CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT
Note: I am not using character names in this review.
I suppose the question we are always asking ourselves is, does art have a responsibility to be ethical, does it have to, for instance, depict healthy relationships or is there no moral imperative for art, does it just have to tell a story. Of course I lean heavily towards the belief that art has a certain responsibility. While listening to a Fifty Shades Freed review this morning this issue came up. Yes, it’s inadvertently a story about domestic violence and not an accurate portrayal of a BDSM relationship but it’s also essentially a fantasy about a plain Jane who’s “quirkiness” lands her a hot husband, epic wealth, many modes of transport and a career! Who doesn’t want all of those things to just fall into their lap?? As a woman and a feminist I think films, books and pop culture at large should stop telling stories about how if a woman is good enough she can stop a man from abusing her and help him turn his life around. As an avid consumer of books, film and pop culture at large I enjoy the more, let’s say nihilistic or realistic stories. Which brings me to Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Set in the 1990’s in London, this novel is about a romance of sorts between an older actor and a young Irish woman who has moved to London for acting school.
Whenever people talk about Irish writers they think of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and so on. Of course those are good authors who have written some of the most significant works of the last centuries but there are a multitude of living, vibrant Irish writers, in particular, many who are women and it is both my duty as a Canadian living in Ireland and as a woman who is interested in literature to seek out these authors.
This is a story that is about what I would call an abusive relationship. It’s a story that contains many scenes which I would say depict rape. That’s neither here nor there I suppose. Certainly a woman writing about possible sexual assault from a woman’s perspective is valuable. Throughout the novel it seems as though the protagonist doesn’t class them as assaults, which again is neither here nor there. I think it’s interesting and important that victims of sexual assault or sexual experiences that are, perhaps, morally blurry should be able to define those experiences however they want. I think people often do romanticise abusive situations and experiences for a multitude of reasons and I don’t particularly want to criticise that. I think that a lot of people when they are first sexually active, especially people perhaps from more conservative backgrounds, do consent to a lot of sexual activities that are perhaps not okay or not okay for them. I grew up in a Christian community at the end of the purity culture craze and one of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is what happens when you get a bunch of hormonal teenagers together, talk to them about sex non-stop, tell them how wonderful it is (but crucially don’t give any details!) and then tell them not to have it. Mainly what happens, I think, is that instead of emerging with a sort of healthy, nuanced view of sexuality and appropriate boundaries you emerge with a much raunchier and more inappropriate view of sex. I would imagine that many people who grew up in rural Ireland had a similarly conservative sexual education. What reading this novel particularly reminded me of was the sense that I had, growing up, that there are “Christians” and then there are people who fuck and those people are having sex all the time in every manner possible with as many people as possible. Which you know, is fine but also not the reality. There are people who don’t have sex! There are people who have lots of sexual partners and those who have few! Who have their first sexual experiences at a young age and who wait till they are older. Perhaps I am projecting my own experiences onto our protagonist but I did feel that she, like me, felt that the only option is to have as much sex as possible in the biggest variety of ways. That’s all to say that the first half of the book felt uncomfortable but also deeply truthful.
I guess where I would push back is the sort of, to me, strange moralising around certain sexual acts. By the time we reach the climax (ooer) of the book, our protagonist has lost her virginity in a more or less unpleasant manner, had sex with two men at once and had anal sex. There has been abusive incest and childhood sexual assault. But the ending of the book is our protagonist giving the male protagonist a blow job. As you can see from the photo, the book was a bit dog eared because at this point I launched the book across the room. Of course everyone is allowed to be as puritanical or not about any kind of sex or sex act. Yes some people find oral sex more intimate. But framing it in this way, as something scandalous, just felt dated to me as did the implication that the only reason someone might have a lot of sexual partners is because they are “troubled”.
The second problem I had was the “traumatic past” of the male protagonist was pure schlock. Up until that part I was, more or less on board with this book. The writing is truly brilliant. I think anyone who has moved away from home at a young (ish) age and experienced the sense of being nobody and nothing mattering would feel the same way. But it was that authenticity that made the reveal of his past feel so weird, it felt as if it had been cut from a soap opera, or yes, Fifty Shades of Grey and pushed into a book that otherwise felt very nuanced. I wrote in my The Shadow of The Wind Review that I feel as if my consumption of art has been deeply impacted by the recent talk of sexual assault in the media and I felt similarly here. When the male protagonists’ history was revealed I mainly felt, well, nothing. I’m certainly not implying that men can’t face sexual abuse or that it is any less important than when women face it but rather that from a literary standpoint the character, for me, didn’t need a traumatic past. People can just be jerks! I didn’t need an explanation. If however the implication is that he’s a jerk because he faced abuse, well I’m kind of over that narrative.
The ending troubled me as well. Sure, I believe that an emotionally abusive, averagely successful, middle aged actor and a naïve young woman, desperately longing for drama would end up together…for a bit. That isn’t a criticism by the way, I think most of us have put ourselves in harms way for a bit of drama at one point or another. But the tone of a Disney-esque happily ever after felt like an insult. It felt like an alternate ending on a film that didn’t need an alternate ending. I didn’t like it one bit. Depending on where you fall on the topic of “do characters exist outside of the story” we can look at the ending in two ways. If you think characters can exist, or that is, we can and should imagine them outside of the text then perhaps the story is just one that has chosen a place to stop and the happily ever after is just another example of our protagonists naiveté. If you don’t believe that characters can be analysed outside of the text than we are meant to believe that, like in many a problematic romance film, our protagonist alone is good enough to change a bad, troubled and philandering man into a kind and loving and monogamous one.
In the end I left this book feeling conflicted, which was maybe the intent after all.