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Is Wally Lamb, author of She's Come Undone, "qualified" to write a first-person narrator in a female voice? After all, as a man, what does he know about women's issues? In this essay I will discuss the issue of "gender-bending" writers and discuss Mr. Lamb's use of such tool.
The term "gender-bender" usually refers to a pop singer or a follower of a pop cult "...who deliberately affects an androgynous appearance by wearing sexually ambiguous clothing, make-up, etc. (Ayto and Simpson 81)" While authors are not included in this specific definition, we must not overlook the possibility that writers can fall under the category of being a "gender-bender." Applying some of the same characteristics of the definition, I believe that an author can be a "gender-bender" by changing the voice of the writer in the novels. Wally Lamb would fall under this category, because as a male author, he is writing his main character in a female voice.
The concept of "gender-bending" authors is not completely foreign to literature, while it may not be applied to the definition presented above. For example, in detective novels that are written by women, some of the characters take on different genders than their writers. In the following passage, taken from the essay "Gender (De)Mystified: Resistance and Recuperation in Hard-Boiled Female Detective Fiction," by Timothy Shuker-Haines and Martha M. Umphrey, discussion is made of detective author Sue Grafton's ability to write in the male persona.
Kinsey Millhone's [a female character in the book F Is for Fugitive] persona is gendered substantially as masculine. A woman who has few friends and lives for her work, she is self-consciously, almost parodically male-defined, as, for example, when she describes her tendency to amuse herself with the abridged California Penal code and textbooks on auto theft rather than engaging in the teatime gossip of a Miss Marple. (Delamater and Prigozy 73)
"Gender-bending" also refers to sex change operations. Such as the case with performance artist Kate Bornstein - a graduate of Brown University - who underwent such an operation thirteen years ago. In an article on the school's website, Ms. Bornstein discusses "gender-bending" and some of the issues she discusses can also apply to "gender-bending" in novels.
The way I view gender is a way to express yourself. ...Gender is just a doorway, and so is sexuality, race and age.
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Essentially, what Ms. Bornstein is saying is that it's okay to have gender-bending in society, and that it shouldn't matter. Taken one step further, the same could be said of novels, and that the author's sex shouldn't matter when it relates to the sex of his or her characters.
A viable question for one to ask at this point is "since Mr. Lamb isn't a female, what experience does he have to be able to understand women enough to write in a female voice?"
Wally Lamb describes his ability to understand women by being "...born and raised in a blue-collar town, Norwich, Connecticut, and grew up with older sisters and older girl cousins who lived just down the street, in a primarily 'girl gang' sort of neighborhood (Frumkes 16)." In addition to his sisters and cousins, Lamb also "...had his wife, Chris ... female students and friends provide reality checks along the way. And he says there are 'bits and scraps' of his life throughout the book, including his youth as a 'fat, unathletic, inactive kid' who tipped the scales at 190 lbs. (Jerome 95)"
This former "fat, unathletic, inactive kid" got his lucky break when, five years after the book was written, She's Come Undone was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club in 1996 (Gleick 81). As of June 1998, there are nearly 3 million books of She's Come Undone in print, with his second book, I Know This Much Is True on the way (Gleick 81). For a former English teacher at a school in Norwich, Conn., the attention was a little overwhelming, resulting in approximately 75 letters a month from readers and renting a telephone-free apartment across town to finish his new novel (Gleick 81).
There are numerous examples in the book She's Come Undone that leads the reader to believe that it was written by a woman, but some of the examples include: When Dolores was nearly 11-years-old, she was at her best friend's house. Jeanette begins a conversation about sex by asking Dolores, "You don't know how women get pregnant, do you?" Dolores answers that she does, but she relates the following passage onto the reader:
My information about sex was a mosiac of eavesdropping, process of elimination, and filling in the blanks. In third grade I'd heard the term 'sleeping together' and spent time worrying that accidental fatigue could make an unwanted child - that male and female strangers sharing a seat together on an overnight train might innocently doze off and wake up as parents. For a while I'd believed that people got pregnant by rubbing their chests together. Men used their you-know-whats to go to the bathroom, I reasoned; it was their nipples that had no other useful function. (My teacher that year, Mrs. Hathaway, was pregnant. As she talked, I'd imagine her engaged with some blank-faced husband in the required nipple friction that had put a baby inside her.) (Lamb 23)
I thought this description was rather telling of what girls that age think of when it comes to sex. It brought back memories from my own childhood and not knowing anything about the "birds and the bees." In Mr. Lamb's own style of taking on the female persona, he made the previous scene believable, thereby proving his ability to take on the "gender-bending" role.
When Dolores is molested in eighth grade by her neighbor twenty-something Jack Speight, whom she trusted implicitly and agreed to go for a drive with him, Mr. Lamb proves yet again the ability to take on a female voice in his characters.
He [Jack Speight] kept fumbling and poking at me. I tried to pull my head up, to punch and spit, but my fists wouldn't land. The drool fell back against my chin. His elbow swung out and jabbed against my throat, gagging me.
His rubbing was rough and mean. His pants were down. 'I hate you!' I shouted. 'You pig!'
