Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

The Two Of Them

with 9 comments

Although I’ve read quite a bit of Joanna Russ’s non-fiction, I’ve never read her fiction. Aware of this gaping hole in my reading, I picked up a copy of the Women’s Press edition of The Two Of Them in Oxfam a couple of years ago. It has shamefully sat on my shelf until the year of reading women motivated me to pick it up.

The Two Of Them was first published in 1978, although it didn’t make it to the UK until 1986. As such it comes relatively late in her science fiction career; in fact, it is the last SF novel she published. So I wondered if this was a sensible place to start. Although several people re-assured me on Twitter that it was, the more I read, the more I started to have my doubts. By the time I’d reached the end I was both completely captivated and totally confused.

The two of them are introduced in a long descriptive passage this is simultaneously straight forward (their appearance is described in detail) and sideways (their sex is concealed until page 3, their names until page 4). We – the reader – are directly addressed by the author; Russ does not want us to forget that these are her words, that they represent deliberate choices. This becomes increasingly important as the book progresses but for now what matters is the introduction. Irene and Ernst are colleagues, they are lovers, they are student and teacher; they are equals, they are unequal. Russ’s achievement here is to immerse us in a complicated relationship and make us immediately alive to its depth, density and maddening contradictions. However, whilst there connection is clear, the context that brings them to the planet of Ala-ed-Deen is not.

Ernst and Irene work for The Gang. The back cover (which details the whole of the plot from beginning to end) suggests this is the same at the Trans Temp. However, even after reading the book I have no idea what this organisation does or why it exists. To begin with this doesn’t matter since the story is confined to their relationship. As they become more and more involved with the culture of Ala-ed-Deen, however, it is impossible to not to start asking questions and once Irene legal kidnapped a young girl – seemingly part of the day-to-day business of Trans Temp – I was completely lost. Even more confusing is the sudden revelation that Irene was a teenage in Fifties America (making her the same age as Russ). What has initially seemed like a far future space opera setting is revealed to be something more confused and confusing. How have they recruited Irene from across time? More importantly, why? We are never told.

When I finished the novel I therefore did what everyone does these days: I Googled it. One of the first things I came across was Brit Mandelo’s review for Tor.com, part of a series of posts she wrote about Russ’s work. It does shed some light but one sentence stood out in particular:

It’s a messy book, not in its prose, which is flawless as ever for Russ, but in its relationships and its arguments, its breaking of the fourth wall and the rules of narrative to make a point.

Messy is a good word. Wild is another. This has its appeal but, as a male reader though, I found something particularly problematic about the arguments it makes. This is a novel in which – as Mandelo reminds us – the key quote is: “The gentlemen always think the ladies have gone mad.” This is quite clearly a critique; the character voicing it is a young woman trapped by the constraints of a patriarchal society. It serves men, we are intended to read Russ as saying, to characterise women thus because it removes their agency and allows them to be dismissed. So it is surprising that the final part of the novel appears to depict Irene’s descent into insanity. This gentleman does think the lady has gone mad so half of me wonders what trap I’ve fallen into and the other half is wonders what mess Russ hasn’t gotten herself into.

It is at this point I turned to Gwyneth Jones. I don’t own Imagination/Space but fortunately her essay on The Two Of Them from that book is available online. Jones describes the novel as a “kind of postscript to the whole Cinderella story of twentieth century womanhood” and usefully contextualises it within 20th Century feminism and, specifically, the science fiction feminism of the Sixties and Seventies. She also contextualises it within Russ’s other fiction and those of other writers:

It illuminates the background and explains some of the wrinkles in The Two Of Them, when we know that the novel began as a response to a story called ‘For The Sake Of Grace’ (1969) by another feminist, Suzette Haden Elgin. In Elgin’s ‘Islamic-style’ world, prowess in poetry is the only path left open to women who want to achieve greatness, and it is made as difficult and threatening as possible. ‘For The Sake Of Grace’, in its turn, pays homage to the classic proto-feminist story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892), a chilling description of exactly how a talented woman goes mad, when she’s locked up to ‘cure’ her of her talent as a writer.

