Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My Professional Perspective on a Book I Didn't Want to Write About This Way

I finished another book today: The Last Assassin (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2006), by Barry Eisler, my latest favorite fun-reading author (which is a very very very small group, by the way). Assassin is Eisler's latest book but one (Requiem for an Assassin, which I got signed while he was in town earlier this month). I was eager to read the new one, but I quickly realized that I'd missed the book between it and the one chronologically right before Last Assassin (Rain Fall, which was actually my introduction to Eisler's work) - and that's why I've just finished that missing link. Are you thoroughly confused? Amazingly enough, I'm not. I haven't even lost track of any of the protagonist John Rain's or the other characters' histories, even though I read them all in reverse chronological order (which was actually kind of cool too, and that's why I know that I'd love to read a prequel as Eisler indicated that he was considering writing at the book signing). [Too many gerunds!]

Overall, I liked this new book. I cried three times, which is unusual for this genre, I'm sure (Rain is a "contract killer," as described on the book jacket). Eisler experiments with different voices in this book as well, switching from omniscient to Rain's perspective to that of a female lead, Delilah, and back again, and it's never unclear as to whose head we're inside at those moments. Rain demonstrates a lot of personal growth in this book too, which is pretty new for him and another demonstration of Eisler's expanding authorly skills. The (almost always - see below) delicious bites of Eisler's politics offered here and there still made me smile. His vocabulary will still send some people running for a dictionary, which also makes me smile. [Jessica, you're an elitist!] He remains an incredible author.

[Please forgive me, Barry....]

But Last Assassin was a little rocky going at first because it created some consistency questions in my mind. With persistence on my part, they resolved themselves, with one minor exception, which is what I discuss below. Besides that, a major one, which I already mentioned to Eisler in an e-mail yesterday, even though it's probably not news to him (nor is it likely all that important to him now, since Requiem came out on the NYT Bestseller List and all), was an error in the second chapter that changed a name from Delilah's history (Dov) to that of another main character (Dox) - and repeated the error thrice on those couple of pages - thus creating a historical romantic relationship that I knew had never happened (and that would have perplexed the hell out of a new reader of the series, since it kept me going for a while too). Once I resolved that in my mind, my concerns cleared up significantly.

What remained, though, was a characteristic of Delilah, who is Rain's latest love interest, that I don't remember Eisler introducing in the previous books: her "periodic pouts and petulance," as first mentioned on p.26 (just a couple of pages after that other issue, by the way, which really increased the parallel universe feeling for me). This "inconsistency," as I'm calling it, may actually be more of a significant issue than I've indicated so far, though, since I got the sense from this book, more than from any of the earlier ones, that it was written more with Eisler's fans than with potential new readers in mind, as some of Rain's backstory wasn't even explained until the very end of this book, and some of it, though relevant to aspects of this story, not at all.

Eisler clearly tries to make this new aspect of Delilah acceptable throughout this book, and it is certainly a consistent part of her character here. She is certainly somewhat justified in feeling the way that she does, too, and Eisler takes pains to show us that via her own justifications to herself, as well as her own self-criticism for allowing him to make her "sulk and pout like a schoolgirl" (93) [Blecch!] - all of which make her a very believable character, since I've had the same kinds of conversations with myself before too. As usual, Eisler does do an excellent job with the characterizations in this book. But I still feel that she is only being portrayed that way because she's female. It's a fact that everyone who's ever betrayed Rain in any of these books is female, although as he gets older he's rejecting them less wholeheartedly for it.

An obvious example is Midori, another love interest of Rain's who plays a big part in this story because she is mothering their love child - a boy named Koichiro. As soon as I learned about that, at the end of the previous book, I felt a pang somewhere in my brain. A single working mother to a son: That sounds like homework! And indeed, there's a little of that here - hence this post. But Eisler is male, so - in accordance with the patterns that I've seen everywhere else - while he demonstrates awareness of the monster mother myth of which I wrote for my thesis, he is clearly less concerned about it than female writers and mothers to sons themselves always are. Rain refers to it first: "Maybe you should think about what something like that [an absent father] would cost him," he says to Midori (56).

Rain himself grew up with an absent father, who died when he was eight years old. Rain considers that situation: "His loss and subsequent absence were the first and perhaps most significant of the scars that shaped what I became" - which, of course, is a killer (214). That statement alone makes Rain another of the countless examples present in Western fiction and mythology of men gone "bad" who were raised by single mothers. Eisler has rarely had Rain blame his own family for that, though. Rather, he usually blames his other "father," his country, which effectively betrayed him while he served in Vietnam - although even that's not entirely true, since it was only the evil ambition of one person who really brought about the events that contributed most to the original circumstances that led to who Rain is today. Thus the fact that Rain is now blaming his home situation for it - a mother is not enough to keep a boy from becoming a "bad guy," in other words - is even more indication of the power of that myth. Even though Rain knows that it hasn't been true in his own life, now that he's worried about his own son, he's falling back on those myths, perhaps because of his sense that the issue of a father's presence in a son's life is more controllable than corruption in government and war.

