June has slipped away in a rash of cold days, in which I have struggled to negotiate a post-novel world. We’ve done the proofreading and acknowledgements, and shortly Entitlement will be printed. So now I have time to read again, and over the weekend I was held hostage for 14 hours by George RR Martin’s A Feast for Crows, which was just as well as I had a significant champagne hangover and couldn’t be compelled to move from the couch. Before that, returning to my staple of Australian fiction (and in line with the Australian Women Writers Challenge), I picked up Krissy Kneen’s Affection and Susan Johnson’s new novel, My Hundred Lovers. Kneen’s memoir, situated in 2008 as she approaches her 40th birthday, dips into a past that, since her childhood, has been charged with sexuality. From the gorgeous, tactile world she experiences as a child, to her surreptitious explorations of her body in a ‘sexless’ household of ‘five industrious women, and [her] grandfather hiding invisible in his room’ (12), to her tentative interactions with geeks when she moves to the city, to ‘the day-to-day excitement of the next man, and the next’, and the workmates who she lived with who, cognisant of their beauty, were the incarnation of manipulation, through to her breakdown precipitated in part by a fragile self beaten by prescriptions that women should look or act a certain way, this is a work that charts how vivid sex makes you feel, and – given that it can veer from intense intimacy to punishment - how vulnerable. After an unwanted encounter with a bastard (my adjective) named Brian who ‘told me with each thrust that I was hideous, and with each thrust I believed him’ (242), came a chapter titled ‘Mantra’, beginning with Brian’s list of all the things that were supposedly wrong with the narrator:
‘I am ugly. I am crass. I am coarse. I am unfeminine. I am too harsh. I am too honest. I have no secrets. I am too obvious. I am too sexual. I am too aggressively sexual. I am like a man. I am not like a girlfriend. I am unlovable. I am ugly. I am crass’ (245).
This is what our culture does to women who don’t shape themselves to some outdated, persistent version of 1950s sexuality: if we aren’t conventionally pretty, if we love sex too overtly, if we are too smart, too bold, too lacking in submission – we are denigrated until our self consists of nothing at all. But this chapter, however harrowing its beginning, shoved two fingers up to all those who would have women conform with its repeated assertion: ‘I am I am I am I am I am’. It was brilliant.
Susan Johnson’s novel is similar to Kneen's in that it is saturated by the senses and the pleasure derived from them. In it, one hundred short chapters, each detailing a lover – whether words, men, breasts, adored relatives – add up to a woman’s sensual life. The writing is a lover in itself, caressing the reader as it details the protagonist’s movements between Paris and Australia, trying to find a place to settle, and the right man to settle with. Who could not respond to Chapter 84, titled ‘Toes’:
'There is nothing like it: mudflats at low tide, the slivers of silver water, the ooze between the toes, the adult feet returned to childhood, shoes off, crab holes everywhere and, if you are lucky, a cloud of crabs with their bony, articulated limbs swarming across the ruffled mud' (225).
You could pick out any page in this novel, and swoon a little.
I enjoyed the structure, which didn’t have a pulsing rush to a climax, but rather eddied around pleasures in a languorous way (and here one could delve into a discussion of Écriture feminine, on the difference between men and women’s writing, but binaries like these worry me a little). If the novel did have a downfall, it was that it was so beautiful it was unmemorable. Even the unpleasantness of the ending (which I found a little contrived) didn’t sink a blow because it was rendered with such a controlled, elegant tone.
Meanwhile, I still think about Krissy’s memoir. Perhaps it was because it was of the humour of a pet ferret named Gruesome, of the marvelous strangeness of a family that made models such as dinosaurs to be displayed in museums, of the acuity of the writer’s observations, and the undertone of melancholy that comes from being different and trying to get to that place that signifies normality and acceptance, but not quite making it. And yet, I don’t think that’s a bad thing - quite the contrary in fact – because that travelling, and that perception of where one is and where one wants, or doesn’t want to be - is one of the things that makes a good writer.