Tag Archives: The Man who Fell to Earth

Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness

Re-reading great books is one of my favourite escapes. There are many that I’ve kept in my small library that I revisit. My re-reading record is for The Lord of the Rings; 13th re-read coming up.

The one I’ve just re-read is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin. This remarkable book was published in 1969, has won major awards for science fiction, and is regarded as a masterpiece. Oddly, it’s the only one of le Guin’s I’ve read, and I’m not strongly motivated to read others of hers, as I fear I would be disappointed.

I first read it when I was in labour with my son, in 1980. It was a protracted, painful labour, and the story allowed me to stay sane and to escape to another world, although it was a dark winter world, which reflected my difficult labour. So it has always kept a special magic around it for me. Another magic thing about it is its title. It comes from the symbol for yin and yang. The words come from a Lay that is part of the mystical  culture of the planet called Gethen (aka Winter), where all living things are part of a whole:

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer, 

Like hands joined together,

like the end and the way.

This Lay is spoken by Estraven, the noble politician of Gethen who believes in the mission of the alien, Genly Ai, who comes from a distant planet that is part of a confederation of 83 planets, and hopes to persuade the governments of this winter world to join the union.  When Estraven and Genly discuss wholeness and dualism, and the difficult subject of sex, they are sharing a tiny tent in the middle of the ice, in their flight from imprisonment and to fulfil the purpose of Genly’s mission. Estraven is the only Gethenian who believes in and is loyal to Genly, and it is not till  Estraven rescues him from a winter gulag and they flee together for nearly three months in almost impossible conditions, that Genly comes to trust Estraven.

I mentioned the difficult subject of sex. Apart from it always being difficult (but that’s another story) it is extremely so in this world, for both Estraven and Genly. The Gethenians are androgynous, and for a few days every few weeks they go into kemmer, or active sexuality, and take either male or female form. Whereas, as they perceive it, Genly (and by implication all the people of the worlds he comes from) are in permanent rut. So when Estraven goes into kemmer while they share their impossible journey, they confront their differences and their desires, and choose not to enact them. This is how Genly sees it:

I expect it will turn out that sexual intercourse is possible between Gethenian double-sexed and Hainishnorm one-sexed human beings, though such intercourse will inevitably be sterile. Estraven and I proved nothing except perhaps a rather subtler point.

[He feels Estraven’s moodiness, and asks him what he has done wrong. Estraven explains that he is in kemmer and is trying to avoid him. Genly agrees.]

For it seemed to me, and I think to him, that it was from that sexual tension between us, admitted now and understood, but not assuaged, that the great and sudden assurance of our friendship rose: a friendship so much needed by us both in our exile, and already so well proved in the days and nights of our bitter journey, that it might as well be called, now as later, love. … it was from the difference that that love came; and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch.

This reminds me of the shocking moment in the iconic 70s movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, when the alien, stunningly played by David Bowie, makes love with his Earth woman, and in the heat of passion, inadvertently reverts to his alien form. Difference is attractive, but when differences are extreme, intimacy may vanish and be overwhelmed by fear.

The bond that slowly forms between Estraven and Genly is one of the most memorable things in this novel. And it ends tragically, although Genly’s mission is fulfilled, thanks to Estraven’s devotion. Another memorable thing is the winter landscape, which is described in all its permutations, a pervasive, relentless, almost unbearably bleak and icy world, with a fierce, alien beauty. Another thing that fascinates me is the philosophy. I’ve already mentioned the whole that is composed of light and darkness. A fascinating episode, before Genly’s enforced exile, is his visit to the Foretellers. They have a religion called Handdara, “without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without creed…”. What they do have is a practice of Foretelling, where they go into a trance, which they call untrance, involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Genly asks a question: “Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of Known Worlds, five years from now?” After a long, terrifying time/space, the answer comes: “Yes, yes, yes!”. Later, when Genly has recovered, he questions the chief seer about the practice. Faxe explains that the Handdara don’t want answers, and that  the reason they have practiced and perfected Foretelling is “To exhibit the perfect uselessness  of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”  He goes on to explain that ignorance is the ground of thought, unproof the ground of action, and that there is really one question that can be answered — that we shall die.

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.

I find this profound, unanswerable. It is not knowing that keeps us alive, that makes living worthwhile.

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Fiction about disability

Last week I had to review Kathy Lette‘s latest novel, The Boy who Fell to Earth. I would not have finished reading the book if I hadn’t agreed to review it. After the first three pages, I would have thrown it across the room, as is my wont with books that offend my sense of style or my sensibilities. This book certainly does the former, and comes close to doing the latter. Not that Lette would care; she is the author of 11 other best-selling novels, starting with Puberty Blues, published in 1979. Since then she has carved a celebrity career for herself and is one of those Australian expatriates who live in London, on friendly terms with many famous artists, writers  and celebrities.

