An Interview with Richard K. Morgan
Richard K. Morgan is the bestselling author of Altered Carbon (2002, 2006), Broken Angels (2003, 2007), Market Forces (2005), Woken Furies (2005, 2007), Black Man (UK) / Thirteen (US, 2007), and The Steel Remains (UK 2008). In 2008, Black Man received the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction.
Black Man/Thirteen explores the concept of “virilicide,” a highly-speculative exploration of the idea that certain core aspects of masculinity are increasingly being defined out of modern culture. (Morgan’s acknowledged a debt to feminist writers such as Susan Faludi on this point.) “Thirteens” are genetically engineered and psychologically conditioned to be the purest alpha male imaginable, and as a result they’re wholly intolerable in society. The Steel Remains, meanwhile, provides a stylish noir update to the standard fantasy swords-and-sorcery plot.
In the wide-ranging conversation that follows, Morgan explains his perspective on heroism and masculinity, on the United States, and much else besides.
Is there an ethical dimension to inserting noir elements into swords-&-sorcery?
I suppose that that dynamic exists, but it’s not so much a conscious one. I tend to write what I want to read, and I’ve never wanted to read about kings and princes and great, glorious battles against a great evil, and definitely not about good-hearted farmboys who grow up to become warriors or wizards. Those kinds of narratives have never interested me. They’ve never held me.
The kind of fantasy that I’ve always liked has been very grim and gloomy. It goes back to the Norse stuff. If you were to ask me for the definitive fantasy novel, I’d have to say it’s Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which is a 250-page novel published at the same time as the first of the Tolkien trilogy, way back in 1954. It’s got everything in it that Tolkien doesn’t. It’s very similar in the sense that it’s got elves and trolls and dwarves and the whole panoply of Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology that Tolkien borrows from. The point with Anderson is that he borrows this very gloomy Norse perception of what a hero is, what heroic deeds really involve, and what the ultimate price you pay is for such deeds. That was much more my thing.
As I’ve grown older, and matured as a person, one of the things that’s increasingly come to the fore in the way that I think about things is the way violence is never actually a solution to anything. Yes, sometimes it happens, and sometimes it’s unavoidable, sometimes it feels good even, but the truth of the matter is it’s not a good thing. Any fantasy novel where there’s this glory of trooping out there to fight against this great evil—that immediately repels me; I’m not interested in that. What I am interested in are the consequences of those battles. What happens afterwards? What about all the guys who come home from the wars scalded by dragon-spit and hacked and broken and screaming insane in some cases? What do you do with those guys, and what impact does that have on the society that’s just fought this war?
For me, there is a moral point I guess, but what The Steel Remains is saying is, for god’s sake get a grip! Just because you’re fighting with swords instead of machine guns doesn’t make the war any more pleasant or acceptable as a way of doing business. That moral is in there, but it’s not because I felt I needed to make some big point, it’s just that’s the way I think, and that’s the kind of fiction I’m interested in.
I absolutely take your point about writing realistically about the consequences of violence, but is there a balancing act with the tendency of readers sometimes to just say . . . ohh, that’s cool?
The whole thing about “hey, isn’t that cool”: I understand that. I go through that myself! I just got back from seeing The Dark Knight, on an IMAX screen—and that’s a movie stuffed with moments where you go, “ohhh, that’s cool!” That’s a dynamic that you have to take into account and that you have to accept, because it’s within you as well as everyone else. I don’t have this kind of superior vision complex that some writers seem to have.
It’s also the fact that there are these moments of extreme cool, and there’s something very exhilarating and thrilling about violence. I’ve talked with quite a few veterans of conflict, and one of the things that they will tell you, quite often, is how god-damned fucking thrilling it is to be there doing this shit. You can’t afford to ignore that, any more than you can afford to ignore the consequences.
