Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sex and Stones (on Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone)

Abraham Verghese is a huge talent. He's saved and improved the lives of more people than I've ever even met, probably. And he knows more (about medicine, certainly, but also most other stuff) than I do. The new book--first novel--is an intense, politically questioning, resonant, transnational saga. The emotional yearning and sexual tension in the novel is immense. I loved it.

And I hated this:

In every account of sex, the women seem to sacrifice themselves. In both encounters that the plot revolves around, I wasn't sure if I were reading about coerced sex/rape: one woman has had a clitoridectomy and seems startled by the experience; another woman gives in to the fondling of a man she idolizes because he is in a drunken panic. Both women are younger and less privileged in a variety of ways including social position, education, and race. Unlike many other literary authors, Verghese is not averse to writing about sex (at length, even). So why then is the sex never playful and honest? Never HAPPY? Why is sex repeatedly the ultimate sacrifice a woman can ever make.

What is this shit?

Verghese's novel begins with twin brothers in the womb and ends with the an endorsement of a father-son connection. Whichever way you look at it, that's male centered (for the bros). Which would explain why all (all!) the women in the novel occupy subservient positions as mother figures (who sacrifice lives--literally by dying in childbirth or by neglecting their health and careers) or as sexual objects (those who share sex freely are typed as servient sex workers or literal servants; alternatively they are the sullied/undeserving siren who betrays).

Can it get worse?

Yes. Wait till the women die--in honest-to-goodness childbirth or of consumption. Some punitively patriarchal novelist could have written this... in the 19th century. I won't think about the acrobatic coincidences and biblical / spiritual / numerological rationalizing that occurs in the book--Verghese's writing can compensate for most of that. If there had just been one female character I could identify with or even one (one!!) female colleague who wasn't subject to elaborate sexualization and with whom the male characters had a respectful relationship, I'd have bought the book.

With more than just my money.


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