June 2016 Books, Part 2


Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

Yeah, so I read this, and I more or less liked it. I am supposed to be embarrassed about that, I guess, but fuck it. I’ll acknowledge that it’s not especially well-written, but for the most part, it’s not distractingly badly written? I probably believe the same is true for Twilight, actually. For sure, there’s some quality to the writing that makes it not feel like high-brow literature, but it’s not as easy to point to a specific thing as it can be for some truly awful writing (e.g. Diana Gabaldon’s use of “wryly” or “dryly” to describe almost every single fucking line of dialogue in the Outlander series). Still, I was engaged throughout and invested in the central romance even though I knew about the Tragic Ending going in—that is, in fact, mostly why I went in, because the assisted suicide angle seemed like a pretty original take on this sort of story—and man, were tissues needed.

(The basic plot, for those not in the know: Louisa Clark is a 26-year-old who lives in a small town and helps support her working-class family. After she loses her job at a cafe, she finds that she only has the qualifications for low-paying and undesirable jobs. Then the opportunity comes along to help care for Will Traynor, a 35-year-old who became a quadriplegic after getting hit by a motorcycle two years earlier; dude is super rude for a while, but it’s a well-paying gig with a six-month contract. Obviously, Will and Louisa begin to fall for each other. BUT. Louisa finds out that Will attempted suicide before she was hired and, conditional on being allowed to die at Dignitas, had agreed to cease any further attempts for the next six months. So Louisa resolves to make him find the will to live, and…does not succeed? They declare their love for each other, Will still commits suicide, and he leaves Louisa enough money to start living more adventurously but not enough to float her for the rest of her life. The End.)

Apparently a lot of people are offended by this book’s portrayal of disability; I think it’s unwarranted, but I’m not surprised that reaction was there: having an able-bodied author portraying a character with a disability was bound to draw criticism no matter what, especially given that Me Before You is not quite Literary Fiction, which often seems to be above that specific type of social justice criticism. And compounding that with the topic of suicide—well, of course people are going to lose their shit; suicide is, like, the most taboo topic and I’m not completely sure why.

Anyway, the thing is, people probably would have been equally upset with the book had Will decided to live at the end, since then it would be seen as trivializing his disability by suggesting that the Power of Love was enough to overcome his daily pain and struggles, so I don’t think Moyes could really “win”—i.e. not have her book declared to be ~problematic—unless she herself was disabled and drawing from her own experiences. Still, anyone who reads this book and concludes that its message is “life with a disability isn’t worth living and quadriplegics should all just go kill themselves” is either being deliberately obtuse (because they went in to the book wanting to be offended) or is actually just super fucking dumb. I get that part of this is because there aren’t, at this point, very many representations of disabled characters in the media, so the few that there are have the burden of being perceived as stand-ins for the entire disabled community, but that’s clearly not the author’s intent? Will Traynor is meant to be Will Traynor, not just Generic Quadriplegic Love Interest. And Moyes makes a point, with Louisa’s participation in the online community, of showing that there are other people in similar conditions to Will who manage to still lead fulfilling lives and whatever. But:

  1. Everyone has a different relationship with their physical body, and certainly this is a theme that Moyes seems to be pursuing in the other storylines as well, with the growing distance in Louisa and Patrick’s relationship as he gets super into training for marathons. Patrick’s physical sense of self lies in his body itself (flesh, muscles, and all), while Louisa’s physical sense of self instead seems—especially given the reveal that she only started dressing this way after getting raped—to lie in her ~quirky fashion choices. And Will was all about the skiing, sky-diving, climbing, etc. lifestyle before his accident.
    So it comes down to how essential certain activities are to your life and sense of self. At what point in your life are you too old to radically change your lifestyle and expectations and yet too young to just accept diminished conditions until death? The classic “would you rather be deaf or blind” is an unpleasant and probably insensitive (to actual deaf and/or blind people) hypothetical to consider, but it’s relevant here. If you have an answer to it, it’s probably so obvious to you that you can’t imagine anyone answering the other option, but the fact that it’s asked at all probably means that not everyone would have the same answer. At this point in my life, it would suck to lose my hearing, but I could probably eventually adjust to it. I don’t think I could adjust to losing my vision; my current existence is so completely visually based, from my hobbies to my job, that even knowing that plenty of blind people lead successful and fulfilling lives (whatever the fuck “successful” and “fulfilling” even mean), I don’t think I, personally, would have the flexibility/strength/endurance/whatever to do so. And you can consider that a weakness of character on my part, but does one have to be “strong” to be worth portraying in fiction?
  2. Will’s condition is legitimately super shitty. It’s easy to ignore/forget the fact that it’s not just a case of not being able to move, but also just, like, constant discomfort and pain and risk of infection that could somehow even debilitate him further. So, yeah, he’s rich enough to get the best care and go to resorts and not worry about employment, but still. We haven’t quite reached the point in medical technology where one can completely override the internal workings of the human body given enough money.
  3. Again, this is unpleasant and probably insensitive, but I guess most people don’t think about suicide that often? We have difficulty distinguishing between thinking about suicide and being suicidal because taboos and hotlines and blah blah blah, but here’s another hypothetical: how shitty would your life have to get for it to not be worth the effort of living? Not everyone is going to have the same answer, but I suspect everyone has an answer, even if they aren’t willing to admit it to themselves, and it’s not just “if I were clinically depressed and thus ‘not in my right mind.'” Most of us are lucky enough to never have those conditions come to pass, and so we can be all self-righteous and say that suicide is unfathomable and we would never. Not so for Will Traynor.

