BOOK PICKS: WOMANHOOD IN SOLITUDE
May 3rd, 2020
Words by Lauren Ball · Artwork by Em Jiang
Like many of us with slightly misanthropic inclinations, I've been analyzing what this newfound world order means to me, in my respective body and mind, while simultaneously becoming very jaded by the inescapable narcissism of it all. The deeper I dig, the more I twist seemingly pure intentions into something clouded. Is a whole neighborhood clapping outside of their windows each evening just another form of virtue signaling? With endless stretches of time befoer us, everything becomes tainted, somehow both stubbornly politicized and infantilized. The works below have rescued me from falling into the pits of self-indulgent isolation with their surreal, painfully honest depictions of womanhood in the midst of confined solitude. With their keen charisma and dark humor, they're able to sew the pieces of my personality back together even while everything else is dull, confusing, and blurred.
When Clarice Lispector wrote "Near To The Wild Heart" in 1943, she was, like many of us, a woman spending most of her time alone in a tiny rented room. In the novel, completed around her 23rd birthday, Clarice tugs and pries at language, manipulating sentences until they resemble the absurd thread pulled, upon waking, from a hazy nothing-dream: not a fantasy, but not quite a nightmare, either.
Within the confines of her narrow studio, Clarice tells the story of a feral girl: Joana. Drifting apathetically from life to life, she befriends men with “sick cat eyes,” all the while knowing that “the people were each isolated inside their impenetrable, secret sleep.” It’s a tale of being confined to the whims of one’s own insanity, and the loneliness of never truly being able to enter another’s.
2. Angela Carter: "The Bloody Chamber"
In a documentary filmed towards the end of her life, Angela Carter admitted, “Ok, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?” This is the reason why Angela continues to be so significant to young female-identifying readers. She never allowed herself to be bullied into aligning with male narrative conventions, instead challenging critics with a blasé smirk and the genius, argument-eradicating rebuke: "So fucking what?"
Angela’s most famous collection of short stories, "The Bloody Chamber", aligns traditional folklore with modern issues of female desire and independence. Lonely, beautiful vampires stalk abandoned castles (but are only vanquished once they make the mistake of forgoing their self-sufficiency for a new lover). Abusive husbands take the form of dastardly, eccentric heirs. Ravenous countesses discover their sexuality within their desire for power. An escapist text, "The Bloody Chamber" provides relief from the mundane without venturing too far from the relevant.
Jean Rhys is, without a doubt, the pioneering heiress of isolation. "Good Morning, Midnight" is the semi autobiographical telling of Jean’s early 30s as an expat living in 1920s Paris. It begins with her move to the city as she attempts to escape a troubled past, and shows her floundering her way through various uninspiring jobs, strange relationships, and haunting memories.
Jean darts from one languid hotel room to another, and her mobile restlessness is vaguely envy-inducing, but mostly cathartic in the time of quarantine. “My life,” she writes, “which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”
4. Djuna Barnes: "Ladies Almanack: Showing Their Signs And Their Tides; Their Moons And Their Changes; The Seasons As It Is With Them; Their Eclipses And Equinoxes; As Well As A Full Record Of Diurnal And Nocturnal Distempers, Written & Illustrated By A Lady Of Fashion"
Yes, that whole thing is the title! With the tagline “The Book All Ladies Should Carry,” and accompanied by saucy woodblock illustrations of sexy hikers surrounded by ducks, mermaids as large as forests and peeing angels atop fluffy clouds, "The Ladies Almanack: isn’t your typical farmer’s calendar. Written by Djuna Barnes in 1928, the novella was originally distributed secretly in Paris’ thriving underground salon scene due to its then-shocking subject matter: lesbianism!
Each month of the almanack features a different tale that reads more like poetry than prose. It’s a chaotic meditation on queer love, modernity, and convention. Somehow, Djuna is able to write of things as simple and commonplace as a breakup but soaked in weird poetry: “Nay—I cannot write it! It is worse than this! More dripping, more lush, more lavender, more mid-mauve, more honeyed, more Flower-casting, more Cherub-bound, more downpouring, more saccharine, more lamentable, more gruesomely unmindful of Reason or Sense, to say nothing of Humor.”
Terribly overlooked during her lifetime, Lucia Berlin concocted short stories for the working class women of the desert. A feverish sleepwalk through the now-erased sidewalks and empty lots of mid-century New Mexico, "A Manual for Cleaning Women" spotlights the figures who flew just beneath the radar. The women that cleaned the homes of the mildly wealthy, studying the artefacts of their lives. The desperate women who ran away to the unregulated abortion clinics of a Mexican vacation town. Women on city buses, the toothless women in Laundromats, and the elderly women living by nothing but their own time.
While not necessarily a meditation on aloneness, while reading Lucia’s work I am reminded of the solitude of living outside of predestination; how loneliness sometimes gives way to an absolute, terrifying freedom. While not for the faint of heart, her stories punctuate what it is to be a woman existing defiantly in the folds of an in-between space.
Lauren Ball has been a music journalist, music publicist, editor, and poet. She once witnessed a person wearing a balaclava almost rob a convenience store while the Cranberries’ "Dreams" played. She is currently writing her debut novel, "The Moon is Exploding with Silence"
Em Jiang is an animator, illustrator, and tattoo artist that recently graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. Their work explores the bizarre, surreal landscape of memory, nostalgia and the desert