Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Punishments for Passivity and the Fundamental of Style: On hausfrau

There are as many ways to come to an identity as there are people with identities, but the panoply of self-identification can be arranged on a spectrum between active and passive. You can carve out for yourself a wholly idiosyncratic identity, actively embrace identities specific to your heritage (or the aspect of the heritage you find most significance in) passively select from the range of identities present in your society, or not really decide on an identify at all and just drift along responding to the most pressing need and following the path of least resistance, and everything in between. I don't think it's too terribly interesting to point out that systems of power and upholders of the status quo prefer and reward those who accept the pre-fabbed identities, nor do I think there's too much surprising in how those same systems of power and upholders of the status quo have a complicated and often contradictory relationship with those who dynamite down barriers and create entirely new ways of being a human. But just because systems of power prefer passivity over activity, it does not mean they treat all passive identifiers identically.

When a man just passively drifts along, choosing the path of least resistance, ultimately falling, without intention, into one of society's standard identities, he still ends up in a position of power, he still has a sense of agency, his identity is still his own even if, when examined with any kind of critical rigor, it could hardly be called an identity at all. Furthermore, there is very little societal punishment (at least for white cis men) for whatever the drifting of identity is composed of, whether it's “sowing wild oats” in a frat house, driving across country with buddies, or backpacking across Europe, men (especially white, cis) can expect a relative level of safety while they wander and expect a relative level of power when they return. Essentially, a cis white man will have to commit a major societal transgression in order to forfeit his privilege and power and given that we're already talking about people drifting through life, the assertion of agency needed to challenge basic social rules is also most likely lacking. But when a woman just drifts along and passively falls into a prefabbed identity, she is someone's wife. She is property. She is an heir vending machine.

Ann Benz, the protagonist of hausfrau is an American living in Zurich, married to a Swiss man, with three children, having multiple affairs, and barely present in her own life. With perhaps one or two exceptions, there is almost no agency in Anna's decisions. She finds herself in a particular situation with a particular set of emotions and ends up doing something. Sometimes that something gives her a level of (pretty much always temporary) satisfaction, sometimes that something troubles her, and often that something is, well, just another something, another inert domino in the line up of her life. Anna even seems to drift through the situations where she does make a decision and does take some action.

Perhaps the starkest example of this inaction in actions occurs when Anna finally decides to end one of her affairs. It could have been a quick phone call. She could have slipped the break up in over lunch at the German class she shares with her lover. There were many ways she could have ended this relationship, but, instead, she has him meet her at the zoo (the zoo?) where they wander around for, like an hour, both knowing what's coming, before she finally, fucking finally, breaks it off. And then he asks for a kiss. And then she receives a long (oh so grossly long) kiss she doesn't want. And then her child, who is at the zoo on a school trip, catches her kissing another man. At any point in this whole stupid long process, Anna could have just fucking done something (anything!) and the turning point in her life from farce to tragedy would have been avoided. (Though, there probably would have been another one.)

It can be infuriating watching Anna not act. Dozens of times I was practically shouting at her to just fucking do something, anything. Even in therapy she would hold back. Even in the exact situation in which she was trying to solve the exact problems that left her so emotionally hollow, she couldn't just fucking say “I feel hollow. I have affairs to fill a need. I like to fuck.” I mean, her therapist was being paid, specifically, so Anna could say those things to her. And by the end of the book, after the tragedies run their full course, Anna recedes into believing in pre-destination, perhaps the ultimate passive resignation of one's life.

Essbaum, brilliantly, leaves an obvious political statement unsaid. If Anna's husband Bruno had engaged in the exact same behavior, indulged in the exact same passivity, drifted along with no sense of ownership of his own life, even if he also was caught having an affair, he would have been totally fine. He would have found support in his friends and family and in his job as a banker. He would have had the resources to make a change. Even if his family fell apart, he had a bank account, a job, and a native's fluency in the two (German and Swiss-German) languages spoken in Switzerland, and so could completely reorganize his life. In short, society was there for Bruno. One could argue that Anna's level of isolation (a family-less, near friend-less, ex-pat) is not an accurate representation of how most women experience society, but even if Essbaum presents something of a hyperbole (and I'm not sure she does), one of literature's roles is to turn up the volume on life, revealing existing problems that can sometimes be too quiet to hear. (Especially, when hearing them would challenge your own role/identity/place of power, sense of well-being, etc.)

hausfrau is not the kind of book I would normally pick up. (I mean, look at that cover.) “Bored housewife has affairs” really doesn't interest me as a plot. But Jill Alexander Essbaum is a poet and I'm always interested in how poets work in prose and hausfrau came highly recommended from other readers I trust, so when I had a chance to grab a galley I did.

