I finished Parts 1-4 of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man thoroughly confused and inexplicably exhilarated. Although the prose was direct and clearly written, the narration was downright perplexing. For example, the chapter in Part 1 that (tried to) explain probability theory and the possibility of multiple universes interacting on multiple non-linear timelines had me doubting whether I could even begin to understand this book. What is going on in these vignettes and when exactly is the action taking place? What or who came first? Why does my head hurt so badly?
The story seems to weave in and out reality, moving between the familiar and the unfamiliar at a nauseating pace. The party scene for example. It is one of the first times that the reader is introduced to a setting that is almost familiar. A cool social atmosphere filled with young, pretty people, drinking and making conversation. Janet and Joanna peruse the party scene. Janet is perky and excited to be there while Joanna is nervously trying to make sure that her companion doesn’t slip up and reveal her identity as the famous otherworldly Whileawayan.
But despite the familiar setting and understandable motives of the characters, the reader is left with considerable unease and confusion. This is due largely in part to the narrator. Joanna’s first person point of view is largely unreliable and littered with italicized thoughts as she gives a minute-to-minute assessment of Janet’s seemingly inappropriate behavior and the action happening around her. She’s made up fake, ridiculous names for everyone at the party based on their appearance and mannerisms and the reader is given brief and baffling insights into the conversations of the other party-goers as Joanna moves throughout the scene. What I found most startling, however, was Joanna’s narration of Janet’s altercation with the drunk party host.
Even though Joanna is repelled by the distasteful “method of courtship” displayed by the host, she mentally pleads with Janet to “be ladylike” and simultaneously imagines strangling Janet into submission. She is desperate for Janet to follow the script, so to speak, and to respond how she is supposed to. It is not until the scene reaches a violent climax that the reader actually realizes that there IS a script. That is, if we’re assuming that the little books, blue and pink, respectively are actually real. This escalation at the end of the chapter, the unexpected violence, and the appearance, literal or otherwise, of the little books dramatically affected my comprehension of the text. What was familiar was suddenly alien. I felt like Janet as I read the chapter: shocked and more than a little disgusted by everything that was going on. And of course, confused.
There are obviously several themes at work in this particular chapter. Intertwined themes that can be found in the small details that build upon the larger text. What is Russ’s effect when she starkly juxtaposes the familiar and the unfamiliar? Does this relate to the concept we mentioned in class, about Russ attempting to get the reader to understand that the difficulties and concerns of women are no different despite differences in age, location – or even time zone? Just some food for thought.