Sylvia Plath, the fig tree, and chick-lit

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a piece of iconic feminist writing, which is dark, witty and extremely painful, outlining and diving into the experiences of a woman who is mentally disturbed and agitated with antiquated gender roles and stereotypes. There are several wonderful things that the book explains with a perceptive and smart protagonist, someone who is self-aware and yet, a part of a tumultuous society that just will not take her seriously. She is not the heroine of the story; instead she is a brilliant woman who is slowly sliding into the inner depths of her own psyche and losing touch with what matters most to her. Personally, the harrowing experience she narrates about being depressed is all too real, and palpably painful.

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In 2013, Faber & Faber came out with a new edition for the book The Bell Jar. The cover featured a lady powdering her face, making it a standard “chick-lit” novel that would be marketed specifically towards women. It hid the actual idea of the book in the recesses of its redness; one of a vehement fight against gender roles and the short biographic account of a ‘madwoman’, the kind that Plath had herself been. Chick-lit is generally defined as literature with a female protagonist whose womanhood is severely thematized in the storyline, and by this definition alone, The Bell Jar is, in fact, chick-lit. Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper and The Pact, says in an interview with The Telegraph,

“If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Corrections about, by Jonathan Franzen? It’s about a family, right? And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction? I mean, I can’t tell you. When people call The Storyteller chick-lit, I actually break up laughing. Because that is the worst, most depressing chick-lit ever.”

The issue with calling books chick-lit is that it gives the false notion that the value of the books is only so far as the audience reading it is a woman. This idea, one that men’s books can be read by everyone, but women’s books can only be read by women, is toxic and unpleasant. When the story of the modern woman is narrated by a female author, the issues it addresses are considered to be frivolous, which is why reading chick-lit authors is a frivolous reading activity. Which brings us back to the definition of what chick-lit is – the fact that a book having a central theme as women’s issues is quickly shelved into “women’s fiction”; a book intended mostly for women to read. There is no real reason why a man should be interested in women’s issues or a female perspective, considering that most of these issues are swept under the rug with an air of silliness.

Shelving Plath’s The Bell Jar in a similar manner angers me. It can no longer be a classic produced by American literature, a testament to mental illness, gender disparities, and female sexuality; instead, it becomes a book intended for women to just relate to and keep men out of. It is a book that I would highly recommend to everyone, not just women, to understand the nuances of how depression can tear down an entire personality, about seething self-doubt in the mind of a brilliant writer, and the quirky enthusiasm of a person to end her own life.

A beautiful representation of one of the best quotes from The Bell Jar appeared in the Netflix original series Master of None, which is created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. The show is a gentle reminder of Louie, which kept me captivated with its surreal style of story-writing, exaggerated humour, and the dark wit of Louis CK. Master of None captures the essence of a second generation Indian man living in the US quite well, and addresses issues related to race and ethnography in a humourous manner that I already loved Aziz Ansari for. The show is not merely funny though; the characters seem real and well-thought out, and in one of the episodes they made great use of a quote from The Bell Jar. A man quoting Sylvia Plath as a perfect depiction of what he is feeling at the moment felt to me like a step away from thinking of women’s fiction the way that it is at this point in literary circles.

A summary of what he feels his life could be like is perfectly described in the book with these lines, which is one of the best quotes I have ever had the pleasure of reading:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/01/the-bell-jar-new-cover-derided

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/11/opinion/the-snobs-and-me.html?_r=0

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/jodi-picoult-its-really-hard-to-love-America-sometimes/

 

Phantoms in the brain (V. S. Ramchandran)

“Your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed purely for convenience.”

