The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Mike’s review

Continuing with our theme of inappropriate sexual relations, here’s what I’ve chosen to put up next.

Estha was raped. I probably won’t put this guess/assumption up if I’m wrong.

There’s some intense profanity here. Flowery, flowery, flowery, then bam! Cunt.

Forced handjob’s pretty close to rape if it isn’t rape itself.

So much repetition. “Littledemons were mudbrown in Airport-Fair frocks with forehead bumps that might turn into horns. With Fountains in Love-in-Tokyos. And backwards-reading habits.” All those descriptors repeated over and over.

183 pages of “something fucked up is gonna happen to these people you have no real investment in because I only talk in flower-colors and quirks, not personalities.”

Really though, Estha’s forced handjob is only sad because he’s a kid; the same way hearing about a child handjob is sad on the news. It doesn’t matter that it’s Estha’s hand.

The present-day Rahel and silent Estha framing device seems worthless.

What keeps me reading then? The words themselves. Those flowers I complained about are attractive, after all. And habit. Let’s not forget the drive to finish.

“It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.” Bah. I see what you’re saying, but to call this one of the Great Stories is a bit much.

Valerie, this is half in response to a small, throwaway comment at the end of your response to Youth in Revolt, but also relevant to why I kept reading, as addressed above: word porn (whether it’s the thrills of a bestseller or the flowers of a respected book (I’m not sure Small Things is respected [that’s not a derogatory not sure, but an honest not sure], but the other word I want to use is indie, which is further off the mark) is alluring. While walking the dog this morning, I was thinking about how comforting books are. Books will always love me. I kinda can’t believe I admitted to feeling that way, but I do. My formative years were spent in pages and I’ll always feel ok when reading, really no matter what it is I’m reading. I’m far more patient and willing to finish a novel I find grating than a tv show or movie (I rarely watch movies anymore because they all have at least some small problem and I lack the patience to get through them). I must admit I’m more patient with tv. Or at least I watch more of it. It could be that tv actually is more awesome than movies right now. That’s not the point though. The point is, as we’ll see the more I post here, I rarely find a book unequivocally good. I always take issue with a theme or style, things which are pretty paramount to the makeup of the book, but I’ll almost always finish. The point is, I fucking love books.

Valerie’s response

Love your mini-review of your review at the end… first, to reply to that: Roy’s book is respected – it won the Booker Prize in 1997. I have no time for TV these days because I am allergic to commercials so you will only get blank stares from me on most TV topics. & I love watching a certain kind of movie (NOT blockbusters generally) but will abandon them more easily than books as well.

Argh I am frustrated because I know I made notes on this book using the Living Social app and never transferred those reviews to Goodeads before it shut down. I can’t count on my memory for anything. I selected this book for my now defunct book club and nobody finished it except me. In fact, everyone was so put off by it that we didn’t even meet to discuss it.

I can’t remember the forced handjob thing. Must’ve not disturbed me enough…? I do recall the language being absolutely exquisite, the running together of words a favorite trope of mine I adopted to the annoyance of my amigos. The power structures of the book were infuriating, the kind where you could allow yourself to thoroughly detest the characters – I am thinking of the grandaunt in particular. Also the ending was so lovely I believe I cried, not only with happiness at the lovers getting their togetherness but as vindication for finishing the fucking thing.

Mike’s response

DVR and OnDemand, yo.

The handjob isn’t exactly disturbing because its existence is telegraphed from the first sentence. We could have a whole conversation about whether or not that’s an ethical way to write. Though without your notes it would be a shitty conversation devoid of nuance that would look something like this: “Rape is bad.” “It sure is.” So I’ll talk to myself about it for a bit. Yes, the handjob is telegraphed and the act itself doesn’t seem all that disturbing, but the aftermath is shown in detail. Though I find that portrayal melodramatic, I can’t really say there’s no consequence and the handjob comes across as a good thing. So I’d be curious to find out what was so off putting to your book club. Though I had some problems, I can’t exactly call this amoral.

I don’t really remember power structures. I think this and a short story that was set in India which involved extended families and cats (and wasn’t very good) are being muddled in my brain right now.

Be careful with running words together. I did it a couple times in the first real story I ever wrote and it’s taken me years to get over it. I still do it. Sometimes lexicons need to be shifted if not entirely changed. It’s so much fun and so easy to overuse. (Is it overuse or over use?)

Valerie’s response

I DVR The Daily Show and Colbert but am pretty far behind on those… We’re axing cable to save money pretty soon so then I will really be out of the loop on TV. When I was a kid I memorized the TV Guide, though – I think I OD’ed back then.

So are you questioning whether foreshadowing is ethical, or whether using sex abuse in writing to further plot is ethical? Either way I’m not feeling very moralistic about either, so you could say I’m pro foreshadowing and also pro plot development, even if that which pushes the story is distasteful. I mean, there needs to be conflict, right?

The book club couldn’t handle this book’s language difficulty and possibly was turned off by the cross-cultural aspect…. I mean, these were girls reading Jodi Picoult and shit like that.

