On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.

*

Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.

*

proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.

*

But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.

OK.

Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.

*

I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On romantic failure.

On romantic failure.

singularity-valentineMy first collegiate relationship survived almost the entirety of freshman year (ending via phone call the day before my birthday). The second held out through four months of sophomore year. The third, two months of junior year. And the last person with whom I had any appreciable romantic success during college dated me for about two weeks, just before graduation.

The half-lives of my romantic entanglements seemed to be dwindling inexorably toward zero. I feared that the duration of any future relationships would be measured in hours… or minutes… or seconds. How quickly might one progress from a first kiss to “I don’t particularly want to see you again”?

Instead, I passed through a singularity. My next relationship has held out for a decade and still seems to be going well.

Not that I deserve too much sympathy for my past failures. I was less than ideally suave.

naked-singularityI laughed aloud (while grimacing in recognition) at this passage describing a first date from Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity:

On Her Job:
“Plastic surgery? Really? That’s interesting.”
“Very lucrative.”
“It seems like a mostly New York/L.A. type thing right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is actual plastic involved?”
“Sometimes. Why?”
“Well otherwise the term would seem to be a slap in the face at the type of person who becomes a patient.”
“I don’t think I have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know, like there’s surgery for when something is actually wrong and then there would be plastic surgery for plastic, superficial people who can’t cope with their nose.”

On Misunderstandings:
“No I didn’t mean to imply that at all.”
“Right.”
“I’m serious. What kind of a hostile lunatic would purposely insult their dinner companion? I was just trying to be funny.”

Trying – and failing – to be funny. Well, not failing, exactly. I think that is funny. But De La Pava’s protagonist, like my own younger self, was insufficiently careful in considering the audience for his jokes.

So De La Pava’s protagonist returned home alone. Perhaps he then whiled away the evening reading some erotically-charged literature… like this eyebrow-raising article from the newsdesk at Science. Decidedly the most fescennine piece of writing I’ve stumbled across in some time. Each weekday morning I bring the kids to the YMCA to play while I check my email and do some typing, and I blushed while reading in the snack room.

So obviously I’ll share it with you now.

From Virginia Morell’s Science news article:

He did not penetrate her, but did ejaculate, and [she] then licked her back clean …

Which seems quite racy even knowing that the pronouns refer to a male macaque and a female sika deer.

Unfortunately, the article then alludes to violent rape porn – maybe this appeals more to all the Fifty Shades of Gray fans than it does to me. A kinky set of male fur seals has taken to pinning king penguins, thrusting for minutes (with, um, likely penetration), and, in a gruesome S & M twist, devouring the object of affection.

Just like rape culture in frat houses – or the White House – each assault makes future violence more likely. From Matt Walker’s BBC Earth article on the seals:

seals“Seals have capacity for learning – we know this from their foraging behavior for example,” explained de Bruyn.

So male seals may see each other coercing penguins, then attempt it themselves.

That might explain why the number of incidents appears to be increasing. “I genuinely think the behavior is increasing in frequency.”

15798589947_7b6d029ae8_zIt’s unfortunate that our press so rarely uses accurate language when describing violence against women… or against penguins, for that matter. “Coercing” sex is bad, but what these seals are doing is not coercion. Similarly, the word used for 45’s behavior toward women should not have been “groping.” The appropriate word is “assault.”

(A bit of linguistic mincing might be appropriate sometimes… like when describing the crabs who forcibly trigger asexual reproduction of anemones. Although the process sounds violent – “the crab tears the … anemone into two similar parts, resulting in a complete anemone in each claw after regeneration” – the crabs are acting calmly, and, besides, these anemones live only on crab claws and do reproduce this way.)

monkeydeerIn the case of the deer-humping macaque and those penguin-molesting seals, scientists have documented that low status individuals are the most likely to assault other species. The same principal holds among orangutans – only low-status males assault females.

Yet another indication – as if all the pomp and bluster and Twitter bullying and gold-plated doodads weren’t enough – that 45 is a pusillanimous individual at heart.

Because, after all, consensual behavior is more fun. Contrast those dour seals with the ribald joy of W. H. Auden’s “The Platonic Blow”:

We aligned mouths. We entwined. All act was clutch,
All fact, contact, the attack and the interlock
Of tongues, the charms of arms. I shook at the touch
Of his fresh flesh, I rocked at the shock of his cock.

If only those low-status seals – or our low-status president – calmed their desires with some Auden! We’d live in a world with fewer traumatized women (and penguins).

