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HELLO FRIENDS strap in it is time to talk about RACE and ABLEISM and FLAWED PROTAGONISTS.


Also semiotics! Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of semiotics. However, this is not a post in that series. In fact, I want to hop back to a co-review I did with the inimitable Susan where I mentioned Leslie Jamison's essay, "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain". Since this was in the spoilery section of the reviews, here is a quick recap: Jamison discusses how pain relates to the semiotics of the body, saying that flesh speaks the language of pain. Nothing grounds us quite so acutely in the moment, in our bodies, as pain. In this post, I argue that discomfort plays a similar role in the semiotics of the self, grounding us in a keen sense of self-consciousness, self-awareness. It is this that ties together two books I read recently.

These books are Borderline by Mishell Baker and White Tears by Hari Kunzru. I read these at the same time — one right in the middle of the other — and while they are nothing alike on the surface, I ended up having many similar thoughts about them. If you know anything about either of these books, you might be thinking, "Ira, you tl;dr gentlebeast, what do these books have to do with each other even?"

Oh, let's see... They both have deeply flawed protagonists (who are racist), they both deal heavily and in a very self-aware way with social issues, they both elide reality in a way that makes the reader work to pick apart what is objectively happening (is there an objective reality?), and they both use the tool of reader discomfort to achieve a sociopolitical goal, engaging the reader in semiotic self-work. Oh, and in both of them a lady dies to serve the narrative in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I think those are good places to start. But before we go on to talk about that, let's look at some nice spoiler-free jacket copy. I'm going to go as far as I can here without revealing any spoilers, and will clearly mark where the spoilers begin. Without further ado!


A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she's sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.

For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she'll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble's disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.

No pressure.

White Tears

From one of the most talented fiction writers at work today: two ambitious young musicians are drawn into the dark underworld of blues record collecting, haunted by the ghosts of a repressive past.

Two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America's great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it's a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter's troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation's darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.

White Tears is a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music.

Very different stories, n'est-ce pas? Let's dig in!

One similarity about these two books — and this is a cheap one, but it's the beginning of the review so let's start with a gimme — is that both sets of jacket copy omit and/or obfuscate very important things about the narrative. In Borderline the jacket copy doesn't tell you the crucial fact that Millie is herself borderline: she has Borderline Personality Disorder (hereafter BPD), and this is hugely important to how the narrative operates and to the work it does with discomfort and the semiotics of the self. The White Tears example is a little harder to pin down without spoilers but look at that tantalizing bit about "ghost story" and "murder mystery" that they sneak in at the very end. Take those bits seriously. This is very much a ghost story. And it is not just a murder mystery, it is all the murder mystery. Finally, both synopses kind of dance around things that if you pay attention are pretty clear: Borderline's mentions Millie losing her legs, attempting suicide, her inner demons — this is a book about ableism, yes? Yes. Likewise, if you put together the genre of music in question in the White Tears copy with the mention of the two boys' race, you can pretty much guess that this is a book about race — or, more specifically, this is a book about race and time and how the two change and interact.

All of these assertions about what the jacket copy on these books is missing are wild understatements. You'll see.

At this point I would normally give a synopsis of my own of the books but.... plot-wise, you already know everything important about Borderline before we get into spoiler territory. For White Tears, I will direct you to this review and this other review because I think they do a good job of covering the issues. I'm here to talk about something else, something I haven't seen covered elsewhere. I also want to pause, before we go on, and make clear that I did actually sincerely enjoy both books and recommend them both. Okay? Okay!

So let's talk about the protagonists! this is the thread that first connected these two books together for me. Here was the first clue: both protagonists (Millie in Borderline and Seth in White Tears) are racist. Sure, they both think they're pretty modern and open-minded, but no. They are racist. They are racist in the way many white liberals in the USA are racist, and it is hella uncomfortable.


