Hopeful Grief: The Prospect of a Postmodernist Feminism in Allison's Bastard out of Carolina
King, Vincent, The Southern Literary Journal
Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is a lyrical yet fiercely disturbing portrait of a South Carolina family besieged by poverty, violence, and incest. Narrated by young Ruth Anne Boatwright--or Bone as she is called by her family--the novel begins, ordinarily enough, with her birth and early years and quickly focuses on the relationship between Bone and her violent stepfather, Daddy Glen. Glen's abuse of Bone reaches a fever pitch in the eighth chapter. There a young intern, who is treating Bone's second broken clavicle, notices that her coccyx has also been broken. Confronted by the angry doctor, the mother finally admits (if only temporarily) the seriousness of Glen's mistreatment of Bone.
But at the beginning of chapter nine, the novel takes a surprising--and potentially misguided--turn. Glen, who has played such a pivotal role in the novel, becomes little more than a peripheral character. While Bone's world is still haunted and shaped by the threat that he poses, Glen no longer figures prominently in the action. And the story of Bone's abuse, which has heretofore dominated the novel, does not fully resume again until chapter seventeen. Although Bone spends some of this time with relatives--to escape the pawing hands of Daddy Glen--neither this nor Glen's promise to become a better father adequately explains why Allison stops the story of Bone's abuse so quickly and for so long. It is even less clear why chapters nine through sixteen focus so heavily on gospel music, Bone's friend Shannon Pearl, Bone's violent sexual fantasies, her reading and storytelling, and her midnight escapade at a local Woolworth's. Not only is it unclear how these eight chapters fit into the main narrative, but also these chapters appear to have little connection to each other. Allison's kitchen-sink realism seems to have run amuck. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Mary Hawthorne complains that in Bastard "one sometimes hears the clunk of fiction not sufficiently dissembled, and an indulgent meandering of plot into subplots that lead nowhere ... diminishes the book's potency" (18). The novel's unusual structure might suggest that Allison isn't fully in control of her narrative--a problem one might expect in a first novel. On the other hand, a more cynical reader could argue that these middle chapters have been included to bolster a slim volume with proven set pieces and folksy asides about gospel music and southern storytelling.(1) This view seems to be supported by fact that the story of Shannon Pearl in chapters eleven and thirteen is an adaptation of a short story that appeared in the 1988 collection Trash.(2)
Worse, by interrupting the story of Bone's abuse, Allison appears to be sensationalizing her already shocking subject matter, simultaneously promising and delaying the inevitable rape scene. Commenting on the prevalence of incest in contemporary fiction, Katie Roiphe complains that the incest story is "our latest literary vogue," "the stock plot of a culture obsessed with sexual abuse" (65, 71). Roiphe acknowledges the use of incest as a plot device by southern writers such as William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell and, more recently, by African American women such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison; but she insists that "what may once have been a daring subject, what took our breath away in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, has now become a paralyzed literary convention" (71). She continues:
It's possible that the incest scene could be made new, but at this late date we can't help suspecting that the scene is the product of cultural opportunism, a sign that the author has lost sight of what separates literature from Melrose Place. Beneath the swelling prose, the panties and the nightgowns, one feels the selling principle at work. Sex sells and perverse sex sells more ... (71)
But it would be a mistake to categorize Bastard as an example of this kind of lurid, cultural opportunism, although it may explain why Bastard, despite the fact that it was a National Book Award Finalist, has generated so little critical attention. …