Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5

Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss

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Sometimes I wonder if my dislike for a lot of Pop singers is because of misogyny. Nowadays female singers aren’t docile like they used be. They’re aggressive, can rap, can have a guitar here and there and not shamed of having a lot of sex or of telling someone to fuck off. My manhood is threatened, and thus I cannot enjoy when Lady GaGa tells me about how everything is beautiful and that we should all just be ourselves (That’s because we all have the privilege of being skinny, right?). I can’t stand Rihanna because a sexually assertive woman offends me. Submission is a turn-on, and without it I’m nothing.

Or maybe not. My favorite Pop singers include Lana Del Rey, Tove Lo and Melanie Martinez which are all concept-heavy. As for aggression, I also admire Emilie Autumn who directly attacked her sexual abusers. The problem with the singers in the first paragraph isn’t that they were ‘assertive’. In fact, no one should be scared of Rihanna. She’s so conformist that Chris Brown beating here wasn’t the big deal. The problem with these singers is that they didn’t sell you an image or a concept, but themselves.

Compare Taylor Swift’s “22” – which I actually like – to any song here. Taylor uses the song as a vehicle to inform the listener who utterly cool and fucking awesome she is. It’s about her, not about having fun. She has a lot of exes, she has breakfasts at midnight unlike these lame ‘cool kids’ and they dream instead of sleep. The songs’ music videos even confirm it. In “Good Time”, Carly and Adam Young are surrounded by people who actually look different and don’t seem to be doing anything but having fun. Everyone in Taylor’s video looks perfect and skinny. It’s a song about contrasts, not about partying.

When everyone got taken away by EMOTION – and by ‘everyone’ I mean ‘music nerds’ – the shock was hearing a Pop singer who really didn’t care about seeming cool. She did way before “I Really Like You”. From a distance, this and “Call Me Maybe” sound like an artist with one gimmick that milks it. Listen to a whole album, and it’s a modus operandi. If Carly can’t deviate, it’s because she’s having too much fun, doesn’t need and want to and invites you to join in.

Adam Young asides, who everyone seems to hate, “Good Time” is such an inviting song. “Call Me Maybe” may have generated the shitty parodies but that song tells you more about who Carly is. Most of the songs here work in the same sphere only with slightly weaker drums. All the songs are about the excitement of first love and first crush, about a possible future that may happen and if it does it’ll be awesome. It’s not exactly optimistic. Rather, Carly captures that tiny moment of happiness when you’re sure someone really likes you or may like you, and you’re kind of emberassed and unsure but enjoy it all the same. Song titles like “This Kiss”, “Curiosity”, “Tiny Little Bows” and “Call Me Maybe” all display this range of emotions. Merge these topics with dance tracks and you have great party music that’s happy, not tough. People who don’t jump to “Tiny Little Bows” look like they’re trying too hard to reach the Idea of Coolness.

Carly’s performance is also perfect. Another problem of contemporary Pop singers is how much they love show us their voice. Often, the songs aren’t meant to be enjoyed. Even the performance isn’t meant to be enjoyed. Rather, we’re supposed to be impressed, stand aside and admire all the vocal acrobatics. Adele epitomizes it and Sia is the biggest offender. Imagine if Sia sang these songs. Will “Turn Me Up” sound so cute and confused if Sia howled? Would it even be about confusion, instead of about how awesome Sia is? Carly sings so low and calm. She rarely stretches her voice, trusting instead her character shine through her voice. It also makes the song more listener-friendly, making it sound like anyone can sing them.

At times she does stretch her voice for something more profound, but it’s so rare it leads to a weird effect. On “More Than a Memory”, she stretches her voice just a little to suit the song’s more somber mood, and it makes her seem vulnerable and worried. Since she doesn’t stretch it often, she shows us that this moment is more important than others – the relationship might die! She also loses the tune a bit on “Guitar String/Wedding Ring”, and the result is ridiculously cute. The song’s lyrics are a bit nonsense, but they, along with the sparkling, noisy production and Carly’s messy voice expresses the excitement and thrill of love all the more effectively. Music is, after all, acting. I’m sure many can sing that song better technically, but I doubt if anyone can convince me like Carly does.

