Review: Angry White Men, by Michael Kimmel

51suibdt7zl-_sx327_bo1204203200_In this book, subtitled American Masculinity at the End of and Era, Kimmel looks at the ways some American men are reacting to a world where the various social inequalities that worked in their favour are now being steadily eroded. For most of its history, the US was dominated by straight, white men. Now, that power is coming to an end, and some of them are very angry. The types of men examined are right-wing radio commentators and their listeners, school shooters, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), Father’s Rights Activists, rampage shooters, and white supremacists.

Kimmel’s central idea, what he believes is behind so much of the anger of the white men, is “aggrieved entitlement”. These men look at how the world used to be, see what they believe is entitled to them, then get angry when they don’t get it. A devoted wife, a loving family, a good job, self-sufficiency, wealth, freedom, happiness: these are some of the things they think a man should have. What they don’t realise is that the ability of the white man to achieve these aims was because of his privileged position in society, and was often built on the subjugation of others, like black people, immigrants, and women. Most of them have this ideal of what a man should be and what he should get from the world, and they become angry or ashamed when they fail to get it. The world is changing rapidly, and these changes are often the target of their rage. This is why they want to return to the ideal past, free from such boogey-men as feminism and social equality. Kimmel discusses the idea that it is not the downtrodden who are most angry, but those who have something valuable to lose.

Their anger often turns to humiliation, and humiliation often then turns to violence. So many of these rampage shooters are trying to reclaim their manhood from a society that they feel has continually thwarted them. They have no hope for the future, so they decide to commit suicide and take a few others with them. Kimmel makes the case that they do this because violence is seen as an appropriately masculine response to humiliation. From their fathers, they learned that masculinity is something that must be violently defended if called into question. I can’t remember if he asks whether violence is an inherent part of men or just a product of societies view of masculinity, but he makes it clear that a majority of violent acts, and the worst of these acts, are committed by men. The tide is turning though, as men, particularly fathers, embrace a more caring and less traditionally masculine way of life.

In justifying hatred of the “other”, the angry white men often use masculinity as a measure of why they are superior. The other can be either hyper-, or hypomasculine–too much or too little. The white man is just the right amount, masculine enough to get things done, but not so much that they are savage and violent. Women and homosexuals are obviously too feminine. It’s the same with lazy immigrants. Others are too masculine: they are unwashed hordes invading America to rape and pillage. Sometimes, the other is both too much and too little at the same time. The Jews are seen as weak physically, yet at the same time, they also own all corporations and the media and use it to keep the white man down. The government is a similar mixture: a feckless nanny state that coddles the weak and lazy, and a malicious grasping borderline-dictatorship that suppresses freedom. The benefits of this type of world-view for the angry white men is that it allows them to demonize almost anyone in any situation.

Though he is intensely critical of the white men’s anger, Kimmel admits that it is real and justifiable, only that it is pointed in the wrong direction. Because of years of neoliberal economic policies, many places in America are rife with poverty and unemployment. Is it any wonder that men feel humiliated, when so much of a traditional man’s identity is wrapped up in his ability to provide for a family? He talks about scape-goating: when, rather than attack the more powerful source of grief, anger is redirected towards those who are less able to fight back. In this case, the anger is not directed towards corporations or government economic policies, but women and immigrants. We live in a time of vast wealth inequality, and many of the ills of the world are a direct result of this. Kimmel recommends that Americans look at what some European countries are doing to combat inequality and try to emulate them.

There is much more that could be said about this book, but I’ll leave it there. It was a very interesting read, but there’s a lot in it, so I’m still digesting. I might have to reread in the future. It’s kind of funny: I looked up Michael Kimmel on Youtube and found a video from some MRAs discussing him. It turns out that they really don’t like him–hitting too close to home, maybe?


Recommended for those who are interested in: sociology, masculinity, reactionaries.

Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

heart_mccullersIn a small unnamed town in the American south lives a deaf-mute named John Singer. For 10 years, he had a comfortable life living with his deaf-mute friend Spiros Antonapoulous. Antonapoulous begins acting out, and is sent away to an insane asylum by his cousin. Singer is alone, until other people in the town begin to gravitate towards him and spill out all their troubles. There’s Mick, a teenage girl who lives in Singer’s boarding house; Biff Brannon, proprietor of the New York Café; Dr. Copeland, a black doctor; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic communist. The novel is set over the course of about a year and a half and focuses on the lives of these five characters.

