Deathless by Catherynne Valente

I keep meaning to come back to this and talk about it, but poor Deathless has suffered by not being problematic in ways that stick in my craw like So Much Pretty, which I needed to write about immediately after finishing it. I didn’t want to write about Deathless except to say “Wow.”

I think I’ve told you that I had a Russian minor in college, even though I never really got the hang of the language. I mean, three years of Russian and I can kind of talk about drinking and milk and possibly some farm animals. So, if you run into any drunken Russian three-year-olds, I should almost be able to keep up. But here are the important things I learned about Russian culture, in no particular order:

1. Russians have memorized a shit-ton of poetry. Maybe not younger folks, but people my parents’ age and older know a shit-ton. When you mention Pushkin to an old Russian, he doesn’t just know the name, like you might know who Shakespeare is, he can recite Pushkin’s poetry for hours (or maybe just what will feel like hours when the only Russian you know is ‘moloko’ ‘vodka’ and ‘corova’ and for some reason, Pushkin didn’t write a lot about drinking vodka and milking cows).

2. Any Russian who lived through World War II is a scary bad ass.

3. ‘Pivo’ is ‘beer’ in Russian and ‘Piva’ is ‘beer’ in Polish. You can thank me the next time you get back from Chicago.

Anyway, part of studying Russian at my college was that you had to at least take a Russian Literature class in translation–so I read Eugene Onegin in English and some Akhmatova and The Master and Margarita (which I have to hope strikes you as “Oh, of course”) and, I think, Crime and Punishment (though I may have read that in another class).

So, all this is kind of a huge preface to my review of Deathless, a book about Russia, specifically during the rise of Communism and the Second World War and the Siege at Leningrad. But it’s also a book about folkloric Russia–Baba Yaga, Koschei The Deathless, the little sprites that live in people’s houses, etc.–and how the folkloric map and the real map intertwine.

The main character is Marya Morevna who becomes the bride of Koschei and who lives through the Siege. But I felt like it was really a kind of beautifully despondent meditation on how people get steamrolled by history, which I know makes it sound utterly depressing. But it’s not. It’s a beautiful book, exquisitely written. You can tell Valente is also a poet, because just at the sentence level, it’s gorgeous. But reading it is like that moment when you’ve been crying and crying and crying and you finally take that cold hiccuping breath that means you’re done.

This book is that cold breath.

I wondered what Russians would make of it, if they’d also feel like it felt just right or if they’d feel like they were hearing about their own home from a stranger.

Valente does some really nice things technique-wise. One, she doesn’t shy away from the kind of weird folkloric trope of the asshole who kidnaps the girl and wins her love, but she doesn’t play it as exactly some kind of troubling, irredeemable rape thing, either. Instead, she does a really nice job of casting it in a kind of D/s dynamic (there’s some light bondage, but it’s all consensual and really gets at what, for some folks, is so cathartic about such encounters). And just when you’re like “Oh, that’s nicely handled,” she comes back over the same ground, in fact, pretty much literally, with different characters in those roles and shows how it’s not the activity but the people doing those things and what they need that makes it work. It’s just a nice bit of insight topped by an even nicer bit of insight.

I think the other thing she does really well–and man, believe me, if I had Valente on my couch, I would be pouring wine in her glass until she spilled for me how she got this so right, because I think, until you read it done, you don’t really know that it’s a possibility, and I am dying to know how she came up with it and then how she executed it so well–is to give a kind of dream-space to the tragedies that hover in the background of the book, so that the reader works through them without being done in by them. What I mean is that it’s impossible to read a book about Russia set in this era and not be thinking of the weight of history, the enormous avalanches of tragedy that kept sweeping over the Russian people.

Valente sprinkles the text liberally with her own translations of Akhmatova’s poetry, invoking, without coming out and beating you over the head with it, Akhmatova’s situation at the time the book is set, and “Requiem” is felt strongly in its absence. (She’s got Pushkin all over the place, too, a testament to his pretty much single-handed salvation of the Russian language as something worthy of respect and capable of great beauty.) But Lenin and Stalin get scant mention. Except, towards the end of the book, there’s this whole elaborate dream-like world in which all these historical larger-than-life characters are set loose to act out their parts, while harming no one.

It’s really something you just have to read for yourself, but it’s almost as if, in rendering them almost folkloric, making them kind of lighter than history, she gives the reader a way to face and acknowledge the larger context of the book and work through it without it breaking the spell of the book.