Only one song does stick out where she sounds closer to her contemporaries. That’s “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” which includes an actual bass drop. The noises this time are aggressive instead of sparkling and Carly tries to reach to the top of her voice. It’s also a total success because it focuses on this idea, instead of using these tools as a modus operandi. It’s not another generic club banger but a singer who’s full of pain and needs to let it with singing and loud beats. What’s beautiful is that once the chorus hits, she still sounds vulnerable and hurt. The cries of “getting over you!” aren’t triumphant, but sound like she’s trying to convince herself by constantly repeating it. Many said that “Chandelier” by Sia mixed the whole party-and-depression thing well, but that song, like anything else by her, is about how Sia awesome is. Carly outdid everyone else.

It’s interesting how clean this album is. In a world where singers like Rihanna use misogyny and objectification of women to seem powerful – because being approved by wifebeaters like Chris Brown means you’re strong? – it’s refreshing to hear someone who doesn’t need to go on and on about it. Carly is sexy in her way. She’s not afraid of it, she’s just more concerned with love and having fun. “Good Time” works because, unlike other party songs it’s for everyone – not just people who happen to be sexy. Her excitement in “Tiny Little Bows” is way sexier than anything by Rihanna. Carly was actually older than most singers when she recorded this and many called this ‘immature for her age’, but is it really?

Today Kiss sounds more like a prelude to the brilliant EMOTION, and it’s not as all-encompassing as that albums. Still, what it does it does brilliantly. “Call Me Maybe” is actually buried in a sea of highlight, and there’s a consistent mood that shows Carly always believed that Pop is an album genre. Even the acoustic ballad “Beautiful” doesn’t let down the pace. 12 joyous Pop songs about excitement and love that invites everyone are too much to become viral in this age of irony, but really, if you dislike this you may be trying too hard to seem tough.

3.5 kisses out of 5

Welcome to the NHK! (NHK ni Youkoso!)

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Here it is, people. This is no hyperbole. NHK is the worst anime of all time. It is one of the worst pieces of media you can conjure. A reality show about the Kardashians must be better than this. Pathetic YouTube parodies are better than this. In order to make something worse than this, you’ll need to let Ian Watkins brag about his pedophilia in the Lostprophets album that was never made.

There is no correlation between artistic quality and morality, as Lostprophets have displayed. Yet, you have to wonder what kind of awful person would subject the world to this. Worse, what kind of person would make an anime whose purpose is to make fun of anime watchers? Imagine if your ordinary school bully made an anime. There is so much wrong that I want to rant about it, shoot up heroin and watch Texhnolyze. That one was also bad, but it looks like a better version of Digimon Tamers over this, and Digimon Tamers is already brilliant.

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I’m not sure where to start with this mess, so let’s get with the art style. Art style is important. If not, you wouldn’t use a visual medium. Why, then, are the artists so unimaginative? Something makes me worry it’s on purpose, like those East Coast rappers who are so afraid of sounding ‘not real’ their beats barely have a drum. Everyone in this series is black haired and has no distinct facial features.

This may sound realistic, only it isn’t. People in real life actually look distinct. Even if you eschew wacky hairdos, your characters must not look like they came out of the assembly line. There are no odd touches to the hairstyle, different body structures, or an arrangement of facial features that stick out. In fact, the artists are so unimaginative that they can’t come up with a basic sexy design. Our main characters work on an eroge, and the design they come up with can barely touch the most obscure visual novels. Even when they could use anything in the artist’s arsenal – twintails split into 4, floating hair, purple lips – they still end up with a dull design. It’s worse than visual novels that have ‘same face, different hair syndrome’ because at least Da Capo’s girls have pretty hair.