One of the reasons men go to war is because, frankly, they like it. I’m not going to write a book in which any time there’s an act of violence it’s written in such a way that you really don’t enjoy it. What’s much more productive is to give the audience their act of violence. You give them the excitement of the fight or whatever it may be, and with that also comes a kind of sickness. Because you’ve got to face the facts that it might be astoundingly cool to stand off three guys with a sword, but at the same time there’s going to be blood and broken bones, and a mess. You have to take all of that on board. You have to try to do justice to all aspects of it.
In The Steel Remains, for instance, there are some cool moments, but inevitably there is the realization that what we’re talking about here is chopping human beings into bits with sharpened steel. However cool that might be at the moment you’re doing it, eventually you’ve got to come back down to the realities of what you’re doing, the flesh-and-blood truth of it.
And you have to live with the fact that you enjoyed it, beyond just living with the mess.
Always. I’ve spoken to more than one Vietnam vet who has said that part of the difficulty of life after the war was not just remembering what you’d done, but remembering how you’d felt about what you’d done. That can be hard to live with, because it’s one thing to have done something horrible, and it’s quite another to have done it and to feel at some level that you enjoyed doing it. That’s a very scary thing.
But, interestingly enough, again, I think one of the problems with the sickness, if you like, that we’ve got in Western culture is that we’re scared to acknowledge these things. We’re afraid to actually take them on board. That idea—that you sort of got a sick enjoyment out of killing—is just not acceptable currency, because we’re told we must see our soldiers in these glowing, honorable terms, rather than seeing them as human beings. One of the aspects of American policy having to do with military matters is that there’s an enormous amount of emphasis on the troops, as long as they are standing up and holding their arms, but as soon as you ship them back home broken or damaged or unable to cope, suddenly no one wants to know about them anymore. The amount of coverage there hasn’t been of all the post-traumatic stress, and the incidents of guys coming back from Iraq who just cannot cope with what’s been done to them—that stuff just isn’t covered. The media has no taste for it. But we are talking about human beings, and human beings are complicated mechanisms, and when they get damaged, that’s complicated, too.
You have to wrap it all up in a package and deliver it so that hopefully I’m providing a kind of cinematic thrill--not just in this book but in all the books I’ve written--there’s heroic stances and John Woo-style violence, but coming behind that is the whole point of, I’m not going to justify this on some moral level, I’m not going to pretend it’s ok to behave like this.
That’s really true—not only if you read the Norse mythology, but in any of the epics, the heroes are not people you would have to tea.
No, absolutely not! This has long been my contention with the whole superhero ethos. We kind of want to have our cake and eat it, because we want to have these guys doing heroic things, but at the end of the day we also want them to be able to go home, marry Mary next door, and get a house with a picket fence and a dog. You can’t do that. There’s a big compatibility issue there.
Men who excel at violence, especially violence on the battlefield, those will be the kind of guys who find it hard to give up, and they’re going to be the kind of guys who just won’t deal well with a society that doesn’t need a high level of violence in it.
The constant issue is, what do you do with your heroes when you’re finished with them? Norse mythology (and also the Greeks, I think) had a very clear sense of what you do with them: The heroes always have to die. The standard pattern for a heroic profile is that you fight in your great battle, and you succeed, and then shortly thereafter you go off to another battle, or very often to another land, and there you are betrayed or you die or you disappear from knowing and it’s assumed that you’ve died. In each case, the hero is off-loaded. Those guys don’t stick around—you don’t keep them.
I think that was a wisdom that a lot of medieval and more ancient societies had—I think they were a lot more sophisticated in their vision of violence than we sometimes give them credit for. Because we’ve developed a popular culture of wanting to give people everything—we want to give them the thrills, but we don’t want them to be upset—we’re neglecting that vision. Achilles is the case in point: He’s just this sulky bastard who would kill you as soon as look at you. Very handy to have on your side when you’re going up against the massed armies of Troy, but not so handy to have around when you’re having a dispute about a slave girl. That’s all written into the Iliad: Achilles won’t fight because he’s in his tent sulking about a slave girl.
