Always So, Never Quite

Always so plain

Never quite pretty

Always so stupid

Never quite witty,

Always so lost

Never quite found

Always so quiet

Never quite loud,

Always so average

Never quite above

Always so forgotten

Never quite loved,

Always so nervous

Never quite calmed

Always so hurt

Never quite harmed,

Always so wrong

Never quite right

Always so shadowed

Never quite bright,

Always so contained

Never quite free

Always who they see

Never quite me.

 

Jayde Taylor

Who are you?

In celebration of a whole year of Cringings we asked our regular contributors, both past and present, to tell us about themselves: who they are, why they write and what inspires them in life and art. The answers are as varied as they are entertaining, a symbolic cross-section of the vast range of writers working in Australia today. Here follows the first in our series of interviews. Enjoy.

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Who are you?

Jane Abbott: I’m a single mother, living (mostly) in Melbourne with my two teenaged sons. Prior to 2013, despite a deep-seated desire to ‘write … one day’, I’d never really put myself to the test.

Conan Elphicke: A former travel writer and freelance journalist, I’m now working on yet-to-be-published children’s middle-grade fiction. When it comes to the Cringe, I’m among other things the ghost-writer for confused visionary Sir Partridge Gormley. Though he seems to have died or something because I’ve not heard a peep from him for months.

Elise Janes: I sing jazz, I play violin, I read read read, I go to film festivals, I watch theatre, I wear bright colours and I drink red wine. I have lived in Montreal and on an island in the Whitsundays. My ideal date is Spanish food, spicy cocktails and a table to myself. I watch too many Vine compilations. I laugh at hipsters but eat their food. I often say too much.

Sean Macgillicuddy: I once knew a man who believed he was living his life backwards. He wasn’t joking, or being clever, or on anything that might have led to this odd conviction. At the time, I didn’t get it. However, as I near the end of my 52nd year, the awkward father of a nine month old boy, my first, I’m beginning to understand what he meant. More and more I feel isolated by the adult world of accumulated wisdoms and expertise, of knuckling down and taking responsibility and having opinions about things like politics and food. If I once had a cultural or national identity it is long gone, being unable to comply with the draconian rigours of what is and is not Australian, and who I am is increasingly determined by the day-to-day essentials of what I do as opposed to any grand narrative of self. I live in the tiny village of Gundaroo, about 30 minutes north of Canberra, having moved here seven years ago from Sydney. I’m a husband, a father, a cook, a son, a brother, a gardener, a man. But even these are just words. I know no more about being a father than I do about being a man. Which is perfectly OK, until an adult comes along with a wagging finger brandishing some garbage about the unexamined life not being worth living. To which I’d say the unlived life isn’t worth examining, and brandish back some garbage of my own. The aim of life is to live and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. Henry Miller.

Ashlee Poeppmann: 21 and a fresh graduate from Queensland University of Technology. I studied Creative Writing and Interactive Design. I’m currently working part time as an admin assistant but will someday go back to university for further study. Someday.

Carmel Purcell: I am a third year uni student studying Creative & Professional Writing and Entertainment Industries at Queensland University of Technology. In my spare time I like to watch American Horror Story or go out to lunch with friends and drink lattes and hot chocolates. I am passionate about food and travel and always change my mind about where I want to go. At the moment I am interested in travelling to Israel, Turkey and Morocco.

Ken Ward: I’m someone for whom writing is my Everest. A finished manuscript that delivers on the promise it makes, is the ultimate achievement.

 

What do you write and why?

Jane: I had always imagined myself to be a writer of no particular genre (both my current manuscripts are quite different), but apparently my publishers believe me to be a writer of dystopia. Who knew? For me, writing is simply about telling a damned good story, one that the reader can’t bear to put down. Within that story, the themes will be as various, and as hard-hitting, as I can make them.

Conan: I just answered part of this question. My main focus is children’s writing, in part because my own childhood was improved markedly by some of the greats: CS Lewis, Kenneth Graeme, Tolkien and even the wretched Enid Blyton. Children’s writing also demands you distil narrative, which is an appealing challenge. It’s all about story.

Elise: I love a good, flawed character engaged in conflict that challenges their integrity and fear. Genre-wise I write dystopia because humanity is terrifying; fantasy because reality is small; and literary fiction because I’m processing some stuff. Who isn’t. I also write academic articles because there’s too much knowledge to know and I want to know it all; and, let’s be honest, I write a lot of opinionated articles because too many people don’t know enough and yet think they do. There, I said it.

