There is an interesting colloquialism in Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain: when someone is wallowing in self-pity, or even vaguely referencing the difficulties he bears, the characters refer to it, disparagingly, as “the poor mes.” The subtext being — Well, everyone has it bad. Suck it up! And within the depressed context of the 1980s Glaswegian public housing in which the novel takes place, and among the battered and penurious characters that populate it, everyone really does have it bad. There were moments in the book in which I felt there were no depths to the gritty and unrelenting darkness in which these characters lived. At one point, we learn that there are even people worse off, financially, than impoverished Shuggie Bain, when he befriends a girl who lives in a trailer on the outskirts of the public housing complex he calls home. I will admit to misgivings about this aspect of the book: at times, I would set it aside, rub my eyes, and think, “And why am I reading this mercilessly bleak book? To what end?”
I listened to an interesting interview with Stuart in which he explains, while discussing why he chose to write fiction versus memoir (as he also lost his mother to alcoholism at a young age and grew up in a context similar to that of Shuggie):
“Men from the West Coast of Scotland are never encouraged to speak about how they feel. And we’re never encouraged to think of ourselves exceptionally, whether exceptionally great at something, or exceptionally hard done-to. And so throughout my entire childhood, when something horrible would happen, the refrain was always: ‘Aye, there’s bad things for everybody. Everybody’s got it hard.’ And you internalize that and just keep it to yourself. And it’s super damaging to men, which means it’s super-damaging to — well, if men have the power in the world, it makes it damaging to everybody.”
An element of my readership of the novel that had previously escaped me clicked into place: I suddenly saw the novel in a different discursive context, one not only pertaining to trauma but also to gender norms. All at once, I saw the book as both determined to realize — to see — the horrific experiences that many children (including the author) raised in such difficult circumstances have had to face and to renegotiate cultural expectations for men who have endured such cruelties. The book centers, exceptionalizes, the trauma of Shuggie Bain. It even takes Shuggie’s name as its title! “These are horrible things that happened to this specific boy,” the book says, as it overwhelms us with a sequence of unthinkably horrible incidents. “Don’t look away; don’t shrug this off; don’t dismiss this as ‘the poor mes.’ See this! See him! See me!” It is a heart-rending rebuke to the “men should be tough” culture in which he was raised. It is also, by virtue of being a published work and generating the deserved acclaim it has, an assertion of Stuart’s exceptionalism as an author. That is, the fact that Shuggie Bain exists as a title available for purchase reifies the novel’s ethics: Stuart demonstrates that he is both “exceptionally great at something” and “exceptionally hard done-to.”
Unpacking this element of the novel some three weeks after finishing it has elevated its status in my own personal canon, and I encourage you to add it to your tsundoku pile if you’ve not already.
2021 is off to a hot start in the good book category — between this and Hamnet, I am electric! I’m currently on the last few pages of Alafair Burke’s The Wife, a suspense I would liken in some ways to HBO’s “The Undoing” series in that there are allegations against a high-profile, Manhattanite man and we are constantly shifting our opinion of what happened, who is culpable, etc. It has been an engaging, compelling read, though a bit heavy-handed on the legal and procedural aspects of the narrative for my taste. (This level of detail impressed me and elevated the book within its own genre as particularly sharp and well-researched, but had the unfortunate effect of decelerating the pace of an otherwise gripping story.) I am then reading re-reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula before picking up Didion’s just-released collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. The collection is mainly a re-printing of early pieces, but if Didion publishes something (anything!)…my head turns. I am also still excited about several of the books on this suggested reading list, to which I would now add Anna North’s just-released and much-touted Outlawed, which has been compellingly described elsewhere as “a feminist Western set in an alternative nineteenth-century America…True Grit meets The Crucible.” Um, yes.
What about you? I love hearing what you’re reading and how you’re thinking about what you’re reading and welcome thoughts on Shuggie Bain in particular!
+Swooning over the cardigans from recently-launched brand Kilte.
+More Liberty florals here!
+PSA: Bellabliss just re-released their pima cotton footies for babies, which make the most adorable baby gift when monogrammed on the rear end. I’ve given this as gifts to multiple friends with newborns (and also gifted it to myself after Hill was born). So special to have something monogrammed, and I love the classic white with either a navy, light blue, or “rose champagne” monogram.
+This throwback LL Bean sweatshirt! Vintage vibes in the best way.
+Theory now has an outlet with some insanely good buys, including this chic ice blue puffer, everyone’s favorite cashmere joggers (!!), and this absolutely stunning pleated midi dress. Wish it weren’t sold out in my size in that gorgeous blue!
+Mini literally outgrew her Sperry snowboots after one snow. One snow, and then we couldn’t even squeeze the boot on her foot! And so when the weatherman forecasted 7-10 inches of snow last week, I bought this less pair that arrived the next day but still has that classic snowbird styling, as this could well be the final snow of the season.
+Love this mock neck sweater in the robin’s egg blue.
+My favorite hairspray, on sale!
+Love this gingham top for spring.
+Sounds like a lot of us have struggled with self-blame. (The comments are great – thanks to so many of you, on that post and across countless others, for being so vulnerable with me.)
+Everyone loves toile.