Violence

Let’s Discuss — Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

 

Thirteen years ago, Ellen thought marriage meant love. Now she believes marriage means need, and when the need isn’t there, what comes next? On her wedding day, she had looked across the street from the church to the cemetery and imagined all the women who had come before her, who had married and borne children and died. Some day, she thought, that same peace will be mine. But perhaps what she saw was not peace, but silence. Perhaps those women entered the ground because they were tired and had nowhere else to go (21)

You know what the above passage reminds me of? — The Bell Jar. There’s something Plath-like about it. The same oppressive dome weighs on Ellen Grier in Vinegar Hill as it did Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Except in this story it manifests as dated pink plates, pink curtains, pink tablecloth, prescription sleeping pills and a neon green pre-decorated plastic christmas tree. This is what might have happened if Esther had married Buddy Willard. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves–this is not The Bell Jar and this is not Sylvia Plath. No where close (although Ansay is a good writer) This story is about a family’s struggle to survive domestic abuse, with a focus on a mother’s determination to do better for herself and children than what her husband has done for them in small town, midwestern USA.

In chapter six, while Ellen is dealing with the Christmas fiasco, she references what she used to call her future self, an “aqua lady”; a wife and mother of different circumstance who is perfection personified. The aqua lady is a stark contrast to Ellen’s reality. Ellen and her children Amy and Bert are forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband, James, loses his job. Financial hardship is only one hurdle for Ellen. She also has to deal with a complacent husband, who (1) has no desire to move out of his parents’ home, (2) has no desire to become a bigger part of his children’s life, and (3) let’s his mother and father belittle his family. This of course leads to marital strife. Ellen must compensate for everything that goes on and she is spread thin. Too thin. She can no longer be the workhorse for her mother-in-law, father-in-law and husband.

When a commercial interrupts, James watches that too. He loves TV more than anything he can think of. It is small and neat; it is easy to understand. Wives love their husbands. Children love their fathers (87)

I’m trying to sort out my feelings about James…what the hell is his problem? Why doesn’t he love his kids or wife? Why does he put up with his parent’s antics? He’s definitely a type of character that gets under my skin (absent fathers and weak-willed men).  So why is he so tragic? Well…it turns out James, like Ellen, is a victim of domestic abuse.  His father, Fritz, physically abused his wife Mary-Margaret and James. Their entire family dynamic was ruptured by a family secret that still feeds their dysfunction fifteen to twenty years later. And James has allowed his own wife and kids to be exposed to it. James takes out his frustrations on Ellen, but not in the same way his father did to his wife.  James’ violence is muted. It’s in his inactions. But this violence isn’t lost on his children. Oh no, they are very aware. The reader witnesses Amy and Bert begin to lose their innocence; those moments when you realize your parents are imperfect beings and you mutate from their biggest fan to harshest critic. Kids pick up on everything–intrinsically. They can’t help it. They know their parents are not happy. So they are not happy.

This novel does a fine job of oozing despair and desolation. I think I mentioned Ansay is a good writer. It also doesn’t stumble with integrating a role of religion into their home life. But it does struggle with tempering the blame. To me it’s a bit heavy-handed with the anti-God* vibes. The whole “men oppress women–god made men and god is a man–thus god oppresses women, and oppression is bad–thus god is bad” logic is a bit much (ultra dramatic) Compounded with the anti-God angst and domestic depression** is a lack of likeable characters. Mary-Margaret being very unlikeable–what a piece of work she is…but then you read passages like this:

He surprised Mary-Margaret one cold, bright January day as she lifted her skirts in the backhouse. She did not have time to think. He hit her once in the forehead with a brick and pulled her out into the snow. Blood ran into her eyes as she ran blindly, her only thought to move, to keep moving, until the brick found the back of her head. Then she lay still as he emptied himself inside her, and when he finished, he pissed yellow circles around her body. The warmth of his urine melted the snow and stung against her face (165)

…and it puts things into perspective. There is a reason for everyone’s dysfunction.

 

* I can’t decide if I think it’s truly anti-God or just anti-Catholic.