“Phantoms in the brain” is one the first non-fiction I have read, and even though I moved on to different genre of non-fiction, this book has stayed with me as one of the most interesting. V. S. Ramachandran is an eminent research neuroscientist who works in the sub-field of Phantom Limbs. This phenomenon is widely evident in amputees, such that they feel their limbs even after the amputation. These amputees not only feel their limbs, but some of them suffer from excruciating pain where their phantom limbs begin such that a lot of them are driven to suicide. Majority of the book is concerned about this phenomenon, but Ramachandran also dwells into other neurological disorders which he believes gives us great insight into how the brain processes actually function. The author has also been one of the first scientists to be able to alleviate phantom pain by using simple devices and experiments, all of which are fascinating to read.

The first few chapters of the book are mainly dedicated to phantom limbs. He writes about immensely interesting cases that are a joy to read. He talks about Mirabelle, who, in spite of being born without limbs at all, experiences phantom arms which are shorter than her prosthetic arms and she feels this quite intensely. He also mentions Tom, whose phantom arm can move each finger.

Ramchandran explains Diane’s condition, who, after being poisoned with carbon monoxide, was rendered blind. Even though she was blind, when asked to put a letter in the mailbox, she puts in in perfectly, almost like she could see. She denied being able to see the mailbox, but her hand oriented itself perfectly to put the letter in. Ramachandran concluded that this is almost like a “phantom” is in the brain that passes instructions in such bizarre a manner. He explains that a layman might think that they have an idea about how the brain works, but nothing could be as far from the truth. He proceeds to talk about disorders like “hemi-neglect” , when a person has the left side of their body paralyzed but does not realize it and continues to feel healthy, they even see their own left arm and leg moving. This is almost like a severe case of denial, which is common psychological phenomenon.

“What I didn’t realize when I began these experiments is that they would take me to the heart of human nature. For denial is something we do all our lives, whether we are temporarily ignoring the bills accumulating in our tray or defiantly denying the finality and humiliation of death.”

Ramachandran also mentions and explains the Capgras’ delusion and Cotards’ syndrome both of which were odd and interesting. He covers even points of great debate by the end; whether or not spiritual experiences are a result of neurological significance, or real experiences.

This book has been written such that it is understood by someone who has no experience in biological sciences at all. It would be clichéd a statement, but the book really made me wonder of how nature has worked its course in building the human body, and how it is so much more complex than anything we will probably create in the next century. For anyone who enjoys the cases in House as much I did, this book should be a guaranteed read.

Flowers For Algernon (Daniel Keyes)

“If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.”

Flowers for Algernon was published as a science fiction short story in 1958 and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, soon after which, it was expanded to a novel.  Algernon is the name of a laboratory mouse whose intelligence has been increased via artificial means as a part of an experiment. It is a success; as slow-witted Charlie Gordon, with an IQ of 70, is unable to beat it at maze solving. With the breakthrough with a mammal, the next step is to perform the experiment on a human subject.

Charlie Gordon is a naïve 37 year old man who works as a janitor at a bakery. He assumes with his childlike mind that he did not have friends because he was not smart like other people he knew at the factory, but they still enjoyed his company because they laughed a lot when around him. The point of interest of this book is that we follow the protagonist Charlie by his “progris reports” as he writes them whilst being a part of an experiment that could forever change the dynamics of human society.

We open with Charlie mentally incapable of even serious human contact, and the realization that he does not realize this. But, we see a gradual improvement in his reports, suggesting that he is now, in fact, smarter than he was before. But this comes at a price; his intelligence throws him into a whirlpool of harsh realities. He knows now that none of his “friends” we laughing with him, but at him. He had been taken advantage of during several times in his life, and was always only helped because of pity that emerged in the hearts of people close to him. All the people he knew were now insecure of being inferior to the person they had considered a “moron” for so long. He faces rejection, loss and an inability to relate to people around him, but the worst part is, he is now stingingly aware of it.

The novel is a short albeit difficult read; but that should not deter a reader from experimenting with the ideas in the book. The book develops on numerous themes at the same time. Charlie’s relationship with his co-workers is affected first, followed by his attraction to his former teacher Alice Kinnian, who also reacts favorably. But much like other people in his life, he soon outgrows her intelligence. He is tortured by memories of his mother and sister, both of whom were tormented with the idea of having a kin who “just wouldn’t work hard enough”. As his intelligence grows, he is haunted by memories of his former self, the one he calls Charlie in third person, and finds himself being followed and spied on. The irony is sharp and hurtful; he is just as lonely and rejected as he was before he became smarter.

