Catherine Deneuve, from Emily Schultz’s online mood board for The Blondes
Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
A few months before I was invited to step in for Emily Schultz as an interim editor at “fiction hub” Joyland, I was sent an advanced reading copy of her electrifying new novel The Blondes. Even before I’d ever had the privilege of working with her, I was completely taken in by her incredibly relateable narrator, Hazel Hayes–who seems so real to me that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not her friend on Facebook. I have now read the novel twice, because I liked it so much, and I even loaned out my now-well-worn galley to a friend, just so I’d be able to have someone to talk about the book with while I waited for it to finally be published.
One of the things I like most about The Blondes, which takes place during a strange plague that threatens to make all fair-haired women–whether by birth or the bottle–murderous and rabid, is the narrative construction: the novel is set up as the story that its protagonist tells to her unborn child. It feels to me that this is both a surprisingly fresh and natural way to tell a story, that stories are handed down by an intricate process mirroring a genealogical map; we inherit our history and the stories of our origin, and we tell them forward into the unknowable future–which is of a course a thing we carry within us, in our bodies and our actions.
Struck as I was by Schultz’s narrative device, I went looking for other books with pregnant characters, other books that explored the idea of literary natality through doubly embodied narrators. My search was not by any means scholarly (I used Google, my inborn bookstore browsing skills, and Facebook). I also only found myself able to read approximately two and half books before other commitments started to demand my attention, including this column. Those two and a half books, none of which exactly align with the original requirements as none of them are specifically framed as stories told by a pregnant narrator to her fetus, were Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, slightly less than one half of John Barth’s Tidewater Tales, and Jenny Diski’s Like Mother (in its infinitely disturbing entirety). Plus I seriously considered re-reading In the Skin of a Lion. These are the books I want most to tell you about this month, so let me start with the Canadian stuff first.
While it’s not strictly a story of pregnancy, the narrative device that Michael Ondaatje uses in In the Skin of a Lion is close enough to what I’m talking about. One of my favorite scenes comes immediately to mind: A cow is stuck in a river. She stands there frozen, or nearly frozen, for it is the middle of a cruel winter and the timid beast is in grave danger, immobilized by cold and fear. Her rescue involves the quiet heroism of a father and son, their wordless dignity in the face of elemental distress evidence of the noble economy of their relationship. They are tethered to each other by blood and the rhythm of their work. Theirs is a hard unspoken love born out of a mutuality of purpose, a seemingly natural bond that requires no language.
But the boy, Patrick, eventually outgrows life on the farm, a life of wordless dignity, and emigrates to Toronto, a loud place of many tongues. When he finds himself, through a different and bloodless means, in the role of father he showers his daughter with words–the book is framed as the story he tells her during one long car trip. He tells her a meandering tale of her origin, and of his, of politics and puppets, prison and thieves, flying nuns and disappeared bank robbers. He tells her about midnight portraiture of the soul and the harsh smell of men dyed in vats with soft leather. He tells her about work, about a city being built on the backs of people who might never call it home. She listens, and so do we.
As a narrative device, Ondaatje’s framing of the novel as a conversation between parent and child works so beautifully because it completely naturalizes the authority of his narrator; the reader is invited to tuck up her feet and open her ears for a long bedtime story told by her dear old dad. Positioning the reader as child and the narrator as parent creates an intimate and familiar dynamic that allows Ondaatje’s mythically poetic prose to overtake you as a memory might: this is a historical fiction that, like memory, finds some details worthy of nearly extreme fixation even as others glide by with their internal but unempirical certainty unchallenged. The story unfolds for both the daughter and the reader as a thing plucked whole from the intimate past, and both can take childlike delight in the surprising discovery of a world that existed before and without them.
Two years before the publication of In the Skin of a Lion, Margaret Atwood’s internationally bestselling The Handmaid’s Tale examined the anxiety of biological reproduction so neatly elided in Ondaatje’s novel of the family. Revisiting The Handmaid’s Tale, which depicts a harrowing world where women are totally divested of their reproductive rights and society is arranged according to a theofascist caste system, I was struck by how readily The Blondes situates itself in conversation with the older CanLit classic: both novels include a character named Moira, and both Moiras act as spunky and rebellious confidants to each novel’s protagonist. Both Hazel and Atwood’s nameless narrator are telling the story of a historical perturbance that reorganizes society, through cruel and organized fascism or the random terror of a viral disease. Both novels offer critical perspectives on the way that women often occupy that strange middle ground between subject and object in broader society, and both are deeply invested in the agony of this simultaneous beholding of and being beheld by the larger world.
The Blondes is stronger for its textual echolocation. By harkening back to Atwood’s gendered dystopia it can convincingly present a world that seems to eerily conform to the shape of the one we’ve inherited from the recent past. Atwood’s anxious novel projects into the future an extreme view of the gender politics of the book’s day, where hard-won rights to abortion and the ongoing fight for social and political equality among men and women were constantly being undermined by neoliberal governments and the mediated zeitgeist. The nameless narrator recalls earlier days in the fictional world, based on the then-contemporaneous 1980s, with the pain of all that she has lost: before the pseudo-biblical revolution that re-ordered society into the oppressive shape of her dystopian present, women held jobs and bank accounts, wrote and read novels, banded together in protest and celebration.
As part of this first wave after the painful and unjust restructuring of society, the narrator is caught between worlds, aware just as we are of how categorically wrong it is to collapse humans into instruments and so deny their personhood. That her freedom is robbed through the political machinations of patriarchy makes every reader consider their own possible plight in the face the narrator’s horrific tale. Schultz manages to build on this (admittedly depressing) lineage: Hazel’s familiarity with feminist communication studies hardly empowers her against a world that has every right to fear beautiful blonde women; her society, not unlike its nonfiction counterpart, is one where women are told that the way they look and how they are looked at is basically the major source of their power, collectively and individually. So it only makes sense that beauty instills fear–with or without the raging murderous plague.
As for Tidewater Tales and Like Mother, well, give me a chance to finish reading Barth’s weird and beautiful thing and I’ll get back to you soon. Promise.