1. Perhaps it needs to be made clear from the start: I’m hardly the ideal reader for Hannah Tennant-Moore’s Wreck and Order, a story about a disenchanted, lost and yearning young, white American woman and her attempt to get to the root of her biggest problem: herself. These stories, in other forms and by other writers (the TV series Girls comes to mind) have never quite clicked with me; inevitably, the solipsism of the American experience, whether male or female, starts to feel like a cage or a straitjacket.
These narratives could probably speak to other white people with no immediate financial worries; whose earnings in dollars make it possible for them to live cheaply in the unfree parts of the world and write their musings on the strange practices of the lesser-developed brown civilisations. However, when I saw that part of this novel would include sections on Sri Lanka, including the Tamil heartland of the north and north-east where the war took place, I was curious enough to request to review it.
2. Elsie’s first-person narrative voice is the reader’s mediator during the duration of this novel that is almost 300 pages long. That’s a long time to be in someone’s mind; it’s crucial that the reader finds her interesting, even if they hate her.
Elsie certainly starts off as interesting. From the first page she plunges us right into her story: how her father inherited a small fortune after his mother died, and how he handed her a cheque on her 21st birthday, with occasional top-ups along the way, that enabled her to live a life free of the burdens of having to earn a living. “And now I had enough money that I didn’t need to make decisions at all,” Elsie says, while also explaining “I lived frugally to make money that wasn’t mine last.. This is supposed to give us a sense of Elsie’s character, who doesn’t really want for anything materially but whose soul, one presumes, is eternally in conflict with the privileges of her position.
Within the next few pages we learn that she meets a guy named Jared in an idyllic coastal Californian town, and that their attraction is immediate, chemistry borne out of an initially mutually-pleasurable affinity for rough sex and role-play based on the kind of scenarios that are probably showing on the screens of thousands of computers logged into free porn sites right now.
3. Jared, who is an alcoholic and who enables all of Elsie’s bad habits, turns out to be Elsie’s primarily obsession. However, she also has other obsessions: “So when I wasn’t with Jared, I had plenty of time to indulge my recent obsession: the torture of so-called terror suspects, meaning mostly poor Muslim men whom corrupt warlords handed over to the United States in exchange for bounties. Not that you could talk like that in public or people would think you were not sufficiently distressed over 9/11.” This is an odd, abrupt interjection; from sex with Jared and moving in with him to torture of Muslim men in the guise of the war on terror.
Recently, one of the essays in Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World also segued from sex with a war vet to the state of American foreign policy. I find this concept fascinating, that white American women who think about their country’s foreign policy somehow find their thoughts about politics mixed up with that of heterosexual relations. In Elsie’s case, for example, it’s rough sex that gets her off in the moment, but that leads to agonising regret in the aftermath. There’s a sense that Tennant-Moore is trying to get to the root of sexual and social alienation among white, well-off Americans in light of their position within an imperialist society. What she’s trying to say about it in this novel is less clear.
Elsie can’t stop thinking about Jared, who is bad for her, or about the tortured Muslim men. There seems to be no avenue available to her in which to channel her political, social, and sexual discontent. Maybe this is the post 9/11 scenario that is the most alarming: there is no workers’ movement, no antiwar movement, no broad-based feminist movement, into which people can direct their energies into in terms of recognising the need for a change in the material sense. So Elsie continues to ruminate, turning over the same topics in her mind for the duration of almost 300 pages, seeing the social and political problems and always reducing it to the level of the individual, bringing it back to herself.
4. Part of her fascination with Sri Lanka, then, is the recent war. Elsie is well-read; she has done her homework, she knows the story. She’s befriended by a young Sinhalese girl named Suriya whose brother, Ayya is with the Sri Lankan army. In one awkward scene that should probably come with a trigger warning for most Sri Lankan Tamils, Elsie tells Ayya of what she has read about the war and heard from the Tamil people she met in Jaffna about the Sri Lankan army, comprised of Sinhalese men, and their abuses of the Tamil people, including rape and sexual torture. Ayya then feeds her a story of Tamil gendered violence and tells her that Sri Lankan soldiers adhere to a strict code of conduct.
