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The Writer’s “Privilege”

25 November, 2011

My current bathtub book, so-called because I read it while soaking and it was cheap enough I will not feel bad if it gets wet, is Vigil by Robert Masello. The story centers on two major plots. The A plot is the discovery of a demon-like fossil in a submerged cave in Italy. The B plot is a Hebraic scholar translating a very old, very sacred text. Through the course of events both fossil and scholar end up in New York. The former is being analyzed by a pair of professors (one American and one Italian) the latter is doing his analyzing in the spare bedroom of his wealthy, influential father’s penthouse to the annoyance of the step-mother young enough to be his sister. I have enjoyed the story so far; the tale is well written. The problem I have, however, is the author’s view of the world.

The author’s tone is quite clear and he is, unfortunately, a bit of a bigot. To begin we have our Hebraic scholar. He is the neurotic son of the “wealthy Jewish merchant.” His neuroses are crippling without the medicine prescribed by his psychiatrist and he comes across as an educated, unfunny Woody Allen type. Next we have the women in the book. each one, of course is stunning, with the anticipated exception of the “next door neighbor” type wife who is friends with the American professor’s wife. This character is average and is also in constant spats with her husband. Another stereotype. As for the gorgeous women, the first is beautiful and panicky and needs to be rescued. The second (the American’s wife) is stunning and knowledgeable of Renaissance artwork, but her clients are more interested in her body than the artwork. The third is a bright and beautiful young graduate student who is feisty and aggressive in her questions. And the fourth, is the young, sexy, conniving, gold-digging step-mother. If I did not know better, I would swear the misogynistic author was channeling Ian Fleming.

The story is well written and has enough suspense that I keep reading, in spite of the author’s clearly  privileged, WASP-male perspective of the world. I would have to be an asshole to say Masello cannot write and even then it would be a lie. The action and pacing had caught me up and propelled me through the first third of the book, until I came to this paragraph on page 141:

He came around the side of the massive old building–yellow brick that had long since turned brown–and the mobs immediately thinned out. There were revelers, but they were bent on making their way back to the action. By the time he turned the corner and was crossing behind the loading area, there were just a few stragglers–and the ever-preset transvestite, a tall black man in a red suede coat, leaning into the rear window of an idling limousine. Working even on Halloween night, Russo thought; there was something laudable in that [emphasis mine].

The passage turned my stomach.

To begin, there is no reason for the inclusion of the transvestite prostitute. We had not encountered the character before and I doubt we will again. Notice that the author makes it a point to say the character is male when simply saying transvestite would have been sufficient as, according to the mental health community, only men can suffer transvestism; women who wear men’s clothes are expressing a natural though ineffective desire to better themselves. (Clearly, writers are not the only ones who can be sexist.) The only reason to include the statement the character is male is to heighten the falsity and deviance of the character’s existence and to enable “his” use as a prop to create a seedy, ominous, surrealistic feel. Next on my list of complaints, Masello made the transvestite a prostitute, aside from being incredibly offensive in its stereotyping, it is also a gigantic white-male writer cliché. “Oh, I need something creepy and clearly divergent and wrong, I know I’ll include a trans sex worker.” Adding further insult is the fact this is the novel’s only black character. A black, transvestite, sex worker in a dark alley catering the whims of a wealthy, sex-fiend in a limo. “Yep,” says the writer, “that should creep people out.” Finally, the only good quality the character has is a solid work ethic because it is Halloween night. Hence the description of the transvestite as “ever-present,” as in this is not a costume but how this person is everyday. Never mind the struggles, racism, cissexism, and general discrimination this character would clearly face as a marginalized member of society. The bravery to be oneself in spite of those odds is nothing, but to be working on Halloween, well that is “laudable.”

And what really pisses me off is the rest of the book is well written enough that I am going to finish reading it because I need to know what happens next.

God damn.

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