Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2015, Welcome to Big Venerable

Hey all,

My newest story collection, Big Venerable, is set to hit the streets of the world in April! (April 13, 2015, to be precise). You can preorder it over at my publisher's website by clicking HERE. Also, if you're on Goodreads, you can connect with news about Big Venerable HERE. More news to come, so stick around.

"Big Venerable reads like a collection of modern fables, peppered with workplace anxiety, mutating families, absurd quests, and faulty sages delivering self-centered advice. A very funny book from a very funny man." - Halle Butler, author of Jillian 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Don't Forget To Be Human

Not to get all martyred about it, but damn if I don't feel a little in the minority these days when it comes to education and the treatment of students in school. I say this as a former student myself turned teacher at the same high school I graduated from way, way back in '03 (that's pronounced ought-three, for those uncertain). I mean 2003, not 1903. I'm not ludicrously old, but wouldn't it be crazy if I were this--like-- 130 year old guy hopefully laying down some real truth for you to consider? No?

Well, anyway, I'm not 130 and I don't claim to have "real truth"--a real pleonasm if ever I heard one--but I do claim to see our schools as places in which humanity is now discouraged in the face of something far more insidious than simple rote learning. Schools are run now in a way that encourages corporate-styled efficiency (all the right data points that certainly sound good but add up to little in practice, certainly little relation to students' learning. e.g. the right numbers in certain programs to justify their existence, teachers being encouraged to no longer give Fs to students, attitudes of things like there being only one way for students to demonstrate that they have learned, a clear enunciation of "learning standards" before each class so students know precisely what is to be instructed to them (this being encouraged by studies I've read and think are particularly pseudo-scientific in nature, for example this study by which among other things claims to have a way to determine what stories students have written were better than others; as a fiction writer I find it particularly flawed to claim a handle on something so entirely subjective).

But more than that I object to the notion that the one lone job of a teacher is to be a dispenser of information, of all skills necessary to "make it" in the "real world." Certainly, as my own mother has never failed to remind me, those skills are necessary. Without them, students might be lost in their lives outside of organized education. I teach a thing called executive functioning -- which refers largely to those skills that ask you to take control of your own life and the business therein. Teaching it has been enormously helpful to me organizing my own day-to-day (and considering I not only work as a teacher in this program but also teach two sections of composition and usage for night school and am finishing up my own Masters of Art in Teaching (three classes, one in-person and two online), I can say fairly certainly these skills have made all of what I'm doing right now far more manageable, if not entirely possible).

That said, I still don't see myself as only some dispenser of information. I like to imagine that my students and I work well together because I don't treat them like widgets, like little robots in need of tinkering so that they suddenly, miraculously "get it." That's not who they are and that's not how they should be treated. But I get mixed messages from superiors all the time. "We need to showcase student growth" as if by doing the things I do with them pedagogically on a daily basis, they'll suddenly, miraculously be fixed and work correctly.

A teacher friend of mine recently noted there's a big difference between exercising authority and actually helping a person become educated. The former can be very neat and tidy, though arguably effective. The latter is a messy business filled with impossible-to-measure components. Students might not always "look" like they're on task, but that doesn't mean learning isn't being done. It's those same corporate affected appearances I noticed were integral to work at the various businesses I worked at before teaching. Real honestly is to be avoided in favor of the affectation of honesty. I must go through certain hoops and I will have done things the "right way." The cognitive dissonance that's so integral to this kind of thing and so society at large is astounding.

I'm no fool, though. I'm aware for a great many reasons we can afford to be completely honest about everything we do. What I do find frustrating and incongruous to a point of irreconcilability is the idea that I too must buy in to all this affectation. It's possible people don't see through it, but I doubt that. I think most people do see through the affectation that informs so much of our daily lives, certainly students do. And I see how it shuts down their level interest and their level of curiosity. They're used to arbitrary rules dictating their existence, life being reduced to "because I said so." That doesn't mean this is Best Practice, to use a favored term of the education reform era. Couple the notion of authoritarian dispensation of only one way of doing things with the idea we do let people do things they way they want to, and what you have is that always unacknowledged mutual exclusion that drips of cognitive dissonance. It's a problem of having too many people in the room who only agree with you -- arguably a big problem in today's corporate world that's trickled down to school districts, or perhaps always a problem with people seeking to be "leaders" and not considering the fact that their certainty is as much a flaw as it is an asset.

