crap i have read recently #18

bodice ripper coverSPOILERS…and…well, a fair amount of bitching.  You’ve been warned.

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Outlander (Diana Gabaldon, 1992):  Rather a lot of people have recommended that I read this book, describing it to me as fantasy and I suppose it is but not the kind I was expecting.  Usually when I think fantasy I think elves and wizards and magic, other worlds, other realities.  I’m not usually thinking “bodice ripper” but that, in a nutshell, describes Outlander perfectly.

Claire Randall is a young wife visiting the area around Loch Ness with her husband Frank.  Both have recently returned from serving in WWII, Claire as a field nurse and Frank as…well, we never really find out what it is Frank did in the war.  He doesn’t talk about it and Claire doesn’t ask, although she does note his uncanny ability to skulk quietly about the woods.   It turns out that an ancestor of his, one Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, served in the area and Frank, who is into genealogy, is very excited to discuss family history with the local cleric, who might have some records.  Claire and Frank roam about the picturesque and historic area, taking a few moments here and there to have sex in charming little glens and whatnot, when they aren’t scandalizing the landlady at their hotel.  They seem quite the happy couple, glad to be together again after the war that separated them for six years, and trying to get pregnant.   One morning they are delighted to witness the elderly matrons of the village conducting a Druidic ritual at some local standing stones.  Claire returns later to pick some medicinal herbs she noticed growing in the circle and leans against one of the stones.  She hears strange noises, becomes dizzy, and faints.

When she comes to, she notices that things appear a bit different.  She follows noises that sound like a battle and is soon taken in hand, literally, by a man who looks remarkably like her husband.  This turns out to be none other than “Black Jack” Randall himself.  Given her scandalous state of undress (summer frock) he assumes she’s a whore and treats her accordingly, mostly by groping her, kissing her, and lewdly suggesting he’d do her then and there if he didn’t have more pressing matters at hand.   While Randall is trying to decide whether she’s actually a spy, he’s knocked out by a passing Scotsman and Claire is taken off with him to join his party as they escape from the English.  Thus it is that Claire meets Jamie, a tall, fiery-headed young Scotsman with a dislocated shoulder and a musket wound. Claire, being a nurse and all, impresses them with her ability to pop a shoulder back into place and dress a gunshot wound despite her inappropriate attire and basically being a female.  About this time Claire realizes that she’s not found herself in the middle of a historical reenactment or a movie set and concludes that she’s probably gone back in time.

This is about the point where I started to have my doubts about the book.  Time travel in fiction has always both intrigued me and frustrated me.  It is a trope ripe with potential and very easily abused.  The implications of actual time travel are so immense that books, stories, and films that involve it very often collapse into incoherence, but in the best ones (Terminator, Looper, the Blink episode of Dr. Who, the animes Steins;Gate and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Back to the Future, Slaughterhouse Five, The Sound of Thunder) the inherent paradoxes can keep one up for hours afterwards discussing them and pondering.  In Outlander time travel is just a plot device.  Claire accepts it so casually that I began to think she might be simple.  Think about it.  As much as one might like to time travel, don’t you think that if you actually found yourself two hundred years in the past you’d consider just about every other possibility before that one?  Claire does initially believe she’s on a movie set but as soon as she sees Jamie’s very real wound she decides she’s really in the past.  I think most of us would start demanding to see the director or the asshole running a reenactment with live steel and real guns.  At the very least we’d question our own sanity, especially if we’d just been a field nurse in a brutal world war.  PTSD, anyone?  Not Claire though.  Yep, must be time travel. It’s the only logical explanation.  It goes without saying that Claire never once considers the effect her actions might have on her own future.

It only goes downhill from there.  Claire travels with the Scotsmen to Castle Leoch (a ruin in her time), seat of MacKenzie clan leader Colum MacKenzie.   Colum is pretty sure she is an English spy but she concocts a story of being recently widowed and on her way to France to stay with relatives when she was set upon first by highwaymen and then by the English.  She wisely gives them her French-sounding maiden name and the clan leader graciously allows her to stay while they look into getting her to France and check up on her story.  She’s given some decent clothes and put to the work in the kitchen.  When snooping about in Colum’s office she finds letters that confirm she is now in 1743.  There follows from this various adventures.  Claire’s medical skills impress the Scots and they essentially make her the castle’s chief medical officer.  She visits a local herb-woman and learns about the medicinal plants that grow in the area and how to concoct them into useful medicines.   She travels for a bit with Jamie and Colum’s brother Dougal, who turns out to be a Jacobite working up support for Bonnie Prince Charlie.  She discovers that Black Jack Randall viciously flogged Jamie to the point of near death for the crime of defending his sister from Randall’s unwanted advances.   Claire herself falls into Randall’s hands again and he attempts to beat the truth out of her.  This prompts the Scotsmen to insist that the only way to protect Claire from the English is to have her marry a clansman, an action that would effectively make her a Scot and thus outside the scope of English authority.  You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Jamie is the lucky man.