Sean: I love books. I love the idea of books, their look, that someone somewhere created this thing and there I am in their hands. As they are quite literally in mine. I love the private elegance of reading words that have been rolled into a shape that transports me intellectually and aesthetically and emotionally to spaces I can’t otherwise inhabit. And in some cases, don’t want to. Bukowski springs to mind. Oblomov. But I love them all the same. I love the craft of books, of stories. I love the grip a book can place on your soul, when it refuses to be put down. I write narrative fiction, with four novels and a collection of short stories gathering dust in a drawer or drive waiting to be buried or resurrected, who can say. The composition of a novel is an enormous task, and, like anything of value, hard work, but the rewards of writing well, of perfecting a sentence, a page, a chapter, are difficult to describe. I write to feel that thing, and to understand it, to bring it into other areas of my life, perhaps, that symmetry, capacity, that grip on your soul.

Ashlee: I write fiction, as I find that’s the easiest way for me to express my ideas. I also go through a lot of phases with themes. Lately I’ve written a lot about ghosts, wolves, my family and things I think about on public transport.

Carmel: I write for uni because I have to. I write a range of things for the cringe blog because it’s good fun and it’s important for me to document parts of myself and my experiences in stories. I also write corporate pieces because I am a Content Writing intern.

 Ken: I’m drawn to personal struggle. The moment when we go from being disconnected to connected. This journey towards realisation excites me.

 

Canopy Shyness

One pm and One am are two very different times of day.

One pm in grade five was a sunny but humid afternoon in science class. The Camphor Laurel trees were swaying in the hot wind, their branches tapping the rusted louvers of our dusty classroom. In science class, I remember we were taught these trees were weeds, introduced over a hundred years ago to the area. Now their old roots spread under the whole school, connecting each classroom to the forest and to the river.

 

One am in grade five was waking up in a sweat from a bad dream. While it scared me for a few seconds, I knew I could always feel safe in my own bed. I didn’t feel any eyes on me here; I felt less fear than what I experienced in school. Outside I could always feel them on my back. The piercing eyes, distant laughter. Everything I did, I did in fear of being shamed of being yelled at. Even alone, I could never shake the feeling I was being watched.

 

At one pm, I loved Science Class. If we weren’t playing with coloured solutions or Lego robots, we were outside in the heat. Some classes were in the pine forest, some behind the school where our teacher taught on the ground while the class sat above in the old Camphor Laurel branches. On special occasions, we visited the forest beside the school where the trees expanded in all its natural beauty.

One particular hot day, we ventured even deeper into the forest, following the river downstream. Here, the native trees outnumbered the weeds and the path disappeared under forest litter.

“Look up.” our teacher had said.

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At one am I used to stare up at the ceiling. I didn’t want to sleep, because I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to wake up and go to school. The oral presentation had crept up on me so quickly – I had just wanted to forget about it. But before school finished our teacher reminded us to be prepared. My stomach churned at the thought of it. To choose who was to be first, the teacher picked a name from a hat. I used to blush constantly, especially when my name was spoken out loud.

 

“What do you see up there?” The teacher questioned, pointing to the canopy.

“Trees and leaves?” someone beside me answered. But I remember seeing more than that. I saw rivers between the tree canopy, and the varying colours of the different species. I saw a cockatoo pick at the bark and a lorikeet nibble some berries.

“Yes, definitely leaves,” the teacher said, “Anyone else see something a little strange?” I continued to stare straight up, keeping silent. I could see something strange, but I didn’t have the words to say it out loud.

“Ok then, does everyone notice the lines between the canopy of the trees? See how the tops of the tree’s branches don’t touch each other?”

Everyone hummed a “ahh’ of realisation. That was weird, everyone agreed.

“This is called ‘Canopy Shyness’ or ‘Crown Shyness’ and no scientist has agreed to a theory on why some forest trees do this.”

“It looks like how the ground cracks in a desert.” I murmured. A few people turned back to look at me, and I blushed and looked back up at the canopy.

 

I don’t remember going back to sleep after one am.

“Did you get any sleep?” mum asked me in the morning.

“No, I didn’t. And I feel really sick.”

“Well you don’t look sick.”

“Mum, I really don’t want do to this.”

“You’ll be fine, it’s only five minutes. Just take deep breaths.”

But it felt like my insides had rusted and that I would fail at everything. I always felt like this when my only friend wasn’t at school, or if I accidentally made eye contact with a stranger. I could never buy anything by myself, I was too terrified to say the wrong thing, or have the wrong change. I didn’t like to ask difficult questions. I didn’t want to be yelled at. I didn’t like loud things. I didn’t like hugs.

 

“One theory,” Our teacher explained, his hands still pointing to the sky, “Is that the tall trees may suffer physical damage as they collide with each other during windy days or storms. To stop injury, they respond with Canopy Shyness.”

 

The clock ticked over to 1pm. The notes in my hands were damp from my sweaty hands.

“Ashlee!” the teacher announced, and his words vibrated in my ears. “Ready for your presentation?”