So, what I'm saying is I'm not sure. I'm not sure whether things are being done the right way in schools. But I do know that I get the sense we're sucking the life out of students with the pedagogical points of emphasis of the day. I get the sense that students feel like they're being lied to and so actively reject what we're trying to convey as educators. There's such a deep-seated lack of empathy that needs to be addressed. I understand you administrators of the world are under pressure from forces above you, as they most likely are as well, but continuing to march in lockstep with this belief system merely because it's what we've (in various "new" iterations) always done is not helping anyone. I think if you truly believe in education and students being lifelong learners, you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

C'mon, Facebook! Images of Dog Fighting are Ok? Really?

First, many thanks to Lindsay Hunter for alerting me about this dog fighting page. Facebook, for whatever reason -- a friend of mine has speculated (and this seems likely) that their algorithm for determining what is a violation of community standards must be is off, somehow -- has allowed a graphic group page promoting dog fighting to exist on their social media platform. If you report the photos you'll get back sometime later a response indicating the pictures, many of which depict violent images of dogs attacking each other (and this is for sport, mind you), are not in violation of community standards, which is entirely untrue, based on Facebook's own definition

Here's their policy regarding violent imagery (emphasis is mine):

Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences and raise awareness about issues important to them. Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. In many instances, when people share this type of content, it is to condemn it. However, graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site. 

It would seem the textbook definition of dog fighting that in some way it celebrates or glorifies violence and usually for sadistic effect. I mean, Michael Vick didn't go to prison for nearly two years for no reason.

And some have noted this is clearly not a page run by anyone in America. It appears to be Turkish, in fact, where supposedly, and if true then also despicably, dog fighting is legal. That should have no impact on Facebook, however, a multinational corporation whose allegiance should be to general good taste and human decency, all of which no matter its legality, dog fighting is not.

It's probable this is some kind of glitch, oversight, not the earnest response of the flesh-and-blood people behind Facebook, but that still doesn't really excuse it. If you're interested in viewing the page while it's still up (and I hope soon it is not) Click Here -- but be warned, there are many graphic images. Please do tweet @Facebook about what they're condoning. And spread the word. My friend Robyn Pennacchia has written about the issue as well over at Death+Taxes.

And finally, perhaps most disturbingly of all, the group's membership has actually grown since I first noticed it, proving once again that it's never too loathsome for people to double down. I encourage no one to join the group who is actively interested in its removal.

UPDATE 9/8/2014: Happy to say I finally received this notice from Facebook:

We reviewed the photo you reported for containing graphic violence. Since it violated our Community Standards, we removed it. Thanks for your report. We let Game Dog Pitbull know that their photo has been removed, but not who reported it.

And while it's not the wholesale removal of a group that glorifies dog fighting (which might have the benefit, if allowed to remain open, of allowing people who participate on it in places it's illegal to be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law), it's at least a start.

I still think the site should be removed entirely, especially because it's likely most of the people actively participating on it live in countries where this sort of animal abuse is legal for some insane reason. That means, even if it were to become illegal there (say for instance in Turkey, where it's said to be legal), ex post facto designation and all would make something that's already not likely to be prosecuted even less likely. At least Facebook could take a demonstrative stand against this activity, which should never be condoned, even implicitly.

UPDATE 9/10/2014: Facebook has finally made the decision to remove the pro-dog fighting group from the website entirely. Thanks for getting the word out, everyone. Glad to see most people don't condone this sort of thing.

UPDATE 9/10/2014: Wait! Oops, no! Instead, Facebook has allowed the group to continue its existence AND even the worst photos are still on the site.

