Books in Review: The Sirens of Titan

If you know me well, or if you’ve ever followed me on Twitter, you probably know who my favorite fiction author is. This week in April has been a meaningful celebration in remembrance of one Kurt Vonnegut, who passed on April 11, 2007. One of his favorite holidays, I think, was Earth Day. I credit him with being my biggest sole influence when it comes to Literary Fiction – how I have managed to make magical realism my game, but still carry an important message.

This article was written in 2013, edited in 2021.

My biggest issue when it comes to my fiction is that I over-write. Seems like the opposite of a problem for an aspiring novel-completer, right? I wish.

The ability to use as few words possible to say the most meaningful things possible is one that I greatly envy, hence the reason that I am consistently jealous of one Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author. Most young people probably know him because they had to read Slaughterhouse Five in high school; I found out about him from having to read Cat’s Cradle in high school, and it was the only book I read that year besides Gatsby that didn’t put me to sleep faster than a Nyquil overdose.

(I didn’t used to be as into literature as I am now. 2021 me is surprised that 2013 me felt this way).

The main reason that Cat’s Cradle stuck with me was the fact that each chapter – there are 127 of them – is no longer than about five pages each. Sometimes chapters are even one page, or half a page, in comparison to my chapters that will go for 30 or 40 pages. Each sentence in that book, too, uses the simplest structure and vocabulary usage possible, canceling out the transcending myth that the bigger your words are, the better your writing is. In Vonnegut’s case I find that the simpler something is written, the more you’re supposed to get from it.

Getting through Cat’s Cradle the first time was no problem, as at its surface level, it offered easy-to-read, sci-fi entertainment at the very least. Understanding the deeper meaning of it, though, took several reads and pauses, as most of Vonnegut’s stuff does, at least for me.

That’s why I love him so much.

After re-reading Cat’s Cradle nine or ten times over the course of three years, I decided it was high time that I check out the rest of Vonnegut’s work. Shortly after finishing a collection of his short stories, I went to Barnes & Noble and randomly picked the first Vonnegut book that caught my eye.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

The Sirens of Titan caught my eye because the cover is neon green and purple, the most jarring color combination to my eyes besides orange and blue, which happens to be the coloration of the cover of Breakfast of Champions.

Like Cradle, the basic plot of Sirens is relatively simple in summary: a rich young man named Malachi Constant gets the future told to him by Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy time traveler, and then proceeds to live out that future, but against his “free will.” Constant goes on a round trip journey through the universe, and some of the bumps on his path include: an invasion of Earth by Martians, a crash-landing on Mercury, a return to Earth in which he becomes the “savior” of a new world religion, and an eventual exile on one of Saturn’s moons.

And the best part about it? He came up with the idea for the entire book in one night.

That plot summary may make the book sound like it’s all over the place, but Vonnegut’s ability to write simply and straightforwardly makes it both the most compact and the most believable plotline I’ve ever read. He’s exceedingly able to make the extraordinary sound ordinary, and vice versa, and pack a meaningful punch with every sentence or line of dialogue he carefully placed in the story.

What the novel ends up being about, on a deeper level than just the plot, is the definition of human existence—which, Vonnegut reveals, is that the entire Earth exists solely to deliver a message sent by distant, Tralfamadorian aliens. When putting it that way—implying that none of us really have a choice in the purpose that we serve, and that that purpose could very well be completely ridiculous—humanity’s existence can seem pretty bleak and pointless. But that’s Vonnegut’s point, (that always seems to be his point), and he goes about making the point in a way that’s blunt and hilarious, while simultaneously dark and existential.

He means to poke fun at the seriousness humans place in all of the things that aren’t going to last, the things that are miniscule in comparison to the entirety of the universe, past, present and future. He means to ask us to ask ourselves if what we do and what we believe in even really matters.

That’s a tall order, but it’s one that we all have to face whether we like it or not.

In Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut questions the idea of free will, and how “free” it can actually be in such a pre-determined universe. He has several examples of mind control going on in the book; the structure of the Martian Army is especially intriguing, with its made-up conglomerate of generals who aren’t actually in charge of anything and don’t have any real power. They’re merely fake figureheads, put in place as a formality. The Martian soldiers are actually controlled by a buzzer that sends a shock wave through their brains if they develop thoughts that go against the regime—a buzzer that any common soldier could be holding at any given time, no matter their made-up rank.

It turns out that one of the commonest men of the bunch, Boaz, is one of the soldiers who holds a buzzer.

Kurt Vonnegut makes me relate to almost every single character of his almost instantly, even if I’ve only just been introduced to them, and even if they only appear on one page. Malachi, the protagonist of Sirens, is your standard “spoiled rich boy” who’s had everything handed to him, but hasn’t done anything with it. Relatable? Sort of; as of 2021, I have at least 500,000 words of fiction on my person, but haven’t done much with it yet.

Book Review: The Sirens of Titan
Alternate cover art

It’s always fascinating to watch Malachi Constant try to sidestep the inevitable future that Rumfoord tells him about. Pretty early on, Rumfoord dictates to him everything that is ever going to happen in his life, including the wildest bits about intergalactic time travel, and Malachi’s reaction to this news—getting drunk, sleeping around, blowing all his money, escaping reality—is the reaction that many of us have in our own lives when we are faced with the scary and inevitable.

From everything tragic that happens to Malachi on, you feel for him, and watch in anticipated agony as his inevitable, unhappy ending comes closer and closer. The helplessness that you feel as you read is page-turning—you already know it’s going to happen, but watching how the hell it’s even going to manage to happen is most of the fun of trekking through the novel.

