22 December 2005

"Bone Women" by Eliot Fintushel

The response in the peanut gallery to Eliot Fintushel's masterful "Bone Women" is not surprising, though it is sad. With any luck, the compulsive carpers do not represent the majority of Strange Horizons readers, but rather a little cabal of jerks with knees. Their anger when presented with stylistically and intellectually complicated writing is frustrating enough to make me want to solder their tin ears together.

What is it that compels people to speak out against a story? It's not just that they didn't like it -- unless they think the world revolves around them, I doubt such people are strolling up and down every message board to issue their complaints against all they read. Were I to post about every story I gave up on, I'd have to write about hundreds. Most such things, we read, abandon, and forget. Not my thing, we think. No big deal. It takes something more to get us to express our opinion in public, some grudge or frustration, some little nit aching to be picked.

"Bone Women" annoyed people. Its honey attracted swarming know-nothings: "I suspect it's Literature," they buzz. "Mental masturbation...like poor art, meaningless to everyone except the author," they bray. "Like my boss said to me long ago: Intro, Middle, End. Thus structure and plot. Where were they?" Might as well say: I like my fiction the way I like my food: packaged, processed, predictable.

It makes me want to get all Benford and bemoan the fate of civilization. (I might say: "So you want safe, formulaic writing that abides by the structures you've internalized and feeds you what you know you like. Good for you. We all get our kicks differently. But to raise your personal preferences to the level of law and use them to batter all that you don't understand, that's not opinion, that's not criticism -- that's a totalitarian impulse. You hate our freedoms. Climb back into your hole. Go watch a sitcom. Go stare at a wall. Bark on cue." But I won't say that. I'll try to be nice and understanding and tolerant and loving of my fellow creatures.)

Fintushel jumped into the mud pit to try to explain what he was up to: "In a word, BONE WOMEN is about facticity--about the tension between what we human beings ARE and what human beings want or need to THINK of ourselves as being." Etc. A good try, but it won't mollify the moaners. They like their skulls numb. They like to accuse the author rather than themselves, they like to say the writer is only pleasing himself, because that way they don't have to feel alone, don't have to admit they don't get it, don't have to separate from the crowd.

I suppose I wouldn't be so frustrated if this were an isolated case of people mauling a story that doesn't deserve it. De gustibus and all that jazz, yknow. But there's something about fiction that is linguistically and structurally adventurous that causes anger in certain types of readers, an anger that leads to a spewing of vitriol, and while to a certain extent I find that an interesting phenomenon, it's also disturbing.

Speculative fiction especially should be the realm of the new and strange, the oddball, the gonzo, but instead the geezers keep asserting themselves, trying to pin this beautiful butterfly of possibilities to a rancid wax tray of nostalgia. They want cant and dust, disposable one-time reads, junk.

The bleat that this must be Literature is entirely correct -- it is. This is a story that can hold its own with the best of the fiction being published today, the most interesting and innovative, the most skilled and visionary. That's what Literature is, kiddo -- it's the stuff that's so passionate and singular it inspires awe. We each carry our own personal lists of Literature with us, and eventually enough such lists converge and get packed into a Canon and shot into Classrooms and Libraries to be picked up or dropped by Posterity on one of its random walk-throughs. That's the process, but not the fun. The fun is stumbling upon such stuff, discovering it on your own, encountering unique and hilarious and perfect paragraphs such as the opening of "Bone Women":
Hildy loved me bad. Pudding of a woman, the moons behind her cheaters waxed for the love of me. She bleated after me, udders wagging, tongue lolling, buttocks dimpling, attended by flies. She was all armpit hair and thigh flesh. The cheaters, thick as hog's hooves, slid, slid down her nose, till arrested by the bump. She nudged them with a fat finger, then grinned. She wrote me love notes. I let her visit me up at the A-frame where I lived with Matt and Al. Matt: laconic, tight-muscled, trim as a bull's pizzle. Al: electric, slight, sizzle skip on the hot griddle of his libido, all eye and brow. They hated her being there. Her mouth foamed with abashment--she spoke, she didn't speak: ecstasies of impossible love. Don't ever let that person come here again, they'd tell me. She haunted the window seat and the fridge nook. She left the imprint of her navel in the screen door. Bowl-like, it was, like the sag in a cake fallen in. She mumbled half to herself, half to me, barely daring to exist, much less to love, much less to love me.
Look at those rhythms! Listen to the vowels! Grab the images and run with them! There's a whole story there, alone, in and of itself! The first time I read that paragraph, I hadn't any idea what it was about, because I was too busy listening to it, too busy feeling it. Meaning comes later. Good writing isn't an oyster with a pearl of Meaning waiting to be extracted and put in a necklace to show off at cocktail parties. Good writing does stuff to you. How something means, that's what matters. How it crashes up against your preconceptions and rewires your dreams, that's what makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes it's good to be thrown for a loop. Go with it or don't, but why get angry? Why lash out? Did somebody take your favorite toy away?

Me, I've got a new favorite toy, and it's this story, a story that jangled my nerves and made me laugh and made me confused and made me sad -- yes, while I read it, this story made me, and like any good mark, I was a sucker for it.