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[personal profile] rachelmanija sent me a package containing among other objects Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, a Harlequin romance entitled Wedlocked: Banished Sheik, Untouched Queen, and a postcard of le portrait présumé de Gabrielle d'Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars, 1594. (Painting link probably NSFW although in irreproachable taste due to its age, because a provenance of several centuries makes most things more respectable.) It's amazing how well this all goes together.

The painting is, actually, a reasonable metaphor for Prince of Tides: over-the-top and trashy, but with surprising artistic technique and critical credibility, and a story that only makes the entire thing multiple magnitudes weirder. This is, you see, the portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrées made to serve as her announcement to her lover, the King of France, that she was pregnant. The child would of course be illegitimate, but royal, so she's holding but not wearing his signet ring. There's a woman in the background making baby clothes.

And she is of course naked in a bathtub with her sister groping her because her sister is demonstrating that she will be very good at feeding babies. No, really. This is a gesture you can see the Virgin Mary making on herself in various paintings when she's suckling Christ. Of course, the reason it is being performed by somebody else and both of them are totally undraped ladies is because when you are the maîtresse déclarée of the King of France you have something of a reputation to keep up, and also he was probably into that.

So it looks like an extremely formal portrait of sixteenth-century lesbian sex, BUT ACTUALLY it's an extremely formal portrait of sixteenth-century vaguely suggested lesbian incest serving as a note to a prospective baby-daddy AND a comparison of the subject to the Virgin Mary.

In a similar way, Prince of Tides looks at first glance as though someone has forcibly chained Tennessee Williams to a writing desk and informed him that he is to write Love Story. It is a fusion of the Southern Gothic with the Big Fat Seventies And Eighties Epic Novel, you know, from the people who brought you Shogun; a book that is meant to keep you more entertained than any other seventeen books by being as long as all of them put together and also by having the entirety of their content, pureed. It has a confusing amount of very good descriptions of food, a prose style that is not merely purple and not merely mauve but pretty much Fauvist, and characters who manage to be interesting enough despite the fact that the narrator is not as funny as he thinks he is and spends a bit too long in every chapter reminding you that his childhood was terrible, which, yes, we got that, a narration of events would have proved that. (I am not going to try to give you any kind of narrative summary of this novel. I told you, it has the content of seventeen novels shoved into it.)

Then you look more closely at it, and you go, this is a book in which an eighty-five-year-old man waterskiing forty miles on a bet to win back his suspended drivers' license is an interlude between the chapters in which melodramatic things happen. This is a book which contains, in its entirety, the text of a highly symbolic pseudonymous children's book written by the narrator's tormented-genius twin sister. This is a book which has not one but two scenes involving the narrator being very good at football which are genuinely emotionally effective, even if one does not know the rules of football (and I don't). THIS IS A BOOK IN WHICH SOMEONE BECOMING A VIOLENT ENVIRONMENTAL TERRORIST IS AN ANTI-CLIMAX BECAUSE THE THINGS THAT HAPPENED BEFORE THAT WERE SO MUCH WEIRDER.

Apparently I am going to spoiler-cut this. Huh. )

I knew about this plot point going in. It was even more spectacularly odd than I had been told to expect. It was also genuinely disturbing, in that way where there is a lot of violence in this book and when you pile violence upon violence after a while you are kind of ready to buy something when it goes THAT FAR over the top. It would be way less disturbing if you could even see the top under your feet, you know? This scene is, by itself, so completely outside the boundaries of all plausibility that it almost makes the entire book emotionally believable.


You see the analogy to the painting? I mean, that painting is so way the hell over the top that it only wound up in the Louvre.

It is true that, to date, of the things [personal profile] rachelmanija sent me, so far only one has had the supreme artistic accolade of having a Barbra Streisand movie made out of it.

It is, however, not too late. She may, after all, still get around to Banished Sheik, Untouched Queen. I can only hope*.

* (Look, I-- actually went through a Barbra Streisand period, as a young teen, where I saw everything I could get hold of containing her about fifty times each (though not this), and I still quite like her. I am one of the three human beings on the planet to have seen On A Clear Day You Can See Forever more than once. Having read this novel, I don't even have to look up what role she played to tell you that she was horribly, horribly, terribly miscast and that the whole thing cannot have ended well. But if she ever were to film that Harlequin romance novel, I would, in fact, see the movie. I thought I should make that clear at some point in here.)


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March 2017

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