Wed
Jan 11 2012 12:00pm

Reading Joanna Russ: Extra(ordinary) People (1984), Part 2

Yesterday we discussed the first half of Extra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ’s 1984 collection of short fiction. I left off at the end of one of my favorite stories, the very genderqueer tale “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman,” and the potential reading of it as a story, not just about the performativity of gender, but about passing and survival in normative, often dangerous society. Where we continue...:

The frame tale then says that no, the telepathic minority died out without affecting the outside world much at all—but a utopia was established eventually. That leads us to the next story of performativity and gender, “Bodies.”

In contrast, “Bodies” is a different kind of story about the artificial nature of gender binaries in contemporary society, as explored by two people who have been brought back to life in a far-flung utopian future. One was a gay man when he was alive who never managed to have a life as himself; the other was once a woman real-estate broker and writer. The people of the future don’t bring anyone else back after James, the man—it’s too upsetting for them to see the damage that the past’s constructions of identity and norms had wrought. Gender is much more fluid in this future, and so is sexuality; James does not have an easy time adjusting, and neither did the narrator.

“Bodies” is an emotionally complex story about the bonding between James and the narrator, who are both from similar pasts and are therefore incomprehensible in many ways to their communities in the future. James is performing what he believes is expected of him as a gay man; the narrator is trying to make him understand that he can just be what he wants to be, now, here. She does care deeply for him, though she says “this is no love affair.” (113) Instead, they share something more primal: an experience of what it meant to be a woman, or to be a gay man, in our times—not this future, where those things don’t exist in anything resembling the same way, and are not stigmatized in the slightest, not this utopia where the very concept of being beaten on the street will not be understood.

It’s a recursive story that has much more to say about contemporary constructions of gender and sexuality than it does the utopian future, and what it has to say is mostly melancholy and unpleasant. Still, it also leaves room for the hope of change, and the hope that the strictures and the damage may eventually be unwound. It’s a shorter story than those that have come before, by my count, and seems to be doing less also—but what it is doing is intense, and the characters Russ gives us to explore it are neither perfect nor impossibly flawed; they are simply people, damaged and trying to learn who they are in a whole new context of being. It’s all about performance and identity, again, but this time it’s also about the ways in which performance can be integral to identity, not simply something that can be changed or discarded with ease. That provides the counterweight to the utopian futures’ own constructions of being, and shows that they are perhaps not more perfect, just different.

The frame narrative between this story and the next is the child shutting the tutor off, moodily, and turning it back on after some brooding to be told the next tale, “What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?”

“What Did You Do” is one of the strangest of Russ’s stories, unstuck as it is in time and probability, slipping merrily between worlds where probability is less than it is in the narrator’s and then finding out that theirs isn’t perfect either—what’s real, what real is, and what the hell is going on; none of those things are entirely stable, here.

On the surface it’s about the relation of cause and effect and travelling/shifting across worlds with different ratios (which ends up destabilizing the whole damn system). The narrator has just returned from one of these worlds where she was fomenting a revolution dressed up as a (male) arch-demon/faery prince, Issa/Ashmedai, in “Storybook Land” (122), and is telling her lover, the recipient of her letter, all about it. This is a performance of something like theater; the narrator compares it repeatedly to kabuki drama. The characters of Storybook Land are all faintly (or very) preposterous and unreal, so the narrator can do her job with some ease, but eventually Art and Bob (two noblemen) prove a problem. She has to keep them away from a woman they seem intent to rape by pretending to be the only one who can have her. Then she ends up having to have sex with the princess, who is determined to be had by her (in her male persona), and all sorts of bizarre courtly intrigues. Finally, the playacting done and pretty well injured, the narrator gets to come home and finds out that her own world isn’t at the probability center, either. There’s a revolution going, too.

And so it goes. Frankly, “What Did You Do” is great fun to read but is perhaps the most impenetrable of the lot; it’s weird fiction, all right, a bit hallucinatory and filled with narrative flourishes that quite fit the narrator’s style of storytelling in her letter. In the end, it’s not about the revolution at all—just the connection between the lovers, and the letter. The theatrical, comedic performance of (demonic) masculinity just falls away, leaving us with their connection and nothing else important. (The two epigrams, one about war and the other about it too in a different way, present oddly with the story’s end result—being as it is not about the revolution at all, but about two people communicating.)

The frame narrative then begins insisting that it’s the small things that count, “little things, ordinary acts,” and the child doesn’t believe it, so we get the last story, “Everyday Depressions.”

This is the shortest tale in the book, a set of letters from a writer to her cohort and companion Susannah/Susan/etc. about writing a gothic lesbian novel. The two epigrams are both about art/writing: “It’s all science fiction. – by Carol Emshwiller” and “Sex Through Paint – wall graffito (painted).“

What follows is, to me, one of the most subtly brilliant of Russ’s short stories. The letters, all from the writers’ side, follow the plot development of this hypothetical gothic novel romance between Fanny Goodwood and the Lady Mary of an estate called Bother, or Pemberly (hah!), or a few other appropriate nicknames throughout. (There are familial ties to an “Alice Tiptree” on one woman’s side; that’s the sort of referential play that makes this story go.) It’s a high-drama gothic, and the writers’ deconstruction of it while she builds it (so much metafiction!) is the height of pleasure for me as a reader. The commentary she has to make on the gender roles and the stereotypes of this particular type of fiction, while still playing with the whole concept, is delightful. And of course, it was inspired by the cover of a book that was a gothic was two men on the front, which inspired her to do one with Ladies.

