Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Susanna Moore's The Big Girls

The Big Girls, set in Sloatsburg Women's Prison, is one of Moore's seamy books. (As opposed to her "lyrical and nostalgic" books--see this Kakutani review). Its characters are reminiscent of In the Cut: those who should be the good guys--i.e., doctors, policemen, the warden--are bad, while the bad guys, or in this case, the bad girls, evoke our sympathy. On the good-who-are-bad side we have Dr. Louise Forrest, chief of Psychiatry, Captain Ike Bradshaw, an ex-narcotics officer and nasty fellow who sleeps with Louise, a staff of doctors with ruined resumes (blood trafficking, iffy degrees), and Louise's ex-husband, Rafael Rivera, now a Hollywood set designer.

The prison population, women incarcerated for hideously violent crimes, is at times quite likable. Most, if not all, are victims of sexual abuse and beatings, which we are meant to understand led them to their current state. Particularly poignant is Helen, a psychotic woman who murdered her two children to save them from Satan. This may sound familiar, as does a cameo from a teacher named Tracy, who had sex with her young student and intends to marry him upon release.

Nothing I've read about Moore's book mentions Andrea Yates. In Helen we have a beautifully imagined version of this obviously sick woman. Raped by her stepfather since childhood, Helen has a long psychiatric history of cutting herself and hearing voices. She is tormented by monsters on horseback she calls The Messengers. For all this, her voice is plaintive: she neither asks nor expects forgiveness. When inmate Wanda decides to protect her, she is pathetically grateful. Prison is actually safer for this tortured soul than life outside.

When Louise Forrest arrives at Sloatsburg, she is given Helen's case and quickly grows unduly attached. Louise is a strange, damaged woman with a mental history of her own. She arrives at Sloatsburg terrified, dreamy, and unprepared. She has an eight-year-old child, Ransom, whom she loves almost to excess but cannot parent. Her relationship with Captain Ike Bradshaw is perverse; he is manipulative and unkind. When Ransom levels an outrageously false accusation at him, Louise refuses to react. A saner man would run, but Ike is drawn to Louise, her chilly, fragile demeanor, her increasingly unprofessional behavior. Neither are what you'd call likable narrators.

Sexual abuse and power dominate the book: in the women's prison "families," in Louise's history of inappropriate attachments, in Helen's terrible life. Are we meant to think sexual abuse is rife, or that we as a population are obsessed with it?

Enter Angie Garbarsky, aka Angie Mills, an ambitious, naïve young actress. In a series of unlikely coincidences, Angie becomes Rafael's girlfriend, whereupon she establishes a warped if well-meant relationship with Ransom. Angie's voice offers a counterpoint to Sloatsburg's battered inmates. Uneducated, often drugged, a devoted shoplifter, Angie relentlessly pursues fame. Her own difficult childhood is best forgotten, as are any people or events standing between her and her goal.

Helen, struggling terribly with her illness, decides Angie is her sister, and writes her to this effect. Angie, touched but uncomprehending, writes back warmly.

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Moore's ability to move between literary styles is admirable, yet her propensity to do so raises questions. Did she write In the Cut, a sexually explicit murder mystery, in an attempt to break from smaller literary circles into the larger (Hollywood) market? Is she, like Joyce Carol Oates, genuinely fascinated by human ugliness manifested in transgressive behaviors? Or is Moore turning the lens back on the reader's fascination with these subjects?

Kakutani, wearied by the graphic nature of The Big Girls, writes:

"Ms. Moore’s willful focus on the brutality that goes on there and the brutality that has shaped so many of these women’s lives begins to feel both sensationalistic and numbing as the book progresses."

Perhaps Moore intended this. Who among us is not increasingly desensitized by the news?

Yet Moore's crime descriptions do more than numb; they illuminate her characters. How could Helen, so gentle and sweet, a woman who loved her children, do what she did? What about Darla, who helped dismember her boyfriend's wife? Her lack of remorse is alarming until we're told she thinks she was instructed by an Owl on Venus. Her actions then become terrifying.

Other prisoners acted under the influence of drugs--crack, meth, heroin. And yes, their crimes are grotesque. But so is our societal urge to plumb their lurid depths while refusing to address their underlying causes. Moore's writing may repulse us, but she is not to blame for holding a mirror to our darker collective traits.

Near the book's end, Angie's implied relationship with Helen takes center stage, with all manner of televsion appearances and competing tell-all memoirs rushed to press. Delighted by the turn of events, Angie hurries to write her own book. And, of course, make the movie.

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I doubt Moore could write badly if she tried. Her prose is fluid and unintrusive, and the plot moves at a rapid clip. And though The Big Girls is flawed, Helen's voice alone makes it a worthwhile, if disturbing, read, as do the lingering questions about our societal fascination--always from a safe distance--with our sickest members.

Susanna Moore The Big Girls.
Knopf, 2007.

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