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Everyone in this show is also fit and quite hot, despite being hikkies. Satou spent days in his room doing nothing (literally nothing, he’s not aware of the existence of porn). He doesn’t cook for himself and drinks a lot of beer. If you expected an overweight dude who looks like George Martin, you’re bound for disappointment. Satou looks more like Brad Pitt in his Fight Club era with a shirt on and a less aggressive stare. If these guys opted for anything realistic, we would’ve seen the consequences of isolation on Satou’s body. Instead, he looks like a side-character from Free!.

As for the story itself, don’t expect any understanding of what pushes people to be hikkies. Don’t expect a deep, dynamic psychology that reacts to the environment and is an active agent in the story. Any comparisons to WataMote are null, since this is the complete opposite. Tomoko struggled. She was lonely but she had to act and do things. We saw her failures, saw her difficulty and it made it so dark. What Tomoko goes through is our every social awkwardness, only every day.

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Satou doesn’t really have to struggle. In fact, he’s not much of a character at all. He has no desires, no life outside the story. He exists so others could pop at his door and force him to get help. It’s not much of a struggle if all you do is react to situations. Sure, it’s not enough to just be offered sex. You also have to go through the dilemma whether to say yes or no to that.

These are two different struggles. One man struggles with getting something, the other is being offered something and needs to accept it or reject it. The creators aren’t aware of the difference. They don’t know how to let a character drive a story, so they offer external conflicts he has to solve. The dilemma of whether to choose yes or no is hardly there, because the anime relies on events and not characters. If Satou chooses ‘no’, nothing actually happens. He doesn’t have a personality to move on from that ‘no’.

Satou, as a character, isn’t an exaggeration. He’s inconsistent. Despite spending years locked in his room, he doesn’t know anything about video games or internet porn or, well, anything. Keep in mind Satou isn’t an Unabomber-style hermit. Hikkies tend to have a hobby that keeps them in the house. Satou should’ve done something during all this time, should’ve gained some knowledge even if it’s only about non-canonical Star Wars planets. He’s completely ignorant of culture that it’s most likely he spent the entire time staring at a wall.

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That’s not impossible, but shouldn’t such a person be affected with a major disorder? Shouldn’t that disorder affect every aspect of their life? Socially, Satou is perfectly fine. Whereas Tomoko struggles every second, Satou is relatively confident. The only time social weakness rears its head is when the creators need him to scream for comic effect. Oh look, a hikkie yelled bullshit and emberassed himself! That’s some high-class humor!

The anime isn’t really about the pains of being a shut-in. The conflict is solved in a few minutes around episode 23 – no psychology, no development. Suddenly there’s a problem, so Satou walks out and he’s no longer a hikkie. Rather, it’s about the joys of conformity, how the world is a beautiful, welcoming place and you all should stop watching perverted anime and get in line. That’s ironic, coming from a country where people ‘conformed’ and let the military run the Rape of Nanking and Unit 731.

The ‘highlight’, if you can call it that, is the anime’s treatment of suicide. The idea life may not be worth living crosses the mind of the creators for no more than 5 seconds. Except for a brief moment, the creators go hammer about how irrational it is. The people in question have their reasons, but it’s pushed aside using ‘irrationality. At the end of the arc, some dude goes hammer about how their suicide will harm others and so they should stop. What an original argument. All of the philosophy behind is being shattered to pieces the size of the atom. Too bad the logic that fuels it can also be used to coerce people into rape, but better shut up before the thought police come.

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Darkness does exist in this anime, but it’s either skimmed over or played for laughs. Misaki’s and Yamazaki’s darker sides exist, but Misaki’s is barely allowed to surface. By the time it does, it reaches its expiration date and Misaki is the redemption. Her dark side never truly hurts Satou. The monologue that supposedly exposes her is to exaggerated, too comical to be a true confession. Like any other piece of darkness, it’s more funny and has zero insight.

Black comedy shouldn’t just have unpleasant topics. It should illuminate them. If you’re going to laugh about sensitive subjects, you need to do more than be funny. So WataMote put us in Tomoko’s shoes, dissecting her failures into little details, showing the absurdity and the pain. Even Borderlands takes violence seriously. Some of it is commentary on how lightly we take violence. By shocking us with how casually the characters treat violence, it gives us a mirror.

