New Year's Resolution: Kyo Maclear embraces the Bad Read (Guest Post)
I have just finished reading a book called Pig Tales about a young woman who slowly metamorphoses into a pig. It’s a French fable by Marie Darrieussecq (an author I recently met at a festival in Vancouver). I can’t tell you exactly what it is ‘about’. I could say it’s about patriarchy (the pigsty) and a woman’s (sow’s) awakening consciousness but that doesn’t quite capture it. What I can tell you is that it’s strange and wonderful and revolting, that I loved it and loathed it, that it induced in me a kind of squirming arousal.
I seldom read books like this, i.e. fables that are billed as grown-up fare. Pig Tales carries wafts of Orwell and Kafka. It does not follow rules of mimetic realism—I read a lot of mimetic writing. Darrieussecq’s novel is short, less than 200 pages, long enough to draw you to the edge of the ordinary, to strip away conventions of rationality, to create an opening where one feels anything at all can happen. I finished it in a few hours but the effects lingered, sinking into my subliminal layers. It left me pondering a point China Miéville made during his keynote address on “The Future of the Novel” at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors.
To quote Miéville: “The culturally dominant strain of English novel has for years been what Zadie Smith called ‘lyrical realism’: the remorseless prioritization of recognition over estrangement.”
His argument (presented originally at the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers' conference in August 2012) is that the literary establishment has for some time valued a monocrop: storytelling that presents the familiar to us, over storytelling that presents us with the unfamiliar. Within this context, reading becomes a narcissistic act of self-corroboration, a means of smug personal validation.
This puts me in mind of my good friend, writer Hiromi Goto, who lives her life in a state of productive disobedience, who long ago said “bah” to the straightjacket of naïve verisimilitude. Her work is full of shapeshifters and subjects that haven't been broached much in literature. It’s tricky and subversive and often unmooring. For example, in her YA novel Half World, she tests our empathy and our narcissism by featuring characters that initially resemble us, only to have them burst out of their recognizable shapes and twist into something bizarrely ‘other’. Actually, to say ‘us’ and ‘other’ is to sort of miss the point. There are no tidy binaries in Hiromi’s work. She mingles and fuses good and evil, flesh and spirit, the living and the dead, masculine and feminine, the smooth and spiky, creating ambiguous figures that in scholar/poet Joan Retallack’s words “wiggle, slip, slide, elide, combine, recombine, morph, mongrelize.” Things are logical but they are also fantastical. As a reader, this creates an amazing feeling of things moving in directions one cannot predict in advance.
Yes, I am a fan. Yes, I want to spend hours nestling under her rebellious wing. And, yes, these thoughts on recognition/estrangement are not new (they are as old as Shklovsky, Sartre, Brecht, Adorno, Lukacs, and Barthes) but they do make me question my own practices as a writer and as a “consumer” of fiction.
Which brings me to another related thought: this whole bloody consumption metaphor. At what point in our literary history did it become desirable to devour books, gobble them up, or have them go down smoothly? When did the idea of a “good read” come to connote something blandly palatable, soothing and diversionary? (Here, see Kirsty Gunn, who has written a great piece for The Guardian about “the terrible rigor mortis of the phrase that is ‘a good read’.”)
Perhaps it’s time to make a case for the “bad read.” (I can see it now: a mirror site for goodreads. It would feature all those terribly demanding books that have dared take us to the frontier of the familiar. Catch-22, Pastoralia, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1Q84, Sexing the Cherry, The Accidental…) Yes, bring on the bad reads. Bring on those lousy good-for-nothing novels that embrace novelty, possibility, and surprise. Let’s hear it for god-awful fiction that believes anything can happen—that captures the weird, the awkward, the complicated, the downright bizarre…you know, the really real…in all its ghastly glory.
Maybe the issue with lyrical realism isn’t that it reveals too much about our outer and inner realities but, rather, that if offers too little (too little contradiction, ambiguity, mess, mystery, noise, silence.) Perhaps that dreadful badass filmmaker—Jean Cocteau—had it right when he said: "True realism consists in revealing the surprising things which habit keeps covered and prevents us from seeing."
Cocteau saw life as dynamic and unsettling, full of moments of absurdity and disorientation, at times startling and unreal. The beauty of radical verisimilitude, as he practiced it, was its ability to gesture towards the raucous wildness and weirdness of the world.