Or, if you’d rather get your kicks from prose, might I proffer this passage from Victor Pelevin’s The Clay Machine Gun (translated by Andrew Bromfield):

710579MGT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.gif“And you talk, talk …”
“Of what exactly?”
“Of anything at all, just talk. I want to hear your voice when it happens.”
“By all means. To continue that idea… Imagine that everything which a beautiful woman can give one adds up to one hundred per cent.”
“You bookkeeper…”
“Yes, one hundred. In that case, she gives ninety per cent of that when one simply sees her, and everything else, the object of a thousand years of haggling, is no more than an insignificant remainder. Nor can that first ninety per cent be subdivided into any component fractions, because beauty is indefinable and indivisible, no matter what lies Schopenhauer may try to tell us. As for the other ten per cent, it is no more than an aggregate sum of nerve signals which would be totally without value if they were not lent support by imagination and memory. Anna, I beg you, open your eyes for a second… Yes, like that… yes, precisely imagination and memory. You know, if I had to write a genuinely powerful erotic scene, I would merely provide a few hints and fill in the rest with an incomprehensible conversation like the… Oh, my God, Anna… LIke the one which you and I are having now. Because there is nothing to depict, everything has to be filled in by the mind. The deception, and perhaps the very greatest of a woman’s secrets… Oh, my little girl from the old estate… consists in the fact that beauty seems to be a label, behind which there lies concealed something immeasurably greater, something inexpressibly more desired than itself, to which it merely points the way, whereas in actual fact, there is nothing in particular standing behind it… A golden label on an empty bottle… A shop where everything is displayed in a magnificently arranged window-setting, but that tiny, tender, narrow little room behind it… Please, please, my darling, not so fast… Yes, that room is empty. Remember the poem I recited to those unfortunates. About the princess and the bagel… A-a-ah, Anna… No matter how temptingly it might lure one, the moment comes when one realizes that at the center of that black bage… bagel… bagel… there is nothing but a void, voi-oid, voi-oi-oooid!”

On the question of whom to blame for the paucity of women in science.

On the question of whom to blame for the paucity of women in science.

978-080704657-9I was super excited to read Eileen Pollack’s The Only Woman in the Room.  There are a lot of problems with academic science, and these have been getting better much more haltingly than one might expect.  And the problem isn’t just individuals with retrograde attitudes — although that’s clearly an issue — but also structural and cultural arrangements that bias against neurotypical females.

I’d hoped that the bulk of Pollack’s book would be devoted to documenting these problems and offering suggestions for corrective measures.  If we as a society value science enough that we want for the best and brightest of all genders, upbringings, personality types, etc., to participate in the field’s advancement, I think there’s a dire need for investigative journalism that’d produce that sort of book.

Pollack’s book is primarily a memoir, however.  This is useful, too.  There’s a reason why medical journals still publish narrative-driven case studies in addition to the charts detailing aggregate patient response and recovery rates.  Details can be presented in stories that might be overlooked or ignored when many people’s experiences are moshed together to make a statistic.  After all, if we want the statistics to change, it’s women’s experience, actual lived experience, that we need to fix.

si-sexisminscienceBut I felt displeased while reading Pollack’s book.  My major complaint is that most of the book castigates scientists for the paucity of women in STEM fields… but the narrative suggests clearly that, in this case, the biggest problem is the behavior of non-scientists.

I’ll get back to that point in a moment, but first I should make clear that I’m not writing from the standpoint of an apologist who thinks the current state of things is fine.

Where I studied, first-year Ph.D. students had weekly tea with the founder of the department.  These were advising / advice sessions.  Students could talk about their interests, ask questions about the history of the field, get input on their courses, their research, their search for an advisor whose interests and outlook matched their own.  All told, a valuable experience for budding scientists.  But the advisor, an elderly male, invariably asked a female student to serve tea to everyone else in the room.  Even if he believed that the advice he dispensed next was gender neutral, that initial request (reasonable enough at the first meeting, because someone has to pour tea, and even at the second, but disheartening by the nth time the same young woman is asked to serve her classmates) discolored everything he said next.

Or there were the monthly lunchtime research talks.  A modestly-dressed fourth-year student gave a presentation on her research, fecal analysis of mothers and infants to learn when and with what species a newborn human’s intestinal track is colonized, and after the talk a female faculty member said to her, “That was a nice talk, but your breasts were very distracting.”

