Saturday, October 13, 2012

Piteable men building their positions of strength on the backs of formidable women (Books - Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye)

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), has received some strong press and the prestigious Prix Goncourt.  The author's literary prowess won her a publisher for her first novel at age 18.  Fernanda Eberstadt's fine review of this book in The New York Times Book Review informs us:
The expectation — whether menacing or well meaning — that NDiaye should “represent” multiracial France, or be considered a voice of the French African diaspora, has often dogged her. In fact, as NDiaye is at pains to make clear, she scarcely knew her Senegalese father, who came to France as a student in the 1960s and returned to Africa when she was a baby. Raised by her French mother — a secondary school science teacher — in a housing project in suburban Paris, with vacations in the countryside where her maternal grandparents were farmers, NDiaye describes herself as a purely French product, with no claim to biculturalism but her surname and the color of her skin. Nonetheless, the absent father — charismatic, casually cruel, voraciously selfish — haunts NDiaye’s fiction and drama, as does the shadow of a dreamlike Africa in which demons and evil portents abound, where the unscrupulous can make overnight fortunes and, with another turn of the wheel, find themselves rotting in a jail cell. 

On its surface, this novel might more aptly have been titled 'three weak men.'   What struck me about the narrative was not the fortitude of its women, in fact, we don't meet a notable female character in the second part, but the craven and pathetic figures struck by her male characters and the current of justified bitter resentment that seethes beneath the work for their exploitation of women.  The first of the three women is: a French attorney, who is uprooted from her middle class Parisian life, with its largely middle class concerns, to clean up a mess made by her pathetic and domineering father in Senegal. I would have to describe Norah less as 'strong' than as capable in the face of a situation that challenges her strength, and this is to NDiaye's credit. You will not find a formulaic archetype voicing the hackneyed rhetoric either of old fashioned feminism or new fangled empowerment in her women.  Instead you will find an educated human being, struggling to raise a daughter and perform her job responsibly against the destructive influences of of a childish sponging male lover and the legacy of her abandoning father.  NDiaye has fashioned in Norah a unsure and self-critical human being struggling to make good choices.  To my reading, her strength came of her actions rather than her essence.  I found her humanly drawn, believably vulnerable, as well as believably frustrating.  Norah seemed to be possessed of a strong streak of fatalism
She knew now that Jakob would never become a lawyer, or anything else, for that matter, that he would never contribute meaningfully to the expenses of the household even if he did receive from time to time - from his parents, he said - a few hundred euros, which he spent immediately and ostentatiously on expensive meals and on clothes the children didn't need, and she knew too - finally admitting it to herself - that she had quite simply set up in her home a man and a little girl whom she had to feed and care for, whom she could not throw out, and who had her boxed in.

That was the way it was.
I'm not sure why 'that was the way it was.'  But Norah clearly believes that to be so.  I don't find that a particularly 'strong' or 'resourceful' stance, but I find it believable behavior.

What served this story less was the sometimes byzantine structure of NDiaye's sentences.  Particularly at the opening, I found the sentences so cluttering with punctuation steering us around clauses and parentheticals - that I could barely discern what was going on.
And the man waiting for her at the entrance to the big concrete house - or who happened to be standing in the doorway - was bathed in a light so suddenly intense that it seemed to radiate from his whole body and his pale clothing: yet this short, thickset man before her, who'd just emerged from his enormous house and was glowing bright as a neon tube, no longer possessed, Norah straightaway realized, the stature, arrogance, and youthfulness once so mysteriously his own as to seen everlasting.
In retrospect I can see this run-on narrative as expressive of Norah's breathless state of mind and the confusion of her thoughts, but I found it frustrating to be dropped as a naive reader into such difficult to navigate prose before being oriented to who, where, or what.

The second strong woman, Fanta, is entirely absent in any literal fashion from the nervous dream-like narrative describing a day in the life of her mentally deranged boyfriend, Rudy, a narrative which evoked the fevered state of Dostoyevski's Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.  As a book purportedly about women, having the subjective viewpoint of a man as the centerpiece is nothing if not ironic.  This section is strongly enveloping.  Rudy's desperate paranoia and visions of attacking vultures are vividly drawn.  The heat and fear seemed to have a stench that wafted from the page, making me feel sick and slightly drugged.

Again, in this narrative, I was struck by the refrain of fatalism:
He would never possess Manille's relaxed elegance...No, he said to himself at the sight of his reflection in the second glass door, the one separating the showroom from the offices, don't even think about it.

It occurred to him that he had a stingy, crumpled, almost needy appearance.
As affecting as NDiaye's Rudy is, he never rises above a two-dimensional piteable tyrant, like most of NDiaye's male characters. As rich and literate as this novel could be, I couldn't wipe from my mind's eye the cartoony images of the principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Wyle E. Coyote.  NDiaye struck a delicate balance focusing a deeply subjective narrative on a dangerously pathetic loser and having the 'strong woman' of her title exist off stage in Rudy's mind and in our's - or perhaps embodied in the vulture which attacks Rudy repeatedly.  While the atmosphere of the story is strong, the two-dimensionality of Rudy costs NDiaye by making Rudy ridiculous. 

Since meeting and having a great discussion with my book club about Three Strong Women, I will add their observation that there is a progress in this book both linguistically and socioeconomically from a "first-world" woman in the first section, whose needs are conflicted, her circumstances complex, and her thought processes neurotic, to Khady, a third-world woman, who is the subject of the third section.  She is beset by repressive social politics, disease and poverty.  Her circumstances are clear-cut in their meanness and her thought process is uncomplicatedly focused on the moment.  There is a political engine to the book that has cast the male characters as functionaries of the female in order to turn the tables on the societal roles occupied by male and female that are typical to the worlds about which NDiaye writes.

The third strong woman is Khady, a naive widow with few resources, who tries desperately to flee a life of suffering and deprivation for something better.  In some ways, NDiaye's refrain of "that's the way it is" plays the least role here. It is, perhaps, the fact that Khady has the least fatalistic outlook, that makes her the strongest of these women.  She puts one foot after the other, almost blind, relying not on intellect but on sheer will, too move away from the oppressing forces in her life and exchange them for something better.

Her strength is the most elusive of the three women and, I felt, makes most apparent how the mechanism of this book lends it beauty.  As usual, a man, Lamine, abuses this poor woman, taking everything she has.  There are, thankfully, no easy answers for NDiaye's women, but the narrative elevates Khady's exploitation because every success that Lamine has is built on a foundation of what he took from Khady.  Her strength is that she gains a sense of who she is.  If Khady possesses nothing else, and she doesn't, out of much suffering she comes to possess herself. 

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