The character of Rumfoord, too, extracts your sympathy when you discover that he is trapped in what’s called the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, never allowed to materialize on any given planet but Titan for more than a few minutes. What Rumfoord ends up doing because of this fate, and because of his future-telling abilities, seems rather villainous—manipulating thousands in order to establish his church (The Church of the Utterly Indifferent ), maliciously withholding information from Malachi and his own wife in order to bring about his plan—but it also seems kind of warranted. He’s been granted such terrible knowledge, and he has no way to get rid of it or do anything about it—how unimportant he must feel as a human being. It begs the question: do any of us really want to know the real meaning of the universe? Or would knowing everything be too intense?

All of Vonnegut’s characters in Siren have such universal dilemmas: they don’t want to lose their innocence, they’re afraid of unknowns, of mysterious higher powers. Vonneget uses figures like Malachi, Rumfoord, Beatrice and Chrono to show that people are just pieces in a universe that controls itself.

It’s like Rumfoord says to his wife at some point, when she asks him why, if he can tell the future, doesn’t he just tell everyone everything that will ever happen?

“’All I can say is that my failure to warn you about the stock-market crash is as much a part of the natural order as Halley’s Comet—and it makes an equal amount of sense to rage against either one.’”

The book has been controversial, I gather, because of its anti-religious undertones, and what Vonnegut dubbed The Church of The Utterly Indifferent. The way that Vonnegut writes, however, doesn’t preach or imply that you should believe the anti-religious message of The Church. He simply places the reality of the situation out there for you—that none of us really knows what the universe will hand us—and you can interpret the situation however you want to. You can agree with the idea that the universe is controlled by a nameable God, or you can agree with the idea that the universe is chaotic, and the forces that control it are either mysterious or nonexistent. Whatever you believe, we’re all in the same boat anyway.

A character named Unk, a soldier in the Martian army, ends up getting his memory erased. He is confused, hurt, lost, and wishes that someone on Mars would tell him what he was really supposed to be doing with his life. Later on, Unk finds a letter addressed to him, and this letter is one of the funniest, truest, and most meaningful things I’ve ever read about human life.

While Unk reads the letter, full of personal anecdotes, hilarious insight, and useful points of advice, he becomes filled with these moments of great joy—finally, someone is telling him who he is and who he loves, and finally, he is having his memories restored. The letter warns him, however, of the dangers up ahead of him, that the Martian army is out to erase his memory over and over. It ends up telling him that he should escape, for his own good, and tells him about the family he needs to save.

For a while, he thinks that the author of the letter must be a friend of his, or someone objective who cares for him. But when he gets to the bottom of the letter, he finds that his own name, “Unk,” is the signature. He wrote the letter to himself before his memory was erased.

My favorite passage in the book reads:

“It was literature in its finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times.”

Writing to or for yourself can literally save your life. What a powerful message.

I remember having to put the book down after getting to this page. If I was a person who enjoyed crying, I probably would’ve cried about it. (Not really, but it did hit me on a pretty emotional level). As a writer myself, this line told me that if I ever feel like I’m starting to lose the voice of my inner author, or if I ever feel that the world around me is trying to erase my identity, I should write, because my writing will always voice who I really am inside, and returning to it will always remind me of my faith in myself.

If none of this has convinced you to read the book, do it for the fact that Vonnegut is famous for his slapstick comedy (seriously, Sirens is hilarious), and do it for the fact that when it comes to science fiction, this man is a pioneer.

This book taught me things about life that I never expected to gain from a story about time travel and Saturn’s moons. It only reinforced my love of Vonnegut, and showed me that the deepest of messages really can be written with the simplest of words.

Store Run

At 4:32, I need to go to the store. It has to be at 4:32, because it takes exactly eight minutes to get to the store, and I have to be inside of the store by 4:40, because shopping for groceries always has to begin exactly at a ten minute interval.

I need to make a list of what I need: apples, oranges, birth control, condoms–but wait, that list needs to be in alphabetical order: apples, birth control, condoms, oranges.

I need to map out which aisles I’ll be going to, in descending numerical order, before I get there, so that I can be sure that I’m out of the store by five o’clock; shopping for groceries can take no longer than twenty minutes. Apples and oranges are in aisle four, birth control is in aisle three, and condoms are in aisle two. 4:32, perfect–but wait, I can’t go back to aisle four to get the oranges once I’ve already gotten the apples–that wouldn’t be in descending numerical order–so I guess I can’t buy oranges today.

Now then, the list reads: apples, birth control, condoms. ABC. 4:32. Perfect. I’ll spend five minutes exactly in each aisle, and five minutes exactly at the checkout, to ensure that I am walking out the door exactly twenty minutes from the time I walked in.

…Fuck, it’s 4:33.

We Can’t Talk About That

“There was, just before the feminine mystique took hold in America, a war, which followed a depression and ended with the explosion of an atom bomb. After the loneliness of war and the unspeakableness of the bomb, against the frightening uncertainty, the cold immensity of the changing world, women as well as men sought the comforting reality of home and children. (…) We were all vulnerable, homesick, lonely, frightened. A pent-up hunger from marriage, home and children was felt simultaneously by several different generations; a hunger which, in the prosperity of postwar America, everyone could suddenly satisfy.”

Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique

When I write up my outlines for potential book plotlines these days, I usually set out what my overall “themes” are going to be. I’ll start writing and think I’m going in one direction, but the next thing I know, ten or twenty pages in, the major theme ends up morphing into something else. Often times without “my” permission. The writer in me has her own voice.