UPDATE 9/11/2014: So I presume it's possible for someone to re-upload pictures that violate community standards, but I gather that's not the case here. Everything I think about whatever is going on in the byzantine, essentially Kafkaesque corporate structure of Facebook is at this point pure speculation. Still, once again, after having reported the most violent image on the group's page and that report being at first rejected for defying "Community Standards" it is now once again been subject to further review and found to have, in fact, yes, violated "Community Standards." Figure if nothing else it's good to chronicle all the absurdity here, for some kind of record.

UPDATE 9/13/2014: Did I mention Facebook alerted me to the fact that they again removed a particularly violent photo from the offending group? No? Will it stay gone? How can anyone know?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Our Culture Really So Sick?

I was reading an article on Yahoo news the other day--yes, I do that, and fairly often, for some reason--and it asked the question, "What if we paid our teachers like professional athletes?" See it for yourself HERE. Yeah, what if?, indeed. And weirdly, some folks I actually respect offered their thoughts on the subject, like Dana Goldstein, whose book The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession is high on my list of reading related to education and reform for the coming fall.

In the article Goldstein is quoted saying, "Kids will want to grow up wanting to be teachers just like kids grow up wanting to be pro athletes and that would be a really positive thing." While I feel like there's some serious context missing, taking it at face value, I dislike and disagree with Goldstein's comment because it feeds into our greater cultural narrative that the only people who truly experience success in this country are those who have a lot of money -- and therefore are the only ones anyone could ever aspire to be like. It feeds into the reformers' narrative that the only reason we have students attending school in the first place is so that we might prepare them for their future careers.

One of the things you'll hear me talking about a lot on this blog with respect to my own personal pedagogical approach to the classroom is, what can we do to showcase to our students ways they might be better adjusted, healthy adults from an emotional standpoint? I know so many people who are so completely dysfunctional in their every relational endeavor, be it familial, romantic or any of the myriad other forms. It's hard enough out in the world thinking you're perhaps all alone, misunderstood, not cared for, that we'd then say school is merely prep for your life as a cog in the machine is so profoundly callous and opposed to the ideals I think any functional society should aspire to, so instead I say: let's care about the whole student. Let's be there to listen to their problems if they're having them. Let's not look at our kids as purely numbers and data and plan accordingly to "fix" their problems with learning while ignoring their problems as people (oftentimes the two are inextricably related).

In my classroom I'm there to listen to my students, show them that I'm a human being and help them to see there's nothing about being human they ought to be ashamed of. We all makes mistakes. We all hope to learn from them. Sometimes we don't for a while. Sometimes we never do. But maybe we find ways to be more conscious and considerate of those around us than we were before. I've never had a situation in which I had to teach a student (or any other person for that matter) how to be less selfless, that they were too giving, that it was becoming a detriment to them, despite how well meaning said hypothetical student intended to be. Such selflessness is extremely rare. And moreover, what I'm saying is, just become someone isn't the world's most selfless person doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that person.

You try to be a better person, maybe you misstep or fall back into old habits, and then you realize it, and you keep trying. Repeat. Be human.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

James Tadd Adcox DOES NOT LOVE (Or Does He?)

I'm going to take full credit for the title of James Tadd Adcox's debut novel, Does Not Love. That's unreasonable, but here I am, doing it. I say that because--interesting story to me, the narcissist--I remember years ago meeting up with Adcox for beers and he told me about the manuscript he was working on, which was the aforementioned debut novel.

He had been thinking of calling it Does Not Love but the feedback he'd been given about this title to that point was not especially enthusiastic. And I, bravely perhaps, confirmed that he was the one who was right and all others were wrong. Does Not Love was the only choice for a title. And so it was and so shall it be.

Ah, but I'm no hero. Just a guy who likes reading books, in particular good ones (whether I know the book's author or not). And in fact, Does Not Love has lived up to its wonderful title in arguably every single way one might hope for, in the world. It is a story that has the characteristic Adcox charm. He also uses a very spare prose style that I find extremely pleasing. I'd put him, as an ideas writer, somewhere in the range of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, with a little of something fabulistic, as well, to round things out. In fact, more like Wallace (and Barthelme and Saunders) and less like DeLillo, this is a novel that really relishes its more humorous moments.