Reading this book calls for serious thought-provoking questions, and the pain that Charlie feels when he is addressed merely as a human subject/experiment is vivid and induces guilt that is uncalled for. We see Charlie as a mentally incapacitated adult-child who can barely put thoughts clearly enough to be understood, to becoming a genius whose brilliance not only brings him loss he was unprepared for, but alienates him from people he sought the acceptance of.

It has become one of my favourite reads, but I cannot say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The book is as emotionally torturous as Charlie’s mind by the end and will be a compelling book if read with enough empathy to follow through.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

It was a surprise to most people I knew that Lolita was a book that I had not read yet. After much praise, I read the book that attained a classic status soon after its publication in 1955, and gave Vladimir Nabokov the fame that he is known for. It was also depicted as a movie (directed by Stanley Kubrick, another reason to watch it), a movie that I have not watched. The book is about a forward and controversial subject like hebephilia, and how Dolores Haze (better known as Lolita, which was a name that the narrator give her) becomes sexually involved with a man three decades older than her, Humbert. Humbert is a classic unreliable narrator (like, for example, Holden in “The Catcher in the rye”) and to believe his melancholy and wit will be the biggest mistake a reader shall make, albeit a wonderful one. An unreliable narrator is such whose sporadic and not-well-constructed memories cannot be trustworthy in particular, but it may or may not fool the reader into believing him/her.

I finished the appropriately long book within a week, since the writer made it impossible for me wait to find out what happens next. It is a slightly tricky book to read, since there are certain metaphors that are extremely difficult to understand and interpret. It is a difficult book to read content-wise too, there are intricate sexual descriptions of relations between an adult and a child. The impression that follows the book was the reason why I was slightly embarrassed of carrying and reading the book in public. Nonetheless, I did eventually manage to understand the book the way I think Nabokov intended. Like most Russian authors (even though I’ve only ever been familiar with two, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov), Nabokov maintains the poetic fluidity that is rarely found in books these days. If there is one author of a book that I’d like to talk to, it would be Nabokov. The man behind the book was a definite genius, there is no doubting that. From how Humbert does (or doesn’t) win you over, to the sheer message of the book was something that only an experienced and insightful writer can accomplish. The book is definitely poetic and rhythmic, and one can tell that the narrator is an intelligent, sophisticated and culturally sharp man.

My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

The book may even make you go slower than you intend, for it is necessary that Nabokov takes you through a slow and sensual journey of “love” between an adult man, and a child of twelve. Yes, the main theme of the book is intense and a taboo, and one may start the book wondering if this particular author will change your mind about anything. I have not known a lot of people who have read this book, but certain reviews make me realise that there were readers who were thoroughly convinced of Humbert’s love for the sexually precocious Lolita. He makes her a victim of his sexual prowess after he becomes her stepfather (which was an attempt to stay close to her to begin with). And we see Dolores and Humbert travel through America like no one has ever done before.

There is not much I can say about this book without instilling certain expectations in the reader’s mind and that is definitely not how the book needs to be read. If there is one book you read, it must be this. But not without enough company to talk about it; this book will leave you thoughtful and roaring to exchange ideas, and so I have been since I finished it without any solace. I am not surprised that this book is generally in the top 5 of books that need to be read in a lifetime in almost all lists, and the fact that it was written in the 1940s is even more surprising. If you are someone who likes poetry in general, then this book is a must-read. If not, it is still a book that will leave you food for thought. Either way, whatever one can learn from books or stories, this book will teach you.