This is where the “fantasy” part of the tale kicks in.  Not the elf/wizard/magic type of fantasy, but the type of fantasy apparently indulged in by women who find a certain something lacking in their lives.  James Alexander Malcom MacKenzie Fraser is the very picture of a man.  Tall enough to rest  his chin on the top of Claire’s head, with copper colored hair, and a robust and lusty sense of humor (i.e., he’s Scottish), he’s overwhelmingly masculine.  Also, he’s a virgin.  Claire doesn’t take a whole lot of convincing when it comes to marrying him and their wedding night is one of lusty exploratory sex.  Claire teaches him about oral sex and multiple female orgasm and Jamie spends the night exhausting both her and himself.   From then on, these two sex it up at just about every opportunity.  Thankfully Gabaldon does not indulge in graphic depictions of the acts themselves; I doubt her prose would be up to it.  Instead we get lots of expressions of delight and some flowery euphemisms and much ribald good humor from the couples’ traveling companions.

In general, the characters are one-dimensional.  Claire just kind of drifts through her adventure in the past, never really considering the effects her actions might have on the future.  She’s entirely selfish throughout and dishonest to boot.   Her first husband is a cypher and that is probably for the best since he’s completely expendable.  Gabaldon makes Frank vaguely sinister by shrouding his wartime service in mystery, implying he did something that wouldn’t bear close scrutiny, but it really is not uncommon for men and women who’ve been to war to keep their memories to themselves.  This was particularly true before our modern therapeutic era.  Frank suffers from his similarity to his distant ancestor; Gabaldon makes sure we are aware of their physical similarity and the implication is that the similarity goes deeper than appearances.  However, the man actually does nothing improper at all;  he treats Claire with tenderness and respect and appears genuinely to love her.  In any event, it soon becomes clear that he’s merely Claire’s starter husband and Frank, who in the future is probably frantically searching for his missing wife, is more or less forgotten.  As readers, we are meant to feel no sympathy at all for him and to assume that the evil of his ancestor has descended onto to him.  (Gabaldon has a PhD in ecology and a background in marine biology and this lack of understanding of basic genetics is inexplicable).   Basically, because we don’t like Randall we can happily overlook Claire’s cuckolding Frank.

Randall, as it turns out, is quite the nasty piece of work.  In Claire’s time he’s considered a respected officer of the King’s army who served honorably and was decorated.  Poor Frank is delighted to have such a distinguished ancestor but from the very minute we meet Jack Randall it is obvious he’s evil to the core.   We know this because 1) he wears a red coat (Gabaldon is an American and British in red coats resonate powerfully with us); 2) he’s impotent with women unless they are screaming; and 3) he’s into men.  Yes, you read that correctly.   When Jamie finally tells Claire what happened between him and Randall it turns out that Randall offered to forgo the second flogging if Jamie would consent to have sex with him.  Now, I do realize that both in Claire’s time (1945, just a few years before Alan Turing was prosecuted for being homosexual) and in 1743 homosexual behavior was considered an abomination in the eyes of God and man.  But still, to use it as shorthand for a man’s character is pretty despicable.  One would think the man’s propensity for flogging minor criminals to within an inch of their lives and for taking women against their will would be sufficient to illustrate his character.  I must conclude that Gabaldon just really likes using rape as a plot device and had to figure out a way to make Jamie a victim of unwanted sexual advances as well as Claire.