No matter what my story is about concretely—whether it’s as complex as time traveling kids who crash land a planet full of misandrists (yes, that is a thing I am attempting to do), or as simple as a girl who just wants a guy to notice her—my underlying theme or “moral of the story” usually ends up having something to do with mental health.

More specifically, it ends up having something to do with the fact that mental health issues, at least in my experience, seem to be these big, scary things that nobody wants to talk about, like the adult version of monsters in the closet. Those of us who deal with mental illness, in our own lives or in our relationships with family members and friends, sometimes find it easier to just repress it.

I guess the motivation behind my wanting to write about this “mental illness repression” is the fact that I’ve read It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, a book that pretty quickly changed my life once I was done with it. Funny Story’s protagonist, Craig, challenges a lot of the taboos that come along with mental illnesses like major depression and anxiety. You’d think that reading a fifteen year old boy’s perspective on the matter wouldn’t teach you enough, but I think it’s because the author chose such an innocent and young speaker that the book hit home so well, to me. To me, when I read it, it was like, “Okay, if this kid is able to see that something is the matter with our country’s views on mental health, then why can’t we, as adults, see that problem?”

Aside from wanting to writing about it in stories, I’ve also just wanted to know, in general, why going to counseling and taking medicine because of said counseling are seen as shameful behaviors. When I’ve heard people say things like, “psychology is a pseudoscience,” “depression is just sadness,” “therapy is for weak people,” and “I don’t need meds, I’m not a crazy person,” I try not to ask them what it is specifically that makes them think that way, but judging from how I personally used to feel about mental illnesses, I can guess at the causes behind it.

Being diagnosed with a brain-altering disorder is like being told that you don’t have control over your own brain anymore. And that, at first, sounds completely dense and ridiculous.

It’s like, of course I have full control over my own brain—it’s mine, and the way it works is simple. I tell my left arm to move, and it moves. I hear my stomach grumble and tell my legs to walk me downstairs to the fridge. Being in full, autonomous control of ourselves and our bodies is one of the fundamental building blocks of existing as a human, since we can’t control others, can’t control the weather, and can’t control time.

But when you find out that you don’t actually have as much power over your brain as you thought you did—when “all of a sudden,” there’s a chemical that goes missing, an unwanted feeling, an involuntary, panicked reaction—it can be a scary thing to realize. It’s like, if I can’t even get a handle myself, how in the world am I ever going to handle anyone else? If I can’t even control my head, how am I supposed to control the rest of myself?

I think that some of the people who “don’t believe in psychology” stop those thoughts there and prevent them from going any further—reject the idea that the brain is somehow outside of our control.

Then there are the people who at least know that there’s a mental health issue in their life—that they are having thoughts that they can’t control, that they are having breathing problems and panic attacks that they can’t stop—but don’t want to admit it because they don’t want to seem like a “crazy person.” I blame the media for perpetuating the idea that all mentally ill people are “crazy people,” but then again, I’m biased, because I blame the media for a lot of things. Sorry.

I don’t see how having a mental illness automatically makes you “crazy.” Sometimes it does, yes, give or take, but I decide to look at mental illnesses the same way that I would all others, like, cancer, or something. No matter the circumstance and no matter the name of the illness, it’s a condition that the patient probably didn’t ask for and probably didn’t want, so telling a depressed person that they’re “crazy” or implying that they “just need to get better already” is probably inaccurate.

People with cancer need chemo the same way that people with major depression, anxiety, and such need therapy and medicine.

Cancer is visible, whereas mental illness seems, to an extent, invisible.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story was an excellent view of mental health from a male’s point of view, and I was able to compare this to my real life experience, having known and talked to a few males who have rejected going to therapy and then told me their reasons why. Needing therapy, and even just needing help in general, are seen as “feminine” needs, “feminine” problems; the “damsel in distress” trope exists for a reason.

Depression is not gendered or sexed. Neither are anxiety and psychosis. There exist millions of words describing why these conditions appear in humankind. From now on, I will be dedicated to exploring the why.

Made of Soil

Flash fiction I wrote in or before 2016

22,100 BEST Forget-Me-Not IMAGES, STOCK PHOTOS & VECTORS | Adobe Stock

My skin is dark and made of soil. Gravity keeps the dirt packed solid against my bones, always slightly damp and never leaving residue on what I touch. Still, most people avoid me because of it.

Tonight at the supermarket, a woman stares at me, across the aisle where I’m stocking shelves. She has liquid black hair like a waterfall of ink, and I can tell she wants to touch me, the way her mouth is agape.

She walks over slow, not looking at my face, probably full of questions about my roots. I’m not prepared to answer, but I don’t have a choice. Soon she gets so close that I can feel her breathing oxygen into my soil, inhaling my earthy petrichor.

“Have you always been like this?” she says to my arms, one hand curled against her chest as if concerned. “Is it a condition? Must you be watered?”

She hovers her hands over my arms and it makes me nervous; she’s a cold kind of beautiful. Her fingers are curled into loose fists like they are holding seeds, and my pulse is visibly rumbling beneath my fine, top layer of dirt.

I don’t want her to touch me, but I do.

When she looks into my eyes, I see her eyes are not eyes at all, but eerie, dark holes in her face that seem to have no end.

As I stare into them, trying to find their end, she smooths her palms along my soil, slow and soft.

Then she stabs her fingers, sharp, into my dirt.