Here, I confess that I haven’t read any of her other books, and after this one, I won’t make the effort. I know it’s bad form to start off a review with a negative judgement, but here is where I’m saying what I couldn’t say so bluntly in my review for the newspaper. The blog is my “sounding-off”, my unofficial opinion.

The opening sentence is “The car hits my sixteen-year-old son at 35 miles an hour.” We’re told that his flight from the house, ending in this accident, was caused by his mother, Lucy, screaming: “You’ve ruined my life. I wish I’d never had you. Why can’t you be normal?” There follow three pages of overwritten, cliched prose: “Grief shakes me between its jaws like a lion shakes a half-dead gazelle.” We learn, as Lucy keeps vigil over her son, in a coma in intensive care, that his name is Merlin, and that his father deserted them after Merlin’s diagnosis, which, it emerges in the following chapters, is that of autism — Asperger’s Syndrome.

Then we get the whole back story, from the father’s leaving, through Lucy’s tempestuous years of single parenthood to Merlin, and her lengthy and disastrous experiments with online dating. All are told with gags and hyperbole laid on in trowel-fulls (is that a word?). Wisecracking runs in the family: Lucy’s mother and sister excel at it too. In the conversation that precedes Lucy’s sexual adventures:

I shuddered. ‘Do you know the best contraception for a woman my age? Nudity.’

‘Do you know the best way to avoid wrinkles? Take your glasses off,’ my mother touched.’

[Imagine an accent over the e in touched: I don’t know how to do it in this format!]

The voice that works best in this comedy of errors is Merlin’s. He is always honest, has a phenomenal memory, and never tries to be funny, like the adults in his life, but often is, when he comments on the mysteries and absurdities of their behaviour. When one of his mother’s lovers is the first man in her life who wants Merlin to share their time together, she begins to fall in love with him, until Merlin’s honesty spoils things, when the lover says:

‘Your mum has just told me I’m the only man in her life. Besides you, that is.’

Merlin, who was roasting marshmallows, looked puzzled. ..

He begins to recite the list of former loves and why they didn’t last, concluding his bravura performance with:

‘The rest of 2010 and the beginning of the year 2011 proved a mixed romantic bag of one-night stands and broken hearts, including an ex-priest, a policeman, a shrink, a poet, a plumber, and acupuncturist … concluding with you, 6th march 2011 till now, 28th April 2011. But you have definitely been my mother’s favourite partner in her career so far.’

Things go from bad to worse when Lucy takes a lodger, an Australian has-been rocker with bad domestic habits. There follow many pages of a comic, hyperbolic version of the battle of the sexes,with the inevitable climax when the shrew succumbs to the rough charisma of this guy, who improbably becomes the hottest and most tender lover she’s had yet. His redeeming grace, which melts her defences, is his liking and empathy for Merlin, defending his right to find himself as an independent person, not a mollycoddled disabled son, and whom he rescues from a couple of risky situations.

There are more twists to the plot, which I won’t reveal, in case, despite my prejudice, you want to read this book yourself. Suffice it to say that the ending is an improbably happy one, for all concerned.

Now to the more serious question that this book raises for me: the depiction of autism using the metaphor of an alien being trapped in a human body. Hence the title, borrowed from the novel adapted to become the iconic film of the 70s, The Man who Fell to Earth, memorably acted by David Bowie. The traits that are commonly associated with high-range autism — unworldly beauty, high intelligence, difficulty recognising and responding to the nuances of social communication, and more — are there in spades in Merlin, and the source of much drama, at times melodrama, and dark comedy, as well as hair-tearing, heartbreak and resignation in the mother. I have an uneasy feeling about this fictionalised portrait. Inevitably, given Lette’s signature style, there is exaggeration, and the turning of what is awkward, embarrassing or tragic into (at best) dark comedy and (at worst) burlesque.

My friend, Rachel Robertson, whose wonderful memoir of her relationship with her autistic son was recently published, and reviewed by me in this blogsite, told me of an article by Polly Morrice, ‘Autism as Metaphor’ in the  New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/31/books/31MORRICE.html?pagewanted=all. It’s a short and thoughtful article, worth a read, and puts this way of writing disability in perspective.

I’m very interested to hear from you, my readers; if you’ve read Lette’s novel, or Rachel’s memoir, or if you have personal experience of autism in a family. What do you think about fictionalising this condition, which affects so many children and their families?

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