The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

The past few months saw me reading less than 5 books altogether, and it is difficult to draw up the highlights of these great reads. The past semester left me with the untimely decision that I would read shorter books, and this decision drew me to reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The 6000 words short story left me with a sick feeling to my stomach, as the story has many interpretations that I could not possibly believe.

Perkins wrote the book in 1892, a year that came as a surprise to me considering how modern it actually sounded, not just in terms of the language used (something I do not think I have clear understanding of), but also the concept and the idea behind the story. The protagonist of the story is a young woman, who was advised to rest in the country, after the birth of her child. She is diagnosed to have “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”, which was a common diagnosis and her husband chooses to put her in one room of a summer house that he buys, restricting her access even to the rest of the house. The story is a collection of journal entries that she begins to write, as we witness her becoming insane as days pass.

To write a story such as this in first person is intriguing, since the woman slowly descends into psychosis and we are witness to each thought that she makes. Whether it is a feeling that she gets that another woman like her had been trapped in the room against her will, or the fact that she over-analyzes the print on the yellow wallpaper and sees a woman coming out of it on all fours, and believing that she needs to be freed, the entire story is just one woman’s journey of finding her freedom, even if it is in the form of a nervous breakdown. Some interpret it as a book about a woman finding herself in a suffocating marriage, and the husband is clearly the antagonist in the story, and I agree with this interpretation. The 19th century was a time when a woman’s decision were not hers to make, and the book epitomizes it in a disturbing, yet convincing manner. It is difficult to understand how much of the oppression is real; 1892 was a long time ago.

My reading of this book was followed quickly by a play about a similar issue, “A Doll’s House” by Henry Ibsen. The concept was strangely similar, and it was also written around the same time. But where “The Yellow Wallpaper” was dark and disturbing (reminded me of Sylvia Plath), “A Doll’s House” was simpler, delicate, but equally as powerful. A play is less thoughtful compared to a story, since the characters actions are all that it takes for the viewer to understand what turmoil they are going through.

In both the books, there is one theme that is articulate and obvious. Both women find freedom in their own way, one by storming out of the house that she had built her life in, and the other by a darker action that I do not want to ruin for anyone planning to read the story. Rest assured, it will be worth it.

Even though this is the only story or book by Perkins that I have read, I have to admit, I suppose she eventually became the path that Sylvia Plath walked on.

Lord Of The Flies (William Golding)

There are dystopian novels that extend human nature into something that they might not even realise they are afraid of. And then there are books like “Lord of the flies” by William Golding. Golding first published the book in 1954, and it did not do very well in terms of sales. But the book gained popularity in the coming years, the book became a literary accomplishment and was required to be read in most high schools and colleges, and I suppose that was not without reason.

The book opens with a seemingly bizarre beginning, and we directly find ourselves immersed in the story. A plane (apparently during a wartime evacuation), crashes at an inhabited island. Surprisingly, the reader finds out that the only people stranded on the island are young children, as young as six years old. Most of them are pre-adolescents, who find themselves without adult supervision, alone on an island with a group of various half-individuals.

It is difficult to read a book which gives you an insight into a mind that you generally have no idea about. If someone had asked me how children might behave, and what kind of a community will they create without much conscious thought, then I would most likely be speechless. Children are thoughtless, and much more natural than adults are, and their idea of reasoning and order are much more animalistic than one might presume. What this means is that, while adults may sugarcoat the existence of a desire to be in control of dire situations, the final battle is always for power. We are asked to be withdrawn from the context of a real war that is taking place in the world, and pushed into the small world of a few children trying to bring order into an orderless world, and what decisions they might have to make during this journey.

The book addresses many crucial concepts that society may have to deal with when faced with a real threat of destruction, and more importantly, the fight for power. Whether it is in the reasonable Ralph (with a better advisor than anyone else, Piggy) or the hot-tempered and blood-hungry Jack, a leader will be chosen, with a suitable number to be following. The book allegorises several real concepts and I could not help but be reminded of “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. Whilst George Orwell, I felt, was more obvious with what he was writing about, and how the society of animals descend from a cattle, to an organised system with heirarchy of power, we see Golding accomplish this kind of finesse without having to make the reader feel guilty of reading a reality based novel. While Orwell is extremely clear with the allegories that he puts forth, Golding almost mocks it by introducing a character that makes the reader realise that this was a book about children, and not adults. The book leaves a lot of room for discussion, a discussion that I have been waiting for since I read the book, which is why it has been a suggestion of mine to most of the people I know who read.

