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Borrowed from [personal profile] dorothean, with thanks.

I thought throughout most of this book that I did not like it very much, because it is a story that has been told so often. Joanna Russ talks in one of her essays about the plot arcs available to heroines in books where it is predetermined that the principal story of a woman's life is How She Got Married, which becomes old news after a while, and what a writer can do about that, the dodges and stratagems available to let your heroine do something. This book has one of the arcs that Russ suggests is a possible replacement or addition to Getting Married, which has come in fairly recently: How She Went Crazy. Specifically, in this case, how she was driven crazy, in a story that also includes how she got married, which was a significant contributor to how she was driven crazy.

In short, I thought through most of this book that it was the story of a woman as an exemplary victim, a novel in which every bad thing possible happens to the heroine so that the author can explain to you how terrible it all is. And it is terrible, in real life, really genuinely terrible things happen to women, but in a novel it is possible to make your reader overdose on misery, just say 'this is too much' and clock out. I thought this had made that mistake, and I have read that book many times and would rather read a good nonfictional work on the relevant atrocities, which would tell me, maybe, where one might start to do something about them.

Because this is a book where many terrible and quite realistic things happen to the protagonist, Firdaus, who is born into great poverty, suffers FGM without ever knowing what it is, spends a long time as a prostitute, is never loved by anyone, is betrayed by everyone she ever loves, and eventually kills a man who has become her pimp and is trying to prevent her from leaving him. She tells her life story to the narrator while on death row for the killing.

And I thought for a while that the style was too self-consciously literary, that the ways that things repeat in Firdaus' life (quite frequently word-for-word, motif following motif in the same precise order) was too intentionally symbolic.

But gradually it began to dawn on me: this is in fact a book I hadn't read before.

In Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus (who is talking about punk music, but never mind) makes a distinction between nihilistic and negationist art. Negationist art is revolutionary art which says: all this (whatever this is) has to go, get rid of it all, burn it all down with whatever violence necessary, and then we will see what comes out of the ashes when we start over. Nihilistic art is revolutionary art which says: all this has to go, get rid of it all, it all has to burn down, with extreme violence, and that violence is the only point left, because nothing can rise from the ashes anymore.

This is a genuinely nihilistic feminist novel. Firdaus achieves the total freedom of the sociopath, through many years of being pushed well beyond human endurance, and reaches that peculiar state in which there is no distinction between pain and pleasure, fear and welcome, in which nothing can touch her anymore and she kills because it is the right thing to do. (The question is asked in the book several times: "Who says murder does not require that a person be gentle?" Firdaus is very gentle.) She agrees with Ti-Grace Atkinson that heterosexual marriage is an economically exploitative form of coerced prostitution (and for her it was) and with Valeria Solanas that men are not human (and for her they were not). Once she's torn a large sum of money into shreds, no human thing can arouse her respect. The infinite circling and repetitions, the motif following motif, are because she is the one telling her life story, the marks of her first-person voice and her insanity. You can see, sometimes, things that might have been ways out for her, but only in the instants of their vanishing. Each repetition is a tighter spiral of the vortex that will end with her death as the happiest moment of her life.

And all the narrator can do-- the narrator who, the author says in the preface, is herself; this is a story she did hear from a woman awaiting execution, and fictionalized-- all the narrator can do is say, in wonder and frustration: she was braver than I am.

That book, I had not read before, no, and I am glad someone wrote it. It has the cold clarity of the point zero it claims to be. You cannot come away from it with the sort of reassurances you bring from a book which allows any rays of light inside itself. It will make you angry because it offers no answers whatsoever. The anger of unanswered questions is a useful kind of anger. Firdaus, herself, is the question.


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