ONE IS NOT BORN A WOMAN

Brooklyn
by Colm Toibin

Photo courtesy of Time.

Cait, photo courtesy of Time

Nora Webster
by Colm Toibin

This past weekend, I was mulling over what I wanted to tell you guys about Brooklyn and Nora Webster, two gorgeous novels by Colm Toibin. You may be familiar with Brooklyn because it was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie this year. Both books are set in Enniscorthy, Ireland and share a few characters, but the stories are entirely independent of one another. In Brooklyn, set in in the early 1950s, a young woman must venture to the U.S. by herself for lack of job opportunities at home. In Nora Webster, set in the late 60s/early 70s, a middle-aged woman has to figure out what to do with herself after the sudden death of her husband.

Both stories are told beautifully, in a simple, melodrama-free style, but I knew there was more to them that I liked, I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Deep in concerted thought, I did what every serious thinker resorts to when attempting to solve a high-minded query. I flipped on the E! channel and started watching the Caitlyn Jenner docu-series, I Am Cait.

Yes, I was looking for mind candy, but I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised and relieved I’ve been to see that someone involved in this show was smart enough to bring in some real academic heavyweights like Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein. And my mixed feelings about her aside, I give Caitlyn serious props for letting them chastise educate her on national TV so the rest of us can learn along with her. Despite the requisite Kardashian cameos (which tend to be pretty hysterical), any television program that has people quoting Simone de Beauvoir ain’t “Keeping Up With Cait.” Amidst sweeping Malibu vistas and Moschino dresses, there is some serious dialogue going on here. Including the aforementioned de Beauvoir quote from this week’s episode: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”

It was the brilliant Jenny Boylan who laid that one on the group during a discussion of gender roles and in her typically clueless manner, Cait responds with, “Where do you get this stuff?” You can see where this is both interesting and entertaining.

I perked up at the reference to this quote, as it is one of my favorites. I like it both for its simple lyricism (in its English translation) and for the various ways it can be interpreted. In its original context, de Beauvoir was saying that it is society that really shapes us as “male” or “female.” Given the crowd Simone hung with, some take a more existential reading of the quote (we aren’t “born anything,” we create who we are) and I’ve always liked thinking of it as an ode to maturation (we are born girls, we grow into women). All these interpretations are more or less streams that flow into the same river. Certainly the quote resonated with a group of transgender women who were not biologically born women.

We are all charged with finding our place in the world. For some, the journey may be easier than for others. Both of Colm Toibin’s main characters truly become women in the course of their stories and in depicting their journeys so eloquently, he reminds us that the process of becoming (whatever we may be) is one that is universal.

 

Kate Bornstein

Kate Bornstein, courtesy of Amazon (???)

Jennifer Finney Boylan, courtesy of her website.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, courtesy of her website

(By the way, I highly recommend Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides if you are interested in reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about gender identity.)

TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN

Two Girls, Fat and Thin
by Mary Gaitskill

You may remember a previous post about some books I’ve been carrying around for the past twenty years, the contents of which I could not recall. Let’s refer to these books as my “amnesia series.” On my second go-around, the following excerpt leapt out at me from the pages of Two Girls, Fat and Thin:

“ … for every imperfect entity, be it human or material, there exists a perfect counterpart; a lovely princess for every pimply shop girl. This perfection was not an annulment of the shop girl, but an ideal for her to aspire to … That is why advertising is deeply moral; its smiling billboards are neat openings into the air-brushed world of perfect beauty that we can all strive for and attain, to one degree or another, depending on our individual components.”

It’s been more than a week since the finale and I’m still thinking about Mad Men, the best novel I’ve ever watched. (If you haven’t seen the show and/or the series finale yet but plan to, you may consider some of the following a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and don’t plan to, I suggest reconsidering.)

Joan

Photos courtesy of AMC

There are so many things we could discuss about Mad Men, but the thought that lingers for me was how, somewhat to my surprise, Don turned out to be more cipher than hero or villain. This man who looked like a prince but acted like a pimple had an entire decade to reconcile his inner demons and emerge the better for it. But he couldn’t. He gained self-awareness, but not self-actualization. He just got better at being the same old Don.

Joan and Peggy’s demons, on the other hand, were external and while they each chose very different ways of handling those demons, both triumphed in the end. So while Don was our protagonist, the women were our heroes. They didn’t just “keep moving forward” as Don loved to say, they survived by learning and growing, ultimately realizing their full potential.

Peggy

The quote above describes exactly why we love duality in storytelling (and duality is a huge theme in Mad Men). Deep down, most people think of themselves as the pimply shop girl though they long to be the princess. Don understood that psychology as well as anyone, which is what made him the perfect ad man. It’s also why Bert Cooper, Ayn Rand devotee, loved Don so much – he knew how to feed the capitalist utopia.

So is this Mary Gaitskill book anything like Mad Men? That would be a no. There are some interesting coincidental parallels: a duality theme, a subplot involving a fictional version of Ayn Rand, some backstory about growing up a (very tortured) girl in the 1960s, but that’s where the similarities end.

And yet I kept the book all these years out of a form of nostalgia. Like a lot of things from the past, it was reassuring to read the book again and recognize that I hadn’t remembered it because I didn’t need to. I was okay without it. In one of Mad Men’s most iconic episodes, The Wheel, Don tells a room of Kodak execs that the word “nostalgia” means “the pain from an old wound” in Greek. I suppose we’re nostalgic for the things we’re still trying to sort out in our minds. Really good stories give us a lot to sift through.

Mad-Men-finale-690

This is my last post for a few weeks, I’ll be on sabbatical for a while. Read something good while I’m gone or re-watch Mad Menyou pick up a lot the second time around.