Just a reminder to everyone that we’ll be starting Kurt Cobb’s _Prelude_ on Monday. I have several people who have copies available for circulation, so if you’d like to read along with the group, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and you’ll get a copy in the mail, with only the requirement that you pass it on if more people want it! Kurt is going to be able to participate in our discussion as well! But first, I promised a discussion of sex and gender in The Witch of Hebron.
I said I’d write another post about _The Witch of Hebron_, this time explicitly addressing the sex and gender issues that Kunstler raises, but I’ve been putting it off, wondering if I was beating a dead horse – while the book has some real virtues, this isn’t one of them, and I was quite critical of the book on other grounds. What more is there to say?
I can think of two things, the first a partial defense of Kunstler (believe it or no!). Kunstler has taken a lot of heat in this from women for his portrayal of prostitution as normative and integrated into society – a number of reviews I’ve read suggested that his representation of the sex trade in and of itself was prurient and despicable. I don’t think that’s true, and here is a place I strongly *agree* with Kunstler about the future – there’s going to be a lot of trading sex for food and protection if, as seems likely, the world gets a lot poorer.
Why do I think this? Because human history suggests that it is true – we know for a fact that the main victims of climate change world wide are and will be women and children, and that many of them will be forced into prostitution. We know that in any time of trauma, the exchange of sex for safety is a normative thing – for example, it was estimated that more than tens of thousands of women after World War II exchanged sex for food and other needed items in Europe. Disasters breed the sex trade – tragically, but also inevitably.
I’ve seen it argued that the problem with Kunstler’s prostitutes is that they aren’t miserable enough – that, fine, prostitution is going to be part of the future, but no need to glorify it. Let’s be blunt, the sex trade sucks. No little girl ever says she wants to grow up to be a whore. At the same time, Kunstler is writing a novel, not a work of social criticism. I daresay he’d get a lot less criticism for writing an expose of potential future suffering by prostitutes but that’s not his game, and as a piece of writing, it shouldn’t have to be. Moreover, I’m not sure that the only honest way to explore this issue is to pity prostitutes – it isn’t a good job, it isn’t something you want to have to have happen, but somewhere between the hooker with the heart of gold and the pure victim is a place for women who have accepted their painful realities and made the best of them. I’m not sure Jim Kunstler (for reasons discussed below) is the person to find this happy medium, but I don’t think that he deserves the outrage he’s gotten about the sex trade subplot.
The sex scene between Jasper (12) and Robin (13) has been called pedophilia, and it has been implied that it was inappropriate of Kunstler to write it. I don’t find the representation of teen/preteen sex to be either shocking or inappropriate. Given the situation, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that a 13year old who has to have sex with old men would find a healthy boy her age attractive, and express what she expresses in the terms she is most familiar with, or that a 12 year old would be as Jasper is, simultaneously uncomfortable and pleased by the experience. It is actually one of Kunstler’s better written scenes – the provision of birthday cake is particularly evocative, and does a really good job, I think, of showing what their relationship should be in better times.
The problem with Kunstler’s writing is not that most of his women deal in sex in a world where they have little else. The problem is that Kunstler never actually explains why they have nothing else, and why they are so content to have what I am tempted to describe as “the gift economy of pure pussy” emerge without critique, dissent or doubt that this is the only way to be. We have plenty of evidence that this is not – consider, for example, the collapse of Russia and the way that some women did find themselves forced to trade sex for either escape or protection – and the way older women, Russia’s “Iron Grannies” held together their families and maintained personal economies. Women simultaneously traded sex for protection and a better life and also used a host of other techniques to preserve what they had. What makes no sense in Kunstler’s novel is that his women only grow up to be whores, they never even conceive of using any other tools.
Norman Mailer famously advised John Updike to give up on his sylized meanderings and to stick to his literary strengths, ie “keep his foot in the whorehouse door.” Kunstler clearly0 doesn’t need that advice. The biggest weakness of the book is the way Kunstler’s reliance on sex as the only way women express themselves seems like a retreat, a way of covering up the fact that there’s no evidence he can write a credible woman character with the same complexities he imputes to his men.
indeed, I kept finding myself thinking of Ang Lee’s movie “The Ice Storm” – the latter takes place in affluent suburbia, among priveleged, vacuous, mostly emptied out people who rely on sex and their landscape to express their desperate need for a meaning they lack any ability to construct for themselves. The reasons why Kunstler’s characters are emptied out are more compelling, but ultimately, Kunstler’s book reads like the suburban-search-for-meaning-in-nookie novel. The characters go to whores, not to key parties, but the differences aren’t so very different – Kunstler’s women are the same vacuous suburbanites of 1970s novels by male authors like Mailer and Updike, only having been through trauma. They aren’t emptied out by the disaster, they were empty to begin with.
Read as an example of two archaic styles (1970s era masculine novel, 1870s era American coming of age novel), the lack of women worth reading makes a bizarre sort of sense sense, I suppose. The problem there is that while the evocation of the 19th century is manifestly intentional, working to emphasize the changes that have been undergone, there’s less reason for why the people of 2020 should look like a bunch of affluent suburbanites of the 1970s at a post-apocalyptic key party. The failure to notice that 40 years have passed and that the middle aged women of Kunstler’s book had an entirely different set of experiences than the characters he actually writes is a weakness, not a strength in the book.
There are things I don’t and can’t do well as a writer, and every writer writes around their weaknesses – this is entirely normal. The problem is that in writing modern fiction, the inability to write women outside of sex scenes is a pretty big gap to have to cover, and that’s one of the reasons I think he’s more successful in writing non-fiction than fiction.
Kunstler tries – he covers it by trying to cast us back to eras where one could almost get away with not having any real female characters. He covers it by taking us to the door of the whorehouse. He covers it with a host of protests that the women who criticize him just don’t understand how deeply he understands us. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.
What did you think?