I’m going to try to get through Kafka on the Shore so we can discuss something a little fresher in the memory bank for both of us.

Mike’s response

I’m okay with both foreshadowing and plot development. I meant whether or not the author has something of an obligation to show the actual act of sexual abuse to be traumatic. In the book, the actual act isn’t really shown to be all that bad. A little scary, but not traumatic. The aftermath certainly gets to Estha, to the point where he stops talking for the rest of his life. (It’s been a while for me too, so I may be mudering the actuality of the book.)

So, here’s where I was going: It’s entirely possible that a real child would be forced to touch an adult inappropriately (probably not a stranger in a movie theater lobby, but I’ll let that slide for now). Since the reader sees this coming from the beginning of the story, the act itself is expected. The reader is desensitized. The book is meant to be realistic (as opposed to, say, Chuck Pahlaniuk), so to desensitize what should be a brutal act could be seen as irresponsible. Roy does show consequences. Estha stops talking, clearly he’s been traumatized. I understand that trauma is different for everyone and everyone’s entitled to their own reaction, but to me, to never speak another word ever again rings false, which I think also diminishes the horribleness of the act. It turns a bit cartoony, exaggerated.

Ultimately, I don’t think an author has a bit of an obligation to anyone but himself and even that’s a tenuous obligation. Certainly art can elevate a society, but it doesn’t have to. That conversation’s been had a million times and I’m sure everyone knows which side they fall on (personally, I think the more interesting conversation is, Is it okay to like great art by truly horrible people? *cough*Polanski*cough*). As someone who has tried to write about these things (more than likely unsuccessfully), I was just surprised to see the sexual abuse of a child handled with such carelessness. The lack of shock shocked me.

I don’t know what a Jodi Picoult is. I have a feeling where it falls in the literary spectrum though. It’s really awkward to receive a bad book recommendation (usually of that sort). I’m way too big a self-righteous dick to graciously say, “Yeah, I’ll check that out.” Nope, I have to turn it into a culture war. Then when that’s over I go watch Bachelor Pad (that’s like half a joke; I’ve seen it, but not exactly by choice. I was into it though and that’s what counts).

Nuts to discussion. Read Kafka on the Shore because it’s awesome. Unequivocal recommendation.

Valerie’s response

You have managed to dislodge the memory of the handjob scene when you mentioned the theater. Thanks. I don’t think it was handled carelessly – it was finely wrought. The acts of such criminals often occur in moments of opportunity, as did this one. It comes back up in the character’s mind at odd moments throughout his life too, right? Didn’t it ruin a certain kind of candy for the child or something? Children’s silence on these matter is also sadly accurate. “The lack of shock shocked me.” Maybe the casual treatment of the whole incident reflects the mundanity of these things which occur all too frequently. The character’s never speaking again might simply be hyperbole to make a point, while providing some overreactive shock value.

Fuck Polanski the rapist! Fuck William Burroughs, the wife killer. Fuck Picasso, the womanizer. Abusive artists are on par with criminal athletes who get away with whatever because of their talent. Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick, OJ Simpson, etc.  It’s about power (see also the IMF’s Strauss-Kahn, other politico fuckups). In universities and high schools that crap plays out on a smaller stage, though no less damaging to the assaulted. No-name victims (usually women) become lesser-than in the social equation and that in itself to me invalidates their art/genius. Or at least makes me sick enough physically to reject it intellectually.

Hmm. Bachelor Pad, I can only imagine the horror…

You said “Chuck Pahlaniuk” and now my brain is craving his styles – I feel like reading a few of his in a row. Going to the library later.

Sending you the Scenic Utah manuscript also. Adored every story.

Mike’s response

I know I’m in a minority of thought when it comes to child sexual abuse scenes (oh god, that’s a flame-war-starting, horrible-person-making sentence), but I’m not moving here. This is a hard position to take because it is easily seen as approving/tolerating sexual abuse and that is not what I seek to do here. Okay, the tiptoeing is over, let’s do this thing. Most children who are abused are abused by someone they know,: father, uncle, neighbor. Someone who they’ve already put great trust in. Yes, random abuse occurs, but it’s not that frequent. I think this is where my problem with this scene begins, because it fits the mostly off the mark narrative of fear we’ve created and not the true story of what usually occurs. As far as random (so we’re clear, random means originating from a stranger) abuse goes, this is pretty accurate. The guy works at the theater and Estha would have to put some trust in his authority, but it frustrates me that the way in which sexual abuse mostly occurs isn’t often told. That’s not really Roy’s responsibility and I realize this is my thing here, but I get to talk about it because this blog is supposed to be about our personal reactions. (This is awesome that I get to talk about this here. This discussion wouldn’t fit at college or the book club. Books are supposed to be personal and we’ve lost that in some ways and I’m really glad we get to do this here.) So Roy didn’t stand much of a chance of my approval here. It’s worrisome to me that we expend so much energy fearing the wrong thing. I had it drilled into me that I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers (to the point where I turned and walked away without a word when someone asked me for directions at a stoplight at the busiest intersection in town, which wasn’t all that busy, but my point still stands (I was so fucking scared. I was certain I had just avoided death. I shook the whole way home.)), but no one said a word about what inappropriate touching was or what to do about it should it occur. It takes a lot of work to be scared and I’d like to make sure I’m scared of the right thing. And, possibly, if we shifted the narrative closer toward the actuality, maybe we could prevent some of this abuse. Rant that wasn’t really about the book over.

