Legolas Does The Dishes

Postscripts 15 coverAlthough “Legolas Does The Dishes” (in Postscripts 15) is the least sfnal thing I’ve read by Justina Robson, it’s not a radical departure from the themes she’s been working with at novel length – identity, consciousness, relationships. In fact, it’s arguably her most careful expression of those themes to date, drawing out the inherent science-fictionality of the first two, and laying bare the tensions they inflict on the third. According to the header notes, the story was written between the completion of Living Next-Door to the God of Love (a book I admire greatly) and the start of Quantum Gravity (a series I wish I could admire more), and it does function as a kind of pivot between them. Both of the longer works have at their core relationships between (more or less) human women and otherworldly men, and what you get in “Legolas Does The Dishes” is a similar relationship, but reframed in terms of uncertainty.

Elizabeth is a patient in an unnamed North American asylum. She claims to have a curse of sight, to be able to see “other planes”, and to be uniquely aware that “the world is the product of the mind”. As the story begins, she describes her introduction to a new member of staff – a dishwasher – whom she becomes increasingly certain is, in fact, Legolas. She knows full well that The Lord of the Rings is fiction, but —

… the meme of Legolasness and all it implies must have been spreading around the general population like a plague and so, even though I cannot really be looking at an Elf of Middle Earth, but surely am only looking at someone through a voluntary delusion I am prepared to entertain as True, nonetheless, here he is. Legolas is washing our dishes. Because reality is of the mind. And my mind says this is the real thing. And so he is. Unless he thinks he isn’t. And then of course, he won’t be.

Elizabeth is like this: open, a little breathless — you always feel she could stand to take a deep breath — and well aware that we might consider her crazy. (And aware of the ways in which popular culture can be used to help us understand her craziness. When introduced to Legolas, she describes herself as moved towards him by an “unstoppable force”, until the “immovable object” of a kitchen counter stops her.) She was committed for poisoning her mother for “poisoning me with ideas” or, more specifically, with a story: “She brought me up believing that I was living in a fairytale.” For Elizabeth, ideative poisoning is no less severe a crime than the more traditional kind, and her actions were a kind of self-defence, but we’re left wondering. The intensity of her fascination with Legolas (he never acquires another name), and the strength of her confidence that he really is the reincarnation of a fictional character, are a disconcerting couple of degrees beyond normal. And when he doesn’t deny her initial questions (“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in Valinor?” … He muttered hesitantly, “I forgot about that, I guess”) we may see it as a man humouring a woman he thinks is less than entirely sane, but she takes it as a license to believe the story in her head: as license, if her understanding of the nature of reality is accurate, to make the story true.

The pair are introduced by one Nurse Driver, who is aware of Elizabeth’s claims about what she can perceive, and seems to take a perverse pleasure from placing her with unsuspecting folks and seeing what happens. Nurse and patient are locked in an odd duel of wills and wits, in which neither party is ever quite sure of the other’s position. Elizabeth notes that, “[Driver] and I always had this thing going on where I could never tell if she were serious or simply playing me for the sake of being entertained”. Driver’s introduction of Elizabeth to Legolas certainly seems frivolous, until Elizabeth starts taking it seriously, at which point Driver gets more restrictive (possibly jealous) and Elizabeth is forced to employ both bribes and blackmail in order to achieve her self-imposed goal of waking Legolas up to his true heritage. (She notes that at first he is distinguished by “farm-animal calm”, perhaps in contrast to her awareness of her own supposed position as Nurse Driver’s “domesticated animal”. By the end of the story, both are certainly more alive.) Yet for all that Driver seems a less than honourable employee, we can never be completely sure that Elizabeth should get her way, because we are constantly reminded of her instability. Although Elizabeth’s first conversation with Legolas ends when Driver inaccurately blames her for breaking one of the dishes being washed, Elizabeth is alarmingly fascinated by the shiny shards that result, and apparently has a history of stabbing people.

Legolas’ motivations remain as tantalisingly vague as Driver’s, and the question of whether or not Elizabeth is correct about him is never fully resolved. For every bit of seeming corroboration — watching his eye movements for tell-tale signs when she’s quizzing him, for instance: “He glanced up and left. I knew it. People look that way for Visual Recall” – there is an excuse. The evidence available is either on the edge of extraordinariness, not clearly over the line — throwing something into a bin, “a throw of about eight metres and he did it with a gesture no more studied or powerful than simple pointing” — or its flaws are recognised by Elizabeth herself, such as her observation of pointed ears, usually covered by hair, in a very grainy photograph. Over the course of the story, during which Elizabeth sets in motion various legal moves that will end with her release, and aims to persuade Legolas to travel with her to her family home when that happens, Legolas either decides to use Elizabeth to his own advantage (she gives him access to her money), or is dumb enough that he starts to believe what she’s telling him about a past life (Driver characterizes him as a “born idiot”), or is genuinely changed by her mind, and awoken to some awareness of his true nature. Like Driver, Legolas’ actions – or what Elizabeth tells us of his actions – somehow don’t add up to a complete whole.

We do gradually get a better picture of what Elizabeth means when she says that reality is of the mind, and a sense that she might be on to something – even if she isn’t quite sane. It’s equipoised science fiction: Elizabeth has a complete, coherent, explanatory view of the world, but it differs from the consensus. When she says that the existence of Middle Earth can be defined by “a place in spacetime and a position in someone’s mind”, we have no way of judging whether she’s perceived the nature of reality or just making up things to fit the pattern her broken mind observes. We can at least be confident, probably, that Elizabeth isn’t consciously lying. At one point, she notes that “One could never trust to theories of mind alone to bring plans as important as these into fruition”: it could be simple pragmatism, or it could be a subconscious acknowledgement that she’s delusional, but it’s unlikely to be the sort of thing that a deliberate fantasist would say. She also tells us that her therapist, Dr Lucy, has confirmed that the fact Elizabeth’s scrupulous honesty, to the point of not understanding why one would lie, is part of her pathology; although Elizabeth thinks she’s spotted holes in Dr Lucy’s theories, and in a way that chimes with the portraits of Driver and Legolas that she offers:

Most of Dr Lucy’s beliefs about minds relies on a heavy emphasis to their regularity, stability and cohesion – the entire theory under which she’s trying to make a name for herself is in fact called Cohesive Behaviourism: the Integrity Glue That Holds Us Together. Because of this she missed the significance of my self-determination (excusing herself by saying that abstract elements of mathematics were unsuitable tools for dealing with psychological analysis) so I never got to the part where I could whisk the cloth off my big revelation and tell her that some probability distributions have no mean, or average value. And neither do objects, or atoms, or people.

Whether or not Dr Lucy’s theory is accurate in this story’s world, it certainly seems to be the case that the Quantum Gravity series, in particular, is intended to test something very like Cohesive Behaviourism to destruction. The premise of those books is that a “quantum bomb” has fractured reality into a number of different realms; one corresponds to the popular conception of fairyland, one to hell, and so on. Like “Legolas Does The Dishes”, it never fully commits to one genre, although Quantum Gravity is at least unambiguously fantastic; a collision of fantasy and sf, which to date has been pacy but uneven. (Depending on your perspective, the level of inventiveness on display is either exhilarating or suffocating; I tend towards the latter view.) At the tale’s centre is a cyborg heroine, Lila Black, who ends up with several personalities cohabiting in her head, challenging her sense of self; in another story, she’d be as crazy as Elizabeth. Lila also finds herself in a relationship with an actual elf – a rock star elf, in fact – in which the intensity of sudden attraction is in part explained by an interaction of energy fields. Similar fields apparently surround humans in “Legolas Does The Dishes”, although a closer match for Elizabeth and Legolas’ relationship can be found in Living Next-Door to the God of Love. In that novel, teenage runaway Francine winds up in a “high-interaction sidebar universe” in which something very like Elizabeth’s theories about the nature of reality is provably true, and meets a man who turns out to be literally defined by, among other things, her love.

What “Legolas Does The Dishes” adds to this stew of ideas, though, is an answer to the implicit question: if mind shapes reality, what shapes mind? The answer, almost inevitably, is recursive, and goes back to why Elizabeth killed her mother:

In retrospect I think the mathematics could all go in my sessions with Dr Lucy and I should stick to aphorisms and cilches, affirmations and the like, with their dripfeed of empty hope into the consciousness.

This is also how poisons and drugs work, but they are for the body. The mind requires stories. Dosage is very important. The right measure at the right moment.

Another way of phrasing the story’s central question is to say that it’s not clear whether the arrival of Legolas represents the right dose of story for Elizabeth, or the wrong dose. Certainly it seems that it was a wrong dose of story — her mother lying to her — that provoked Elizabeth into committing murder. And Legolas provokes Elizabeth into getting out of the asylum, after twenty years of incarceration, through a combination of legal and more practical scheming. (Elizabeth also wonders whether confronting Driver with incriminating evidence of an inappropriate liaison will be too much story for the nurse.) But it could simply be that Legolas drives Elizabeth deeper into her delusion, since another way of describing Elizabeth is to say that she believes in a different story to us.

“Legolas Does The Dishes” feels, to me at least, more controlled than Robson’s recent novels. There is the electric sense that Elizabeth, even if she is right, is a fundamentally unstable individual; the casualness with which she hides a shard of Pyrex under her nail (because glass is much less dangerous than steel to a body’s energy field) is squirm-inducing. But there’s an equally powerful sense of what a wonder it might be if Elizabeth is right, such as her description of spray from Niagra falls as “world’s tears” that give sight like no other. There’s a good amount of humour undercutting the seriousness of Elizabeth’s pronouncements; having asserted that story is medicine for the mind, she reveals that her preferred tonic is Oprah Winfrey. There are deft inverting observations, such as Elizabeth’s reaction to a Porsche in terms that we would more commonly associate with, well, encountering an elf — its “ineffable strangeness”. And holding it all together is an expertly managed tension between reality and delusion. The care with which each element of the story is shaped and positioned with relation to the whole, in fact, reminds me of the last story of Robson’s that I read — “Little Bear”, in Pete Crowther’s anthology Constellations a couple of years ago. That was good enough that I’ve been keeping my eye out for more; and “Legolas Does The Dishes” fulfils its promise.

Making Love in Madrid

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.

Now All Slipstream Until The End (last updated 29/04/11)

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