Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Any Piggies Going to the Fair?

This weekend (April 26 and 27) is that enormous annual tent show, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which takes place on the UCLA campus in Brentwood.

I will be working the IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) booth 428D -Dickson Plaza Midi (near Royce Hall) from 10 am to 2 pm on both days. Drop by and let's talk about Rubber Babes (the forthcoming sequel to My Inflatable Friend), boychik lit, and a group of 500-plus writers committed to preventing the further dumbing down of America.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Book Review: The Hephaestus Plague

My Boychik Lit blog is supposed to be primarily about male-centered comic fiction. However, my own reading tastes are much more eclectic. And besides, I'm hard at work finishing the manuscript of Rubber Babes, and it's not a good idea for a writer to be doing his recreational reading in the same genre.

Then, too, the friends and acquaintances I've made in the community of authors hail from every corner of the literary map. Since I'm often eager to interest them in my work by exchanging reviews, I end up reading all kinds of stuff.

Having cleared my throat (as judicious editors tell you never to do at the top of an article), I can now boldly assert that I intend to comment on The Hephaestus Plague from the boychik's perspective. This will be an unusual direction from which to survey a sci-fi novel. I want to look at this book's sexual politics (as I did recently in my review of Mistress of the Revolution) and its take on the human comedy.

Written in 1974 by my friend and colleague Thomas Page and just reissued by alternative press Trashface, The Hephaestus Plague is an incredibly ingenious, complex, and technically rich sci-fi thriller. That's because Tom has always been fascinated by entymology--he's a bug freak. If it crawls or slithers or hisses or stings or bites, he wants to study it. So, right off, it's a guy thing. The stereotypical female won't be in the same room with a spider, much less be delighted if one scampered over her body. Tom, on the other hand, has been seen at book signings posing with a friendly tarantula on his arm.

The "bug science" in this book is impressive. And that's an understatement. Tom gets inside the head of researcher James Parmiter, who becomes so engrossed with finding the causes of a hellish invasion of fire-starting bugs that he fills his house with the critters, unplugs the phone, and locks the doors. Then he proceeds to foster-parent them like so many wayward children--to the point of communicating with this alien species in a way no human has ever achieved.

But let's get back to the sex. This story is not just a guy thing--it's an all-guy thing. There are no significant female characters in this book. In the jargon of the movie business, there are a few "walk-ons." The two notable ones are a farm wife and a suburban housewife. Both live in their kitchens and make things for their dominant males to eat. And, of course, they complain bitterly about the bugs, demanding that their protective men get out there and do something. Were this book written today, in the post-feminist era, Parmiter's lab assistant Metbaum would have probably been female (assuming Parmiter himself weren't transformed into a buggy babe). This choice not only would have contributed to gender balance but also would have added an element of sexual tension not unheard-of in the postmodern workplace. A sweaty Metbaum with a swollen chest in a wet tee shirt would certainly change the story dynamics. But Parmiter is such a geek and so intensely focused on the biology under his microscope that he wouldn't notice.

The more significant implication of the book as written is that science, investigation, risk-taking, and intellectual curiosity are essentially male traits. Mind you, I'm not saying that--the book is.
And although female human characters don't figure strongly into the plot of The Hephaestus Plague, the female role in biology is central to its theme. In fact, a female insect (fondly named Madilene by Parmiter) is a star of the second half of the book. She gives birth to an egg case containing a second-generation hybrid strain of bugs that are--and I'm not exaggerating here--capable of replacing humans as the rulers of the planet. (The allusion to Mary Magdalene is apt. Much of the story is set in the rural South, and its fundamentalist Christian overtones figure strongly in the apocalyptic tone of the story. When Parmiter wonders whether God will give up on humans, Metbaum quips that one of the super-intelligent bugs might just be the "next Jesus.")

From the standpoint of evolutionary science and human ethics, the traditional female role of caring for and nurturing the young is pivotal to the plot. Simply put, the bugs seem to be better at it than humans are. Set at the end of the Vietnam era, The Hephaestus Plague is even more lacking in human child actors than in women. The one young boy in the story is mentally retarded. Parmiter is haunted by the historical fact that both Rome and Sparta practiced infanticide in the late stages of their civilizations. As for the bugs, caring for their egg cases is a paramount concern. Ironically, but in keeping with the male-centeredness of the story, it's a male bug that ultimately takes responsibility for the care of Madilene's eggs, and he pays for the decision with his life.

Enough of sex. What about comedy? Well, there is none. Except to say that a scorched-earth sci-fi apocalypse is bound to be campy in the way of the best-worst 1950s B-movies. (It will come as no surprise that one such popcorn flick, BUG, was adapted from this book.)

No, I take that back. God is probably having a good laugh. It's all about adaptation and survival. It's incredibly arrogant for humans to imagine that they are the masters of the Earth. Tom Page reminds us that Nature is always experimenting with what comes next. But we might not be included in those plans. Death is essential and inevitable.

And, you guys will be pleased to learn, so is sex!

Monday, April 7, 2008

I Blame Ernest Hemingway

Every male writer with an ounce of testosterone owes a big debt to Papa. For example, without his example, how would James Jones, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, or John Milius have known to pose for their publicity photos wearing safari jackets? Why, I bet they'd have showed up in some kind of wussy Tom Wolfe ice-cream suit! With a pocket handkerchief! Full article on Ezinearticles.com.

As Featured On Ezine Articles

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Book Review: "Mistress of the Revolution"

Mistress of the Revolution is not the first female-centered novel I've reviewed on my Boychik Lit blog. My intention in picking up this book was to have fun dissecting a steamy chick-lit novel, a basis for comparison and contrast with male-centered fiction. The historical setting amid the turmoil of the French Revolution also promised political intrigue with gobs of gore. Now that I've read and reflected on this first novel from Catherine Delors, I regret to admit that I won't have the fun of teasing or ridiculing her effort. It is, sadly for the purposes of a fratirist with a warped sense of humor, nothing to laugh about.

