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Three Fallen Women
By Amy GÃ¼th
So New Publishing / ISBN: 0-9778151-4-5
As a lot of CCLaP's readers are probably already aware, one of the first rules of artistic criticism is that the reviewer in question is never supposed to inject their personal lives into their essays, write in the first person, or other such things that unduly call attention to themselves; it's a rule I sometimes break here, specifically in the hopes of creating a more conversational and intimate relationship between you and me here at the site, although a rule as well that I try as much as possible to obey, because it's a good rule and there's a reason it exists. So what to make of a book, then, that deeply speaks to a reviewer and resonates with them, specifically because of it mirroring so much of their own real past? Do you convey some of that story to your readers, in the hopes that they understand more about why you enjoyed the book so much? Or do you stick to the "no personal stories" rule of artistic criticism, and maybe not ultimately convey what's so great about the book in question?
It's a subject that's come up with today's book, in fact, the black-as-coal Three Fallen Women by Chicago author Amy GÃ¼th, a novel that's going to terrify some of you while making others think, "My God, she's talking about me." Although deeply flawed in certain respects (but more on that in a bit), this look at three people who have hit rock-bottom in the past and are struggling to recover is going to profoundly resonate with a certain amount of people out there, undoubtedly a higher percentage here at CCLaP than among the general population; and what's more, it will resonate in a way that these people don't usually talk about in public, a dark way that reflects all the fears we have about ourselves on our worst days. It is a frustrating book, an addictive book, a book I seemingly can't stop thinking about even days after I've finished, even with all of its problems (and there are quite a few); it's a book that's sure to stir debate, no matter if that's a book club in question or your own inner brain in the middle of the night.
And in fact this is one of the first surprising things to learn about Three Fallen Women, of its extremely dark and intimate nature; and that's because GÃ¼th is almost more well-known at this point as a perpetually cheerful live-event host here in Chicago, a funny and optimistic blogger, someone who seemingly makes it to a dozen literary festivals around the world every year, and somehow manages to make a dozen new friends at each one. If you're only familiar with GÃ¼th at this point through her online writing or Chicago events, it's important to know that this first novel of hers is as dark as a dark tale gets; a story that combines the language of a Kevin Smith movie with the violent sexuality of Poppy Z. Brite's early work, written in a dense and symbolic style that more resembles performance poetry than it does narrative fiction. (It's no coincidence, after all, that GÃ¼th actually started her artistic career as a performer herself, before turning to long-form writing.)
It's ostensibly the interwoven tales of three unrelated characters, but I'm going to concentrate today on only one of them, both because it's the strongest of the three and the one that resonated with me the most: the story of sad-sack Helen, that is, a jittery and angry artist just now creeping into middle-age, who spent the majority of her twenties being self-destructive in about as many ways as she could possibly manage, eventually leading to a breakdown and suicide attempt (or at least GÃ¼th implies -- like I said, the actual text of this manuscript resembles a prose-poem more than it does a traditional novel, so it can be hard sometimes to determine what has "objectively" happened to these women). Gee, long-time readers, are you starting to understand why this story resonated with me so profoundly? I know, there's been a lot of projects reviewed here now that have the same broad strokes of a plot; but here GÃ¼th really gets under the skin of a person like this, not only highlighting the very private moments such strugglers experience but in a sometimes magical way that reminds you of why you love literature so much. Like, take this example, when Helen suddenly has a series of revelations about her old self in the middle of the night, a catalytic moment in her life when she suddenly realizes that everything is about to change for her:
And, just as she realized she was dead, she understood she was now new. There were no trumpets and no rays of sunshine and no voices of Gods. There was just suddenly something that rested on the minutes and the hours. Something new to her that forced an understanding of just how dead she was. She wasn't bone-tired anymore. She wasn't sick of living. She wasn't jubilant. She wasn't suddenly radiant. She suddenly just was right there and looked out the window and still nothing happened.