There’s a truth to it, and I find it exasperating on a personal level, but also a little bit worrying on a cultural level, that we just don’t seem to be able to digest that. We seem very uncomfortable with it.
This is obviously a main concern in Thirteen as well with the whole idea of virilicide, and the need for the Thirteen figure.
I think Nietzche was drawing on the wisdom of more ancient societies, when he said in times of peace the warlike man destroys himself. You see this increasingly. We live in times when violence ceases to be a viable option, both at a personal level and a group, a corporate, or a national level. You get things done far better by trading with someone than you do by trying to invade them. Within that context, what you’re seeing is an awful lot of men, especially ill-educated, not-very-well-off young men, who are looking for that function. Since it no longer exists in the form of military service, they’re looking for it in some other way. Increasingly, these guys either kill themselves doing stupid things, or they take excessive amounts of drugs. Basically, it’s the whole risk thing—young males seem to have a high appetite for it. I already see that as a problem, as a dysfunction.
To me, the whole idea of virilicide is that, as we continue to develop societies in which violence is just not an option anymore, these guys aren’t going to go away. The tendency isn’t going to go away, so what will these people do? They’ll turn on each other, and on themselves. If it’s not conditioned very thoroughly out of them at a very early age, the societies that don’t will rip themselves apart.
That’s a feminist argument, and one of the interesting things is, once you’ve done a bit of feminist reading, it gives you a prism through which to view things. Once you start to view things through that prism, you then never stop. You say, why is no one commenting on this?
Thirteen just sort of picks that up and runs with it. Genetically, young men are designed to not live very long, and to throw their weight around long enough to get a chance to impregnate some females, and then fade and die sometime before they hit thirty. That’s what they’re set up for at a genetic level, and if you don’t find a cultural way to deal with that, then they will tear themselves apart anyway, and they will tear you apart if you’re in the way. That was really the vision of it. All these societies in Thirteen have had to make a choice. They’ve had to decide, “right, we’re not going down this warrior path any longer, we’re going to accept that society’s a complicated thing and we’re going to deal in a complicated fashion with it, the issues are complex and so are the solutions.” The places that have refused to do that are the ones that then suffer horrifically from the things they impose on themselves.
You get JesusLand, actually.
I have to say that I’ve had quite a lot of e-mails from people about this. I’ve had e-mails from people who live there and who said, “oh, man, you’re so right.” But I’ve had an awful lot of people get in touch, mostly very polite, but really hurt and defensive. They say, “you’ve got us all wrong—we’re not a bunch of racist, lynching psychopaths.”
Usually with those guys I’ll try to explain somewhat more clearly what I was after, since I believe novel writing should be an act of communication.
First of all, I generally say, I know. I have spent time in various parts of the United States, probably including where you live, and the Americans I’ve met there . . . they’re lovely people. They’re courteous, they’re friendly, they’re generous with their time and resources. In fact, they’re a lot like Americans in the rest of the country. But that is really not the issue. I’ve also spent time in various North African and Middle Eastern nations and found the inhabitants there to be courteous, engaging and hospitable to a fault - but if I’d created a theocratic state in North Africa, would you have been angry about that?
Jesusland is not an indictment of all the 200+ million Americans living in its territory, it’s a portrayal of certain ruinous socio-dynamic tendencies common to that region running amok, and the catastrophic impact they have had (that I believe, in fact, they are having even now) on America’s very great potential as a modern nation.
The only Jesuslander we get very close to is, ok, a little on the bad guy side, in a purely narrative sense—but he’s hard-working, loyal, courageous, honourable, sensitive, and he’s great in bed. Can’t say fairer than that, can you? Sure, he’s also fucked up by old-time religion and overpumped naive patriotism, but he’s not supposed to be the bad guy—he’s just someone who’s been stitched up. Scott ends up getting used and killed as a result of the way this narrow indoctrination has worked, but that’s portrayed (I hope) as a tragedy - to some extent, in fact, it’s the whole tragedy of lost American potential in microcosm.