But--gah--to refer again to DeLillo (and sort of contradict what I wrote in the previous paragraph), the novel with which I think Does Not Love shares its greatest affinity is White Noise (arguably DeLillo's funniest novel). There is that undertone of a controlled society, a normalized society, a society of intellectual people proving their frailty and always failing. These are your doctors, your lawyers, your pharmaceutical executives. It is a society of decline, and obviously in decline. It takes place in a fictional Indianapolis, one built around an imagined but no less powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Consider yourself forewarned that much of what follows will be heavy with spoilers.

And for all of its hypothetical, alternate universe narrative backdrop, there's something too familiar about this place. Maybe it's familiar because the things that happen in Adcox's fictionalized Indianapolis have an eerie tangibility, like we haven't gotten there yet but we will (this idea comes through in some of the darker aspects of works by forward-thinking writers like Wallace or Saunders). Or maybe we have already gotten there, as James Tadd Adcox recently offered evidence of on his social media accounts, the preceding link's article related to a plot development of his novel that seemed to me while reading it wildly satirical but only because it also seemed so likely a future for the corporate-oligarchy America more or less under construction at present.

Turns out construction is much further along than I had realized, as people in the small town of Kannapolis (I see the parallel there to Adcox's choice of setting), North Carolina have become voluntary subjects of experimentation by the new and growing medical industry there. People aren't purely motivated by money in Kannapolis, though. In quite a few cases, they're interested in learning something about their familial history through biomapping, and perhaps unlocking the secret to cures for congenital diseases, at least for future generations. In Does Not Love characters are simply human test subjects desiring some means of securing an income -- and so exists an exploitative industry to trump all others. The gap between peoples' hope that they are contributing to something very important and the callous avarice that could result from their contributions makes Adcox's prognostication all the more grim, and, alas, all the more likely.

Big-pharma--its representative corporation being Obadiah Birch Adcox's novel--(and the bigger notion of the future of American industry, how it will be perpetuated, who it will benefit, and who it will toss out)-- arguably, plays the greatest role in Does Not Love, touches everything, reminiscent of ubiquitous forces like White Noise's "Airborne Toxic Event" and Infinite Jest's "the Entertainment." It is pernicious without itself having an identifiable target, a purpose, other than to exist ad infinitum. Unlike the other two forces named, which we know exist by human contrivance of some kind and whose effects are beyond anyone's ultimate control, a company like Obadiah Birch has an important role in society, it tells you. And though there is something false and flimsy feeling about this proposition, this corporate entitlement: its necessity, it is the lie spoken enough times that it becomes the truth.

If you ask me, dystopias, fictional or otherwise, will have nothing to do with traditional forms of government run amok (other than maybe to the extent that they can be useful to willful factions and / or individuals). It won't logically reflect where we're currently headed as a society. If a dystopia ever comes to pass, it will almost certainly be defined as rule by powerful monied interests. The dystopia (or something not too far removed from a dystopia) Adcox appears to envisage in Does Not Love is exactly that sort of world. The situation for the average people, proletarian and lower-party members alike (though each in their own way), who inhabit the novel might best be described with the following quote from this Jacobin article: "Neoliberalism ... sees people as little more than variable bundles of human capital, with no permanent interests or even attributes that cannot be remade through the market."

And so I'd like to take a look at the two main characters of the story, Robert and Viola, a couple who live and breathe this essence of failure and their subservience to the powers that be. Deterministic failures, as well as things intrinsic to their relationship and themselves, punish the couple fairly regularly--with particular respect to the inability they share--which "failure" nonetheless falls primarily on Viola through society's subtle and not-so-subtle cues--to bear a child. The couple suffers through many miscarriages and a kind of enervation, a mode of dysfunction, takes the place of whatever good feeling they once felt for one another (love seems always to have been in short supply between the two, just one of many ways the novel hearkens back to its title).