I nodded while my insides scrambled, and my face warmed. I was frightened of the eyes on me, the thoughts that could be going through my classmate’s heads. I wanted to run out of the classroom and hide, but I knew that would make me even more anxious than I was. I was frightened of failing, of disappointing.

I set up my PowerPoint.

“The Umbrella Tree” my presentation was called. To my surprise, the class was in awe of my PowerPoint. I had created colourful yet clear slides with forest sounds and non-blurry pictures. My insides unscrambled a little.

“Ready when you are, Ashlee.” the teacher said.

“The Umbrella Tree,” I stuttered, “is not considered a dangerous weed in Queensland. And in this presentation I’m going to explain why it should be.”

I read straight off my notes, not even looking up once.

But no one booed or yelled, and I think they all actually listened. Because when I mentioned that Lorikeets ate the trees’ fermenting berries and became a little drunk, everyone laughed. When I finished everyone clapped, I blushed and smiled.

I walked back to my desk still a little shaky, but feeling taller. Feeling like I had grown a little.

 

Sitting in my bed at One am, I feel grown. It took me ten years, but I don’t live in constant fear anymore. I have a canopy that tangles with the forest for miles, and while there’s still a little space between some leaves, I know it’ll grow as I do. Tangling with the forest where I feel I now belong.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

 

Whose voice is whose?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, "Voice Array, Subsculpture 13", 2011. "Recorders", Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Voice Array, Subsculpture 13”, 2011. “Recorders”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Writers have a platform. A platform is a voice. Voice is influence.

Whether your audience is one or one million, what you say (and the way you say it) has lasting impact, not only in the minds of those who consume it firsthand but also as a fleck on the wider canvas of cultural commentary.

We live in an age immensely conscious of voice, arguably more so than any era that has come before. This is the time of struggle for equality; of wrestling out the vast complexities of privilege and poverty, the established and the transient, the dominating and the dominated.

As such the concept of voice is under greater debate now than ever before. This creates a vast shifting tension between points of difference, as we dig deeper to unveil the true core of the conundrum of inequality.

What is privilege? What does it mean to be represented, faithfully or otherwise? Who has the right to tell what stories and how? These are questions shaping the way we engage with narrative of all kinds, moulding the way writers write and readers read.

At the National Writers’ Conference in Melbourne last year, two authors sat on a panel titled “Voices on a Page”, both young; one female, one male. One Arab-Australian the other Anglo-Australian. One spoke about dialogue and the other about rights. Even with only two artists weighing in on the topic, various and completely alternate interpretations of ‘voice’ were explored.

The discussion about privilege took precedent, eliciting the strongest emotional reactions from the panelists and the audience. It became clear that one writer was writing with the mission to proclaim identity and while the other wrote to explore it. Questions of narrative ‘rights’ and responsibilities became heated, not just between the panelists but between audience members as well. There was a point where I glanced around to make sure an exit was nearby, in case things got out of hand.

Now, riot-inducing panel sessions are not something we expect from writing conferences these days (though maybe we should) as people tend to steer clear of these raw issues for lack of a concrete grasp of their own thoughts. Because when we burrow down through the politically correct lingo and vitriol, we must ask ourselves, and each other, what we really mean by terms like ‘privilege’, ‘rights’ and ‘identity’. After all, whose voice is whose?

One author went as far as to say we are not entitled to write from any voice except our own, that when we try to interpret the world of others, we undermine their authenticity.

Do you agree?

The other emphasised the scope available to writers in observing and understanding other worlds and other voices, in interpreting them through the multifaceted lens of society and in doing so exploring alternate perceptions.

Again it comes down to this concept of representation, a topic I explored in greater depth in this article about Patricia Arquette’s now-infamous Oscar speech.

While I agree that representation should be wider spread, I believe this is a fundamentally complex issue that is only just now beginning to unfold and take shape. If we are not open to other perspectives on our own voice I fear we miss a significant aspect of what it means to be part of a diverse community, finding our own identity within the wider collage of lives and voices that make up our society.

Writing, in its essence, is art. Art is not only life, it is the lens that enables us to see ourselves from angles we can’t reach on our own.

Could Vladimir Nabokov write from Humbert Humbert’s eyes without being a pedophile? Could Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina’s without being a rich society girl? Could J. K. Rowling write the voice of Harry Potter without being a 13 year old boy? Could George Martin write Cersei Lannister without being a female, a mother and an incestuous sibling?

When artists toil over ‘voice’ and ‘narrative rights’, are they only referring to gender, race and class? Or should we accept that the discussion simply isn’t that straightforward, and that privilege and voice come in all shades of grey?

We need to maintain an open mind when it comes to deciding, as a global artistic body, what we can and can’t do. Without a solid definition of this slippery concept, we cannot, in all honesty, accuse one another pell-mell of discrimination and inauthenticity.