The title gives us a big clue about one of the major themes of the novel: loneliness and heart-ache. Everyone has their own troubles to deal with, and these characters are no different. Mick’s family have been struggling to make ends meet since her father lost his job due to an accident. She spends her time fantasising about far-off countries, or thinking about music. All this is on top of the normal stresses associated with growing into adulthood. Biff Brannon would like to be a father, but he and his wife never had any children and have grown cold and distant. He spends most of his time working, but still they have money troubles. Things become even worse when his wife dies. Dr. Copeland is educated and intelligent, but he has a burning need to save the black people from the crushing injustices that they live under. Because of his single-mindedness, he has become estranged from his family and community. Jake Blount is also determined to help and educate people, but his enemy is capitalism. Unfortunately, he is an alcoholic with anger issues, so he has great difficulty in getting people to understand his position.

These four characters don’t interact much–their main connection is through Singer. Singer is an attentive listener and becomes a confident for them, while also becoming something of a mythical figure to the rest of the townsfolk. Mick talks about her “inside room and outside room”–the inner and outer world. Most people do not get to fully and truly express what is inside them; they feel awkward and scared of harsh judgement. Because he doesn’t talk and appears to listen to everything they say, everyone concludes that Singer is deeply intelligent and understands their troubles. They all interpret him in their own way: he’s Jewish; he’s Turkish; he understands the plight of the worker’s, or black people:

Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.

Despite all these friends and admirers, there is no one left to listen to Singer, not since Antonapoulous was taken away. Talking about one’s troubles is a way of lessening them, and because Singer cannot let his out, they begin to fester. His only outlet are his unsent letters to Antonapoulous, but it’s not quite the same without some sort of human feedback. From his letters we learn that Singer is not the messiah figure he appears to be. He doesn’t understand half of what Blount or Copeland or the rest say to him, but he smiles politely because being with anyone is still better than being alone.

There is one other figure who seems to hang over much of the novel: Karl Marx. During the Christmas party, Dr. Copeland diverts the discussion away from Jesus to try and educate his community about the ideas of Karl Marx. Karl Marx is one of the most important philosophers associated with communism. He critiqued the capitalist system which put wealth over people, and which invariably led to a few owning most of this wealth, while the majority laboured for scraps. Jake Blount is another character who is deeply influenced by Marx’s ideas. Both of them agree that the south in particular is a place of terrible inequality and poverty, though Copeland believes that it is more than just a class issue, that the problems of black people must also be taken into account. One of Marx’s theories was alienation, which is the “process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.”[1] Due to living in an unequal and miserable world, the average person, the worker, begins to feel like they have no control over their life and destiny. Mick and Brannon, doomed to work with little hope of achieving their heart’s desires, seem to embody this concept quite well.

 


Recommended for people who enjoy: the American South; multiple main characters; sadness; Marxism.

Review: Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor

48467“Wise Blood”, published in 1952, is a novel partly created from some of O’Connor’s short stories, so anyone who has read her Collected Stories may recognise a few scenes and characters. The protagonist, Hazel Motes, has recently returned from the war in Europe and finds that he has nowhere to go. He heads to a nearby city, it being as good a place as any. He meets a blind preacher and his daughter, Asa and Sabbath Hawks, begging in the streets and becomes inexplicably drawn to them. A strange young man named Enoch Emory, all alone in the world, attaches himself to Hazel. Hawks notices Hazel following them and hands him a bundle of flyers to hand out to people. This tips him over the edge. He throws the flyers to the ground and begins preaching a new truth: that there is no Jesus, no redemption, no sin. He has found the Church Without Christ.

Hazel has been struggling with faith throughout his life. He seems to object to the idea of original sin, that all of us are sinners and Jesus died to redeem us. “If Jesus existed, I wouldn’t be clean”: he rejects the idea that he can only be sinless and spiritually pure by accepting Jesus, even if he has never actually sinned. He is always trying to escape his own deep-seated guilt at his inability to accept Christ. His interest in the blind preacher is a manifestation of this hidden desire to be accept and be saved. Hazel’s own preaching is an attempt to convince himself that Christianity in not the way of truth. Though he constantly pushes people away, he appeals to others because he wants to know that there are others that feel and think as he does. But what he truly wants is peace, and “there’s no peace for the redeemed”. It’s all a bit confused. One thing that could be analysed is the effect that Hazel’s time in the war had on him. It is quite possible that, along with physical wounds, he is also suffering psychologically.

Another character driven by confused desires is Enoch Emery. Though not as major a character as Hazel, it is his compulsion that gives its name to the book. Enoch’s “wise blood”, which he inherited from his daddy, is a sort of animal intuition that guides him. It is a controlling force, but also a source of divine wisdom. It frustrates him at times, especially when he needs to do something or go somewhere, but he never questions the commands it gives him–he has complete faith in it as something grander than himself. It is the wise blood that keeps him connected with Hazel’s story; it is the wise blood that compels him to steal a mummy from a museum and present it to Hazel as “the new Jesus”. In contrast with Hazel, there is no religious strife in Enoch: he is just a lonely man looking for a friend. He seems to have a thing about apes, though, similar to how Hazel feels about Jesus: revulsion mixed with a certain longing.

Despite its grotesque characters, dark atmosphere, and heavy themes, there are moments of absurd humour throughout the novel. Hazel’s car could be considered something of a running gag: despite clearly being a piece of crap, he calls it a good car and has unwavering faith in its ability to take him anywhere. There’s a great moment when he is trying to escape from the con man Hoover Shoats. The car jolts forward or backwards of its own accord, preventing him for driving away and forcing him to simply sleep in the back. Another part involves Hazel and Sabbath both deciding to seduce the other for their own personal gain. The pathetic Enoch also provides much amusement (mixed with pity) in his desperate attempts to make friends in an uncaring world. I suppose the amount of humour you find in this book depends on your tolerance of weird and often disturbing situations.


Recommended for people who enjoy: religious themes, dark humour, oddball characters, the American south.

Review: Saints and Sinners, by Edna O’Brien

saintsandsinnersEdna O’Brien is an award-winning Irish writer of novels, plays, poetry, short stories, and biographies. Saints and Sinners is her 8th short story collection, and after it’s release in 2011, it won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. It contains 11 stories, of about 10-30 pages each.

O’Brien is a versatile writer: she utilises a number of different styles, and she effortlessly adopts the narrative voice of a variety of characters. Her protagonists are young, old; male, female; rich, poor. Their stories are told as a series of diary entries as in “Green Georgette”, or as a rambling monologue as in “Madame Cassandra”. She uses first- and third-person views with equal skill. “Shovel Kings” uses a nice trick of a shifting first-person point-of-view, starting with the unnamed narrator’s, then slowly changing to Rafferty’s as he tells his life’s story.

There’s a certain timelessness to these stories. Except for the odd mention of a mobile phone, they could exist anywhere between the mid 20th century and our current age. The primary form of long-distance communication is still the letter. Contrasted with a vagueness of the time, the place is concrete: unless stated otherwise, it is rural Ireland. (Other settings are London and New York, two cities with large a Irish diaspora.) This is the Ireland of O’Brien’s childhood, most likely: slow to change, lacking any sort of novelty, and with an undercurrent of repression. Oddly enough, there are almost no explicit explorations of religion. Perhaps it was simply before many of the churches practices began to be questioned. Though it’s not clear what her opinions of Ireland then and now are, it is clear that she has a complex relationship with her place of birth.

Reading the title, we might be tempted to label the characters as either saints or sinners. But of course, people, morals, and life itself are a bit more complicated than that. Other than the plundering soldiers and maybe the greedy McSorley, there are no villains in these stories. Nor are there heroes, really. Like real people, they are mix of the good and the bad, and they endure life as best they can. The almost-eponymous story “Sinners” is an interesting take on a morally grey area. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that, by the end of it, we are left wondering if Delia’s reaction to what the other characters did was because of her firm morals, or because of her own suppressed desires:

She had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give and take that is life. She had even forgotten her own sins.