Robert falls into the murky gray category of generally meaning well but also wanting things to go his way, a category in which most of us reside. He's moved by passion as much as he is logic, and it's by the former more than the latter that he attempts to repair his relationship with his wife, and subsequently, repeatedly, succeeds at doing more harm than good. Viola, for her part, is looking for something that Robert can't offer her, something like a sadomasochistic sex life, and perhaps that sort of relationship in total. And because Robert can't offer this to her--and her feelings for him seem to be waning for a great many other reasons, both articulable and not--she seeks other partners who can and will. There's an elderly judge who is familiar with the inner workings of The Secret Law (who functions more as someone with whom Viola has an emotional affair than anything sexual) and an FBI Agent brought to Indianapolis to help solve the mysterious string of murders of people affiliated with Obadiah Birch, who subsequently meets Viola and learns everything he can about her innermost desires, probing and prodding her along -- think Fifty Shades of Grey meets John Grisham meets all those good writers I've already mentioned.

The couple's relationship decays and the city decays but the decay is leading somewhere, to something, to a powerful and destructive climax that yields surprising insights regarding how anyone might love or might not.

What I'm saying is you should read this novel.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Happy Birthday To Me! Earlier This Week!

I received a very unexpected birthday greeting in the mail last Monday. It was from my favorite author, George Saunders! I had no idea he even knew it was my birthday. I mean, yes, important date in the annals of history or something like that but still!

And that's when it was revealed that my beautiful, wonderful and just all-around great fiancee, Ashley, put him up to it. Of course she only asked that he send me a birthday greeting through email, but he was insistent that he just send a card through the mail.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders! I have nothing but praising things to say about you and your work, and I'm glad to add this little bit to the long list of those things:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Jane Bowles and "Two Serious Ladies" and Men and Women in Our Messed Up World

Jane Bowles' work epitomizes great humorous writing by American women in the earlier part of the 20th century. She and others, like Dorothy Parker, absolutely skewered convention with their portrayals of things like societal decorum and its especially forceful effect on women. I hate to think about the considerable voices that didn't have the opportunity to reach a much deserved audience of readers, especially when I think about how many great female writers are out there doing inspired work in the contemporary literary landscape. I'm glad, at least, we have Jane Bowles. You should be, too.

Quick digression that relates to Jane Bowles: I tend not to be fan of contemporary realism. There are probably plenty of good reasons for this (and maybe my feeling this way doesn't require any explanation; indeed, maybe it has no true explanation) but let me offer one of my own theories here, regardless. I find that realism, the idea of depicting in fiction whatever is closest to the way the world "actually is," works best in times of considerable stability. Then the question can be reasonably asked, "If all my needs are met, in terms of say 'Maslow's Hierarchy' (and even more so those situations in which they're met with abundance), then why am I still so profoundly unhappy?" As you might imagine, especially in the last one hundred years--and particularly in the time of America's mid-20th century economic boom--the portrayal of women's struggle to find meaning in the tedium of everyday life (see Revolutionary Road) has demonstrated this idea pretty wonderfully. Bowles' work in particular does well in capturing the struggle, portraying it in all its amusing horror. 

For instance, Bowles demonstrates in Two Serious Ladies (a great novel first published in 1943, which if you haven't read it, do so! Now!) how everyone in society helps to reinforce societal decorum. Those forceful conventions that tell us how we ought to be. We're all a bunch of happy cogs in the reinforcement machine. It doesn't matter if you're a "good guy" or a "bad guy" or those middling little places between. Men assume their hegemony over women and accordingly women must be compliant, even while recognizing the ludicrous nature of this relationship, and then women often in their own ways reinforce one another's compliance. 