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Yamazaki is a lonely dude who’s inept with women. You don’t see his failures, or the pain of rejection. You see him spit monologues about how awesome 2D girls are. It’s quirky, funny and makes you feel good about yourself that you’re not such a loser. Satou’s inner monologues aren’t unhinged enough to show a mental instability, but also not coherent enough to show deep thought behind them. It’s funny that he ‘hallucinates’ weird, Doby-like things. Perhaps the voice actor is to blame. Satou reacts mostly by screaming, but that’s once in a while. In general, he functions well enough.

When they fail, it’s always because they were too weird. The world is mostly benevolent, with the occasional schemer here and there. A few scenes comment on the isolation of the modern world, but it’s always implied the characters brought themselves to this eternal isolation. It’s such an optimistic view, a ‘pull yourself by the bootstraps’ crap people tell others because they think luck doesn’t exist. Characters rarely deal with failure that’s caused not necessarily because they’re to blame, but because that’s how the world works. Things just sometimes don’t work.

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Based on Satou’s situation, he could’ve easily grabbed to Misaki and use her to increase her social skills. As a later character displays, in this world you can do anything if you only try. Said character starves from shutting himself in, so he crawls out and immediately finds a job. What a friendly world that is, where people walk to your door and offer to develop your social skills and where you can apply for any random job and be accepted.

is a ridiculously optimistic anime that refuses to acknowledge the world isn’t a happy happy joy joy place. Characters who feel bad are mocked or written as irrational morons. As we know, everyday other people walk to others’ doors and offer help. What? It didn’t happen to you? That’s odd. Perhaps this anime isn’t so realistic. Perhaps what makes something truly unrealistic is not things that cannot happen. Rather, it’s when the meaning underneath the symbols – in this case, the optimism – is completely detached from reality.

0.5 out of 5. I don’t come up with a unique phrase for this crap

Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5

The Friendzone! Or: The Demonization of Desire

Unless you’ve been blessed with asexuality, you’ve had a close brush with the Friendzone. I’m sure it also happens to gays’n’lesbians, but I’m not among you. I’m in the hetero majority and so I can only speak about that experience. Also, I refuse to gender the friendzone. Since the dating scene is rigged against men by nature (Controversial statement? Different discussion), we mostly hear about how men are friendzoned. It can happen to women, too. Nothing about being a female protects you from rejection. So for the rest of this post I will refer to the parties as Rejector and Rejected.

All the narratives you hear about the friendzone revolve around one principle. It’s the demonization of desire. Both parties refuse to acknowledge the other party’s humanity, needs and existence. Both can’t imagine someone exists with different wants. So they demonize them.

The Rejected’s narrative:
“I was a great person. I was kind and nice. They didn’t choose me because I was good enough. They only like assholes. They deserve to be with such assholes for not choosing me. The fact I was nice and kind and worked hard means I deserve romance. I know what’s good for you because…?”

The Rejector’s narrative:
“You didn’t want me! You only want sex! If you really loved me, you’d sit there and be happy for being rejected and that I found someone else! Besides, it’s impossible that you really love me. You can only want sex and that’s why I didn’t choose you. I know what you really want because…?”

Notice the pattern?

Rejection hurts our pride. It tells us that we’re simply not good enough. Sadly, romance and sexuality don’t make sense. They’re not a meritocracy with clear guidelines and ways of improvement. Getting thinner or funnier or more confident won’t necessarily win you the person you want. Rejection is a failure you cannot learn from.

So the only way to deal with this fog is to deny it. It’s always easier to deny failure, to deny other people’s success. When you’re in a system that has no set rules what can you do? You can’t quit on sexuality, so you simply distort it for your own advantage. You say to yourself that you’re actually good. You didn’t win the person because the person was at fault. They weren’t good enough to realize how amazing you are. You end up removing their desires and wants from the equation. Their desire is considered invalid simply because you are not what they desire.

Notice the language I ended up using. ‘Winning the person’, as if it’s a prize.

