JANUARY 23, 2015
THIS FALL saw the publication of two novels that take on and complicate the narratives of motherhood while highlighting unequal power dynamics between men and women. Nell Zink’s debut The Wallcreeper is a daring and philosophical book about newlyweds Tiffany and Stephen who, after moving from Pennsylvania to Switzerland for Stephen’s job, find their marriage compromised, and themselves unwitting members of an international environmental movement. In a signature tongue-in-cheek style, the book succeeds in capturing the devastation of miscarriage and sexual coercion while simultaneously taking aim at the shallowness and vanity of social media activism. Though Tiff claims she’s “not a feminist,” her interactions with male and female characters alike trace the story of her struggle to regain selfhood in the wake of gender-based trauma.
Told from Tiff’s point of view, the story opens with her miscarriage when Stephen, an avid birdwatcher, swerves while driving to avoid hitting the titular avian, and collides with a boulder. In a show of untimely enthusiasm, Stephen brings the injured wallcreeper home — where it becomes a symbolic replacement for their fetus. The literal interruption of Tiff’s pregnancy also signals further interruptions to come. When Tiff is unable to have vaginal sex because, in her words, her “whatever had not healed,” Stephen penetrates her anally against the kitchen counter without explicitly asking permission. Doubly traumatized, Tiff proceeds to entangle herself in a series of extramarital affairs and refuses to go back to work, or be a housewife, thus bucking all traditional roles.
The Wallcreeper is as much a story of Tiff’s internal transformation as it is an investigation of married life in a changing world with rapidly shifting gender expectations. Stephen’s failure to understand Tiff’s suffering in the weeks following her miscarriage drives an emotional wedge between them. He continues to gallivant around on mountainsides, bird watching and rediscovering his youthful interest in rock music. Meanwhile, Tiff convalesces post-partum and cares for her proxy child, the wallcreeper whom they name Rudolf Hess (“Rudi”) and who “may never fly again.” Throughout the book, the presence of birds plays into the theme of “breeding and feeding” — a joke Stephen makes about animal nature, or how our sexual desires intermingle with our need to consume to stay alive. But there is no joking later on, when Tiff and Stephen watch as Rudi, upon his release back into the wild, is promptly eaten by another bird. Breeding and feeding, indeed.
Zink deftly uses voice to craft character. Throughout The Wallcreeper, Tiff’s indifferent tone, which can read as both petulance and shock, echoes a 21st century millennial apathy and also an adaptation to the physical trauma of miscarriage and unwanted anal sex. “Losing the baby was more dire than I had dreamed possible… It was a bodily distress, ” says Tiff. Once Stephen took advantage of her anally, she “had overcome her fear of intimacy. All intimacy was gone.” She’s become estranged from her body, and thus estranged from language, which comes from the body. “I had no way of putting it into words,” she says of the miscarriage; and of the things she witnessed in the hospital after the miscarriage, they “did not admit of euphemism” — in other words, simple description. Her emotional detachment breeds malaise, inaction, and ultimately self-loathing. Tiff will later describe a woman she meets as “the right kind of wife”: a young, well-educated, energetic mother of two who is skilled at hosting, multilingual, and a self-proclaimed feminist. Tiff “envied her with a pang,” and provokes readers to question what the “right kind of woman” should look and sound like — and how such a woman should behave.
In her multilayered, metafictional novel Helen Keller Really Lived, Elisabeth Sheffield introduces us to several women entangled in the complicated threads of motherhood. Alternating between chapters in close-third- and first-person points of view, Sheffield positions these women in relation to a fertility clinic that’s failing to help its clients achieve pregnancy. Selina, the protagonist, is a childless online-certified Reiki master and widow. Shopping in the mall one day, she meets Lyndon, the wife of the fertility clinic’s owner, and learns Lyndon is having trouble conceiving. Selina is desperate to make money after her husband’s death, so she invites Lyndon back to her house for a marijuana-induced “healing experience.” Afterward, Lyndon convinces her husband to hire Selina at his fertility clinic. Selina works alongside Fritzi, a registered nurse whose sons now live with their father. These three central characters evince varied experiences of motherhood: loss of custody in divorce, infertility, and, as we later learn, abortion and step- and surrogate motherhood. On the outskirts of this drama, there is Cara, speaking in her own chapter from beyond the grave, whose unplanned son Selina often cared for while Cara was ill with Lyme’s disease. Another outlier is Kyle, the “Tattoo Girl” with premature ovarian failure, whom Selina finds crying in the Pregnancy and Motherhood section of a bookstore.
