26 July 2005

Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal

Below is the latest in a continuing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Catherynne M. Valente, author of the acclaimed novel The Labyrinth, as well as Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams, Apocrypha, and Oracles, all published by Prime Books. Catherynne recently sold a four-book series of fairy tales to Bantam/Dell.

Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal
a guest review by Catherynne M. Valente

In this postmodern world of meta-narrative and fractured plotlines, books-within-books and fictional footnotes, it's rare to find a book that holds to convention which such white-knuckle ferocity as Susann Cokal's second novel, Breath and Bones.

I'd like to say it's brave, radical simplicity, a return to solid, un-pretentious literature, but I can't.

In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that I was once, very briefly, a student of Ms. Cokal's at Cal Poly SLO. I went into this book with solid expectations, and was astounded at every turn by the sheer audacity of the awfulness laid out in the pages of Breath and Bones.

The protagonist, with predictable "flaming red hair," "sapphire eyes," and "ruby lips" (all phrases which I humbly submit should be officially excised from the Allowable Novel Phrases as a Triumvirate of Evil) is Famke, a Danish beauty who dutifully follows the storyline we have come to expect from such women: she is raised in a convent where she discovers her first quotidian twinges of sexuality with the other girls, so that her story will have an edgy spark of lesbianism. However, with equal typicality, she finds that Sapphism essentially unsatisfying. (I mean, we all know that a penis is necessary for that "shimmering feeling Down There," don't we? I wish I were kidding. That's a direct quote, complete with Capitalization.) A good girl at heart, she is called "wild" by the nuns for no particular reason other than her good looks and a particularly melodramatic scene involving exploding soap (again, not kidding. In hindsight, I believe the exploding soap was actually foreshadowing) and forced into a life of one partner after the other in the exotic Old West--where she hits, the jacket promises, all the major landmarks: gold mines, Mormons, California spa towns, and brothels--after her heartless Pre-Raphaelite lover, Albert, leaves her with nothing after using her as a model for his masterpiece. Of course, his letter telling her he loves her and wants her back arrives just as she's left for America to look for him...does this sound familiar? It should--you can find it on Lifetime any day of the week.

This is a romance novel that thinks it's too good for the genre.

The problem is, Famke is a horrible woman, and despite the narrative's assurances that we must love her, the reader cannot identify with such a shallow, idiotic, and careless person. She is careless in the sense of Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan--in her selfish pursuit of the man who left her, she ruins the lives of countless people, even causes the death of a few, and actually vandalizes her lover's paintings in a very precious attempt to "improve" them. She has no ambition but to be a model for this man, and the endless pages of her masturbatory daydreaming about how wonderful it will be to take care of him and hold still for all eternity are truly nauseating. But everyone, everyone falls in love with her, because she is just the most beautiful thing that ever lived. They fall in love with her at first sight, and they search the world for her until they die. She doesn't even have to say a word. When she is reduced to prostitution, her john is happy just to look at her, and asks for no more. This is facile, flaccid storytelling that even fairy tales would decry. Breath and Bones is full of such precious and convenient scenes, scenes which verge on salacious material, but just cannot take the leap. In fact, the story opens with a group of people who have had her body embalmed so that they can all look at it as much as they like--there was the seed of a truly disturbing and fascinating story, there. It's too bad Cokal was more interested in creating this high-class Mary Sue without an ounce of Daisy Buchanan's strength of character.

Yet, while this cliched romance-novel set up is adhered to with loyalty verging on religion, it has an essentially conservative bent. Famke does not really enjoy sex and engages in it with anyone other than Albert only with reluctance. Her first orgasms are practically forced via 19th century vibrating machines. In by far the novel's most disgusting and disturbing turn, Famke cannot even cease referring to her genitals as "Down There" and sex as "that shimmering feeling Down There" when she has had sex with many men and the previously mentioned machine. This bizarre infantilization is part of what turns Breath and Bones into the exploits of a vapid fool traipsing about the Old West with all the entitlement of Paris Hilton, her obsession and bad behavior rewarded time and time again, simply because she is beautiful. Yet we are given no reason to assume this is satire, no knowing narrator to tell us we are walking through Vanity Fair, that we are meant to believe Famke is rotten--on the contrary, over and over she is shown in an almost saintly light, right down to her over-dramatic, martyred end, which, by the way, involves a very large explosion that packs all the subtlety of, well, any large explosion. Famke is the whole of this novel, and while Cokal may want us to believe her Danish lass a Becky Sharp, she falls far short of the mark, and leaves the story rudderless.

Breath and Bones is truly, shockingly bad. Nothing about it struck the right note, and much of it was nonsensical--for example, like any self-respecting romantic heroine, Famke is consumptive. Though she has TB from a very young age, an advanced enough case to vomit up blood quite frequently, she miraculously fails to infect her entire boat full of immigrants, anyone on Ellis Island, on successive trains, or in successive brothels. She has Hollywood TB, you see, where it simply makes you attractively weak and pale but isn't an infectious disease that ravaged half the world. Considering that Cokal's last novel, Mirabilis, concerned a miraculous, perpetually-lactating woman who never experienced nipple-chafe or back problems, I wonder if she has had any practical experience with human bodies at all. Even laying this, and the rest of the ridiculous plot, aside, the language of the novel was so simplistic as to give Potter and Co. a run for their broomsticks, replete with punishable clichés and punishing us with a grown woman's voice that sounds like a 13-year-old diarist bemoaning her True Love Lost. It falls prey to that most cloying of realist traps: the novel about someone Having Sex in Exotic Locales, or Exotic Sex in Repressive and Boring Locales, which sums up just about half of 20th century literature. Cokal does nothing to raise her above the throng.

I recall Cokal instructing us on one of the few days I spent in her class before shuffling my schedule, telling us that writing isn't fun, it's work, and if we're having fun, we're not professionals. I didn't care for the sentiment then, but now I think she was right. Her writing isn't fun, it's work, and working through 350 pages of brain-clawing cliche and the faux-wise ruminations of the lovechild of Miss Hilton and Betty Boop was just too much for this reviewer to stomach.


  1. Honestly, I am half-inclined to look up this book at the library just to see about the exploding soap . . .

  2. Goodness. Not tempted to try that book. I think you'll be happy to learn, Catherynne, that even the protagonist's name is totally fake and bogus: Danish ladies aren't called Famke, since it's a Frisian Dutch name.

  3. Exploding soap...? Did she get that idea from FIGHT CLUB...?

    "Hollywood TB"... this reminds me of when MAD Magazine did a hilarious parody of the movie "Love Story", where the heroine gets "Old Movie Disease" -- and magically gains more and more make-up on her face the closer she comes to dying.

    "In fact, the story opens with a group of people who have had her body embalmed so that they can all look at it as much as they like(...)"
    Sounds like a bedtime book for Gunther Von Hagens, the mad scientist who "plastinates" corpses in real life. (Yeech!)

    I looked at the "Reader Reviews" of MIRABILIS and BREATH AND BONES at Amazon.com ...
    Isn't there something *fishy* about these reviews, all written in overblown sentences like

    "Art, science, sex, and the unstoppable geography of love, feature in this story of absolute Dickensian proportions"

    ... or is just me? I wouldn't dream of screaming "PLANT!" but...

    Oh well, who cares. I'll see BREATH AND BONES when the HBO 2-part miniseries comes...

  4. Don't be shy, tell use what you *really* think of the book. :-P

  5. OFF TOPIC: congrats on the World Fantasy nomination!

  6. Interesting ... I wonder what Cokal said about her work to produce this stream of bile? Hell hath no fury like a student writer scorned?