And this is what I was talking about at the beginning of this essay; that this was just one of but many moments throughout Three Fallen Women where I would suddenly put the book down and think, "Godd-mn, has GÃ¼th been following me around or something?" In fact, I think this book is going to deeply appeal to a whole lot of people in their thirties and forties, no matter whether they come from self-destructive backgrounds or not; because ultimately, Helen's tale is the one of a person's youth dying off, and that person's grown-up self taking their place. And as anyone who's now gone through it can tell you, this is sometimes not a pretty process; it's many times a violent, sad, angry process, in fact. It's a process in which a person is forced to confront all the indiscretions of their past, to understand all the ways they failed as decent human beings in order to learn how to finally succeed; it's a process that can leave a person really hating themselves by the end, or at least hating the person they used to be, not to mention all the people they spent time with back then as well.
In fact, this is one of the many dilemmas facing Helen in her post-breakdown, newly adult life; she is still saddled with a boyfriend she picked up before the breakdown, one who is ultimately no good for her anymore, but surprisingly enough in this case because he is actually too nice and understanding and forgiving, which of course makes the entire thing a lot more complicated than simply dumping his ass. Gee, long-time readers, are you starting to understand why this story resonated with me so profoundly? Because that's the other truth about a transitory period of time like this, that the person in the center of the storm is bound to act in sometimes selfish and cruel ways, that it is part of the process of becoming a different person and that there is bound to be victims left in its wake. Like I said, this is one of several things about Three Fallen Women that is sure to cause debate, and is why I recommend it for discussion clubs that are looking for something lively; because how exactly are we to think of the ways Helen behaves here, anyway? Some would argue that she is ultimately a morally reprehensible being, a myopic bohemian perfectly happy to screw over the people closest to her for no particular good reason at all; but others will argue that Helen is simply making the best of a bad situation, that she is fundamentally a different person now and that her boyfriend is actually partly to blame for not catching on to this on his own. There's no objective "right" answer to this question, which is what's sure to have book-club members arguing passionately about it into the night.
As mentioned, though, Three Fallen Women has problems as well, bad and serious problems, not the least of which is the extremely uneven quality of the overall manuscript: that even as Helen's story so deeply connected with me, the concurrent story of Frieda (a mousy nerd who finds herself in an abusive relationship) comes across as not much more than an extra-violent Lifetime movie, written with all the nuance of a pissed-off 19-year-old's term paper for her Womens Studies 241 course ("Let's Cut Off ALL Their Dicks: A Survey of Contemporary Transgressive Feminist Literature Post-Thelma & Louise"); while the third story of Carmen (a former addict who has a major relapse after a year of sobriety) will be seen by many as a pretentious stream-of-consciousness mess, although I admit that personally I liked it a lot more than that. (But then again, I am a former performance poet myself, so tend to love the pretentious stream-of-consciousness messes.) Also, as much as I don't want to admit this, I have to confess that as a man I ended up rather turned off by the end with just the relentless male-bashing that takes place here, a world where men ultimately seem to be the cause of every single problem that exists in the universe, a world where all penis-owners tend to be either violent neanderthals or insipid mamma's boys. That's GÃ¼th's prerogative as a writer, of course; it's just that I'm always disappointed to see an author essentially give the finger to an entire half of their potential audience, whether it's a man who's guilty of it or a woman.
As Helen's story proves, GÃ¼th's a better writer than that, and it's aggravating to see her fall back on sanctimony and tired undergraduate cliches; that's what makes Helen's story so great, after all, is GÃ¼th's willingness to show all the ways she as well is at fault in these situations, an ultra-complex portrait of an ultra-complex person. But then again, as I think you've seen by now, I believe Helen's story so strong as to justify the reading of the entire novel; it's a rare stance for me to take, I know, to recommend an entire novel based on just one part of it, something I haven't done since Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics last summer. LIke I said, Three Fallen Women is a novel bound to frustrate some, bound to deeply connect with others, a book that will surprise and probably shock those who only know GÃ¼th as a funny and goofy online columnist. It's a book I ultimately recommend, but one that comes with deep caveats as well.
Out of 10: