Tag Archives: misogyny in fiction

Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi – A fable-like novel of feminist power and revenge

Do you love and relish great opening lines to fiction?  Then how about this:

“This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough . . .”

Fantastic, eh? This is strong, provocative fiction whose style is reminiscent of such distinctive writers and their fiction as — sadly many of whom are now either discarded or vastly under-appreciated — Gordon Lish (Peru: A Novel, Dear Mr. Capote), early Jenny Diski (Nothing Natural) and Andrea Dworkin (Mercy, Ice and Fire), in terms of its honesty to consider and portray the disturbing realities of society through the experiences of its female characters and the chameleon forms of violence perpetrated against women. Dirty Weekend, an account of 48 hours of violence against one woman, and her retributions, is by turns bizarre, poignant, powerful and empathetic.

The plot

From the outset, the story of Bella takes on the level of a fable or parable. By the opening pages, she has already been threatened with sexual violence by a man who lives opposite her. He promises to pour acid on her skin. But then ‘Fate found Bella one night … and whispered in her ear. And when she woke up, she knew she’d had enough’. It is from this point that she is empowered; no longer wishing to stay persecuted and victimised by the ignorance and violence so common in so many men. She decides, with the help of a mystic, that – since men seem only to view her as a victim – she is unable to at least act even as a bystander and avoid their glare, so concludes that she has no other choice than to take action.

In a series of explicitly and clinically described episodes, Bella enacts her ideas of retribution upon one violent man after another. If these extreme scenes are powerful, it is because of the brutal honesty in the evocation of Bella’s pain and outrage, and the attitudes of the men that only wish to threaten and oppress any iota of self-regard that she may have.

Recommendation

It is an uncompromising, powerful novel, working as it does within the ugly, hypocritical shadows that our supposedly moral society casts.  Occasionally clichés do spill over the overall quality of the writing, yet Zahavi’s key strength and great talent that is to be celebrated — and ridiculous to deny — is in her fluidity and razor-blade precision to evoke a dark vision; a sinister fable-like version of feminist understanding and empowerment.  Unfortunately, this novel is sadly, unforgivably, out of print, but you can buy it from Amazon as a Kindle edition (for the US and UK markets). However, for those without a Kindle, you should be able to borrow a copy from your local library (or through their inter-library loan system), or otherwise buy a low-cost copy from one of the online secondhand dealers, such as abebooks. com/.co.uk, alibris.com/.co.uk, or one of Amazon‘s marketplaces.

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Filed under Andrea Dworkin, Dear Mr Capote, Dirty Weekend, feminism, fiction, Gordon Lish, Ice and Fire, literary classics, Mercy, misogyny, violence against women

Last Exit to Brooklyn – Still Selby’s best novel?

Controversy has always surrounded Selby, Jr.’s writing. From the start, with Last Exit (being his first novel), his original UK publisher Calder and Boyers, faced government prosecution in 1967, under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. It was a major trial, especially as it was originally found guilty of being `obscene’, and because, more importantly, the Appeal in 1968 overturned that decision and paved way for a much more open-minded interpretation of literature as to merit.

In some interviews, and in one introduction to the novel that he wrote, Selby himself said that he when he was writing this novel (six years in the making), he `was aware of the rage and anger within’ (quoted from the QPB edition in 1994). He also acknowledged that, while he has no favourite among his novels, he singles out The Room, and then this novel, notably, because through it he `truly did learn how to write’ (quote from same QPB edition).

Set in New York in the late 1950s, the story grabs you from the start, conveying an incredibly raw, visceral, yet always disturbingly poetic quality throughout. It is superb for its genuine grittiness, horribly grim reality and ugliness of modern inner city life – of thought, attitude, action and feeling – both projected outwards, as well as internalised, all of which Selby captures through voices of the dispossessed, alienated, disenfranchised. Selby is mould naturalist/realist fiction, but he goes a significant step further, in that, often through his first-person character narratives/viewpoints, he achieves an hallucinatory quality whose intensity strengthens the realities he conveys.

One critic, James R. Giles, in his excellent study of Selby’s works, Understanding Hubert Selby, Jr. (Understanding Contemporary American Literature), wrote `It is true that, while all the characters in the novel are victimized by a brutal environment, they are guilty of moral failures that make their victimization complete and irrevocable’, and Selby does this by exploring without fear or judgement powerful themes that resonant as much today as they did on first publication in 1964 in the US: drug addiction, misogyny, violence of rape and beatings, prostitution, the relentless drudgery and alienation of most jobs as well as unemployment, without value or meaning and hate and a distressingly dark, twisted humour – when not expressed through seething resentment or explosive anger – permeates life in general.

I reckon, Dante would have regarded Last Exit as a worthy match to his own vision of Hell – especially through characters who represent the sick underbelly of the city: self-deluding, beaten-up prostitutes, incredibly violent youths and gangs, a desperately lonely, elderly woman who has no life other than pathetic memories of her dead husband and son, among others. As for disturbing, truly dark humour, one such example will give you a powerful sense of it: at one point, two women sitting chatting on a bench in a miserable New York housing project, joke about and look forward with sick, twisted glee to the prospect of a baby – crawling on an upper-storey tenement window-ledge – falling to its death: they’re disappointed by its being saved in the nick of time).

In particular, the portrayal of the lives of a handful of people is done with great psychological depth, narrated most often from the first-person viewpoint, in a stream-of-consciousness fashion that remains clear, coherent and compelling. These viewpoints capture their desperation, self-loathing, hatred and confusion about themselves and their environments: defiant yet self-deluding Georgette, a hip drag queen who is pathetically in love with Vinnie and convinced she can change him for the better and that he will truly love her; while he is a psychopathic and sociopathic gang leader interested in only in sadistic and often instant gratification; Tralala, a violently angry, predatory prostitute who ultimately is destroyed in the most horrifying way imaginable; Harry – interestingly, that name is ubiquitous among male characters in Selby’s fiction, acting as a synonym for the type of man who is misogynistic, dispossessed, angry, self-loathing, and self-deluding – who is a trade union leader, loathsome, selfish, arrogant and boring, who is despised or at best tolerated by his co-workers – and, worse, whose misogyny is so genuinely convincing and disturbing, which we hear, being `inside his head’, listening trapped to his banal voice, desperation, loathing and perspective, such that it makes Bateman’s misogyny in American Psycho appear not only over the top, but utterly unreal (and never mind Ellis’ darkly satirical intentions).

Rightly and insightfully so, one great critic describes Selby as a `clinician of violence … whose novels have the immediacy of art’ (Josephine Hendin, Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction Since 1945 (A Galaxy book)), which I think is true; likewise, he is a literary master of demonstrating through his characters a moral ugliness, misogyny and existential despair, and whose power as a novelist, I think, is unprecedented in fiction (Sartre’s famous Nausea (Penguin Modern Classics), by way of contrast, and yet also a great novel of existential despair, is a happy walk in the park compared with Selby’s vision). He is a truly remarkable writer, and, while he wrote six novels in his lifetime, I believe the most powerful and compelling (while not the darkest), remains Last Exit. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a genuine work of art, but its power is dark and troubling, so I would likewise highly recommend you stay clear of this novel if you find yourself in a depressed frame of mind…

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Filed under abuse of women, fiction, Hubert Selby, Jr., Jean-Paul Sartre, Last Exit to Brooklyn, literary classics, misogyny, Nausea, violence against women