[SOR] Angélica Gorodischer’s “The Perfect Married Woman”
One of the biggest structural problems facing genre publishing is the reluctance of editors to seek out the work of emerging writers. As genre awards demonstrate, the single most effective way of getting yourself on a shortlist is to appear on a different shortlist. The second most effective way of getting yourself on a shortlist is to cultivate relationships with genre gatekeepers. Social capital in the form of name recognition and personal recommendation plays far too great a role in determining whose work becomes visible to genre institutions and who remains a non-person. Sisters of the Revolution does suffer for the economics of name recognition but the VanderMeers have definitely made an effort to seek out the work of writers who have long been invisible in Anglo-Saxon genre spaces. Leonora Carrington is one name that deserves to be better known in genre circles and Angélica Gorodischer is definitely another.
Born in Buenos Airies in 1928, Angélica Gorodischer has been writing novels and stories from a feminist perspective since the 1960s. Familiar with the protocols of crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror her work achieved its greatest level of English-language visibility in 2003 when Ursula K. Leguin translated her space opera Kalpa Imperial for Small Beer Press. “The Perfect Married Woman” is more fantastical than science fictional but its moral and psychological ambiguities make it one of the anthology’s stronger stories so far.
The story opens with a slab of social realism that anchors both the themes and the narrative:
If you meet her on the street, cross quickly to the other side and quicken your pace. She’s a dangerous lady. She’s about forty or forty-five, has one married daughter and a son working in San Nicholas; her husband’s a sheet-metal worker. She rises very early, sweeps the sidewalk, sees her husband off, cleans, does the wash, shops, cooks. After lunch she watches television, sews or knits, irons twice a week, and at night goes to bed late.
However, while this dangerous lady appears perfectly normal, she has the power to step through doors and appear in unexpected places:
Her mother never hit her. But when she was six, she got a spanking for coloring on a door, and she had to wash it off with a wet rag. While she was doing it, she thought about doors, all doors, and decided they were very dumb because they always led to the same places. And the one she was cleaning was definitely the dumbest of all, the one that lead to her parents’ bedroom. She opened the door and then it didn’t go to her parents’ bedroom but to the Gobi desert.
Coming so soon after the Arnason and the Okorafor, this story felt like a real breath of fresh air. The difference between the Gorodischer and some of the earlier works in this anthology is that Gorodischer chooses to acknowledge and examine the problematic nature of fantastical tropes.
This opinion may now be so counter-cultural as to be downright heretical but I tend to be of the view that there is a real difference between works of fantasy and works of science fiction. Fantasy – it seems to me – is a genre in which the world inevitably rises up to meet the logic of stories. Obviously, the fantasy genre allows for a wide variety of story types but it also allows for a wide variety of worlds, different stories exert different pressures on different types of world but the tension between world and story can only be resolved by having the world conform to the demands of an emotionally-satisfying narrative. Magic is seldom more than fictionalised authorial fiat, the means through which worlds are broken and brought to heel.
Many critics of fantasy argue that there is something psychologically unhealthy and politically self-destructive about spending time in fictional worlds that surrender to our wishes because the real world simply does not work that way. Tolkien famously responded that the only people who complain about escapism are jailers but then Tolkien defended fantasy on the basis of its similarity to Christianity and Christianity is the textbook example of an opiate used by the masses to ease their pain when they should be treating the causes of their pain and stringing capitalists up from lampposts.
While I don’t think it’s my place to question how other people choose to ease their pain, I do think that one can talk about some escapist fantasies being more progressive than others. For example, while Okorafor’s story uses Western genre tropes and progressive ideas to critique the kind of stories that her parents grew up with, Arnason’s story relaxes the reader into the fetid swamps of colonialist myth. Gorodischer’s story is more interesting than both of these efforts as it takes a popular fantasy trope – the portal fantasy – and exposes the moral ambiguities therein.
The story explains how the eponymous character went on with her life, occasionally encountering doors that opened out onto distant lands. While the character invariably stepped through these doors, she never took the time to really understand what was there or to stay in these colourful places. Indeed, the character’s life continued very much like that of your average fantasy reader: Stepping into colourful places and yet always returning to the same drab world she happened to call home. The character sees no difference between the worlds and so chooses to stay in the one she knows almost out of habit:
She’s lost count and doesn’t care; any door could lead anywhere and that has the same value as the thickness of the ravioli dough, her mother’s death, and the life crises that she sees on TV and reads about in TV Guide.
There’s something wonderfully unsettling about this paragraph: It’s not just that visiting these strange places becomes normal or that their realities seem have as much weight and interest as the one she calls home, it’s that the character sees no difference between domesticity and exoticism or between the death of a loved one and the fictional deaths she sees on TV. While I don’t think that Gorodischer intends to take us quite this far, one could almost view this paragraph as an argument against escapism from the point of view of desensitisation: Spend enough time in magical worlds and you’ll lose the desire to distinguish between reality and fiction.
Gorodischer pushes her analysis of the character’s psychology by having her step through a door and into a man’s bathroom:
There was a nude man in a bathtub full of water. It was all very large, with a high ceiling, marble floor and decorations hanging from the closed windows. The man seemed to be asleep in his white bathtub, short but deep, and she saw a razor on a wrought iron table with feet decorated with iron flowers and leaves and ending in lion’s paws, a razor, a mirror, a curling iron, towels, a box of talcum powder and an earthen bowl with water. She approached on tiptoe, retrieved the razor, tiptoed over to the sleeping man in the tub and beheaded him. She threw the razor on the floor and rinsed her hands in the lukewarm bathtub water. She turned around when she reached the clinic corridor and spied a girl going to the bathroom through the other door. Her daughter looked at her.
“That was quick”
“The toilet was broken,” she answered.
We are then told how the character went on to use her power to cut off a few more heads, shoot people in the face, set fires in theatres, shove people off balconies, shred manuscripts, cause floods, and generally spread mayhem and misery wherever and whenever it suited her. The story concludes with a return to domestic reality and a shrug of profound moral and psychological ambivalence:
She has to remind herself to ask her sister-in-law for the recipe for orange cake, and Friday on TV is the first episode of a new soap opera. Again, she runs the iron over the front of the shirt and remembers the other side of the doors that are always carefully closed in her house, that other side where the things that happen are much less abominable than the ones we experience on this side, as you easily understand.
I love the dead-eyed savagery of this story almost as much as I love the absolute simplicity of Gorodischer’s writing. The story was translated by Lorraine Eleana Roses and while I haven’t read the original version of the text, I would like to think that the story’s measured tone and complete lack of affect were present in the original.
When considered alongside the character’s psychological detachment and moral ambivalence, this lack of affect serves to make this story somewhat difficult to parse. Seeing as it was first published in 1991, it seems unlikely that “The Perfect Married Woman” might have been written as a commentary on games like World of Warcraft where millions of people spend their evenings caked in virtual blood before returning to sober reality for the sake of their families, friends, and jobs. This being said, “The Perfect Married Woman” is definitely a story about escapism that touches on the psychological phenomena that make MMORPGs so popular.
If we approach the story with that concluding line in mind, we can read it as a story of catharsis about a wife and mother who is forced to work all day every day for the sake of her family. Crushed, belittled, and immiserated by the expectations heaped upon her as a woman, the titular character resorts to a series of brutal murders and atrocities as a way of letting off steam, keeping her negative emotions away from her loved-ones, and preserving her own tattered sanity. The story does not stress the hardships of the character’s life but it does stress the tedium, the repetitiveness, and the fact that her society expects her to spend all day working with only soap operas to keep her entertained. It’s not that her husband or children are all that unpleasant, rather it’s the system itself that is completely unacceptable. Nobody should have to live the life of a perfect wife and mother.
What gives the story its edge is its uncritical attitude towards the things the character does when she steps through those doors. Even if we accept that the character is miserable and oppressed in her life as a wife and mother, the amount of cruelty she displays and the misery she brings seems like a completely disproportionate reaction to the fact that she has to iron her family’s clothes and sweep her front step before seeing her husband off to work. The character justifies this by saying that her experiences are more abominable than those she distributes around the world but even if they were, being miserable cannot justify causing misery in other people. Particularly when none of the character’s acts of savagery seem designed to make things better either for herself or for people like her. Once we start to question the idea that people will always be justified in the practice of self-care, we have a basis for a critique of escapism: We are all agreed that cutting off a complete stranger’s head in order to make yourself feel better is unacceptable and we are all agreed that reading George Martin novels in order to distract yourself from your shitty job is acceptable… where do we draw the line between these two extremes?
It is also rewarding to look upon “The Perfect Married Woman” as a work of post-colonial genre fiction as one of the great sustaining myths of colonialism is that there is a real moral difference between the things you do ‘over there’ and the things you do ‘back home’. Like a dysfunctional empire, the character maintains her position at home by visiting untold savagery on the people of distant lands. Their deaths may matter to some people somewhere but they certainly don’t matter to the “we” of that final sentence.
Reading “The Perfect Married Woman” raised an interesting question about some of the stories in this anthology: If we are to understand genre feminism as nothing more than fantastical stories of feminine empowerment then what are we to make of the victims of said empowerment? The Arnason story is all about awesome ladies using magic to build an empire but the costs of empire building are dismissed with a wave of the hand and the colonial myth that empires bring order to chaos. “The Perfect Married Woman” is a wonderful rejoinder to Arnason’s naivety as it reminds us that empowerment can be a zero sum game and that true feminist empowerment must look not just to inequalities of gender but also those based in class, race, and sexuality. There must not be an ‘over there’ where it’s okay to behead people because you don’t want to leave your husband.