Saturday, February 17, 2007

A critical perspective of Undine

WARNING: much spoilerage if you haven't read Undine, only moderate if you haven't read Breathe and pretty much not except in general terms if you haven't read Drift but you've been warned. Also feel free not to read this post because it might be horrendously boring if you're not into this kind of thing.

Erica Hately of Monash University has written a paper about Mermaids and Undines and Tempests that was published in Borrowers and Lenders, an online, multimedia Shakespeare journal. There is a fairly substantial secion refering to my novel, Undine. I found it a few weeks ago but reread it today. I have to say I was flinching as I read it, not because it's a bad paper (it raises many interesting points), nor that it's too heavyhanded with Undine (but it is a bit I think - and hell, I've worn those academic goggles myself, can't see the woods for the feminism) but because it is hard to read about your own writing in that way. Incidentally, I studied Women's Studies at Monash. I think it's an extremely crucial form of critique but in terms of stories and writing, I think it's an artificial way to read. (That's a broad statement, but honestly, I think if I wrote about fully realised, self aware young adult characters in terms of gender then, well the stories would be artificial, they'd lack the authenticity of lived experience, they'd be cardboard characters. They'd be sock puppets. They'd be rhetoric.)

Anyway, in part her paper highlights an ommission. In the original version of Undine there was a scene where Undine went down to the beach with Ariel and read The Tempest. It was taken out because it affected the pacing and timing of the second half. However Hately rightly points out that Undine is not familiar with the text, though later shows some knowledge of the play - in character names and the last line, O Brave New World, which is a direct quote (Although I'm comfortable with the implication that Undine, who is a smart girl if not bookish, has been carrying the book around with her - of course she would dip into it enough to make the connection between Ariel and Caliban's names and 'O Brave new World' is a fairly recognisable quote from the play). Hately sees this ommission as sinister. She aligns Trout with authority, knowledge and "the moral gaze" because he knows the text and Undine does not.
Thus, the novel reinforces the division between masculine and feminine types of knowledge, characterizing "Shakespeare" as masculine and self-regulating sexuality as feminine. In the split between intellectual and physical ways of being and knowing, Russon's erasure of spirituality creates a gendered binary model of subjectivity.

For Hately, Shakespeare becomes linked to all knowledge, all textuality. But really, in the novel, Shakespeare is more linked to a scientific mode of inquiry which in itself isn't essentially gendered. Though I was interested when I wrote Undine in the Tempest's gender split - namely in the fact that magic came from two sources - from Prospero's books (science) and from Sycorax who is associated with the landscape, maternity, and the ether, the air (Ariel). But I don't share her view about the 'erasure of spirituality'. I wanted to create a new model of magic, one that was neither 'naturalised' nor 'scientific'. I didn't want Undine to have gods to invoke and therefore fall back on (it is fitting when you think about the novel as the first in a trilogy that for Undine, initially, her parents become like two capricious gods of the magic, by the end of Drift, Undine's relationship to her parents and the magic has radically changed.)

Undine's magic is feminine and associated with the amorphous sea, with a decentralised experience, casting out into the sky, into the world. But magic itself in the trilogy isn't exclusively female. Jasper's circles in the sand as a symbol, circles crowded inside circles, shows that there is a relationship from the outset between the circular and the cyclical and the linear.

Hately seems to find it problematic that at the end of the novel Lou is 'unequivocally' revealed as being responsible for Undine's magic. But a close rereading shows that everyone claims some responsibility, some ownership (either through classifications like Trout or a more immediate connection) of Undine's experience - Richard, sexually, Trout, through science and knowledge of 'the text', the Bay, as a magical landscape, Prospero, through paternity and then Lou through maternity (and a denial of Prospero's true power). But the implication of Jasper's magic (which develops through the trilogy) shows that magic is neither inherently female nor male. Undine's magic can be traced back to all sorts of places but in the end, its origin is less important than its presence. This is a significant part of Undine's journey - the tension of the magic's past, present and future, as she travels through the trilogy. In some ways Undine is about the magic's present (and presence), Breathe is about its past or its origin (and its nature) and Drift is about its future. Drift is also about temporality and linearity - the need to somehow coalesce two different understandings of time - linearity and circularity, male time and female time, in a meaningful way. Also space, its about boundaries, frontiers and what happens when boundaries are breached, when the wound bleeds in as well as out, when the limitations of space itself is transgressed.

