Parable of the Sower

I finished reading Parable of the Sower this week; I’d chosen to read that next because I wanted something as different as possible from Catch 22 to help cleanse my palate, and it certainly did the trick.

I loved Kindred and I’d heard nothing but positive things about this one, so I knew I’d love it – what I didn’t realize was how current and relevant it would be. It was published in 1993 (is that really almost 25 years ago? Really?) and the wastelandish future it paints takes place in the 2020s – startlingly close to where we are now. And she clearly made a conscious choice that she wanted to write a future that, even in 1993, didn’t feel too distant. If she’d wanted to create more separation she would’ve set it far more than 30 years in the future.

Now, right around the corner from the dates she’s writing about, it barely feels distant at all. The world has a post-apocalyptic feel but there’s no actual apocalypse; the world has gone to hell largely as a result of climate change. Water is scarce, people are clannish, mistrustful and violent and the United States is faring particularly badly. Racism is rampant, slavery is becoming more and more commonplace and the only people able to live safely are the extremely rich.

So not exactly an escapist novel, but hey, Book Riot didn’t call this the Read Easier challenge, did it? And I did love it – Lauren is a wonderful character; I definitely identified with her struggle between being realistic and wanting to protect her own, but also wanting to be open to opportunities to help others, even when doing so might be a risk. Not that I face any actual danger in trying to help people, but I relate to the mental back-and-forth of thinking that the world is a catastrophe and people are a fucking mess and to think otherwise would be naive – but also being determined to not let that keep you from seeing, fighting for and trying to protect the good in the world.

I’ve already bought the audiobook of the sequel and have it downloaded to my phone – I might not get to it until 2018 because I’m determined to complete every single Read Harder challenge with an individual book by the end of 2017, so anything that doesn’t fit into the challenge is getting nudged to 2018. I’m looking forward to it though – I want to know more about Lauren’s journey and the future of her religion, Earthseed, which actually prompted me to ask Google whether anyone actually practices Earthseed (turns out yes – at least one belief system partially based on Earthseed and one site meant to round up practitioners of fully Book of the Living-based Earthseed, though it seems like it might not be very active). Unsurprisingly, it seems to attract hippie pagany progressive folks.

I might not be ready to jump right into an oddball spiritual community, but I do love the ideas – God is change. Shape God. I’m not sure how well the belief system as a whole would translate to reality, but there are parts of it that are definitely going to stick with my extremely patchworky sense of spirituality. It wouldn’t be the first time that concepts from fictional religion or mythology made their way into the fabric of my beliefs; hell, I’ve got “there are other worlds than these” tattooed on my arm. Ka is a wheel. See the turtle, ain’t he keen – all things serve the fuckin’ beam.

I suppose that the idea of taking any religion as actual factual truth – as the big-ass one-and-only – is just so unimaginable to me that incorporating bits from fiction doesn’t seem at all odd. To me, they’re all stories – stories that help us figure out the world as we experience it, and the ones that speak to me are the ones that encourage us to be kind to each other, but maybe to watch our backs at the same time. The ones that don’t put a deity out there as a micromanager or a problem solver. The ones that recognize that we get ourselves into – and have to figure out how to get ourselves out of – our own damned messes, but that give us some tools to help us find our own North Star. God is change. Shape god.

Catch 22 – Or, jj’s cultural lens can only see so far

I’ve been working on Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge this year (I’m on track to finish by the end of the year!) and I’ve read several books that I might not have read (or at least gotten around to for a while) otherwise. Many of them I’ve loved – one, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is now one of my all-time favorites. Maybe at the end of the challenge I’ll do a wrap-up list, but they’ve all been thought provoking, most have been highly engaging and I’m glad to have read all of them.

This is the first one that I’ve disliked – and rather vehemently disliked at that. I’m still glad that I read it – it’s a classic for a reason and it’s definitely given me a lot to think about. The way it was constructed is way ahead of its time and it makes a lot of points that I agree with philosophically. There were even a few parts that managed to emotionally engage me (not many, but I can’t say that I wasn’t affected at all by the story). I get why it’s important. I get why it’s culturally relevant. This doesn’t change the fact that my personal response to it was not a positive one.

On a surface level, the humor was hit and miss for me. At times it was clever and hilarious but the extended (so, so extended) Who’s-On-First-ish sequences got old fast. I also found the book really difficult to invest in emotionally, and for me that’s such a crucial part of reading a novel. If I don’t care about the characters there’s only so engaged I get, and it was extremely difficult for me to care about the characters in Catch 22. Most of them seemed to be there to make a point rather than to portray a person.

There were a few characters that got to be people, at least in part – Yossarian and the Chaplain, mainly; few other characters struck me as more than conceits or plot devices. And here’s where we get to the part that I had the hardest time with – none of the women get to be people, not even a little bit.

And it’s not just that the women characters are one-dimensional, it’s that the entire book is rampantly misogynistic. Blah blah blah product of its time blah blah blah lens of cultural context blah blah blah – yes, okay, I get it. I can detach myself enough to say that yes, as I said, I get why this book is important/relevant. I can’t detach myself enough to not find the misogyny repulsive, nor would I want to.

The misogyny is so thoroughly shot through the book that I’m not going to try to call out every example, I’ll just mention the ones that angered me the most. The most revolting scene was the sexual assault of Nurse Duckett that is played off as boys-will-be-boys shenanigans. The assault itself isn’t written in a “she secretly enjoyed it” manner – at the end of the encounter the nurse is frightened and crying – and to me this makes the handling of the assault as an amusing prank even more horrible. It would be bad enough if the author somehow thought that a woman might enjoy this treatment, but instead he acknowledges that it was highly distressing to her and he doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. The fact that Nurse Duckett (whose only personality characteristic that we ever really learn about is how much she loves attention from men) later ends up having an affair with Yossarian (at least until she decides he’s an obstacle towards her marrying a doctor, any doctor) makes it even worse.

I also can’t get over “Nately’s Whore,” who never even gets a damned name of her own, and who goes from being thoroughly disdainful of Nately to falling madly in love with him for no apparent reason (the narrative claims it’s because she finally got a good night’s sleep) other than that it’s convenient for the plot for her to do so.

I keep thinking of the definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people.” Women aren’t people in this book. They’re objects, playthings, distractions and plot devices. And my tolerance for that shit is really not high. So yes, I’m glad I read this book, because it’s a piece of cultural history that I’ve now experienced. I’m proud of myself for sticking it out and finishing it. I’m exceptionally glad that I’m done with it now, and I will never read it again.

I’m now going to rebound by reading something just about as far from Catch 22 as I can imagine – Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which I’m going to read to fulfill challenge #19, read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey. That ought to help me shake it off.