Tag Archives: fiction

‘Plain Girl’, by Arthur Miller – review

Plain GirlPlain Girl by Arthur Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first came across this book while looking for my next read on the train, I was immediately hooked on by the simple no-nonsense title of Plain Girl and incredulously surprised by the famous name of Arthur Miller, a celebrity playwright who had once married Marylin Monroe in his prime. Such an incongruous admixture of the images sprang in my mind like phantasms from a presumed association between the Dolorous and the Gorgeous, the Lonely and the Lovely, the Unlucky and the Lucky, all compactness in this beautifully elliptical and deeply heartfelt story about a plain girl whose jewel of beauty was wrapped in a dull, grey, crude titular epithet.

Janice Sessions, an intelligent young Jewish woman living in New York City, seems to share the sentiments of the introverts whose quiet modes of behaviors and shyness often make them unnoticed, if not obscure, among vociferous, glamorous crowds. Think Maupassant, who at the hour of his death confides in his close friend, “I coveted everything and enjoyed nothing.” And Charlotte Bronte, who always thinks she is deprived of beauty and fortune, which prevents her from a delight of love as a prerogative of beautiful fortunate women. And then the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein whose deformity puts him in a cruel shackle of absolute loneliness with an outcry of “I see inside but dare not to go inside!” They are the concerted echoes of estrangement – whether voluntarily or involuntarily imagined or devised – from lonely souls roaming around, wandering about in a search of happiness in life that can culminate in the union of loves, both Eros and Psyche, the spiritualization of sensuality in totality. This Janice is in want of, this is the source of her existential distress, noogenic frustration that keeps her away from anything miraculous and wonderful every happening to her.

In fact, I wonder if Miller writes this story of a plain girl on the thematics of existential frustration in which his protagonist is made to believe what she really isn’t, whereas her extraordinariness of resilient spirit against endless disappointment and distress renders her all the more distinguished from her peers whose ordinary femininity looks banal and trifle without stories to tell. Such emotional distress may arise from an existential vacuum caused by a collective value, such as in this story the disillusioned tenets of political and social ideologies ultimately culminating in World War II and the aftermath thereof. And Miller so elegantly and dexterously accounts for a woman’s solitary quest for the meaning of life, a sense of purpose in life as a woman of true value against epochal tides of world crisis. The apex of Miller’s literary finesse manifests in every sentence delicately nuanced sentiment wrapped in his elliptical expressions and laconic use of plain words, defying every streak of intricately baroque literature that does not communicate straightforwardly to the hearts of readers.

This book is not to discuss woman’s liberation or to lecture about the superiority of spiritual beauty over physical beauty that so many of you would quickly respond with stock answers. Janice’s doubt about her value of being loved and her preoccupied consciousness to her appearance makes her all the more palpable and realistic to those of you who find a kindred spirit in her and feel that you are not alone in loneliness and that what you think you are may not be the truth. Janice doesn’t need the glamour spell to transform herself into beauty because Janice is not a plain girl, nor has been, and will never be. The same goes for you.

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they come to her at night

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The night was a strange paradox of light and dark. It was too dark to invoke images of the bright beautiful things. It was too light to provoke imaginations of the blissful obliviousness. The night was a white heat of the sleepless senses that kept taking in all seen and heard even after the provocateurs were long gone out of sight. This was maddening and becoming madder and striking the notes of all madness. Iris couldn’t sleep as the night was getting deeper and darker, and it was consuming every part of her in a great white incandescent flame like a funeral pyre that once engulfed Dido’s forsaken body and unfortunate heart. The senses that kept her awake besieged her glass castle without mercy and started to screen the scenes of sadness and more sadness as an apparition of the past narrated the story buried in its tomb without an epitaph. She was wide awake at the bewitching hour, and she was helplessly defenseless against the force of the hour.