The plot follows the usual paths—a wicked Uncle, a past love that Mary feels guilty over, a worry that their love can’t be, and finally a culmination of joyous union. It’s very dramatic, and very silly, and all together fun to read about, while the writers’ implicit and explicit commentaries are contrarily quite serious. And then we get to the last letter, and the ending.

I have to pause, here, because I’d really just like to quote the entire last two pages of the story, and that’s not on. I will say that it’s perfect, and wise, and is an absolute kicker of an ending for the collection, thematically immense and intense as it has been. This story ties all the rest up, perhaps not neatly but well, with what the narrator—who is likely to be Russ in the way that Esther of On Strike Against God was a bit of Russ—has to say about storytelling, aging, and the world at large.

So, how about just a little, and then the last page of the frame narrative to tie it all together:

“Last week a frosh wombun (wumyn? wymeen?) came up to me while the other twenty-year-olds were chasing Frisbees on the University grass, playing and sporting with their brand-new adult bodies, and said, ’O Teachur, what will save the world?’ and I said, ’I don’t know.’

But that is too grim.”

Which is followed, a page later, by the last of the frame narrative of the child and their robot tutor.

“’All right,’ said the schookid. ’This is the last time and you’d better tell the truth.’

’Is that the way the world was saved?

The tutor said, ’What makes you think the world’s ever been saved?’

But that’s too grim.

&c.”

The concluding lines of “Everyday Depressions” are about living life while there is time, and middle-aged tolerance, and finally, “P.S. Nah, I won’t write the silly book. P.P.S. and on.”

So, what’s it all mean? Well, when the narrator tells us/Susannah that she has some profound truths about life, they’re all questions. The meaning is in the living, not in the answering. The world might not have been saved, and might not be saved—what is saving, anyway?—but there are loves, and there are lives. Those lives are built around identities and performances, masks that are real and masks that aren’t—but they’re all lives, and they’re all valuable.

Discussions of performativity often run the risk of sounding dismissive of the gender/sexuality paradigms that are being discussed as performances, if the discussion isn’t careful to qualify that just because they’re performed and not innate doesn’t make them any less real or valuable. “Everyday Depressions” is that clarification about the value of living, if you have the time to do it, and of self in the world at large. It’s also about stories, and the way that stories structure our ideas of identity and performance—which is, really, sort of what Extra(ordinary) People is all about as a whole. It’s a subtle book in many ways, but a profound one in all; as with complex novels like The Two of Them, talking about it can become a confusing mire of analysis and adoration without a clear way to tie things off and escape.

But, that word is the one I’d like to close on: profound. It may take me years to fully engage with Extra(ordinary) People, and thirty more readings, but I’m willing to put the time in. These posts are my reactions where I stand now as a reader of Russ. It’s hardly over; stories are meant to be read and read and read again to understand them truly.  After all, the closing lines of the whole thing are, again:

“’What makes you think the world’s ever been saved?’

But that’s too grim.

&c.”

 

*

The next book in Russ’s bibliography is a short chapbook of feminist essays on things like work-division, roles, and sexuality: Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985).


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

6 comments
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
1. tnh
Good readings, Brit.

I was discussing “What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?” with Joanna while she was writing it. I can't definitively say "This is what the story was about," but I can tell you about some of the ingredients that went into it.

Joanna was irritated by Le Guin's short story "The Day Before the Revolution," in which the great revolutionary Odo reflects on her life and times. As Joanna pointed out, Odo's recollections include no episodes of real, concrete political organizing. It's all low-res mass marches and people singing, as if it's being seen from a distance, or in a mural. She said, "Revolutions are made by people with clipboards, like Ben Yalow."

As a contrast to Le Guin's story, she retold from memory an episode from the Russian Revolution. I've never been able to track it down, so I've marked the places where I'm not sure I've remembered correctly. Anyway, Lenin and have bedded down on some blankets on the floor of the Winter Palace. As they're lying there, not yet asleep, Lenin says, "Hey, if we're killed tonight, do you think can take over and lead the revolution without us?" replies "Sure, of course he can," while thinking to himself "No, not a chance." It's very real -- one of those odd moments of clarity people remember long afterward.

This is why the narrator is saved by the typing pool. It's a reassertion of reality. Joanna, a longtime academic, knew how much of the world's organization is unofficially handled by its support staff. Things may be falling apart back in reality prime, but the staff is mindful of the narrator, left stranded in the field, and improvises a rescue. I forget whether any of them are carrying clipboards, but if not there are invisible clipboards lurking in the background.

