The hands of an oyster girl

Great bit of writing from Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters’ debut novel:

‘Thank you, Miss Astley,’ she said – she already had my name from Tony – ‘for coming to see me.’ She held out her hand to me, and I lifted my own in response – then remembered my glove – my glove with the lavender bows upon it, to match my pretty hat – and quickly drew it off and offered her my naked fingers. All at once she was the gallant boy of the footlights again. She straightened her back, made me a little bow, and raised my knuckles to her lips.

I flushed with pleasure – until I saw her nostrils quiver, and knew, suddenly, what she smelled: those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had all ceased, entirely, to notice them. Now I had thrust them beneath Kitty Butler’s nose! I felt ready to die of shame.


I made, at once, to pull my hand away; but she held it fast in her own, still pressed to her lips, and laughed at me over the knuckles. There was a look in her eye I could not quite interpret.


‘You smell,’ she began, slowly and wonderingly, ‘like -’


‘Like a herring!’ I said bitterly. My cheeks were hot now and very red; there were tears, almost, in my eyes. I think she saw my confusion and was sorry for it.


‘Not at all like a herring,’ she said gently. ‘But perhaps, maybe, like a mermaid …’ And she kissed my fingers properly, and this time I let her; and at last my blush faded, and I smiled.


Love the way that mermaid word just pops out in that scene–a fantastical creature indeed.
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Purity notes

Part 1
Lots of good old fashioned Oakland slapstick as we meet heroine Pip Tyler, a recent college grad who make a scant living cold-calling citizens for an environmental firm hustling “solutions” for 21st century life. It’s a nonsense life compounded by her semi-squatter household lorded over by a fat computer geek and visited by a couple German strangers, all tied up in Occupy and what comes after Occupy (Lunch?). Pip’s got a thing for men who are kind to her, so she takes one home to bed only Annagret, a German babe, pesters Pip to take an interest in a leak organization that needs a smart upstart. Pip’s mom is down near Santa Cruz in a perpetual state of wackiness. The tone of Part 1 reminded me of the start of The Crying of Lot 49, the business of Oedipa’s life as she considers Inverarity’s codicil request. Lots of foreshadowing mostly dealt with whimsy and undergraduate sorrow; Pip’s cake for her mother plopping ruined on the floor of a bus station restroom sums it all up nicely.

Part 2
Andreas Wolf, the leak organization honcho, who recruits Pip via Annagret, is the hero of part 2. Not a hero, though. He’s in East Germany, a kid with parents big players in the Party. He likes to masturbate and play soccer and he meets a stranger who says he’s his father, been sent up the river for 10 years for crimes against the state. More on the backstory, Andreas meets Annagret when he’s 27 and she 15; she’s being abused by her stepfather so Andreas does the sensible thing and kills him, for her and for him. Adult Andreas is a mad pussyhound and wants to reform now that he’s fallen into a weird platonic love with Annagret. Andreas has exiled himself from his parents since his late teens when he published a foul poem in a state journal that offended the higher ups. As the Berlin wall comes down he is reunited with his mother. Wolf steals his Stasi files and makes his way to the west. A bit of Le Carre in this part, but mostly a Stieg Larsson riff–Annagret the The Girl with/who…

Part 3
Foucs is on Leila Helou, an investigative journalist for the Denver Independent, an online-only well-financed outfit. Leila’s assistant is one Pip Tyler (appears in background only). Leila’s in Texas investigating the scion of an arms manufacturer who decided to abscond one evening with a nuclear warhead to impress his friends. Pics of the warhead ended up on Facebook, and a social media coverup is underway. Tom Aberant, DI’s honcho, takes up much of Leila’s backstory, as does Charles, Leila’s novelist husband. She met Charles at a writer’s college where his popularity peaked, and who suffered for years to produce a great American novel, a big one. The big one flopped–Kakutani derided it–and Charles turned to drink and self-loathing and finally a car smashed into him leaving a paraplegic. Leila is too afraid to leave Charles but shacks up part time with Tom, who had his own pre-Leila bad marriage head south. Part 3 ends with ‘what if’ conspiracy scenarios finding the high gear. Hints of Richard Yates and his The Easter Parade in this part, especially Emily Grimes and her relationship at the writers college. Also latter day Philip Roth referenced here–the ‘writers at work’ talk reminds one of Zuckerman’s encounters.