But there is good news for us! And here it is: these societal tendencies are ripe for tearing apart. Skewering them is good, because it draws attention to their absurdity. I love Two Serious Ladies for the same reason I've loved so many other female authors of the last hundred years' work: it's another story that shrewdly sees past the bullshit. Even better, writers like Bowles are willing to get their hands dirty and present everything in all its ugly -- its too true humor. And it is ugly. It is too true. It's the things we hate to talk about, the things that can't be unseen.

All you have to do is open your eyes, though, be less of a narcissist. I'll admit, as one guilty narcissist myself, it's difficult to do. And like a lot of things, you aren't always able to, but even on your own narcissistic terms, you want to see past the bullshit, because it's a better world for you, narcissist, if it's a better world for everyone. It's true! And that's not just some singing/dancing-around-the-maypole hokum. When everyone's needs are met, everyone wins. If even just one person's needs aren't met, well, that's the starving alligator in the aquarium. If its stomach isn't filled with something then it will be, whether that's you, the fish who occupies the aquarium with it, or the ample portion of red meat it feasted upon an hour ago. Take your pick. My point is, as succinctly as I can say it, injustice doesn't exist in a vacuum, and everyone is obviously affected by it, even, say, those men (or minority of women) in power.

And while Two Serious Ladies is undoubtedly concerned with power relations, especially those between men and women and women and other women, I can't deny it's a little reductive to think of the novel purely in those terms. This is a sweeping work, a work that encompasses so many aspects of human nature, whether we believe them to be constructed or built upon thousands of years of evolutionary hierarchy. Rather than rehash plot, I'm going to go over--in more or less chronological order, to be sure--moments of the novel that especially captured my attention and got me to thinking. It is a novel of relationships, of how women and men relate, and in particular the kinds of relationships two specific women seek.

The two main characters are Mrs. Frieda Copperfield and Miss Christina Goering. They are both at various times the narrative's primary subjects. These two women seem to gravitate toward relationships with either men or women. Copperfield seems interested in forging more and more female friendships, while being largely uninterested in whatever her husband is up to at any given moment, happy to leave him to his own devices for long spans of time. (He, for his part, never seems too put out by this.) Goering, arguably the central protagonist, is constantly moving, purposefully or otherwise, in the company of men, often very unappealing men. In fact, she has her pick of men of every different variety of horrible throughout the story.

The complex idea that appears to be at play here is that women shouldn't be searching for fulfillment through vicarious relationships with others, men or women. It's in themselves that women can only reasonably look, despite what society and their own compulsions might suggest as viable or preferable alternatives. These people they're finding to help enrich their own lives, they'll only disappoint, in the end. It's the story of women not being allowed to live for themselves, completely autonomously -- at times, creating their own shackles, and more often having the shackles put upon them by outside forces. The point is, it's all messed up. We see moreover the uneven footing women and men were on in terms of relationships, which I like to believe has changed for the better, nowadays. What I can say with certainty is, at least in modern times we openly acknowledge there are issues of violence, both sexual and non, being perpetrated against women -- despite the obstinacy of certain contemporary factions, whose members most often are predominantly men. At least violence of all kinds against women is part of the cultural conversation. In one particularly telling scene, the culture of rape is forcefully--and against all odds, humorously--brought to light. It made an impression on me, one of the deepest of the entire novel. I'll get to that scene in greater detail in a moment.    

To begin, we as readers are greeted with a prepubescent Christina Goering and her devotion to the dogma of something like Christian religion, though I believe the narrative avoids getting terribly specific about that. In fact, the component of religion feels entirely ancillary. Miss Goering, as an adult, shows no real predilection for proselytizing. No, it's her devotion, the adherence to dogma, that is most significant about this introduction to her character. It's this early characteristic that will follow her into adult life, allow her to take on faith things about other people that her rational self opposes entirely and rightly so. There's a lot of hilarious stuff that happens here in the beginning, too. We're witness to a hapless playmate named Mary being constantly used in Christina's dogmatic games of worship. One particular moment of hilarity is when, after Mary innocently asks "Is it fun?"--referring to the "game" they're about to play, "I forgive you for all your sins"--Christina matter-of-factly replies, "It's not for fun that we play it, but because it's necessary to play it."

