The Testaments – Why, Margaret, Why?

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments begs many questions.

Such as how did it become the joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize? Did the committee hate Bernardine Evaristo so much that they simply couldn’t stand making her book (Girl, Woman, Other) the sole winner?

Did the committee actually read The Testaments, or were they simply relying on Margaret Atwood’s reputation?

How mad were Colson Whitehead (The Nickel Boys), Susan Choi (Trust Exercise), and Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me) when the prize was announced?

Were James Patterson, E.L. James, and my Uncle Bill on the committee that year?

Did Margaret Atwood really write The Testaments? Or was it written by a Russian hacker who stole her identity but forgot to also take her brilliance?

Did this book need to be written? Isn’t any sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (regardless of whether it is written by the real Margaret Atwood or not) bound to disappoint?

Why are the characters one dimensional and without nuance? Why is the plot predictable? Why are all the twists straight lines?

Did she write the book because the creators of The Handmaid’s Tale TV show needed more material – so they paid her a ton of money to do it?

Just because you own a cash cow, do you have to milk it?

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.

Sergeant Salvation Published in Edge of Humanity Magazine

We would like to sincerely thank Edge of Humanity Magazine for publishing our poem Sergeant Salvation. A link to the poem is here. https://edgeofhumanity.com/2021/06/01/sergeant-salvation

Or if you like, you can read the poem below.

Sergeant Salvation

   Clearly, I suppose,
   the poor have difficulties
   but they push a dumpster
   full of desperation and disease - 
   wasting their meager strength and time
   because they'll never get anywhere
   pushing a dumpster they're inside.

   If there are solutions
   they are difficult and distasteful -
   made more so
   because they're expensive;  
   costing more than I've got.

   So condemn me not, Sergeant Salvation,
   when I put no pennies in your pot
   even as you vigorously beat that bell.

   The poor will get no money from me,
   but they do have my empathy:
   the amount of which is massive
   even if the display is somewhat passive.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor of Student Loans.

For the Record

   Scientists on Earth
   believe oxygen on Mars
   is behaving strangely.

   But how would they know?
   They have never visited
   that remote red rock.

   And who made them judges
   of what is normal and what is strange?
   When they know nothing of normal
   and they, themselves, are so strange.

   Have they considered instead
   that maybe oxygen behaves
   normally on Mars and behaves
   strangely on Earth?

   Or maybe oxygen
   can behave no other way
   because Mars is nasty
   and treats oxygen like
   a noxious gas.

   The HR department believes
   I'm behaving strangely.

   But how would they know?
   They have never endured
   the daily indignities
   I am subjected to.

   Have they considered instead
   that maybe I'm behaving normally - 
   given the circumstances?

   Maybe they wouldn't judge
   if you had been nasty to them;
   treated them like a noxious gas;
   left them to live life
   like cockroaches in the dark
   wondering what will happen
   when the light turns on.

   So for the record,
   if there ever is one,
   this is not my fault.

   If you had only returned 
   my calls, texts, emails,
   or come to the door
   when I pounded on it,
   your basement window
   wouldn't be broken.

   I wouldn't be bleeding 
   in your airless closet.

   Luvgood Carp, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

   First published in Boston Literary Magazine

An Unorthodox Survivor’s Story

In Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman describes the first 24 years of her life living in a strict Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism outside New York City. She is raised by her paternal grandparents because her mother left the community when Deborah was a toddler, and her father has severe mental disabilities (a primary reason for her mother leaving) and is barely able to care for himself. Her childhood was dismal. “In this family, we do not hug and kiss. We do not compliment each other. Instead, we watch each other closely, ever ready to point out someone’s spiritual or physical failing. This, says (her aunt), is compassion – compassion for someone’s spiritual welfare.”

The family is suffocating, as is the Satmar community, where English is an impure language that poisons the soul. School brings no solace, because education leads to promiscuity or worse – abandonment of the community and flight from the religious leaders that control it. So educational opportunities are spare, but that’s o.k. because quality is more important than quantity. Spoiler alert – that’s a problem too. “We learn in school that God sent Hitler to punish the Jews for enlightening themselves.” They also learn that assimilation was the reason for the Holocaust. “We (Jews) try to blend in, and God punishes us for betraying him.” So the school (no less) says education is bad and assimilation is worse. It makes being homeschooled by an arthritic nun with gout look attractive.