I agree that there is no black and white solution. What some people call archetype, others will call stereotype. What some people call privilege, others will call restriction. What some people deem authentic, others will denigrate as derivative.

So where is the middle ground?

In the end, as I’ve said before, good writing is good writing. A good writer will not take on a voice that they are unable to faithfully render, or at least render in a fresh and valid perspective. There must be a cohesive balance between creativity, observation, and respect. Yes, we need greater diversity in our narrative casts, but not by means of forced contrivance. Yes, we need to find representation for a wider span of voice, but not at the expense of stripping others of their right to creative expression.

In Robert McKee’s brilliant discourse on Story, he discusses exactly this universal application of characterisation, and the responsibility story-tellers have to render authentic human experiences.

“Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity…to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.”

Exploring voice is one of the primary reasons humans read and write, and engage in the act of telling stories. Voice should not be a restrictive category; it should enable authors to explore the nuance of worlds that are both far and near to our own, to mine the complexities of life and in doing so find the answers to how our own life should be lived.

McKee goes on to articulate this.

“Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?”

As authors, let’s not use voice as a way to marginalise, but instead to open up, to ourselves and others, the incredibly vast spectrums of human experience. Let’s commit to authentic and deliberate renderings, to considered and thoughtful approaches, and provide the world with the profound and delicate emotional experiences that come from stepping into another mind.

Your voice is valid. Use it.

 

Elise Janes

 

Emigration, Identity, The Commitments and Me

The commitments

I watched The Commitments for the first time when I was 16. What first grabbed me was the world it roddy doylebrought me into: Dublin in the 1980s. Grimy and gritty rain slicked streets, graphited and run down. The slow tumble towards decay. No money. No jobs. No hope. Then it became about something else. The simple act of just watching the film seemed to fill a void in me. And over the next couple of years, I filled that void at least once a week with a dose of the characters from Barrystown Alan Parker brought to life from the novel written by Roddy Doyle.

When I was 11, my family emigrated to Australia. The move was tough for me. I dublin in the 1980swas at an age where I was beginning to understand what it meant to be Irish. A sense of national identity was stirring within me. A youthful fascination with our country’s long and dramatic history has begun to fill my head with wonderful notions. I had been born into a country of rebels and poets, martyrs and musicians. My country’s identity was shaping my identity. I am who I am because my country made me this way. Our history. Our struggle. Our triumphs and our tears.

On 31st December 1987 my dad got me out of bed at around 10.30pm. Dad drove me into the centre of Dublin wheremansion house we stood, at the stroke of midnight, outside Dublin’s Mansion House to watch the Lord Mayor ring in, not only the new year, but the beginning of Dublin’s Millennium year. People cheered and hugged each other. Perched on my dad’s shoulders, I remember getting sprayed with champagne from the bottle the Lord Mayor aimed over the gathered revellers.

In March 1988 all that was taken away (at least, that’s how I felt for more than 10 years). It was something I struggled with and harboured a lot of anger because of. As a pale and freckled lad with an odd accent trying to adjust to suburban life in Sydney in the late ‘80s the seeds of being an outsider were planted. I had come from Dublin, a city celebrating 1000 years to a country celebrating its 200th birthday. Something about this didn’t sit well with me.

I was enrolled in a local school within a week of arriving and life went on. For all intensive purposes, I neighbourslooked like what Neighbours had led me to believe Australians looked like. The reality in school was different. There were white Australians, of course, but also Filipinos, Egyptians, Iranians, Chileans, Chinese, South Africans and more. There were Catholics, like myself, Anglicans, Muslims, Jehovahs and people who practiced no religion at all. The spectrum of differences was overwhelming. And as soon as I opened my mouth I was found out and my difference exposed. I had never felt so different before. So I worked on my accent, turning my U’s to A’s, my R’s to Ah’s, my Ah’s to A’s. I was blending in, assimilating.

For 5 years, I had been starved of anything Irish, be it on the telly or in magazines or newspapers. Other than on St Patricks day or when classmates blitzed me with a round of Irish Jokes (‘Paddy Irishman walks into a bar…’ or ‘Have you heard the latest Irish invention…’) there was almost nothing for me to hang onto that connected with who I felt I was in my deepest self. Other than an elusive idea of Irishness, I had nothing concrete to grasp onto.

When my parents brought The Commitments home on VHS one day for us to watch on the VCR, I had no idea how much it would affect me. It began with the scenery of Dublin. Streets and places I knew and grew up around. Landmarks, names, references that were not so much learnt as they were part of my DNA. The character’s accents, that strong North Dublin brogue, filled with angst and sarcasm. The accent I had, overtime, left behind.