“Hey!”

And then I feel seeds, dozens of them, slipping from her fingertips and burrowing in my arms. My body absorbs them as if it has a choice.

“Meet me here tomorrow,” she says, pulling away her hands. They are covered in my dirt and as if I have a choice, I work here tomorrow. She runs off without another word, a flurry of hair, skirt and wind, leaving me alone in the aisle.

On the walk home, I feel the seeds dragging themselves down deeper. I can’t stop seeing her face, and the more I picture her – the endless flow of her hair, the empty pits of her eyes – the more painful the holes she left in my arms become.

Once inside, my energy drained, I feel the hard shells of the seed coats break apart, the roots crawling out and spreading through my body. They latch, parasitic, around my nerves and vessels, draining my blood as if for nutrients. Finally, sleek stems coil out from my surface, multiplying quickly, leaves fluttering in the air.

Humiliated, I watch it grow: a tangled web of vines that starts to flower into finicky, blue forget me nots. I know now that I can’t return to the store, and this is what it means to be dark and made of soil: everything that touches you gets in.

Nature

Poetry I wrote at some point between 2013 and 2014, re-titled in 2021. My feelings on this topic are less intense, but I still understand this feel.

Black holes do not crush things because they have a desire to.

The universe exists, and it only exists. It does not want, it does not plan, it does not change its course, and it is not selfish.

Planets do not seek power. Their gravitational pulls are not greedy.

If nature is destructive, this is chance. Nature’s victims are not its enemies, are not its constituents, and were never its friends.

We can claim to be one with nature all we want. We will never be so gracious.

We are beneath her, and will never understand her. We reproduce for lust, waste life for love, spill blood for pride, and claim that she is our design for glory.

To liken humanity with nature is an insult to her order, because we are chaos.

We are emotions, we are chosen acts of violence, we are conscientious existence, we are destruction.

We are the desire to crush the universe.

Feminist Research Paper (2013)

Recently discovered an old laptop with my best work on it. This was from a class with one of my favorite Lit professors.

Written in 1916, William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Young Housewife” is indicative of man’s take on the woman’s condition at that time in America. The early 20th century marked the height of the women’s suffrage movement that defined first-wave feminism. The modern woman’s perspective of herself at the time was that she was on the road to equality, and that she was now defining herself not just through marriage and housewifery, but also through activism and citizenship. The Modernist movement of the arts and literature was similar to the feminist movements in its goals—literary Modernism was all about deconstructing past, outdated rhetoric and recreating it in order to reflect the rapidly increasing modern advances of the early 20th century. However, despite Modernism’s progressive mindset, for many male writers, one portrayal from the past still seemed to remain the same in literature: the female’s condition, her societal role, and subsequently, her worth.

While Williams had some pieces that showed a respect for women, the respect was shown only when he was addressing them through a romantic lens, through her “feminine” loveliness and role as a lover and wife. It is known of Williams that in his perspective, “for male writers, poetry is a reparation to women for their beauty, which is culturally appropriated by men for their poetry via the mechanism of ‘the gaze’” (Dettmar). When the current female object of affection in Williams’ poetry was no longer ideal to him, whatever that ideal was at the time, he was rather harsh and unsympathetic in his portrayal of her, as were critics of first wave feminism when it did not conform to the mold of the politically voiceless housewife. In spite the suffrage movement giving women themselves a sense of individualism, and even with the presence of a few women in the Modernist rhetoric, it seems that the male perception of the woman as a passive, docile housewife did not change uniformly, even in the most “progressive” artistic and Modern minds of the time, of which Williams was considered. While it is only one poem in a sea of others, when isolated, “The Young Housewife” represents a complicated, gender-based dichotomy of that time period, a struggle between man wanting to control and repress the woman as an individual, and man wanting to love her as an intimate wife and childbearer. In “The Young Housewife,” the woman is defined by and given her identity through the lens of the male artist, the Modernist artist, and the narrator of the poem only defines the housewife he sees in terms of her marriage, her boundaries, her insecurity, and her weakness, in the end.

The the decline of the first “wave” of feminism was due in part to the fact that the women’s common goal at the time, the vote, had now been acquired (Banner). Women’s individual interests began to diverge after there was no one, solidified political cause for them to mobilize for, and because the women’s movement had not expanded to the arts, this gave way for men to be the major voice for both genders in literature, art and poetry. The early 20th century saw a paradoxical time were women were becoming more prominent in the public eye, in the forms of silent film actresses and “flappers,” but were still being sentenced to the isolation of the home in male-written rhetoric. In “The Young Housewife,” the narrator, a doctor and a poet, is not merely just an observer of the young wife he sees, he is not as distant from her as men were in earlier times, but rather he is able to access her mind as he watches her. In Modernism, “the poet is never simply an invisible figure who wields the power to name and describe but rather a speaker whose voice effects a relationship in verse” (Dettmar). However, even though he accesses her thoughts, the narrator’s analysis of her actions is still filtered through what he wants from her, not what she wants for herself.

“The Young Housewife”’s most vivid images are of the housewife’s attire and her body. In the first stanza, the man observes the housewife as she stands confined by her husband’s walls, and notes that the woman is “in negligee,” or a revealing nightgown garment (McMicheal). It is telling that even when visually impeded by a wall, and also visually impeded by the car he’s in, the first thing his eyes are drawn to is her clothing. Calling the walls “the husband’s” as well immediately places the woman into an unreachable place in his mind, a place where she cannot belong to him; however, the man still toys with the idea that because of her tempting “negligee,” he can attempt to peer through the wall of marriage, the wall of another man’s possession, and gaze at her anyway. It is also interesting that instead of saying that she is in a negligee, he writes “negligee” as though it is to resemble “negligence” (Aheam). Williams does this to signify both the negligence of the husband for leaving his wife alone in the yard at ten A.M., and the negligence of her to her own home, as she is standing outside of it, at risk of being viewed by other men.

