Monday, September 14, 2015

Sister Maple Syrup Eyes (Ian Brennan)

White supremacy tries to reduce people of color to our traumas. Resisting white supremacy means insisting that we are more than our traumas. - Jenny Zhang

Ian Brennan's Sister Maple Syrup Eyes means to be an eye-opening fictional (semi-fictional?) look into the realities of rape and abuse and their aftermath, seen primarily from a male co-survivor's point of view. It is heartfelt, intense, and interestingly structured. But I finished it believing - and regretting - that it embodies the sort of reductionism that Jenny Zhang deplores. People are their traumas.

A more charitable interpretation would be that this is a kind of Greek tragedy, and one doesn't expect any rays of sunlight in a Greek tragedy. There are certainly none to be found here. Rape is only one element, although an overarching one, of the relentless litany of negative experiences to be found on every page of this short novel. I will resist cataloguing them because it would appear as if I was trying to be snarky, and I don't care to give that impression. In any case, you would not believe the varieties of anguish Brennan fits into 116 pages unless you read the book yourself. Charles Manson even puts in a cameo appearance.

Brennan hits hard and keeps hitting. He clearly believes that rape ruins lives, and refers several times to lost possibilities, but without giving any sense of what an unruined life would look like. Brennan has been in the trenches as a "violence prevention, anger-management, and conflict resolution" counselor for more than 20 years, and it is not unfair to suggest that it sounds as if his time on the front lines has taken a good deal out of him.

Nor is that all that he draws on. The Preface states that Sister Maple Syrup Eyes "was inspired by my own life-altering experience at age 21 when my first love was horrifically beaten and raped in her apartment by a family friend." Fairly or unfairly, I wound up surmising that most of the novel is a thinly fictionalized version of actual experiences. That it might have been written as a memoir, but wasn't.

Brennan's method of structuring the novel in very short chapters is promising, although the language seldom achieves the kind of poetic memorability that the miniature units call out to be filled with. It is more bald and ideological in tone, and I think the ideology is dangerous:

Rape is not something that can ever be completely 'gotten over.'

Tranquillity was a luxury afforded only to the forgetful.

[Thinking about a dying four-year-old:] you tell her that maybe she's lucky she's leaving this world after all?

For the victim, rape is always a life sentence. one back in time and erase the one moment that altered all that followed.

I surfed channel after channel through a parade of victims. No one escaping unscathed.

The legacy of rape is its open-endedness.

The planet is populated with quasi walking dead...murder, rape, and love and friendships betrayed, often cannot be metabolized and stay, cradled to the grave.

The pull-quotes are given in order as they appear in the text, starting with the Preface. Now, whether the book amounts to Greek tragedy is an open question, but clearly it is melodramatic in the strict sense. I find the ideology dangerous because it does not allow for any individuality of response to trauma. Like the war veteran, the rape victim and those close to her must relive the experience over and over, because if they do not, they are not being honest, not being true to the reality of the experience, and not accepting their new, perpetual, and unalterable status as victims. To shuck off trauma is seen, on this view, as evasive and trivializing. Rape brings responsibilities.

Ian Brennan will have to pardon me if I cannot get down with this. The book would be so much more powerful if the anguish were counterpointed with something, anything more positive.

It is true that Sister Maple Syrup Eyes depicts its narrator Kristian as deeply in love with Dawn, the woman he eventually loses over the rape (and then as stalkerishly obsessed with her afterwards). I cannot take this as any sort of thread of joy in the narrative. The love affair seems doomed from the start - heavy foreshadowing - and the narrator's hyper-romanticism - there is only one woman for me, you give your heart once in this life and that's it, it is 20 years later and I'm still not over you, etc. - is unhealthily possessive in precisely a rape-like way (which he seems unconscious of).

The most startling of the male-revealing passages - hard to say whether they are intended or unintended - comes near the end:

I've had little appetite lately and as a result have lost about fifteen pounds. When I attempt to eat, I begin translating the time elapsed to rapes.

EXAMPLE: In the twelve minutes it takes me to eat this soggy bowl of corn flakes, four women will be raped...

I run to the toilet, forcing myself to vomit, as if vomiting can reverse the rapes that have just occurred.

Wow. In the later stages of the book, the narrator never stops fantasizing about rape, and these fantasies function for him sexually, whether or not he (or the author) will admit it. Because he is now physically impotent - "My penis hangs, a useless appendage" (and notice that the corn flakes are soggy and limp) - he gets physical release in another way (vomiting-as-climax following his rape reveries).

Sister Maple Syrup Eyes brought to mind the late Andrea Dworkin, who was so mono-focused on pornography and intercourse-as-rape that I couldn't help thinking she was getting off by riding her moral high horse. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, although not outright dismissive of Dworkin's concerns, famously criticized her for recapitulating the sexual objectification of women by reducing victims to their abuse - exactly Jenny Zhang's observation that I began with here.

Dworkin might approve of the impotence that Kristian experiences, since she frequently insisted that the only way a male could live justly was to avoid living as a "genital male." Kristian winds up "ashamed to be a man" and doubtful if he "will ever be able to make love to anyone again." Since Dawn re-marries and has another child, this suggests that the consequences of her rape were even more damaging in the long term for him - reinforcing the very "male privilege" that Brennan ostensibly wishes to reject.

Well, these possible internal contradictions do complicate the novel to its benefit, and I cannot fault Ian Brennan's bravery or sincerity in writing the book. But it works better as a demonstration of a state of mind, the psychological cul-de-sac that can follow trauma, than as a literary exploration of that state of mind. The control of the artist is lacking, and it is noteworthy that major artists in extremis, deep in addiction or depression, still display that control. A potent example is the late British playwright Sarah Kane, whose worldview cannot be said to be any happier than Brennan's or Dworkin's. But she really does achieve Greek tragedy.

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