Reviewing a recent installment in Aqueduct Press‘s “Conversation Pieces” series, the novella We, Robots by Sue Lange, David Soyka wrote:
This is a well told story, though nothing particularly surprising or ground-breaking. It adds nothing to the canon. What’s particularly curious is that this is part of a series put out by Aqueduct Press called “Conversation Pieces” that are loosely connected to feminist SF. Other than the fact that women can be considered a subjugated class (and there is a sub-genre of stories specifically concerning female robots, e.g., C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” and Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy”), I fail to see anything about We, Robots that is feminist.
In fact, I’m not sure I completely agree with Soyka’s argument with respect to We, Robots. The story — of a robot who is fitted with a “pain interpreter”, in a world where humans are gradually replacing their bodies with prosthetic and cybernetic parts — is an argument for the value of sensation, of sensory experience. If you accept Elizabeth Bear’s feminist critique of the singularity, or something similar, there are certainly grounds for considering We, Robots a feminist work. For all that its primary focus, as Soyka says, is a recapitulation of sf thought, it is also a story about, to borrow Bear’s phrase, “the messy bits of being meat”.
But I’m at least as interested in the comment Soyka notes by series editor L. Timmel Duchamp, in the brief foreword that accompanies every volume, to the effect that “The Conversation Pieces series presents a wide variety of texts, including short fiction (which may not always be sf and may not necessarily even be feminist), essays, speeches, manifestoes, poetry, interviews, correspondence, and group discussions” [emphasis mine]. If you think about it, apart from anything else it functions as a way of counter-acting the assumptions you might otherwise bring to a book published by a feminist small press. Instead of taking the politics of what you’re about to read for granted, you approach it questioningly: is this feminist? What do I mean by feminist? If it’s not feminist, why has it been published in this series?
Which brings me to the most recent volume, Making Love in Madrid by Kimberley Todd Wade. It’s another novella, this time a debut publication, and seems to have attracted pretty much zero discussion, outside of a brief review in the May 2007 Locus by Rich Horton:
Kimberley Todd Wade’s Making Love in Madrid is a lyrical metafictional piece ostensibly about a blocked writer in Madrid who meets a beautiful amnesiac woman, only to be consumed by jealousy when in addition to taking up with him she takes up with the neighbor, a much more famous artist … anyway, this is how things start, but Wade is really writing, I think, about writers and their characters. As I said, a lyrical story, often quite beautiful, but in the end I don’t think it held together.
Personally I’d reverse the description of the premise: it’s about a beautiful amnesiac woman who meets a blocked writer in what is ostensibly Madrid. At the very least, it’s about both of them equally, since the story is told in a very well controlled omniscient voice, drifting between the heads of the two characters, Sheila and John, in a way that reinforces the dreamlike affect of the setting. The much more famous artist, Alan, I have difficulty calling a character — very occasionally we get a glimpse of his perspective, but most of the time he’s a device for poking at Sheila and John’s relationship. The characterisation there is fine, subject to my criticisms below, but if you enjoy this story, it won’t be for the characters, it will be for the affect. If I’d got around to reading the copy of Ice by Anna Kavan that I’ve had sitting in my TBR pile for the past couple of months, I suspect I’d be making a comparison with Wade’s novella; as it is, the writer I’ve read most recently whose work was called to mind by Making Love in Madrid is Zoran Zivkovic, most particularly in the sense that the uncertain landscape and strange events described have some meaning just beyond my grasp.
