The Yellow Wallpaper

Bookshop Pigeon

Something I thought I’ll never understand is the cover picture on my copy of this book. It’s a copy I kept from school, and it has a picture of a beautiful naked female poised on the arm of a chair, a chair which looks like it’s covered in soft red curtains or an old-style voluminous dress. She’s facing away from us. I suppose now I’ve taken a while to think about it though, it makes sense. It’s partly showing how the character turns her back on us who have turned our backs on her. Partly showing the nakedness, the rawness of her humanity and desperation. Her embarrassment.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She lived from 1860-1935 and I reckon it’s fair to say she was a feminist. At a whopping 28 pages it’s definitely worth a read. First time round I liked it because it was dark and weird and seemed to make a good point. I came back to it lately with new eyes and liked it all the more.

It’s the tale of a young wife imprisoned by her society and the husband who cares in the wrong sort of way, who doesn’t seem to realise how he’s treating her. In fact, neither of them realise. This is where the society comes in: both the slowly suffocating narrator and her perhaps everyman (probably middle class everyman) husband John believe that she is ill with something relatively small and common for the ‘weaker sex’, and that she will escape it by ‘relaxing’, which seems to mean being denied all that she desires: her writing and the company of broader-minded friends. It’s important to see that the husband doesn’t quite realise this. Whether he’s just hard-working or having an affair, he’s not trying to hurt his wife, he’s ignoring her. He’s trying to treat her like a formula: putting in x must result in y. He doesn’t even look for the real problem. He doesn’t understand her. She has a better idea, but believes more in her need to be loyal, or the validity of John’s place as husband, and his medical expertise.

This is what unselves her – the conflict between the truth she knows and the lie she’s forced to accept to the point of knowing.

And this is ultimately what the tale is about: Gilman’s narrator is first alienated from all of those around her, and then alienated from herself, becoming the tormented woman of her developing dreams. She’s strangled and torn, like the wallpaper, and imprisoned. Pushed into a tragic role, from which she can only be freed by madness. Increasingly alone, it seems as though reality has abandoned her and so she abandons reality.

The story is a study in repressed suffering, all those little things that we hide from others and eventually from ourselves, that one day come out to build or break us. The point is wonderfully made in Gilman’s descriptions of the room in which her narrator becomes imprisoned – the room with the yellow wallpaper – as the story goes on. It was a nursery, and has a strange, heavy, fixed bedstead. The wallpaper is torn before she arrives and the bed is gnarled, she presumes by the children. But later we come to wonder…exactly when does she have time to sit down and write this, where is she looking from as she writes, and so where are we readers looking from. And maybe we start to wonder if the children aren’t worryingly like the creeping women she sees outside, and hidden in the pattern on the wallpaper.

In the end, I find myself looking back at the naked woman on the front of this edition, and asking myself “Is that skin yellow?”.

– Me

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Jarhead

Bookshop Pigeon

Swofford’s book is a book of short, non-fiction stories. I hadn’t realised this when I started reading, but I do realise now that there’s only one page and one story left when you’re done. One message, in fact. I now imagine all of Swofford’s tales being written in the Suck, at barracks, or in the Desert, amongst the mirage, like all the letters he writes for family, for lovers, for Any Marine Girls. This as he fills hours which, on reflection, were wasted. Maybe even marked out as such by the generals in some grand fucked-up battle plan.

Swoffie’s stories are honest. Above all, they tell of life. Tangibly. Throughout the book we read about his reality, his father who was in the Air Force after his father, we hear of the father’s brother who was in the marines. Swofford’s brother who cleaned teeth, then went into Military Intelligence. We read about Kristina, Swofford’s girlfriend, who feels like tattered baggage he doesn’t want to have, but needs. And his Vietnamese girlfriend down the road from her, who he loves more, to whom he sends money. We read about these strands of his personal life as the mirage in between patches of desert. We wake up to the world with sand in our crotch.

We learn about the unintended protagonist. We hear about his war, and we understand something of him. This man becomes a friend through our many interactions. A troubled friend, but one all people would be glad to have. Like many soldiers. The man who is not a hero and as such becomes a sort of hero. By the end, we don’t even hear Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice anymore. Long before the end in fact. We hear Anthony Swofford. And we hear the restless pain, the frustration of the desert, when it doesn’t sleep.

The scars of war are terrible. And so, Swofford tells us, don’t do it. We have enough to worry about as it is.

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Reblogged from hippocras.wordpress.org, now in stasis.

Dauntless, Slightly Foxed, Foyle’s, the unnamed place off Hampstead Heath…

Bookshop Pigeon

What is it about bookshops? They always have some smell that either drags you in like a warm fire or shoves you away like a soul out of purgatory.

I’m a bibliophile, yeah. But I’m a strange sort of bibliophile because I haven’t actually read that many books. I think I’m a queer one like Stanley Baldwin. He was a Prime Minister way back when. Top of his class some might say. If I remember it right he used to sniff books. And you know, when you actually try it you can start to see why. But no, I don’t love books because I smell them. I love to see them, have them around, read little parts of them. Increasingly I read whole ones too, but a large part of my adoration has always come from that everlasting promise in them: that they have some real perspective, some fine and deep insight to give you. An insight which is stored in those fabricius (I only sort of made that word up) pages, those carefully printed letters, for an eternity.

Unless someone destroys the book that is. But we hope that won’t happen. (Where books are burned, men, also, will soon be burned.)

I have my own small collection over two and a half bookshelves. I like short stories and arty travel writing mostly. Also dark stuff. So you’d see Palahniuk, Carver, Welsh, Marquez, Wilde and “19th Century Short Stories” prominently placed if you ever came to visit. Oh and Jenny Diski. I’ll review some of her stuff eventually. But this is the allure of books for me: that there’s so much promised and delivered in each one.

There’s a story, which can be read and read-out in so many different ways, interpreted, reinterpreted, debated, translated, recalled, transliterated and then quoted whilst drunk at a photographer’s convention.

The reviews, they become new stories in themselves.

Translations too.

Then the lit crit (literary criticism) which can perfectly place something, or can unhinge it so comprehensively that you’re not sure how it’s still the same book when the critic’s done. I used to and still love doing that with poems. And The Great Gatsby. The possibilities are endless.

So bookshops. These are places where all the book energy gathers and spawns and lives and snogs and eats and breathes and decays. Not too much drinking though or the pages would get wet. Bookshops can even house cafés and lending libraries, host poetry open-mics and signings by the author. And the delightful weirdos you meet there…me, for example.

Therefore: Bookshop Pigeon, the column. Books, people, stories in reviews, book repositories, allusions to Heine where I can cope with the German…it’s perfect.

Indulge.

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– Jack and me