Trigger warnings for rape, able-ism, & thoughtless misogyny.
My bookclub read this book this last month. It has a nifty (and for nerds, self-aggrandizing) concept: magic is real but secret and only the extraordinarily brilliant can see and perform it. I haven't quite finished it yet, and I may have more to add at that point, but I had a very strong visceral reaction to parts of the book, and I wanted to write them out because I wasn't yet ready to verbalize them last night, when we met to talk about the book.
There wasn't much discussion about the book, oddly enough. The general consensus was that the movie's protagonist was much more likeable than the book's. One of the women pointed out what she referred to as "button words," which are unkind and poorly used words that aggravate you so much they knock you mentally out of the story. Hers was "retarded," and the thoughtless use of it in the book made her angry enough that she just stopped reading rather than finish the story. Another woman mentioned the word "autistic" as hers. I found particularly poignant her disgusted comment, paraphrased from my memory: "He referred to the character as having a focus so intense it was autistic. Right, like no one else ever has had really intense focus!"
Which brings me to my thoughts on some of the things I really, really dislike about this book. For example, the main character spends an unpleasant and apparently pointless amount of time mooning over women's breasts — to the point that someone in bookclub wryly noted that this was clearly normalization of that particular distasteful behavior. When I mentioned how creepily "male gaze-y" it was as well, though, several of the women cheerfully noted that they just "blipped" right past that!
I can understand needing to blip right past crap like that. Actually thinking for any length of time about the book's attempted normalization of such objectifying behavior, and how that actually encourages under-socialized boys and men to engage in it would, I suspect, be psychologically painful and potentially damaging for women readers.
But there's a more important question than why didn't I just blip right past it, and that is: why should we have to "blip" right past it? Why do we have to agree, however temporarily, to view women — ourselves — as objects which can and should be sexualized, in order to read the story? Hell, why is this sort of reprehensible behavior being normalized in the first place? Why are we as readers being pretty much put into the position of having to agree with the (male) author that that's just how it is — boys will be boys!
I emphatically do not agree with that statement. Further, I don't like it being shoved in my face like that… and I really don't like that we as women are pretty much forced to accept our own objectification if we are to read the story.
This asshole of a protagonist later cheats on his girlfriend Alice:
It could have been the sheer domesticity of it… or maybe it was just boredom, that powerful aphrodisiac… but if he was honest with himself Quentin had known for at least twenty minutes, even as they were wrestling Eliot [their drunken friend] down the hall, that he was going to take Janet's dress off as soon as he had half a chance.
…then has the unmitigated gall to blame Janet, the other young woman, mentally casting her as the triumphant conqueror over his (now angrily ex) girlfriend. Right, dude… because she totally forced you to take her dress off.
Can we talk about the rape scene? Earlier in the book, our "hero" and his companions have been shape-shifted into Arctic foxes:
Increasingly, Quentin [the protagonist] noticed one scent more than the others. It was a sharp, acrid, skunky musk… to a fox it was like a drug. He caught flashes of it in the fray every few minutes, and every time he did it grabbed his attention and jerked him around like a fish on a hook. … This time he tackled the source of the smell, buried his snuffling muzzle in her fur, because of course he had known all along, with what was left of his consciousness, that what he was smelling was Alice.
It was totally against the rules, but breaking the rules turned out to be as much fun as obeying them. …he was tussling with Alice. Vulpine hormones and instincts were powering up, taking over, manhandling what was left of his rational human mind.
He locked his teeth in the thick fur of her neck. It didn't seem to hurt her any, or at least not in a way that was easily distinguishable from pleasure. Something crazy and urgent was going on, and there was no way to stop it, or probably there was but why would you? … He caught a glimpse of Alice's wild dark fox's eye rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure. … she made little yipping snarls every time he pushed himself deeper inside her. (455)
Later, when they're human again:
Things just got out of control, that's all. It wasn't them, it was their fox bodies. Nobody had to take it too seriously.
Mayakovsky [the professor] sat at the head of the table looking smug. He had known this was going to happen, Quentin thought furiously… Whatever perverted personal satisfaction Mayakovsky got out of what happened, it because obvious over the next week that it was also a practical piece of personnel management…. (456)
This… I just. I can't. If I hadn't known already the author was male, this misogynistic piece of shit scene would have informed me of that fact in no uncertain terms. Hell, where do I even start? How about with:
Oh, but it wasn't really them — they were foxes! He couldn't help himself!
Uh-huh… because none of us have ever heard that "he just couldn't help himself!" justification for rape before, right? Because we all know that men are just animals who can't control themselves at all if there's a woman around. What absolute bullshit.
But in the end she liked it! She wanted it too!
Remember what I said earlier about this scene showing me the author was male? That fantasy of the raped woman ending up loving her rapist is in reality referred to as either Stockholm Syndrome or a possible symptom of domestic violence. It is a sickness, it is pathological — it is emphatically not healthy. It is a twisted piece of psychological projection that rapists and batterers tell themselves to justify their horrific actions: she was asking for it! It wasn't my fault — she wanted it!
Add to that the complete lack of regard in the rape scene for things like, oh, birth control, or any emotional upset on the part of the raped girl (all she does is later ask the boy if he loves her — what was the author thinking?!), or male conflation of female pain and pleasure, or deliberate male abrogation of self-control in pursuit of sexual pleasure, or the fact that someone who is incapable of giving consent in any meaningful fashion should not be fucked! …but no worries! No, we're all cheerfully assured we shouldn't take this too seriously or anything! It's all those cute little foxie instincts — not our protagonist's fault at all, really! After all, an emotional breakdown or pregnancy resulting from rape — oh, excuse me, "nonconsensual sex" — doesn't fit into the male fantasy of the woman needing to be violently overcome in order to realize she actually really loves her attacker, right?
Yeah, no way that could ever go wrong.
Finally: rape as a "practical piece of personnel management"?! Dude, no. Not just no, but HELL no! This misogynist author can at this point, as far as I'm concerned, go jump in a lake.
Sigh. I'm a completist — I've got only 60 pages to go in a 400 page book. I can do this. I would really like to see the protagonist receive his much-deserved comeuppance… though I'm not holding my breath. I may not like it… but I can do this.
Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.