Very briefly, Hately dismisses Sycorax as someone Undine or any girl would want to identify with, due to her monstrousness and maternity: "Within children's literature, the witch-figure tends to be a negative model; when sexualized or maternalized...she is certainly not to be aspired to by the adolescent female." However, like Marina Warner in her novel Indigo, I was always intrigued by the absent figure of Sycorax (and I first engaged with The Tempest as an adolescent). We only have heresay in The Tempest about Sycorax and to me her invisibility in the play is nicely aligned with Undine's failure to read the text. Undine says on p. 241, in response to Prospero's quest for youth and immortality, 'I want to grow up. I want to get old...Get married maybe. Have a baby one day. Even if it means getting sick and dying.' I'm not sure she would be disgusted or repelled by Sycorax in the same way Prospero (in The Tempest) was. At this stage, Undine is hoping for a future for herself that includes aging, mortality and magic. Perhaps Sycorax would offer, if not unproblematically, at least a model that combines maturity, maternity and magic (a model Lou has decided against, by suppressing her magic).

Hately ends her article with a fairly typical academic damning of past texts and optimism for the future:
Contemporary juvenile readers are consistently offered Tempests that suggest that feminine sexuality is to be present but passive, looked at but not touched, and the very presence of Shakespeare lends cultural authority to this message. I look forward in the future, however, to reading a text that combines feminine autonomy with the cultural capital of Shakespeare, that has a heroine who knowingly cites and rewrites our understanding of the "brave new world" — one who originates, rather than bears, the knowing gaze, who controls her own tail (or tempest), who is self-determining rather than self-regulating, and who enjoys a sexuality independent of patriarchal family structures.

The way she modifies the word 'reader' with the word juvenile in itself deserves srutiny. The implication is that a juvenile reader is somehow different from an adult reader and that a text for juveniles ought to behave differently. It suggests that the writers of 'juvenile' literature are themselves an authority, responsible for inserting a clear message for the reader to absorb, that a young reader isn't capable herself (or himself) of applying a broad range of experience and a thorough knowledge of cultural signifiers to a text to interpret meanings and apply their own values. It immediately priveleges the text over adolescent experience, the adult over the child. It also implies that her reading is the only reading, that there is only one way to decode the text. Yet the very journal she's writing for exists because of a text's multiplicity. In today's world of intertextuality knowledge of the text in its original form is often not necessary for co-opting it into your own internal text. I see that in Frederique all the time - she is constantly engaging with rewritten texts and stories (the three little bigs recast to be sympathetic to the big bad wolf or a song about the three bears that only implies most of the narrative but creates a sense of the whole) and she is constantly putting these fragments together to create a sense of the original chronology of events.

Undine acts. She is interested in her power, her identity, her origin. She is changing. She shifts between roles - from Miranda to Ariel to Prospero to Sycorax - as she tries to come to terms with her identity. But she isn't entirely autonomous, no. She is still searching for herself, for the way to control her power. She is not born fully formed. She is in process, and she is engaging with herself as process and to me, that is the essence of her strength, her aolescence and her femininity.

Thanks to Erica Hately for such an interesting and thoughtful engagement with Undine - looking at Undine from this angle was fascinating.

1 comment:

  1. Blogger just ate my long and thoughtful, if somewhat scattered comment. aargh!

    Anyway, I followed the links and read Erica Hately's critique of Undine which although interesting reminded me of why I don't like metatextual analysis that much (it killed my love of history, but that's another story). Despite all the clever analysis what she's asking for is a protagonist who will give life to a political cause. And no matter how just or righteous that cause, that's not how people act in the real world. It's also not all that interesting to read in a novel. Unless it's feminist science fiction, but that's a whole different pot of seaweed.

    I have to admit I read Undine very fast, I just kept wanting to know what happened. So I'm looking forward to a more thoughtful reading, perhaps next week at the beach. On the first read, I loved the way Undine's world was so recognisably that of an Australian teenager. And that the magic was plausible, yet no less mystical or powerful. One of my favourite bits was when Trout sought help in an internet chat room. Kind of spooky.

    Posting about Undine has been on my to do list since the day after boxing day. Hopefully I will return from my holidays with brain intact and come good on that. I would also like to track down another copy for my step sister's eleventh birthday. She would love Undine, I just know. And Breathe too. I might have to order from Readings but if you know of copies sitting on shelves somewhere, let me know. She can't have mine because it has to go in the special bookcase for Australian writers of our time (millieau sp?).

    Obviously, there's a deeper reading awaiting me. Which I already knew anyway but that's a good thing. I'm all for books that appear simple at first but have hidden depths. They're the endlessly re-read.