Faced with a human face of Sinhalese supremacy, Elsie immediately feels ashamed and out of her depth. This may be so; when one has only theorised about war and meets with people who have lived it, one feels unmoored, adrift, almost fraudulent, like a copy of an actual human. To be fair, this is Elsie’s default position in almost all scenarios, being an underachieving young woman with an overactive mind. But in this moment she feels it acutely. She contrasts Ayya’s words with the words of a Tamil man she met in Jaffna, who wishes for the war crimes to be forgotten so that the Tamils will not continually exist in a state of anger, keen to continue the fight and avenge their rights. “We will not win”, he says, which is true. The reasons for why Tamils won’t win in a Sinhalese supremacy with a well-funded and trained army that has committed numerous war crimes against the Tamils cannot be reasoned away with false equivalence. Of course, the Tamil Tigers did awful things; and against their own people, too. The point is not to absolve the Tigers; the point is to wonder what brought them to the point where they were forced to do so.
Listening to a Sinhalese soldier tell his side of the story, the story of the victors, and not realise that she’s being fed a narrative—this makes Elsie either unprincipled or naive. One is unsure of Tennant-Moore wants to show us that she’s unprincipled or naïve or both; or if she wants to show us that Elsie is thoughtful. Being a thoughtful person who sees the awfulness in “both sides” makes for nice liberalism; meanwhile, oppression and systemic injustices continue.
5. Pages earlier, Elsie had concluded that “Sri Lankan soldiers are notorious sexual predators,” after assuming that Ayya was spying on her in the outhouse. She links this to Sri Lankan peacekeeping forces sexually abusing people in Haiti. Elsie thinks about how she’s continually harassed and ogled throughout her travels in Sri Lanka, being the white girl. Elsie knows what the white girl represents to brown men; however, she is the white girl, so she is also threatened. Theoretical musings about patriarchy and white supremacy don’t erase the fact that white women travelling on their own probably feel unsafe on the streets of predominantly brown countries several times a day. This danger becomes real to Elsie by the end of the book, further heightening her trauma.
Whether Elsie experiences sexual harassment from white men back home in the States and whether or not that feels unwelcome in the same way is not explored. We do know that while in New York, she endured street harassment from black men and didn’t know “if the jeers were threatening or enjoyable, an innocuous thread from the land of human contact.” “I hadn’t encountered many black people growing up in western Mass,” Elsie says, and I’m perplexed by this. This confession seems to be another form of white privilege, a means of disavowal. Yes, I’m white and probably latently racist and I’m sensitive enough to be aware of it.
What’s the non-white reader supposed to do with this knowledge? In a broader sense, one also senses that feminist commentary on street harassment needs to be problematised: comments from men of a certain class and race are probably magnified in the white and bourgeois feminine imaginary, made to seem more threatening. It’s hard to tell if it’s “an innocuous thread from the land of human contact” because white people still have a hard time situating black and brown people within the scale of humanity.
“My body has no context here,” Elsie thinks after returning to Kandy in an attempt to purge her mind of Jared, the white man she is obsessed with despite his utter callousness towards her and their relationship. “I’ve never been attracted to a Sri Lankan man. And even if I were, I wouldn’t let myself feel it. Lust is forbidden to women in this country. Maybe that’s partly why I came back here. An island that makes my sexual needs irrelevant.” Brown men are outside the sphere of white woman’s desire; brown women can’t desire as white women do. What is Elsie hoping to find, “backpacking around third world countries”, as she puts it?
6. The ability to think less and feel less and be less human, one assumes. Some white people travel to third world countries to get back to the roots of some primitive savagery (for the men) or tranquility (for the women), to acquire some authenticity via exotic cultures. Elsie unconsciously wants to be rid of her whiteness, temporarily. It’s hard not to make this assumption when Elsie, for all her self-awareness and political knowledge, lives several weeks with Suriya’s family in the rural parts on the outskirts of Kandy and experiences the poverty that shapes their lives. She experiences moments of joy in being reduced to just a body, presumably, free of her worldly American worries. However, all is not totally well. Elsie’s mind is at it again:
I have to fight upsurges of resentment against Suriya’s family for their groundedness, their lack of ambitions and judgments, their ignorance of the giddiness I felt when I downed cans of beer while trying on clothes and dancing alone to fast, bright songs that everyone knows before heading out to a bar, stupidly hoping that this night of all nights would be worth it. “Abandon hope”: something a Buddhist nun said at a talk in Carpinteria, which I taped over my desk at home. But it feels good to be stupid.