I believe the odd narrative flourishes in Storybook Land are a commentary on the artificial estrangement or exoticism of made-up nomenclature in genre fantasy. It's helpful to remember that Joanna was a medievalist, and that she did a lot of reviewing for F&SF. As she said around the time she was writing the story, "People forget that in the real Middle Ages, every other person was named Ralph or Hubert or Gertrude."

I remember her wailing over having been sent a work of fantasy featuring a warrior maiden named Rifkin or Rivkin. I'm sure it sounded satisfyingly strange to the author, but to a Jewish girl from Queens, that was a familiar and prosaic surname. It was as though they'd named the character Johnson or Browning. Exoticism is in the ear of the beholder.

(This bit is mine.) All language is real when it's at home. Peoples whose language gets used in passing as an ornament, to create a sort of hazily romantic sense of strangeness without understanding or particularity, are being defined as inherently less real than people whose language conveys ascertainable meaning. There's a strain of genre fantasy that could just as easily take place in the picturesque client states around the borders of empire that were such a popular setting for pre-WWI commercial fiction. In both, the colorful native cultures are ancient, timeless rather than chronological, traditional, fatalistic, typical, unambitious, mystical and intuitive rather than scientific or empirical, and more in touch with nature and the land. Their motives and decisionmaking processes are inscrutable, and they inevitably possess unique wisdom that has no effect on their material culture. The upshot is that they get the best costumes and some good lines, but in the end, nothing they say or do matters. (End of my bit.)

Joanna undercuts those conventions. The characters in Storybook Land have everyday names like Art and Bob and Princess Charlene, because real names are like that; and if their behavior is unpredictable, it's because they're teenagers, not because they're inscrutable Others. The name of the king, Shahriyar, simply means "king."

At one point the narrative momentarily veers into the what looks like standard genre fantasy language, when the narrator lists all the items of clothing that make up formal court dress, giving each piece an exotic name; but then the narrator pulls the rug out from under by noting that those are actually the names of Russian rivers. Princess Charlene's singing isn't described as ethereal or romantically evocative; she sounds like Judy Garland.

You never get to escape into the wordwooze and artistic lighting effects of unmindful fantasy. Everything is real and particular, including Fairy Marvin leading the charge of the typing pool. He's a blow struck for reality in his own right. Office support staff are supposed to dress neatly, humbly, and unobtrusively, and behave that way too. But Fairy Marvin has invaluable computer skills, so he doesn't have to suppress his larger-than-life personality. Doubtless the rest of the support staff are just as real as he is. Maybe the revolution can do something about that.

I think it was Farah Mendlesohn who said that the typical Joanna Russ
non-ending to a work of fiction boils down to "This is the way of the
world; and what are you going to do about it?" This story belongs in that category. If I had to write a one-line summary of it, I think I'd go with "Okay, so that's your revolution. Here's what my revolution looks like." The "What are you going to do about it?" part is left as an exercise for the reader.
Fragano
2. Fragano
I agree with you that language is, to the people who speak it, just language. That is,just the means by which they communicate and not some exotic, odd tongue. I first noticed this phenomenon in high school when I saw the essays that some of my schoolmates wrote in English class in response to the exercise "Write a letter to a friend in England or America describing your district." I pointed out that what they kept describing as "exotic fruits" were not exotic to them, and they shouldn't call them that (especially when they were including oranges in that category).

Oh, I suspect that Lenin would have wondered to Trotsky whether either Zinoviev or Bukharin would carry on the Revolution. They were, after all, engaged in the task of overthrowing Kerensky.
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo
@tnh

Ah, that makes much more sense - there seems to be so much going on in that story that it's difficult to orient it all. Thank you!
Fragano
4. JamesPadraicR
Rivka, Warrior Princess?
"DON'T call me Becky!"
oy gevalt.
Couldn't help myself.

I wanted to say something about the second person voice in "Bodies", but can't really think of anything, except how it seems whenever I read something by Russ I'm reminded of another, more recent book. In the case of "Bodies" it was Stross' "Halting State", though both of them use the second person differently,  Russ' narrator informing James of events in his life that he doesn't remember, rather than an omniscient Game Master. Does that mean it's not really second person? "What Did You Do In The Revolution, Grandma?" also reminded me of some of Stross' other writings (I've no idea if he's read them, but I wouldn't be surprised). And if Jael, in "The Female Man" wasn't an inspiration for Molly in "Neuromancer", I'll have to hear it from Gibson before I believe it.

I've been enjoying your series on Russ' work--it's one reason why I read "Extra(Ordinary) People" back in June. I really have to find time for the books I haven't read yet.
Fragano
5. David G. Hartwell
Thank you, Teresa. I remember some of those things in convrsation with Joanna too.
Brit Mandelo
6. BritMandelo
@JamesPadraicR

"What Did You Do" actually does strike along the same chord that many of Stross's short stories do, for me - the diction and tone, I think.

And if Jael, in "The Female Man" wasn't an inspiration for Molly in
"Neuromancer", I'll have to hear it from Gibson before I believe it.

Ditto.

And thank you! They're absolutely worth reading.

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