And Jamie.  Sigh.  Apparently this is every woman’s fantasy.  A strapping young stereotype, confident in his manliness, with a good sense of humor, and yet with so little actual experience that a woman can train him up appropriately.   He’s good-natured, direct in his approach, disarmingly charming, and of course wears nothing under his kilt.  He practices old-school chivalry, endangering his own life to save his sister and taking the punishment on behalf of a young woman who behaved scandalously.  His brogue is thick, his eyes sparkle, and apparently his endowment is impressive.  Also, he beats his wife.  This aspect of male-female relationships is noticeably lacking from my own fantasies but apparently I’m in the minority.  When Claire disobeys him and endangers the group, he literally beats her ass with his sword belt until she cannot walk.  Later he admits that beating her turned him on.  After a long explanation of his own multiple beatings at the hands of his father and his teachers, Claire accepts that he was right to hit her.  No, no, no.  Absolutely and completely no.  I am actually not going to accept the explanation that “this was acceptable behavior in those days.”  This is a fantasy for modern women, not 18th century or mid-20th century housewives.  Although Claire does make Jamie promise never to hit her again, she does not take the opportunity to tell him exactly why beating people is wrong, nor does she point out the obvious parallel to Randall’s floggings.  Apparently it is sexy and romantic when one’s studly husband beats obedience into you but not when that nasty lobsterback does.

I’m halfway through the book and I doubt I will finish it.  Claire is completely uninteresting and I’m tired of her almost being raped every other chapter.  Which is not to say that I want her to actually be raped, just that it would be nice if the author could think of some other way to imperil her heroine.  Honestly, rape is such an ongoing theme in this novel that one would think our forebears did absolutely nothing else.  It goes so far that Jamie’s only experience of human sex prior to bedding the lovely Claire was witnessing a rape, which along with his experiences seeing animals copulate, gave him some interesting misconceptions on his wedding night.  So far Claire has been threatened with rape twice (once by Randall and once by the Scots who save her from him).  She’s been the victim of attempted rape twice (Randall again, and some highwaymen); both times the act itself was narrowly averted.  Jaime’s sister was raped by Randall.  Jaime was threatened with rape by Randall, although in his case Randall presented a little rumpy-pumpy as an alternate to his second flogging.  It’s probably worth noting that Claire got no such courtesy; Randall just ripped her bodice, hiked up her skirts, and forced himself on her.  She was saved only by Randall’s unaroused member and Jamie’s timely appearance at the window with a gun.

As much as I hate to review a book I haven’t finished, I’m just so astonished that anyone could think this drivel even remotely readable that I must.  The book is so regressive in its attitudes towards women, towards sexuality, hell…even towards the Scottish that it is literally embarrassing to me that people might have seen me reading it.   The science fiction aspect is limited to desultory time travel.  The standard fantasy aspect extends to Claire getting nose to nose with the Loch Ness monster (yes, really) and no further.  Although I can enjoy a nice historical drama now and then there is nothing  historical in this.  Despite the rich history of the time frame (near the end of the last attempt to put a Stuart back on the English throne) I’m learning zilch about the 18th century English and their adventures in Scotland, about the Jacobites, about the Scottish clan system, about being a nurse in WWII.   The drama is entirely limited to near-rapes and narrow escapes from same.  There is next to no romance unless you consider sex at every opportunity romantic.   It astonishes me that adult women, grownups, would find this sort of thing appealing.    These are the kinds of fantasies that teenagers who haven’t gotten around to the sparkly vampire books might have.  It’s not even that I don’t like romance novels.  A little trash fiction now and then is great good fun.  I went through a phase in my youth (when I was 12) when I devoured Barbara Cartland books and Harlequin romances and I am not even remotely embarrassed about that.  My absolute favorite book in the world is Pride and Prejudice, which pretty much defines smart, funny romance.  This is just…None. Of. Those. Things.

Outlander is twenty years old and I gather there are quite a few sequels; a TV series is also in the works and it will undoubtedly borrow some artistic inspiration from Game of Thrones.  While I can’t imagine what else Gabaldon could find to say about these dreary people I am reasonably certain it will involve significant amounts of rape.  Thanks, but I’ll pass.  I’m off to re-read P&P and purge this sad excuse for entertainment out of my head.  Ciao bellas!

Score:  Fail.

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~ by gun street girl on October 12, 2013.

One Response to “crap i have read recently #18”

  1. Ooh brave you taking on such a popular book. I know it’s not everyones cup of tea but I was fascinated with the whole concept 🙂 they’ve started making the series so that will be interesting to see how believable it is.

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