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Poor Things

Gabrielle de la Puente

In the 1992 novel Poor Things, by ex-art-student Alasdair Gray, rogue scientist Godwin Baxter salvages the body of a pregnant woman who died in Glasgow’s river Clyde by suicide. Capitalising on the opportunity to do something rogue in pursuit of scientific discovery, Godwin transplants the baby’s brain in the approximately 25 year old woman’s head. He does something or other with electrical currents, and brings both of them, at least in part, back to life. The result is Bella Baxter.

Imagine if a tiny baby was driving the wobbly body of a grown woman like a mech. Imagine if Frankenstein’s monster was cute, and then very horny. The baby’s brain develops much faster than it would have if it had stayed attached to its original skull, and the result is a living entity desperate to catch up with its new situation. Just like a baby grabs at the world to get a proper sense of it, Bella grabs at people, words, places, books, bunny rabbits, science, and just everything that life has to offer. Godwin can’t teach his surgical fabrication fast enough. Even though he tries his best to satiate Bella, she is a juggernaut of a student who legs it far beyond God’s grasp to get her philosophical fill. Off she goes. There are adventures to be had, so why wouldn’t she have some?

Poor Things is a very rich story that could launch a thousand essays. Essays on Frankenstinian fantasies and medical ethics. Essays on morality, souls, sex, age, consent, and sex work. There could be literary essays on epistolaries, portraiture, creative license, framing devices, unreliable narrators, pastiche, and more focused examinations on Bella’s bouncy linguistics. But I haven’t thought deeply about any of those important things because Alasdair Gray made Bella Baxter and Bella Baxter, in her alliteration and her wild animal verve and her frankness and her impossible biology, has left me thinking about all the ways I have and haven’t grown up. I think I might be sad about it? I think I would like to regress.

I listened to the Poor Things audiobook before I saw the film, and the experience was a bit like being in class. Nothing as grand or air-conditioned as a lecture hall, I mean a senior school class with its concentrated body odour and plastic chairs and me sat there with my brain on fire having revelations. Some teacher scorching the outer layer of my brain’s wet marshmallow, making mention of Karl Marx, Helen Chadwick, and German Expressionism. Mad heat, those teenage years, when school was good but never enough; when I read The Divine Comedy out loud in my bedroom to no one, and drew the fabric in Titian paintings in thick 8B pencils. 14, 15, 16, when I made my way through an exhaustive list of books about drunk American men because it felt so important at the time; and when I watched films I’d think were too long to bother with now. I got through His Dark Materials fast enough (wanted to be Lyra, wanted to fight God) but then decided to re-read the series in Spanish, slowly. I had to annotate a new word on every other line and it probably looked like I had given myself detention, but the entire time my brain was in that other language and its other-other worlds, things felt right.

To know there was a time long ago when so many activities made me feel right — when I began listening to Poor Things, I didn’t want anything wrong for Bella. The girl, or the woman, had been through enough. Something I didn’t know about yet had driven her to suicide, and now she was the exquisite corpse combo deal of mother and daughter. Enough! Bella’s appetite for learning about the world — about pianos, maps and corduroy — made me nostalgic for my own hot brain, and I came to dread the future badness that must be coming for Bella, because it must be, otherwise there wouldn’t be a book. I wanted Alasdair Gray to leave Bella alone, the way I’d been left to revel in my teenage bedroom, and in class, and fiction. I knew the happy first-act warmth would wane for Bella. I know exactly when it ran out for me.

I was 17. My Spanish teacher showed us a programme for doing work experience abroad, and I ended up in Salamanca, a city I remember as being lit by golden hour sun every second of the day. I went there to meet a retired matador who taught me how to use a DSLR camera in his suburban photo studio. Spanish Max Spielmann. I said nothing to the man. Families came in with children dressed like toy royalty for First Communion portraits and I said nothing to that lot either. I was mute my entire week in Spain. Mute in the studio, mute during the siesta (when I felt abandoned by routine and unrestful), mute through the afternoon shift, callada. I’d spent too long reading books at my own pace, too long in proxy conversations with other English people. I was now life-or-death scared I would speak some basic mistake and the photographer-matador would gore me like a bull.