Since she was a little girl, Iris has been going through the same nocturnal rituals of waking up at 3:00 AM on time, precisely, continuously, as always. Every single night was every single rite of this uncanny performance of sleeplessness – that is, exactly at 3:00 AM. When she wakes up, the electronic digits always show 3:00 AM with glows that seems to grow lighter the more she looks at it in fearful awe. Fearful because Iris has learned that it is the hour when the gates of the underworld, the netherworld, the world beyond are open, and the regions of faeries and wandering spirits roam the earth as witches fly to the devil’s banquets. Hokum it may be, but the bewitching hour also seems to include Iris as a coterie of the supernatural for what’s worth. This secret is hers and hers only in fear of being branded as a weirdo or a witch’s apprentice even. Yet, because Iris’s soft heart cannot bear a secret too long for its painfully tender fullness of emotions and feelings to keep it to herself, it now agonizes her sense and antagonizes her sensibility. And it was this night that got her to a paroxysm of inquisitiveness, inadmissibility, and ineffableness, enveloped in the mysterious veil of incredibility so enigmatically eerie that it almost felt infatuating with the unknown.

The magical hour was now in possession of the waken Iris with wide eyes, and the effect was smeared into every part of her body without a miss like ink instantly and ferociously diffusing in a glass of clear water. She did not like it, but her opinion was useless under the power of the supernatural hour. Iris wanted to break the spell and doing so would require her of facing another unknown mysterious force. Her Catholicism would defy her magical assumption on the incredible symptom, but Iris knew that her religion itself entailed the magical qualities of belief and that it was only natural for her to connect the dots between the two belief systems as a solution to her ghostly malady. That’s it. She can’t take it anymore, she can’t have it any longer. Forget the religion, and think primal. Iris has made up her mind to start her investigation of the supernatural phenomenon that she has been going through to find whys and wherefores.

a league of their own

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Reading a section featuring a small, pleasant Q&A type of interview with a writer in The New York Times Book Review on restful weekends gives me a kind of voyeuristic fillip to be privy to the life of the writer; moreover, the usual question of whom to invite for dinner is the gist of such small pleasure. I’ve found it quite stimulating to think about my own list of people to have dinner with. Therefore, I have herein drawn up my own list of invitees to confabulate with. Here’s my list of guests:

  • Eleanor Roosevelt: The paragon of the First Lady of the United States with Intelligence that ministered to her moral character, she put her philosophy into action by actively participating in social services. Besides, Mrs. Roosevelt possessed a polished but common sense of humor and wits communicative to people of all social strata with her timeless adage: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
  • Joan of Arc: The Virgin of Lorraine, The Patron Saint of France… Such are the epithets of this patriotic French maiden who was burned alive on the counts of witchery and treason, which was of course conspiracy concocted by the French ecclesiastical dignitaries collaborating with the English against whom Joan of Arc fiercely and courageously fought to victory. She was neither a religious fanatic, nor a hallucinated mooncalf, nor a certifiable schizophrenic. She might be a simple peasant woman but a courageous, headstrong, and smart woman of faith who did not even protect her face during battles with the English amid the attacks of sharp arrows, axes, and lances. No wonder did Mark Twain praise the Virgin Knight forthwith: “Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, and there you will find it.” Besides, her simplicity of faith excelled the pomposity of ecclesiastical knowledge by saying thus: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing, and we should not complicate the matter.” I can learn many things from Joan as a True Model Woman who embodied Intelligence, Femininity, Courage, and Faith.
  • Marilyn Monroe: Born as Norma Jean Baker, she was not a blonde bimbo whose physical attractiveness belied her ceaseless pursuit of knowledge concomitant with her pursuit of the meaning of life she desperately wanted to ascertain. Monroe enrolled in evening college courses in New York City when she had no schedules during the daytime. Behind her pretty persona of a movie star, there was a profound shadow of existentialist. Also, Monroe’s down-to-earth personality and kind nature would make her a lovely company striking up a convivial conversation at the table full of strangers.
  • Jane Birkin: Her bohemian look – that effortlessly sensual but charmingly delightful facade with simple French Chic style is always timeless and boundless, appealing to Womankind imbuing with a sense of emulation of the style. In fact, such qualities of Birkin had one time convinced me that she was French. She seems to wear sexuality like she’s wearing her favorite set of perfumes, which is never vulgar nor degrading. Once a shy English girl is now a sensuous cosmopolitan woman demonstrating admixture of art and individuality in the most fashionable way. She will be a delightful addition to my lunchtime table.

