The Refrigerator Monologues: Is your book group adventurous enough for this?

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The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente fantasy book reviewsThe Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente

In her Afterword, Catherynne M. Valente lays out the inspiration for 2017’s collection of linked short stories The Refrigerator Monologues. Valente was inspired partly by the work of comics writer Gail Simone, who created and popularized the term “Women in Refrigerators” as a way to describe women cape-and-mask heroes, and how they are treated in conventional comics. As for structure, Valente looked toward Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking theatrical work The Vagina Monologues. To no small extent, though, Valente was galvanized into writing this collection because of her anger at how Gwen Stacy is treated in one of the recent (not the most recent) Spider-Man movies. Out of that rich mix, in the hands of this talented, thoughtful writer, comes a story of Deadtown, and the best table at the Lethe Café, where, regularly, the women who associated with superheroes — or were superheroes themselves — and were killed, imprisoned, depowered, or driven mad, come to tell their stories.

The Refrigerator Monologues features black and white art by Annie Wu and a series of stories, each narrated by a different woman. Most, not all, are dead. The six stories are knitted together by vignettes from the first speaker, Paige Embry, who opens and closes the book.

The “refrigerated” women are:

  • Paige Embry; the science undergraduate who invents the substance that turns her boyfriend into Kid Mercury, and who is killed by her boyfriend’s supervillain nemesis in a way very much like Gwen Stacy died.
  • Julia Ash, an analog for Jean Grey. Julia is a superhero, extremely powerful, so powerful that her cadre of male hero colleagues band together to de-power and imprison her. This story features the best name for a super-character ever (Retcon).
  • Pauline Ketch, who goes by Pretty Polly, a mad arsonist who meets the villain of her dreams in a sanitarium/prison. He goes by Mr. Punch, after the murderous clown puppet.
  • Bayou, an Atlantean princess and punk rocker who fell in love with a half human, half Atlantean male superhero named Avast. Like Julia Ash, Bayou is deemed too powerful for Avast’s buddy-bros, so they imprison her.
  • Daisy Green, talented actor and girlfriend of The Insomniac, whose life devolves into a long downward slide as she and The Insomniac grow closer.
  • Samantha Dane, artist and photographer, who is murdered and shoved into a refrigerator as a taunt to her arty superhero boyfriend Chiaroscuro.

The degree of your enjoyment of this short book will depend mostly on whether you enjoy the different narrative voices Valente employs to tell these tales. If you love Valente’s use of words, you’re going to like this very much. There is a secondary pleasure that almost falls into the category of parlor game: matching up Valente’s characters to classic comics characters. (Pauline is the most obvious here). Valente does create a distinct voice for each character. I enjoyed the story of Bayou, mainly because I was taken with the Atlantean royal fronting a punk band, but my favorite, for the voice, was Pauline Ketch. In other sections, like that of Julia Ash, Valente bends the words in service to creating a sense of multi-dimensionality, of temporal/physical otherness, and I admired it, but something about the immediacy of Pauline’s sharp, southern delivery slam-dunked me right into her story:

Now you might think I’m nothin’ but a coupla guns and a silver medal in gymnastics, but I got me a superpower, too.

 

I can make anybody like me for five minutes. Ten if I try hard. It always goes to shit after that. Can’t help it, the real me just squirts out all over the place, and the real me is hard to get off your shoes…

The story that is most forced here is Samantha Dane’s, because the art-school superheroes worked the least. While the image of her boyfriend animating graffiti and liberating it from city walls was charming, it was hard to see this as a crime-fighting superpower. The desire to make this story quirky, make it carry statements about art and commercialism, fascism, the tale of the woman who starves her own gift and passion to support the Gifted Male, and end up with the iconic death simply juggled too many elements.

I was confused by the mechanics of the deaths and how one comes to Deadtown. At least two of these characters are not dead but have the use of trans-dimensional portals. One is searching for her dead child, so her visits make sense. For the most part, women arrive in Deadtown wearing what they wore when they died (and this is vividly rendered with Samantha Dane) except for Daisy, who seems to be wearing what she was buried in. I didn’t understand why this would be different, except that the point is that her clothes do not reflect her personality at all.

While I thought Daisy’s story was generally less compelling, I liked the concept in it. Daisy talks about her boyfriend The Insomniac draining her luck, and this idea is a big part of the issue in The Refrigerator Monologues with the conventional comics, movies and television shows. Male cape-and-mask heroes feed on the adoring female gaze. Women characters exist as mirrors, as sounding boards, and, in some cases, as batteries. Like batteries, they are replaceable. In the case of Samantha Dane, whose story ends the book, women are like food for the male super-powered character. That’s the point. It’s not subtle.

Annie Wu’s artwork compliments the prose beautifully, evoking pulpy silver-age comics and shining with her own style.

I think a certain kind of book group would love this book. A book group whose members read comics, or who would be willing to look at classic comics in conjunction with The Refrigerator Monologues could probably have two or even three lively meetings about the roles of women in those stores. Are the roles changing? Are they changing enough? Pour yourselves another glass of wine, everyone flip to Pretty Polly’s story again, and let’s talk about it.

Published June 7, 2017. The lives of six female superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes. A ferocious riff on women in superhero comics. From the New York Times bestselling author Catherynne Valente comes a series of linked stories from the points of view of the wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes, and anyone who’s ever been “refrigerated”: comic book women who are killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad, disabled, or had their powers taken so that a male superhero’s storyline will progress. In an entirely new and original superhero universe, Valente subversively explores these ideas and themes in the superhero genre, treating them with the same love, gravity, and humor as her fairy tales. After all, superheroes are our new fairy tales and these six women have their own stories to share.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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3 comments

  1. Just in looking over the character list, I think I can guess who the comic-book analogues are. (Thanks for including that, because I was curious!) Great, thorough review, as always, Marion.

    With regard to Valente’s inspiration, I was also disappointed in Gwen Stacy’s treatment in that movie, but unsurprised–after all, that’s been the conclusion of her character arc since 1973. Alexandra DeWitt (who eventually ended up dead in a fridge, hence Gail Simone’s “women in refrigerators” concept) has a sadder and more useless death, to my mind, but I know it’s subjective.

  2. Being less well-versed in the comics world, I was startled when I looked at Women in refrigerators and found Alexandra deWitt’s name and cause of death.

    • And that’s exactly why I think you’re right that this book would be great for group discussion — you could get so many different perspectives on the source material and the book’s handling of the subject. Even just seeing people’s first reactions to the original characters would be a great topic of discussion.

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