So scribblingwoman finally reads some recent China Miéville, long after Crooked Timber covered it (nothing wrong with that…if you saw my stack of books waiting for me to finish them…). She brings up a few interesting points, though, and one in particular poked me right in my reading biases. In Perdido Street Station(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), one of the central characters, Lin, meets a particularly unpleasant fate, and this after we’d been reading about her for a long time, gotten to know and like her and find her engaging. Then, wham:
And it’s true that while Lin’s fate is hardly aesthetic — she is not conveniently dead; she is alive, present, and markedly diminished — it is still uncomfortably sexualized. Even if she were not actually raped — for as Miéville points out, Isaac believes that she has been but we are not told — Isaac has to look after her and deal with her continuing sexual desire for him, despite her ruined mind. He is uncomfortable and does not have sex with her, but the issue is raised. And it is difficult to transpose the genders here. There is something specifically feminized about her catastrophe and its aftermath.
(And, are not male readers also uncomfortable with Lin’s fate? I don’t think any expressed any disquiet, at least at Crooked Timber. So perhaps readers’ responses around this issue are also particularly gendered.)
I don’t think character gender has much to do with it; horrible things happen to the male characters in The Scar (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), too, so while Lin’s fate may have had some particularly feminine horror to it, the fellows also meet some ghastly ends. In all cases, I felt disquiet and discomfort, but I didn’t feel any need to express it: it’s what I expected. Horrible things happen to people in the real world all the time, and I find myself more disenchanted with books in which the main characters stroll through amazing conflicts to emerge unscathed at the end, and where truly bad things never happen (it’s why I didn’t care for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at all). There’s an attitude played off of in the meta-story to the The Princess Bride along those same lines.
KID: [Passionately interrupting] Hold it! Hold it! Grandpa, you read that wrong. She doesn’t marry Humperdinck, she marries Westley! I’m just sure of it … after all that Westley did for her, if she didn’t marry him, it wouldn’t be fair!
GRANDFATHER: Well, who says life is fair? Where is that written? Life isn’t always fair!
KID: [Angrily] I’m telling you, you’re messing up the story! Now get it right!
There are comfort stories where nothing bad is supposed to happen to the characters (and The Princess Bride is knowingly in that category), and then there are the stories that tell you that Life Isn’t Fair. Guess what category Miéville’s work is in? I was disturbed by Lin’s fate, but this was not the kind of book where the heroes get to walk away without paying a heavy price.
The fellow who is probably my favorite author right now is Iain M. Banks, and oh, but does he emphasize the Life Isn’t Fair principle. I was shocked when I first read one of his books, and partway through, one of the central characters is senselessly and unexpectedly dead. It wasn’t a death that advanced the rest of the characters along their goal, either—just dumb, wasteful fate obliterating a life with no great meaning to it. In Use of Weapons(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), the book ends with a character we’ve wrestled with throughout the story dying messily, in despair and frustration, with a robot rather graphically taking his head apart. In Consider Phlebas(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), many of the characters end up as “…debris…a dump of bodies…all lay buried under kilometers of glacial ice…compressed into a tight ball of mangled wreckage and frozen, mutilated bodies…” It’s all very grim, and I don’t think The Kid would make it past page two.
Sure it’s disquieting. But I think the point of the story is to be disquieting. It’s what I look for in my light reading: not too much sweet, lots of bitter and darkness, a good helping of sorrow to end it all.