Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Conceal and reveal

Given the remarkable truth of James Tiptree, Jr.’s identity, I was naturally more inclined towards biographical readings of her work than usual. A good number of the stories, I found, rewarded such an approach on multiple levels, from the conceit to the narrative or prose style. Both “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and “The Women Men Don’t See,” for example, have as their subjects female figures who are in some way seeking an exit from the constraints of their identity and social standing. Although the latter story concludes immediately after the revelation of this dilemma, it’s also relatively clear in both that this urge for gender transcendence can obtain fulfillment only in a tragic or destructive manner, with the brutal death of P. Burke in the former and the horror of “a woman [who] choose[s] to live among unknown monsters” in the latter—though we can hardly trust a narrator who refers to a woman as a “classic penetration target” (143, 133).

Of course, this longing is part of Alice B. Sheldon’s story—James Tiptree, Jr.’s is instead a story of incredible, nearly lifelong concealment. What I found especially interesting about these two stories is the way in which concealment and disclosure also feature prominently, seemingly as necessary correlatives to a successful transcendence of gender. The issue is less fundamental to “The Women Men Never See,” although it quietly pervades its conversations, which always appear hamstrung by the male gaze, to the point that deft concealment seems the only defensive tactic available to a woman. These are offered as imperatives or direct statements of fact, as if with them Tiptree addresses Sheldon: “Answer a question with a question.” “Competent, agreeable, impersonal.” (120, 128) And it dominates “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”: P. Burke can only “pass” as Delphi while her body is concealed deep within the GTX compound, “five thousand miles away . . . [as] the monster down in a dungeon smelling of electrode paste” (66). Worse yet, the ending’s tragedy follows logically from Paul’s naïve impulse to liberate the woman behind the woman. In so doing he disregards not only the technological and physiological limitations on their relationship—insofar as P. Burke appears to have atrophied to the point of being unable to survive outside of her chamber—but also, arguably, its social conditions. P. Burke’s death allows Tiptree to avoid answering what must, for her, have been the hardest question: whether one of the “gods” could ever have loved or respected a mere woman. Everything in—and behind—the story at this point indicates otherwise.


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