In Helen Keller Really Lived, Sheffield has woven an intricate and sensitive tapestry of female experience. The choice of the fertility clinic as a fulcrum for this story indicates that motherhood will be problematized; that a man owns the clinic is equally telling. In each of the female characters’ stories, male intervention has disrupted their ideal pregnancy narratives: Fritzi’s husband forces her to get pregnant; Selina’s forces her to get a hysterectomy. Lyndon dreams of having biological children but is forced into step-motherhood. After her hysterectomy, Selina serves as a surrogate mother to Cara’s disabled and ill-behaved son, but her jealous husband won’t allow her to foster him. Powerfully, birth and death cycle together through the narrative, along with ghosts: the ghosts of babies not born and the ghosts of these women’s former lives, including memories of their own parents’ failures, the stories of their parents’ own childhood traumas and fallen siblings. But there are also literal ghosts, as disembodied voices in first-person chapters. These chapters contain the key to the book’s title, in the form of a multiple-choice question: True or false, Helen Keller really lived.
Well, what is living?
Of all the characters in Helen Keller Really Lived, Fritzi’s story may be the most tragic. Though she didn’t want to be a mother, she was forced by her husband, a doctor, to get pregnant, and gave birth to twins with ADHD. She resents motherhood and hates her children, and thus hates being a mother. She is in the throes of a psychotic break when we meet her; she has left the children she never wanted with the husband who demanded them and has been staging a revolt against her husband’s clinic. In light of medicine’s misogynistic history, this sabotage feels like a sweet refusal to heed the doctor’s orders; to give a finger to the man with the stethoscope who “knows better,” who points with a tongue depressor and cries, “Hysterics!”
Tiff’s journey back to selfhood in The Wallcreeper is another story of revolt in the form of refusal. After her miscarriage and defilement, Tiff refuses to go back to work. It’s easy to mistake Tiff’s inaction as long-term convalescence, or even laziness, but a deeper reading reveals Tiff has dug in. In shock, and unable to care anymore, she decides to give Stephen what he wants. If she has to be passive, she’ll be radically, annoyingly passive. She’ll stay with Stephen even if she doesn’t care about him. She’ll be a stay-at-home wife and be sexually available to a fault — even with other men. She’ll be utterly uninformed on current issues, have no ideas of her own, and look the other way, indifferent, when Stephen sleeps with other people, including her sister. Ironically, the result is the opposite of what Tiff later calls “the right kind of wife” — a woman wholly shaped by mainstream patriarchal standards. This new Tiff is outwardly boring, unfaithful, and emotionally impenetrable.
Stephen’s new, clicktivist girlfriend, Birke, is a graphic design major whose media campaign to save salmon from the fate of hydroelectric power becomes an Internet phenomenon. Housed in a design agency, her Global Rivers Alliance earns widespread recognition and invitations to two environmental conferences. Swept away by convert’s enthusiasm, Stephen decides to leave his job as a pharmaceutical researcher and go to work for Birke, and Tiff eventually follows. She accompanies them to one of the conferences, where she is abandoned by Birke and Stephen, and initiates an affair with a married man who later publicly denounces her. The vanity of Global Rivers Alliance’s mission is thrown into relief when Tiff, disillusioned, and at the urging of a reclusive priest, begins removing rocks from a medieval levee in order to flood a long-dry forest. She works in solitude, and works steadily with her hands. Alone in the woods, there are no philandering lobbyists sexually harassing her at a conference; no snarky, elitist tweets. No banner ads. And most importantly, there is nobody telling her what to think, or not to think. There is just labor — a return to a sense of cause and effect, which Tiff lost with the miscarriage — and the sun rising and setting, a return to natural order.
Tying these two books together is the contiguity of the female body with the natural world. There are animals, trees, rivers, rain. The seasons change; Selina falls asleep on the grass; one wallcreeper eats another. And within that, there is the sense of the female body’s connection to what is tangibly intangible. In Helen Keller Really Lived, Timor’s boyfriend, Bliss, teaches Timor about ghosts, saying, “There is nothing in the mind that was not in the senses.” Writing through the body as a living, complex, feeling organism throws shade on any simplistic motherhood narrative. Nothing about motherhood is simple because, like the body, motherhood is not any one thing. It is a range of caretaking, a process of transformation, the beginning and the continuation of a story. It is a radical shift in a character’s relation to an ever-shifting world, and a kind of origin, and an end. It is also a step we can choose not to take.