The narrator does not just see the unattainable woman as held back from him because of her husband, but as he observes her futher, he goes on to create other boundaries as well. In the second stanza, the man drives back past the housewife to find that she is now outside the walls of her home, standing on the curb to greet the “ice man and fish man” (McMichael). However, “when she finally emerges, more physical limitations appear. The ‘curb’ seems to be one barrier that marks the boundary between herself and the delivery men, who she is waiting on(…)The poet, too, exists in a physical container—his car” (Dettmar). At this point the narrator has not only defined the woman’s personal boundaries from him as an individual, but also her boundaries from all other men who will pass by. It’s almost as if he sees it as unfair that she is standing on the street, in the open. The line “I pass in my solitary car” is the only sentence in the poem that is not purposefully separated by a line break, and the only sentence in the work that ends in a period and stands on its own. The man’s isolation is felt due to this; he notes that he is isolated as he then focuses his gaze on her physical appearance almost helplessly, despite being barred from her, focusing in on the vivid image of her “uncorseted” waist and her shy strands of hair (McMicheal). It is as if the narrator thinks that the only reason the woman has gone outside is to be viewed, to gain validation; and validation is what he gives her in his train of thought. When he describes her as “shy, uncorseted,” he sees her as having “have tucked away her individuality as casually as she tucked in her ‘stray ends’ of hair(…)Furthermore, the adjective ‘stray’ suggests her possible predilection for escaping orderly confines, whether in terms of hair arrangement or in terms of more serious transgressions” (Dettmar). At this point, the extent of the male’s fantasy about this housewife has reached his peak; by imagining her as uncorseted and imagining that she has the ability stray, he is imagining that this woman might actually return his gaze despite his separation via vehicle, that she is capable of “straying” from all of her boundaries, including her husband’s walls. This is all very interesting considering that, literally, all the woman is actually doing is waiting for the deliverymen. However, in the narrator’s fanatical gaze, she is seen not for her housework, but for her appearance; the woman is aware of the fact that her appearance is on display, as she self-consciously fixes her hair once she is outside, but she thinks of not much else of it; the narrator as a poet, as well as Williams as a poet, do not give her the chance to think past that sentiment in the narrative. Repressing herself behind walls is something that the female does by habit, in the male’s point of view. And once she has retreated into her own privacy, the man feels as though he has lost her and lost a chance at her, even if she is not his to begin with.

Fluently, in the same line that fantasizes about the young woman “straying,” the narrator artistically defines the woman, saying, “I compare her to a falling leaf” (McMicheal). This image of a single, falling leaf, and the romantic, poetic usage of the word “compare,” suggests one last portrayal of the woman as defined through her beauty. The narrator physically equates her to nature while at the same time retreating into his ability to express himself creatively, his intellect, his poetry (Aheam). He separates the two of them more by doing this, becoming an observer of nature instead of a human trying to connect with a another human; “There is an inward turning; the woman toward her appearance, the poet toward his art. (Note the parallelism of roles: she emerges as a housewife but also meets people at the curb as an object of desire; he passes by as a doctor, but also acts as a poet)” (Dettmar). By saying that she is “falling,” the man is only pushing the separation of him and the woman along; saddened, he is admitting defeat, and admitting that the woman is shy, withdrawn, and is too absorbed in her home life and her walls to ever stray with him. She does not want him, and thus “she is one fallen leaf among many—something to be swept away and forgotten” (Giorcelli).

The image of the woman as single, falling leaf quite suddenly abruptly, then, becomes that of a heap of dry, dead leaves in the third stanza. “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling” (McMicheals). The sudden crushing over of the leaves with the car instantly creates an almost sadistic change in the man’s attitude. From a single, unique leaf, the woman has become a heap of meaningless leaves in the street; from a desirable object that the man observes, the woman has become a group of women who are not desirable, who are worthy of being run over and passed up carelessly and quickly, as if they never mattered. It is also interesting that Williams writes that the wheels are ‘noiseless,’ but in the very next line the wheels ‘rush’ with a ‘crackling sound.’ It is ironic that he attempts to leave the woman behind noiselessly, but almost without even realizing it, he ends up leaving very noisily. The man also seems proud of the fact that he is able to bow and smile instead of want her; it is almost as if he is doing her a favor by behaving as a gentleman, by not acting in the frustrated way that would warrant him running over her with a car. So quickly, he went from feeling forlorn about her, to lusting after her, to admiring her, and then to dismissing her, and this is in no way a new or modern view of the way men feel about women in America. These two extremes, this rapidly fluctuating attachment and detachment, have always been present in the male’s take on the female gender. David D. Gilmore writes in his anthropological study on misogyny that, in Western and Eastern cultures, in ancient times and as of now, “wherever misogynist beliefs are the most sordid and flamboyant, one also finds their exact opposite: histrionic rituals of female imitation or glorification” (Gilmore). The “histrionic ritual” of the early American 20th century was still, as it always has been, childbirth, and the mysticism of the woman’s ability to get pregnant. Childbirth being defined exclusively through the female creates the inevitable necessity that mankind had to reproduce life through the woman’s body; he needs her, even though he may not want to (Gilmore). The American culture has always idolized the housewife role as the “female’s destiny” because of this need, and has thus socially determined that there is no other destiny for the woman besides her belonging to her husband’s lineage; hence the anti-feminist sentiment felt throughout the country, during the first-wave and others. Hence the male’s rejection of the female as anything other than a birthing vessel—and in the case of “The Young Housewife,” the narrator must harshly detach himself from this woman because, obviously, she belongs to and is the birthing vessel for another man; he has to resist the temptation to have her because of her biological destiny and duty to another.

