November 3, 2008 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | PaEHba Day | November 3, 2008 |


I have a confession to make: When it comes to modern literature, I’m completely sexist.

I don’t mean to be. I just have a hard time relating to books based on female characters*. I found Bridget Jones’ everywoman to be cloying, Andrea Sachs unsympathetic, and I literally considered, for the briefest of moments, whether or not it would be worth going through the pain and trauma of a sex change if it meant I would no longer be associated with the gender of that vapid bitch from The Nanny Diaries. Even smart, independent female characters, like Sookie Stackhouse or Jean Grey, still make decisions that as a woman make me cringe. It just seems like every time a writer tackles a woman’s relationship, they fuck it up. The insecurities become formulaic — oh no! I need a man or else I’m incomplete! Maybe if I change everything worthy about myself, someone will want me and maybe pay my bills! And women are drawn with so few ambiguities or shades of gray in their actions that they often seem inhuman.

Clearly, I’ve been reading the wrong books, and I’m thankful I’ve found a short story collection to show me the error of my ways: Alicia Erian’s The Brutal language of Love is smart, funny, painful, sexy, and completely unique. It contains nine short stories featuring women and adolescent girls who find themselves in relationships that are alternatively hilarious, disturbing, and ridiculous, but Erian never paints them as victims or moralizes their actions. She allows events to unfold using prose that’s unsentimental and subtle, so subtle that when the stories end I’m left contemplating uncomfortable questions: Does being emotionally involved in the sexual experiences of a 13 year old in ‘Alcatraz’ make me a pervert? What does it say about me that I so identify Beatrice from ‘Standing Up to the Superpowers’ when I hate everything she does? If someone has sex with a girl while she’s asleep, is it really rape if the girl in question doesn’t care either way?

Unlike a lot of fiction written about the romantic lives of women, Erian for the most part shies away from using sex as an indicator for who’s good and who’s bad, nor does she use it as a character trait; they’re just people, and while some stories revolve around sex, it doesn’t define who the characters are as women. They don’t need to wait for affirmation from the men they interact with to validate them — in ‘On the Occasion of My Ruination’, Gilda is looking to drop her v-card, and gets drunk and tells Jonathan that she thinks she herself is beautiful. Jonathan tells her she should wait to say things like that, to let him make the first move, to which she replies, “Why should I?”

Which isn’t to say these women are independent thinkers, or even borderline feminists. In fact, every single one of them makes the kind of mistakes that in hindsight causes us wonder just what the fuck was going through their heads at the time — In Bikini, Vanessa’s middle-eastern conservative boyfriend takes her sailing and then throws her overboard for wearing a bikini that attracts the unwanted attentions of some local boys, leaving her stranded in the middle of the lake to swim her way to shore. She eventually takes him back, which just screams poor judgment and lack of self-worth, but the events are presented in such a way that you can understand the neediness, the desires and motivations that would make someone commit to a clearly bad situation without automatically dismissing her as weak. This is exactly the type of ambiguity that makes the stories so compelling. As a reader, we know instinctively that some of the choices the characters make are really terrible ones, and maybe the characters themselves are sort of terrible people, and yet Erian still manages to make us feel compassion for them, even empathy.

Not all of the stories perfect: ‘When Animals Attack’ tries a little too hard to be a commentary on the resentment children harbor for their parents and comes up short, and some stories end abruptly, as though Erian forgot what she was trying to say right before she finished. But when it works, it’s simply stunning.

*This may be because the books I read that are based on female characters are mostly chick lit, and bad chick lit at that.

Marra Alane Wilcox is a senior at a major university in southern Florida, where she is double majoring in Political Science and Criminology. She unfortunately realized too late that these areas of study have little to do with her future career plans. She blogs at Marra Alane. Sometimes.

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Some Fools Think of Happiness / Some Fools Fool Themselves I Guess

The Brutal Language of Love by Alicia Erian / Marra Alane Wilcox

PaEHba Day | November 3, 2008 | Comments ()




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