Easier not to speak! Easier to simmer in my unfair jealousy of Spanish kids! Easier to be annoyed at the one Chilean parent I have, who never taught me Spanish because he moved to England aged 3 and forgot it! I just wanted my last name to make sense when it trailed behind me. I just wanted to read books without having to squeeze a second book’s worth of words in annotations between eye-blurring lines.

17 was the end of me. When I came back to England with a tan and a tin of paprika, I started driving lessons. The Chilean parent is a taxi driver and the English one is a better driver than him, so I had to. But they were far too eventful. On my second lesson, I did 70mph on a road that couldn’t have been the motorway but certainly looked like one. During another lesson, months down the line, a kid ran onto the road and threw a massive fish at the car. It bounced off the bonnet and I swerved, almost driving us straight off a hill in Everton. My instructor was so angry at me. I was angry too. When I was in primary school, there was a little girl who used to climb up my legs like a kitten. The younger sister of a classmate, she was playing outside her house one afternoon when she walked out between two parked cars. It was the first funeral I ever went to. There was hardly anybody there, it was terrible. I failed my driving test. That was terrible too. It was terminated after five minutes for, and I quote, dangerous driving. Good! I couldn’t stand being in control of something that could kill people. We were so close to the test centre that the examiner walked back in a huff, leaving me mute at the wheel.

I was convinced I was going to hate being an adult and I was right!

Godwin Baxter has a theory about Bella’s disposition. He says, ‘I have saved her from one crushing disadvantage I never had myself: she has never been small so has never known fear… Did the giants who owned the world when you were wee let you feel as important as they were?’ I thought of myself in the presence of the matador, too small. I thought of myself in the driver’s seat, too big. The giants who owned the world invited me to have experiences I thought I wanted, but I couldn’t stand being so close to power, so I took care of the crushing myself.

Bella’s happiness is unimpeded by doubt and fear. Alasdair Gray creates in her a character whose only purpose in life is to enjoy it. And so, she chats, and she shags, and she learns, and she travels, and she lives the life of the young. So desperate not to miss out on anything, she trains herself to sleep sitting up, eyes open, standing, walking. Always, always living. ‘Not having learned cowardice when small and oppressed she only uses speech to say what she thinks and feels, not to disguise these, so she is incapable of every badness done through hypocrisy and lying.’ I should have known better than to grow up!

When I write reviews, I often stop what I’m doing to check BBC News. Quick horrors then back to work. Today, there is a headline that says, ‘Where I live, many people don’t have teeth.’ Tomorrow, the genocide of Palestine will continue, where Israeli snipers shoot people who venture outside to find water. The Earth will get hotter, the smart meter will bleep, my chronic illness will be true to its name, and I will still feel the firm toothache on the left-hand side of my mouth. Easier not to speak, easier to let my teeth fall out, easier to stop reading Poor Things halfway through the story before Bella’s world becomes just as poor as ours. Stop reading before she learns about polite society, blunders a double roundabout, or learns there is such a thing as politics, and everything will stay okay.

‘What are Socialists, Duncan?’ I asked.

‘Fools who think the world should be improved.’

‘Why? Is something wrong with it?’

At the book’s midpoint, Bella meets two men on a ship, Mr Astley and Dr Hooker. She sits across the table from them while they have long debates on eugenics, original sin and colonialism. She is the lone witness and student to their tense dialectics, by which I mean, in discussing a subject, Bella sees multiple sides of the argument and gets a fuller picture than she would have if it was Astley or Hooker speaking alone. It is during these conversations she realises there is in fact something wrong with the world. There are enough problems for men to endlessly argue over them. There are problems in every country, but not to worry Bella, because there are also white saviours. Dr H says to Bella, ‘compared with the Chinese, Hindoos [sic], Negroes and Amerindians — yes, even compared with the Latins and Semites — we are like teachers in a playground of children who do not want to know that the school exists.’ It gets darker, and I am going to take the time to type the rest of this quote because it’s the honest way Britain viewed the rest of the world (and still does to some extent). It is the tipping point that propels Bella from a good world to a real one. Also, it isn’t in the film.

