[Gwenda enters] I'm also in the "haven't read Freud in ages" camp. I believe the last time I did was for Psych 101; the instructor -- who was so in the throes of menopause the windows were kept open during November -- kicked off the course with the declaration: "I'm here to tell you there's no such thing as penis envy, but there is breast envy." Half the guys dropped the next day.
Anyway. The dark sexual aspects of the novel are definitely a huge part of its appeal. One of the things that most sticks out to me is the way in which Kirby talks about sex, and in general, throughout. She's very matter-of-fact and acidly funny. I think maybe that's why the voice initially scanned as masculine for you, Jeff -- we don't often get this kind of female narrator. What really makes Kirby's voice interesting though, is how constrained she is in many other ways, compared to Kendra. It's that tug of war that makes her so complex. Ultimately, it's Kirby's anger at the "case study" that seems to have freed her to really explore her sister's continent, herself and all the family secrets.
A little sidenote: I think this novel would make a great counterpoint to read alongside my other favorite dark female twins novel of last year, Marcy Dermansky's Twins. And then there's that great Stacey Richter short story Twin Study from a few years ago. What is it about twins that lends them to such witty exploration of female relationships? Is it because as Kirby asserts "identical twins are mutants"?
[CAAF strolls onstage] It’s funny you mention Dermanksy’s Twins, Gwenda. I’ve been thinking what a dream syllabus one could put together around My Sister’s Continent, and I had Twins on the list. Also, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I recently reread and which struck me as being a model novel of female hysteria, complete with sexual repression, a fraught female friendship, and episodes of fugue-like disassociation — all the great Freudian underpinnings, minus only a case of serious bubbling bowels (as poor Kirby suffers — her bowels being, as Jeff pointed out in an email, the novel’s most truthful character). Also, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin; what others?
Kassia, you asked what we first noticed about the book. The dark sexy aspects did stand out for me as well (to the extent that I’m currently agitating behind the scenes for an amendment to the LBC charter, to be called the Frangello Rule, that would mandate that we read at least one (1) dark sexy book (DSB) per season). More seriously: I think my thoughts were something along the lines of what you say, Gwenda, we don’t often get female narrators like this: So acid and intelligent. Or if we do get one, they are usually British and past the age of 50. Not 20-something, in Chicago, cracking jokes about French theory and having massive attacks of diarrhea in their loft as their fiancé sits bemused on the other side of the door, thumbing through his copy of The Fountainhead (another great sub-joke of the book).
Gwenda, I love your point about the wit of using twins to explore female relationships; it can work like a shorthand for the intense physicality and identification of certain female friendships. It also seems witty in terms of Freudian theory. If Freud gave us a submerged self, then a twin is a sort of manifest of that — our other self floated up to the surface.
[Kassia] I think the use of twins to explore the complexity of female relationships works very well here. Also by playing with the good twin/bad twin (or Madonna/whore) stereotypes, we're also reminded that so often sexual behavior serves as character definition. It is often curious to me how women in novels cannot simply enjoy sex or have a healthy relationship with their bodies. It is even more curious that in this day and age, we see such direct, frank words from a female narrator as unique and refreshing. Real women are blunt to the extreme, yet fictional women never seem to equal their peers.
(As for amending the LBC charter, I believe a simple quorum is required).
Getting back to Jeff's question and at the risk of sounding overly Clintonian, I guess it depends on what the meaning of truth is. I think that Kirby constructed a reality that both opened her eyes to the secrets that have held her family hostage *and* allowed her to move on with her life. She ends up in a comfortable, if not happy, place, so to her she has a truth. I am reminded of a woman I know whose husband committed suicide. She found the body. She made the necessary phone calls. And she lives her life as if none of it ever happened. She has constructed a reality that allows her to remain sane.
Kirby's use of Schrodinger's cat as an example exposes the tenuous nature of truth and reality reminds us that no story is told without bias. In this book, we have an unreliable narrator being filtered through an unreliable narrator, and that makes me wonder which character in this book is the most trustworthy?
[Jeff] Well, I would say Kirby's bowels but they seemed to play too fast and loose with poor Kirby to be completely trustworthy. So I'm going to throw a vote out there for Aris. Sure, he had his moment of indiscretion but eventually came to--or out of--his senses when he sees Kendra's bruises. Or so that's the story we get through Kirby's reading of Kendra. Honestly, though, I'm not sure that I find any of the characters trustworthy. How about you?
[Kassia] Gives new meaning to trusting your gut, huh? I think you're right in suggesting that every character in this story, even as filtered through the eyes of Kendra and Kirby, has something to hide. My first thought when I tossed out this idea was that Leigh Kelsey won my vote, but maybe because I just loved the way Gina Frangello described this woman. After the waifish Kendra and somewhat frumpy Kirby and even the mouse-like mother, we're treated to a true woman. I just loved this: "Towering over me by half a foot, with blatantly D-cup cleavage and full, apple-hips, the specter of her was even more impressive within the confined delicacy of the shop. Some women, even at forty, especially at forty, are just too beautiful."
[CAAF] As Kassia mentioned, the 150th anniversary of Freud’s birthday was this weekend. The Independent has a piece on his legacy (link courtesy of Jeff, incidentally), which includes this apropos bit:
It is, in fact, writers and artists who are continuing to keep the Freudian flame alive. For AS Byatt, it has been a love-hate relationship. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, she was hugely irritated by "amateur psychotherapists who told you that things were about resistance or penis envy", but the writing itself was a revelation. It was, she explained in a panel discussion with the poet and critic Al Alvarez, while working on the novels of Iris Murdoch that she fell in love with the man she had previously dismissed as a bore. Murdoch's novels are, she said, "patterned on Freudian descriptions of the self", a concept she found "very exciting". "I don't think I work like that at all," she confessed, "but I started to love Freud when I read Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I loved it for its strong pessimism. Most of all, I love Freud for his quickness of understanding of metaphor and language and illusion. I love the way he understands how fairy tales work in the mind."
Freud wrote, according to the German psychoanalyst and Freud scholar, Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, with a big, fat fountain pen on large sheets of paper, specially cut to size. He needed to have plenty of white space around the words. He also needed a fog of cigar smoke and a cluster of Egyptian and Roman statuettes. These factors together provided an appropriate air of solemnity to help him overcome his dread of the (sorry, but inescapably phallic) pen. He wrote quickly, once he started, with few corrections. Lacking, at least until 1919, much sense of the demands of posterity, he chucked out his handwritten versions as soon as the typed ones appeared. It was a process that clearly owed more to religious ritual than to the scientific method.
"Freud," said Alvarez in the discussion with Byatt, "was writing rather like a novelist, creating a form and significance out of the chaos of theunconscious.”