Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On still being unable to write about Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died

I've read three of Joanna Russ's novels, each of them now at least twice. My first was The Female Man, five or six years ago, which I first saw mentioned on a (short) list, somewhere or other, of "classic feminist sf novels." I liked the title, I thought, "Hey, I'm a feminist, I like sf," and I read it--and it taught me (though it would take some time to sink in) that I was not a feminist, that I did not understand what feminism was,* and that while, yeah, I did like sf, I maybe wasn't entirely sure what that was, either. All immensely valuable lessons, which have contoured my reading and my thinking ever since. But beyond that, I didn't get much out of The Female Man, as a novel, the first time through. I didn't even like it, really. But I knew it was important. I knew I had to re-read it, sometime, when I might be more ready, and that I had to read more Russ.

*I'm not comfortable calling myself a feminist now, either, partly because I'm not generally comfortable calling myself an anythingist, but mostly because it feels so very presumptuous--as in, what the hell have I done for feminism? Back then, though, I wasn't a feminist, despite glibly assuming I was, because I had no fucking clue what I was talking about and thought "yaa, women are all right, right?" was enough. The Female Man was the beginning of my education that the experience(s) of being a woman is wholly different than I had thought, for wholly different reasons. Perhaps the most startling thing to me about that first encounter with it was the glimpse, and the beginnings of an understanding, of the everyday assault on their humanity that women must live with--and the everyday anger--the righteous, utterly justified, powerful, horrible anger--many must carry as a result. I had simply had no idea.

Some time after that I saw We Who Are About To... described, somewhere or other, as a feminist response to the conventional sf story in which a band of men and one woman crash on a planet and for some so-obvious-it-need-not-be-stated reason need to "populate" it, the woman's desires left firmly out of it.* This (the Russ, not the conventional story) sounded great! I read it, expecting much pleasure in the demolition of this obviously misogynist trope--and, unwittingly condescendingly, not much else. And while the novel is in part what I was told it was going to be, imagine my surprise when I found that it went much deeper than that: that, yes, it is "a response" to various sfnal tropes, but not just the most plainly misogynist ones, and not a tidy response, and, behold the possibility, much more than just a response--that it is a novel about life, and about death; an sf novel best read in the context of other sf, but only a novel "about" sf to the extent that sf has often told lies about life and death. It kept refusing to do what I expected, wanted, needed it to do. It misbehaved in my hands and under my eyes, refusing constantly to be the novel I was trying to make it be (perhaps one of the most feminist things about it, and all Russ's writing). I didn't like it. But I knew I had to re-read it, sometime, and I knew that I had to read more Russ.

*Stories following this precise outline are likely rare if they exist at all, but stories using elements of it or essentially identical to it in the general gist are omnipresent in sf's classical era.

As I do far, far too often, I then went on to neglect her until I heard the news of her death. Considering my small and basically antagonistic experience with her to that point, it's amazing how hard it hit me. The details are irrelevant, but it's actually one of those "flashbulb" memories for me--I remember exactly what I was doing that morning when I saw the first "Joanna Russ 1937-2011" headline, and I can't think of her death without calling to mind the clothes I was wearing, the room I was in, the cast of the light. (No doubt a sign of my awareness even then, on some level, of what she did, and would come to, mean to me.) From various places around the internet I had vaguely gathered that she had been unwell (how little I knew!), but from those same places I had also heard rumors that she was feeling a bit better than she had been, that she was, after much time away, beginning slowly to write again, and I had wondered if there would eventually be some new, late Joanna Russ appearing. But then came the headlines.

I slowly pulled myself into further exploration, still ongoing today (and indeed it's only been two years--almost exactly--though it feels so very much longer). I re-read The Female Man, understanding it a bit better, as sf and as itself, getting a feel for what it had to say not just with its words and scenes but in the very strange way in which those words and scenes were strung together. I read some of her criticism and other non-fiction, How to Suppress Women's Writing and the essays collected in To Write Like a Woman, both of which immediately became essential, both of which I have now re-read several times, as well as, later, the essays in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, a peculiar collection which I don't think I grasped well at all, to which I need to return, of which nevertheless I can say without exaggeration that it changed my life. I read many of her short stories, those collected in The Zanzibar Cat, The Hidden Side of the Moon, and Extra(ordinary) People,* some of it (in particular "When It Changed," "Existence," "Bodies," and "Souls") hitting right off, most of it even more opaque than the novels had been (and in an unexpectedly, misbehavingly, completely different way), even the second time through.

*The availability of most all of her work is in a shameful state, but the short fiction is especially in disarray. Too bad nobody's bothered to put together a complete stories OH WAIT. Grr. How I would love to learn there'd been some movement on that.

I re-read and re-read and re-read We Who Are About To..., perhaps ten times now, each time finding greater and greater depth in it. I have an attachment (for reasons I hope to explore soon) to the notion that Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is the finest of all sf novels, but in the face of this, one of the very greatest of all novels, period, I sometimes am convinced to let it go. I keep returning to the desire to write an opera of it. I can't write opera! I wouldn't even be able to write an etude. But the finale! The narrator (alto) alone, hallucinating, her ability to narrate (and hence the music itself) breaking down, the alien sky and landscape (chorus) singing fragments of Handel at her...that last line...but enough of that.

