Lesley Wheeler’s Unbecoming is about Cynthia (Cyn), a chair of an English department at a university, who is struggling with her role in academia. There are reports of racism among the staff, students who plagiarize without any care for their future, and hiring processes that leave her feeling utterly burnt out. When she wishes for one of her colleagues to simply go away, and that colleague, Alisa, does just that (venturing on a research trip overseas and then promptly becoming harder and harder to reach via normal modes of communication), Cyn seems to become more powerful. As more of her wishes come true, Cyn starts to see another woman in her department, an enchanting poet called Fee, as partly responsible for her new ability to manipulate a seemingly broken reality. Fee is a newly hired professor, ostensibly taking Alisa’s place, and all her wishes seem to come true as well; her poetry collection is picked up by Norton and she gets engaged to a man notorious for his wandering eye. She also confronts Cyn about her latent power, and instead of a face-off between two women in powerful positions, they band together to fight a greater enemy in the school system: a rogue student who has turned to violence. While Cyn soon grows to understand her power in new ways, she struggles with Fee’s interpretation of the new rules of reality, especially as paintings keep displaying whimsical landscapes that are really portals to another world. This world, called “UnWales” in the novel, is a mixture of the faraway fairy (faerie) landscapes of Celtic myth, while also being a more contemporary (and academic) version of “The Upsidedown” from Netflix’s Stranger Things—only instead of a young boy disappearing into the depths, it’s Alisa (and possibly more people from their English department). Indeed, in many ways, this novel feels like a middle-aged version of Stranger Things, filled with references to Shakespeare and Yeats, rather than the iconic films of the 1980s; and a bunch of middle-aged women running around trying to solve issues via paperwork or through wishes, rather than pre-teens trying to find their best friend with the help of D&D. Thanks to Wheeler’s cryptic yet often poetic prose, the novel itself feels as modern as it does archaic and classic. This is especially so for her protagonist, Cyn, as I tended to view her as an older version of Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. By the end, when the order of the world has righted itself as much as it can, Unbecoming is about how sometimes venturing into an unknown world can provide relief, but only if you bring those changes or lessons learned in the underworld back to the waking world where the real life evils of sexism, racism, and violence can be defeated—or at least put on suspension until further notice.
Cyn and Fee’s psychic abilities, along with the unknown fairy world of “UnWales,” represent the more “speculative” elements of Wheeler’s tale, and they were the specific points that made me interested in the work, along with the trickster fox that graces its cover (more on this image later). I’d not read anything by Wheeler before, but I respect Aqueduct as a feminist press, so when I read the blurb for this, I knew Wheeler’s treatment of these issues would be worthwhile. Yet, I started Unbecoming twice. The first time I began reading it, I had to switch to something else because I found the book came far too close to my daily world. Wheeler’s treatment of Cyn’s academic life is spot-on, so much so that I also yearned for a portal to another world through which to escape my own constant drudgery of paperwork. In addition to her job sometimes draining her life, Cyn’s husband works at a different university, one that he must commute to, which then leaves her alone with their children the majority of the time. His job is also seemingly insecure, like her own, since the liberal studies / English / arts departments in which they teach are heavily underfunded. In addition to the racism and sexism, the general malaise felt in the academy comes across in Wheeler’s stark prose. At times I felt as if I was reading about my own institution, its petty and not-so-petty squabbles, and my own English department that is underfunded, especially when compared to the sciences. While this statement is a testament to Wheeler’s power as a narrator, if I had wanted to read about the dire state of the humanities in academia, I would have gone to the Chronicle of Higher Education, not a speculative fiction novel.
So what made me come back to Unbecoming after I’d put it down? Two main things: 1) Wheeler’s protagonist, Cyn, lingered in my consciousness, which made me want to know how she fared in both the real and the fantasy worlds. And 2) the fact that, within days of picking up the novel again, I would not be in my classroom any more. Instead, I would be at home, scrambling to get my classes online, and then bunkering down for an indefinite quarantine thanks to COVID-19. Apparently the upside-down fantasy landscape I had been hoping for had arrived, so, like Cyn, I really should be careful what I wish for.
