Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 6, 2017

Maggie Nelson, _Jane: A Murder_

READING AROUND SOMEWHAT randomly this week before classes resume, and the world of female puberty keeps coming up: not only Brenda Shaughnessy's "Is There Something I Should Know," discussed in the preceding entry, but also Zadie Smith's Swing Time (about two-thirds read), a large part of which is about a childhood-to-adolescence female friendship in working class London in the eighties, and Emma Cline's The Girls (just started, about 20% read) about a teenaged girl ending up in the orbit of a fictionalized version of the Manson Family.

The further I get from puberty, the weirder it seems. A dark, directionless forest one stumbles into about age twelve, haunted by spirits of self-alienation, humiliation, and fear, from which one emerges at 19 or 20 with, if lucky, a few intact shreds of selfhood. I lived those years in a stable, loving family without any kind of material want, and it was still the worst time of my life.

What does this have to do with Nelson's Jane: A Murder? I did not find myself thinking of puberty while I was reading it, usually a few pages at a time, back in November and December. It's a hybrid text (mainly short poems, a few prose passages, excerpts from documents) imagining/reconstructing the life of Nelson's aunt, Jane, who was killed by a serial rapist-murderer in 1969 when Jane was just completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. Nelson never met Jane face-to-face, as the murder occurred before Nelson was born, but the event naturally changed the family into which she was born in indelible ways, so an attempt at self-understanding shadows the larger quest to understand who Jane was.

I recalled Jane while reading the other books because of its documents: excerpts from a diary Jane kept when she was about eleven to twelve, and then some further journal-like writings from when she was in college. The entry years and exit years of coming-of-age, then, and the recurring impression one gets is that Jane had come through. The self-doubts, the battles with family, the befoggedness we all have to deal with--she had dealt with it, and she was going to be okay.

Except that there was one more monster in the forest, ancient, faceless sexualized violence--wish I had Shaughnessy's "Is There Something I Should Know" here and not in the office across town, because she has some terrific lines about this--and Jane was murdered.

Is that why the election of Trump seems a larger catastrophe than the election of Reagan or either Bush? That he seems to embody that kind of threat, to give it an aura of impunity?

Anyway, Jane: A Murder is back in print thanks to the success of The Argonauts, and I hope a lot of people pick it up.

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