Before my parents had to return the video the next day, I’d watched the film twice more, staying up late and getting up early before school to do so. I didn’t know what it was – it was too soon to really understand what was drawing me to it. A few months later when the local video store was selling off ex-rental copies of the movie, I bought my own. By then, I knew what it was. This film was my link to Ireland. It was my connection to my Irishness. When I watched this film, the part of me that yearned for ‘home’ was fed. It was my portal, my bridge.

jimmy

It wasn’t long before I could quote verbatim from any part in the film. It had become my identity card. And at the centre of this film was it’s main protagonist, Jimmy Rabbitte. Jimmy was an entrepreneur, a chancer, a man witj vision. The manager of The Commitments, but not a performer in the band. He was friends with the musicians but not a musician himself. He was a dreamer and he was a doer. A man who was a once on the outside and on the inside of events in his life.

As a 16/17 year old I came to identify so deeply with this character that his fingerprint is permanently imprinted upon me. At once, I had someone who I could look to to model myself after, but also, the deeper realisation of how powerful fiction, storytelling, was as a means of connecting. I had lived my whole live having imaginary conversations in my head. With friends, family, famous people, historical people, completely made up people. It’s how I passed my time. And here on the screen in front of me was Jimmy, talking to himself in front of the mirror, in the bath, in bed, being interviewed by Terry Wogan. He lived and expressed this inner monologue that I thought was something only I did.

jimmy in bath

Jimmy Rabbitte had reached out over the oceans and through the TV screen to connect with me. He seemed to be saying, ‘This is what it is to be Irish. This is what it is to go after your dreams.’

My favourite quote from the film, and maybe one of my favourite ideas of all time, is one that is not said by Jimmy, but to Jimmy by  The Commitments troubadour, Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan. At the moment when the band might reach dizzying heights, it all falls apart, irrevocably. As Jimmy and Joey walk away from the choatic scenes of the band imploding, Joey tries to offer Jimmy the wisdom of his years:

jimmy and joey

Joey: Look, I know you’re hurtin’ now, but in time you’ll realize what you’ve achieved.

Jimmy Rabbitte: I’ve achieved nothing!

Joey: You’re missin’ the point. The success of the band was irrelevant – you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.

The struggle and the poetic. To me, what being Irish is all about. And as I’ve developed as a writer, it’s unconsciously, instinctively shaped my work. Struggle and revelation. Life and realisation. The inner me always reaching out, looking to connect with someone. Can me being who I am connected with you being who you are? Can this sharing of experiences and understanding bring us together, open doors, unite us, or untether us from whatever holds us back?

I’ll only find out if I keep writing, keeping myself open to experiences, open to wonder. The path is never always straight or flat. The journey never without incident or trial. But this way there lies discovery. I’ll let my friend Jimmy have the last word:

Jimmy Rabbitte: [pretending to be Terry Wogan] So, lookin’ back Jimmy, what have you learned from your experience with The Commitments?

Jimmy Rabbitte: Well, that’s a tricky question, Terry. But as I always say, we skipped the light fandango, turned cartweels ‘cross the floor. I was feelin’ kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more.

A Family Of Wolves

My family is loud. They’re the ones you hear howling across the restaurant, spilling drinks and laughing at their own jokes. They’re the ones who growl in movie theatres, and feel the need to yell during phone calls. No emotions are held back in my family. If you are upset you explain why and crying is done in waves, not ripples.

My mother is the loudest of them all. Her laugh can be heard through oceans, her voice strong, not shrill. But by some strange fate I was born an introvert into this family. My heart grew in a box, and my voice slid through my throat like a rusty piece of wire. In large crowds I would shake and stammer while my feet sunk into the dirt.

When I was young with a stutter my mother was my guide. She would finish my struggling sentences with a confident string of elegant words. She wouldn’t consider herself a poet yet in my young eyes she was.

But shame crawled under my skin when I was forced to speak on my own. I was not one to pull words together quickly, and when I struggled I could see people’s eyes glaze over. Most of the time my silence and short sentences were mistaken for idiocy.

I still have rust in my stomach. I still can’t howl. Where did this weak blood come from?

My dad is not the loudest of the pack, but when he talks, people listen. He knew mum couldn’t be my poet forever, but he didn’t want me to learn to howl the way she had learned.

So dad told me a story.

When he was growing up he saw a man get stabbed outside a coffee house in broad daylight. Dad was 15 and had never ridden his bike so fast home in his life. But he said that still wasn’t as bad as what my mum had been through.

Your mother wasn’t always loud, dad said, she wasn’t always a poet. Her voice, too, was once confined by vines, and other voices had choked her own words in her throat.

Animal-Black-Wolf-Extinct-Pennsylvania-AnimalsDad said while mum never saw a man brandish a knife, she knew a man that was similar in character. At the time she had called the relationship complicated, like oil and water. She loved to preserve peaches and cherries and artichoke hearts in mason jars, but she hadn’t known how to preserve herself. She would tiptoe over eggshells to be the Rose for this man, but this man only offered up thorns. My mum was lost in a pit of despair and false love but it was not my father who pulled her out of it. Dad said there was only one other in our family who had smelt the oncoming storm. She was the only one who had intervened.