As the story turns to Christina's adulthood we soon learn that she's got a lot of money and not a whole lot to do. Early in this chapter, Miss Goering arrives at a party where she makes the acquaintance of a man named Arnold, the first of many male disappointments. Arnold does grow on her, after a time, in a decidedly unromantic way. She also comes into the first of two narrative meetings with Mrs. Copperfield, with whom we're made aware she's already acquainted. Mrs. Copperfield immediately resents Arnold and his presence, failing to acknowledge him over and over again, though he knows her and wishes to be introduced to Miss Goering.

Miss Goering, meanwhile, proceeds to regale both Mrs. Copperfield and Arnold with a story from earlier in the day, about a building across the street from her sister's home. The building was in the process of being torn down, so that most of the front of it had been removed. All of its rooms were therefore exposed, rooms that still had furnishings (which brought to my mind images of the bombed European apartments of World War II). It began to rain on all the exposed furnishings. Then a man entered. He grabbed a coverlet, and Christina said, "I could see him more clearly now, and I could easily tell that he was an artist. As he stood there, I was increasingly filled with horror, very much as though I were watching a scene in a nightmare." Mrs. Copperfield asked if the man jumped to his demise (or at least to a great deal of pain). He did not, Goering informed her, to which Mrs. Copperfield remarked, "Amazing ... I do think it's such an interesting story, really, but it has quite scared me out of my wits." On the one hand, you could take Mrs. Copperfield's hyperbolic comments as the cloying attempt of someone who desperately wants people, and in particular here, Christina, to like her. And while I do believe that's the case, there is a kind of horror to Christina's story. I can't avoid the fact that Arnold is introduced just moments prior to Christina telling it. It doesn't appear to be a coincidence. I refer to the everyday horror inflicted by this scene. An incongruous and malformed world in which everything that should be stable and fixed, is in reality falling apart or in the process of being destroyed. Arnold, at the vanguard of the many men we see Christina meet, seems to reveal this everyday horror in its much more subtle iteration: as a man who brings very little to the table, has little to offer, is content to eat and nap and in general mooch off the kindness of others, whether they be his parents or Christina or someone else. All that everyday horror, listlessness and boredom. All embodied in one banal man.

Then we meet Arnold's parents, whose father proves especially notable. Christina agrees to accompany Arnold home, always under a non-sexual pretext (this happens several more times over the course of the story, with several other men). And indeed, nothing sexual occurs. How could it? Beside the fact that Christina seems wholly uninterested--as does, for that matter, Arnold--Arnold's parents are right in the middle of everything almost from the very outset of their arrival. His father arrives and laments his son's life choices and obvious deficiencies, Arnold's wishing to be an artist (though Arnold vaguely claims to be in real-estate by profession). His mother is doting on Arnold and immediately views Christina in a threatening light. She arrives in the room with a plate of cakes that she selfishly keeps from Christina. We soon learn that Arnold's father is some kind of capitalist, one who doesn't much value the ideas of artists. He castigates them all by saying they only wish to have enough to eat, which attitude his son appears to hold as well. He explains this makes them, "Like wild animals ... Like wolves! What separates a man from a wolf if it is not that a man wants to make a profit." Christina is immediately smitten with him and his passionate qualities. This descends into several awkward scenes where she finds herself alone in the guest room with the father--again in a strangely non-sexual way--which goes over very poorly with Arnold's mother, regardless. She calls Christina a harlot and, in keeping with the archetype or maybe classic human behavior, she puts perhaps all of the blame for this situation on Miss Goering, and very little on her own husband.

I would say more of Christina's character and her exploits but, as always, I'd prefer you to read the novel without any more say so from me (and my giving away more key points of the story line). Therefore, let's get to a little bit with Mrs. Copperfield and call it a review, fair enough?

Well, that's what's happening.

