Monday, August 25, 2008
The Red Tent (or, as I like to call it, "Blasphemy, Sacrilege, and a Bunch of Other Garbage")
With the popularity of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, my conscience prods me to share my very strong feelings against it. I like books. I love a good story. I can put up with a little bit of inappropriate material in a book when I am captivated by the characters. Even books that aren't particularly well written I'll read and enjoy for whatever they have to offer. So I was surprised to find a book that stirred up such feelings of loathing. Hatred with a capital H, even. After the first 50 pages I was so disgusted that I very nearly didn't finish the rest. But it had come highly recommended so I persevered for my friend's sake. And now I'm glad I did so I can rant about it here.
But first, a little background with the story. Diamant's material is taken from the story of Dinah in the book of Genesis. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is defiled by Shechem who then wants to marry her. In retribution, her brothers require all the men of the city to be circumcised. Simeon and Levi attack while the men are recovering, slaughter ensues, and Dinah is rescued. Diamant tells this story with a different spin -- Dinah wasn't raped by Shechem, she loves him and goes with him willingly. But more central to the story is the red tent; the special menstrual tent set aside where the women come together each month to rest from their normal work, pamper each other, celebrate their womanhood, and increase their bonds of friendship.
This look at the private lives of the women in Jacob's household could have been very compelling (as Orson Scott Card treated it in his Women of Genesis series). But the fundamentals of Diamant's characters were so off the mark that I wondered if we were even talking about the same people! So many things were just plain wrong -- not just misunderstood, but completely factually incorrect. A little tweak here and there isn't a big deal, but her errors were so prolific that sometimes I wondered if she's read the same Bible I have! But I'll get into that later.
Now, you must understand that I am approaching this book from a Judeo-Christian background with the added perspective of being LDS. These perspectives include a belief in prophets -- righteous men who are called of God, obey His commandments, and further His work on the earth. This deeply colors my response to this novel, and if you don't share the same perspective you probably won't be as bothered by it.
There were a lot of things I took issue with, but I've narrowed it down to my biggest four.
#1. Holy tons of sex talk! Dinah and Shechem get together in a laughable manner that goes something like this: Boy sees girl. Girl sees boy. Time stands still. Without a word they go hide out and make love for days on end, united in bonds of passion so strong you are supposed to forget they're complete strangers. Riiiiiiight. And if that isn't ridiculous enough, the scene is repeated later in Dinah's life and we're supposed to believe -- again -- that this is how true love happens. It makes me wonder if Diamant has any idea what a real relationship consists of. But Diamant doesn't stop with her love scenes. The whole book is filled with sex talk, including all kinds of sexual perversions that alternated between making me ill and making me mad. Come on, who needs to read that?
#2. If you believe the Bible, as I do, then you believe that the major players in Genesis were covenant people of God and therefore were held to His high standards of worthiness. And yet, Diamant portrays them as being idolaters, lustful, and guilty of serious sins right and left (including some of the sexual perversions mentioned earlier). Not only that, they apparently have no sense of guilt or concern for breaking God's laws, as well as no real faith or religiosity. Except for their devotion to their idols. Wait, did I say idols? Because if there's one thing the Old Testament makes clear, I'm pretty sure it's that God doesn't tolerate idolatry. Huh. And I won't even begin to go into her portrayal of Isaac and Rebekah! Wow! Fiction I can appreciate. But I have no tolerance for mean-spirited slander. I can't help but make the comparison again with Orson Scott Card's novels. While I don't agree with everything in Card's portrayals, at least he paints his characters as good people who are sincerely trying to do what's right. They aren't perfect, and their flaws are glaringly obvious sometimes, but they are growing in their faith and devotion to each other and to their God. On the other hand, all of Diamant's men are despicable, her women aren't much better, and there is no hint of the faith that made them so remarkable. Which brings me to my next big issue.
#3. The feeling I got was that Diamant was so concerned with turning the story of Genesis on its head that she didn't care whether her version had any truth to it. Not just, "Let's try a more interesting interpretation," but, "Let's be as shocking and controversial as possible." I don't have a problem with experimenting with the story. This is fiction after all. But Diamant's method of trying to push it as far as possible comes across as very contrived and manipulative. It's not reinventing, it's forcing -- and that just makes it feel false. It was a little easier to enjoy the story after she left the pages of Genesis and followed the rest of Dinah's fictional life in Egypt. At that point the story lost it's manipulated feeling and was more interesting. Unfortunately, this departure didn't come until the end of the book, and it wasn't enough to redeem it. And just for good measure, Diamant brings Joseph in at the end and we see that he is a proud, arrogant bisexual with pedophilia tendencies. Nice. Because we needed one last jab at the prophets, thanks.
#4. A lot of women who love The Red Tent (my friend included) only focus on the sisterhood aspect of it. But I didn't think that theme was strong enough to make up for all the other garbage. In fact, her portrayal of the women is another big complaint of mine. Continuing the manipulation discussed in #3, Diamant was also falsely imposing 20th century feminist ideology on this ancient story. Not just letting it creep in a little bit. I mean a full blown campaign. Hence, all the women are powerful and obsessed with sex from the moment they enter puberty, and almost all the men turn out to be slimy, selfish pigs. I have no problem with celebrating womanhood and motherhood and sisterhood. I think that's great. But I do have a problem with doing it in the context of glorifying sexual perversions, and degrading prophets of God and their wives. That's not celebrating womanhood: That's debasing it by robbing us of our connection to deity that comes through righteous and virtuous living. I would love to see these great women portrayed as the noble daughters of God they were, but instead Diamant gives us weak, impotent shadows by comparison.
I could go on, but I've already spent too much time on a novel that doesn't deserve all the hype. In my opinion, there is nothing redeeming in The Red Tent, unless you're just looking to have some rousing discussion at a book club!