This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website. I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.
Eduardo Halfon’s Good Women and Bad Women (translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn) describes an experience all too familiar to young men of a certain age. Two brothers, young but not as young as their parents thought, find a stash of pornographic magazines, which is in turn found by their mother, who questions them aggressively. It’s a simple concept done well, though the tension built by the concept of good and bad women never really comes together.
The pieces are in place. The narrator, probably about 14 of 15, is old enough to be curious about it all without actually knowing how men and women work together physically – or, for that matter, emotionally. His parent’s bumbling attempts to talk about the magazines are endearing to the reader but confusing to the narrator, who would really rather just be left alone. We can understand the parent’s concern, particularly because these magazines are not the air-brushed fakery of Playboy or Hustler:
…a much more explicit porn: leather and ropes and chains and double-penetrations and the cucumbers of a gorgeous brunette who, unforgettably, was called Marian the Vegetarian and who it took us a while to understand what she was doing there.
I can’t speak for Guatemala (where Halfon was born), but these days young boys do not discover the charms of naked women through ill-gotten magazines or photographs shared behind the back shed at high school. No, the Internet exists now, which gives this story the curious feel of a period piece. It’s a historical relic, even though Halfon himself is still quite young. A young boy is far more likely to be discovered visiting websites he “shouldn’t” (I will leave that decision up to his respective parents) instead of browsing through magazines stuffed guiltily under his bed once the deed has been done. Indeed, both in the original Spanish and in Hahn’s translated version, the “seventies curtains” of the dining room are explicitly noted, which indicates, to me at least, that Halfon is aware that his story has passed into history.
Does that, then, mean that “good” and “bad” women no longer exist as they did? Are all women capable of interacting with vegetables? Or are they all now good? Or has the distinction vanished? Halfon doesn’t provide an answer, and what’s perhaps more frustrating is that he doesn’t really do much with the question. The narrator’s father attempts to explain, but this is taken care of in a sentence, and doesn’t really illuminate the issue. Were women able to be catagorised into good women and bad women in the past, but no longer? Was that sexist or wrong and the way things are now, is that better or desirable? Or the opposite? We don’t know, Halfon doesn’t say – and nor does he really provide sufficient material with which the reader can elaborate upon the question.
Good Women and Bad Women feels like a piece taken from a larger story, a slice of something that, while interesting, only works properly when viewed as part of the larger whole. The broad strokes of the narrator’s life – his fondness for the Beatles, the “perfect” dining room which is the only room in the house where his mother can smoke, the slight descriptive touches of the house’s rooms which serve to add depth to the story – promise to add up to something, but that something seems to occur a chapter or two later in a book that hasn’t yet been written. Take the following:
I noticed that my mother, perhaps out of shame, had closed the dining room curtains. Very seventies curtains, white background with large yellow and orange circles. Just like the tablecloth. The chairs were fiberglass: white, oval, modern, their cushions also alternating orange and yellow. On the table there were two silver ashtrays, round and solid, one with an orange rim and the other with a yellow rim. My mother spent a lot of time in that perfectly matched dining room. It was the only place in the house where my father would let her smoke.
Where does it lead? It comes from one of the larger paragraphs in the story, but there’s not much that can be done with. An image is created – vivid in its own way, suggestive of personality without actually revealing much (an admirable skill) – but dropped and forgotten.
It all adds up to a frustrating experience. The concept of “good women” and “bad women” isn’t fleshed out enough (by virtue of the character’s ages and lack of further experience) to be wholly satisfying and, again, while this could act as a springboard to something larger, it doesn’t. That Halfon can write isn’t the discussion. That he has touched on an interesting concept isn’t the issue, either. The problem lies in that nothing much is done with it.
|Title||Good Women and Bad Women|
|Publisher||Words Without Borders|
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