“The character’s never speaking again might simply be hyperbole to make a point, while providing some overreactive shock value.” Exactly. And for whatever reason, I had a huge problem with that hyperbole. Which is strange because I live hyperbolicly. If it can’t be exaggerated, it isn’t worth doing (I totally exaggerated that stranger story above when I first typed it then tempered it back to the truth).

I agree with you about terrible people to an extent. The thing is, I think we’ve all done horrible things that should be intellectually rejected. I know I have.

Scenic Utah is sitting next to me. Thank you.

Valerie’s response

You’re completely right that random assault is overblown in importance by our society. Your story about being scared at the bus stop made me sad. (Which reminds me of that kid on the bus story from IHMJ that made me so sad too.) I struggled with how to respond to this because suddenly I feel like I’m in therapy again. As a sex abuse survivor I know all too well that those close to you are most in position to hurt you. My cousin raped me on multiple occasions when I was five and that period is probably my earliest and most traumatic memory. He told me if I told anyone I would get sick and die and I believed him.

Long-term consequences included  a nervous breakdown in high school when the abuse all came out. I found out my cousin had abused his own children as well as his nieces. He rotted in jail for awhile then got out and changed his name. I blamed their abuse on myself for never speaking up. For years I had an inability to trust along with perfectionist tendencies. I would often end up emotionally hurting those who loved me as some fucked self defense mechanism. I see now my behavior was promiscuous and self abusive.

I have serious trust issues as a parent. I freak out daily that my kids will be taken advantage of. When my three-year-old told me another kid kissed his butt and penis at daycare I fucking flipped. His caretaker assured me it was just talk he learned from the older kids but I don’t know what to do. I tell him every day that those are private parts and he can tell me anything but I don’t know if he gets it. That’s the worst part, like is the damage already done? WTF to do?

I don’t know why Roy chose to demonstrate a case of stranger assault – maybe it was a class issue, in that the kid was of a privileged class and the worker was not, so he chose to demonstrate a different type of power (I may be misremembering). I’ve read many books that show incest and address it honestly/terrifyingly. Off the top of my head I can think of: The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, which describes a true story between an insane father and his daughter. Push by Sapphire shows abuse by both parents toward their daughter. The Winged Seed by Li-Young Lee shows a grandfather demanding sex from his granddaughter. (I reviewed these in my running g-doc and can post them here if you want.)

So much fucked-upedness and all of it possible. Yet sadly these revelations don’t change society to talk openly about the taboo topic. Advertising, TV, Hollywood and generations of gender programming ingrain certain ideas, for example, that girls who dress/talk sexy must want it. This thinking inclines culture toward blaming the victim in cases of rape.

Okay Mike, sorry for the confessional but I feel that this was easier to write about personally than faux objectively.

Aside: Your use of the word “hyperbolicly” delights me.

Mike’s response

I’m sorry I left this hanging in the air for so long. I wanted to respond, but was scared because this is such a big thing. Thank you for sharing. That’s a horrible, horrible, horrible thing. In no way could that be easy to be so open about, but it’s great that you are. You’re doing the right thing, recognizing that the stigma of not-talking is hurtful to yourself and others.

As for children, wow. I don’t even know. I freak out about fucking everything already. I can’t even imagine what children would mean. That seems like a strange thing for a kid to say, but I don’t know. From what I remember of childhood, I would have said something an older kid said to try to be cool. Encourage openness. Be there. Communicate. Even for smaller things, these traits are big deals.

You are probably right about the class issue. I don’t really remember, but that would make sense, what with India being so class-stratified and all.

I welcome you posting anything and everything you want here. I like it here.

To bring the topic to today, Sandusky is clearly guilty. God, guilty doesn’t seem like a strong enough word. The devil? evil? one of the worst people currently alive? I say this as someone who rarely believes in guilt and is almost always the guy who’s all like, “yeah, but the jury said not-guilty and that’s the way the system works, so either accept it or try to change the system.” (There are a lot of caveats to that statement. Almost any and all rape cases and so many black men imprisoned comes to mind.) I first heard his Costas interview on the radio and my stomach fucking churned. Ugh. I’m really fortunate I didn’t have to go through anything like that. Those poor children. That doesn’t seem like a worthy sentence either. I don’t know, it’s so fucked up. I long for the innocence of childhood a lot and to think that that innocence can be destroyed so wantonly…I don’t know. It makes me so sad and sick that my body’s kinda shutting down and I’m unable to really talk about it.

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