, Najma tells Paul about her parents, and he responds by asking her to marry him.

'I know it's a bit quick, what with us only being together for a few months. But you know what it's like when something feels so right. When you know you're meant to be together no matter what obstacles are in the way.'

... 'I'm so pleased for you, Naj. So glad Paul's come through for you. You'll need his strength. I know it won't be easy for you.'

She looked down, her face clouding over for a moment. 'It'll be harder the longer it goes on, I think. Wondering how my family are, what they're doing. And around Eid, and times like that, when I know they'll all be together.'

'You never know,' I said, 'maybe as time passes and they miss you, they might get in touch.'

'Maybe,' said Najma, 'but I won't be holding my breath. And I'm determined not to let it spoil things for me and Paul.'

'Good for you,' I said.

Yes, indeed, good for Najma. And once again we learn that what looks like taking into consideration viewpoints other than good old thrifty white liberal bourgeois individualism - in this case, the viewpoint of one's own family and the culture within which one was raised - is in fact 'sticking to the rules', and should be ditched immediately, because the only thing that matters is the success of one's heterosexual romance. We actually get this stated twice, once by Nick:

[Sarah:] 'It's about making sure other people don't suffer because of your actions.'

'Bollocks it is. It's about being pious and going to bed at night feeling smug because the guy who picked your coffee beans was paid a few pennies more for his efforst. It's not exactly going to change the world, is it?'

'You've got to start somewhere.'

'So start with yourself. Leave Jonathan and come and live with me. I can't guarantee you Fairtrade coffee... but at least I can give you a chance at happiness.'

Sarah restates the same premise at the end of the novel, when we learn that her relationship with Jonathan is more important, in the global scheme of things, than the Shell pipeline in Tibet. In this scene, Sarah has grudgingly agreed to show up at her boyfriend's talk on Tibet, where she promised to be to support him some months ago, but since then another friend has got a gallery opening: she feels it's much more important for her to be one of the hundreds of people at the private view rather than at her boyfriend's talk, because 'This could change Colin's life. What's your talk going to do? Force the Chinese out of Tibet by Christmas?'

Anyway, she goes, and what's more, she agrees to pick up some milk for the Amnesty refreshment stand on the way to the talk. But, as she casually tells Jonathan, she's bought it from the Shell garage on the corner:

'You bought milk for my Tibet talk from a company which has invested millions in an oil pipeline in China?' ...

'There are more important things in life to worry about, Jonathan, than where a bloody pint of milk came from.'

'What's more important than upholding our principles?'

I slapped my hand to my forehead in disbelief... 'Us, Jonathan. Me and you. At least it should be.'

Okay. Now, I do have a problem with the commodification of 'ethics' and 'politics', and the transformation of efforts for global political solidarity into a question of shopping. I agree that buying Fairtrade isn't going to change the world; I agree that buying ethical/organic/green products can be a way for middle-class people in the UK to buy status within their closed social circle (though I'm not quite sure what's wrong with that, to be honest: most cultures and subcultures have some means of buying status). But. One of the things I haven't told you is that while all this is going on, there are threatened redundancies in Sarah's workplace, and - as a union member - she is campaigning to save her friends' jobs, including balloting for strike action. She is also stricken with sadness and empathy for those of her friends who are going to be made redundant, and works hard to try and ameliorate their situation. At no point is it suggested that this form of political activism is 'sticking to the rules', a hypocritical bid for status (eg with Nick, who used to be a union rep), or the sign of a deep psychological trauma. So it really does seem that it's only if you want to do something to help people outside Britain (along with vegetarianism, the main targets of this novel's satire - such as it is - are Amnesty International and the boycotts of Esso and Shell) that you are automatically smug, damaged, and hypocritical.

And that's the point at which this book stops being amusingly bad and just becomes racist. It's the other side, I think, of the thing I was talking about in my post about the way people try to appropriate the word 'racist' as if it were a diagnostic tool to rank the right-onness of white people, rather than to describe a set of practices which erase, discriminate against, misrepresent, and/or otherwise oppress people of colour. This whole novel runs off the idea that there can never be solidarity with people outside one's own country; there is only ever the attempt on the part of white liberals to win status from other white liberals. Which is all just another way of erasing nonwhite people,* not having to consider their experience, their exploitation, and their oppressions as real, and as something that middle-class white liberals directly benefit from (those non-Fairtrade cookies really are tastier than the Fairtrade ones!)

So I'll close this post with one of the more blatantly racist moments in the book, when Sarah, having decided to reconcile with poor bloody Jonathan, goes to the video shop in preparation for a night in with a film and a takeaway curry. The girl on the counter asks her for her 'memorable name', for security purposes:

Jonathan had taken the membership out; he usually got the videos. I had no idea.

'Er, Sarah?' I suggested hopefully.

The girl shook her head, her ponytail exaggerating the refusal.

'Sorry,' she said. 'I do need it to let you take the film out.'

... I got out my mobile and called Jonathan. 'Hi,' I said. 'I'm at the video shop. What's the password name thing I have to give?'

'Oh, that,' said Jonathan. 'It's Aung San Suu Kyi.'

I paused for a moment, waiting for him to say it was a joke. He said nothing.

'Of course,' I said. 'I should have guessed.'

I hung up and repeated the name back to the girl, who clearly wasn't well versed on the political opposition in Burma.

'I'm not surprised you couldn't remember it,' she said. 'I've never heard of her. Who is she?'

I hesitated. 'A porn star,' I said. 'A Thai porn star. My boyfriend's seen all her films. Ask him about her next time he comes in.'

I took the video from her and walked out of the shop, heading for the Indian to pick up our chickpea curry. Our quiet night in no longer seemed so appealing.

Aung San Suu Kyi, ladies and gentlemen: a name which should only ever be heard as the punchline of a joke. (It's funny because it's foreign. Sheesh. Do you not have a sense of humour, or something?) A name which it's okay to use to trick the girl at the video shop into asking your boyfriend about his porn-watching habits, but which it is absolutely not okay to claim is 'memorable'. Because that would suggest that the names of Nobel-Peace-prize-winning democratic political heroes in Burma were worth remembering - and we all know they're not. And not just neutrally 'not worth remembering', but actively not to be remembered: when it turns out that your boyfriend thinks that the name Aung San Suu Kyi is memorable, that lessens his value considerably, and you look forward appreciably less to spending time with him, that Burmese-name-knowing bastard.

*Except, of course, for the token Muslim girl who's allowed into the novel because she's sensible enough to break off all contact with her family so she can marry a white man she's only known a few months. (Good for you, Najma.)