HERE ARE THREE books at one go from Joanna Russ.
Two of them at least are long overdue. The Zanzibar Cat assembles stories that should have been widely available for years; How To Suppress Women's Writing, which was completed in 1978, glows with a racy incandescence we should have had to face well before the current superflux of women bestsellers. Only The Adventures of Alyx, first published as Alyx (1976) in a minuscule library edition, seems even remotely routine.
It is certainly time for a chance to catch up with this writer. Joanna Russ has been publishing stories and novels in the basement genre of science fiction for nearly a quarter of a century, and has suffered the misprision of being labeled a genre writer for most of that period. It has been our loss. Her finest novel for instance, The Female Man (1975), bears something of the same relation to most science fiction as The Flowers of Evil does to most horticulture. It waited years to be published, and when it finally appeared slid modestly into the world (and right out again) as a paperback original. Within the field, the narrative muscularity of the book, its sustained rage about the condition of women in contemporary America, and its intensely loaded manipulation of levels of reality, all seemed to betray her undoubted knack for telling a gripping tale. And outside the field? Who reviews paperback originals anyway? Our loss.
Not that it's a simple case of victimization. With her melancholy, her unrelentingly trenchant feminism, and her inability to suffer fools, Russ has never been an easy writer to sit down with. Beneath even the relative serenity of the earlier Alyx tales, which are set in a city like Byzantium (or Babylon) in a world quite a bit like Earth, are hidden some sharp lessons in gender perception. For Alyx does not seem to realize that it's a man's world she triumphs in. An adventurer and a thief, she is shockingly matter-of-fact about being a free spirit, a hero, a protagonist. She is simply herself, and very relaxed and savvy about the fact.
But as most of the 16 tales collected in The Zanzibar Cat demonstrate with bitterness and flair, Alyx is a dream, her full free humanity licensed by distance in time and space, and by her lack of a binding family. It's nothing like the home life of a real-time woman in the here and now. In The Zanzibar Cat, our home world is all too present, imprisoning and disqualifying its women, deafening them with role demands, fathering them witless. When there is laughter in the book, it is generally the laughter of fathers, as in "Old Thoughts, Old Presences," a story of such claustrophobic, pell-mell brilliance of imagery and symbol as to be virtually unreadable at a single sitting.
If parables of coercion and loss were all The Zanzibar Cat had to offer, Arkham House's handsome production would still be a welcome publishng event. But, in these stories, along with the sounds of the laughter that slaps the face, we are able occasionally to hear the echoing bittersweet guffaw of a woman who has escaped. She closely resembles Alyx, though she goes by different names, and in the fictional worlds of Joanna Russ she stands always at an open door, beyond the horizon, or in the back of the mind, beckoning. For The Zanzibar Cat is an assembly of blueprints for spiritual extrication, parables of transcendence. Stories like "My Boat" or "The Zanzibar Cat" itself are nothing if they are not plans for escape.
This may sound sentimental.(Continued on page 6) (continued from page 6)Sometimes it is. Some- times the Russ voice goes over the top, with a peculiar birdlike ferocity, but only when she has failed to bind herself into a compelling tale. As a feminist critic, she is at times just a touch too unremitting; sometimes you feel you'd have to cut her head off to free her teeth. It is as a maker that her genius flows and convinces, shames and alarms, brings forth an Alyx in the mind to free those who are netted in this mortal coil.
It is an additional pleasure, therefore, to record the fact that How to Suppress Women's Writing is a compellingly gay book, as well as an intemperate one. If Russ goes too far at times in her assault on the ways in which literary establishments have immemorially connived to disqualify women's writing, she does so with such scathing verve and urgency that she carries the reader along regardless, as though by a fine story.
Copiously illustrating her argument with damning quotes, she describes a long sequence of fall-back positions to which male critics and readers retreat in order to defend, at all costs, their central tenet--that the work of a man can be a thing in itself, but that the work of a woman must always be understood as being less than whole. Women's writing can always somehow be explained. Russ will have none of it. Some of her examples may be dubious, some of her assumptions narrow and even nit-picking, for like any campaigner she can see nothing accidental in that which demeans her. Perhaps she would argue that to claim extenuating circumstances is a privilege men have not earned, and women are denied. Perhaps she is right. In the end, she refuses to be explained or qualified away, and her polemic has all the cunning merciless clarity of fine art. It is our gain.