Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Successful Completion of James Jones' Wartime Trilogy

It is finished. I have finished reading Whistle, and thus concluded the entire wartime trilogy by James Jones.

860 pages of From Here to Eternity + 416 pages of The Thin Red Line + 576 pages of Whistle = 1852 pages. That's quite an investment in the main characters, so hopefully it makes some sense why I get so wrapped up in them.

The ending is rather unpleasant. Charlotte's Web unpleasant. Pretty Birds unpleasant. As in, a character I care deeply about meets a particularly cruel death. All four of the characters meet particularly cruel fates; one could say that they've all succumbed to incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the end, we don't know what happens to Bobby Prell's pregnant wife, Della Mae. Prell isn't interested; he and Della Mae have considered having an abortion. It isn't the bittersweet resolution that Suzanne Collins gives us to (SPOILER) Finnick and Annie's story in Mockingjay. The marriage isn't a happy one - he's cheating almost immediately, but remember, James Jones characters do tend to be shameless sexual opportunists. It's very possible that Della Mae will simply forget Bobby Prell and move on to the next guy. She seems very innocent, but there's actually something predatory about her.

It's not that Jones couldn't write a female character he respected - Lorene/Alma is drawn quite sympathetically in FHTE, and Whistle's Arlette seems to have her shit together quite nicely. Carol, once she's been with Winch for a while, matures into a person Winch respects. Other women, including Della Mae and Winch's wife, get less sympathy. It's intentions and personality that make the difference; women aren't judged for their sexuality. In fact, Jones laments that Christian cultures repress sexuality.

In one particularly interesting passage, Winch muses that female multiple orgasms must be largely a thing of the male imagination. As long passages in From Here to Eternity are devoted to the question of whether homosexuality is natural or not, long passages of Whistle are devoted to cunnilingus. Landers is grateful when a woman gives him instructions. Strange at first refuses, then discusses it with Landers, then gets a little obsessed and kind of offended when a woman isn't interested.

My theory is that Jones was familiar with the Shere Hite report, which was generating a lot of buzz around the time of the writing of this novel. According to The American Women's Almanac:

"The Hite Report, in 1976, upset a lot of applecarts. Hite's report on female sexuality was disturbing because, perhaps for the first time, she allowed women - 3,000 had answered questions for her book - to talk about how they defined sex. Although many feminists were attacking Sigmund Freud's idea that only vaginal orgasms represented mature female sexuality, Hite's report popularized the idea that many women preferred clitoral stimulation. She was roundly attacked, her methods called unscientific, her sample not representative. A Washington Post reviewer said the book was 'about as intellectually provocative as the plumbing in my basement.'"

Jones found it intellectually provocative, apparently, enough to have his female characters assert that they liked receiving oral sex. Clearly, Jones admired the more assertive women in his novel, and was rather dismissive of the ones who were too shy or prudish to get what they wanted. In retrospect, all this feminist assertiveness may seem a bit anachronistic for the 1940s, but then again, strong women have existed in every age, and I'm sure there were plenty of ballsy Rosie the Riveter types.

Whether Shere Hite is right or wrong that female multiple orgasms from intercourse without direct clitoral stimulation are rare, I don't know. They're certainly possible; I know that from experience. I usually stop counting around five. For me, the only trick is to be on top. Maybe that's what Winch is doing wrong - I don't think there are any sex scenes in Whistle with the female partner on top. In fact, Prell blames Della Mae's pregnancy on the fact that, while he get enough strength back in his legs to get on top of her, it wasn't as easy to get off her when he wanted to pull out. (That's not a very effective birth control method anyway, but we don't expect Prell to be too educated about these kinds of things anyway, since he's a coal miner's son from West Virginia. Yes, Jones moved his birthplace from Kentucky to West Virginia in the third novel. Winch and Carol use a diaphragm - then again, maybe birth control would've been covered in their army hygiene lectures?)

By the way, Prell did learn to walk again by the end of the novel. He used the wheelchair largely for show, to get the attendees at his war bonds talks to feel additional sympathy for him. It worked remarkably well for picking up women whose husbands were off fighting in Europe.

I don't feel particularly good about the ending that James Jones planned for his characters while he himself was dying. I understand why it has to end this way, but it is a very bitter pill to swallow. Which, I suppose, is a comment on war itself. Jones firmly believes that combat has no happy ending, anywhere, for anybody.

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