In the next part of the novel we see Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield arriving in Panama. Earlier in the story--at that party--Frieda had revealed to Christina she was traveling there on holiday, and that she was a bit scared to do so, though that seems a fairly considerable aspect of her character in general. In Panama she meets a whole host of fascinating characters, eschewing the advice of a fellow female American (who is notable at least in part for her immense xenophobia) who tells her not to stay anywhere but the American quarter of Colon, "Cristobal." Instead, Mrs. Copperfield convinces her husband to stay in a rather shoddy and rundown hotel in a disreputable part of town.

Chief among the people she meets and befriends is Pacifica, a young Panamanian woman. She becomes the catalyst for much of Mrs. Copperfield's adventuring from that point forward, literally taking Mrs. Copperfield by the hand and leading her to a bar. Mr. Copperfield's presence always manages to feel superfluous, as though it's only a matter of time before the Copperfields are to become bored with one another and find any of myriad reasons to part company. Thus, Pacifica is a welcome distraction and naturally, in a very short time, Mrs. Copperfield becomes very fond of her. Pacifica introduces Mrs. Copperfield to Mrs. Quill, the woman who operates the hotel, Hotel de las Palmas, in which she lives. Mrs. Copperfield in turn begins staying there. But before anything else occurs, Pacifica gets a visit from a rather vile sailor named Meyer. And so we return to one particularly despicable event of the novel that gets glossed over by a story aware of society's indifference to assault against women (or so is my inference). Make of it what you will. In any event, awoken from sleep by a loud knock at the door, Pacifica and Mrs. Copperfield are terrified by this sudden intrusion. It's a man who will not be turned away, as though he's owed something. Eventually he gets inside, and despite Pacifica rebuffing his advances without any possibility of misunderstanding, he will not be denied. He sets to work physically assaulting her, to which violence she is no match. Mrs. Copperfield likewise realizes there's little she can do to help her friend, though she does make an attempt before fleeing for help. It's then that she runs to Mrs. Quill's room and tells her Pacifica is more than likely being murdered. The following exchange occurs on page 54 of my version of the book:

"Well, you see, Mrs. Copperfield, Pacifica can take care of herself better than we can take care of her. The fewer people that get involved in a thing, the better off everybody is. That's one law I have here in the hotel."  
"All right," said Mrs. Copperfield, "but meanwhile she might be murdered."  
"People don't murder as easy as that. They do a lot of hitting around but not so much murdering. I've had some murders here, but not many. I've discovered that most things turn out all right. Of course some of them turn out bad." 

It is a very insightful passage, this exhibition in human indifference. Better to not get in the way, even when it's possible the outcome could be a fatal one, even when it's a person you regard as a friend being battered. We can speculate about Quill's motives all we like. I can imagine her being jaded, for example. Perhaps she was, at one time, idealistic enough to believe that finding help would do real good. It is possible. But the truth is it doesn't really matter where her indifference sprang from, all that matters is that no one is doing anything and soon it's all forgotten.

Sexuality once again seems to bubble beneath the surface, though there is no denying the possibility that Mrs. Copperfield is a lesbian. She mentions at one point that she "once was in love with an older woman." She seems forced into her marriage. And she is absolutely enamored of Pacifica, who herself said things like "I like women very much. I like women sometimes better than men." Still I think reducing it to their sexuality is a little beside the point, and perhaps part of why--notwithstanding the time period in which the novel was published--Bowles doesn't make it a bigger point of emphasis. It's scandalous enough to suggest a woman might be able to make decisions for herself, and hey, one of those decisions might be preferring the company of women and that that doesn't necessarily say anything about her sexuality. She doesn't have to be gay, in other words. She might just think men are horrible (Meyer, for example, or much later Christina's experience with a man named Ben, who immediately takes her for a prostitute -- and that DOESN'T discourage her as much as you'd think), and to be fair, there would be plenty of reasons a character in Two Serious Ladies could feel that way about the less fair sex.

Oh, how I could go on and on. I might mention the last meeting between Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering. I could, but I won't! Give Two Serious Ladies a read for yourself, then come back and tell me how wrong I was, here. And all will be very well.