OK, OK, the real quote ends with “like a woman scorned”, but I’m taking creative license and dropping “scorned”. I’ve spent much of the last year in a rage-y haze thanks to 1) a misogynistic Congress determined to take away every right women have and 2) learning that there are a lot of men in power, including the president, who like to use that power to sexually harass, assault, and intimidate women. I’m a woman. I’m mad as hell. If you’re not, you might want to think about your daughters or granddaughters.
Given all this, it is only fitting that I open 2018 with two very good, unique, uncomfortable novels about women that I read recently. They come at the subject from very different angles—Stephen King and his son Owen play to their strength with a horror fantasy set in the Appalachians and Katherine Faw goes all in with contemporary fiction about one woman who spends her life being acted upon until she decides to act.
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King
Published by Scribner
Publication date: September 26th 2017
The Kings let their prodigious imaginations go with what would happen in the world if females, all females regardless of age, fell prey to a sleeping sickness. If they were fine while awake but the next time they lay down to sleep fine white threads would slowly cover them completely and they would not wake up. They become Sleeping Beauties. The story centers around one small town where a mysterious woman named Evie seems to hold the key to what has happened and what will happen.
King populates Sleeping Beauties with the character types he does best—brutish and dangerous, misunderstood, clever, naïve, the unlikely hero. Here, they are a skeevy predator working in a women’s prison who sexually assaults women (because who’s going to believe a criminal?); Clint, the prison’s psychiatrist, who just wants to help; Fred, local animal control who has a bad temper but loves his little girl; Lila, the town’s sheriff and Clint’s wife, and, most importantly… Evie. A stunning woman who appears from nowhere, stark naked, seems to attract moths, can read your mind, and has extraordinary strength. At the same time, she has an almost childlike interest in the world around her and what is happening. It’s all a rollicking good time to her.
What no one, including the reader, knows, until midway through the novel, is what is happening to the women while they sleep. Once that becomes clear, everything clicks into place and the plan is plain. As is the fact that the men left behind have very little idea how to care for children, wash laundry, and multi-task. Oh, and after a handful of women are woken up and brutally kill the men who woke them, men decide it might be best to simply burn the cocooned women. They’re not coming back, right?
King may use many of the same ingredients but it’s what he then does with the recipe that makes each of his books stand out. Sleeping Beauties feels like The Stand but when fueled with the high-octane issue of gender it moves into a different realm altogether. And while men do not come out looking great in the book King is not content with such a simplistic take. There is much more subtlety at play, as when Lila questions the truth of another woman’s story.
“That instinct, to doubt what women say, it’s always there. To find some reason not to take their word. Men do it…but we do, too.”
Sleeping Beauties is a fantasy, but King has clearly homed in on an ugly truth that has been going on unchecked for as long as there have been men and women. He just extrapolates it into a ‘what-if’ scenario and in his inimitable style lures the reader in slowly until it’s too late to back out. The only downside to the novel is that, at 700 pages, there are a few too many details and side stories. Maybe 200 pages too many, but Sleeping Beauties is still eyes wide open reading.
Ultraluminous: A Novel Published by MCD
Publication date: December 5th 2017
Katherine Faw is an author on the opposite side of the spectrum from Stephen King’s aw-shucks, everyday American-life-gone-wrong fantasy horror. After reading her debut novel, Young God, I knew I wanted to see what she did next. Well, she’s back, with Ultraluminous, a novel as disaffected and shocking as Young God and just as thought-provoking. In it, we follow K, a beautiful and expensive, escort who caters to five men, all of whom work in the world of finance in Manhattan. She started her career in Dubai when she was eighteen and now, in her late twenties, is a master at saying and doing what men want—without regard for what she wants. Her face and body are her job and with the exception of the cocaine and heroin she snorts, she makes sure she is a sleek, perfect physical specimen; a slender doll of a woman. But inside the perfect shell is a woman with a plan.
Faw writes Ultraluminous with the clinical detachment of a business diary. Her time is as routinely scheduled as any corporate executive. Chapters are a page or two and pages consist of one or two sentence paragraphs. The sentences read like jots of thought, but the content is ice-water shocking in its dispassionate descriptions of what K does and what is done to her. Her lovers all believe she is theirs alone, mostly because of what she charges them—which they pay willingly. By and large, their needs are pedestrian except for one man who likes to inflict pain. For K this is not a problem because she has only three exclusions to her services
“No choking, defecation, or death.”
This may be why there is so much white space on the pages of Ultraluminous—too much more detail would move the novel from uncomfortable to impossible. As it is, Faw allows the reader to observe without getting too close, much in the same way K interacts with her clients. And just like her clients it is easy to see K as nothing more than a surface to be written on, except that in her private moments there is more. There is the dichotomy of luxury shopping but loving Duane Reade sushi, of cold-hearted businesswoman but caring neighbor. They’re tiny bits and pieces, scattered throughout the novel, but coming together in a brilliant mosaic by the novel’s end.
Reading Ultraluminous is to experience what I think of as the ultimate in contemporary fiction. It is raw, extreme, and in its flat affect hits a nerve. This is not reading to relax. It will agitate and disturb. There is a very clear sense that, while Faw is writing for herself and ‘screw you if you don’t like it’, there is also a volcano of understandable rage lying beneath the page. A numb acceptance of what is, until there can be a white-hot eruption of change. Faw makes K the most dangerous kind of woman—the one who doesn’t care if she goes down with the ship, as long as the ship goes down. In doing so, she makes Ultraluminous ferociously satisfying.
Have you read any novels of women recently that resonated?