I read And Chaos Died.

And about a month ago, I re-read And Chaos Died.

It was...I suppose the word is "easier": it was easier the second time. The first time left almost no residue in my mind, save for a striking image here and there (the opening pages in particular, Jai Vedh on the spaceship before it explodes, feeling the vacuum, feeling, as Samuel R. Delany puts it, "a nearly psychotic desire to merge with the universe") surrounded by a pervading, well, distaste. I was told (again by Delany) that it "puts the reader through the experience" of "psi-phenomena" (from his back cover blurb, at least in the Ace edition with the marvelous Leo & Diane Dillon cover illustration), and I believed it, though I hadn't felt it; I was told (by Delany and everyone else) that it was problematic on homosexuality, and I believed it, though I hadn't noticed it. I was told, somewhere, that it was one of her lesser works, and I clung to that.

I'm not so sure of any of that anymore.

After I finished the novel this second time, closed it, sat, got up to return it to the shelf, sat again, and then eventually came out of whatever state I was in, my first thought was "This is an Important Novel." It cemented for me the notion that Russ was one of the very small handful of the most important English-language writers of the twentieth century. I thought, "I need to write about this book." But what on earth to say? How to talk about what this novel is, what it does?

The title of this post is no lie. I am not about to whip out some surprise gem of literary analysis--or even a plot summary. I am still unable to write about And Chaos Died. Some things I can say--that I think it is a terrible mistake to view the pastoral culture Jai Vedh encounters on the planet as a "utopia"; that the mistake of considering what its people do to him a "cure" is just as terrible (they think it's a cure, or say they do, but the novel suggests otherwise); that some of Delany's complaints about the novel's now-and-then thinness (particularly his observation, of the nightmarish orgiastic episode, that "it is difficult to imagine what the participants were doing the day before or what the survivors might be doing the day afterward") are absolutely true; that despite this occasional thinness, and as evidenced by the two easy-to-make mistakes I just mentioned, this is a terribly complex novel operating on a level very few care to. This complexity is often unpleasant, often difficult to read (as Richard describes) to the point where one justifiably questions the validity of the whole enterprise. And yet, and yet...

Beyond that...? Delany's essay on Russ in Starboard Wine (to which I keep returning because, though I tend to find his discussions of Russ surprisingly off the mark and this is no exception, he is the only person I have seen attempt seriously to engage with this particular novel*) is about her writing in general, but it revolves almost entirely around And Chaos Died; his introduction to the Wesleyan University Press reissue of We Who Are About To... very nearly does, too--and this strategy is, perhaps, not inappropriate.** It may not be her "best" novel, it may not be her most representative (whatever that would mean with a writer as varied as her), but what it certainly is not is peripheral, or minor.

*Pending my hopefully imminent reading of the too-few books I know of on Russ: those by Brit Mandelo, Farah Mendlesohn, and Jeanne Cortiel.
**Meanwhile, it strikes me that here I've done precisely the opposite.

Perhaps the next time I re-read it I'll be at the point, both in my own development and in my familiarity with the novel, where I will be able finally to read it, and to report on that reading. For now, though, all I can give is this appreciation--or rather this blank space, this placeholder, this arrow pointing in the direction of...something...astonishing.


It occurs to me, much too late to work into the body of this essay, that one thing I'm trying to get at especially in the early sections is that where, with many "difficult" writers, experience with one or more of their works will in some way "prepare" one for an encounter with another, this is not the case with Russ. No matter how much of her work one has read, one goes into any as-yet-unread fictional work of hers wholly unprepared.


Quin said...

I am not sure whether the following anecdote is insightful, but it is true:

The night after I read your post, I had a strange dream-- one of those dreams where you're in your bed, so you don't realize it's a dream-- where I discovered a weird and not unpleasant slit beneath my own genitals. It was quite a shock to find it. Whoah, I thought, I can't believe I've lived my whole life without ever discovering this was here!

It was only in the middle of the next day that I made the connection to your mention of The Female Man. I have not read The Female Man. Perhaps this is a sign that I should.

It's good to read you again, Ethan. I don't blame you at all for letting go of political/social issues type blogging. It's exhausting enough to read, let alone write.

Ethan Robinson said...

Quin! Good to hear from you. Thanks for the encouragement (or whatever the right non-ironic way of putting that is). Though I hope I haven't entirely let go of political/social issues here--aesthetic issues are ethical issues, etc., all that. I find I can think much better in these terms, though.

Interesting dream! Not to discount the connection at all (or to discourage you from reading it--you should!), but I will say: The Female Man isn't much like that, haha. It does remind me a bit of Rachel Pollack's wonderful story "The Second Generation," which is in her (essential) collection Burning Sky, if you can get your mits on it.

Josh said...

I commend to you Brit Mandelo's blogging at about that novel and the rest of the Russ canon.