In view of the above, my guests of honors are an eclectic company of women, past or present, surprisingly and strictly non-professional authors who make a living by writing only, although I did not intend it to be that way. Or maybe my preconception of professional authors – especially women – as highly volatile artists with inflated egos, dazzling intelligence, divine beauty, and impressive achievements might have played a vital role in excluding unconsciously any of them from my circle of companions. But so did Michelangelo; he was never befriended with his contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci, who in fact lambasted his untidiness as a sculptor in comparison with a baker. Nor did Michelangelo make friends with other famous artists. Instead,  he was a friend of some obscure artisan who helped around various artists by doing sorts of drudgery. It all boils down to the fact that having a good company of kindred spirits can do a favorable service to your soul, making you feel charitable and magnanimous, so much so that you can- to quote the swashbuckling Oscar Wilde- “forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

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the changeling

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If she is pretty, she is never lonely because she is wanted and loved. This much is truth, no? Beauty works a miracle in the eyes of a dull man without imagination and of a cruel man without tears. Oscar Wilde, who always had something to say about beauty, affirmed that it’s better to be beautiful than to be good because beauty captures your attention. So, if you are bereft of beauty, then you must work very hard to get people to know who you are. Beauty is indeed a joy for all seasons, rain or shine, and is also a privilege to be loved first before loving.

Judy always must be in love with someone who didn’t even know of her existence because the feeling of love would transform her from a plain Jane to a sultry Cleopatra as if a pixie had cast a glamour spell on her, pitying her denied sense of pleasure and detachment from a constellation of lovers. Judy, despite some flattering feedback on her appearance from onlookers, was always discontent with what she saw in the mirror that seemed to reflect her what she didn’t want or couldn’t see in her true self. She felt that her features were in want of spectacular beauty that would make herself loved, and her solitary disposition dipped in an exclusive flavor of selectiveness doubled the inaccessibility of the worldly sensuousness that even not so pretty or homely women were allowed as their feminine rights.

Judy was sitting like a pillar of melancholy at the dinner table embarrassed by the ordinariness of her appearance in the presence of handsome Fred who made Judy feel like an awkward wallflower that nobody would pay attention to. You would say she obviously lacked self-confidence, but self-confidence is also built upon the kind of feedback you get from others. Judy was a firm believer of existentialism which says that experience exceeds essence and of Robert Cooley’s sociological theory of “Looking Glassed Self” that you become the way how others treat you. Or you might say what she lacked in appearance could be compensated by her intelligence, wits, or those other “inner” qualities, all of which she did possess. But let’s be honest, my dear readers. Beauty is the power and the wisdom of women regardless of leaps of times, distances of places, and differences of races. Any man- rich or poor, bigoted or liberal, young or old- loves a pretty woman and will act on his best behavior with kindness. Likewise, Judy, who was not drop-dead gorgeous, always kept herself guarded with a stern look at the sight of a man who might be unkind or curt. However, Fred was different. He was being very affable to her with a genuine smile. This time Judy wanted to claim her right of happiness and make her existence visible to her figure of love, so she secretly wished for a glamour spell to change herself from an insignificant wallflower to a beautiful rose that would make Fred crazy about her.