So, right, it’s obnoxious to be like “if you’re offended by this, you’re wrong and this is why,” but  I guess one of the things that I feel is often missing from the culture of declaring “[insert piece of media here] is Problematic” is a deeper exploration of why we consider something to be Problematic, why the thing is Problematic within the context of the piece in question, and how the piece could potentially be, like, unproblematized without changing too many of its basic elements. Otherwise, it just seems kind of lazy and ultimately unhelpful in bringing about any sort of change.

The Book of Other People, compiled by Zadie Smith

Well, I still don’t like short stories. The concept was appealing; from Wikipedia:

The collection, as evidenced by the title, focuses on character; the authors were simply asked to “make somebody up”

And it seemed like I needed to read this for Zadie Smith completionism. But yeah, not really my thing.

Selected quote:

We looked into each other’s eyes in a way that said nothing mattered as much as us. I asked myself if I would kill my parents to save his life, a question I had been posing since I was fifteen. The answer always used to be yes. But in time all those boys had faded away and my parents were still there. I was now less and less willing to kill them for anyone; in fact, I worried for their health. In this case, however, I had to say yes. Yes, I would. (from Roy Spivey, by Miranda July)

After You, Jojo Moyes

This is the sequel to Me Before You and, well, it is pretty dumb, although not as dumb as it could have been? The book starts with Louisa falling from the fourth floor of a building, and you’re like, “oh shit, is this going to be a book about Louisa becoming a quadriplegic and falling in love with her carer?” but no, it is not quite that dumb. (Unclear whether this is a good or a bad thing, because that concept might have been ludicrously dumb enough to Transcend. But it would also mean that I would have to completely take back my defense of Me Before You‘s take on disability.) There is some physical damage—that she makes a full recovery from, certainly by the end of the book—but the purpose of the fall instead seems to be more to give the book an exciting opening (and maybe tease the possibility of the aforementioned super dumb option), get us up to speed on Louisa’s current relationships with her family members, bring Louisa’s post-Will mental state into question, tease the introduction of Will’s daughter (ugh, more on that), and introduce the hot paramedic who will become Louisa’s new love interest.

Anyway, for all the people who criticized the inheritance aspect of the ending of Me Before You as reducing Will to stepping stone that Louisa uses to grow as a person and pursue her dreams: well, not so much? She traveled for a while and was too depressed about Will’s death to get much out of it, leaving her with just enough money from the inheritance to buy a flat in London but still have to work at an airport bar. So yeah, there’s a lot about Grief, and it’s not necessarily fun to read, but it seems like a respectable authorial choice, especially in light of the claims that Me Before You is telling disabled people that they’re a burden to society and their loved ones would be better off without them. Because, like, clearly Louisa is not better off, inheritance or not.

But the dumb. Or maybe dumb is an unfair word, but plot points that have the feel of “sequel” all over them, where the first book was such a huge success that the author feels the need to include all of these shocking moments or overly plotted arcs that it somehow comes across as less “organic” than the first book: Louisa falls off a building! Will had a daughter that he didn’t know about and Louisa lets the rebellious teenager live with her! Louisa starts seeing a hot paramedic and then he gets shot! Louisa must decide whether to take a job in New York or stay behind with her hot paramedic!

I’ll read a third one, though, if there is one. The thing is, I love a marriage plot. Which is not quite what these are, but still: romance focusing more on the courtship aspect than the sex or long-term relationship issues. I probably don’t follow contemporary literature enough to say this with any certainty, but I think that genre has been pretty devalued since, idk, Austen, so that now you seemingly only get it in beach reads or YA, both of which I’m pretty reluctant to read because I’m an elitist asshole.

Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith

This is a collection of essays and they are pretty solid because Zadie Smith is great. Not much to say:

  • Zadie Smith talking about E.M. Forster delights me, because Forster feels, but of course the author of On Beauty would also have Forster feels.
  • Zadie Smith talking about Kafka makes me want to read Kafka more than I ever have, probably.
  • Zadie Smith talking about David Foster Wallace makes me think I’d probably hate DFW or he’d hate me.
  • Zadie Smith talking about Obama makes me fantasize about an Obama-based English curriculum featuring that essay, Americanah, and, presumably, Dreams of My Father (which I have not read, but now kind of want to?).
  • Zadie Smith talking about Old Hollywood is charming because of Zadie Smith’s narrative voice, but man, I still suspect Old Hollywood is completely overrated.

Selected quote:

In truth I thought: but I’ll be ludicrous, in my silly dress, with this silly posh English voice, in a crowded bar of black New Yorkers celebrating. It’s amazing how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment. A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey. A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own. You will think that a novelist’s screwy leap of logic. Well, it’s my novelist credo and I believe it. I believe that flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things. My audacious hope in Obama is based, I’m afraid, on precisely such flimsy premises.


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