Coming summer ’15, from Barbican Press, The Secret Baby Room is a suspense thriller from D.D. Johnston.
Claire Wilson was in the spare room of her new home, unpacking a box marked ‘miscellaneous,’ when she glanced up and saw the strangest thing. High up in the abandoned tower block that overshadowed their estate, a woman was bottle-feeding a baby.
Why would anyone take a baby into a derelict tower block? And why is her next-door neighbour so determined to delay the block’s demolition? In a Manchester neighbourhood plagued by unexplained tragedies, Claire’s only allies are an eccentric white witch, a wild-child party girl, and a husband with too many secrets. In ten days’ time, the tower block will be reduced to rubble and dust. Do you look the other way or do you dare to push open the door?
I was grateful to read a review of The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub in Issue 62 of Writing in Education (p-86), and I appreciate the reviewer, Holly Howitt-Dring, engaging with the book. There’s something very undignified about authors quibbling with criticisms of their work, and I never challenge criticisms of a novel’s structure or style or subject or concept – apart from anything else, most of the time the critics have a point.
But the main criticism in this review is that the book is sexist:
Starting with the narrator’s love-interest, Lempi, who is initially characterized as not much more than pretty and “petite… with disproportionately large breasts”, female characters do not fare well. (…) However briefly female characters appear in the story, they are often superficial, unable to resist any sexual encounter submissive or otherwise. Elsie herself isn’t even able to shrug this off; she can’t resist her lover, Ramon, and is a sexual plaything for others throughout her story. It seems a shame that these characters play such highly genderized and sexualized parts, though our narrator seems to realize this reductiveness on a foray into Amsterdam’s Red Light district.
As a self-proclaimed feminist, who claims to have written a feminist book, I’m probably obliged to dispute this reading. Here’s a quick attempt:
1. A book is not sexist because it contains sexist characters. We have to consider to what extent the author endorses those characters’ views and intends for readers to identify with them. In The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, the eponymous professor is a comic caricature of a disgraced, ageing chauvinist, and the narrator’s lust for his love interest is doomed, pathetic, and ridiculous: for instance, when they’re first alone together he defecates himself and throws his soiled pyjama bottoms from his bathroom window. Further, the narrator’s crush, Lempi, spends the last quarter of the book deconstructing herself as sexual object while foregrounding the consequences of hegemonic ideals of female desirability.
2. Regarding whether the narrator’s historical fiction is sexist, we need to consider whether it’s told from a biased perspective. For example, if a book is in part about sexual relations, are those relations invariably described from a male perspective with female characters presented as the objects of a male gaze? In Thrub, only once is sex described from a male character’s perspective, and then the character is a youth who, during the Ukrainian Civil War, tries and fails to lose his virginity with a prostitute. All other sexual experiences – including those of Elsie, Yulia, and Magdalena – are described from a female perspective.
3. To the charge that ‘women do not fare well’, women did not fare well in mid-20th-century Europe, and it would not be a feminist writing that sought to deny the exploitation and sexual violence that women faced in the past and continue to face today. For instance, it would be wrong for a social history of the Ukrainian Civil War to neglect the prevalence of prostitution and rape.
4. To the charge that ‘Elsie can’t resist her lover, Ramón,’ why should she resist her lover? Surely post-sexual revolution we can accept that women are not asexual and have as much right as men do to enjoy having sex with their partners.
5. To the charge that ‘Elsie is a sexual plaything to others throughout her story,’ besides Ramón the only other character with whom she has described sexual contact is her predatory boss, Menzies Flynn. It is accurate to describe her as Flynn’s sexual plaything, but as this traumatic incident is told from Elsie’s perspective, a better way to put it might be that she is a survivor of a sexual assault.
6. Finally, I agree that women in the book usually have ‘submissive’ roles during sex. The politics of desire are complex and beyond the scope of this response, but we should remember that all the sex described in the book occurred almost a century ago. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed plausible to me that the sex lives of my characters would in some ways reflect the prevailing patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality. This is not meant to imply that there weren’t also alternatives: for instance, while in Barcelona, Elsie encounters women active in Mujeres Libres (Free Women), the revolutionary anarcha-feminist organisation whose members rejected church and state, mocked the idea of marriage, and in some cases pursued same-sex and polygamous relationships. But it was not my intention to write about these revolutionary heroes, and to readers who wish to learn more about their inspiring social revolution, I heartily recommend Martha Acklesberg’s Free Women of Spain.
I had hoped to write a feminist book, and I apologise if I have failed.
I’m excited to be talking literature with Rob Newman at the University of Gloucestershire tomorrow night. Rob is a “goosepimplingly brilliant” comedian, the author of four acclaimed novels, and the star of television shows including The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, A History of Oil, and A History of the World Backwards. We’ll be talking literature, politics, philosophy, history, and his new novel, The Trade Secret – an outrageous, continent-crossing epic that is described by The Guardian as “a rollicking Elizabethan yarn that has much to say about the origins and nature of modern capitalism.”
Tickets are £5 (free to UoG students and staff) and you can book your place here.
As the year ends, I want to say thanks for a few new media pieces that have appeared recently. The photo by Marta Calvo was taken on the terrace of La Central bookstore in Barcelona, when I was visiting to promote the Spanish version of Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs. The picture’s in the top Spanish literary magazine, Qué Leer.
I’m also grateful to author Christopher Burns for his intelligent and thoughtful review of The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, which appears in the new issue of the venerable Warwick Review. The review is much fuller and more thought-provoking than can be conveyed in a sound bite, but here’s a sample:
Readers are likely to find Thrub either exciting or precious, but few will disagree that this is an ambitious, erudite work with a profound interest in the world as we find it. This interest encompasses unexpectedly vivid sensory descriptions, scenes of violence such as those found in Babel, a junction of philosophy and farce reminiscent of Stoppard, a B.S. Johnson like use of distancing, and an ongoing dialectic between Kantian and post-Kantian theories of being and action.
In addition, last week I had the pleasure of chatting with journalist Michael Donnelly, who’s recently launched an independent media venture: S:News. The interview’s available to read here.
Finally, if you’re still shopping for presents, have a look at The Morning Star‘s review of the year’s best left-wing fiction. There are some great titles mentioned, so I’m grateful to Paul Simon for including Thrub. He writes:
As expansive in its scope and even more ambitious in its characterisation, DD Johnston’s The Deconstruction Of Professor Thrub spans poverty-stricken Belfast, the Spanish civil war and Hungary 1956. A galloping discussion of free will and skit on academic life, it’s a book that frequently explodes with raw and unexpurgated humour.
The good people at Libcom.org – ‘a resource for all people who wish to fight to improve their lives, their communities and their working conditions’ – have just published a review of The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub:
‘A historical epic, a story about love, revolution and the university, with echoes of Luther Blissett’s Q and a lot of laughs, this is a great book which entertains, confuses and educates in equal measure.You should read it!’
I’m delighted that the Spanish edition of Peace, Love, & Petrol Bombs, Paz, amor y cócteles molotov, comes out today. It’s published by Hoja de Lata, a thriving young independent press, which was started by Daniel Alvarez with the redundancy money he received after his job in the book industry fell victim to the recession. Since launching their list in April with a translation of Arraianos by the Nobel Prize proposed Galician author Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín, Hoja de Lata have enjoyed success with a new book every month. Other texts include Spanish translations of the letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, and a Spanish version of Jean Malaquais’ Les Javanais, which won the Prix Renaudot in 1939. Paz, amor y cócteles molotov is translated by Raquel Duato García, and I hear it’s a brilliant version. I’m eager to read it, and I figure all I need is a decade or two of evening classes….