Throughout his poetic career, Williams’ commentary of the woman continued to become disillusioned, despite his attempts to see women as he once did. Williams himself was said to had a complicated relationship with women (Crawford), and this is shown in the way some of his poetry about women regressed from 1916 on. In the McMicheal Anthology, the selected poems about women written by him in 1920 are “Queenannslace” and “Portrait of a Lady.” In Portrait of a Lady especially, he presents these almost Renaissance-like description of, again, the woman’s body parts, particularly those of her lower half, but abruptly breaks those descriptions with more realistic, pessimistic comments. “Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky. / Which sky? The sky / where Watteau hung a lady’s / slipper. Your knees / are a southern breeze — or / a gust of snow…” (McMichael). He goes back and forth between romanticizing and dismissing the woman again, and by the end of the poem he still cannot determine a “new way” to view the woman, sexually, aesthetically, or otherwise. Williams is stuck on how to view them as of their place in the new century, as of their place in men’s’ lives at the time, even as a Modernist, dedicated to the movement of reform and change. The man and woman are not fused together in Modernist poetry unless they are intimate or married, or the women is just being viewed for her body; and when that narrow-minded definition of intimacy then fails and becomes “realistic,” “no longer are the lovers viewed as a pair, reflected in the living world of nature. Rather, the natural world splits and fragments, challenging the poet-lover to find what are, so to speak, new fields to conquer” (Giorcelli). These ‘new fields’ are the paths Modernist men, leading the movement, took intellectually.

Sometimes Williams praised women in earlier poetry, but his works show that eventually he grew weary of them; he got tired of trying to figure them out, tired of wondering why their images were so conflicting to him. He seemed to be blocked as to how to deal with the unattainable feminine object, unsure as to how to characterize her in his mind in the changing, modern world. His only answer to the incessant question of how to digest the woman’s presence was to ignore it, and although ignoring the woman’s condition is effective for a time, it is not a solution to the problem. In spite of both the male and female disillusionment with feminism, during the first-wave of Williams’ time, feminism eventually rose again in the second-wave, and the third. The female will always show herself; she is a part of this world.

The first half of “The Young Housewife” is an attempt to intimately connect with the woman as an equal; but after several failed attempts to intimately connect with her and surpass her so-called boundaries, the ones he invented for her himself, the “leaves falling” represent man separating himself from woman once again, represent women gradually falling back in the male’s sexism, pushed once again out of equality. The woman’s condition did not improve as a result of the literature of Modernism, and the complex, negatively-emotional relationship that the male gender has always had with the female was not quite transcended during the movement. In fact, this relationship, which has been embedded in our human experience ever since there have been two sexes, still has not been completely transcended even now; it has come a long way since Williams’ time, but is still a persistent that problem with no current solution that the American literary movements have taken a while to catch onto, delve into, and truly explore. “The Young Housewife” is indicative of something that Williams probably did not realize at the time, something that is apparent now in gender studies discourse: the reason that man cannot fully understand woman and what she wants is because he is constantly barring himself to her true nature, creating “mental boundaries” for himself, not even giving her the chance to speak for herself or tell the world what she wants. By constantly playing this guessing game with the female gender, instead of asking of the gender what exactly they want to know about it, and listening, the male gender may find that they will never quite get the woman’s condition right. They will never be able to occupy the woman’s mind unless the woman’s mind is hers, not theirs, unless it is expressed with its own individual perspective, emotions, and language. The integration of women into the discourse of literature is essential to having equality.


Works Cited

Ahearn, Barry. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Cambridge
University Press, 1994. Print.

Banner, Lois W. Women in Modern America; A Brief History. New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1974. Print.

Crawford, T. Hugh. William Carlos Williams And The Maternal Muse. American Literature
61.4 (1989): 720-723. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 20 May 2013.

Dettmar, Kevin, and Stephen Watt. The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry. Michigan:
University of Michigan, 1996. Print.

Giorcelli, Cristina, and Maria A. Stefanelli. The Fallen Leaf and the Stain of Love: The
Displacement of Desire in Williams’s Early Love Poetry.
Rome: Edizioni Associate,
1993. Print.

McMichael, George L. Concise Anthology of American Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Print.

Kurt and Sebastian Play SBURB: A Short Story

WORK:

[S]: BE THE BIRTHDAY GUY

A young man stands in his bedroom. It just so happens that today, the 13th of April, is his birthday. Sebastian would like more for his birthday than what he’s gotten so far: a couple sweaters from his dad, an exploding cake that his brother left for him this morning, and a hypothetical check that’s supposedly coming in the mail from his grandmother.

Turning twenty two has felt boring and adult, unlike his twenty first birthday, on which he was plastered in a gay bar for the first time, legally anyway. As far as Sebastian’s concerned, after 21, every birthday you have is just you rolling that much closer to 30, and then 40, and then senility, and then death.

