As an English major I was assigned to read countless books. It’s safe to say that I didn’t enjoy all of them, for various reasons: some were a little dull, others just weren’t my cup of tea. Some were problematic in their content, but in a way that we could have productive, critical conversations about why that was. And then something happened in my last semester of college that I never thought would happen.
I was assigned a book that I refused to read.
One of the last books I was assigned to read for my Postmodern American Fiction class was Steps by Jerzy Kosinski. According to Goodreads, “Jerzy Kosinski’s classic vision of moral and sexual estrangement brilliantly captures the disturbing undercurrents of modern politics and culture.” I figured what I was about to read would be problematic; however, what I did not expect was to be completely disturbed by a horrid bestiality scene about twenty pages in that made me close the book and start writing my weekly reflection for the class then and there.
Below is the reflection that I handed in to my professor that week. Just a warning that I do quote from the bestiality scene, so if that is something you would rather not read you can skip to the rest of this post.
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I understand why someone may put this novel on the syllabus of a Postmodern American Fiction class that focuses on quantum theory: it incorporates many of the quantum qualities we have been discussing thus far this semester. The novel is comprised of numerous short stories or vignettes narrated in the first person by unnamed narrator(s). These particle-esque short stories are quantum-like in their lack of time–are they happening consecutively? Concurrently? Does it matter? So much information is absent–names of characters, places, times, etc.–that the reader is free to fill in the blanks. The multiplicity or plurality evident in this novel makes it rich for comparisons with quantum mechanics.
However, I personally felt very uncomfortable while reading this novel and do not think that its connections to quantum mechanics necessitate its inclusion in this class. One instance of this is unsettling feeling was caused by the following lines: “Finally the girl began to scream. But I was not sure if she was actually suffering or was only playing up to the audience” (Kosinski 21). These lines follow a disturbing scene of rape and bestiality, one that is described in graphic and emotionless detail. I cannot claim to speak for men reading this novel, but as a woman I was deeply uncomfortable. I did not enjoy the image of a young woman “raising up her belly and thrusting it forward, [forcing] an insertion up to the first bow” tied around the animal’s penis (Kosinski 21). I cringed as “the organizer took control again, asking the audience to pay extra for each additional inch of the animal’s involvement” (Kosinski 21). The final straw was reading a man doubting whether or not the girl was in pain or just pretending to suffer in order to make a profit.
Steps is permeated by an objectifying, sexist, toxic male gaze–there is no denying this fact. But perhaps even more startling is the comparison between this scene of a woman being raped and a scene in which the narrator is apparently raped. I say “apparently” because it is difficult to tell, which is a problem in itself. Earlier on in the novel the narrator describes how he goes back to a room with two women: “Naked, they fell upon me. I was buried beneath their heavy bellies and broad backs; my arms were pinioned; my body was manipulated, squeezed, pressed, and thumped” (Kosinski 11). This is not the language of consent. There is an important difference between these two scenes, or rather a similarity of sorts: both objectify and demean women. When the narrator is raped, he portrays the women as solely fat bodies; in the bestiality scene, the girl is portrayed as merely another animal who may not even feel pain. Once again, this novel is permeated by the idea that women are simply sexual, animalistic bodies. This scene directly involving the narrator also lacks the graphic attention to detail with which the other scene was written. What accounts for this gruesome difference?
I am no stranger to disturbing, violent, graphic, unsettling scenes in literature; in fact, my entire Honors Thesis revolves around novels that depict rape, decapitation, infanticide, suicide, and warfare. Yet the tone and perspective of the novels by Tsitsi Dangarembga and Yvonne Vera that I discuss in my thesis is distinct from that of Kosinski in Steps. While reading Dangarembga and Vera, it is clear that these women are exposing and denouncing the systemic forces causing this violence; to my eye, Kosinski has given no indication in this novel that he disapproves of or endeavors to expose the injustice of what he describes. Dangarembga and Vera try to halt sexism, yet Kosinski seems to perpetuate it.
In my opinion, the connections to be drawn between this novel and quantum mechanics do not necessitate its position on our syllabus. There are countless postmodern novels that could make for interesting, thought-provoking, and valuable class discussions. At the very least, a content warning would be appreciated should this novel be included on the syllabus. It is my hope that our class discussion at some point touches upon these issues of sexism and exploitation in relation to what postmodernism can mask as form rather than the problematic, disturbing content that it actually describes.
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Needless to say, this sparked some interesting discussion in class. I was incredibly nervous to hand this in, because my professor (he was a substitute filling in for the one who actually assigned us to read this book) was my favorite professor and we had worked closely together for a few years. However, I’m happy to say that handing this in and voicing how I really felt was definitely the right decision. It led to a really interesting class discussion–and the discovery that the majority of the class felt the same way.
So what should you do if you are assigned to read something that makes you uncomfortable? Tell your professor. We shouldn’t have to read something that is disturbing, unsettling, or triggering, especially when it is being discussed in a way that promotes sexism, racism, or other forms of oppression.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Feminist Friday discussion! As always, you can check out my other Feminist Fridays posts here. I’d love to hear of any topics you would like me to discuss in future posts!
Have you ever read Steps? Have you ever been assigned to read something that made you deeply uncomfortable? What did you do in that situation? Let me know in the comments section below!