Dr H says, ‘Why is it our duty to teach them? I will tell you. When children or childish people are left to themselves the strongest overcome the rest and treat them unkindly. In China judicial torture is a roadside entertainment. Hindoo widows are burned alive beside their husbands’ corpses. Black people eat each other. Arabs and Jews do unmentionable things to the private parts of their infants. The talkative French go in for bloody revolutions, the carefree Italians join murderous secret societies, we all know about the Spanish Inquisition. Even the Germans, who are racially closest to us, have a taste for brutally violent orchestral music and sabre duels. God created the Anglo-Saxon race to stop all that, and we will… The bullying rulers of the inferior races hate to see us replace them, so to teach them sense we have first of all to thrash them.’

I am not here to do book versus film. One of them is trying to be a good book and the other a good film, and both do their jobs very well. But I prefer the original text because the film doesn’t really go there. It goes past there, but it doesn’t linger, whereas the book is absolutely soaked in Alasdair Gray’s blunt review of life and hell on Earth. The British Empire, white supremacy, manmade inequality, and the suffering of the proletariat. Drenched in it. All my favourite fiction is actually a roundabout form of criticism, so it’s no wonder I love this book so much. I love it when an artist creates a grand image, something surreal and perfect and comfortable in its own fantasy, and then takes a sharp blade and goes at it, cutting a line straight through the middle to reveal the real world this thing is only temporarily covering up. I like it when art does that. Because I see the blade all the time, I feel like I am always running from it, and I like when artists pick it up and use it for their own ends. In Poor Things, we have Bella, a blank slate of a brain, who is a mechanism through which to re-view the pretty terrible life the rest of us adult-brains in adult-bodies have accepted, or made happen.

After 17 and 18, I began a Fine Art degree where we kicked off the year with critical theory lectures that made my head hot in a way that wasn’t energising at all. I collared a tutor to admit I didn’t know what the fuck he was on about, and he told me to go to the library and take out a book called Political Theory. It was heavy and purple, and I read until my brain was a cold clot of ashes; until I knew why Liverpool looked the way it did, why I was getting maximum funding for university, why my ex-boyfriend was my ex, why refugees were treated like shit, why life felt futureless even for a student, and why people were the root of all evil. And it’s not that I think we should be ignorant, it’s that I wish there was nothing I may or may not secretly want to be ignorant of. I think of Bella and I want to be a student again. But not really. I only want to be a student if there is a better world to learn.

On the ship, Book-Bella blushes at the aspects of humanity that Dr H reports on, as if it is fact. ‘You said something that surprised me, Dr Hooker. You said brainy people find it easier to control their evil animal instincts. I have seen and played with a lot of animals, and none of them were evil to me. A bitch with a broken leg growled and snapped while I fixed the splint, but only because I was hurting her. When she felt better she treated me like a pal.’ When still at home with Godwin Baxter, Bella was taught how to operate on animals. She realises she is less happy than she was before she met these two men, and when everybody’s speeches are over, she writes the following letter back to Glasgow: ‘Before now I thought everyone I met was part of the same friendly family, even when a hurt one acted like our snappish bitch. Why did you not teach me politics, God?’ Why did the art lecturer teach me politics? Bella says ‘thinking has maddened me for weeks.’ Thinking has maddened me for the rest of my life.

I could write about this book forever. I could do those thousand essays myself. All I really want to say is this: Poor Things, the book, was like taking my own brain out, examining what state it is in, and trying to put it back into my rattled skull, only to find it is bent out of shape, and I am going to have to rearrange all of my thoughts before it fits back in there. Bella is never the same after the ship, or after she is taken to see beggars in Alexandria who vie for coins the rich hotel guests flick over the veranda. She runs to help them and Dr Hooker tells her, ‘You can do no good.’ His condemnation leads her to becoming a doctor back in Scotland, where she helps women, kids, and the poor. And I think that maybe I shouldn’t stay a writer for too long, because otherwise I am Bella sitting across from men on a table who are loudly debating the benefits of war, religion, and overpopulation. I should find a thing I can do, because maybe I wouldn’t crave regression and teenage-hood so badly. Or maybe I should write but I should always keep the blade next to my keyboard. That way, I can cut fiction and criticism down the middle and, with my own surgery, reveal the cold things that make us run to culture for warmth.

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