August 14, 2012
The Blondes by Emily Schultz
I appreciated Emily M. Keeler’s piece about pre-natal narratives and connections between Emily Schultz’s The Blondes and The Handmaid’s Tale, but it was actually Atwood’s The Robber Bride that The Blondes had me thinking of. Because while The Blondes certainly has a post-apocalyptic feel (as have so many other books this year, books as different as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia), fundamentally, The Blondes is a novel about how women betray one another. From the first page: “For women, power comes by subtle degrees. I could write a thesis on such women–and I nearly did.”
The narrator is Hazel Hayes, and she is addressing her unborn child, mostly because she has no one else to talk to and nothing else to do. Also because she wants to put the pieces of her story back together, to understand the story for herself. She has been a graduate student in New York City, studying “aesthetology”, the study of looking. Her work has been unfocused, mainly because she’s just run away from an affair with her (married) professor in Toronto, Professor Karl Mann (born Karl Diclicker, and many of Schultz’ name-choices are so delightfully Dickensian– in New York, Hazel’s made her home at the Dunn Inn, Hazel’s own name with its ambiguous colouring and haziness, the woman who she appeals to for saving is called Grace). Things become even more complicated when Hazel discovers that she’s pregnant, and her attempts to get home to deal with the problem are stymied by the effects of a mysterious plague.
The plague is “Blonde Fury”, the media label applied with alacrity, as instances of fair-haired women acting out murderous fits of rage begin to take hold in New York and quickly spread through the world. And this premise was all I really knew about this novel before I read it, imagining the book as some kind of fashionable zombie romp, but I’d got it all wrong. First, because the plague itself is very much of this world, complete with scientific explanations involving melanin and double-X chromosomes. And second, because the plague itself functions just as effectively as metaphor as it does plot-driver, compelling the reader to rush through the pages (and I’ll put it to you like this: this was a 380 page novel that I read in a single weekend when I was out of town) and then to go back to the beginning and re-experience the story again in all its depth.
Just as in her studies (and in her life), Hazel imagines herself to be at a remove from womanhood, she situates herself on the periphery of the plague as well, consumed as she is by her personal problems. However, she is actually a witness to the first known attack, when a blond woman throws a teenage girl onto the subway tracks. When Hazel tries to back to Canada not long after, she’s injured when a pack of flight attendants go on a rampage at the airport. When she later tries to cross the border in a rental car, she’s detained and kept under quarantine, and though she seems to go unaffected by the virus, it’s unknown whether her own hair color actually makes her more susceptible–although Hazel has long dyed her hair an unremarkable brown, her natural colour is red. (“What was orange, but a variation on gold? Red-gold. A thing ablaze.”)
She also displays some of the symptoms of blonde fury herself– panic attacks, feelings of rage, depression. Which isn’t so surprising really, considering how general the symptoms are. “The threat becomes abstract, and the fear is almost as intense as the disease itself.” The public is urged to avoid contact with the apparently afflicted: “The thing about the disease is that it’s based on connection.” And so women turn on women in futile attempts to protect themselves.
But this is nothing new, of course, this idea that women are manipulated in order to undermine their power as a mass. Even before the plague, we see that Hazel’s study of female beauty is personal, that she admits to a fear of beautiful women, that she sees these women as “others”. In her affair with her Professor “Mann”, she has set herself in opposition to his wife. She smiles apologetically to men being harassed by women in the street. When she finds herself pregnant, she admits, “The academic feminist part of me felt defeated: devastated by biology, I had run out to get by hair done as a balm.”
Hazel’s few friendships and alliances with women are shattered as individuals try to navigate their respective ways to safety. When Hazel is put into quarantine, she leaves a friend at the border; she takes advantage of her oldest friend; she leaves vulnerable women stranded so as not to put herself in harm’s way. “Power comes in subtle degrees.” “If you come from very little, why give up privilege?” But Hazel ultimately finds herself entirely powerless to her biological destiny and to patriarchal tyranny when the plague and its circumstances make impossible her choice to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. Schultz shows how change creeps in little by little so that to a feminist academic, lack of access to abortion can become almost remarkable.
The Blondes is powerful and solid, gripping and scary. And if it had a soundtrack, I”ve no doubt that this song would be on it.