Of course, nobody owes us romance or sex. Even if we could control attraction, we wouldn’t owe anyone these. These aren’t things you give someone. Romance is something you create together. Sex is something you do together. You cannot remove the other person’s wants from the equation. The moment you do, you’re no longer interested in a relationship.

Another thing the Rejected forget is that the world is full of people they don’t want. They’re so invested in their “I am rejected” position, they cannot see all these people they wouldn’t be in a relationship with. Take a walk outside and you’ll see at least 20 people. How many of these attract you? In your school, how many of the attracting sex you wanted a romance with? There are plenty people you’d reject too. You simply don’t have the opportunity yet.

Now, let’s move on to the other side.

All things being equal, it’s better to reject than be rejected. You haven’t put in any effort. The main thing you get from rejecting someone is that at least one person wanted to. Overall, you’re in the position of power. You’re given a door and you can decide whether to enter it or not.

But a person who wants a relationship with you isn’t an offer you can refuse with no consequences. You’re not offered an object, but a person. Nevertheless, we don’t really like to reject people. Hurting other people is no fun. If those who rejected were good friends of ours it hurts even worse. Guilt is no fun. If hurting those we love was easy, people would commit suicide more often.

One way of dealing with guilt is to sweep it under the rug. If rejecting someone weighs too much on your consciousness, just write the person off as not serious. They only wanted sex, after all. That doesn’t count (Sex isn’t a psychological need, remember. Only SmartPhone apps make people happy). All the effort they put into courting you was just a scheme! It’s also impossible for a person who only wants sex to have good intentions. They must only care about their own pleasure and be selfish in bed.

See what’s happening here? You turn the Rejected into a demon, a person who’s out to hurt you. You spin-doctor their desires as if their invalid. When was the last time you were rejected and took it like this? What makes the desire of the Rejected so invalid?

It’s easier to reject someone once we minimize and dehumanize them. They’re already not sexually attractive. So we just think that they only care about themselves, that they only treat us as a reward and we are the victim. Someone dared to want us sexually! If wanting sex is so bad, why do Rejectors later have sex? Could it be the desire of a sexy person counts more than the desire of a non-sexy one?

The same desire we demonize in the Rejected we have, too. You will also only want sex from some people, or put effort into being liked by those you’re romantically attracted to. If your feelings are valid enough that you’ll act on them, why is the Rejected’s wants invalid?

There’s irony in the tough-guy talk of “Get over it! Nobody owes you sex! I thought you were my friend!”. Just as nobody owes you sex, nobody owes you friendship. If a person doesn’t want friendship – if they’re interested only in romance or sex – they’re allowed to quit. After all, you would break off a relationship you wouldn’t want, either.

There is a solution to this that’s simple in theory but difficult in practice. The solution is to not pick sides. We should accept that both desires are valid. It’s okay to only want sex. It’s okay to not want a friendship and only a romance. It’s okay to only want a friendship with romance.

Sometimes, how we view people isn’t how they view us. When two people want different things from a relationship, it doesn’t work and it’s time to rethink it. Love confessions are such a moment. The two parties should first off recognize nobody is being immoral by wanting something. Then, if both aren’t willing to settle just walk away.

Yes, rejection hurts. Yes, it hurts to lose a friend who wanted more. It’s okay to get angry and listen to a lot of loud music. You need to be aware there’s something a little beyond your anger. We should find ways of overcoming rejection and the guilt not by pointing guns at the other party. Relationships don’t always fail because of one party.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. I stayed good friends with a woman who rejected me and I don’t regret a second of it. It was difficult, but even through the anger I knew that it was her choice and there wasn’t nothing morally wrong about it. That’s life. Rejection happens, but we cannot move from it unless we acknowledge that it hurts, and that it’s done out of malice.

 

Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder

moraldisorder
I’m not sure how to react this. This shouldn’t happen. Moral Disorder is part of a literary movement that’s close to me. Stories about the daily lives of people grab me like no other. I can forgive many flaws – lack of characters, lack of narrative structure – if the events are vivid enough.