Throughout her young life, Deborah finds refuge in prohibited books and forbidden pop music. And early on she determines that she will never feel at home in the Satmar community – where the crippling restraints on daily life and free thought bruise everyone, but they hit women and girls particularly hard. Deborah is told “[e]very time a man catches a glimpse of any part of your body that the Torah says should be covered, he is sinning. But worse, you have caused him to sin. It is you who will bear the responsibility of his sin on Judgment Day.” That’s a pretty sweet deal for men, but a rather shabby one for women – because no matter how covered up a woman is, men are sinning.

Deborah’s so-called childhood suddenly ends when she’s 17, and her marriage to a 22 year old man (she has briefly met once) is arranged. Just like her parents, Deborah and her husband are completely unprepared for marriage. Neither has a rudimentary understanding of sex. So not surprisingly, they are unable to consummate the marriage on their wedding night – or the next night – or the next night for many, many months. Their families get involved. To the shock of no one, that doesn’t help. After much counseling, the frustrated couple finally manage to have unfulfilling sex (our favorite kind), which eventually leads to Deborah getting pregnant and giving birth to a boy. But by now the marriage has unraveled and Deborah wants a divorce – provided she gets custody of her son.

The story is fascinating, but the ending is abrupt. There is little information about the divorce or how she succeeds in retaining custody – even though we are told it would be impossible for her to do so. Much like the Satmar community, the story suffers from tunnel vision. Everything is told from Deborah’s perspective. This is not bad, but it is confining. It would have been interesting to hear from other key players in the story – especially since many of them are depicted so harshly.

Overall, though, Deborah tells her story extremely well. She is intelligent and sympathetic. Even though the odds are stacked tremendously against her, she refuses to accept that she’s powerless. With her charm and persuasiveness, she believes she can convince anyone, even God, to go along with her. We don’t know about God, but she certainly won us over.

Ultimately, this is the story of a survivor whose quest for independence is entirely relatable. Deborah will not be relegated to the kitchen in a world controlled by men, including God – assuming God is a man. And God help us if that’s the case.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor of Student Loans

Anne

   You are all the poems
   I cannot write.
   You are all the words
   I dare not speak -
   not because they would deceive
   but because they would disappoint.

   So these words
   (knowing my perverse reliance on flippancy and sarcasm
   as shield and sword to repel every honest sentiment)
   prefer to be stillborn.

   It is ironic really
   because with everything else
   my words run rampant.
   There is no end to all the thoughtless things I say.

   But with you -
   words disdain my tongue
   and silence shields me from repelling you.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans  

   First Published in Ariel Chart 

Klara and the Sun – Lifted AF

Kazuo Ishiguro is a talented creator of worlds that seem gentle and quaint: manor homes in a countryside of lush greenery, fancy boarding schools surrounded by gardens, or gentile houses overlooking bucolic meadows. The reader gets acclimated to the pleasant surroundings. Starts to enjoy the scenery. Notices how the birds chirp with fine English accents. Then it dawns on the reader that the main character has devoted his life to serving an obnoxious Nazi sympathizer (The Remains of the Day). Or the primary characters are clones whose organs will soon be harvested – a fate they passively accept (Never Let Me Go). Or parents subject their children to genetic editing, even though the process may be deadly, so the children can get into elite colleges – unless, of course, they die first (Klara and the Sun). The horror creeps up quietly. Then, suddenly, the monster is in the reader’s lap, licking the reader’s ear, demanding that its messy diaper be changed. And the reader wonders, how did I get here? Even though the clues were there all along.

Klara and the Sun takes place in an alternate reality of the United States, but the reader will find much that is familiar, except (importantly) for the extremely-advanced artificial intelligence. Klara is an artificial friend (think highly-sophisticated robot), and she narrates the story. Artificial friends (AFs) are sold in stores and frequently are purchased to keep teenagers (in well-off families) company. Each AF has a unique set of skills, and Klara’s is her ability to observe and learn. She can empathize.

