Books are clearly awesome. There are many days where I spend more time with books than I do with people, and on most of those days I'm happy about that. I tend to go through genre phases: sometimes I'm all over non-fiction, or science writing, or short stories. Lately though, it's been a large and amorphous category titled "Books that will Mess You Up". It's been a long year and in all honesty I feel a little emotionally numb, and so my thinking goes something like this: what better way to break through that wall, the barrier that seems to be between me and what I want to be feeling, than words? The written word. At any rate, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to read a lot of really depressing stuff right before the holidays.
When my friend Anna, who is a real live writer living in San Francisco, asked me to write a short book review based around the theme of "devastation", I knew exactly what I had to write about. Of all the things that have come close to me these last few months, Dorothy Allison's first novel Bastard out of Carolina had clearly hit me the hardest. I stayed up late to finish it, cried myself to sleep, and had bad dreams all night, which makes that a hell of a book in my opinion. Anyway, here's my review. You can also read Anna's take here, with a much funnier introduction and contact information in case you feel like writing a short review yourself.
Um... Happy holidays?
I saw Dorothy Allison read recently, and while talking about the role of violence in her writing in the post-reading discussion she smiled at the audience widely, winningly, and told us this: “Ima fuck you up.” She smiled and we laughed and I wondered why, because is that actually funny? She was sincere, I was certain, but when she smiled at us so sweetly, just like her characters always do when they don’t trust the people they’re talking to, we still laughed. Maybe because it’s true; she does fuck you up, beautifully, terribly, magnificently, in a way that sticks with you long after the book is over. Somehow, it’s part of her appeal.
The plot of Bastard out of Carolina, her first book and yet still the one she chose to read from the day I saw her, is simple—it’s about a young girl growing up poor white trash as part of a large and publicly despised family in South Carolina, suffering through and surviving a childhood heaped with physical and sexual abuse. It sounds pretty run-of-the-mill in this age of disaster memoirs, but what sets Allison apart is her honesty, a truthfulness that transcends what we’re supposed to think about poor people, about abuse survivors, and about the people who love them. The characters are often hard to comprehend, hard to love, but sometimes also hard to hate; they are not always noble, or self-sacrificing, or even kind. They are true to their own natures, and that’s not always a pretty sight—it’s just an honest one. And honesty, for all its supposed beauty and simplicity, can also be as ugly as a bruise
Consider Bone, the titular bastard: I love her so much, for her strength and loyalty to her mother and her sheer stubbornness, but I’m also afraid of her. She’s hard, in the way you have to be to survive sometimes, but she’s only thirteen by the end of the book and she just scares the fuck out of me sometimes. Bone is driven by what we almost can’t see—as readers we witness the physical abuse she suffers from her stepfather, but other than an initial molestation scene there’s little direct description of sexual abuse. It exists in memories and hints, lingering around the edges of the more easily definable physical harm, without words to give it form but tainting everything—her worldview, her interpersonal relationships, her day-to-day actions—just the same.
It comes out in her intense hatred of those who mistreat her: her abusive stepfather, the Woolworth’s manager who belittles her, the doctors who try to help her. But it comes out most clearly in Bone’s masturbation fantasies; they sound like something a dominatrix would whisper in your ear, visions of strength through suffering and pride in pain, and when I suddenly considered that they belonged to an eleven-year-old it shocked me more than almost anything else in the entire book. The only people who offer a solution she can accept are her blood relatives, and because they solve violence with a violence that echoes her own desires their solutions are short-term ones. Bone doesn’t believe anybody can help her, because nobody does; she knows even as a child how people act towards a poor bastard with bruises on her legs, and she wants pity even less than help.
One moment can irrevocably break your life into two pieces, the before and after, and a lot of books are about that. This one is too, but in a deeper way it’s also about the slow relentless grind, of the damage that comes from a life consisting of tiny, mostly terrible moments, one after another with no hope of escape. Bastard out of Carolina is a shattering book because it’s about violence, the violence of abuse and bodily harm but also the ongoing violence of poverty and shame and hunger, of stretched-thin food and frayed clothing and sneering looks and how all of these small pieces add up into something that can eat you alive, if not bodily than spiritually.