I stopped fighting, cut off by the pain of it. The sound of barking dogs fell away so that all I could hear was his cursing and grunting, over and over, in rhythm with each thrust, each rapture. He's splitting me open, I thought. He'll break me and then I'll die.
Jack's anger shook us both. Then he stopped altogether, his dead weight on top of me. He was whimpering, catching his breath. When he got up, he kicked me hard on the leg. (Lamb 109-110)
While I have never been molested or raped, and have no inclination as to how horrible it must be, I think the way that Mr. Lamb wrote this scene - with such description and really putting his character into a female voice - proves yet again what a master Mr. Lamb truly is.
In the time between the molestation and the next scene that I'm going to discuss, Dolores has gone to high school; ballooned to 257 pounds; gone to college; dropped out of college a few months later; entered a mental institution; was "cured" and left the hospital a few years later; married a lazy bum named Dante; and got a divorce. We now are near the end of the book, where Dolores is dating Thayer, a man that she met in her community college English class. Going back to school was a major achievement for Dolores, where she has found her niche. One thing is still missing, however - a baby. She convinces Thayer to try to have a baby with him - with no commitments of marriage. At least, Dolores is the one that doesn't want to get married, despite Thayer's desperate pleas.
"I clamped my hands over my ears. 'Stop it! My whole life still hurts!' it came out as a scream.
When he [Thayer] spoke, his voice was soft again. 'This wouldn't be your marriage to him. This would be our marriage - yours and mine.'
'...And a baby's. You're not being realistic.'
'So what is realistic? Screwing me once a month with the thermometer in your mouth?'
I [Dolores] started making up the bed, snapping the sheets. 'Well, you don't have to worry about that anymore. It was a mistake and now it's over.'
'Meaning what? What's over?'
I didn't answer him.
'Don't I at least get a response? What the hell's happening here?'
I still didn't answer.
'All right,' he said. ...His keys twirled around his finger. 'Have a good life.'" (Lamb 453-454)
This scene is essential to understanding where Dolores is coming from - she is still reeling from her divorce from Dante that she is scared to love again. This fight scene not only proves (yet again) Mr. Lamb's ability to successfully "gender-bend," but also is a segue into the next scene that occurs two weeks later:
Convinced I was pregnant, I bought a home test kit and set it up in the attic, tiptoed up the stairs the next morning with my jar or urine. The results were less reliable during the initial weeks, the box admitted. It was probably a hundred degrees up in that attic. A thousand factors could have mad the test negative. That night in a dream, I gave birth to an Amazon daughter and woke up laughing, positive I was pregnant. Then I reached down in the dark and felt it: the blood, sticky between my legs. (Lamb 454)
Eventually, all works out in the end - Dolores and Thayer make up and get married, but remain childless, as it is discovered that she is infertile.
While I believe that Mr. Lamb did an excellent job of "gender-bending" and putting a female voice into his character, Dolores, it is also important to take into consideration other critics' feelings about the matter.
People Magazine writes, "...One [surprise about the book] is the author's sex. This male writes so convincingly in the voice of a female, tracing her life from 4 to 40, that you have to keep looking at the jacket picture just to make sure (Oprah 2)."
Nicole Trinka, a critic from the Purdue University campus newspaper, writes "The novel is written from Dolores' point of view, and Lamb does an excellent job with a female perspective. Dolores' character is believable, as are the other characters in the novel (1)."
Some of the reviews from the women's web site, www.womancentral.com, wrote their surprise at Mr. Lamb's ability to write in the female voice. "Even though Wally Lamb is a male, this does not discredit his beautiful and sometimes blunt writing," wrote one reviewer (1).
In conclusion, Wally Lamb succeeded in not only breaking from the norm, but also surprising many with his insightful and amazingly accurate portrayals of what it means to be a woman through the eyes of the very memorable character Dolores Price.
Bombardieri, Marcella. "Gender-Bending." Boston Herald Sphere (March 1997): 4 pp. Online. Internet. 21 Nov. 1999. Available FTP:http://www.netspace.org/herald/issues/031897/bornstein.f.html/
Delameter, Jerome H. and Ruth Prigozy, ed. The Detective In American Fiction And Television. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Frumkes, Lewis Burke. "A Conversation with... Wally Lamb." The Writer October 1998:15-17.
"Gender-bender." The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. 1992 ed. Gleick, Elizabeth. "Life After Winfrey?" Time 15 June 1998: 81.
Jerome, Jim. "The Man Behind The Woman." People Magazine 14 Sept. 1992: 95-96.
Lamb, Wally. She's Come Undone. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
"She's Come Undone." Woman Central (February 1999): 9 pp.Online. Internet. 22 Nov. 1999. Available FTP: http://www.womancentral.com/choice/books/SCU.2.html/
Trinka, Nicole. "Book appeals to many audiences." Purdue Exponent (March 1997): 2pp. Online. Internet. 22 Nov. 1999.
Available FTP: http://www.purdueexponent.org/archives/March18_97/entertainment/lamb.html/
Winfrey, Oprah. "Book Reviews." Oprah's Book Club (unknown date): 2 pp. Online. Internet. 23 Nov. 1999. Available FTP:http://www.oprah.com/bookclub/review/wlamb.html/