Individuals with that sort of retrograde attitude make science worse.  And it’s not just elderly professors who’re like that.  The individual from the tea incident, for instance, has since been retired by the reaper (the prevailing mood in the department was very somber after he passed.  For most, but not all.  When we rode in the elevator together, a UPS deliveryman told me, “You know, I’d feel bad too, except the old guy yelled at me just last week.”).  But it’s not as though there’ve been no young misogynists to replace the retiring ones.

tumblr_npqoiwAaVi1r83d7lo1_500.jpg

And there are structural problems.  There’s a particular way that advisors expect scientists to talk about their research — brash, confident, competitive, as though it is magnitudes more important than anything else — that seems to come easier to the average male than the average female.  People who don’t have that sort of competitive attitude, whether male or female, can be marginalized… but for a host of both biological and cultural reasons, men in this country are more likely to have that sort of attitude than women.

Maybe this would be fine if brash, stereotypically masculine behavior resulted in better science.  It doesn’t.  Good science is intensely collaborative.  Competitive attitudes, like the race aspect of modern academic science to publish findings first before someone else “scoops” your work, diminish the quality and quantity of data that everyone has to work with.  And contributes to the irreproducibility of modern science, because researchers are pressured to specialize in niche techniques that are used on a particular problem in only one laboratory.

Of course, individual scientists don’t have the freedom to rebel from this system … if only because granting agencies are set up to fund only researchers who conform.  If one researcher decided to behave more collaboratively, the lab would probably run out of money and die.

Academic science could be changed in ways that would make it more inviting to women and would result in better science.  And those are changes that I think scientists will need to make.

Whereas Pollack’s book, despite castigating scientists, felt quite short on recommendations for changes that scientists should make to their behavior.  (I.e., changes to the behavior of a scientist who isn’t explicitly prejudiced against women, but has simply absorbed the cultural norms of modern academia.)

The most important corrective that Pollack offers is that scientists should be more emotive in complimenting students on work they’ve done well.  This is probably true.  In K.’s science class, for instance, she makes a conscious effort to praise students for their successes.  Praise them with words, not just a high score marked at the top of an exam.

Reading Pollack’s narrative, for instance, we learn that after a successful physics internship, the professor said only, “We’d like to have you back next year.”  After a successful research project in mathematics, her advisor didn’t praise her — a stark contrast to the lavish praise articulated by her writing professor.

Capture

But I think it’s worth considering a possible reason why Pollack’s physics professors may have been less effusive than her humanities professors.  While working in physics, the primary language is mathematics.  Quite a bit of physics doesn’t make much sense when expressed in a metaphorical language like English — the language most of us use to express our feelings, or to praise people, is simply maladapted to conveying a clear understanding of the universe.  So the practice of physics enriches for people much more adept with numbers than words.

Whereas humanities professors work with words full-time.  They really ought to be able to praise people with words more effectively than scientists can.

But the problem isn’t just that evaluating their competence for verbal praise is like judging both a carpenter and a welder on their skill with a blowtorch — is it fair to blame someone for relative inexperience compared to a full-time user? — it’s that many scientists have narrative experiences of their own that train them not to be effusive.

In part because the language of science is mathematics, science enriches for people who’re vaguely on the autism spectrum (I’d much rather use the term “Asperger’s” here, but that’s a topic for another post).  And many of those people experienced bewildering derision in response to their attempts to compliment people while growing up.  There are numerous examples of this in Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and I certainly have stories of my own.  I learned that it was safe to state facts (akin to the physics professor’s “We’d like to have you back next year”) but that emotional content often led to mockery.

2981Indeed, much of Pollack’s book is devoted to frustration that so few people wanted to date or have sex with her.  The book is sprinkled with lines like, “The only reason I could see that I wasn’t datable was that I was majoring in a subject they saw as threatening,” or a description of a woman who “hated when her sister introduced her as an astrophysics major, because the boys would turn away.

A big reason why women and minorities need to be praised to keep them excited about STEM fields is that stigma from the outside world.  But that’s not scientists’ fault!  I felt sad, reading the book, because so much of it seemed to blame scientists and praise humanities people, yet those same humanities people create the problems that weigh most heavily on Pollack’s mind.  Yes, it’s crummy that most boys at parties considered her not date-able.  But those boys were by and large humanities majors.  Because non-scientists were mean to her, Pollack needed for scientists to give her more praise.

Sure, it’s a big problem that scientists didn’t work hard enough to retain her in the field.  But it’s a bigger problem that non-scientists were so mean that, by the time she arrived at college, those science professors needed to work to retain the two (!) female students who enrolled in the introductory physics lecture instead of trusting that a reasonable fraction of 60 female enrollees (her lecture had 120 students) would stay in the field.

I was sad that this wasn’t stated explicitly until page 254 of a 257-page book, and even then in only two sentences in the middle of a paragraph:

It’s the larger society that needs to change.  No American of either gender will want to become a scientist if studying science or math makes a middle schooler so nerdy he or she becomes undatable, or if science and math are taught in a way as to seem boring or irrelevant.