Sunday miscellany 14

Two very different, but both extraordinary, books this week (plus a third I’ll talk about later). First, Ursula K. Le Guin’s astounding The Dispossessed, a novel about anarchy, community and the social responsibility of the intellectual that manages also to be a page-turner. How to describe what is achieved in this book? This book that presents as natural, daily realities so many things we’re told are impossible. The thrust of the plot follows Shevek, probably the most brilliant physicist of his generation, from life on his native planet Anarres–an anarchist commune whose inhabitants broke away from capitalist society on the planet Urras two hundred years ago, following a female philosopher/prophet named Odo, and were given Anarres as part of the terms of settlement. Further terms mean that people from Urras are not permitted to land on Anarres except to offload cargo in a demarcated area of the spaceport, and scarcely any Anarresti are allowed off-planet. Shevek flees Anarres when it becomes obvious that his academic work is being stolen and his career suffocated by his supervisor, but on Urras he is a political pawn in a struggle that seeks a proprietary relationship to the technology he’s working on as a potential weapon or tactical advantage. (The tech would enable faster-than-light communication.) Le Guin is smartest in not making Anarres an uncriticizable utopia. Parts of it are brilliant (the scene where an Anarresti doctor comments scathingly of her Urrasti counterparts that they’re so understaffed and inefficient, they have to work a shocking eight hours a day! The lovely walking holiday Shevek and his friends, including his future wife, take in the mountains! The clear understanding that people are motivated to work by love for their community and the dignity that good work well done can provide!), but Shevek’s maturation comes when he realizes that power can be abused anywhere, even in places where there is nominally no power hierarchy. Urras, meanwhile, is decadent and has grossly unequal wealth distribution, but they have animals (Shevek has scarcely ever seen any, as Anarres is virtually devoid of non-human life), and flowers (likewise), and variety. It’s an intensely thought-provoking book about almost every aspect of society. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s The Book of Not is a sequel to Nervous Conditions, which I read for my African Summer reading project. It starts with an almost unparsable sequence in which a human leg flies up into the air. We don’t know where we are, whose leg that is, why it’s happening, and our narrator, Tambu, give us little help for pages at a time. Her trauma and dissociation at the sight is channeled into this first chapter, where we’re as disoriented and confused as she is. It is in fact her sister Netsai’s leg, which has been blown off by a hidden land mine. Most of the book subsequently takes place at the Convent of the Most Sacred Heart, where Tambu is receiving a Western education, but that leg keeps cropping up in her mind at the most inappropriate of times, a sinister implication that the damage done to her psyche through that experience is profound. The Book of Not is an intensely frustrating read, in very large part because it is about an African girl’s total absorption of white colonialist values and priorities and her equally total inability to ever be “good enough”, to ever relax her guard or experience her emotions fully or let go of an oppressive and prejudiced standard that will run her, physically and mentally, into the ground before it gives her the approval that she craves. It makes her a craven and deeply unsympathetic character–she is selfish, she is strategic (but never strategic enough), she is merciless to herself, she inwardly sneers at other people–but also an extremely comprehensible one. The pain of The Book of Not is that nowhere in its pages does Tambu wake up and try a different strategy, not even when she leaves school for a job at an advertising agency where her ideas are stolen by her white coworkers. She quits that job eventually, in despair, but the book leaves her with no notion of how to move forward. There is a third installation in the series, This Mournable Body, which I’m almost afraid to read after the excoriating experience of being inside Tambu’s adolescent head. I may come back to it.

This week I also read Dr. Gwen Adshead’s The Devil You Know, about her experiences as a forensic psychiatrist. The hardback was marketed with a definite eye to true crime/sensationalist markets, but the paperback is rather more subtly designed with a colourful Rorschach-esque abstract blob, and I think that reflects the book’s contents better. Adshead is a thoughtful and compassionate chronicler of what can make a mind move beyond the bounds of what we consider normalcy, and she’s capable of illuminating human corners of sadness, terror, helplessness and loss even in the minds of people who have done appalling things. Her chapter on Ian, who sexually abused his two sons, springs to mind here, as does the opening chapter on Tony, who killed and dismembered several young men. Adshead is very open about the way therapists are trained and taught, including learning to pay attention to your own feelings within the consulting room and to treat any fear, revulsion or scorn you may feel initially towards a patient as an interesting artifact instead of an objective truth or a moral imperative. Although it’s cowritten with Eileen Horne, it doesn’t have the awkward sense of ventriloquism that seems to dog other cowritten professional memoirs–it all feels organic and as though Adshead’s voice is what we’re hearing throughout. Highly recommend this too, especially to people with interests in psychology, criminal justice, and/or the intersection of the two.

6 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany 14

  1. The Dispossessed is just so good, I know I’ve already said so 🙂 I’d be really interested in your views in the incident with the woman and Shevek at the party when he was drunk, though. It jarred with the rest of the novel for me. What did you think Le Guin was trying to say here?

    1. That’s a great question. It really threw me, too. My immediate response to it was that it seemed a way for UKLG to do to Shevek what she does to Annares more generally, ie prevent him from becoming too inhumanly perfect and noble. I had a strong reaction of disgust and disappointment to his behaviour, and I wonder also if we’re meant to examine that in ourselves (since a reader is more likely to be culturally akin to the Urrasti)–how we react to that scene reveals what we think about how sexual and romantic relationships “ought” to work. (Though clearly, rape or sexual assault is a concept the Anarresti have, and what Shevek does is arguably the latter. He’s disgusted with himself too, the next morning.)

      1. Thanks so much for your thoughts! That makes a lot of sense to me. I also reacted with disgust and disappointment, and wondered if it was inconsistent with Shevek’s character – though I think the alcohol, while not an excuse, made him more likely to act in that way.

      2. No, I think it’s consistent, just shitty–and the alcohol + massive culture shock/confusion around sexual ethics definitely isn’t helping him at that point…

  2. I have heard many people praising Tsitsi Dangarembga’s first and third books in the trilogy, but comparatively little has been said about the second. So maybe you were not the only one struggling with it.

    1. I think second books in trilogies are notoriously hard to pull off in any case, and they’re especially hard to write about, for the same reason – the story is right in the middle! But I wouldn’t be surprised if others had struggled and/or abandoned it.

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