In Borderline, this fact about Millie is part of a wider dialogue this book engages in with regards to sociocultural categories, how people are complicated, and how productive/unproductive it is to try to separate out threads of someone's identity. For example, Millie has BPD. She is also often an asshole. Trying to separate these two is an interesting exercise, one I somewhat fruitlessly engaged in throughout my reading of the book, even after I caught on to what it was doing. I am not myself borderline (though the author is), but I have a nice array of mental health conditions of my own, and I have to say, it's so tempting to try to separate them away from me, as if they are not part of my identity but creatures of their own that feed off me like parasites. (What's that you say? The siren call of semiotics of the self? Why yes, yes it is. We'll come back to this, don't you fret). Is this approach healthy? Is it productive? I'm not sure, but I think Borderline is telling me that people are intersections of identities — n-dimensional matrices of traits — and that their interplay is something complicated, that is a whole life of its own. There are many examples of this in the book. Caryl, the woman who invites Millie into the Arcadia Project, is one, for reasons that are a spoiler, but if you have read the book, feel free to talk about her in the comments! We meet Caryl in various states, including a kind of gestalt state that Millie, at least, thinks of as Caryl's true self (Caryl does not). Caryl finds it useful to separate aspects of herself out. But as Millie and the reader learn more about Caryl, we start to question this. Is it healthy? It doesn't appear so. Is it productive? In the short term, maybe. What about the long term? Caryl is a very stark example that puts the book's message right up in front, like literally lays it out in the form of this character. But she is far from alone.

At this point, I need to say something about the overall cast of this book. It is very diverse. People with various types of bodies, various races, various sexualities, various mental conditions. Good, right? Just about all of them are flawed in some way, and it's often... uncomfortable. Some of them die. Some of them die ugly. And the juxtaposition of traits is... well it often sat uncomfortably with me, sometimes in ways that make me want to salute the author's skill and sometimes in ways that make me question where she's coming from. For example, Gloria is a little person who fits the "blonde Southern bitch" stereotype to a T. Millie has a hard time separating out her virulent dislike of this Southern archetype from her reaction to Gloria's physique. Is it useful for her to try? I want to say yes, because the marriage of such an unlikeable trait with a non-normative body makes Mille — and me — uncomfortable. There is no sociocultural narrative that draws connections between being a little person and being an asshole, so that helps (but there are sociocultural narratives about what happens to people who perform gender insincerely, but I'll talk about that in the spoilers section of this review). But what about Teo? He's a Latino man with poor grooming habits — and there are sociocultural narratives about the "dirty Latino". Or is he really that bad? Is Millie noticing it more because of his race? Trust me, Millie does that sort of thing. And we are, of course, getting all of this from Millie's perspective.

So let's return to Millie before we move on to Seth and White Tears. One of Millie's defining traits as a protagonist, when it comes to my reading experience, is that she made me uncomfortable, brought me discomfort. Sometimes this was the simple discomfort of a protagonist doing an obviously bad thing. That's relatively was easy to deal with. But sometimes it was the book making a point. Let's take Millie's self-consciousness about her racism — that made me uncomfortable, too. Millie will form some negative impression of a character and then wonder, it's not because he's a POC, is it? Or, conversely, Millie will desire a POC in a pretty... shall we say, colour-coded way. This, she was less self-conscious about, but juxtaposed with the flip side of her racism, it seemed obvious to me. To me, Millie's experience of this in her own head — am I thinking this because of X-ism? — ran perfectly parallel to my experience as a reader in regards to Millie: am I finding her unlikable in this moment because I'm ableist? This book uses reader discomfort as a tool to achieve a sociopolitical goal, to achieve a certain kind of consciousness, self-consciousness.

This is a good point at which to segue to White Tears and Seth. Let's get the obvious out of the way: like Millie, Seth, his best friend Carter, and Seth's eventual companion Leonie (Carter's older sister) are all racist. Seth and particularly Carter love black music — it's more "intense" and "authentic" than anything produced by white people. Carter in particular feels that, because they love it so much, have studied it so diligently, can reproduce it so authentically, they have a right to it: "we really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness." At one point early in the narrative, Seth demurs: "we knew we didn't own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge..." But later, when Carter and Seth are hired to sound-produce a white rapper's album that is an homage to the genres of black music that preceded him (hilariously titled "My Past Lives"), Carter bursts out, "This is our music, Seth. We live it. We feel it. He thinks he can just swan in and buy it off the shelf?" Earlier, during their college years, Carter and Seth judged the black people at their small liberal arts college for not being "black" enough. Carter is a blond white man who wears dreadlocks(1). At a point pretty deep in the book, Seth and Leonie are in the South and Leonie and Seth have a conversation assuring each other how they are not racist. Actually, let me quote this bit, because it is so good:

—So in the morning, you're turning back.

—Maybe. I don't know. Is that what I did before? I don't know what's waiting for me in the city. I walk around and there's always some guy with one hand on his junk yelling at me like he literally owns the sidewalk I am walking on and because I won't talk to him I'm a bitch and a whore. These guys watching me. And it's not just guys. I mean they could be young or old, male, female. But they're all the same. They—none of them—shit, it's not easy to talk about this. What I'm saying is it's never white people.

She exhaled deeply.