Something about this literature is so lifelike. The grandmaster, Raymond Carver, didn’t have in-depth psychology and his stories rarely concludd. Yet his prose felt so intimate. He made you feel like you’re attached at the hip to these characters. I always held that the best authors have good prose by default. They can write anything and it will be a pleasure to read.

Atwood belongs to that line of authors, but that’s pure skill. This is why Moral Disorder isn’t as good as a random Raymond Carver story, although it’s close. Her prose is easy to read, focused and hardly rambles. She lacks a sense of style, though. Give her a good story – Alias Grace – and she tells it masterfully. When the prose needs to do more than just relay the events she’s in trouble.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best stories are the most eventful. The stories at the farm, especially the one involving butchering animals are the most fun. The events are interesting by themselves. Atwood is creative enough to imagine weird happenings with farm animals. All she has to do is relay them with her precise prose and you get the title story – a strong candidate for one of Atwood’s best pieces of writing.

Other great stories include The Headless Horseman and My Last Duchess. In these stories Atwood trumps Carver. Carver was a master of prose, but he was less good at imagining events. His prose breathed life into the mundane, but whenever he stretched himself he felt clumsy (That story about a headache always felt off). Atwood has a brimming imagination. Her events are never mundane. Rather, she mines the oddness of life – the last Halloween, a school project involving analyzing a poem. There’s something so lifelike in the teenagers’ conversation about the poem. The teenager’s complaint about the uselessness of it is the sort of thing I heard from my friends, too. Atwood recognizes the literary retarded without shaming them.

These stories also showcase Atwood’s main flaw, and that is characters. A common problem in realistic fiction is the removal of weirdness, but reality is weird. Atwood understands reality is full of weird events, but she forgets people are weird, too. The young sister is one of the few characters that are actually characters. Most of the time, what drives the characters is so basic it’s not important.

The stories are meant to be inter-connected. In order to connect these stories, though, we need to recognize that th characters appear again and again. It’s only seeing the name of Tig a few times that made me notice this. Until then, it felt like all characters were archetypical Everymen.

Atwood’s conflicts are believable, but not insightful. She has enough imagination to create a marriage that’s on a slow, peaceful divorce that gets uglier as it goes on. She doesn’t have the psychological insight to bring this relationship to life. The effort is there – Oona is almost a living, breathing character but not really. Instead of being something unique, she’s just a successful woman that hides a lot of secrets and can’t make it on her own.

Her character sketches are too generalized and not specific. The closest she comes to making a unique character is in Nell’s mom. The last story gives us some cues to who she is – her refusal to hear stories without happy endings, for example. Too bad that story also tries to expand on sideline characters with a sort of self-awareness that’s clever, but in the end doesn’t lead to much.

The worst offender is the main character. I’m a writer myself and I can somehow forgive that. Why is writing main characters so difficult? Why can we imagine odd sideline characters with quirks, yet our main characters always end up as observers? On the Headless Horseman, she brings the main character to life with her attitude towards youth, Halloween and all that stuff. In that story our protagonist reacts and makes decisions. In all the rest, she mostly observes.

Since her role in these story is mostly active – she’s the character that connects these stories – this observant behavior takes the life out of the stories. Nell is given a role that’s not suited her. The stories are about her, her experience with Tig and at the farm. If these stories were an assortment of tales about weird people Nell meets, then that flaw wouldn’t be so offensive. Even then, though, we’d need something about Nell. She’d need to connect all these tales. Moral Disorder is, however, about her but sadly she’s not very interesting. Atwood can imagine odd happenings, but not main characters.

Overall though, this is still worth picking up. Atwood is still excellent at relaying events in plain language. If she can’t mine life out of hr characters, at least the set-pieces are memorable enough. Atwood’s prose is also good enough on its own. It doesn’t have wide appeal, but if you enjoyed Atwood before or you like dirty, hard realism there’s plenty to enjoy here. At worst, read the title story or The Headless Horseman.

3 butchered farm animals out of 5