There is a deep loneliness in many of the characters. They have lived lives of struggle and want, or they’ve lost love, or been left behind. In reaction to their trials, they’ve hardened their hearts to others to protect themselves. We feel deeply for them all because of O’Brien’s ability to create characters so effectively in so few words. The beautiful “Manhattan Melody” tells the story of an “other woman”, who wanders the streets of New York after being abandoned by her lover, who has returned to his wife. While she walks, she remembers all the little encounters they had, the glances across the room, the post-party embraces, and wonders if she was nothing more than a fling to him, him who she loves. “Old Wounds” is about two estranged cousins who become reacquainted after many years. They come to value each other deeply, until a minor, almost inconsequential incident causes a rift to form once again. Relationships are difficult to make, and even more difficult to keep.


Recommended for people who enjoy: slow/melancholy stories, lovely prose, wistfulness, introspection.

Review: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

220px-hauntingofhillhousePublished in 1959, “The Haunting of Hill House” is considered to be one of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century. It has a fairly standard set-up: a professor, Dr. John Montague, is moving into Hill House for a few months to study any potential supernatural occurrences. He enlists the help of three people: Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson. They are all strangers, but they get along well, and after overcoming the initial revulsion caused by the house, they quickly settle into a comfortable routine, at times even seeming like a sort of family. The doctor tells the story of Hill House and explains why he brought them here. As the days go by (or is it weeks, or months? time seems to not exist here), strange things begin to happen, and the insidious terror of Hill House begins to take hold.

This novel could be said to be a “self-aware” ghost story: Jackson is conscious of many of the tropes of genre and uses them as a way of examining the ghost story from a modern perspective. It is presumably set in the 1950s, when belief in the supernatural was low and faith in reason and science prevailed. Mrs. Montague and Arthur, two characters who arrive later in the book and who are something of a psychic duo, are comic characters: we are meant to laugh at them and their unwavering belief in ghosts and the netherworld. The other characters themselves laugh at them, even after their own experiences in Hill House. Much of the horror they feel comes from being confronted with things that they cannot explain. As Dr. Montague puts it, modern minds have “abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defence” (against the terror of the unknown). But then he also seems to contradict himself when he says that “fear is the relinquishment of logic […] of reasonable patterns”. They are trapped between what their reason says–that there are no such thing as ghosts–and what all their senses are telling them–that this house is haunted.

There’s something odd about how the characters act, I think. They seem to get on a bit too well. There’s a hint of superficiality about their interactions, like they’re only pretending to get along. During conversations, they constantly make quips and jokes, as if they are trying to distract from some underlying tension that pervades everything. All feel the same way: something is going to happen soon. When something does happen, it is like pressure had been let off; they feel giddy with it. But it’s only a temporary respite. As the plot progresses, cracks begin to appear in the veneer of friendliness. Eleanor begins to feel more and more that she’s making a fool of herself, that Luke and Theo are talking about her behind her back and deliberately excluding her.

Much of the novel is focussed on exploring Eleanor’s state of mind and how she interacts with the others. Though it is told in 3rd person, the narration frequently switches to a 1st person view of her thoughts: in order to draw us into her mind to see and feel as she does. As increasingly terrifying supernatural things occur, and Eleanor’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, we are left wondering just how many of the events actually happened and how many are just figments of her overworked mind. Since all we know of what happened is filtered through Eleanor, we cannot separate the objective series of events from her subjective experience. On top of this, we don’t know if her behaviour was caused by spirits or some form of madness. There may not have been any ghosts at all in the house. (The actions of the other characters contradict this, but it is interesting to consider.) What is certain is that there was some element of the imaginary involved. As Jackson herself says: “No live organism can exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream”.


Recommended for those who enjoy: ghost stories, slow-building/atmospheric horror, hallucinatory happenings, dark humour.

Review: A Dreamer’s Tales, by Lord Dunsany

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Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, more succinctly known as Lord Dunsany,  was a prolific Anglo-Irish author, who wrote novels, plays, essays, and many collections of stories and poems. “A Dreamer’s Tales” was his fourth collection of stories, published in 1910. It is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.