Part 4
The weakest part so far. Pip’s in Bolivia at the Sunshine Project’s HQ–she’s come at the behest of Andreas Wolf, to work and to learn the identity of her father–her mom won’t tell her who he is. Lots of strange millennial talk–the folks who work for the Sunshine Project are smart and pretty and rich and Pip’s only two out of three (ain’t bad–Meatloaf). Pip seemed smarter in Part 1 than she is revealed to be in Part 4. Wonder if this is purposeful or a slip. She’s in unfamiliar surroundings in part 4, but that’s not an excuse. Franzen shows her bold (hiking, swimming) but then cowered by the comments of others. There are a couple almost-sex scenes with Andreas that seem to point to nothing or nothingness–the refusal to get down to it is Pip’s supposed will power, her goodness. Part 4 ends back in Denver with Leila and Tom, with Leila’s big story about to be published and Tom finding Pip has released a virus from Wolf on the office and his home computer. Big major-chord drama at part’s end.

Part 5
Tom Aberant’s autobiography, which reaches all the way back to his parents meeting in Berlin in the 1950s, and settles at UPenn where he meets the heiress Anabel Laird, an art student at Tyler (hint) who is beautiful and neurotic about her wealth and sex (she’s had her share–Tom’s a virgin) and Anabel hints at being Pip’s mom, what Tom suspected in Part 4. Lots of undergraduate humor and banter (reminds me of Franzen’s first 2 novels). Strange how much of this part is Tom considering Anabel, and how his see-saw takes on her never lead to anything close to happiness. Touching bit when Tom takes his dying mom back to Jena and her family in Germany, where she dies. Tom meets Andreas Wolf here and they share secrets, and Tom helps Wolf exhume and re-bury Annagret’s stepfather–it’s clear Wolf gets some of his future ideals from Tom (but not all of them). Tom and Anabel disintegrate as a couple, and post-divorce they engage in some sex (that likely produces Pip) out of frustration or hatred or love or whatever. Anabel disappears, her father dies and leaves Tom a cool $20 million to start a magazine. (Tom’s life as a journalist is described by Tom in lazy fleeting terms–not the reason he wrote this section, but also a bit of a betrayal of a novelist’s job to make jobs sound real). This part–especially the declining state of Anabel–most reminded me of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater when his first wife Nikki, a strange beautiful bird, disappears forever.

Part 6
Perhaps the weakest part of the book, most of the focus on Andreas Wolf and his life with Annagret in Germany–the start and end of their love affair. Wolf’s dive into leaking coincides with his first computer purchase, which he uses primarily for pornography. He can’t relate to Annagret–her youth and her need to be a functioning human in society (seeing friends, having discussions) puts Wolf on edge. He’s too weak to end the relationship. Lots of moaning-bitching as Wolf starts up his Project and heads to Belize to beg a rich tech dork to pay for his needs. It works out in a strange way or two, but it is all dipped in author’s Internet hate. Hard to tell what Franzen wants out of this part–wants from the reader. Don’t care about Wolf anymore, and his discovery of Pip is set-up like after-school special horseshit. This is definitely the worst part of the novel–the writing is base, the descriptions poor, and the scenarios nonsense. Thankfully it will end soon.

Part 7
Pip’s back in Oakland, post-Bolivia, post-Denver, post-Wolf suicide. She’s working at Peet’s and pounding tennis balls against the garage door to relieve her ______. As far as novel endings go this one is rushed and sort of funny, but not in the slapstick style of Part 1. Pip decides to go for the money (her mom Anabel is worth a billion dollars) and right all the wrongs in the immediate world she inhabits, and she forces Tom to fly out to Felton and meet with Anabel. The best of part 7 is the last couple pages, when Pip returns home after leaving her parents alone for 4 hours, and approaches the door and hears them in a hellacious argument. A satisfying ending–even the tv drama rainstorm can’t ruin it. Ending made me recall Vineland which I think is a riff on a lost father–zanier than Purity but maybe an influence?