1 year ago


inner landscape of her

inner landscape of her woman waifs and the harsh weather that batters it. Cherishing is her miner’s lamp; by its light she makes discoveries. She is weaker when she tackles evil, at home or abroad. Denouncing is a defective miner’s lamp; it loses her. Cherishing is her miner’s lamp? Do we insist that contemporary male writers Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen stick to that narrow band of illumination? We allow others Stephen Wright, Denis Johnson, Roth, and Stone to denounce as much as they please and to tackle the E-word at home and abroad. Meanwhile, too few readers appear to have noticed which gender has been elected to winnow the important from the trivial. Virginia Woolf observed the self-perpetuating dominance of, masculine values’:, Speaking crudely, football and sport are, important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, trivial. . . . This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop. . . . One wants to point out that Diane Johnson’s funny, chilling novel The Shadow Knows, which concerns a woman with several children reduced, along with her black nanny, to poverty and paranoia in a Sacramento housing project, says as much about race and class as Tom Wolfe’s panoramic Bonfire of the Vanities. And that great talents like Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant understand as did Edith Wharton that every gesture and word represents the entire complex chemistry of character, history, money, and social class. And yet since literature has its size queens insisting that bigger is better, it should be said that women have moved beyond the playground and onto the battlefield, beyond the supposed safety of the kitchen into the big bad world outside. One extraordinary example is Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead. This wildly ambitious, epic, gritty, and violent novel, which builds to an apocalyptic vision of a vengeful and justified uprising of Indians throughout the Americas, provides a map to help readers follow the plot from Arizona and New Mexico to Alaska, Mexico, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. But the novel always lets you know where you are, so you don’t need the diagram or the list of characters, which includes Mayans, Yaqui, Pueblo, Caucasians, Latins north and south of the border; a psychic and TV celebrity who specializes in locating the lost dead; a Yupik female shaman who can make planes crash by rubbing an animal pelt on a TV screen; revolutionaries in Chiapas led by two brothers who in turn are led by the spirits of macaws; pornographers in Tucson making child snuff films; Mexican and American judges, lawyers, and politicians; evil twin sisters dealing coke; smugglers of drugs, guns, and illegal aliens; Mafiosi, junkies, low-rent strippers, losers, bikers, New Agers, Vietnam vets. The most obsessive size freak can’t pretend that a novel confronting centuries of European Native American relations is modest or minor. And yet women writers continue to be reminded, as Sir Egerton Brydges suggested to Virginia Woolf, to, courageously acknowledge the limitations of their sex. From the horror that greeted Silko’s book, published in 1991, one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this, very angry author’s seething with, half-digested revulsion, by her inability to create, a single likable, or even bearable, character, her, bad judgment and inadequate craft, the, 23 Register Magazine

nonexistent plot, and, worst of all, her, emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggesting that more than the novel itself needs remedial help. In USA Today, Alan Ryan lamented that Silko’s book had neither plot nor characters. The normally astute Paul West had similar troubles, which he shared with his L.A. Times readers:, I found myself peering back, wondering who was who, only to remember fragments that, while vivid and energetic, didn’t help me in my belated quest for a family tree. . . . Silko does not interest herself much in psychology, in the unsaid word, the thought uncompleted, the murmur lost. The San Francisco Chronicle critic, praising the novel, makes this unintentionally hilarious understatement of the scope of its achievement: At more than 750 pages, Almanac of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious novels ever written by an American Indian. And Charles Larson concludes his Washington Post review by saying, So many stories have been crammed into Almanac of the Dead it’s often impossible to know when to take Silko seriously. Readers unfamiliar with the novel will have to take my word for it or that of the few critics who, like Alan Cheuse, recognized the novel as, a book that must be dealt with’‘that one can follow the story line. Anyway, what’s at issue here is not the dismal spectacle of bad reviews happening to good books but rather the rarity with which major male writers are criticized in the same terms as women. No one seems to be counting David Foster Wallace’s characters, or complaining that DeLillo’s Underworld has too many subplots, or faulting the male authors of doorstop novels for an insufficient interest in psychology. When Thomas Pynchon’s plots spin off into the ozone, we’re quite ready to consider the chance that it’s an intentional part of his method and not the feeble mistake of what Paul West, in his review of Silko, called the, shattered mind of an atavist. What writers such as Eisenberg, Silko, Gallant, Munro, Johnson, and O Connorhave in common, as much as their gender, is that they are extremely intelligent and tell us things we might choose not to hear yet another quality (the hard news, told brilliantly) that we prize in male writers but are less comfortable with in women. Virginia Woolf was hardly the first to speculate about why men seem less than thrilled to hear the truth from women:, Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. . . . That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. But despite the Skinnerian system of rewards and punishments to which they are subjected, women writers seem to be getting tougher in their insistence on saying the last things men (and even women) want to hear, unwelcome observations about everything from our national attitudes to our self-delusions. Although guys such as Nicholson Baker get the credit for smudging the line between high lit and soft core, women have been increasingly open on the subject of sex, and specifically on 24

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