Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reading group: Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi

Jenny suggested this 1991 book in which a stalked woman, Bella, turns stalker and takes revenge by killing a series of woman-abusing men.

It led to a pretty rowdy meeting in which there was a lot of interrupting (and objections about interrupting) and I don't remember a particularly coherent thread of discussion, more a series of statements of opinion and remarks.

Jenny said it's her favourite book ever and that she often re reads it. She loves it for its political message about masculinity, and she particularly loves the language which is both poetic (in its stark repetitiveness) and funny (there's a lot of narratorial punning) and it always makes her laugh, although she doesn't like the end quite so much, as she finds that disturbing. She feels that it's a book that was really written out of its time, and that it may have had more impact if it had been published in the seventies or eighties.

Some people were looking a bit dubious as she was saying all of this and then there were one or two doubting questions, none of which I can remember, before Jo said strongly that she didn't like the book at all; she had found it utterly horrifying - that moment when she smashes the first man's head with a hammer, all those horrible details, ugh (and Jo put her head in her hands), and how on earth could Jenny find it funny?

People pointed out that it was full of puns, though most people, especially Hans, thought they were groan-worthily awful, and Hans quoted perhaps the worst, the narrator's comment: Ask not for whom the Bella tolls. Clare said she had found Bella's own repartee (in the various conversations with men she has throughout the book) witty, although I said I hadn't been that comfortable with it, finding it rather forced. Trevor said that he had thought the humour was great - the book had been a great read - and one thing he really liked about the book was the way it shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, sometimes even halfway through a sentence or paragraph. This point wasn't taken up, but in retrospect I think it was a significant observation since the book is enacting and playing with a shifting of viewpoints and identities by moving Bella, the femme fatale, into the avenging central position usually held by a male character.

John commented that Jenny's response to the book was a rather sociological one, and Jenny agreed and said it was bound to be, as she is a sociologist. I then said that the problem is that you need to bring to the book those sociological understandings and read it as an iconic parable about masculinity, a tongue-in-cheek subversion of film noir. Interpreted in that way the book is brilliant. The trouble is that if you don't look at it in that way - and clearly some people hadn't, and indeed I hadn't, either, when I first started reading it - then you have a reaction like Jo's. I said that my problem with the book was in fact the jokes, though Trevor objected to my saying that there were jokes, so I probably should have more accurately referred to the jokey, punning tone. I found that it distanced me from Bella's plight as a victim at the start of the novel and at most of the points where she was threatened by the men. In fact, I usually have a problem in any writing where violence is treated with any kind of comedy. In direct contrast to Jenny, I found the end of the novel far more persuasive, when the jokey tone is dropped, which allows you to identify with Bella under threat. It seemed to me that while the satirical aspect of the book is consciously political, it's less politically dynamic than the later moment which has the power to move the reader on a deeply emotional level - indeed, it is the power to move emotionally that is the political power of fiction, in my opinion.

Jenny then told me to let someone else speak and went on to say more herself, but I was too shocked at being accused of hogging the debate to grasp what she then said, although I think this was when she objected that she could identify totally with Bella's sense of threat at the start of the novel.

People asked Hans what he thought, as so far he hadn't said much, and he said that he'd had a problem with the novel because it seemed to imply the feminist statement that he'd heard only recently, that all men were rapists. Jo joined in and agreed and reiterated how horrible she had found it and also questioned the morality of it, since the protagonist only took on the characteristics of men that the book was meant to be critiqueing. I said I was interested to hear Hans's view, as my problem with the kind of feminist strategy this novel employs is that, by seeming to imply that (ie that all men are rapists), it alienates men. Jenny explained that that notion had come from Susan Brownmiller who hadn't meant it literally (although it was true that other feminists had interpreted literally): Brownmiller was saying rather that all men were in a position to rape. I agreed and said yes, all men have the choice to use their masculinity against women, a choice women don't generally have, and what this book is doing is pointing that out by turning it all on its head. Jenny said, rightly I thought, that the book is not about men but about masculinity. You are not meant to identify or sympathise with Bella in her scourges; you are simply meant to see that she takes on masculinity (and I can see that this is the point of the distancing humour).

At this point people seemed to me to begin to become more positive towards the book. Clare said that she had found it very engrossing and that it read like a poem and an allegory or fable, and also that it was rather like a Greek tragedy, and people agreed. Someone pointed out that not all the men in the book are masculine and rapists or killers, and someone else, I think John, pointed out that it is the two who are not who give Bella both permission to take on masculinity and the phallic means of revenge, the flick-knife and the gun. Ann pointed out the strange stilted and artificial flavour of the meeting with the first of these, the maimed Iranian counsellor Nimrod, and it was agreed that this was a deliberate setpiece in which he operated like a kind of fairy godmother, granting Bella her wish.

Jenny and I pointed out that throughout the book Bella addresses a darkening series of male abuses of women, beginning with the voyeur and ending with the serial killer. John commented that Bella progresses through various states of revenge, moving from the status of victim to avenger of her own wrongs, through superhero saviour of another woman, to finally saviour of all women by despatching a serial killer. Someone picked up on the title of the book, Dirty Weekend, which refers to the fact that Bella's revenges take place over the course of a single weekend, but which as Jenny said usually implies a sexual coupling (thus graphically illustrating the conflation of sex and violence in masculinity). I said yes, that connection is borne out by the fact that in the final scene Bella's attack on the serial killer is narrated in terms of sexual congress.

Someone demurred that it was hardly realistic that Bella was able to do some of these things: there she was suddenly able to drive a car (the phallic symbol she steals for herself from her abuser and drives into him) like some kind of pro. But others of us said, It's not meant to be realistic (and, in a pointed reference to its fim-noir subversion, the narrative consciously states that this scene happened like something out of a film).

At which point Hans said he was starting to think better of the novel...

Ann said that her main thought was that Jenny was right in saying that the novel was of an earlier time (even than its publication), and that our attitudes to the problem of masculinity/femininity, and our ways of addressing it, are now more subtle.

Finally, Trevor said he thought it was wrong to put all these feminist and so forth interpretations on the book: as far as he was concerned it's just about people, and a really good read.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.


knitomat said...

I have just finished reading Dirty Weekend and there are many comments in your discussion that I agree with. I loved the poetic rhythm of the language, I loved the alliteration; many passages I reread just to enjoy the sound of them. I even read bits of it aloud to really hear the way the sounds rolled off my tongue.
The political message was hammered home (pun intended) a bit too hard at times but I think, justifiably so. How often do we have the opportunity to read about the fear women feel, from the woman's perspective. It is usually represented from a male voice observing a woman's frailty.
As for the humour, up until Bella steals the car, I found much of it hilarious. Absolutely laugh out loud hilarious. The mood became much more sombre after that and I am still deciding what I think about the end.
I think you have to look at it as a political work as much as a work of art.
I loved it.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for this, knitomat, and yes, I think you're right in your conclusion.