29 June 2004

"Women are Ugly" by Eliot Fintushel

I haven't read much online fiction for a few weeks, so I decided to catch up today, reading the last month of stories at Strange Horizons, plus "More Beautiful Than You" by M. Rickert at Ideomancer. All worthwhile reading, but the best of the bunch is undoubtedly Eliot Fintushel's story "Women are Ugly", which ties with Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State" for being my favorite story published online so far this year (though I haven't caught up with everything at SciFiction yet).

Eliot Fintushel writes truly bizarre stories, and "Women are Ugly" announces itself as bizarre right from the beginning, with an epigraph from Spinoza followed by a paragraph of fairly short, odd sentences about the repulsive qualities of women -- sort of like "The Lady's Dressing Room" rewritten for children by Hemingway.

It turns out that the narrator of the story is a man who is, probably, both mentally and physically handicapped, though he thinks he has super-powers and has visited various worlds and planets. Details come slowly, subtly. What holds us is Fintushel's mastery of voice -- he's as good as, if not better than, George Saunders, and this story is similar to some of Saunders's work both in tone and subject matter, though I think Fintushel is less limited in vision, and he allows his story to suggest far more possibilities than the average Saunders tale does.

In many ways, "Women are Ugly" is a story about how people talk to each other; or, rather, about how they talk but never actually get heard. One of the joys of the story is the way Fintushel contrasts the diction of the three main characters: Seymour (Seesee), the narrator; his mother; and the girl he spends some time being in love with, Clarissa. Seymour's narrative voice and his spoken dialogue are similar, both of them associative, a mix of the vernacular with overheard phrases and astronomy; Clarissa's dialogue is spare, similar to what you'll find in most stories that use conversations simply to move a scene along; Seymour's mother's dialogue is a logorrheic stream of consciousness, providing rhythmic interludes throughout the story. It is in her voice that crucial information is presented in two places to the astute reader:
You riffle and you stare. Page on page you dog-ear and jelly. I see you run your eyes back and forth, but what comes of it. You haunt the library and you jabber and you scribble, but what comes out, Seesee, what comes out. Stop worrying that bump on your head, will you. Twenty-six, gosh sakes, and you still talk to angels. Poor thing. Your eye so clear, your brow so subtle, and all that comes out of you is retard drivel. ... Look at you, maven, with your furrowed brow like a textbook with the funnies tucked inside. Oh, I could crown the joker who coined that word 'supermen.' Was it a doctor. Or a social worker. Cruel trick. A cute sweet tag for you poor things, yes, but they weren't thinking of us mothers. The drudgery. The humiliation. The pain. Thank God for Bobo anyway.

...

You can't just give up, Seesee. This isn't death we've got here, son; this is life. You can't just lie there day on day and piss yourself and weep yourself empty. For one thing, the smell. Such a thin pale thing you are with your lumpy head and your mouthful of marbles when you talk. Come back and be my tall beauty again, Seesee. I don't hate you, child, not really. Say a word to me. Talk in your tongues. Say as best you can. We piece it together, don't we. We make out your meaning through the gulps and clicks and a word here and there, through all the briar patch of it, you sad hard thing, don't we. People catch your drift, yes. Say me a word. I wish you could write two letters running, and you could write it to me. Come, what goes on in that noddle, Seesee. Before I slap you good. You know I can. Bobo's hungry.
After reading such passages, the various chats with Clarissa make more sense, for instance:
"I bet you're passionate about things," [says Seymour.]

"What."

"Passion. Passion."

"What."

"Passion. Passion."

"Some things."
Without the mother's perspective ("We make out your meaning through the gulps and clicks and a word here and there, through all the briar patch of it"), the dialogue in the story would seem needlessly like that of David Mamet. It may be that Seymour doesn't realize his words are difficult for people to understand, or he may. The ending may seem abrupt, but if you pull yourself out of Seymour's consciousness and objectively consider the scene Fintushel has set up, it is a devastatingly sad end to a story that, until then, has seemed to be merely an absurd romp. It is far more than that, and serves as an excellent model of how to handle both dialogue and narrative voice in a story.

("More Beautiful Than You" is another story where a skilled author writes a vivid and energetic monologue, though it's a more traditional story in plot and effect. Be sure also to read the interview with M. Rickert that Ideomancer published, as it is currently the only interview published with her. I'm working on rectifying that sad fact, however.)

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