Monthly Archives: October 2013

Contagion

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‘Their skin had touched and it was worth all the troubles in the world.’

Apocalypse Baby (Serpent’s Tail, 2013) is Virginie Despentes’ sixth novel. Originally published in 2010, it’s been translated from the French by Sian Reynolds. Touching on a series of key contemporary concerns, the novel negotiates a truncated, atrophied, but nevertheless caressive and affective, language of touch as a grounding for its exploration of contemporary violence, an exploration in a fictional language mediated by frequent allusions to cinematic style and gothic tropes (the novel is prefaced by a quote from Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie). These referential sets coalesce into different configurations of contemporary female experience (or, for some readers, cliches of femininity) as the text develops. One character raises her eyes, ‘quite slowly, a very elegant movement, like in a black and white film’; another experiences a ‘burning’ face, ‘her fine skin irritated and painful’ after a few nights with her new male partner (the sex of partners is important here); a central character has shockingly ‘metamorphic’ abilities in which she becomes violently other to herself, a symbol of the social violence in which she’s deeply implicated:  ‘she could be in a horror film’, we’re told, ‘just like she is, no need for special effects, torn-off limbs, nothing’. After one such moment, the same character tells Valentine, the teenaged victim-perpetrator around whom the plot revolves, ‘No hard feelings. Just a little injection of reality. Just like when a vampire bites an innocent victim. Crunch! It’s over.’

Heterosexual sex is at one point described as a kind of friction, an affectless contactual / contractual performance: ‘He rubbed the parts of his body he thought relevant up against her, giving the impression of taking advantage of what she let him do.’ Moments of violence are marked by sharp, unexpected contact, tiny mises-en-abyme of the entire conceit of the plot: ‘Wallop! Not an ordinary slap with the flat of the hand, a brutal blow, using the edge of her palm, and the deaths-head ring makes a long red scratch on his cheek. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think he did, either.’

As might be expected from the author of Baise-Moi, the insistent trope of contact – sexual, intimate, and violent – mutates, just as caressing sometimes mutates into beating and stroking into striking, as the narrative progresses to develop an abiding preoccupation with some of the ‘failures’ of contact that orchestrate and interrupt social relations in the age of ‘social’ media. Apocalypse Baby, generically a crime novel, examines how an entire civilisation becomes contaminated by the ‘corruption’ (moral, political, ideological, religious – the novel wants them all) of certain vulnerable and susceptible but (crucial ambiguity) dangerously complicit and control-needy elements in a society. In a dramatically telescoped final section (which, along with some of the character-narratives earlier on, is one of the more effective parts of the novel), it considers how all aspects of the social might become disastrously contaminated by the paranoid narratives and their consequent technological enforcements that society nurtures.

All these tropes effect a general sense that the novel’s superficial concern with the tactile, with the effects of touching and of (making, losing, re-establishing, sustaining) contact between characters, masks its inability to resist the fictional allure of a deeper set of anxieties, about not simply touching, but the consequences of the touch – the risk of contamination. In this anxiety, commonplace social niceties become fraught with ambiguities that divide the generations (a division that’s another key theme here): the narrator wonders, offered a handshake by her collaborator, ‘whether she thinks I’m going to give her some infectious disease or whether at her age she doesn’t know that these days between girls we kiss.’

‘Fear of contagion’ becomes the central concern and structuring metaphor, as the novel sketches a violently dystopian future state response to the viral threat of terrorism, clearly (too transparently: ‘the Ground Zero of the City of Light’ doesn’t reimagine Paris as the new locus of terrorist outrage so much as fail to imagine whatever the next form of terrorist outrage will be – one of several false notes in the novel) reading off the ‘War on Terror’ and its sickening transformations of notions of freedom, democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity. And this ‘fear of contagion’ becomes the ‘contagion of fear’, a web-like process of disastrously ramifying interconnections – the new and menacing neoliberal Real that would enmesh us all – that the detective-genre structure of Apocalypse Baby mobilises. Fredric Jameson argues that the genre enables the detective to operate as social geographer, cognitively mapping social realms otherwise inaccessible to the reader in order, ultimately, to reassure us that some kind of order (the order, perhaps, that we remember from ‘not so long ago’) exists, even if Law is necessary to enforce it. Despentes’ detectives, driven more by individual desires than by the logics of plot resolution, work as versions of us all; the ‘contagion of fear’ embeds us all as objects of impersonal power, seeking escape both in (the novel’s last words) ‘a story I can be satisfied with’ – in the satisfaction of personal desire – and in the potential reassurance of the (nevertheless infectious) nostalgia evoked by its opening clause: ‘Not so long ago …’.