Sebastian doesn’t have school or work today, so he’s planning on sitting at home, maybe getting a little wine drunk, and doing exactly jack shit. He’s never really been a social person, on account of his patience for most people is nonexistent. His dad and his brother, when they’re not playing pranks on him, tend to leave him alone to his own devices. Today, he decides he’ll stay in his room and waste his glorious free time on gaming. Maybe online. He can probably bother Kurt to get in on one with him.

Sebastian looks out his bedroom window for the little red flag on the mailbox, which should’ve been erected hours ago. Finally, the postman seems to have come, so Sebastian goes downstairs and heads outside to his front yard. The check from his grandmother is there, along with a slick, grey envelope with four green boxes printed on it, addressed to his brother. He takes the mail inside to the kitchen, not above opening his sibling’s packages, as the same is often done to him. Most of the time, his brother gets sent advance copies of PC games which Sebastian can steal. It appears that this is another one.

He has no idea what the hell SBURB is though. Inside the envelope are two discs – labeled “SBURB: server” and “SBURB: client” – wrapped in thin white sleeves. There’s nothing else in the envelope.

Continue reading

I Would Tell You What She Looks Like

Notes:

Lesbians Over Everything is a platform for women who love women to share their stories, heartbreaks and triumphs. A few months ago, I contributed to the segment “Every Woman I’ve Ever Loved,” a space for accounts of women who’ve moved us. The following is a concept I’d had in mind since 2015.

 

I would tell you what she looks like, but I can’t. She asked me not to. As a writer, it’s frustrating to be told that I can’t describe a subject, but I suppose I can tell you where we were the last time I saw her, when, and why:

The Firestone train station on the Los Angeles Blue Line, dim stone, chipped archways, and lingering smell of urine. Ten a.m. on a rainy February. She was returning some of my things. Our relationship was over.

I arrived at the platform long before she did, knowing that she was showing up late and making me wait for her on purpose. Sitting on the hard concrete slab that served as a bench, bored, I watched the rain fall on the empty tracks. This could be a scene from a romance novel, I said to myself, the trains are a symbol here, of her leaving my life, of my having to move on, or of the rapid, slapdash pace at which we modern humans live. And the rainfall, maybe, a symbol of my misery.

I thought this even though I wasn’t at all miserable. In fact, when she arrived and sat beside me, giving no hello or warning and wearing sunglasses in the rain, the moment was void of romance or sentiment.

Awkward and terse, making a strained effort to not make eye contact, she held out a plastic Target shopping bag at me. Is she seriously wearing sunglasses? I thought, taking the bag and almost laughing, though there was absolutely nothing funny about this moment.

Once the transaction was finished, she stood up, cleared her throat.

“Can you do me a favor?” She pitched her voice down to its deepest register, the way she often did when we fought. “Don’t make me a character in one of your little stories.”

She walked away, that line serving as her goodbye, and I realized that if there was a way to make me feel miserable over a break up, well. That was it.

She read all of my stories. She knew that writing about the women who have moved me, hurt me, or shamed me in the past is how I process things, how I really move on. If I can turn a random, painful situation into a meaningful narrative, write about our ending in another time and place, whatever pain I feel is worth it in the end. Was she taking my process on purpose?

The train arrived just moments later. I got on and tried to keep my mind from plotting points, coming up with idealistic character arcs for she and I. Though it went against my self imposed nature, I saw everything around me just for what it is, and not what it represents:

It was blindingly white inside the train. The light bulbs above me buzzed dull and monotone. The teal linoleum floors were sticky, and sweat and body odor permeated the steel seats. Rainwater slivered down the grey sides of the windows, whizzing and flowing in time with the moving industrial scenery. Immortal by Marina and the Diamonds played in my earbuds, the singer’s deep voice echoed and ethereal. She crooned of love lasting forever, earth’s end in fire, and seas frozen in time.

The song reminded me of her, of nights we spent in the dark, feeling like I’d finally found a love that was eternal. This was the part she didn’t want. Me romanticizing what was really a relationship wrought with fighting. Memorializing the details of her person would give it proof. Does she not want to be remembered for her wrongs? I assume she will always remember me for mine.

I looked down at the Target bag tied tightly shut in my lap, the logos redrawing images of drops of blood on white cotton pads. I opened the bag, curious as to why she tied it shut, and was overwhelmed by a sudden remorse. Everything inside of it smelled like her now, her skin, her house, her warmth and those nights. Will any of the following identify her? Aveeno lotion, men’s pine deodorant, faint hints of dust and cigarettes, burnt cinnamon incense. My t-shirts, lingerie, even the books were imbued with her scent. They weren’t just my things anymore.

Soon as the scent tinged my nostrils, my eyes watered instantly, stinging, without my permission. Tears fell, out of place and too late. I was out of the moment constantly when we were together. Always plotting the next thing, focusing on what I would write down about our hypothetical future on some date. If we got there. Fixating on both of our pasts, blaming our disharmony on our families, childhoods, society, anything.

Her scent brought her within my grasp, but not close enough, and all I wanted was not my obsession with future or the past, but a present moment:

It’s November. I’m lying on her bed alone in her room, naked, waiting for her to come home after work. I am blissful and content. I press my cheek to her still wet pillow, inhaling her sweet conditioner, that way her skin smells. Stare at the cracks in her window blinds, the chipping ceiling, the piles of her clothes, the various trinkets on her desk that haven’t been so much as nudged out of their “place” in over a year. I have existed in this room, I have loved in this room. It’s broken, and she often leaves me here alone in it. But it’s home.