 

fairy cowboy

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It is true; there’s magic in the web of all she saw at the moment even if it was just her optical illusion like a mirage of an oasis to a thirsty wayfarer or of an island to a land-searching seaman.  The tall beautiful strange man emerging from the inside was even stranger with a strangely radiant smile that was beaming from one end of his shapely formed masculine lips to the slightly slanted end of the enchantingly mischievous openings. He was wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt that matched his dancing blue eyes visible under a fluorescent light that filled the interior of the house and fashionably worn-off jeans held fast with a thick blue belt on the right side of which contained a holster to put a pistol in. It was the pair of light taupe-colored moccasins that seemed to give the man a status that fused the capricious power of an ancient pagan deity with the erotic charge of a modern movie star. The extraordinariness of the strange beauty was synonymous with witchcraft of love at first sight, the dangerous yet fantastical manifestation of her imaginations, desires, aspirations, and wishes, all the latticework of her spirit pining for the pleasures of the senses that Judy felt unjustly denied and ousted for outrageously unknown reasons.

If the word ‘gobsmacked’ doesn’t give you a proper sense of realization because of its textual limitation, then one good look at Judy’s present face would make up for the incorporeal sense of the word: her big brown eyes were transfixed to the florescent blue lamps that riveted the man’s whole face. Her pouting lips were quivering with silent excitement concealing her pounding heart in the exaltation of her senses smothered under demands of daily duties imposed by the reality of life in which she had to carry many a burden that even a mule would long to emit a cry of exhaustion. All her worries were evaporating into the chilly nightly air, giving her instant anesthesia numbing the strains of her existential life. Judy was in euphoria, like the sailors of Odyssey who after eating the leaves of lotuses lost their memories, happy or unhappy, became unanimously blissful in an unknown land. She didn’t want to leave the moment, the place, and Him. It’s oh too good to be true, but it didn’t matter to her anyway because even if it had been a dream, she wouldn’t have wanted to wake up. Even the presence of her fido friend Nena by her side was forgotten to her. She was thinking of him, looking at him, him alone and him only, and none other in the world.

Rufus, Ben, and Raphael were growing impatient about Judy’s prolonged initiation of being acquainted with the man of the house because they were all hungry and tired for hot meals and warm showers followed by good-nights of sleep to continue their always tomorrow journeys for the buried Aztec gold. So, as usual, Raphael went forward and broke the spellbound moment of enchanted silence: “Howdy, sir! We have been traveling all day long and would like to know if you have spare rooms where we could rest for the night. If there’s no such room, then we would be obliged to sleep in your stable.” Raphael couldn’t ask for hot meals which were what he and his buddies really needed with an increasing sensation of hunger that grew only stronger by a stronger rejection of the thought of food in their minds. For although Raphael was the most socially adroit of the trio, hubris was wanting in him, and a burst of momentous bravado was quelled by the resistant hunger. Raphael felt remorseful about foregoing the request for food, while his buddies were standing behind, watching the solicitation, and feeling famished.

Maybe the pitiful sight of the whole scene might have moved even the mind of this strangely beautiful man, who finally greeted them with a jovial gesture. “Yes, sure! Guys, please come in, and I will let you use the second floor for sleeping. As a matter of fact, I was having dinner by myself. What great timing! Let’s have dinner together. I have some salad, oatmeal bread with butter and fruit jams, fresh milk, juices, wines, and water enough to feed us all. By the way, my name is Fred Faun, the foreman of Las Posas Ranch. It’s getting cold out here. Come on in quickly!” The jovial invitation from this strangely beautiful foreman of the ranch amounted to a discovery of gold in a derelict mine or a backwater of an insignificant stream running behind a haunted ranch. The consorted bliss of being accepted to a feast gave the traveling band instantaneous magnanimity of loving all humans, evil and good. With an alacrity of departure from a terror of uncertain rejection, Rufus, Ben, Raphael entered the house. Judy and Nena were the last to enter while Fred Faun was holding the door for them. Now Judy was inside of the man’s house, and her heart was pounding harder as the man was coming toward her closer. It was her first time for everything happening to her.