Most of the stories in this collection fall into the fantasy genre. However, they were written before the fantasy genre was a recognisable thing, so they don’t fit many of the tropes of the genre. Instead, they read more like a mixture of fireside fairy tales and Biblical stories (Dunsany said that the King James Bible was a major influence on his style). Not all the tales are set in exotic fantasy lands, though; some are set in our own world. The fantasy world acts as a contrast to our world: where one is magical, dreamy, and full of endless wonder, the other is drab and dirty and stifles one’s sense of adventure.

There is an escape from everyday life. For Dunsany, dreams are a real and powerful force, and they act as a way of accessing the fantastic world that his tales take place in. In “Idle Days on the Yann”, the narrator tells some sailors that he is from Ireland, in Europe. They laugh and say that these places do not exist in the land of dreams. The narrator goes on to tell them of “the abode of [his] fancy”–the place where he dwells when dreaming. Sleep is presumably the way of entering these lands, but it is not the only way. Writing is another, as is hashish (according to a maybe unreliable storyteller).

The existence of this land is not possible without the gods of the dream:

For when the people of this city wake, the gods will die. And when gods die men may dream no more.

There is a symbiotic, yet cyclical, relationship between men and gods. The people will not be able to live in the dream world without the gods, but the gods cannot exist without the dreaming of the people. This seems to mirror the fact that the stories themselves cannot exist without Dunsany as the dreamer.

In Dunsany’s world, the body and soul are two separate conscious entities, for the most part together until death. The body is material and is stuck in our world. The soul is in charge, and as we see in “The Unhappy Body”, it can be a cruel master, forcing the body to write its dreams down for posterity. The soul has little concern for material things. It is a dreamer or idealist. It always searches for something more than this, some sort of spiritual fulfilment that might just be found in the land of dreams.


Recommended for those who enjoy: short stories, dreamy atmospheres, exotic fantasy lands, mythology.

Review: Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

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Lydia Davis is known for writing “flash fiction”, which is a general term used to refer to very short stories, usually only a couple of sentences long. This collection is a prime example of her flash fiction, but it also includes a number of longer pieces as well (which can throw you off because of the expectation of stories being no more than a page or two). There are also a few stories adapted from the dreams of Davis and her friends, and a couple of “stories from Flaubert”, created from the journals and letters of Gustave Flaubert.

With many of the stories being so short, we are left wondering: what does it mean? Why did Davis choose to make something out of such short, mundane experiences? This makes us look closer at the story with the view of deciphering exactly what it means. Meaning is a tricky thing, though. Is what we think it means what the author intended it to mean? Does it matter? I think that maybe there is no intentional or closely-contructed meaning behind many of the pieces: Davis just found something that she feels is meaningful and presents it to the reader to make what they will of it. If you know what I mean. It’s sort of like with dreams: they might not mean anything at first glance, but there’s something about them, and if you start digging and analysing, you might be able to find some sort of narrative or meaning. In a way, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

The eponymous story “Can’t and Won’t” gives us a better understanding of Davis’ intent:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

She is said to use too many contractions in her work. The criticism can be seen as a meta-criticism against the seeming laziness of flash fiction. By its nature, flash fiction is minimalist: it shows more than it tells, and hints at more than it shows. In this way it is a contraction of a traditional story; it strips away the unnecessary and leaves us with just the essentials.

There are very few exciting scenes in these fragments. All the major events have passed and we are left in the limbo of everyday life. Many stories take place in trains or cars or planes: the characters are always going to some vague destination. They are on business trips, where they eat alone in restaurants (one gets used to eating alone in restaurants). But there is joy and wonder to be found in this boredom of life: if they had not done such and such seemingly inconsequential thing, they would not have witnessed this common yet special event. What follows is the thought of all these events occurring right now that one will never see or experience. It’s what life is made of, these little moments, and they should be cherished.

But reading these ephemeral moments might leave you feeling unsatisfied. The stories can pass through your mind and leave little to no impression, and you might find yourself reading through the book too quickly because of the length of the stories. Well, that’s how it was for me anyway. More attentive readers might find much more in this book than I could. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but maybe I need to read a bit more of Davis’ stuff to begin to fully appreciate her.


Recommended for those who enjoy: short short stories, minimalism, everyday insights.