Mistress of the Revolution is a masterful (mistressful?), serious literary work about the widely ignored--and unlearned--lessons of history. As the very best historical novels do, it reflects and highlights the political and social dramas of the present day. At its core, it's a story of class struggle and sexual politics.

So, let's talk about the sex, shall we? (Warning: spoilers follow!)

Main character and first-person narrator Gabrielle de Montserrat is a gorgeous young aristocrat who lacks a respectable dowry. She is high-born but from a family that has seen its wealth dissipate. If she wishes to realize the great expectations of her rank, she must therefore find some rich aristocrat to marry her. Her other socially acceptable choices are to live as a spinster with her family (if they will have her) or to become a nun. Her plight is the recurring dilemma of sexual politics: If she wants the good life, she must be willing to market her body and her charms. In this central element of its plot, the book is not much different in theme from the works of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, nor of chick-lit stories like Bridget Jones's Diary. The main character's all-important goal--which she must achieve or everything else in her life will suffer--is to become half of a power couple.

Throughout the book, which covers Gabrielle's story from ages fifteen to forty-six, she is dominated by men in a series of fundamentally monogamous relationships. And here's where Mistress of the Revolution departs from its traditional sisters: Not one of those men, including her primary love interest, is what you'd call sympathetic in the modern sense. All of them (and there's quite a collection) are cruel, vindictive batterers. They differ mainly in the degrees to which they bestow the occasional kindness or largesse on Gabrielle.

Before her arrogant older brother (and father substitute) can make a marriage bargain for her, teenage Gabrielle falls for a tall, dark commoner, Pierre-André Coffinhal. He's a promising young man trained as a physician, who will later study the law and become a judge in the revolutionary tribunal. In a contemporary story, her quest could end there. He's just the kind of young tyro our society applauds--the ambitious, self-made man. But back then, before the Revolution presumed to abolish social rank, his low birth makes the match unthinkable. Gabrielle ultimately agrees to follow her brother's direction and marry the corpulent, disgusting Baron de Peyre to spare Coffinhal from her brother's death threat.

As to sex, a contemporary diagnosis of Gabrielle's psyche doesn't require a medical degree--she's a rape victim. She is numb to pleasure, and will pretty much remain so throughout the book--except for some notably rare experiences. In this, she does not seem disappointed. Rather, as with her overall physical treatment at the hands of her male controllers, most of the time she seems to feel she gets no more nor less than she deserves.

Not long after fathering their daughter, Aimée, the Baron very conveniently dies. At that point in a modern story, Gabrielle would immediately seek out Pierre-André. In this story, she is too ashamed of her betrayal of him to even make the effort. Instead, through assiduous social climbing and good connections, Gabrielle becomes the high-class kept woman of the Count de Villers, who introduces her to the court at Versailles. Her reputation soars after her beauty and wit stir the jealousy of the Queen, the infamous Marie-Anoinette.

In the years she's involved with Villers, the Revolution erupts in Paris. (It is longer, bloodier, and more viciously irrational than I remembered from my meagre studies.) Although Villers in many ways is the most tender lover that Gabrielle will ever have, in his financial and emotional dealings with her he is an arrogant bully.

Rather late in the story, as the Patriots take over the city, the aristos, including Villers, are hunted down, subjected to mock trials, and slaughtered. Having passed up opportunities to emigrate, Gabrielle must disguise herself as a commoner and work as a seamstress to avoid the gallows. Coffinhal, now a judge and a close ally of the charismatic leader Robespierre, is working overtime sentencing scores of aristos to cruel and bloody deaths daily.

It's at this point--when Gabrielle's circumstances are the meannest and she's in and out of jail--that she and Coffinhal reconcile. Through his protection, she survives, although just barely.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story is Coffinhal's unashamed brutality toward Gabrielle. Although well educated and exhibiting a sensitive nature at times, he's given to fits of righteous anger and physical violence--often directed at her. In this, the book bears no similarity at all to the bodice-ripper romance. When Gabrielle's relationship with Coffinhal is not a dream come true, it's a wicked nightmare.

And she puts up with it. Indeed, as she does throughout the book, she dismisses the abuse as expected, understandable, even deserved.

It's obvious from the book's meticulous detailing that it is incredibly well researched and authentic. But, according to Delors, the Gabrielle character is entirely fictional. The thing that I find fascinating is the author's boldness at not offering up the expected romantic arc, giving us a chilling portrait of female sensibility as it calculates what it must do to survive. There is not a single male star in Hollywood, now or ever, who would risk the ire of his fan base to behave on the screen as Coffinhal does at his worst toward this woman. I'm not enough of a scholar of history to know for sure, but I'm guessing that Gabrielle's resolution to her plight and the meanness of her existence, even at the height of society, are true to that time and place.

It does make me wonder, though, how much if anything has changed. Love, money, property--these are as intertwined and interdependent in today's world as ever.

Also remarkable, from a writer's technical viewpoint, is the impeccable prose style of this book. Delors is a native French speaker, and English is her second language. The book is written from Gabrielle's point of view in 1815, while exiled in England. Like Delors, Gabrielle writes in her adopted English. In the historical note in the book's endpapers, the author admits, "I strove to write this novel in the British English Gabrielle would have used in 1815." I find that it reads a lot like Balzac in translation, and I'm reminded of his A Harlot High and Low (Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes), written in the 1830s, and treating, as Delors' book does so well, the dynamics of sexual politics trapped in the web of human history.