That said, with books like these, there is not much criticism to be offered, not because it cannot be done, but because it is extremely tough to critique a piece of work that is the onlt insight you have into something. What I mean by this is, that I could only criticise the book if there was any other like it, and I do not mean this in a good way. Children are different from animals, and characteristics cannot be attributed to them as easily as Orwell did in “Animal Farm”. A pertinent question that I felt myself asking throughout the novel was whether I could actually rely on it or not. It is difficult to digest an assertion of the fact that children or not, humans are savages when they are tested.

I give the book 3 stars on GoodReads, lower than I generally give books I love, and I only do this because I am too afraid to be cynical to be able to believe it. Other than that, it is a book that needs to be read for a simple reason that it gives one great insight into how human nature is twisted under conditions of anarchy and chaos, a future that we might have to get used to.

Winds of Hastinapur (Sharath Komarraju)

I have known about Mahabharata ever since I was a child, and my mother thought that inculcating in me a love for the scriptures will mean well for my future. She might have been right; because I regained my fading interest in the first semester of my college when I realized that while Mahabharata was a religious text with a lot to teach, it was also an exquisite story in its own right. I read the sub-stories that appear in the large text, and was bombarded with moral questions, heart-wrenching betrayals, and angry curses. But mostly, I was, in fact, flabbergasted by the lack of my relation to the women in the story. This, I thought to myself, was only fair. After all, it was supposed to be an old story, with nothing to do with the modern times.

With the tale of Kali (roughly translated into dark of skin) and how she came to be the fragrant one, I had only read one story. In this particular story, the shy, young fisherwoman comes across the saint Parashara, who lures her into intercourse, and she cannot refuse because she is overpowered. I never once thought that this could have been different, although I did see a pattern. I saw a sense of powerlessness of the women; mere clay in the hands of the curses laid by the careless tongues of other men and women. Why is this important, suddenly? This is so because I read Winds of Hastinapur (by Sharath Komarraju) several weeks ago.

Firstly, it was an interesting book, to say the least. I finished it in three days. There was barely any unnecessary literary expansion of scenes and plots to the point of being whimsical, and the book comes across as being planned and the result of sincere re-drafting by the author and all others involved. Other than that, Kali’s story was what really brought my attention deeper into the book, even though the part about Ganga is also quite compelling. Kali was no longer a young woman who let fate take charge. Kali is in charge when Parashara is with her, and while the original story tells us that it was Kali’s father who conversed with Devrath and his father, in the book, that is very tactfully changed to Kali herself. She is ferocious and conscious of her rights and ambitions, and does what she needs to, to obtain them. Not just this, she is imperfect, as the rest of the chapters tell us.

It might be a problem to some readers that the male characters (who are supposed to be extraordinary men) are reduced to being humans. This, however, was not such a major issue for me, since I wanted to feel the men of the story to crumble as humans do, something that I found missing in a lot of stories otherwise as well. We are supposed to view the story from the perspective of the women, and as strange as it might be to a lot of readers, it was gratifying for me.

The book is a fresh insight into pieces of Mahabharata that barely had any perspective of the women (at least the way that I came across it the first time). I did feel, however, that the break between Ganga’s perspective and Satyawati’s perspective was too sudden, but not very different. The narration was similar, although Satyawati and Ganga were quite obviously very different women. Other than this flaw, the book is extremely well written, and definitely not a careless heap of nonsense as the book I read preceding this.

I actually find myself waiting for another book by the author, on similar lines, describing the other women in Mahabharata.