Klara is selected by Josie, who is 14 years old. However, Josie’s mother has different plans. Klara will be groomed to become much more than an AF – a future that is hinted at when they are still in the store and Josie’s mother directs Klara to mimic Josie’s awkward way of walking. Josie has been “lifted” – a clever euphemism (rhymes with gifted) that sounds so much better than “subjected to genetic editing without having any say about it.” But the process has left her weak and sickly, all of which is manifested by her overly-cautious way of walking.

Not all children are lifted. Some parents can’t afford it. Other parents find it too risky. Though the story takes place in an alternate reality, the reader can take great comfort knowing that disingenuous platitudes still exist – as does the desperate need to pretend that social inequities don’t exist. Parents in this alternative United States still tell themselves and each other that not all children need to be lifted – that “there are all kinds of ways to lead a successful life.” No doubt this is as true as it has ever been, but we can’t help thinking all these parents spouting platitudes had their children lifted.

But why are we talking about children? The book is not called Klara and Josie – a hip new indie duo. It is Klara and the Sun for a reason – just, maybe, not a very good one – though the reader could argue (based upon the ending) that Klara’s relationship with the Sun is the key relationship in the story. First, the Sun is essential to everyone – duh. But it is especially important to Klara, because she runs on solar power. In a book where no humans express any religious belief, Klara determines that the Sun is a god. She prays to her Sun god to heal Josie. Like any human religious zealot, she commits acts of vandalism to appease her god. And depending on the reader’s point of view, Klara is either rewarded for her faith or deceived by it. But the true dilemma has little to do with religion, so ultimately Klara’s relationship with the Sun is a bit distracting.

As with all his books, Mr. Ishiguro excels at human interactions, and he asks crucial questions in Klara and the Sun. Such as, why are we talking about humans at all, when the story is narrated by a super-cool empathy machine? Are humans all that special when machines can be groomed to replicate them so perfectly? As Josie’s father puts it, “[s]cience has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer.” That’s depressing. Fortunately, Klara has a rebuttal. “Mr. Capaldi (an engineer/scientist) believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

The Barren Sand

   1.
   The poor are everywhere
   so they're easy to overlook.
   As when I stand on a beach
   staring at the pregnant sea,
   I forget the barren sand.

   2.

   In a perfect world
   the poor would be taken care of
   so I'm building stockades
   where they can be put.
   With so many everywhere
   it's hard keeping them under my foot.
   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

   First published in Scarlet Leaf Review

My Dark Vanessa – Not Your Father’s Lolita

It is impossible to hear or read about a middle-aged man statutorily raping a teenage girl without thinking of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic, Lolita. If you need proof – even Sting, who will readily admit to being the greatest songwriter since King David, mentioned Nabokov in Don’t Stand So Close to Me. He tried to use Lolita’s name first, but nothing rhymes with Lolita.

In My Dark Vanessa Kate Elizabeth Russell takes Lolita and shifts the perspective to that of the abused girl. However, the pedophile here is not an unintentionally-funny, delusional, and ultimately pathetic Humbert Humbert. Quite the opposite, Jacob Strane (think of Strange), the 15 years old Vanessa’s English teacher, is an experienced and masterful manipulator, and he cynically preys upon Vanessa’s loneliness and desperation to be thought of as special. Early on he tells her that she has “something these dime-a-dozen overachievers (her fellow classmates) can only dream of.” Proving he is a master of the back-handed compliment as well.

Nabokov and Lolita feature prominently in this brilliant and creepy book. The title comes from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which Strane is pleased to inform Vanessa has a passage where my dark Vanessa is rhapsodized as an admirable butterfly to be worshiped and caressed. Strane’s “grooming” of Vanessa also includes giving her his copy of Lolita, with his hand-written notes in the margins. Yeah, Strane is a disgusting creep, but Vanessa craves this attention, so she is incapable of seeing it. Or (just as concerning) she won’t acknowledge seeing it.