Reading it not long after We, Robots and Soyka’s review, however, I found myself wondering how feminist or not Making Love in Madrid is. On the one hand it is, like Lange’s story, very much about the messy bits of being human: you could guess that, perhaps, from the title, although there is relatively little explicit sex, despite the fact that in their first meeting Sheila confesses to John that she’s an insatiable nymphomaniac. There is some, but the characters, particularly John, think about it more than they have it — for instance, on a trip to a market near the hotel in which he is staying, John observes mozzarella “floating in salted water like detached breasts”; he “fondles vegetables he will slice into salad”, “radishes of obscene pinkness” and “piles of knobby phallic tubers” (17). Later he observes Sheila eating a cookie “as if eating were the most sensuous pleasure available to mankind” (57). (It runs the other way, too: a character is referred to as being “as limp as an over-cooked noodle”, 33.) Sheila, for her part, is more likely to associate sexual experiences with music. Alan’s apartment, which she visits while John is out, is filled with musical instruments, and in her eyes Alan plays the piano as if seducing it: he “reclines” in front of it, his fingertips “kiss” the ivory teeth; as he plays, she finds herself involuntarily embracing herself as her knees go week and her hands tremble. Moreover, right at the start of the story Wade hangs a big red flag on everything Sheila does:
She sits poised on the edge of the sofa, angled precisely in [John]‘s direction with left knee over right, overtly feminine, someone clearly creating a role but perhaps herself unaware of it, more like a female impersonator than a born woman. (2)
In fact Sheila is aware of the impression she creates, or at least becomes aware of it as the story proceeds and she begins to recover her memories. Despite the fact that she realises that for John “heartbreak is inevitable”, she finds that “the possibility of that moment of revelation, when he can bear it no longer and turns his pleading eyes on her so that she feels like she’s going to break under the pressure of his desperate gaze” is “irresistable” (56); later she begins to wonder why she’s leading him on in the way that she is, why she enjoys it; at the end, perhaps, she begins to accomodate a more compassionate approach to relationships (a more literal approach to “making love”, you could say), having started to gain more control of identity.
This strikes me as a feminist theme, except for the fact that it seems to me to sit uneasily with the other major aspect of the novella. In a blurb on the back, Anna Tambour describes Making Love in Madrid as “a fantasia of amnesia”, and that’s certainly what it presents as; but by the end, as Horton’s review indicates, it would be more accurate to describe it as a fantasia about writers and writing. When Sheila first goes to John, it is because she wants him to write her a history. She remembers reading one of his books and loving it, so she trusts him to do a good job. As events progress, inevitably, Sheila is revealed to be a writer as well. Equally inevitably, at the end of the story, one of them is revealed to be the author of the other. (I said you don’t read this story for character; you don’t read it for plot, either.)
And throughout the story’s second half, John and Sheila’s writing styles are contrasted. For John, writing requires control, and has to be his: musing on his muse, he reassures himself that “She is only the catalyst, not the creator [...] This is my story. I’m in control. She will be whatever I want her to be” (41). By contrast, when Sheila starts to write it is “immediately evident” to John that she possesses no discipline, and so he determines to offer his own working method as an example. But it’s no good — typically she reads until lunchtime, after which she might pick up a pen and write, sprawled across her bed, “gustily propelling [the pen] across the pages of a spiral-bound notebook” (60). But she’s just as likely to take a nap. A conversation about writing reinforces the differences between them:
“Of course, it’s personal to me in so far as it’s my work, but it’s not specific to me. If it were specific to me it would not be successful, not that my work has been a great commercial–or, ah, critical–success, but you know what I mean, I make a living at it …” he allows himself to drift off, realizing the stupidity of his defense that only serves to lead him on to other things to feel defensive about.
She looks satisfied with herself for a moment and turns back to her broccoli, evidencing no further interest in him.
How does she do it? She isn’t making a living, so she’s the authority on the pure form–oh, writing as grand art never sullied by thoughts of money–whereas the truth is that she’s probably tried and failed at publishing and is now mollifying her wretched sense of personal defeat with the palliative of “pure art”. How self-righteous; it makes him furious with her and at the same time ashamed of himself. (64-5)
All of this — the idea that Sheila is uninhibited and impulsive and writes for herself, while John is controlled and resentful and writes for an audience — comes too close to stereotype for my liking. Because the characterisation is broad to start with, it begins to feel that Sheila is the way she is because she’s a woman, while John is the way he is because he’s a man; in the passage above, I think it’s only that last note of shame that injects any sort of complexity into John, particularly the way it’s doesn’t seem to be a conscious recognition of his hypocrisy. But that’s a pretty thin thread to hold on to. And the larger problem — or at least, my problem — is that the very self-awareness that Sheila achieves with respect to herself and her approach to relationships, which is so satisfying on its own terms, seems to reinforce this more rigid view of art and artists. Because, of course, it’s Sheila who is revealed as the writer — that’s why it’s her story, and not John’s. She’s been debating within herself about her writing, her responsibility to her characters, her whole approach; and (the end implicitly argues) she’s in the right. I’m not denying that John is in the wrong, but when it comes to art it seems to me that questions of rightness must always be shifting, fluid, open to further discussion. When I finished Making Love in Madrid, although I’d enjoyed the journey, I felt like the conversation was over.