I used to hide at the very end of tables at big family gatherings. But there was another who hid at the other end. My grandma was always under a shadow. My proud Welsh grandpa would always growl a comment on everything in the conversation. My grandma would just nod and sit in silence. I didn’t know that she had a howling bone in her at all.

But my grandma snapped when she saw the bruises on my mums face. So my grandma began to hunt at dusk, stalking the man through the back streets and searching for weaknesses in his house of thorns. She spent many nights creeping in her familiar shadows. She was the one of the best, dad said.

One night with a full moon above her head, my grandma crept out of her shadows. The man was limping home and smelt all bloody and bitter. Although my grandma’s howl was quiet, she was efficient in snapping bones, slashing tendons, and tearing flesh. She torched the house of thorns and growled at my grandpa until they moved across the country.

Even though my mother was safe, she still had thorns in her. It took a long time for her to heal. But my grandma never let her forget that she was a wolf and that she should howl like one.

Your blood’s not weak, my dad said. You can howl loudly or you can howl quietly, but you always have the choice. He said, don’t ever forget you’re a wolf too.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

 

The Cringe welcomes writer Ashlee Poeppmann to the team! Look for more of Ashlee’s short fiction in the coming months.

‘Gone Girl’: A Discussion of Themes & Implications (spoilers)

When the dust settles what does Gone Girl tell us about men, women and relationships*?

gone-girl-01_Amy DunneI’m still on the fence about Gone Girl. While I admire the clever plot and the exceptional interrogation of human nature, I find myself a little angry at the negative depiction of marriage and gender that such a contradictory book delivers. Whatever your opinion, one thing is certain: the book is incredibly influential. Creative influence is a responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. As with any book carrying significant cultural weight, it’s important to consider the themes raised in the book and the impact they may have on gender issues and relationships.

The story is clever and the themes are unsettling. Both elements make the narrative particularly engrossing, but when all is said and done we are left with some confusing messages. It’s a mistake to write off the portrayal of Nick and Amy’s marriage as complete fiction, as the story raises many significant issues about how men and women see themselves and each other. I think it’s equally dangerous to take it at face value, as some have done, and use it as proof that all men are dicks and all women are evil and the world is screwed.

This is where I get concerned. Considering the impact such a widely popular story will have on people, I wonder exactly what Flynn had in mind besides making a pretty dollar off the sensationalism.

Nothing is sacred in the novel. Love, marriage, family, neighbours, men, women, city life, country life, the media, the economy, the police, the judicial system, the masses, parenthood, childhood, fame, destitution, old writers, new writers, cultural legacy, pop culture, rich people, poor people, the educated, the ignorant, the young, the old, sanity, mental illness, you name it. The only safe element is the cat, Bleecker. It’s hard not to leave the story frustrated by the utterly desolate portrayal of everything that makes up our modern way of life. Sometimes you can’t help but feel that Flynn has created a story that shits on everything just for the sake of it.

Many people hated the book and the movie for this reason, mainly because they expected some kind of justified resolution. They wanted someone to win: a righteous ending so justice could be served, or utter tragedy so the audience could write it off as black fiction. The exact awfulness of the ending is just unresolved enough to leave us perpetually uncomfortable because we can’t just tuck it all away in a convenient genre. We actually have to think about it, and we don’t like that because it cuts too close to home. I think a lot of the people who have denigrated the novel entirely are people who ultimately don’t want to admit that there was a lot of truth to the characters.

Perhaps that’s what Flynn is ultimately trying to say: that we deceive each other and ourselves because reality is too damn hard. Yet the truth about marriage is much more nuanced and positive than Flynn would have us believe. The fact is that men and women do have different expectations of each other when entering a relationship, and rarely are those misunderstandings fully solved. But the final ‘comment’ of Flynn’s story is that you can never be yourself in a partnership; that the only way things work is for both to continue in self-deception. While I don’t agree that this is the only possible outcome for all relationships, I do think it bears some consideration.

Here’s a quick look at some ideas raised in the book.

Marriage
GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20thThe novel explores many contemporary issues about marriage that are disturbingly relevant. Foremost are the tensions created by external factors, such as job redundancies, financial constraints, cultural tensions between the city girl and the country boy, the stress of relocating, the influence of in-laws, and dealing with family sickness and death. These are all highly powerful influences on the health of a marriage, and Flynn depicts both positive and negative reactions to these issues in Amy and Nick’s relationship.

Just as relevant are the internal factors, such as whether or not to have kids, where to invest money, deciding to relocate, how to handle dwindling romantic energy, how to balance gender roles, how much to expect of each other, how to be attentive, how to communicate effectively with each other, how to consider one another’s needs and desires.