Although I obviously picked up the theme, the specifics of this was all completely lost on me (Jones is using the Wesleyan University Press with a foreword by Sarah Lefanu, mine was naked). Having remarked on how controversial the ending was at the time it was published (and taking John Clute to task fro this), Jones does provide the counter reading I was hoping for. It is not, however, a reading I recognise. Or rather, I recognise the metaphorical reading that she makes but can’t reconcile it with a literal reading of the book. We are back to the problem I with Woman On The Verge Of Time, that the multiplicity of readings offered up by the text all come into conflict. If something is science fiction, surely it is science fiction for a reason, rather than just an excuse to throw chaff at the reader? To cloak a story of our own world with a colourful, gauzy veil?

These days, I’m better able to understand how a liberal male critic, convinced that women in sf were a well-served special interest group, with nothing to complain about, could have felt so betrayed, and indeed bewildered, by The Two Of Them.

I don’t think liberal male critics who think women in SF are well-served actually exist these days but it is true enough that I am a liberal male critic and I am bewildered by The Two Of Them. This bewilderment has not been dispelled by Jones’s essay; I think I need to read the book again.

Written by Martin

19 October 2011 at 16:55

9 Responses

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  1. I think I have the same edition you do (although I haven’t read it yet…) and, having read your post, I now note that the book is dedicated to Suzette Haden Elgin for that short story.

    Shana

    19 October 2011 at 18:11

  2. Yes, it must be the same edition because mine does have that note. I’d completely forgotten it by the time I’d finished the novel.

    Martin

    19 October 2011 at 18:37

  3. This is very much contrary to my reaction to the book which was much more in line with Jones’s. Except, that is, that I never found Ernst sympathetic. It was obvious to me from the get-go that he was domineering and that his support of Irene and her feminism was provisional at best (his reaction to her outrage at Ka’abah’s misogynistic culture, for example, is almost condescending – he hmms sympathetically but clearly doesn’t understand why Irene is so worked up). Unlike the critics Jones quotes, I didn’t find his death at the end of the novel shocking (or at least not more so than Russ expected me to – it’s clear that Irene doesn’t want to kill Ernst and that she’s distressed by the necessity of it, but equally clear that his death is necessary if she’s to escape with Zubeydeh). If anything, I was more upset by her abandonment of the little boy whom Zubeydeh adopts – it seemed to be saying that Russ’s new woman would shepherd girls into her feminist utopia, but not boys, however helpless and unloved they might be.

    Abigail

    19 October 2011 at 22:43

  4. You’ve got an extra quotation mark in that Jones link.

    David Moles

    20 October 2011 at 01:00

  5. Abigail: It was obvious to me from the get-go that he was domineering and that his support of Irene and her feminism was provisional at best

    But by that token, surely Irene’s feminisim is provisional at best?

    Ka’abah is clearly a misogynistic culture. Irene knows that, Ernst knows that, they’ve both known it since before they set foot on the planet. They both work for a patriachial industrial espionage outfit (I think, I’m still not really clear). So I am not at all convinced by Irene’s sudden revelation that what she is doing might be somewhat problematic. She is shocked – shocked! – to find that gambling is going on here.

    “Ernst, I’ve decided. I want to get into Trans Temp’s files. The Gang’s files… What I really want,” she says pedantically, counting on her fingers, “is first to find some way of smashing Ka’abah. And don’t tell me they won’t last past the third generation; the banks won’t le them fail. Second, I want to find out the real purpose of The Gang. Third, on Earth-”
    He interupts: “You’re joking!” (p.133)

    Irene then rejoinders: “don’t tell me I’m unrealistic or immature.” But she is being both unrealistic and immature since she is deeply embedded in the system. It is like a CIA agent suddenly realising there human rights violations in China and telling their partner they are going to tear down the system and liberate the country. It is extraordinarily naive (and unconvincing).

    This all links to what Jones says about illusory feminism versus true feminism:

    But women who have learned to feel successful and empowered as women, in the twenty-first century; girls who aspire to become alpha females in a world where gender is still the single most important factor controlling any human being’s fate, have entirely missed the point of Joanna Russ’s feminism.

    But Irene is just such an alpha female and how often do such women suddenly come round to Russ’s point of view? Russ’s feminism is radical and revolutionary; I don’t mean that as a criticism but it does make it a minority interest. So whilst the criticism that Jones and Russ are making is valid but I don’t see how it can be applied within the novel to this character.

    David: Thanks, I’ve fixed it.

    Martin

    20 October 2011 at 10:32

  6. Irene then rejoinders: “don’t tell me I’m unrealistic or immature.” But she is being both unrealistic and immature since she is deeply embedded in the system.