And, for me, at least, I felt like it gave me a way to understand how people go on in the face of these vast historical forces. Of course it is too much to bear. And yet, for some people, in some instances, you make it through, as if the danger were never that serous, even though, of course, it was. I’m making it sound a lot more trite than it is in the book. Like I said, I’m not sure it’s something you can really talk about. You just have to read it and see if it works for you. But for me, I found it stunning.

So, ha, upon rereading, I feel like I’ve made it out to be a really depressing book, but it’s not. It’s really beautiful and it feels weirdly hopeful at the end. Like, god damn it, something is still going to be beautiful and subversive, even in the darkest of times.

I don’t know. I really liked it.

This Should Be Interesting

Remember how there was all that brouhaha about how making the HPV vaccination mandatory for girls would turn girls into giant Slutty McSluttersons? Well, guess who’s getting oral cancer like we’ve returned to the halcyon days of everybody smoking?


I bet the “controversy” over vaccinating kids against HPV quickly and quietly goes away.

Paying for Affection

Do y’all remember that show on HBO a while back about strippers? I think it was called G-string Divas or something. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. The premise of the show was, well, naked women. It’s HBO after all. But the interesting thing that was going on in the show is that they’d talk to the men about the strippers and stripping and the men would go on and on about how the women liked them, and how they came to make the women like them, through showering them with money. And then they’d go talk to the women, who would speak very frankly about how they could tell which men would be willing to give up a bunch of money if the women pretended to like them and so the women pretended to like them. And the women would often discuss how they really didn’t like the men at all.

I used to watch that and think “Man, how could any guy watch this show and still go to strip clubs and think he could trust any encounter in there as real?”

But then I finally got it, I think after the 400th music video with strippers fawning over the stars or the 400th movie in which, yes, the main female character is a prostitute but she does really love the main male character (see, for just one example, Jonah Hex). At some level we do know that the woman we shower money on in exchange for her affection is probably acting like she likes us in order to earn that money, but we hate that. I think we really, really, really want to believe that we are so awesome that we’d be the exception, that we’d be the person a gal like that would really love, if only circumstances brought us together and money is just the circumstance that brings us together. And I’m not saying that there aren’t occasionally strippers or prostitutes that come to care genuinely for their clients as people and friends and not as clients, but that is a small sliver compared to the large psychic space we afford that fantasy culturally.

At least, wanting to believe is one part of it. I think there’s another, kind of more sinister urge, to tell women in precarious situations that everything about them can be bought, not just their bodies, but even space in their hearts. It is a way to abuse women–to insist that, no matter what you make us do, you can also make us love you.

I’ve been reading a lot about The Help lately, since the movie is coming out and over at the discussion at Shakesville, someone linked to this post, which is all about the history of the trope of the loving mammy. If you follow the internal links in the piece or just start reading anywhere in the whole blog, you get an amazing, in-depth history lesson in the trope of white women who love the black women who raised them and who assume that the black women loved them back AND that the bond between these white women and black women is so special, the white women can then speak for those black women.

And I thought–damn, that’s a lot like the stripper/hooker problem. It may be the rich white woman equivalent of the stripper/hooker problem–you (or your family) is giving money to a woman to love you and to provide you with the fantasy that this love is genuine and untainted by the fact that this woman is being paid for her affection and you have the privileged of never having to know that. Which is not to say that there aren’t women who worked in white households and raised white children and didn’t come to really love and care for them. Of course there were and are.

But the need for our culture to believe that’s the pervasive and common dynamic and to tell stories over and over again in which that’s true?

Yeah, then, you have to figure there’s something not quite right and worth thinking critically about going on there.

It’s Like Christmas Continues

I wrote about it at Pith, of course.

But this is the best part, and by “best part” I mean the part that will have you laughing bitter tears–Steve Ross points out that, thanks to Haslam and Harwell, the State Ethics Commission lacks a quorum. There’s nobody at the state level who can do anything about this. And will the State Senate? I’d be shocked if they did. Ron Ramsey was ass-kicking and taking names earlier in the session, but he’s pretty much rolled over and shown his belly since then.

Campfield may be able to ask for money, not because it’s not wrong, but because there’s no one willing to make him do right.

Hilarious. Sad, but hilarious.