I read a lot of books. I carry one around like an oxygen tank, because I prefer to bury myself in a page of text rather than a phone screen. But, I’ve also known that much of the fiction I’ve encountered throughout my life has been problematic.
I recently finished Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road” after putting it off for years. It was recommended by a friend who told me the book had ‘spooked’ him into leaving his job in Sydney and emigrating to the U.S, where he pursued a five-year Masters degree under Noam Chomsky.
A book’s ability to cause such impact had always thrilled me. I’m not immune to the ways in which books can change people.
Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree”, a thundering 962 page journalistic-cum-trauma-handbook, completely altered my then-narrow perceptions of unconditional love. More recently, Ann Patchett’s terrifyingly distressing yet gorgeous recount of her friendship with Lucy Grealy in “Truth and Beauty”, settled a personal, emotional inquisition I’d been battling most my life.
But to uproot your entire life, leave your friends, untether the networks you’d spent thirty-years building, move to a place where nobody knows you; that physical and logistically-challenging exodus is no small feat. I was daunted by the reaction it triggered in my friend.
This is all to say, narratives matter. Fiction matters. It always has, and I believe, always will.
Yet, the narratives involving women continue to disable the internal moralistic barometer inside me that wants to leap in joy, for the sheer fact of seeing someone who resembles me: at least, closer than the ordinary straight, white male protagonists I spent the first twenty-five years of my life reading about. Or, rather, internalising.
“Revolutionary Road” follows the story of a young couple in 1950s New York who move to the suburbs and pretend that they are not like all the other typical suburban couples. They’re a bit snobby, a bit dissatisfied; the man takes the train into the city each day to a job he hates. The woman spends her day making house, preparing meals for when her husband and two young children return home.
Both husband and wife deceive each other in terrible, ordinary ways, and their optimism is killed by unexpected news.
My friend told me in an email that the book caught him because of the way it “deals with the all mess of humanity. It’s sympathetic without being remotely moralistic.”
There’s a lot of personal suffering and grievances. Private grievances. Man hurts woman. Woman cowers in fear. It’s no surprise this narrative is plainly reproduced in real life; and here, I’m not just talking about the eternally shameful figures surrounding domestic violence in this country.
What I would love is to read about a world where a woman’s existence is not destroyed by the end of the story. I would love to read a story where a woman’s desires do not impair her self-hood, where her hunger and ambitions for herself inflate, rather than diminish, her identity and agency.
If you haven’t read “Revolutionary Road”, or seen the film, stop here, because I’m about to tell you the ending. The woman dies. When I came to the passage in the book where she makes her exit in a hospital room (witnessed only through the eyes of the husband) I had to suppress a maniacal compulsion to hurl the book across the room. (I refrained because I don’t like to wreck books).
It seemed to me that the entire Western literary canon of ‘classic’ literature requires the great heroine to die off: Emma Bovary swallows arsenic, Anna Karenina leaps in front of a train, Edna Pontellier drowns herself.
A woman’s life is overflowing with trauma and engorged by fatalistic circumstance, and often, their tragic, too-early demise is propelled by the nefarious arms of one group of humans. Men. More specifically, it’s in loving a man where these women come to suffer.
Why do women have to die for the universe to rebalance itself? I’m not the first female writer to wonder at the preposterousness of this narrative trope.
I’m thinking about Jia Tolentino’s 2016 essay “When women signify too much” in The New Yorker, and of her remarks in her book “Trick Mirror”, about how funny it is that the geniuses of women like Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston were only recognised after their deaths.
Last weekend, I caught Ang Collins’ “Chorus” at the Old Fitz Theatre in Darlinghurst. The story reworks the classic tale of “The Oresteia” trilogy by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, specifically, the character of Agamemnon.
Nicole Pingon, Chemon Theys and Ella Prince in ‘Chorus’
If you didn’t study Ancient Greek in high school, here’s the two line summary; Agamemnon is the guy who sacrifices his daughter before heading off to fight in the Trojan War. Why? To obtain favourable wind for the Greek fleet. When he returns, his wife kills him.
In Collins’ version, Agamemnon is a woman. She’s returned to her humble abode in Sydney’s Petersham after years on the road touring. She’s now a global superstar. At the door, she’s greeted by her ex, who is happy at first to see her, but then quickly chokes her into a dizzying attack of self-blame for their child’s death (their son had died of cancer, we learn). Before he kills her, (oh yes, he actually chokes her to death) he makes her say it out loud. “Tell me!” he demands. “Admit that you wanted Gene to die!”
She says it. Then he takes her life.
I walked out of the theatre with that old, burning fury brimming in my chest. My friend Sally listened calmly as I ranted for a few minutes.
“Of course. A woman who asks for more than to be a wife or mother is penalised. God, can we have better stories please?!” I screamed. Sally looked ahead, eyes on the pavement, politely nodding, placating me gently by remarking on the good representation of women of colour, and the positive and complex depiction of queer characters.
Perhaps that’s what I need to focus on, for now. Small victories.