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Unused

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But he was strange and unused. So suddenly, everything that had been before was shed away and gone. One day, he was a bachelor, living with the world. The next day, he was with her, as remote from the world as if the two of them were buried like a seed in darkness. Suddenly, like a chestnut falling out of a burr, he was shed naked and glistening on to a soft, fecund earth, leaving behind him the hard rind of worldly knowledge and experience. He heard it in the huckster’s cries, the noise of carts, the calling of children. And it was all like the hard, shed rind, discarded. Inside, in the softness and stillness of the room, was the naked kernel, that palpitated in silent activity, absorbed in reality. (Lawrence, The Rainbow)

Will Brangwen’s marriage is a transformative moment in which his world is recast anew. It’s a making-strange of the world that takes place amid the mundane, used-up day-to-dayness of the real (‘One day … The next day’) and the banal noise of the social world, the ‘shouts in the street’ with which Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus dismisses talk of God). But it’s also a rejuvenating transformation, a kind of reincarnating of Will (and, in the novel’s apocalyptic rhetoric, of [his] will, both his testament and his headstrongness) as no longer singular, but rendered singularly new – ‘with her’, as the text puts it, but also somehow ‘remote from the world’ – and as (confirming and completing the tense implicit in his name) having become. This becoming and remoteness are combined in the strange word (coupled here with ‘strange’), ‘unused’ – a negation that implies freshness but also a sense of being remaindered, somehow surplus. In this remoteness what Will becomes, it seems, is a figure of unused innocence, a kind of extreme Blakean innocent peeled of worldliness and use-value. The singularity is crucial for Lawrence’s ideology of sexual union: ‘the two of them’ seem, in early marriage, ‘buried like a seed in darkness’. And yet it’s Will who is clearly the seed: the text insists that he, not her nor the pair of them, is ‘shed naked’ ‘like a chestnut out of a burr’. An ‘unused’ seed: unplanted, unrooted, ungrown.

Lawrence’s recurrent figure for such drastic, intense character-recasting involves this image of a seed or fruit with a rind; sometimes this is a nut in a shell, or perhaps (as here) a ‘chestnut’ in a ‘burr’, ‘shed’ (a thrice-repeated word in the passage above) like a skin or fur. These mixed but insistently natural, fertile, or reproductive, images reproduce themselves across the text (there are dozens of examples in the pages following the passage above). They create a sense of potentiality within the character and his context – his innocently new experience of the immediacy of the world (of ‘worldness’) is a kind of thrownness, the disturbing insistence of repetition and reiteration that organizes Lawrence’s prose at its most effective. Joseph Hillis Miller writes (in 1998, in a paper published by Aarhus University), of different forms of what used to be called ‘literariness’ in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One way, he argues, that

Heart of Darkness presents itself as literature is in the elaborate tissue of figures and other rhetorical devices that make up, so to speak, the texture of the text. The simplest and most obvious of these devices is the use of similes, signalled by “like” or “as.” These similes displace things that are named by one or the other of the narrators and assert that they are like something else. This something else forms a consistent subtext or counterpoint defining everything that can be seen as a veil hiding something more truthful or essential behind. The first use of the figure of screens that are lifted to reveal more screens behind, in a structure that is apocalyptic in the etymological sense of “unveiling,” as well as in the sense of having to do with death, judgment, and other last things, comes when the frame narrator, describing the evening scene just before sunset, when the sky is “a benign immensity of unstained light” (4) as it looks from the Nellie at anchor in the Thames estuary, says: “the very mist on the Essex marshes was like [my emphasis: JHM] a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds” (4). These similes, as they follow in a line punctuating the text at rhythmic intervals, are not casual or fortuitous. They form a system, a powerful undertext beneath the first-level descriptive language. (J Hillis Miller, ‘Should we read Heart of Darkness?’, at http://dac.au.dk/fileadmin/www.litteraturhistorie.au.dk/ forskningforskningspublikationer/arbejdspapirer/arbejdspapir17.pdf).

The ‘as’ in Lawrence doubles as comparator and simile – ‘as remote from the world as if’ – signalling a potentially double simile, a double displacement, Will’s new condition as both a kind of  ‘unused’ / useless extra-worldly ‘remoteness’ and a kind of burial (‘buried like a seed in darkness’) – a ‘burial’, not a planting. The double simile tells us something of how we’re meant to read the literary rendition of Will’s experience of marriage as represented in this chapter (its title, after all, is ‘Anna Victrix’). Lawrence’s language ‘unveils’, just as the experience of marriage peels from Will ‘the hard, worldly rind of knowledge and experience’, rendering him as if ‘unused’. The ‘elaborate tissue’ of nut and seed (and their near-anagrammatisation of ‘unused’) and burr and rind and kernel similes works throughout the novel to embed a similarly apocalyptic process of unveiling, reveiling, and unveiling again as the structure through which Lawrence’s (mainly male) characters encounter and ‘unuse’ themselves within their worlds.

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