—I'm not racist, Seth. I swear I'm not.

—Of course not. Racists aren't like—I mean, I know you're cool. You know you're cool.

For a while she talked about healing, a medical NGO she'd volunteered with in Africa. The people were so poor. The little children sang a song to her outside their tin-roofed school. The truth, she said, was that no one knew how to fix anything. People had all kinds of theories but in the end that's all they were.

—But it's as if they're in communication. The, uh, the non-whites. I know how that sounds. I don't mean that. It's hard to explain. It's like they all have the same information about me. Like they've formed some kind of opinion and I can't do anything to change their minds.

—You feel judged.

—Right. And I resent that. It's grotesque, actually. They don't know me. They don't know what I've been through. I don't want to feel like this, Seth. Six months ago I was alive. I can't even remember what that was like, to be honest with you. Every day I feel less and less connected.

Wow, you guys. Wow.

And you can see, in all these examples and quotes I have here, a self-consciousness about race seeping in. Let's take a look at that self-consciousness, because it plays a huge role in how both White Tears and Borderline operate.

So Seth is the protagonist, and really, he's pretty unlikable. He's wrapped up in himself, he's racist, he doesn't think anything is his fault, he pines after Leonie in a very tiring, hetero cis white boy way(1). Roughly 60-75% of the book is from his perspective — about halfway through the book it begins to get hard to tell whose head we're in — and for most of that time it's a pretty discomfiting ride. But what is it about that discomfort? This is where we return to the link between discomfort and the semiotics of the self.

I think, in a very similar way, both Kunzru and Baker are accessing the semiotics of the self by employing the tool of discomfort. Discomfort and pain are related, and each brings with it a heightened sense of consciousness, self-consciousness. Pain grounds a person immediately in the body, makes them aware of flesh and bone in a way few other sensations recreate with such a mind-devouring intensity. I think, in the same way, discomfort of the sort White Tears and Borderline force on us causes us to become aware of our minds, our thoughts, our feelings — our prejudices. Our senses of self. Because that is the discomfort, isn't it? It's seeing someone and asking yourself, "How much am I like them?"

Right here is a good time to consider the intended audience of these books, because I'm sure a black person reading White Tears would have an entirely different experience than I did, and same goes for a physically disabled reader of Borderline (like I said, I might not be BPD but I have the mental health angle of the experience covered — it's one of the interesting things about the book that it gives so many angles though). So I am, clearly, speaking from my perspective as a white, able-bodied person. But even POC and people with disabilities, will feel discomfort when reading these books, I think, because people behaving badly — protagonists behaving badly, people who are supposed to be our windows into these stories — is an uncomfortable thing to watch. These are not one-dimensional characters; if Seth's racism doesn't touch you on a personal level, then perhaps his attitude towards Leonie will. If Millie's own racism doesn't ring any bells, then maybe her attitude towards Gloria will. These characters are fractal.

So in the semiotics of the self, discomfort is an important tool; discomfort is the language of the changing self(3), of the self reflected, the self-reflected. I am not talking about self-hatred here. Discomfort is a process we go through as we try to be better. This, I think, is why the books felt so similar to me, the core of it. While one of the protagonists is ultimately likable and the other is not, both books had important things to say about identity and white liberalism. White liberals, as a whole — that's me, folks! — have a lot to work on. And the books do not give the easy out of "well I am marginalized in this other way, this doesn't apply to me." That's exactly the problem with white liberalism, you know? I think it's important to note that both protagonists are marginalized, even as they are simultaneously privileged in other ways. Millie, as I have noted, is a mentally ill double amputee and queer, but she is also white (and here Gloria forms an interesting contrast again because it shows how Millie is not very accepting of non-normative bodies even when her own body is non-normative itself). Seth, meanwhile, has no financial support outside of that which comes from Carter's wealthy family. He spends a portion of the book homeless and utterly without resources. (Make no mistake, White Tears is also about class — among many other points, the guitar portion of Carter and Seth's fake blues record was appropriated off a busker.) There are ways in which both protagonists should know better. That's the point of it, that is the grammar, the skeletal structure of the statements these books make: they should know better, and yet they don't. Do you know better? Who's comfortable now?

That pervasive self-awareness in both books is both question and answer: it is what the books ask of the reader, then ask us if we're sure, if we can do better. No one is completely innocent. Everyone is a work in progress.

There are other ways the books are similar, and I think it is at this point where I'm going to transition to spoilers. If you haven't read either of these books, I urge you to give them a try!

Spoiler Time!

