Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Robot Boys, Girls Undone, and Imaginary Bookshelves

Ah, this is nice – writing when and about whatever I like! And not absolutely having to talk about gender – not that that’s usually a problem for me, but still, just sometimes, it’s nice to pretend for a little while, just as a treat, that gender doesn’t exist and is therefore irrelevant to my life, or anyone’s life.

And so, for something completely different, this is another book blog. When Noa and Liad went on their leave Noa left me two of her favourite books. I’m not usually good at receiving books, because I always have a bookshelf in my mind along which is a row of books that I’ve selected to be there, in the order of reading I’ve deliberated over, and then someone else brings me a book to read – in an act my rational-side tells me is purely out of generosity and the sincerity that I’ll enjoy it – but my slightly OCD side (twinged with a hint of the smattering of Aspergers in me) tells me has come with the intention of threatening the clarity of order I’ve made of my carefully prepared bookshelf – and all the books start hurtling across the imaginary room my imaginary bookshelf is in! Like that scene with Merlin and Wart in that Disney film, The Sword in the Stone

Fortunately I have at least enough common sense to allow the first argument to win out over the latter, and Noa’s books came at quite a good time anyway, since for some reason I’ve been receiving books, or book ideas, from a lot of people over the last year, and I began to see the side of it I hadn’t for some reason considered until now: that you can learn a lot about people when they give you something to read, especially if it’s one of their favourites. So I decided to embrace them, and have them both read by the time Noa and Liad come back from their holiday:

One of them – The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton – only took a night to read anyway and, apart from the obvious issues the author/film-maker has with women having babies (!), I thought it was brilliant: macabre grown-up stories beguilingly disguised behind children’s poetry. I’m never really sure about the copyright of doing things like this – and I can never be arsed to read up on it (it looks unnecessarily complicated!) – but here’s my favourite:

Robot Boy

Mr. and Mrs Smith had a wonderful life.
They were a normal, happy husband and wife.
One day they got news that made Mr. Smith glad.
Mrs. Smith would be a mom,
which would make him the dad!
But something was wrong with their bundle of joy.
It wasn’t human at all,
it was a robot boy!
He wasn’t warm and cuddly
and he didn’t have skin.
Instead, there was a cold, thin layer of tin.
There were wires and tubes sticking out of his head.
He just lay there and stared,
not living or dead.
The only time he seemed alive at all
was with a long extension cord
plugged into the wall.

Mr. Smith yelled at the doctor,
“What have you done to the boy?
He’s not flesh and blood,
He’s aluminium alloy!”

The doctor said gently,
“What I’m going to say
will sound pretty wild.
But you’re not the father
of this strange-looking child.
You see, there still is some question
about the child’s gender,
but we think that its father
is a microwave blender.”

The smiths’ lives were now filled
with misery and strife.
Mrs. Smith hated her husband,
and he hated his wife.
He never forgave her unholy alliance:
a sexual encounter
with a kitchen appliance.

And Robot Boy
grew to be a young man.

Though he was often mistaken
for a garbage can.

There they are again!: Ideas about relations that extend beyond the ‘human’ and into connections and relations with machines: and the ways that the machines must be ‘anthropomorphised’ in order for ‘human’ readers/viewers to relate to them emotionally. I love this kind of stuff, even when it’s apparently simply and childishly conveyed – it just shows how firmly installed such ideas are, at least in the arts. Although their direction into the mainstream is always through the subversive voices of that mainstream – Tim Burton’s, for example.

The other – She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb – surprised me. I didn’t think I was going to like it, mainly because I’m a bit biased against American literature. The best books by American writers I’ve read have been Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and I’m probably quite narrow-mindedly convinced that it’s going to take something miraculous to come close to touching those. But, actually, She’s Come Undone was enthralling, and I loved the protagonist – her dry wit and strength, and vulnerability – she was wonderful. The prose was convincing and the story was beautiful. So I’ve learned something, and I’m determined now not to see the ‘invasion’ of someone else’s book in my bookshelf as anything other than a welcome disorder! After all, every book is also someone else’s book…

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