Later on, Elsie is aware that she is contemptuous of the lives of the Sri Lankan women in these villages. “All I can know of this woman’s life is what I can imagine.” Yet her earlier comment still hangs in the air. Elsie has travelled to Sri Lanka to become stupid, in imitation of the lives she sees around her in Sri Lanka. To be free of her own head; and yet, to continue to imagine these other lives as less intelligent than hers, and therefore more easily sated. There is no getting away for Elsie from her class and race. It shapes her worldview. We learn that there are places white people and well-off people go to in order to be stupid.
7. Maybe if the structure of the book was different; it would have felt less like a chore. The first person “I” has to carry a lot of weight, and after awhile, the “I” feels like a burden; like Elsie casting off her travel-mates Suriya and the child Rajith, the reader wants to be rid of Elsie at some point. Humour would have been nice, but Elsie is rarely funny, just tediously self-deprecating. At some points, her ruminations on “issues” feels tacked-on, essayistic tangents that Tennant-Moore foisted upon her character in order to redeem her. Elsie is always talking about the relief that comes with being stupid, but her insights are often predictable—any number of personal essays on the internet can provide you with the same ambivalent worldview spiced up with provocative thoughts.
So much is written in the present tense, but Elsie is always editorialising her own experiences; she’s almost super-conscious, able to understand the contradictions of her own actions and desires even while it’s taking place. The prose can be clunky in places: “I opened my mouth wide, squeezed my eyes into old, hard vaginas sewed up tight. Long, sharp, violent lines flew out of my chest, stabbing the walls and ceiling and floor, gorging the earth straight through, searching.” It reads like laborious Writing; the effort in reaching for the right metaphor is visible to the reader when it should feel seamless. It’s also indulgent writing; something that an editor should have taken care to look out for with a debut novelist.
A trimmer book would have been more interesting; less verbosity to display Elsie’s deep thoughts would have made it feel less like one is being held hostage by a drunk acquaintance intent on confessing everything. To spend close to 300 pages with someone’s thoughts for whom nothing much is at stake is always a risk; for the reader who inhabits the spaces in third world countries that people like Elsie travel through, Elsie’s ruminations don’t feel generous or capacious. There’s no room for you there; as such, you’re not the ideal reader for this book.
8. This is my review written as a confession: this book was not for me, and my review reflects that. Or perhaps I am not the reader for this book, to put it another way. There will be praise for this book by other women who see themselves in Elsie, or who used to be an Elsie. There are positive blurbs by writers such as Claire Messud, Rivka Galchen, Mona Simpson, Amy Hempel. This is to deflect criticisms of my review being too-negative, especially considering that this is the debut novel of a women writer. One must tread carefully. One tries to do so; sometimes, though, having seen the same solipsistic story in different guises, one is simply tired.
There are some fascinating threads made between heterosexual sex, porn, torture, and violence in the novel; in addition, Elsie wrestles with American imperialism in her limited way. Yet somehow the threads don’t knit together to form a cohesive whole; or a whole that is of interest to anyone but Elsie herself. This is unfortunate. Her thoughts on pornography and how it structures heterosexual women’s desire are lucid and productive. There was so much at stake in what the novel attempted to do, but limiting it within Elsie’s point-of-view probably weakened some of the commentary it wanted to make on heterosexual relations, gender, violence, and war.
One can’t ignore the Elsie who gets irritated every time a single Sinhalese man approaches her vs the Elsie who is at home in the company of other European tourists, where white women are free to wear their bikinis in peace. She tries to find herself in the rural poverty of the third world but the people, the customs, the food, it all starts to grate on her first world sensibilities. Towards the end, she’s been punished for being white in Sri Lanka in a brutal sexual encounter that unravels her. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that she leaves because she says that Sri Lanka is not her home. Perhaps it isn’t. In the end Elsie must return to the place she wants to call home, and readjust to whiteness.
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