The Two Of Them
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.