Thursday, July 22, 2010

man-womanly, woman-manly...?

Currently I'm reading Mating by Norman Rush, a novel set in Botswana in the 1980s. Thus far, it is a fantastic read. I'm especially impressed by how believable and intriguing the female narrator is. It's pretty rare that I can lose myself in the narrative, trusting completely that the particular woman relating the tale is "real." Too often, I feel as though a scrim separates such narrators from their audiences, as though the authorial eye/I had swaddled the speaking subject in a type of low-level radiation discernible only to members of the gender/class/race/type supposedly "speaking." I guess you could call it the authenticity meter, though that phrase feels a little presumptuous--in spite of my ardor for Chaka Khan, I am not every woman.

But I am ONE woman. A woman who can tell you that the way women narrators written by men narrate their bodies generally is the first bleep on the radar scren. "Sweat trickles between my breasts," or something of that ilk, pops up in the narrative. BEEEEEEEEEP.

I couldn't tell you the number of times I've thought of my breasts as "breasts," because it hasn't been that often. Generally it's when someone else's gaze or hands are involved in increasing my awareness of their existence. In other words, largely in sexual, or sexually-charged, situations. Because, somehow, the word "breast," when not applied to chickens or followed by "cancer" or "feeding", has been sexualized in my mind. (Yes, I do blame society.) The fact of having breasts is not very interesting to me. If I were a narrator, I can guarantee you that their existence would only be interesting when their involvement in the plot of my life was interesting. Namely, during sex, or breast feeding, or getting any sort of medical test performed on them. Definitely while shopping. Most of those actions have plot value. The fact that the breasts, in themselves, exist does not.

It's not (obviously) that my daily activities of bathing, dressing, working out, et. al. somehow are performed independently of them. It's just that I don't think of them as plot-movers. "The king died, and the queen died of grief." What happens if that shortest plot read: "The king died, and the well-stacked queen died of grief." Who cares?

Well, if the queen trudged through a desert in her elaborate costume, and chronicled the discomforts of her trip...perhaps what happened to her breasts would be interesting. Both to her and her readers. Say her whalebone stays caused her discomfort. What language would she use to tell you about this? Would the sweat "trickle?"

"Trickling." If I'm sweaty, I might deign to say I'm "sweating," in spite of the old saw about women not being horses and glowing (or something). "Trickling" is a word that sensualizes the experience of sweating. It adds a writerly sort of drama that living day-to-day with a female body, I can assure you, hardly resembles. It is its own plot, and it has nothing to do with the narrator.

So, if the shoe is put on the other foot....what happens if a female writer creates a male narrator, and this narrator is to have a fight scene that escalates in the men's room when (say) his arch enemy is espied via a mirror as he stands at the urinal?

Do men narrate to themselves when they visit a urinal any more than a woman narrates her trickling sweat? (And if the sweat were near another body part...say the armpit...would that author choose the word trickle? Food for thought.)

I imagine not. Though, to be honest, I'm sort of intrigued about how I would narrate that moment. How could I make it real? How could I make it feel real without falling back on trying to feel up my narrator vicariously? Without objectifying his experience of his own body?

I suppose the first step would be to write about using the loo as I do, then changing the verb "sat" to "stood." Then important plot-driving details like, "scrutinized the etchings on the back of the stall door" to "noticed in the half-mirror a jagged scab on the side of my nostril. Fucking hotel razors."

Could it be that simple?

Writing gender interests me not just in terms of character study, but in terms of how a writer writes embodiment via an "I" speaker, especially if that "I" speaker is of a different gender. What could be a more challenging exercise than trying to realistically narrate the thought-process of a character in an intimate moment with the self—especially an intimate moment as routine, and thus half-consciously dealt with, as using the bathroom? It would be hard for me to not want to talk about the mechanics of it, because it would be necessary for me to imagine the mechanics in order to try to get into that place. And then, it's really hard to think about the mechanics and not write about them, if only because the mechanics are INTERESTING. I'm not a dude. Urinals ARE interesting to me, in as far as they are unknown territory frequented by half the population.

Circling back to Rush's narrator in Mating...thus far, I believe the unnamed protaganist's narration of her physical experience. One way Rush makes that work is by delivering an overwhelmingly self-aware narrator who's interest in anthropology and the position of the audience is rivaled only perhaps by her creator's. Another way is by avoiding letting his own interest (whatever that may be) in women and their bodies hijack the speaker's narration. Her descriptions are only as writerly as she herself is writerly (which is very) and they only wax garrulous on topics that interest her.

We are given a cursory description of her physicality, but even then the details are delivered in a straightfoward, unromantic fashion, with little time spent extrapolating on the details of those deatils. I still have no idea what color her eyes are. Why would I? This character isn't interested in what her eye color means to others, and it hasn't come up as a pertinent plot point yet. No villager has told her she looks like a ghost because she has blue eyes, for example. This is the kind of moment when this narrator would deliver that kind of information. Otherwise, it's not important to her.

Which isn't to say her body, and its effects or non-effects on the people around her, are not interesting to her. But while the narrator clearly is able to objectify (or could we say objectively view) herself within her milieu, her ruminations on her body, and its actions, only appear in ways that advance the plot and add contour to her character. As a result (and a big plus, in my book) we do not suffer a writer's interest in his character's, er, formal properties, at the expense of the work as a whole.

P.S. The post title is not in reference to the picture. That is one gorgeous lady. You know...unless she's a man, of course.

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