I traveled further and further away from that home, as the train passed through Compton and Watts in the rain. The more miles I put between us, the more I knew and understood her intention: from now on, I can see the room in my mind’s eye, but she does not want me to have the privilege of imagining her there.

The temporary time travel, her scent on my things, overwhelmed me the point that something like miserable was going to be the next stop on the train. By that time, though, I had exited it. Moved through the Willow street station at the end of the Blue Line, walking the path back to my own space. In my solitary bedroom, I sprayed everything in the bag she gave me with my own perfume – heavy, syrupy, saccharine – suffocating the portal that pulled me back into her.

Ruminations On The Nature Of Lying

 

1.

You were the flower girl at your aunt’s wedding. After your procession, you stood next to the women in your family, tall and stark in green, velvet dresses, in a line on the stage.

As the pastor spoke, you played with your now-empty basket. It’d felt like hours since you’d been in the spotlight, since your debut. You were hungry, and you had to pee. But soon, you noticed that the women were crying; you wondered why you weren’t crying too, wanting to be more like them. You started to lick your fingers and streak them down your face, trying to look more like them.

Once your face was covered in spit, you tugged on your mother’s hand, made her look down at you. “Oh, honey, don’t cry,” she’d said. It was the first time you felt like a woman, like them.

2.

You sat on the treadmill in your parents’ bedroom, hiccupping as your Grammy fed you sugar from a spoon.

“Sugar will help stop the crying,” she said, in that all-knowing voice. You couldn’t remember how long you’d been crying, but a while ago, you’d been standing barefoot in the kitchen. Your mother, grandmother and a cop had talked over harsh walkie-talkie feedback. Your mother was holding a towel with ice to her forehead, and a head of lettuce sat in the middle of the floor. The condensation from it was dripping onto the tile.

The cop said your father threw the lettuce at your mom. He said your dad was handcuffed somewhere outside. The cop kept writing things down as your mother spoke, listening intently, nodding, sighing. You didn’t understand much of what they were saying, but at the end of it all, he knelt down to your level, took off his sunglasses, said,

“I’m sorry all this happened, little lady. Your daddy didn’t mean it.” You would go on to learn he did mean it.

That was when you’d started crying. Your Grammy took you upstairs for you privacy, and you stared at her as she rubbed the bridge of her nose, prepped more sugar for the spoon.

You didn’t think the sugar was working. You were crying too hard to say so, but even if you weren’t, you wouldn’t have stopped her. It tasted good.

3.

That year on Christmas Eve, you set a trap for Santa in your living room: ropes tied to chairs made a maze from chimney to tree, and you even placed Jacks on the floor at every turn. An Indiana Jones path to the milk and cookies.

You were hoping he would fall, maybe twist his ankles. The sound of him plummeting to the floor would reach only you, wake only you up, and then you would finally find him, the enigmatic glutton. That plate of sugar cookies that you and your sister baked? They would be yours, and so would all the presents.

Your mother and father watched you set up your trap, every step of the way. Your father said that you were much smarter than Santa, your mother said he would be no match for your prowess. Once it was done, all night long you fought sleep; drifting off, waking up the sounds of your parents’ fighting. Didn’t they know he doesn’t come if you don’t sleep?

The next morning, you went downstairs to find your trap expertly disassembled: the floor was clean, the ropes and jacks gone, the chairs moved back to the dining room table. All six of the cookies were bitten into, and the empty glass of milk held down a handwritten letter.

“Better luck next time! – S.” You’d soon learn he wasn’t real just a couple months later.

4.

You’d soon learn the purpose and the nature of lying: it’s okay as long as it protects people. At school, your little sister got her teeth knocked out. Too much horseplay at recess caused a boy to kick her in the jaw.

Your mother was on her way to pick her up from school, and you waited with her in the nurse’s office. She held her small, bloody hands over her mouth as the nurse prepared the mouthwash, put the tooth in a plastic bag. Secretly, you wished that you were hurt so you could go home too. At least you got to skip a class.

“Does it hurt?” you asked her.

“Kind of,” she mumbled, her hands over her mouth. “It does, but the tooth fairy will fix it. You know what they say, money makes the world ‘go round.”

That night, you realized that your parents forgot to be the tooth fairy. She was fast asleep, it was one A.M., and you were quietly sifting through the contents of her room. Trying to find pennies, quarters, anything, stuffed between cushions and stashed in the toy chests.

You found nothing a tooth fairy would leave. Instead, you listened to your parents scream down the hall, wishing you could open up their doors, see them like that. Somehow, your sister was always a heavy sleeper.

The next morning, your mom dropped the two of you off in front of your K-8 school. Your sister was upset all morning, quiet and cross-armed. She sat down on the front steps when your mother pulled away, refusing to go in. Crying.

“What’s wrong with you?” you said.

“The tooth fairy didn’t come,” she lamented. “I’m broke.”

When you got to homeroom, you asked your teacher for a dollar in quarters. You slipped into her classroom next break, told her teacher what you were doing. You left them for her under the lid of her desk.

The next time you saw her, she was gap-toothed-smiling, clutching the change against her chest and spinning ‘round.

“I knew it, I knew it!” she told everyone who’d listen. “I’m gonna be rich!”

At the end of the day, you sat together on the steps again. She was no longer happy like before, dropping the coins one by one onto the concrete.

“What’s wrong with you?” you said.

“I know what you did,” she said. “Someone in my class just told me about the tooth fairy. It’s not good to lie, you know.”