My second time returning to the novel, I felt so much like Cyn, it was utterly uncanny. My students, like Alisa in the novel, seemed to have slipped into an unknown world, one where I couldn’t visit them any more, and where I had a hard time reaching them when they did turn up in my inbox or via Zoom. I had felt my students’ tension in the room that Thursday before everything changed, and I knew the school closing was going to happen (even though my school is notorious for never closing), and so, like Cyn, I felt as if I was getting snatches of feelings and intuition I hadn’t had in a long time. All I was missing was the fox trickster, a figure from Cyn’s past that visits her around the same time her psychic powers come back—but maybe that is still yet to come for me.
Even before this personal obscene parallel to Cyn’s life, I really enjoyed her as a character. One of the main reasons is that Wheeler pulls no punches and demonstrates Cyn’s pre-menopause symptoms on the page. Most of the time, this facet of life is completely ignored, in fiction and the waking world. If it is spoken about at all, it is done so mockingly, with the proverbial sad woman, going through hot flashes and empty nesting issues. While that image is certainly evoked in this novel, it is done so by Cyn’s children who are the ones teasing her about her hot flashes and mocking her soon-to-be Golden Girl status. As readers, we do not sympathize with the children in those scenes, nor are we supposed to. Since the novel itself is told from a first-person viewpoint, we are anchored behind Cyn’s experience. We feel the hot flashes along with her and we then hear her own thought process on this transitional period in her life.
Menopause is a change—but this change is not necessarily bad in Cyn’s eyes. We are not seeing a stereotype, but a fully fleshed out character, a female character, and an older woman at that. I was thrilled to see this kind of representation because I am always on the lookout for older women characters who are role models and/or realistic depictions of femininity that are not sad or pathetic. It can suck to realize that so much of female identity is tied directly to fertility, and then have older women discarded as characters once they passed through that milestone which seems to cut off all female representation, not to mention the absence of female academic characters in the media.
So the character of Cynthia was always going to entice me. But Wheeler’s depiction of menopause (and pre-menopause) was wonderful because she links it to Cyn’s psychic powers, and implies that Cyn could not have been this close to a witch, a fairy circle, and the fox trickster creature without having also gone through menopause/pre-menopause. As Cyn explains to her kids, the fox that seems to visit her again could be her childhood familiar, “Sister-Fox”—or it could be a kitsune, a nine-tailed mythic fox from Asian folklore. This archetypal image has been used to discredit women and their voices (especially when the kitsune is used as an excuse for a woman acting out of her ‘role’)—or its presence in Cyn’s world could be straight up appropriation of another culture. The novel—and Wheeler—never fully lands on what the fox signifies, yet it is the main cover image, so it must be important. My interpretation is that the fox, like the women in novel, is a changing figure that can be as hurtful as it is helpful, depending on who is doing the talking, who is doing the listening, and the matrix of meanings that happen when these worlds converge.
No matter what the fox ends up meaning, though, it is clear that it is because of her hot flashes that Cyn’s now introduced—or reintroduced—to the world of magic and mayhem, where Sister-Fox is only one of many strange episodes and possibilities. Ultimately, Cyn’s menopause gives her something; it doesn’t take it away. Her menopause reunites her with a younger part of herself that she’d been ignoring. As her own daughter goes through hormonal changes, she seems to resist the rite of passage of being a woman—but Cyn wants her daughter to embrace her period and her newly shapely body, because when she went through it as a teenager, she first glimpsed these powers. Then, when Cyn and Fee face off over a rogue student who has turned to violence, they do not attack one another with their powers, but they do disagree as to how to use that power. When confronting the school shooter, Cyn wants nothing more than for everyone to be safe and unharmed; she tries to chant for this reality, but soon realizes that Fee wants the “fair-haired boy” to go to the underworld of “UnWales” which means he must be harmed before he harms everyone else. I quote from Wheeler’s prose in order to demonstrate her lucid prose and her ability to manage both kinds of magic these women have:
I wanted to wish Fee herself away, gone from the world, but she had work to do, and she needed me to help her do it. I felt power pooling, wanting to race up my spine, down my arm, into her. Nothing could happen unless I committed. I would have to take responsibility and make the best choice I could, a choice that could be irrevocable, that could be wrong.
I sucked in a deep breath, clenched my fingers more tightly, and zapped out all the energy my body could channel.
