The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

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OCT 2021 Issue

A Woman’s Worth

New Works Examining the Roles of Women

Matthew Specktor
Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California
(Tin House, 2021)

Ye Chun
(Catapult, 2021)

Atticus Lish
The War for Gloria
(Knopf, 2021)

The roles of women can be defining for many of us. Whether it’s a maternal influence (or in some cases, negligence) we look up to, or a past female hardship we learn from, women can play an important role in our lives. We see this particular impact in three new literary works (a book of short stories, a memoir, and a novel), all possessing a familiar theme of women in society and the female influences we find everyday.

In Matthew Specktor's latest Always Crashing in the Same Car, we see this theme of women influences appear often on the page. A mix of memoir and criticism, the book teeters both the author’s own life as a struggling writer, ex-husband, father, and son with the lives of many other creatives (well-known and not) of the past. And it’s the women in this book that have shaped him in one way or another: his young daughter (referred to as V) who has him question who he really is; his unfaithful ex-wife who allowed him to understand his own wrongdoings; and his mother, the failed writer herself and abusive alcoholic, who taught his heart to forgive.

But it’s not only the women tied closely to Specktor’s personal life who have influenced him, but the women in art. While he speaks of some male artists (Thomas McGuane’s book Panama [1978] made Specktor want to be a writer), it was the female creatives, such as the two screenwriters Eleanor Perry and Carole Eastman, that he often referred back to and proclaimed deep appreciation for. Learning about the lives of these women as writers in their era and the everyday struggles they both endured was interesting (and at times, downright infuriating), but how Specktor dissected these very struggles (without really knowing these women personally) to explore the constant judgements from society was really intriguing—“The problem was always the same: men, or more specifically, the way men failed to understand stories about women.”

Specktor dives deep into this exploration when he refers to Eleanor Perry’s arrest at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival after “defacing a billboard” that was sexually grotesque, a stunt that would later help define her as a “troublemaker” in society’s eyes.

It was the type of thing that, had a man done it, would have been written off as a conqueror’s hijinks—like swimming naked in a hotel fountain, being loud and drunk in a theater lobby—but here? It had been a force of a Gesture.

Later on in the book, Specktor speaks about his friendship with film critic and fiction writer Renata Adler, expressing his deep admiration toward her strength and attitude for not giving a damn about what society thought regarding her womanhood and critical eye (which many felt she did not have), no matter how many times she was judged.

While sexism and gender are two main topics in this book, so is failure. Specktor discusses his own failures as a writer and husband, but also those of the female artists who influenced him, including his mother. With this examination of failure, Specktor finds himself trying to answer who he wanted to become in life while questioning the lives of the artists he admired. Did they really want to be a success story or were they simply writers looking to write? With each of these questions Specktor gives us the freedom to wonder and wander along with him, without providing any concrete answers, allowing us to keep asking questions about ourselves and giving us the permission to learn and grow.

Ye Chun’s new book of short stories, Hao also explores women as they relate to sexism and trying to find a voice when society is so keen at keeping you silent. We see women influence women in many of these stories, but even more importantly we see how society (especially men) influence women.

In the story “Stars,” a mother loses her speech after suffering a stroke at the age of 37. Once a professor and PhD student, she is stripped of her profession and her language with only being able to say the Chinese word “Hao,” which refers to something being good:

She is now a disabled person who can speak no words. Except hao. Which is a mockery. It must have survived to tell her that she has ruined her life by saying hao when she should have said bu hao. She has compromised and strived for nothing.

Throughout this story we see her struggle communicating with her family and professionals, even beginning to say her name the wrong way (the way a man says it) because she can no longer pronounce it correctly. Her anger and frustration is heightened as she reflects back on her life choices, all of which she argues were decided for her: her father who made her major in English and her husband who made her change it. Perhaps if she had a less strenuous career (with a major in Chinese), her health would not have been impacted and she would not be battling for her words.

The story “Wings” revolves around a woman who has visions of a winged child while grappling with depression and the trauma of her mother’s suicide. There is this constant question of “do you want to know me,” which the woman hears this winged child ask, but it’s clear this question has plenty to do with her own insecurities of allowing people to see the real her. She wants her husband to say “yes” to having a baby but she does not ask him. She holds her pain inside and away from others, only feeling a release when she cuts herself and contemplates suicide:

She gets up, stumbles to the bathroom. Removing a razor from her shaving kit, she curls her left hand into a fist, slaps her wrist like a nurse does, and then puts the razor’s edge on the bulging veins. But she is not going to do it. She will not leave her husband the mess—police report, funeral arrangements, heartbreak. She will save this for later, like her mother who saved it until she had grown up, with no obligations left.

It’s clear the woman struggles with communicating with those around her. Her husband is usually distracted with reading something online and never actually listens to her, but it’s also her boss who is degrading, always blaming her for his own misfortunes, including losing his laptop when he was in fact the one who left it in a cab. It isn’t until she speaks at work that she really seems to truly come alive, that those winged carvings she dug into her thigh with a razor burned to life and she was as free as the winged child.

The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish also deals with its share of female influence. Corey is a young boy who lives in Boston with his mother Gloria, the role model in his life who he has a deep affection for:

She squatted on the floor and spread her arms and he jumped off the couch and ran into her embrace. With his eyes closed, he felt his mother’s cheek against his face, the hard cheekbone and jaw, the thin pad of her cheek. A mother’s face feels just right to a child.

But Corey’s life is not an easy one. His mother is diagnosed with ALS, and he quits school to provide for his family instead. All the while, Gloria is trying her best to stay strong for Corey but is wrestling with her slow deterioration on her own. Corey is constantly trying to protect his mother, worrying that there is a man after her, lurking around the corner to cause her harm. And when he realizes it’s only his estranged father, Leonard, who has come back into the picture, the fear doesn’t necessarily subside. The man is a menace, and not afraid of causing havoc wherever he goes: telling Corey he was an accident he wished his mother flushed, and later on trying to frame Corey for murder. Outside of the family, Leonard ran into his own issues with authorities when he “investigated” local cops for racial profiling coeds and ended up going to court for stalking those very same girls.

Throughout all this turmoil at home, Corey finds himself giving into his anger and rage, getting into fights at school, talking back to teachers, and eventually standing up to his father (the latter, being a positive). It is when he starts training to be in the Navy that Corey’s understanding of physicality and mortality is explored more, circling grief and loss, the notion of not being able to handle certain circumstances because they are too hard, and yet, we somehow push through. During his training, Corey jumps out of a plane, and his thoughts and feelings toward his experience resonate so clearly to the emotions one might feel during any traumatic event:

And, so he’s falling. It’s terrible—like so many things they do. The body wasn’t meant for this—the falling body keeps expecting land beneath it—but the body can be made to do it anyway.

During the many ups and downs Corey faced in his life, one thing always remained: the love for his mother. And even though he couldn’t fight to keep her alive, he continuously fought to keep her safe.


Carissa Chesanek

Carissa Chesanek is a writer in New York City with an MFA from The New School. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

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