Quite often people read the book and assumed that I share the main characters’ view of Jesusland, which is intensely critical. But it’s important, as in all my fiction, to dissociate the opinions and attitudes of the characters from the opinions and attitudes of the author. Tom Norton and Sevgi Ertekin are contemptuous (and frightened) of Jesusland because they too have their own prejudices and fears to contend with. Sevgi in particular, as a first generation American immigrant and an identifiable ethnic minority, bitches about diehard confederate agendas because quite frankly the Deep South terrifies her. This is also is an observed reality; for Ertekin’s character, I borrowed quite heavily from one or two New Yorkers I know who have a similar (if perhaps not quite as extreme) mistrust and fear of the southern fundamentalist tendency and, by association, the places it comes from. The very sad truth about bigotry is that it begets more bigotry in reaction. There is a whole sub-set of Americans who are very tired of being caricatured and despised as “latte-drinking elites” or godless queer-loving liberals, and their reaction, increasingly, is to step away from the places which emanate this intolerance. So Sevgi, for all she is the closest thing to a “hero” we have, is flawed and angry, just like the other characters in the book, Marsalis most definitely included. I don’t do white hats and black hats, good guys and bad. All the characters in Thirteen are flawed, all are damaged, none are safe as moral guides to the terrain.
Thirteen is not a dance on the grave of middle America or the south, it’s a howling lament for what is being done to your nation by willful ignorance and ruthless vested interests, and for all that could be lost.
Sure, although it must have been deliberately provocative to make Carl Marsalis the walking embodiment of Jesusland fears and anxieties. The sexually incredibly desirable . . .
Yes, yes, I had another e-mail very recently, last week, who I couldn’t get back, I couldn’t connect. I sent him my basic screed—what I’ve just said—and he wrote back to say he could see I’ve thought about this, and that he enjoyed various parts of the book, but really, wasn’t I pushing it a bit much: Carl Marsalis, the black superstud, and the white lady cop who can’t resist him?
I wrote him back and said, I fear you’re mistaken here: Sevgi Ertekin is not white! She’s Turkish American, with a stated admixture of Arab blood (the rest probably coming with her Turkic roots from somewhere out on the Central Asian steppes or Mongolia). She’s not a “white woman” in the way that racist fantasy implies. There is no intent to make some race-based political point in the portrayal of the relationship between Marsalis and Ertekin - thought the fact you detected one does make me think America’s problem with race is embedded to a genuinely frightening depth.
Actually, though, it comes up in the book in other ways—I wasn’t worried about the interracial relationship with Sevgi, but, for example, you do talk in the book about how other males get kind of prickly around Carl, because there’s this recognition that he might be taking his place in the pecking order.
The idea is that he represents—both genetically and because of the training he’s gone through—he’s fundamentally going to provoke an automatic reaction from other males because they are going to see him as a threat. The book was not originally called Black Man in Britain, either, it was originally going to be called Normal Parameters. And I made Carl black—it was a thicket of choices. One of them was that I’d written a novel years ago where the central character was called Marsalis, and I’d always wanted to use the name. This was as good a time as any, and so I based Carl Marsalis loosely, physically, on the other Marsalis from this novel I wrote twenty years ago, nearly.
It was also partly the sense that if you look at the recruiting numbers in the US military, you get an enormous number of young black men going into the military, because they’re coming from a poor background, and so this looks like the best bet. That’s not race-based, either. It’s like the Steve Earle song [“Copperhead Road”]—“they draft the white trash first around here anyway.” The sense that America’s wars are fought by these people from the poorest and most deprived of its cultural background.
There’s also the idea that any kind of genetic experimentation would find its easiest seeds in deprived populations. There’s this implication that the elites in Thirteen go to poor black women for their genetic material. All of this threw itself together, and somewhere in that is the idea that America definitely still seems to have this problem with the big black bogeyman.
Tom Norton doesn’t like Carl because he scares him, but his skin tone isn’t the issue, he scares him because of who he is. And I’ve met guys like this, guys who have been in British Special Forces. There is something to them. I don’t feel threatened by them, but that’s just because I’m pretty in touch with my feminine side and don’t kid myself about my masculinity, if you like. One my most interesting correspondents, a captain in the American military told me is that in America, we have a real problem because males who don’t do military service have a real issue with soldiers and ex-soldiers. They react badly to them, they prickle around them. The only exception is guys who have a strong social mission like priests or teachers. I said at the time, could it not be that the kind of men who become priests or teachers are probably the kind of men who aren’t into that whole headbutting business of fighting it out for dominance of the herd. If you choose to become a teacher, which is a tough job, with poor rewards, or if you choose to become a priest, it seems likely that the things that drive you are not the things that drive the average male.
Males are competitive, and if you wheel in a man who’s very good-looking, very magnetic, very strong, very tough, most other males are not going to have a good word to say about him. And nor would I!
Do you remember in Bloom County when Opus is going out with Lola Granola, and her ex shows up? Bart Savagewood, I think he’s called. He’s a test pilot for the US Navy, with a 3-inch waist and a 96-inch set of shoulders. Opus is introduced to him, and just hates him on sight, because he can’t compete . . . [laughter]
It’s another of those truths that no one wants to address, and especially in politically correct terms, we don’t like to think that we react badly when our masculinity is threatened, because we don’t like to think that we still have that trait or competitive display in us. But the trick is that you accept it, and you laugh at it, and then you have a handle on it.
I have to confess that I’ve taken a certain amount of flak for being anti-American, which is harsh. I’m a big fan of America both in general political terms and in terms of the culture. I really like it there. The books I read, the music I listen to—what isn’t American is heavily, heavily influenced by it. But what constantly perplexes me about American culture generally is the depth to which the race thing is buried, and how unbelievably charged it is.
There’s racism everywhere. I mean, we’ve got plenty of it here in Britain, and go to Europe and you’ll find it there, as well. It’s not like it doesn’t exist on this side of the Atlantic. But the levels to which it’s buried in the American consciousness are really frightening—such as the rapidity with which some readers leapt to the idea that Sevgi is white because A) she’s the protagonist and b) not African-American, and so, by definition, since she’s white, and he’s an African-American—that can’t be good.
Sometimes you talk about this issue in genetic—and thus quasi-racial or sexed—terms, but you also raise important environmental factors as well. It’s really not clear the extent to which this competitiveness is hardwired after all, even for the thirteens.
That’s right: The idea is that the accepted stance of 2107 is that this is down to genetics, but then you’re given insight into the way they were trained and conditioned from an early age, and you think, bloody hell! If I’d been put through this from the day I was born, I’d be pretty psychotic as well. And right at the end, Sevgi’s father says if it’s true that this is written into your genes so deeply, why did they bother to train you the way they did? They didn’t trust you to turn out the way they wanted, so they made damn sure of it.
What I was trying to do there was to flip-flop the way things are now, which is that there is an underlying assumption that genes don’t determine anything, it’s all conditioning and environment. We’re still living with the heritage of the lurch to the left in the social sciences over the past sixty years, and so there’s an assumption it’s all about environment. And underlying that there’s a little bit of evidence and there are a few people saying, hang on a minute, maybe this is about the genes. So I wanted to flip it: everyone’s going to assume it’s about the genes, but underlying that would be some people saying, wait, what about environmental factors?
The truth as far as I can see it is that it’s always going to be about an interaction between the two. You’re not made by your genes, but your genes will give you the predispositions, and the environment will then tick them off one way or the other.
But the book is speculative in the pure sense of the word. If pressed by someone who said, look, you wrote it, is it about the genes? I would say, well, I don’t know. My personal sense of it is, I’ve read a lot of Steven Pinker, and I think he makes an awful lot of sense. And generally speaking, when I’m reading science, if it’s bad news, then I tend to think they’re probably right. The universe is not a nice place, and we’ve survived in it as a species which means we’re probably not very nice in many ways either.
However, I tend to think that if the explanation is simple, it’s probably wrong. So this is never going to be a simple case of, yes, it’s these genes that do this. It’s going to be a question of, do these genes get expressed or not? How is it influenced by diet? What happens if the woman who gives birth to this child has previously given birth to this child? All this stuff comes into play, and it’s never going to be straightforward. But I do think we’re going to have to wake up, and shed our old-style leftist pretensions, and take a hard look at what human beings actually are.
This may seem like an odd connection, but one thing that’s striking about the difference between the world of Thirteen and the Takeshi Kovacs world is the strong sense of embodiment, and living with the body that you have.
The Kovacs books were enormously fun to write, and I had a lot of fun playing with that concept. (It’s not my concept, I borrowed/stole it from many other practioners over the years. I think the first person I can give an official credit to is Robert Scheckley, whose Immortality, Inc was written in 1958 or something. ) It does let you off the hook in terms of consequences. I made a fist of showing that eliminating death doesn’t solve your problems; in many ways it just gives you more. But there’s always the thing that you can get out of this body. And that, regardless of how easy or difficult it is, does change the game. And the point with Thirteen was, I wanted a situation where you were locked into your physicality, and there’s nothing you can do about it. A point I tried to leave lying around for those who wanted to find it is that Marsalis has more in common with ordinary humans than either humans or he have with the coming generation in 2107, because those guys were going to have gene platforms that can be switched on or off more or less at well, and you can take a chemical and cure a tendency more or less for a generation or so, and you can choose not to have a tendency your parents gave you expressed. And that’s something ordinary humans don’t get to do, nor does Marsalis. He’s locked in to what he is.
One last question: One of the things that I’ve always noted in your books—right from the beginning of Altered Carbon, and I’ve got dozens of these marked across all of them—is the way you write about mirrors. You write about them a lot—characters are always seeing themselves in them . . . What’s interesting about mirrors?
I think the essence of noir—I think this is something I borrowed wholesale, and not really consciously, so I’m making this up on the fly—is that it’s quite introspective. That’s one of the joys of it. It can be really violent and headlong narrative, but always at the heart of a genuine noir narrative, you have this issue of where is the evil really coming from? Most noir heroes tend to be pretty self-loathing. Again, I think that’s a wisdom that the noir genre has and has kind of stumbled on in some sense. Especially if you’re male, and maybe female but I don’t know because I’m not female, but if you are male and have the slightest bit of self-knowledge or honest intellectual sensitivity, sometimes you’re going to be in the position of that Turkish guy who says, “sometimes it shames me to be male.” That’s an extreme way of expressing it, but if you’re paying attention at all you become aware very early on that males are pretty second-rate when it comes to social mores. Behaving well, if you like. They may make worse parents, they’re not as reliable. We score low on all the stuff that nowadays we would say makes good citizens. Now, that’s a huge generalization, but, in general terms I think that we males are not set up for citizenship in the same way that females are, and that’s something that comes up in the book.
Noir writers detected that, maybe without even consciously realizing it, and so you have this very strong male protagonist in most noir fiction, but he’s keenly aware of his own thuggishness, if you like. He’s keenly aware that it’s not like he’s the white knight and the stuff out there is dark and evil. He’s aware that this is in all of us. And so I suspect that mirroring happens a lot in noir because it’s a genre that’s concerned with what’s inside, as well as what’s outside. In noir plots the assumption tends to be that the system is corrupt: what appear to be the bad guys might be the bad guys, but what appear to be the good guys might be bad guys, as well. There’s a sense that things are rotten, and that this is the human condition.
I think I borrowed all of that. I just carted the whole lot out of the shop without looking at it too closely. I suspect that somewhere woven into that is the idea of the protagonist taking a long hard look at himself, and having to acknowledge what’s in the mirror.
One of the things I’ve been really delighted about over the years is the number of female readers that I’ve got. I was told, especially when I was writing Altered Carbon, even before it was published, most people who read it and liked it said, it’s such a boy’s book. And I keep getting reviews like this. One of the British reviewers for Black Man, for Thirteen said something similar—this is Andy McNab on steroids, this is riproaring Boy’s Own Adventure and stuff like that. But the truth is I’ve got a huge number of female readers, and I’m delighted by that, because I would hate to think I’m only talking to the male sex. I would hesitantly lay that at the door of this introspection. If you’ve got a hero who just thugs his way through the story, he’s utterly convinced of his rightness, and he wins the day—I think a lot of women aren’t interested in that. Whereas if you’ve got a guy who thugs his way through the story, but is constantly conflicted, and is aware that there’s something wrong with him—I think the female sex is far better at understanding that kind of introspection. Maybe that’s what works for them. It’s funny because I don’t think I’ve ever had—I have had a few complaints about the violence, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a woman complain about the violence. It seems to me that women will wear an enormous amount of violence and unpleasantness in their fiction, provided that something else is there as well. And where it doesn’t seem to work for women is when all you’ve got is that violence. This is why mainstream comics tend to be dominated by male readers, because they tend to flush away everything except that gleaming edge of violent capacity. It’s very hard to get interested in characters like that. The female readership (and there is one in comics, as well) is scraping around looking for the sophisticated interpretation, the angle or sense that there’s more than meets the eye, that inside these characters there’s something going on. And increasingly, of course, it’s women who buy books rather than men. So I’m very glad that I appeal to a female readership too, and not least because I genuinely believe that, without wishing to condemn any individual male anywhere, as a species, males very much are the problem. Say I had a child a one-year-old son or something, and I was dying. Given the choice between giving it to a male to rear and giving it to a female to rear, and this is a blind choice, with no other parameters or information to work from, I will give it to the woman every single time, and I think most courts, both in America and in Britain work off a similar assumption: Generally women will be better at bringing up children. The reason they’re better is that women are less likely to cave the kid’s skull in if he screams! It’s caveman stuff, but unfortunately it is what we carry within us. I think the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can get on with running the world far better than we do at the moment.
And pretending we don’t feel like that only makes it worse . . .
Exactly! It’s crazy. It’s insane. We’ve nailed ourselves to these ludicrous images of who we’re supposed to be, who we think we are, and they’re impossible to live up to both for men and women. Women are nailed to this thing of having to be the whore in the bedroom, the cook in the kitchen, and the perfectly demure and presentable housewife everywhere else. This is the whole maid/mother/crone thing. But also males are nailed to this ludicrous vision of implacable strength, where you can’t be weak, and can’t show weakness. They’re such counterproductive stereotypes, because there’s no way anyone could live up to them. And if you did live up to them, it would destroy you. That’s a theme I think running through a lot of my work: If you really do live up to the male archetype, then you’re dead in an alley somewhere, because it will destroy you. Even if it doesn’t kill you physically, it will destroy you from within. Leaving aside actual functioning genetic psychopaths, I think if you look at most men who have survived a lot of physical violence, it does something to them
We’ve come full circle, haven’t we, to the untold cost of heroic deeds. This is what happens to you if you stick to that ridiculous image of manhood. It will wipe you out. And the same holds true for women who try to live up images of femininity. I’m a big fan of bringing everything out warts and all—let’s really have a look at this. That said, you’ve also got to tell an entertaining story, and there’s a balance to be struck there, obviously.
Jason B. Jones teaches Victorian literature at Central Connecticut State University, in New Britain. His interviews and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such venues as PopMatters, BoldType, the Kenyon Review Online, and Bookslut. His website is The Salt-Box.