Books

The Two Worlds of Susan Minot's 'Thirty Girls'

Anita Felicelli

Jane's is the tourist's world of "towering eucalyptus smelling of mint" and an evening sun "cracked in a marble sky". Esther's is a world is full of violence and the fear of dying at any minute.


Thirty Girls

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 320 pages
Author: Susan Minot
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-02
Amazon

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On the subject of narrative identity and selfhood, French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote, "The text is the mediation whereby we understand ourselves." Ricoeur's work in this vein has been adopted by human rights organizations and academia in connection with testimonials provided by the survivors of atrocities like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.

When it comes to the survivors of mass atrocities, however, it is not enough to simply tell of what one has witnessed. In a human rights context, having a receptive listener for an act of witness matters. Many survivors have promised those who died that their stories will be known to the world. As consumers of such testimony and even ‘art’, we, too, must bear witness to what those who have experienced extreme violence and abuse have undergone, so that their telling has meaning.

In a powerful essay that Susan Minot published in McSweeney's Journal (Quarterly) in 2000 (republished in Best American Travel Writing 2001: "This We Came to Know Afterward", she offers what could loosely be considered an “act of witness”. The essay tells of how she traveled as a journalist to Uganda from Kenya more than a decade ago to report on child abductions by rebel groups that called themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Many of these children were forced to steal and kill, and often they were raped and forced to 'marry' their captors. Some escaped.

While in Uganda, Minot heard testimonials from some of the escaped girls and a nun working to rehabilitate them. Her latest novel, Thirty Girls, braids together the same two narratives of an American journalist and the story of the kidnapped girls set forth in her 2000 essay, but the results are mixed.

The novel starts with a brief third-person account of the LRA's kidnapping of teenage girls from a Catholic school. The first narrative (and the more substantially told story) is that of Jane, a glamorous American writer who has taken a journalism gig to chronicle the abductions. Early in the novel, she falls in love with Harry, an independent, restless paraglider. As fans of Minot's earlier novels will expect, that romance doesn't go well. The second narrative is told in first-person by Esther, a fierce Ugandan girl who is traumatized by the abuses she observes. Not only must she witness and suffer abuses, but she is also forced to participate in abusing other girls.

Like her other books, Minot's Thirty Girls deals with wayward men, desire and the subtleties of strong emotions. However, the world described in Thirty Girls — Uganda from the perspective of a tourist and also from the perspective of a native — feels worlds apart from the New England milieu that readers have come to associate with Minot's fiction.

In Thirty Girls, Minot's careful observations of emotion are as precise and honest as they were in her rightly acclaimed novel-turned-movie. For example, in trying to tell Harry about her dead ex-husband Jane thinks, "How do you describe hearing your husband say, I think I made a terrible mistake? And what more can you add about yourself if after hearing this you find that no vow of loyalty could have bound you more fiercely to him than this expression of rejection?"

At times, however, this honesty feels self-indulgent, as when Jane and her companions are floating down the river and she thinks "I'm in the Nile."

She is aware of the romance in the word. The source of the Nile. It was part of the bigger world, of history. Then she thought of how in history at that moment, three hundred miles north of this peaceful gliding river, children were being yanked out of their homes, held captive, raped, infected with deadly disease, and made to kill. The sun shone down as the river carried them along.

This is a truthful scene, a scene that accurately conveys the feeling of being a privileged tourist in a beautiful foreign country with a violent history. But there are too many of these self-absorbed moments in the book, so many that the pacing of the novel suffers.

Jane seems vaguely cognizant that she is in a sharply privileged position next to Esther, but self-awareness alone is not enough to fix the imbalance in the narratives. For example, at one point in the novel, "Jane felt like a white plastic chip in an ancient forest and asked herself again just what she was doing here, in a place she'd never been, going to report on a place she didn't know about, with struggles she could only begin to imagine." Because of the time spent circling around Jane's nuanced emotions and romantic travails, I also found myself wondering what Jane was doing in Uganda and what meaning I could derive from her story.

After a while, it was hard, too, not to be troubled by the cool aesthetic beauty of Jane's story. Jane's world is the tourist's world of "towering eucalyptus smelling of mint" and an evening sun "cracked in a marble sky". The loveliness of a four-poster bed painted silver. Reiki. Frangipani blossoms. Flying.

Esther's world is full of violence and the fear of dying at any minute. Of escaping and trying to live with what she's witnessed. In one of the most brutal scenes in the book, Esther and other girls are required to kill a girl or be killed by the rebels. Esther remembers killing a hedgehog, dissociating for a moment as she and the other girls all start beating another girl to death. But then in first-person, she describes:

Everyone is hitting now. My stick comes down and the girl no longer jumps. Maybe she does not feel it anymore. One hopes this, and to hope this is a terrible hope. Most of the sticks beat only the legs. Everyone fears to beat the head. My gaze looks at what is happening but a small gate in my brain makes a space and I leave through it.

Minot does her utmost to imagine the unimaginable and in many instances renders Esther's story powerfully. Esther tells the reader,

blockquote>The rebels told us in any case our families did not want us anymore. They would teach us to be in Kony's family. What they taught me was to hide, my fear and myself. Sometimes it was like dragging a dead animal behind me. Sometimes I felt a thick pad of cotton come over my head.

And soon after: "You walked past children sleeping on the ground then saw they were not sleeping, they were dead."

Is the cognitive dissonance between these two stories the point? Perhaps. Many readers will be drawn along by the loveliness of Minot's observations, the depth and clarity of her prose in both narratives — impressed by Minot tackling Esther's storyline at all and accomplishing so much.

Later in the novel, Jane promises to share Esther's story with the world because it needs to be known. Thirty Girls is framed as Jane's fulfillment of that promise. However, if bearing witness is indeed Minot's intention, this intention is sometimes compromised by the decision to truncate Esther's experience while magnifying every detail of Jane's. Jane's story — that of desire and death — is closer to the ones Minot told in Folly, Evening and Rapture, but in this context, to tell that particular story at the expense of Esther's story seems a strange artistic choice.

In the real world, we know these stories coexist, of course. As a former American tourist to Africa, I recognized many of Jane's experiences of aesthetic pleasure and types of epiphanies travel can bring. However, as someone who has studied human rights abuses at the college and law school levels, and has worked for human rights organizations, I strongly questioned Minot's choice to dwell on Jane's epiphanies while giving less space to Esther's experiences. About halfway through my first read, realizing I simply would not be told Esther's story in as great detail as Jane's, I found myself trying very hard not to skim Jane's sections, wanting to get back to the story that felt more urgent. A thought I didn't have once during any of Minot's other books.

In The Differend, the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote about what he called "the testimonial contract". He believed that a relationship to further social action through testimonial was only possible when these conditions were met: an addressee that was not only willing to accept the reality of the referent but also was worthy of being spoken to, a language capable of signifying the referent, and the referent itself. The difficulty with Minot's novel results from the second element — the language capable of signifying the referent.

Minot does an admirable job in a short space of conveying what is unimaginable to most of us, but nonetheless, by book's end, it remains extremely difficult to imagine. It may be that the only way to anchor Esther's horrifying experiences for a wide range of American readers was to write in greater detail and at greater length about Jane's experience as a tourist.

Nonetheless, a book that truly bears witness to the atrocities of the LRA will of necessity be horrifying. It will not be for everyone. It will be hard to read. This book is not as painful as that book would have been, but it is also not quite as strong.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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