A Feminist Beginning
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In wish-fulfillment pulp literature for male audiences the heroes are daring, vindictive, and physically tough if not absurdly muscle-bound. From noir detectives to rugged cowboys to intrepid starship pilots to sword-wielding barbarians. Pretty girls are flung at these men as garnish, but for the most part they are defined by their relationships with other men: by loyalty and by violence.
Traditionally the heroines of pulp literature for female audiences have also been defined by their relationships with men (though this may be changing). From historicals to romances to serendipitous sleuths, these women are characterized in juxtaposition to the men in their lives, whether vile oppressors or alluring love interests.
While I hesitate to call Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear pulp, it does feel like wish-fulfillment, and despite its relatively modern date (1980), its seemingly independent-minded female protagonist is likewise defined in relation to the men around her.
The Book's Premise
A blonde, blue-eyed girl living in Ice Age Europe is orphaned on the second page when an earthquake swallows her family. (So much for waiting until the end of the novel for the deus ex machina.) Before many more pages pass the girl, now starving, survives a cave lion attack which will affect her destiny. A Neanderthal clan happens along, and its medicine woman insists on caring for the "ugly" child.
Ayla, the girl, thus grows up as a Neanderthal, and we get to experience the Neanderthal way of life along with her. She learns subsistence as a hunter-gatherer, becomes the apprentice medicine woman, and tries to fit in with her new family. But her differences are more than physical. As a Cro-Magnon she lacks the racial memories that both inform and limit the Neanderthals. Instead, like all good modern humans, her most prominent trait is rebelliousness. She flaunts the clan's patriarchal customs and her inability to conform creates turmoil. Offended and jealous, the chief's brash heir grows intent on putting Ayla in her place. She is destined to survive and transform her world, but her final victory might only come through death.
Details, Beguiling and Bedeviling
Auel's research was thorough, and the book's engrossing details are the fruit of it. How the Neanderthals harvest plants, hunt animals, talk with their hands, interact socially, and perform their rituals are all spelled out with exactness, and in a clinical tone that impresses with its authority. But this is fiction. Most of the cultural elements are invented, and some of the details have been clearly disproved by later archeological discoveries. Yet the overall impression is one of legitimacy. The book involves its reader, and we experience Ayla's world as if it were historical fact.
This is delectably exotic for those who enjoy inhabiting other worlds or times through literature. It is also titillating. In The Clan of the Cave Bear Ayla's sexual encounters are primarily violent and unpleasant, but are described with no less care and detail. This attention imbues the scenes with the promise of eroticism. It's not that they are enjoyable. It's that they set the stage for future encounters equally detailed but contrastingly pleasurable.
This shift in the tone of the details, from clinical to visceral, occurs whenever Ayla is causing tension within the clan. The loss of detachment where Ayla is concerned gives the novel its conflicts and is really the heart of the story. But in it is revealed Auel's personal attachment to her character. All authors have favorite characters. But a certain distance is expected, almost as a matter of professionalism. In the case of Ayla, Auel's fawning is palpable. While Ayla may misstep once or twice, it's clear that to Auel she can do no wrong. In contrast, the key Neanderthal characters, even the villain, are complex and well-written.
This infatuation for her protagonist is unseemly in Auel. It suggests, as with many heroes from pulp fiction, that Auel is living out her fantasies through Ayla, who is less a character than she is Auel's avatar of wish-fulfillment, especially when Ayla one-ups the men, both in lighter scenes and in more serious episodes, where she forges through their oppression like a female Moses. Don't let the horrors Ayla endures fool you. Auel relishes each of them for the romance they add. Even rape holds the promise of future passions.
Evolution happens when women throw off their men.
This book is a staggering effort for a first-time novelist. Its immersive detail and Ayla's struggle to overcome male oppression justify its enormous popularity. But while Ayla's conflicts clearly resonate with the female consciousness, Auel's approach is far too indulgent. I personally enjoyed the speculative explorations of Neanderthal culture, and found their religious practices and mystical/magical mental powers interesting, especially the core idea that the racial memory which differentiates them from Cro-Magnon stifles their evolution. On the other hand the details of Auel's world sometimes became wearying rather than engrossing, and I felt I'd rather be reading a good non-fiction treatment of the subject.
The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in Auel's ongoing Earth's Children series, featuring the further adventures of Ayla, who apparently did, said, and thought everything worth doing, saying, or thinking in the whole of prehistory. She also seems to have slept with anyone worth sleeping with, and several who weren't, all recounted in the same absorbing detail with which Auel describes berry gathering and mammoth hunting. Personally, this first book was enough of a taste for me. More of the same would only be gluttony.
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