** This brand of melancholy is not for everyone. Look this book up on goodreads and then filter the ratings for “two stars”. There’s some hilarity in the community comments.

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Let’s Discuss — The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I was down there with him. I was part of the night. I was the land itself—everything, everywhere—the fireflies and paddies, the midnight rustlings, the cool phosphorescent shimmer of evil—I was atrocity—I was jungle fire, jungle drums—I was the blind stare in the eyes of all those poor, dead, dumbfuck ex-pals of mine—all the pale young corpses, Lee Strunk and Kiowa and Curt Lemon—I was the beast on their lips—I was Nam—the horror, the war (199)

Many people do not like war.

Let’s forget political motivations for a second and briefly talk about realities.

The consequences: a loss of life and youth…of hope. Imagine the psychological game the mind must play on itself—the reasons for action are somewhat abstract, the enemy is blurry and the endgame is hard to realize. Yet all this is irrelevant, because as a soldier you must do as you’re told. You must serve your country. Go to war.

This is the case for all soldiers.

This is the case for many young people.

This was the case for many Vietnam veterans.

And this is the story O’Brien tells.

Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries […] They carried the land itself–Vietnam, the place, the soil–a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky […] By daylight they they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march […] one step, and the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage […] Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological (14)

O’Brien tells a series of seamlessly connected short stories about Vietnam. And what he does so well is remind the reader of how easily it could have been me or you, or anyone in that war. He wants you to understand that—the abstract, the fear, the surreal—all those feelings. The individuals imprinted in your memory— compatriots and enemies—are your brothers, cousins, classmates, neighbors, and strangers.

At the same time, O’Brien knows the reader will never know war unless they have been there. We are outsiders. But O’Brien’s storytelling opens a window to a great view of human complexity in already complex circumstances. O’Brien’s writing is artfully crafted. Fantastic. Amazing.

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you […] There is the illusion of aliveness. In Vietnam, for instance, Ted Lavender had a habit of popping four or five tranquilizers every morning. It was his way of coping, just dealing with realities, and the drugs helped to ease him through the days. I remember how peaceful his eyes were […] “How’s the war today?” somebody would ask, and Ted Lavender would give a little smile to the sky and say “Mellow–a nice smooth war day.” And then in April he was shot in the head outside of the village of Than Khe (218)

I want to share entire passages with you. I want to convince everyone to read this book. More importantly, I need you to know I loved this book for its truths: Before war, you have life. During war, that life is not your own, or it is slipping away. After war, should you survive, that life is never completely your own again, or it is gone.

 

Let’s Discuss — Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

I vividly remembered the sensation of having my forehead caved in by a large rock. It didn’t hurt as much as it should have. It just felt like I was suddenly…exposed. A rock destroyed my nose, bloodied my ear, buried itself in my cheek. I was conscious through most of it (p.128)

Who Fears Death explores some dark themes. In post-apocalyptic Africa, widespread enslavement, genocide and rape are a norm in many regions. So much so, that it has become a myth of human existence that many believe in. The central conflict is between the Nuru, a light-skinned people, and the Okeke, a dark-skinned people. In the West the Okeke are enslaved to the Nuru, who are gradually expanding their realm of hate into parts of the East. In this expansion, Nuru men kill Okeke men, and rape Okeke women simply because they can. Sometimes these rapes produce children, half-bloods known was Ewu. They are considered to be children of violence and are frequently outcast by either side. The main character, Onyesonwu, is one of these Ewu.

Who Fears Death contains vivid descriptions of death, murder, rape and genital mutilation. These descriptions hold the book together and keep the reader engaged.  Many characters lack depth, and even though it’s supposed to take place in post-apocalyptic Africa, I didn’t always get that feeling.  Several folkloric tangents explain why certain things are the way they are, but, sometimes they muddle the narrative.

For a very long time, I was confused as to what the true purpose of Onyesonwu’s quest was. Was it to defy cultural norms, to become a great sorceress, to kill her biological father, to rewrite the Great Book?

Maybe all of the above.

I was only sure of one thing: Onyesonwu’s death. This is the about Onyesonwu’s journey to death, and the mystical things that happen along the way.