That's a significant point: Instead of blaming single mothers and/or absent fathers for children gone awry, why not blame the system in which all of that takes place? I'll quote my e-mail signature again:

It is dangerous fantasy to believe that if 'they' can be identified and labeled, and then treated or punished, the nation will be somehow purified, made safer for the rest of us.... When in fact we need to examine poverty, racism, the paucity of meaningful work at a living wage, the lack of access to day care, antifeminism, and a host of other problems, let us not be diverted by 'bad' mothers. (Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky, "Bad Mothers": The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America pp.22,23)

Meanwhile, what makes Delilah's "petulance" frustrating to me is that otherwise there is little differentiation between her and Rain and Dox, all of whom are essentially in the same line of work - and that portrayal is significant considering that Delilah's usual role in such work is as a seductress, which rarely involves actual killing - only information-gathering, as the reader learns in the previous book. That fact in and of itself could merit criticism, since it does separate her from the men with whom she works, but Eisler doesn't explicitly separate her in his treatment of her - he even has Rain describe her as "that man inside tonight" (241) a couple of times in the book, for better or for worse - so I'm not going to do that to him.

It's also a mark in Eisler's favor that he acknowledges the existence of abortion as an option in this book. He still fails to have his character use it, though, as Slate notes is common in the rare works within mainstream pop culture that acknowledge the legality of abortion these days. (But I have to note: What about Cider House Rules? What about Vera Drake?) OK, it's a plot point, but this line of Midori's internal dialogue is just inflammatory:

The thought that she had nearly gone through with an abortion was enough to make her feel sick, as though she had once in a moment of weakness contemplated murdering her child. She would never have thought it possible, but she defined herself as this little boy's mother more than she had defined herself as anything else before.

Blecch again, several times over. Abortion makes one sick? A woman who contemplates abortion is only "in a moment of weakness"? Women who have abortions are baby-killers? The mother-identity supersedes all other aspects of women's selves? I considered aborting my son, and I don't feel "sick" looking back on it now. In fact, it recently occurred to me that the better decision would have been to abort him, as my mom begged me to do. I really can't explain why I chose as I did. Rebellion? Hormones? Exposure to anti-abortion rhetoric? I don't know.

By the way, does that make my loving, intelligent mom like "the mother character [who] is explicitly positioned as a moral monster, a 'hissable villain'" in the movie Knocked Up, as also discussed in that Slate article? Here's more on that problem from another woman's blog:

The mom was presented as a castrating bitchTM who callously told her daughter that she only had one choice, and that the baby would be a nuisance--so the allegedly pro-choice person is actually anti-choice. When she described a family member who had an abortion and then had a 'real baby' years later, the detached way she spoke made members of my audience audibly gasp. They were gasping at the cruelty of the pro-abortion position. [emphasis in original]

If anything, though, it was my privilege, as an informed, well-educated White woman with highly educated, upper-middle-class parents that ultimately got me by - not our supposedly baby-loving society. I'm in a definite minority in terms of the breadth of my opportunities, throughout my life. And I also haven't found my identity as a mother more true or real than anything else - again, probably largely because of my opportunities (and determination) to be more than that, thanks to feminism. (That's only fair to my son too!) But Midori is a famous jazz pianist, so surely she has had some such opportunities too. Yet, Eisler writes, she's more a mother than anything else. Again, unnecessary. His self-definition as a conservative finally reared its ugly head, I guess. :-(

I can't end on this note. The only excuse that I can find to redeem Eisler for what he did to Delilah – even going so far as having her act the part of a thoughtless, plotting, cruelly jealous lover at one point as well (125) – is that in this book, he does it to Rain too. Last Assassin is the book where we see what happens to these characters when they can't help but have to operate in situations that are really untenably personal.

I can't write off what he did to Midori, though. At least she's unlikely to be very present in the next story so that I can go back to reading for fun.


Barry said...

Jessica, thanks for the in-depth review. You obliquely raise an interesting question: is art inherently political, and how much should politics influence art? Because certainly women like Delilah and Midori exist, even if you don't approve of their choices or behavior. So if you object to such characters in fiction, it must be on political, rather than realism, grounds.

What you want to ask, I think, is something like this: smokers exist, but should they be in movies?


Jessica B. Burstrem said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Barry.

Yes, art is inherently political - politics affect and are affected by our culture, and art is certainly part of that - and I'm not the first theorist/critic to hold an artist responsible for the politics in his or her art. It was that very thing that brought Hemingway down from his pillar, in fact. My objection, however, does not ignore reality, which, as above, can't realistically be separated from politics anyway. The reality is that representations of women other than those types are much more rare in fiction than they are in reality - and that lack of representation affects real women - which was the focus of my Master's thesis. Your analogy is telling in this respect: It suggests that you recognize the danger of the portrayals that you've used. I don't say that "smokers" CAN'T be in the movies, but I'd like to see a representative portion of "non-smokers" too. But I don't, as discussed in the SLATE article, for instance. And that's the problem.

Best -


Barry said...

"Your analogy is telling in this respect: It suggests that you recognize the danger of the portrayals that you've used."

No... I recognize that *you* find these portrayals dangerous, and chose the smoking analogy accordingly. Which makes this the second time you've conflated my views with those of someone else... first, with those of a character in a novel, and now, with your own...