The story jumps between two periods in Vanessa’s life: her high school and college years (between 2000 and 2007) and 2017 at the height of the Me Too movement when she is 32 years old. Much like Humbert Humbert, Vanessa is an unreliable narrator who ends up deceiving no one but herself (again like Humbert Humbert, but without the ridiculous name). Initially, she refuses to accept that she has even been abused, as she insists the relationship (despite the obvious imbalance of power) was consensual. And she continues to grapple with the effects of the abuse well into adulthood. “I always seem to end up going out with . . . men who claim to be turned on by strength but can only handle women who act like girls.” Having the two timelines is effective. The reader sees how the sexual abuse of children was ignored even into the early 2000s, and then how it is everything but ignored at the height of the Me Too movement – where victims are pressured into telling their stories whether they want to or not. The reader experiences how the adult Vanessa begins to come to terms with the years of abuse. It isn’t pretty or romantic, but in a way it is heroic.

Regardless of its title, Lolita’s story was not told in Lolita. In My Dark Vanessa, it is. And the change of perspective (especially in light of the Me Too movement) is devastating. Because they have earned it, Vanessa and Lolita shall have the final words here. “What could we have done? We were just girls. . . . [It’s] not that we were helpless by choice, but that the world forced us to be. Who would have believed us, who would have cared?”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

William

   I lack imagination,
   which is a problem
   when you pretend 
   to be a poet.
   But no matter
   how hard I try
   I cannot imagine
   myself doing it.

   Yet, some scientists say
   there are limitless
   parallel universes
   and perhaps
   in one of them
   one of me
   tackled the beast -
   if only to spite
   those multiples of me
   sitting in stalled trains
   on parallel tracks.

   How I would love 
   to ask that reckless me:
   how did I do it?
   What happened next?
   Did it make
   a difference?

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

   First Published in The Broadkill Review

The Winter’s Tale – A Mosaic Play

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is neither history, comedy, or tragedy. So no one knew what to call it, because apparently, back then, those were the only choices. As a result, the scholars (both of them) argued (what scholars do best) and finally decided to flip a coin. The play has been called a romance ever since, which doesn’t tell us much about the play but does tell us about how scholars are shockingly lazy thinkers.

We would categorize The Winter’s Tale as one of Shakespeare’s mosaic plays (similar to The Tempest), because it has a lot going on. There is crude humor, intense psychological drama, dancing, singing, storms, shipwrecks, and a bear (not the kind you see in Provincetown – though that would be awesome). The play’s first half is tragic. The second half is largely comedic. One entire act is pastoral. In short, it is a pageant – like Block Island on a Saturday evening in August.

The Winter’s Tale is believed to be one of Shakespeare’s later plays. As such, it incorporates many themes and elements from his earlier works: the perpetual fear of being cuckolded, all-consuming jealousy, a punitive patriarchy, forbidden love, and superior women inexplicably in love with inferior men. The play opens with a charming scene of two childhood friends (Leontes, the king of Sicilia, and Polixenes, the king of Bohemia) near the end of a happy reunion. Suddenly and irrationally, Leontes fears his wife, Hermione, has been “sluiced” and “his pond fished by his neighbor (Polixenes).” This concern is delusional, but Leontes convinces himself that he has been cuckolded. The resulting crazed jealousy causes Leontes to lose everyone in his family. And we are only half way through the play. The second half is devoted to a chastened and sorrowful Leontes getting what is left of his family back.

Autolycus saves the play from tragedy. He is a charismatic scoundrel that lies and steals his way across Bohemia. “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive.” And, shamelessly, he thrives. “Ha, ha, what a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman!” Autolycus is not trustworthy, and he certainly is no gentleman. But he is a delight, in part, because he immediately follows the gut-wrenching first half, and he brings song and mischief – both of which are desperately needed at this point. Autolycus is humorous, but he is not a clown. He is too intelligent and self-aware for that. “Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.” In this sense, he is a cousin of the peerless Falstaff. And the play benefits mightily from his presence.

The Winter’s Tale is frequently remembered because it contains one of Shakespeare’s few stage directions – the glorious “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Over the centuries, it has gone in and out of style. This is something we do not understand, because the play is so much more than a “romance” or a man-eating bear (so maybe it is a Provincetown bear). It is a pageant that belongs just below the top tier of Shakespeare’s plays.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.