In reality, most marriages have successfully overcome or compromised on these issues, but many have also sputtered and failed as a result. Flynn’s depiction of the slowly building tensions and the lack of effective communication between Nick and Amy is frighteningly realistic, more detailed and accurate than the normal reader expects from a thriller. The way the novel’s characters respond to relational fallout has a lot to do with their upbringing, their personalities, and their mental health. As Amy is clearly a sociopath (or technically, suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder), her response is not ‘usual’ so we can (hopefully) assume that not all relationships will end in someone trying to frame the other for murder. However, as we all have a little bit of crazy, and mental health is a very present factor in a lot of marriages, it can also be expected that most of us won’t necessarily respond well to all of these issues.

So where does reality sit? The bottom line is that relationships are tough, but we can’t exist without them. They require some effort, but inevitably they make your life worth the living. You can’t expect any relationship to be perfect, but you can expect it to be great. The key, really, is to know when and how to compromise and when and how to stand your ground. Be ready for the crap when it comes (because it inevitably will) and be determined to overcome it together and move on.

This is where Nick and Amy really fail each other, long before the affair and the set-up. It’s too easy to say they were screwed from the start because she was a psycho and he was a spineless mummy’s boy. The cracks came through in the false expectations they had of each other and of marriage. Perceived failure, resentment and guilt, incubated by a lack of authentic communication, ultimately drove them apart, resulting in the vengeful actions (on both their parts) that lead to the events of the novel.

Men
gone-girl-vigilThe portrayal of Nick Dunne is complex and exceptional, and it’s unclear at the end of the novel if he should be regarded as the hero of the book, or an equal and willing partner to the horrors he’s endured. When it comes to male gender identity the important thing is not deciding if his behaviour is right or wrong, but in filtering through the sensationalism to find the truth in his character.

Nick starts out genuinely wanting to make things work with Amy but gradually stops trying, ultimately starting an affair and wanting a divorce. The hinted reasons for this change include his hurt pride at being made redundant, his dependence on Amy’s finance, his constant guilt about moving them to Missouri, further guilt about not living up to her (treasure-hunt) expectations, his inability to effectively communicate his feelings, and a deep-seated resentment toward strong women (a feeling which he suppresses and denies, but still surfaces).

Is this a true representation of all men’s response to marriage? No, but it would definitely ring true for some. The grey area here is that all these reasons can both be valid and invalid in their own way, and so it becomes far too easy (and incorrect) to place blame wholly on him or wholly on her.

For example many would argue that the difficulty of relying on your wife for financial support is a result of deep-seated ‘provider’ psychology in males and is therefore justified. While this may be true, is it not fair then to say that sometimes we need to get over our pride in order to make a relationship work?

Another example is his perceived guilt for not living up to Amy’s expectations. Again, this is valid on some level, but is it ok to live in resentment without trying to communicate how you feel? Is it not valid for Amy to have some expectation for how she wants the marriage to work out? Was his guilt a result of knowing he had deliberately failed to consider her in some decisions?

At one point he complains that he is sick of being surrounded by nagging women, but earlier in the book Amy points out that there are behaviors he reverts to that force her into a nagging role. Both valid. Yet he often genuinely wants to help people and do the right thing, and frequently acts out of love for the women in his life: moving home to help his sick mother and maintaining a consistently positive relationship with Margo.

All of this simply serves to illustrate that Nick is human. He fails and is likewise failed by others, ultimately playing an equal hand in the disintegration of his marriage. Unfortunately, in the wake of the revelation about Amy’s deception, the novel leaves us with a conflicted portrayal of male identity in marriage and in society.

Nick’s insecurities about turning out just like his own father haunt his every step, and it’s ultimately this fear that makes him decide to stay with Amy: he wants, above all, to be the great father he never had.

Making his determination all the more poignant are the behaviors and attitudes that surface throughout the book that show him to be exactly like his father. While we are left with a somewhat positive impression of Nick’s commitment to his unborn son, Flynn has created just enough grey area so there’s no guarantee that he won’t gradually succumb to the emotional pressure of living with a murderous sociopath and become the same father he resented.

Nick’s upbringing has far-reaching effects on his emotional life and reflects a very relevant issue in modern families. At the core we have the negative male role model in Nick’s life: the emotionally abusive, woman-hating father. The de-masculinising of men is a real problem in society and one that must be addressed, but does it excuse weak and abusive behavior in men? Of course not.

How, then, are men expected to behave? And are the expectations society generates actually valid? And what prevents some men from being present in the family as strong parental role models? It’s a cop-out to say that bitchy women or spineless men are to blame for this modern gender identity crisis, but unfortunately that’s one way Flynn’s narrative could be interpreted. The greyness and complexity of this issue is subverted by the fact that Amy is a sociopath. It then becomes too easy to blame all his selfish actions on her craziness, or to blame her breakdown on his selfishness.

Nick is portrayed as sympathetic but also flawed. He does try to be a good guy but he also deliberately distances himself from Amy instead of trying to work out their issues, ultimately choosing to have an affair. The point is not that Nick was or wasn’t valid in his feelings and actions, as his insecurities are borne of real struggles that many men face. The point, again, is that he and Amy failed to communicate effectively about them, resulting in destructive responses from both.

Women
gone.girl_diaryLeaving aside the fact that Amy is a sociopath, her reflections on what it means to be a woman in a relationship are often accurate and insightful.

Her rant about the ‘Cool Girl’ syndrome is particularly true, and bears some serious consideration. Cool Girl is described, basically, as being effortlessly and consistently gorgeous, sexy and brilliant, having flawless confidence and easy-goingness, and unfailingly loving all the things men love. As Amy rightly says, Cool Girl doesn’t exist. She is a myth perpetuated by women pretending to be what men want, and men lazily expecting their women to be exactly what they want. Flynn’s discussion of Cool Girl lasts over four pages in the novel and is itself an essay in contemporary gender dilemmas. And that’s the problem. It’s not something that sociopathic women like Amy invented in order to hate on men; it’s a real and present issue in modern society.

So, why, Flynn? Why write such an insightful and concerning gender essay and then make the character an unhinged murderess?

Amy’s desire to constantly be the perfect partner is an accurate depiction of most women, the extent of which depends on individual personalities but nevertheless rings true. How many women spend their lives adapting to perceived expectations, only to end up exhausted and frustrated? Too many. Again, this is a two-sided issue of women perceiving expectations from their partners that are not necessarily true, but also of partners not observing that their wives are making such an effort.

As discussed above, a lot of Amy’s problems with Nick come down to her miscommunicated expectations and the resultant feelings of guilt in Nick. The point about the treasure-hunts is disconcerting, because of course everyone wants to know that their partner ‘understands’ them and cares enough to notice what they’re like. At the same time, everyone is human and you can never know everything there is to know about another person. To avoid this becoming a huge issue in their marriage, Nick and Amy clearly needed to make some effort: Amy to mitigate her expectations, and Nick to make a concerted effort to be more attentive.

Though it’s impossible to know exactly how much Diary Amy is Real Amy, it’s clear that most entries are an accurate reflection of her feelings and actions. If I put myself in her place, I can’t help but sympathise with her feelings of desolation and her desire to make things right (though I wouldn’t go about it quite like she did).

If I faced two job losses in the household and my parents’ financial ruin, and then my husband up and moved me away from my hometown without consulting me, I would be more than momentarily upset. I would start to question the health of our marriage. Having similarly relocated to my husband’s hometown (though voluntarily; my husband would never force that on me), I completely sympathise with Amy’s feelings of isolation and the difficulty of trying to fit in with a family and a community culture that is vastly different to your own. If my husband then continued to distance himself from me, used our remaining finance to set up a ‘hobby’ job, and cared so little for me that he didn’t even know what I did with my time, I would start to freak out emotionally too. If I then caught him cheating on me with a ‘perfect’ young girl after I had tried so hard to be the perfect wife? Well, that would be a tipper. Would it induce me to commit murder by framing him? No. But then again, I’m not a sociopath.

And this is where I get annoyed at Flynn. She sets up sympathetic and complex male and female identities, creates a compelling case for marital disharmony, and then screws over any truth to their relationship by making Amy a murdering sociopath. This then gives every dissatisfied and ignorant man an excuse to blame any valid female behavior that they don’t like on the misguided premise that all women are psychos. Of course, the book wouldn’t have worked if Amy had been sane, but the true concerns raised by Flynn combined with Amy’s extreme behaviours create a disturbing message about female identity, one that can confuse both men and women.

In a way we should thank Flynn for creating such an impeccable female villain. It’s about time, really. But instead of the one-dimensional, totally crazy villains we expect from this kind of story (Norman Bates) Amy is a real woman. Which sadly makes it seem that any remotely intelligent woman with expectations and standards in life must be a sociopath.

I hope that modern audiences are open-minded enough to both accept the truth of this novel and also to see beyond the final curtain to a balanced view on the nature of relationships. Unfortunately a quick scan of recent forums demonstrates this is not the case; it’s too tempting for modern readers to let the novel validate their malcontents instead of challenge them. Try to put your knee-jerk irritations aside and examine these issues in an honest way. Interrogate the truth to Flynn’s characters while also seeing them for what they are: a simple exercise, albeit a highly successful one, in mass-sensationalist controversy.

Elise Janes

What are your thoughts?

 

*Note: The discussion in this essay stems from heterosexual marriage and gender identities due to the subject matter of the novel.