  7. I doubt that's the case. It didn't sound to me that Catherynne was in the class long enough to have much contact with Cokal at all, but I asked her to mention the connection anyway, just to be up front about it. Like the other guest reviewers, she seemed to choose the book out of a sincere expectation of enjoying it. It doesn't always happen, and the downside of being forced to write a review (I made it a condition on sending the book) is that sometimes you have to write honestly about a book you otherwise wouldn't have bothered to finish reading. Frankly, I'd almost always prefer a specific, well-written, but passionately negative review like this one over a blandly positive review. This review may have harsh things to say about the book, but it does so with energy, and energetic writing about books is, I think, valuable.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. "DoctorIf" is welcome to repost his/her/its previous comment without the puerile and slanderous ad hominem attack at the end.

  10. I was in Cokal's class for exactly one day, and she, in fact, presented an award to me at the university for excellence in writing. I have no grudge against her, she never scorned me, and in fact, based on her very high-level university placements, I expected her novels to be solid realism/magic realism and was really very surprised at the lack of quality in this one. I can only hope the previous one was better.

    I don't know what DoctorIf said, but believe it or not, it is possible to dislike a book for purely literary reasons.

  11. I should amend that to say she presented the award--as in, was the MC at the ceremony. I'm not sure that she is at all familiar with my work, and I'm sure she has no idea that I review or that I've had novels out. Our contact was very limited, as I was only at the university at all for 6 months before my husband returned from Iraq and I launched on my odyssey in Japan. If our contact had been greater, I would not have volunteered to review her book. As it was, my thought was "Oh! I've met her! That book is probably pretty good! How fun!"

  12. '"DoctorIf" is welcome to repost his/her/its previous comment without the puerile and slanderous ad hominem attack at the end.'

    Wow, if you took your selection of reviewers, or if the reviewer took her approach to reviewing, as seriously as you do the policing of my comments, this actually might be a worthwhile blogspot.

    And there was no slander involved, 'Catherynne Valente' _is_ a nom de plume. Ask her yourself. And, frankly, when a former student posts a truly vicious review, which claims that the entire book has absolutely no redeeming qualities, summing it up as being 'truly, shockingly bad' and 'laying this, and the rest of the ridiculous plot, aside, the language of the novel was so simplistic as to give Potter and Co. a run for their broomsticks, replete with punishable clichés,' what other conclusion would a sensible reader draw _besides_ that there is some personal animosity involved.

    I've read hundreds of reviews (it's part of my job) of scholarly and literary works and this is simply the most lopsided, unprofessional, and disrespectful one I've ever come across.
    So, to accuse me of making ad hominem attacks, when you proudly published an entire review that is nothing but, is absurd.

    Besides, I thought you appreciated 'lively and energetic writing.'

  13. Not to monopolize the floor, but I think it's worthwhile here to point out the difference here between a 'review' and an 'opinion.' A review is analytical and objective. The reviewer intentionally takes a dispassionate view of the material, pointing out its strengths and its weaknesses as accurately as possible. The purpose is to give potential readers a guide as to what the piece entails in order to help them make an informed decision about whether or not to purchase the book. Within those parameters, a review can be either positive or negative, but it is, above all, a detached, balanced, professional analysis of a piece by an unbiased reader. A general guideline for the reviewer is to ask him/herself "within the context of the goals of the author, to what extent does this piece succeed or fail?"
    Opinion, on the other hand, is subjective, communicated in judgemental terms, and reflects a highly personalized view of the piece. Opinions generally tell you much more about the presenter and his or her theoretical/creative stance than they do about the piece in question. Opinions generally follow the pattern of "I liked/disliked this work and these are my reasons."
    I invite all of you to reread Ms. Valente's piece and decide which of these two models it adheres to most consistenly.

  14. Catherynne's review is not a review of Susan Cokal, but of the book, and I think that is clear to any literate person who reads it.

