Sunday, August 24, 2014

Karen Joy Fowler's The Science of Herself

Have you read Karen Joy Fowler's The Science of Herself, a new volume in PM Press's Outspoken Authors series? The publication date is 2013, but I only recently read it. This series, if you don't know of it, includes, among other slim volumes the size of Conversation Pieces, Nalo Hopkinson's Report from Planet Midnight and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wild Girls. The Science of Herself contains a brand new story, "The Science of Herself," two reprinted stories (the searing "The Pelican Bar" and "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man"), "More Exuberant Than Is Strictly Tasteful," a characteristically snappy interview conducted by Terry Bisson, and "The Motherhood Statement," an essay combining fire and irony.

By the time I finished reading the second page of "The Science of Herself," which opens the volume, I'd fallen hard for it. The seaside village of Lyme Regis in the first decades of the nineteenth century? How could any voracious reader not think first of Anne Elliot watching Captain Wentworth as he fails to catch Louisa Musgrove when she willfully throws herself off the stairs, in Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion? Fowler takes Anne Elliot's visit to Lyme Regis as her point of departure, leading to imagining Austen herself walking that beach and not seeing (yes, yes , not seeing) a young girl who was often to be found on that beach. "Strangely deressed, lower class, odd in affect, and desperately poor, she was not really the kind of girl who wanders into an Austen novel." (2) But then Fowler quickly goes on to note that Austen's visit to Lyme Regis had actually been made to see this girl's father, Richard Anning, a cabinetmaker. The connection between the unnoticed young girl and Jane Austen, though virtually invisible to the casual eye, is actual.

Anning, besides being a cabinetmaker, was also a fossil hunter; more interestingly, his daughter Mary proved to be not only a more redoubtable fossil hunter than he, the person who recovered the first complete ichthysaurus ever to be found, but also a sharp paleontologist whose contributions to the field were only belatedly awarded public acknowledgment when the British Royal Society named her on their list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. "The Science of Herself" tells a story about Mary Anning's life that "wouldn't have made sense [in Austen's novel] with her bits of gothic history, her lightning, her science, her creatures. She wouldn't make sense in any story until the story changed." (25)

 I've long been interested in the problem-- one that Fowler has been mining for some time-- of stories that don't fit "the story" that is the template for how stories are told. It's a problem faced by writers wishing to write stories that don't fit the limits or language or assumptions of the current conventions, and a problem for readers longing for such stories and virtually unable to find them anywhere (and so often resort to ingenious methods for reading what is there slant). That template is, fortunately, always shifting. "The Science of Herself" is as much an exploration of how the stories that could be told about Mary during her lifetime were constrained and limited--how her life overflowed those constraints. The form Fowler uses to tell the story is what? It's prose, certainly. But is it fiction or nonfiction?

I'm particularly interested in the question of the form Fowler uses to tell Mary Anning's story because I've been sporadically working on a story about Emilie, the Marquise du Chatelet, for years now, struggling against the form it seems determined to take. The only form in which I seem able to cast the story of Emilie bears no resemblance to the forms in which stories about historical women are usually told. And I've been fighting that form because it resembles the form taken by "The Science of Herself," aware as I am that many readers would reject it as not really fiction (much less science fiction). I don't want to write an essay about Emilie. I want to imagine and explore aspects of her life as a woman of science in the same way in which I imagine and explore aspects of the lives of the characters I invent. In this sense, "The Science of Herself" is not an essay. Or is it? I'm thrilled that Fowler put this story out there, defying the demands that the writer choose one or the other. I think it will embolden me to finish the story. And I will say, for myself, that I'm increasingly uncertain about whether any clear distinctions can be drawn in every case between fiction and nonfiction. Obviously, some fictions are clearly, unequivocally fictional. But as someone trained in history, I've long been aware that because history is composed of narratives, it must always partake of the uncertainties (and distortions) of representation and won't ever be certain. Though based on "facts," imagination is the glue that makes those facts meaningful. In the end, we come down to story, and what stories can be told under this or that set of circumstances.

"The Science of Herself" plus "The Pelican Bar" alone would make this a bold book for a volume so slim, but "The Motherhood Statement" pushes it into the red zone. The book's second entry, "The Motherhood Statement," takes as its point of departure "The Motherhood Statement" in the Turkey City Lexicon (which Fowler describes as "a primer for science fiction workshops." "Motherhood" in this statement, like "apple pie," exemplifies "conventional social and humanistic pieties." Fowler, as anyone familiar with her work knows, is all about challenging comfortable conventions and "pieties."In principle, she's in agreement with the statement. But.
It's the specifics that give me pause. Apple pie, okay, fine, whatever. But motherhood? Nothing, absolutely nothing, appears to me more contested in our political and social and private lives than motherhood. Any woman who has ever had children can tell you it is no picnic of affirmation. Any woman who has not had children can tell you that that, too, is a controversial place to be. Neither is much admired. (28)

Fowler reminds us of something most science fiction (particularly that written by men) has not, until very recently, taken note of: "Motherhood is a concept that changes from culture to culture and over time. Sometimes it's set in opposition to mothering--motherhood, in this schematic, is the sacred duty of women, an artificial construct which underlies the whole system of patriarchy."(28)

Of course tarring "motherhood" with the brush of conventional social pieties has been a longstanding woman-bashing tradition for fiction written by US men in the twentieth century. It was a part of a concerted (highly successful) program for ejecting fiction by women from the upper echelons of literature in the US.* Fowler doesn't go into that, though, but focuses more closely on attitudes toward women vis-a-vis childraising, before paying tribute to the explorations made by feminist sf in the 1970s and then concluding with attending to the ferocious, on-going twenty-first-century attack on women's reproductive rights and how the free exercise of such rights has become a story many people and venues approach (if at all) with timidity at best and repulsion and censorship at worst. "I can remember no other time in which the attacks on women's freedom have been so widespread, so sustained, and so successful," Fowler writes. "Or half so scary... An argument that begins by positing women valuable only as mothers will end by suggesting that, even as mothers, women are not valuable at all." (32-33)  

Fowler ends the essay by returning to "The Motherhood Statement": "The easy assumption that motherhood constitutes some easy assumption is neither accurate nor serving us well. " (34)

She has a lot of good lines in her interview, but I'll offer you one here: "I believe that the learning in workshops happens to the critiquer not the critiqued." (72) Now go read this sharp little book yourself, if you haven't already.
*See, for instance, Paul Lauter, "Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon: A Case Study from the Twenties" (Feminist Studies 9,3 Fall 1983).

1 comment:

Nancy Jane Moore said...

You made me go back and re-read bits of this delightful book this morning. I came across this in Terry Bisson's interview with her:
"But little is new in the world of antifeminism. I can't help but feel they are phoning it in."