Fee finished her recitation, smiled at the fair-haired boy, and slammed the hunk of iron down on his head. (218)
As characters and symbolic figures, both Fee and Cyn become possible ways in which to view the menopausal experience, and still keep it magical and powerful. Though at times Fee can be seen as a villain, especially as Cyn is still warming up to the idea of her own abilities, I do not think Wheeler gives us a firm conclusion if she is a “good witch” or a “bad witch”; I think that’s impossible to do. We are supposed to examine Fee, not as a foil to Cyn’s magic, but as another possible way in which to use every last experience you have been given. As Fee states herself: “The magic will get stronger as you age. Unless you refuse to believe in it, in which case it will twist and rot” (225).
Wheeler is primarily a poet, so the nuances of her language are also quite impressive. She manages to create a story filled with twists and turns, but also depict the interior life of these characters in rich detail. We are, of course, anchored behind Cyn and her interior monologue, but Wheeler still manages to depict and describe characters like Fee, Cyn’s daughter, and Alisa well without resorting to stereotypes in order to make them all stand out from one another. No matter what their age, women are powerful in this work, but these particular transition periods between maiden/mother and mother/crone are especially so in Wheeler’s work, and well, it was about time this sort of depiction was embraced. While youth is still depicted, and valued, it is not the main source of power in this world. It’s those who have already lived through several rites of passage who get the last word.
The connection between girls and psychic—or at least magical—occurrences during puberty is known in a lot of occult works. Many poltergeist events seem to occur in houses where teenage girls live, perhaps caused partly by the rampant hormones and a changing interior landscape. We find this plot trajectory also in Unbecoming, but in a new era and in a new setting: the academy. Why this setting—rather than the traditional haunted house—works so well is because the academy, like the nuclear family that once inhabited the haunted house, is still dealing with the contradictions inherent at its centre. Universities are places of higher learning, but they constantly exploit their workers. They are places where students are meant to stretch their minds academically but instead copy other people’s work; meanwhile teachers are confronted with rigorous learning objectives that do not always facilitate open conversation, and can indeed, hold some students back. The academy is also reeling in the wake of the #metoo movement, and still working out its many issues with racism, all of which Wheeler demonstrates in realistic terms. In other words, some of the more harrowing critiques of academia’s core are not in the basic language of bureaucracy or contract work criticism; Wheeler represents them through speculative fiction and metaphor. So while at first I was a little sick of rereading the same critique of the plight of the humanities, I was glad I came back to this novel. Ultimately, I was refreshed by Wheeler’s ability to take the same main complaint of the academy and render it in new images and symbolism while also updating the traditional possession/haunting narrative that puts a teenage girl at the centre of a haunted house by putting a pre-menopausal woman at the centre of an old New England university system instead.
At first glance, the title Unbecoming seems as if it’s referring to the unmaking of the protagonist. Her menopause is making her crazy; she is losing her mind because of the academy; look at the hysteria go. These are the reductive readings of her work, where hormones are the only things that make a woman a woman. You could also posit that the title refers to the unbecoming of reality, since Alisa seems to fall into an alternative universe, and Fee seems to be doing something sinister. Since the novel ends with most of the everyday world being re-established as it once was, you could also see the title of Unbecoming as the way in which reality fails us over and over again, and we are only left with our own dreams and fantasies that help us to survive.
But I think all of those understandings of the title are too simple, too reductive, and not what Wheeler intends. Unbecoming refers to the uglier sides of the places where these many powerful women live. Unbecoming is the state of the academy, the rules and bureaucratic paperwork that fills Cyn’s desk, and how flimsy it all is when we really focus on how these rules and standards always let something slip by unnoticed, or fail to have a procedure for the inevitable, such as the “fair-haired boy” who can only be stopped by two women’s magical abilities. Unbecoming is an erosion of a dominant power structure, one that has been awful to women and older people, and one that is threatened severely by the end of the novel—though, admittedly, the final pages of the novel left me wanting more destruction, more literal unbecoming that the title had promised me.
Having lived through weeks of quarantine, I now see Unbecoming (the novel and the term/verb) as something the audience must do in the wake of this uncanny universe we are currently living in. In so many ways, there will never be a classroom or a university like the ones depicted in this novel again. Is that good, or is that bad? Does that mean we have seized power or dismantled it? Are we evolving into something better or do we still have a lot of work to do? I still don’t know. But I think I will probably return to this novel once again, in order to solidify the lessons I can learn from the upside-down world, especially as I get older.