    Surely this is part of the point? Irene is embedded in the system at the beginning of the novel and her arc is one of growing awareness of that fact. Meanwhile Ernst is either unaware or knowingly complicit, which is why he and Irene must part ways. Nor do I see why you would call this unrealistic given how common this dynamic is in the present day, much less in the late 70s. The fact is that Jones is able to come up with a real-world analogue to Irene’s situation that is entirely plausible.

    Russ’s feminism is radical and revolutionary; I don’t mean that as a criticism but it does make it a minority interest.

    This I don’t get at all. Russ’s feminism is essentially the idea of sisterhood – rejecting the exceptionalism of a single woman in favor of changing the entire system so that it is hospitable even to unexceptional ones. It may have been radical at the time, but today it’s one of the core concepts of third wave feminism. None of which has anything to do with the main source of my confusion, which is that I don’t see how this is a problem with the book.

    Abigail

    20 October 2011 at 13:55

  7. Irene is embedded in the system at the beginning of the novel and her arc is one of growing awareness of that fact.

    I don’t find this arc at all believable. Ernst is not unaware, he is, as you say, knowingly complicit and the same is true of Irene. This is not her first mission and she has previously relished her role (this is my reading and memory but, as above, I admit both are a bit hazy). Why is it this specific culture – or, perhaps more accurately, this specific child – that engenders such a profound and immediate change? The whole progression from complicit agent to initial doubts to violent action is much too compressed for my liking.

    The fact is that Jones is able to come up with a real-world analogue to Irene’s situation that is entirely plausible.

    Is this the Bourne analogy or the gifted young woman of the mid-Twentieth Century analogy? The Bourne example (as Jones admits) is an unrealistic Hollywood example; the real world narrative is one where Irene is a traitor, not a hero. The trapped marriage analogy, on the other hand, is entirely convincing but overstretches itself as a metaphor. I am not at all convinced by Jones’s suggestion that “she has to leave him and it feels like murder”. This is excessive hyperbole, surely? This is where I can’t reconcile the metaphorical with the literal.

    Russ’s feminism is essentially the idea of sisterhood – rejecting the exceptionalism of a single woman in favor of changing the entire system so that it is hospitable even to unexceptional ones.

    But the question is how you change the system. I might be mistaken but, Occupy Wall Street and Tuition Fee protests notwithstanding, it seems to me that revolution is firmly out of favour in our late-capitalist liberal democracies. The stakes aren’t high enough for most people because the bad stuff is still predominantly happening out of sight to other people (the Cinderella story remains attractive). Rather incremental change through persuasion, lobbying and rhetoric is what most people settle for.

    How this is problematic for the story is that Irene’s revolt seem out of character for her and, indeed, everyone else. The abrupt change of state from alpha-female privileged within the system to someone who will murder her best friend because he stands in the way of her unrealistic dreams of overthrowing the system (with precious little catalyst) is abnormal. The fact that Irene can then simply step back into a new life on Earth seems like delusion wish-fulfillment, she has retreated into a dream. It seems to me that Russ (like Piercy) deliberately flirts with the idea that her protagonist is mad in a way that massively problematises the reading they would prefer.

    Martin

    20 October 2011 at 16:51

  8. This is not her first mission and she has previously relished her role … Why is it this specific culture – or, perhaps more accurately, this specific child – that engenders such a profound and immediate change?

    I don’t know, and I’m not sure it’s Russ’s job to answer that question so long as both Irene’s initial state and her transformation are believable. To me they are, and though I take your point that they are rushed this doesn’t strike me as a fatal flaw.

    The abrupt change of state from alpha-female privileged within the system to someone who will murder her best friend because he stands in the way of her unrealistic dreams of overthrowing the system (with precious little catalyst) is abnormal

    I guess part of my confusion with your reading is that I don’t see Irene’s actions as a revolution but an escape, and I think that’s how we’re meant to see them. Her condition at the end of the novel – a middle aged divorced mother living in a motel – is described as pitiable, and her immediate concerns are surviving and taking care of her family, not overthrowing the patriarchy. Even her vision at the very end of it strikes me as less revolutionary, more “I Have a Dream”-ish.

    Abigail

    23 October 2011 at 09:15

  9. [...] The Two Of Them by Joanna Russ [...]


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