In some ways, nothing happens in the plot to distinguish hausfrau from the other domestic dramas that failed to hold my attention. (There's a chance this is actually a retelling of a classic domestic drama.) If anything distinguishes hausfrau's plot, it is Essbaum's sense of emotional pace and timing, manipulating and structuring the events to induce (at least in me) the closest thing you'll get from Josh to “an anguished gasp.” (That fucking surprise party! The fucking zoo!) What makes hausfrau a special book, what motivated me beyond my usual prejudices, what inspired me to explore the book with a critical eye and thus be open for its ideas (see above), was the style. Essbaum's sharpness, originality, and vitality of imagery exploded the quiet (even quietly desperate) and mundane moments of Anna's perpetual wallow, scattering the shrapnel of all-too-familiar images to distant corners of intellectual and emotional exploration. Every time I started to get a little bored with Anna's relentless, maudlin passivity, I read a line or sentence or image of crackling originality. Poets, am I right?

Which, of course, brings me back to something of a hobby-horse for me. What distinguishes one book from another is style. Some authors are overt, idiosyncratic, and experimental with their style, turning up the volume on that distinguishing feature (and almost certainly being punished in the marketplace for their overtness, even when they are not saddled with cripplingly-bizarre-when-you-think-about-it label “writer's writer.”), while some strive for quality execution of an accepted style (too often forgetting (or letting it be forgotten) that the accepted style was once overt, idiosyncratic, and experimental), and others don't really control their style at all and just kind of write how they write with their creative efforts much more focused on plot and character (thinking of commercial fiction here.). But even with those writers who don't actively engage with their style, even those writers who's style include poorly executed prose, there is a reason why authors like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and Patricia Cornwell sell gillions of books, and thousands of others who write, at least on the surface, the exact same kinds of books, do not.

Even after considering the vagaries of publishing itself, there is something that distinguishes Stephen King from Peter Straub, even if that something is unintentional, inadvertent, and/or (and we have deconstruction to thank for this) in opposition to whatever King and Straub intended to achieve. Part of that is, of course, the big units of storytelling , but all of those big units (heheheh) are still composed of and communicated through prose style. It certainly could all be a matter of chapter length and where in the book the big cliff hanger or the plot twist occurs or even just how the characters and places are named (I seriously suspect 90% of what distinguishes fun trashy fantasy novels from terrible trashy fantasy novels is the quality of character and place names) but those are all still expressions of an author's style. Ultimately, fundamentally, as I've argued before, it all comes down to style.

People tend to like the media/art/entertainment that stimulates them just enough that they can still ignore the shit they don't feel like dealing with and they tend to come up with a lot of excuses (sometimes reasons) for disliking works that refuse to let the primacy of language and style and/or some uncomfortable of fact of existence be ignored. hausfrau is an uncomfortable book. Essbaum's style can be challenging and her story thrusts our society's misogyny in your face without giving us the emotional salve of a plucky heroine struggling against injustice to root for as we read. Essbaum will not let you ignore things you probably want to ignore. And that's exactly why hausfrau should go on your TBR pile.


  1. I have to admit, I'm a little surprised that you read this one, but your review leaves me intrigued. I've had the ARC sitting on my bedside table for a couple of months but the subject has been holding me back. And ugh-that cover. I much prefer the plain white wraps with the dictionary definition of hausfrau that are on my ARC.

    1. The cover! I actually didn't notice the real cover until I was well into the book, which is probably a good thing. I don't know if I would've picked it up without the dictionary style cover, even though Kenny Coble said it was one of the galleys to grab at NEIBA.