So both books deal with reality in interesting ways. There's a gimme in Borderline: an alternate reality, Arcadia, objectively exists. But that's just a literal expression of a theme. More subtle is the way Millie's reality is influenced by her BPD: how much of our impressions of characters and events are real and how much is coloured by Millie's disorder? To Millie, of course, it's all "real": this is how she experiences the world. Yet all the time, she is trying to separate BPD from reality, and I as a reader was too.

In White Tears, of course, the idea of an objective reality flies right out the window partway through the book and we enter a surreal, timeless phantasmagoria. The hints start early, with Seth's teenage "break", and accumulate in the first half of the book until the book itself "breaks" from reality. Both books made me question what I was reading, what I was supposed to be getting out of this, what I was supposed to believe. And it's about belief, too, isn't it? I do believe in faeries. Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in the demons that can breed in your head, whispering in your ear? Do you believe in the not-very-secret history of this country? This music? What is the difference between an obsession and a haunting? If you had a "break" as a teenager, how do you interpret surreal events in your adult life? When your own brain is a liar, what do you believe?

There was something else in common, a thing I actually did not like, and not in a healthy-discomfort way : in each book, a woman dies to serve the narrative. I'm going to mention the similarities first, then discuss individually, and from there this post will diverge into discussing remaining bits about the books individually.

In Borderline, Gloria dies. In White Tears, Leonie dies. Of course, in both books, they are far from alone. But both deaths stood out for me in ways that sat ill. I have been talking to Jenny of Reading the End about White Tears a lot, and she and I agree: there is something wonky about Gloria dying. Let's take a look at who dies in Borderline. Vivian: presents as attractive able-bodied white lady, on the side of the bad guys (though I question the whole sexy vamp evil lady thing). Rivenholt: also presents as attractive white dude, also evil. Teo: Latino, good guy mostly but betrays everyone and works with the bad guys. And... Gloria: little person who is mean to Millie a lot. Yeah. Who survives? Berenbaum, white dude. Caryl, white lady. Tjuan, black dude who is like... curt? Paranoid? Never done Millie harm. It really feels like Gloria is an outlier. She redeems herself by being super brave, and then is killed very abruptly, and the more I thought about this, the more her gender performance (which Millie perceived as fundamentally insincere) coupled with her ugly death sat ill with me. It's crossing paths with Vivian's gender performance and death and... I don't think I like it.

Likewise, Leonie, Seth's object of desire, is killed by Charlie Shaw in White Tears. She is, like Gloria, far from alone. Charlie Shaw also kills Carter, Chester Bly, and the rest of the Wallace family. Leonie's mother is barely glanced upon in the narrative, so Leonie herself is the primary female character, and when she dies, it is all about giving Seth The Feels. And yet... it is Charlie Shaw's revenge, and it also leads to one of the most terrifying and disturbing and effective sections of the book, where Seth experiences police interrogation as a black man. I cannot deny Charlie Shaw's rage, and I cannot deny how effective this particular death is in the narrative. But it's exactly that, isn't it? There's something about an attractive white woman dying... is Kunzru doing this on purpose? He must be, right? It reminds me of the question this review raises about how the characters in White Tears are all white, until Charlie Shaw has his say very late in the book. It's on purpose, right? But... is it okay?

One thing I found interesting in White Tears is the interplay between race, racism, and time. In the overwhelming temporal displacement of the second half of the book, I was looking for any markers that would help me pin down the narrative in time — an exercise perhaps as fruitless as trying to separate out Millie's BPD from her general bad behaviour. One of the markers I couldn't help trying to use was: "How racist is this time period?" The presence of "whites only"/"coloured" signs was a relatively reliable marker, but honestly that was about it — the subjective amount of racism per era was actually not very different, and Kunzru is definitely making a statement here. The relationships between time, race, and identity in the second half of the book in particular are very interesting, as Seth becomes more and more unmoored in time and the reader becomes less and less sure whose story they are reading, including what race the narrator is at various points.

Both books gave me a lot to think about! I hope you read one or both, and come talk to me about them here!