  15. For a thoughtful and specific response to Catherynne's review, see Dan Green's post about it.

  16. GWeatherford8/12/2005 12:10 AM

    I must agree with DoctorIf. The book is in some senses a parody of the genre "Catherynne" disparages, and in my opinion it's quite an enjoyable romp. This reviewer is astonishingly vicious and quite unprofessional.

  17. Anyone who uses a word like "meta-narrative" with a straight face, should clearly not be trusted to write a thoughtful review of any work.

    That being said, Catherynne clearly has not read the same book that I did. Or she missed the implications of what a picaresque novel truly is.

    I find it odd that a writer of fantasy would not understand architypal concepts such as Famke's beauty, or miss that she never truly acts "horribly" and is without any sense of depth.

    Famke does not begin a complex character, she becomes one (thus the point of the rogue's journey), as any literate person who manages to read to the end will understand. And her single-mindedness only serves to reflect this.

    Further more, Famke's lack of a sexual vocabulary reflects a girl who grew up raised by Catholic nuns. It is completely within the realm of this character to never speak of more than "Down There."

    The reviewer clearly missed the boat, when despite mentioning all of the men who pursue Famke for her beauty alone, and yet misses the disturbing commentary that Susann has woven into her prologue and the novel's conclusion. Or the reviewer is either too lazy to ponder the questions and conclusions Cokal dares us to ask.

  18. Katrine Louise8/02/2006 8:54 AM

    Hmmm... I actually read the book and loved it. Its great storytelling, extraordinary characters (yes), and conventional storyline in such an extraordinary and intelligent way that I cannot believe that there was not a tiny bit of intention behind this kind of conventionality in the storyline and depiction of characters!! But I am European so maybe I missed something. No, honestly Catherynne, I think you missed something of the book that you referred to in the beginning of your review. I think the book is very postmodern, ironic and yes! "stealing" from traditional genres. For example, you are annoyed that Famke suffers from a "Hollywood" kind of TB. Yes, she does! and its great! How can you ask for reality here? Famke fits perfectly in to her genre!

    And I am pretty sure, that you are supposed to hate Famke and not love her..

    If you tried to look at it from this angle with your "postmodern glasses" then perhaps you would get the same experience from the book that I got out of it.
    And then a last comment: Postmodern era? Common... that is really too eighties... If you want to show of your literary skills (and it really seems like it with your introduction), then at least place contemporary literary in its proper category.

  19. Katrine Louise8/02/2006 1:06 PM

    Very strange kind of censorship you have here?!!! But I gues that is the internet in the States. I thought it only happened in China
    I posted a comment critical of the review a couple of hours ago. And now its gone!!! Or did I miss it somewhere. i hope so... well maybe this comment will disappear too...

  20. Katrine Louise8/02/2006 1:08 PM

    woops.. my mistake. I did miss it somewhere
    .... Just above this comment... I take it back!!.. guess I got paranoid when I read the other comments...

  21. Wow! I have never read such a vicious, over-the-top, pretentious review in my life! I just read the book for my book club and was searching for some background on it, when I ran across this review. Matthew Cheney: How is it possible that such an unprofessional, vile piece of garbage is kept on this site? It destroys all your credibility and I will never take this site seriously again. Have you no standards? The reviewer's extreme personal biases and inflated self-importance were the real cliches! It was a very entertaining, unique book and Cokal has a beautiful, facile writing style. The one thing I'm sure of is that I'll never read anything written by Catherynne Valente(even the spelling of her name is pretentious!) I'm too polite to tell you what I think of HER writing style and intellectual insight!

  22. I finished reading this book last week and was searching for reviews when I found this one.

    Ms. Cokal is an astonishingly talented writer and this review is mean-spirited drivel written by an insecure writer. I agree that Dan's review should be submitted in it's place. I hope others who have read breath and bones or enjoyed Susann's other work (Mirabelis was excellent) will share their positive views as well. Those of you who've read the Valente review but not the book should ditch the review and buy the book.