Describe Yourself Like a Male Author Would: Thoughts on FEROCITY by Nicola Lagioia

It seems like fate that I picked up the English translation of Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia this week. Ferocity (titled La ferocia in the original Italian) chronicles a southern Italian family’s moral decay and the environmental destruction they wreak; its pivotal event is the apparent suicide of the eldest daughter, Clara.

Unfortunately, in the few dozen pages I read, the novel is also awful to its women. Misogyny in literature is a crime I’ve been unwilling to forgive and forget lately, thanks especially to the “describe yourself like a male author would” challenge and this accompanying excellent New Yorker article by Katy Waldman about “How Women See How Male Authors See Them.”

Read on for my full thoughts on why I didn’t finish Ferocity–a novel that seems to have many good qualities, but also one glaring bad one. (Beware of light spoilers for the first 62 pages of the book.)

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Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia (translated by Antony Shugaar)

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  • publisher: Europa Editions
  • publication date: October 10, 2017
  • length: 464 pages
  • cover price: $18.00

I’ve been trying to read more books by women lately, and I have to admit that, because Nicola is usually a female first name in the English-speaking world, I first thought Ferocity had been written by a woman. I do read plenty of books by men, but the male authorship of this particular book–which hinges on an act of violence against a woman–felt like a let-down.

Despite this mix-up, I decided to read the novel anyway anyway–after all, Ferocity has been almost universally wellreceived and even won the prestigious Strega Prize in Italy.

Unfortunately, my uneasiness was completely justified in this case, because Ferocity treats its women terribly. It’s a fault in technique that stings all the worse because Lagioia (through his translator, Antony Shugaar) is otherwise technically brilliant here.

If you haven’t read about the hilarious and biting “Describe Yourself Like a Male Author Would” challenge on Twitter, you really should. Women and nonbinary writers wrote sometimes silly, sometimes angry, always necessary examples of the kind of purple prose male writers get a free pass on when describing the objects of their desire, and after that brilliant, sensitizing cultural moment, I just couldn’t get past Ferocity’s 62nd page.

Exhibit A, from the opening scene of the book:

She wasn’t much over thirty, but she couldn’t have been younger than twenty-five because of the intangible relaxing of tissues that turns the slenderness of certain adolescent girls into something perfect. Her fair complexion highlighted the scratches running down her legs, while the bruises on her ribs and arms and lower back, like so many Rorschach inkblots, seemed to tell the story of her inner life through the surface. Her face was swollen, her lips slashed vertically by a deep cut.

That paragraph comes after 2-3 truly gorgeous pages describing the industrial hellscape that is Bari (the part of Italy where Ferocity is set), and while reading it, I swear I heard a record scratch in my head. This is amazing…amazing…amazing…huh?

I get that Lagioia is trying to juxtapose horror and sexuality here, but nothing about how he describes Clara is fresh or interesting, and everything about it is yucky. This is a woman who’s about to die, and we’re talking the “slenderness of certain adolescent girls”?

Please.

Then we have Exhibit B, in which Clara’s father (bear that in mind) is reminiscing about her:

     The feeling he had about Clara was that he never understood her quite well enough. Snapshots of his eldest daughter emerged, each detached from the others. The only objectifiable theme was that she was attractive, and that was a puff of air no net could capture for long. Quiet and taciturn until the age of thirteen. Logical without being pedantic at fourteen. Magnetic at sixteen–jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirts, hair worn loose and long, straight-backed and composed on an armchair in the living room. A Mayan idol whose touch unleashed visions from the future: the caravels of Christopher Columbus, the mass rapes of the conquistadors.

At eighteen, she sometimes resembled certain movie stars after the va-va-voom period. Her curves soft, though not excessively so, a Natalie Wood without the final gloss.

What the hell.

Clara’s father is quickly established as a conniving jerk, so I’m not surprised he thinks gross thoughts. If Clara had been given a speck of agency here, I’d be willing to chalk these two paragraphs up to Lagioia characterizing the villainous center of his narrative.

But at this point in the book, Clara is already dead. She exists only in the memories of her family (mostly her father and brothers) and the truck driver who saw her by the side of the road.

Worst of all was the scene that caused me to set the book aside once and for all. In it, Clara’s sister Gioia is masturbating, and her father walks in on her in order to tell her that Clara died. I’m not going to quote the whole paragraph, but we get ample description of Gioia’s height (five foot six and an eighth), her slender blond-ness, and the “tenderest part of her pelvis” which she then flashes at her father “perhaps not entirely by chance.” Then, as she runs to embrace her mother upon hearing that her sister is dead, her mother literally smells her fingers and pushes Gioia away in disgust.

It reads like it was written by a creepy old man with an incest fetish, it’s deeply upsetting, and after writing that all out, I kind of want to take a shower.

I know that Lagioia is trying to make a point that this family is morally corrupt. I’m smart enough to understand that. What I don’t get is why he is choosing to show that corruption in a way that feeds into the worst kinds of objectifying stereotypes that society has about women (the tragically lovely femme fatale, the stupid sex-crazed bimbo).

If men weren’t already at the center of damn near everything, I could let this slide. Lagioia’s prose is truly luminous and I can tell that the story he’s telling is powerful. (It was described as an “ecological thriller” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, a sub-genre I adore.) But with a stack of intriguing books by women on my bedside table, I can’t justify reading a book that I already resent.

Have you read and finished Ferocity? What did you think of Lagioia’s treatment of women in the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I welcome (respectful) disagreement and debate in the comments.


My copy of  Ferocity came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HOUSE OF NAMES by Colm Tóibín

Monday Reviews

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

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publisher: Scribner Book Company (imprint of Simon & Schuster)

publication date: May 9, 2017

A disclosure is in order: I didn’t finish this book and don’t plan to. As much as I’d have liked to write a regular Monday Reads review, I can’t do that on only 1/3 of a book, and I’m going to have to give you my bitter and half-baked observations instead. Consider yourself forewarned.

As my not finishing it implies, I really, really did not like this book.

Did. Not. Like.

Since House of Names is a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon (causing her mother Clytemnestra to exact terrible revenge), I knew that horror and dread would be on the menu, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal extreme to which Tóibín steers this already brutal story. He pulls no punches from the original myth and seemingly adds punches of his own. And while I don’t mind books that are difficult to read, there’s a difference between difficult and tortuous. Every moment I spent with these astonishingly cruel characters was torture.

Compounding my discomfort with the material was Tóibín’s prose, the bluntness of which displaced me even further from characters I already despised. Perhaps this prose style would work better in a more familiar (read: modern) context, but because House of Names is set in Ancient Greece–a setting as alien to me as Middle Earth–all the words left unsaid obscured Tóibín’s meaning instead of clarifying it.

The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is full of interesting questions, the most pressing of which is What motivates a father to kill his own daughter? I imagine that there are a lot of equally interesting answers to be found, from feminist critiques to breathtaking thrillers, but all Tóibín seemed to bring to the table was, well, because humans are terrible and stupid! And that’s not good enough.

So, as much as I wanted to marvel at the ruthless beauty of paragraphs like this (told from the perspective of the furious and grieving Clytemnestra), I was left feeling poisoned by them instead:

I was ready as [Agamemnon] was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!

Because House of Names contains nothing but horrible people doing horrible things, there isn’t a scrap of hope or interest to hold onto, just suffering that goes on and on and on with no promise of catharsis.

And there are better uses of my time.

No rating / did not finish.

My copy of House of Names came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.