Tag Archives: trauma

My Dark Vanessa: Trauma porn (and slam poetry?)

I don’t usually read other reviews of the books I read. Mostly because I don’t care much what other people think about the novels I read (except, of course, you, dear readers) and because I’d rather be reading novels than reading about them (maybe says something about why I an academic life post-PhD was never all that appealing (even if it had been possible)). Anyway. In the case of My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell, I wanted to read some reviews just to check that I wasn’t completely crazy for thinking it wasn’t very good.

The review I read in the Atlantic by Sophie Gilbert got the question I had been circling exactly right: “The more salient question, though, is whether it’s illuminating—whether Vanessa’s narrative offers something distinct about the mental aftermath of teenage trauma that makes its graphic descriptions of abuse worthwhile.” Because this is a book that explores, graphically, the abusive relationship between a fifteen-year old girl and her 42-year old male teacher. The narrative makes much of exploring from the first-person perspective of Vanessa whether this is ‘abuse’ if she never sees it that way; if she’s a victim, if she never claims or wants that designation – but the reader easily identifies what she experiences as trauma and abuse. And on each page we are afresh brought to a detailed description of that abuse, or what Vanessa alternately understands as romance and trauma.

I can imagine a narrative in which this kind of detailed description serves a larger purpose that illuminates something for the reader that would be impossible without such specificity. I’m not at all convinced this novel’s exploration of #metoo justifies its violence. I guess I’m circling a question that I ask a lot as an audience member at some slam poetry events: what care is owed to the reader?

Allow the digression: slam poetry (if you’re unfamiliar) is competitive spoken word. It attracts traumatic poems In a Big Way. Audiences, who judge the poems/poets, tend to offer very high scores for Big Traumatic Poems, in part, I imagine, because no one wants to be the person who gives a 7 out of 10 to a rape poem. And there are a lot of rape poems. So it seems from the vantage of a (former) competitor and audience member that each poem has to successively ‘top’ the trauma of the poem before – layering on additional intersectional trauma in an effort to ‘out trauma’ the poet who came before. None of this is ever explicit. Instead poets and audiences describe and celebrate the space of the stage as a place to work through and process this trauma. And that is true, too. Art – performative or narrative – is a space and appropriate place for exploring the contours of this pain. And understanding the intention of the author – was this a piece written to process pain? or to score points? or both? or can it be separate? – is, to my mind anyway, irrelevant. We the audience and reader, can’t know what was intended, and intent doesn’t matter, what we’re left with is the novel or poem and what it does to/affects in us as listeners and readers. Whether it genuinely moves us, or brings us to new insight about the topic, or lets us extend empathy in a new way, or – perhaps most importantly? – changes our orientation and our approach in the world.

In the case of My Dark Vanessa the narrative is, from my reading, unsuccessful in making this bridge. Instead I read it as a ceaseless succession of graphic scenes that shocked and upset me, without illuminating anything (or enough?) about power, gender, or the ties of family/friendship.

It’s an uncomfortable review to write – much like giving the 7 out of 10 to the trauma poem – because who am I to assess the worth or value of this confessional? And you could rightly say that my wide web of privilege makes me exactly the wrong person to be providing this assessment, and you’d be right. All I offer then is my view that the literary merit of this book is highly suspect. That the descriptions of abuse are graphic and extensive and relentless. And that the connections to wider cultural threads are tenuous or simplistic. Another reader will find different meaning and value. (Like Oprah who – briefly – had this book as an Oprah pick (before unceremoniously removing it over allegations of appropriation a la American Dirt)). But if I were you, I’d pass this one over. If you are intent on reading it, and live in the greater Guelph area, I’m – again – happy to leave it on my porch for you to pick up.



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Educated: Not so much about school as it is about trauma

In urging me to read *An Education*, folks suggested I’d like it for a few reasons: the celebration of the university as the epicentre of ideas and learning (which I don’t hold to be true, but people must think I hold to be true); the fascination of the memoir genre in self-consciously commenting on what can be remembered and what must be fabricated (and the blurring of both) that recalls my enjoyment of historical fiction; and the irresistible lure of a cascading catalogue of trauma and violence, that predictably pulls the reader in wondering what new horror might be visited upon our protagonist.

I did like the book. And for the reasons predicted by my friends and book-recommenders. Though I’d say the first suggestion – and one blatantly made by the title (and certainly in the marketing of the book) – that this book is about the educational transformation wrought by the university, is misleading. Very little of the book is spent at the physical space of the university, and Tara, our protagonist (I suppose in a memoir we don’t call them protagonist so much as author?), seems ambivalent about what the university itself offered her in terms of education or transformation. Rather, and I appreciated this, her ‘education’ takes place in the shift from home to university, the conceptual journey as much as the physical. Sure she learns facts and explores ideas in ways never open or offered to her before, but the book focuses much more on how the space and culture of the university transforms her sense of self and what might be possible for her self, rather than what facts she accumulates.

To step back – by her account, Tara is raised in the Idaho mountains by parents who neither send her to school nor offer formal education at home. Instead she spends her childhood working in the family junkyard and navigating the twin dangers of a physically abusive brother and an emotionally abusive father, and the effects of this abuse on her sense of self and worth. Much is made in the press coverage of the fact that her parents are ‘survivalists’ preparing for the end of days, but I’d caution that the book doesn’t make as much of this aspect of her childhood as the marketers might have you believe, so if you’re hoping for a catalogue of food and fuel stockpiling, you’ll get some of that, but the narrative recognizes the gratuity of these moments of her life and rather than emphasize her difference from the reader, seems intent on demonstrating that while the particulars of her experience may be extreme, the experience ad effect of living in abuse is altogether common.

Long sentence!

Anyway.  It’s not a perfect book and I have some complaints. It fits well with the other books in this genre in that it…

And that’s where I left this post when I started writing it two weeks ago. So I’ll have to trust past Erin that the novel fits well in the genre. And that I have complaints. I bet you have complaints! What didn’t you like about the book? Let’s share responsibility for finishing this post…


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All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: If You’re Not Sure What to Choose for Book Club, Read This.

I fell behind on posting. I’m catching up, but I knew I’d read at least three things that I needed to post about, and I tried to remember the book I was forgetting. I eventually came to it – Bryn Greenwood’s All the Ugly and Wonderful Things – and then bam! the whole novel was back with me. So it was at once forgettable (in that the story obviously didn’t linger in my mind), but wholly memorable (in that once triggered I could recall the whole thing).  Continue reading

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: Yet Another Peculiar Protagonist Seeking Community.

Yet another novel about a peculiar protagonist who begins the novel alone and misunderstood and who ends the novel connected with community and understanding her quirks as endearing and/or strengths. I suppose if I hadn’t read so many novels with the same plot and with the same variations on character theme I might find this one endearing. But as it is, I’ve had quite enough of this sort of thing.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction