Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Fruity South Pacific

Finished “Sea of Cortez”-- I thought it only fair at first, but I'm appreciating little elements as I revisit the tale. Here are my initial thoughts (cut for "spoilers," as River Song would say). I'd appreciate discussion:

SETTING: While “Sea of Cortez” has elements of war ugliness, the setting largely remains an idyllic, queered South Pacific. When ugliness happens, it is pointless, as in this gorgeous sentence: "You fire at Manila, Panay, Leyte, Cebu." Much more attention is given to social scenes. It makes sense, as the main character expects to see this as the high point of his life. But because it is idyllic, I can't quite see this story as having actually happened in a real past. When the author takes time to explain a historical note, it feels out of place.

VOICE: The second person point of view provides an immediately immersive experience. Given that the collection is about challenging gender norms, the biggest obstacle is in getting heteronormative readers to identify with genderqueer characters. While disconcerting at first, the second person changes the reader’s self-talk while reading, and it becomes easier to identify with the main character, despite McDonald choosing that most difficult of boundaries, masculinity. Well done.

WILLIAMS: Never likeable or enjoyable to read about, and there is too much of him. He and Robbie have a place: they fit with the bleak future, dragging the main character’s feelings along without a care. Even when Williams shows himself to be a fellow "fruit," he hasn’t changed. He has simply lied until now, no apologies.

GENDER: This is "beyond binary," but the character is trapped in his conception of binariness: he's either submissive or dominant, desires men or desires women's clothing and to roleplay as or be a woman.

GENRE: Minor quibble. What makes this a speculative fiction story rather than a historical one? Future-sight. And the way the future-sight is written, it seems more despair than actual sight, since it fails the Robbie test. When you couple this with the sight disappearing by the end, you might as well call the story literary rather than speculative fiction.

THE FUTURE: So what about this future sight? It was so useful at first. Wonderfully bleak and gray, contrasting strongly with the setting-as-paradise. It fails twice: it doesn't predict Robbie's disappearance, and fails utterly after the final scene with Williams. Why? Does the main character only get future sight when he’s unhappy? Or does he only get future sight when he isn’t taking charge of his life? Now that he found a kindred spirit, does that mean he can change his future? Or is it a far more meta idea: now that the reader understands a queered man, his future—and the futures of those like him—can be changed?


  1. "GENDER: This is "beyond binary," but the character is trapped in his conception of binariness: he's either submissive or dominant, desires men or desires women's clothing and to roleplay as or be a woman. How is this beyond...?"

    There is much that I will say about what you've said, but I thought I'd start here, since this jumped out at me, and it reminded me of something that I was thinking as I read the story. We have moved quite a bit (as a society, or rather a portion of society) toward the acceptance of men who love men sexually and women who love women sexually, but within those distinctions, we continue to speak in terms of dominance and submission. Old words, and old ways of describing sexual activity continue as part of our language, and thus as part of our culture. I think this is something that many of the second and third wave feminists have right. Until we begin to adjust the language of sex, we will continue to find ourselves trapped in, as you say, binariness.

  2. Setting: I like that this story pointed out that an aircraft carrier full of young servicemen is the best and worst place to be as a gay man. It's full of attractive people but most have absolutely no interest in 'you'. There's poignancy in being the odd man out.
    Placing the story in the past rightly points out that genderqueer people have existed throughout history but ties the author's hands when it comes to an epilogue. Since the ending of the story is told in the third paragraph, there's nothing left to tell on the last page.

    Voice and gaze: At fist I was taken aback at some story telling me what 'I' thought and felt, but after adjusting to the first person storytelling it does lend itself to immersing the reader in the story. Something was bothering me about the story that I couldn't put my finger on until Vix showed me an article about narrative gaze - the choice of how and what to describe. The story's gaze is naturally homosexual and I had not realized how prevalent the heterosexual male gaze was in literature until I stumbled onto another.