Other Reviews

White Tears

LA Review of Books — The Terror of White Innocence: A Review of Hari Kunzru’s “White Tears”
NY Times — Sonic Youth: Cultural Appropriations of Two Musical Hipsters
Chicago Tribune
Live Mint
Sleepless Editor
Independent — As in all the best ghost stories, the reader is never quite sure what’s real and what isn’t


ETA: VERY IMPORTANT Tor — Mentally Ill Women Belong In Your Stories, Too, courtesy of Jenny from Reading the End
NPR — http://www.npr.org/2016/03/02/467413538/borderline-is-urban-fantasy-with-a-cinematic-punch (especially on Mille being a filmmaker and the cinematics of mental illness
Tor — Magic in the City of Broken Dreams: Borderline by Mishell Baker
Book Smugglera at Kirkus — Borderline Reality
Jim C. Hines
The BiblioSanctum


  1. I learned a fantastic word for Carter when doing research for this book: "trustafarian". So true! (back to text)

  2. One review I read said that Seth's attraction to Leonie is "shallow" (yes!) and "unworthy of him" (uhhhh....). Actually, let me take that reaction out of the parentheses: UHHHH. Dear reviewer, I think you are missing the point of Seth if you think this is unworthy of him? (back to text)

  3. I can't discuss discomfort as a tool for progress without also mentioning discomfort as a state of illness. Millie is a great example of this: she is constantly struggling with the discomfort of BPD. If discomfort is the language of the changing self, then comfort is the stagnant self — but comfort is also what happens when my anxiety leaves me alone. In a similar way, pain is not the only language the body speaks: pleasure is too. These threads are worth teasing out, but for the purposes of this post, I'm concentrating on reader discomfort as a tool both authors employ. (back to text)


Date: 2017-04-20 01:55 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
(First thanks for letting me know about the id thing, please let me know if I'm doing it right, I'll go make an account in a bit, tech is confusing.) I guess my thing was when there is such limited representation of a group, putting such an awful flaw as racism makes it impossible to see the character as a good person, and when there is nothing else like it, it is still painting the entire group, especially with a stigmatized disorder already. Like it wouldn't be as personal, but I'd be just as uncomfortable with what was supposed to be positive representation of somebody who's schizophrenic where their biggest flaw was racism to the point where it is almost like they're using a person with a mental illness to make a point about racism. I'm not saying that can't be done well, I'm saying it's super shaky ground, especially when there's other ways to show a character is an asshole? I don't know I could be uncomfortable for nothing.

(Re: autistic protags: you know, I've got way more on the Avoid list then the good one but Viral Nation was pretty good. with reservations, and I can't speak for the sequels bc I'm the worse about finishing series. I"m sure there's more that I cannot remember rn so if it comes up again and I remember more I'll definitely let you know.)

Re: Rissa

Date: 2017-04-20 06:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.com
>>>Like it wouldn't be as personal, but I'd be just as uncomfortable with what was supposed to be positive representation of somebody who's schizophrenic where their biggest flaw was racism to the point where it is almost like they're using a person with a mental illness to make a point about racism. I'm not saying that can't be done well, I'm saying it's super shaky ground, especially when there's other ways to show a character is an asshole?

Can I jump in? Because I thought this was something that the author did in a very interesting way! Millie's racist in the way of white liberals who think they're not, but one of the many things the author did that I really admired is that she didn't make a point of Millie's racism. It zips by so quickly that if you're not attuned to that particular brand of racism, it would be easy to miss. Like -- it's not a major part of the story, I don't think? Ira talks about it a lot in this post because they found it to be an interesting aspect of the book (I did too), but I would say that the real estate it occupies in the book isn't huge. I liked that because I think that's the case for MOST WHITE PEOPLE: the mental real estate we're devoting to racism tends to be pretty small, and we skate past mistakes we make around racism because we have the privilege to be able to do that. Baker does a wonderful job depicting that privileged tendency without condoning it, if that makes any sense.

Let me know if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you're possibly concerned that the book makes a point of Millie's racism as a kind of "Kick the Dog" mechanism -- to let us know that she's Bad. The author includes this kind of racism (the kind that's very very typical for white ladies from film school) to show instead that Millie's COMPLICATED. She's not Good, she's not Bad, and most of her character traits, very much especially including the ones that arise from her BPD, are strengths at some points and weaknesses at other points. And I think the author does a very good job of flagging for the reader what elements of Millie's behavior and responses are due to BPD -- so if Millie's not saying "this thought pattern is a thing that happens with borderlines," the text isn't encouraging the reader to say "borderlines are like X."

I don't know if that helps at all!!

Re: Rissa

Date: 2017-04-20 08:34 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] c_has_a_dreamwidth
Sorry I took so long to answer, studying and then figuring out how to work this, apologies if I came off as ignoring you. Thank you for clearing that up and I am so so sorry I misunderstood what you meant in regards to racism in this book. Thank you so much for being compassionate.

Re: Rissa

Date: 2017-04-20 08:58 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] c_has_a_dreamwidth
Oh no that's not on you please don't feel bad!! I misunderstood it happens.


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