Wednesday, January 21, 2015


     Some novelists serve you the literary equivalent of comfort food.  They tread familiar territory, create characters that aren't that different from everyone you know.  During the course of the story they'll shake things up a little bit, because that's what novelists are required to do, but in the end they focus on reassuring you that the world is pretty much the place you always thought it was, and that everything is going to turn out okay.
     A.S. King is not that kind of novelist.  Is there such a thing as discomfort food?  Because if there is, that's her specialty.  All your go-to dishes are off the menu at this restaurant.  In fact, there is no menu.  You just walk in, sit down, and assume that whatever food you've never even considered trying is what the waiter is going to bring you.  And that once you've swallowed your squeamishness, you're going to eat every bite on your plate and then lick off all the sauce that remains.

     Glory is mere days away from her high school graduation, and has made no plans beyond that event: no college, no job, no waiting period, no nothing.  Since Glory's mother committed suicide 13 years earlier, Glory has been stuck in the present tense, as has her father.  Both of them seem to believe that by having allowed Darla O'Brien to slip away from them, they have both forfeited the right to a personal future.
     Glory's friend/not friend Ellie isn't in a great situation either.  Her mother, who has never been known to take no for an answer, decided years ago that Ellie would be homeschooled by her, but now doesn't seem interested in declaring Ellie ready to graduate.  So Glory and Ellie do what any teenagers would do under similar circumstances.  They mix  mummified bat powder into beer and drink it.  I wish they would have talked to me first, because every time I've done that, strange things have happened, but teenagers are just so impulsive, aren't they?  So next thing Glory and Ellie know, when they look at someone (a stranger, a classmate, anyone) they can see (sometimes) that person's past, and (sometimes) that person's future.  Except that, oddly, they don't seem to see the same kinds of scenarios as each other.  The things Ellie sees mostly involve the sex life of the person she's looking at, while the things Glory sees mostly involve war.  She sees past wars through the eyes of long-dead participants in them,  but increasingly, she sees glimpses from what she gradually comes to understand is a very specific future war- a second American Civil War, fifty years in the future, waged by men against women and set off by a backlash against increasing progress in women's rights.  And ironically, it's her ability to foresee this nationwide catastrophe that will furnish Glory, at last, with a future all her own.
     This is not my favorite A.S. King novel, in part because her focus here seems so intensely single-minded: all women in the United States are in danger from some men, and woe to us if those men are able to seize more power than they already have.
     The statistics about sexual assault against women in this country are appalling.  Colleges routinely protect assaulters rather than victims, lest the truth get out and hurt their application numbers.  A young woman walking down the street in New York for 10 hours dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt receives more than 100 unprovoked leers, catcalls, and angry comments when she ignores the men who are crudely trying to get her attention.  And over the course of several decades, how many men knowingly covered up Bill Cosby's hobby of drugging and then raping women?
     And yet...  there is a rule of law in this country.  It's terribly flawed, but it's there.  As opposed to, say, El Salvador, where a poor, uneducated woman can get sentenced to prison for 30 years if she has a miscarriage and cannot disprove that it was the result of an attempted (illegal) abortion.  Or Afghanistan, where marriages to much older men are commonly forced on barely-pubescent girls who are beaten, or worse, if they try to escape.
     I don't think America's second civil war will be fought over the rights of women.  I think if it comes, it will be about race, much as the first one was, because in the past 150 years we just haven't  evolved enough to understand the consequences of continuous mass oppression.
     Not that the merits of this book depend on my views of whether the scenario it depicts is likely to occur.  I do feel, though, that King gives some of her characters and their development unchar-acteristically short shrift as she lets herself veer toward didacticism.
     Still, A.S. King remains A.S. King: wildly inventive, entirely original, with no speck of sentimentality but oceans of big, generous heart.  Every word she writes is worth reading.
     So.  I would like to pass my copy of GLORY O'BRIEN on to someone who has just read my description of it and now desperately wants to read it.  I'm doing this by way of a contest, and to enter, all you have to do is leave a comment telling me why.  What about this story speaks to you?  What do you hope to find in it?  I'm not going to post a deadline; that's going to depend on the quantity and quality of responses I get.  But I will say that once I declare the contest over, if I choose your answer over all others, I'll send you my copy of the book no matter where you live.  Do you see any down side to this?  No, you don't, because there isn't any.  I can't wait to read your comments.

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