Review: Ursula Robinson-Shawon Ella Baxter

Dissociating the Novel

Here is my little hypothesis: People love to say that the problem with Australian literature is a lack of critical culture. It’s not. It’s that people don’t read Australian literature, and then they lie about it online. Every day I open Instagram and think, it is so brave of you to post a picture of that book you haven’t read. Someone could ask you a single question about it and the whole house of cards would come down. But nobody will, because they haven’t read it either.

Reading new work is secondary to the more important task of literary circulation – that is, ensuring the proliferation of new work. We love local debuts, which is not to say that we love to read them. (Poets are exempt from this generalisation because poets are devoted to each other, which is why god gives them all the best lines.) Pointing this out is a more popular choice than doing anything to redress it, because that would involve reading a debut Australian novel cover-to-cover, and I simply don’t know many people who are willing to do that, even if it is their job.

Here is my little anecdote: At dinner (drinking) with my writing group (alcoholics) someone said they couldn’t stand to read new Australian fiction because even when ostensibly ‘good’, it was only ever ‘competent’. This in the same breath as saying they couldn’t get past the first few pages of just about any debut at all, and so did not know what they contained. It struck me that low expectations had somehow become interchangeable with actual judgement; so a book could, paradoxically, be so bad that you never even read it in the first place. But I am guilty of this same double movement: dismissing local fiction out of hand while denying it the dignity of critique. It’s partly a form of cultural cringe and partly a form of being a bitch. It is funny at parties, but otherwise unrewarding.

Here is my little thesis: the division of novels into competent and incompetent can only persist in literary climates that suffer from a dearth of self-seriousness. While it’s too lazily affirmative to say there are no bad writers, only bad readers, to have any kind of conviction about what a book is, you first have to take it on its terms. One way to guarantee a miserable literary culture is to insist that the only novels that we should pay critical attention to are the ones deemed by the market competent enough to court prizes, or, worse, deemed by prize committees competent enough to court the market.

If we ask that books be interesting, rather than competent, then we are asking for an interested mode of reading. Like anything worth thinking about, being interested involves a mutually sustaining set of contradictions, or what they call at Hegel group (the pub) ‘the dialectic’. This doesn’t mean opting for interesting/uninteresting over competent/incompetent – it means a book’s flaws may be the basis for finding it compelling; it means ‘flaws’ are less important than contradictions, slippages, moments of self-division, ‘dilemmas of meaning’. A book can know something its writer does not. Who cares what writers know, anyway? Writers are terrible people with ingrown personalities. Novels are wonderful.

Being interested isn’t about imposing a standard, or raising the bar, or whatever – maybe it’s a form of reparative reading. Reparative reading doesn’t mean you have to like what you find.

Life is either boring or shocking, New Animal tells us. Everybody loves a dichotomy, not least because they’re so easy to dissolve. Mind/body, life/death, boring/shocking. We arrive at an idea in language by wrapping it around its opposite, so every concept is the twin of its contrary; you could say we need these divisions in order to describe the world at all. Most of the good stuff, though, happens when they collapse, and what better place than literature to prod at the sticky middle? Boundary confusions are the grammar of narrative, the excluded element oozing back in, so sex, death and the abject are eternal themes. It’s the responsibility of the critic, says Henry James, not to get too caught up in this vexation of popular morality, in a work of fiction’s prurience or shock value, but to judge a book by the standards it proposes: ‘the only classification of the novel,’ he says, ‘is into the interesting and the uninteresting.’

Amelia Aurelia works at her family funeral parlour, where she does the make-up. At night, she trawls Tinder, sending the same solicitation until someone bites: Free tonight?

She takes her pleasures from the living, but in general she prefers the dead; unlike the men she sleeps with, they are ‘emptied of worry. Everything tense or unlikeable is gone.’ The ‘new animal’ of the title arrives on page seven, the shape Amelia makes with the boys she brings home: ‘Shakespeare once wrote that two people together is a beast with two backs,’ she says, a jaunty decontextualisation of the source material, from Othello, that styles the reference like an Oscar Wilde quip. Once the deed is done, Amelia kicks her date out, deletes his details, and sleeps alone; her desire for sex is a desire for oblivion, not a warm body. This is the pattern of her life until her mother falls down a flight of stairs and dies. Unable to face the funeral, Amelia absconds to Tasmania to crash with her semi-estranged father and dabble in the local BDSM scene. There, she gets caught up with a rogue sadist, tries and fails to domme, and gets embroiled in a feminist sex club with a laissez-faire approach to consent culture, trying to suppress and process her grief in equal measure throughout.

In many respects, this novel follows the classical literary trope of the dissolute or deviant woman. To defend her ego against threat, the heroine engages in risk-seeking behaviour; this escalates to the verge of catastrophe; and either she is able to recuperate her experiences, extracting meaning from her suffering and achieving longed-for continuity of self; or she must be sacrificed in the service of the moral order, which historically is where the train comes in.

It’s now considered gauche to end a novel so neatly, and in any case too melodramatic for antipodean tastes. New Animal makes quick work of the whole schematic by rendering sex an analogue for suicide; Amelia thinks of her efforts to separate body and mind, which, for her, ‘seek to annihilate each other,’ as ‘metaphorically throw[ing her] body from [a] cliff.’ Sex is also, conversely, figured as a radical commitment to life, a way of ‘liv[ing] in double time,’ and so a form of self-preservation, a permutation of the death drive, or what they called in the 70s therapeutic deviance. And Amelia is a deviant in a number of ways: beyond the twin pillars of funeral home and family home, she has no friends, no hobbies, and no apparent interests. Dolling up the dead is her passion; fucking is her pastime. The sour young woman-cum-female loser is a familiar figure in contemporary literature, but there’s something weirdly charged about Amelia’s voice, a vacillation between bored cruelty and juvenile intensity, simultaneously lurid and rigid – Jane Bowles by way of a girl breaking down in a pub bathroom, equal parts cynical and guileless, too blasé for a fancy prose style.

At first I was like, this is going to rule. This is going to be Blue of Noon for girls, which I am aware nobody was asking for. The possibilities of its premise, if not actually transgressive, seemed to promise some real old-fashioned deviance, an escalation of the reckless-sex-as-female-self-destruction trope that’s been blooming like a boring virus in some recent Australian fiction that I will name if you email me. You know what I mean – we’re all very sad, we’re fucking the pain away, we’re ill at ease in our bodies and our fathers didn’t love us, our ex-boyfriends loved us wrong, nobody knows we’re really novelists, not even us. I am allowed to say this because I am just like other girls and I am also writing this novel, though of course mine is better.

Amelia is not your classic woman adrift; her dissolution is decidedly unsexy, frequently descending into farce. She smears period blood on veterans and throws her dead mother’s earrings in a ravine. She creeps out strangers at airports, gets flustered in a sex shop, buys a rubber horse head, alienates beautiful women with half her labia hanging out. She smells like sour laundry. Dignity is not a concern here. This aspect of the novel is refreshing; unlike the glamorously incapacitated character you could expect from the sex addict walks into a funeral parlour formulation, Amelia inspires nobody’s wishful identification.

Though the novel is interested in therapeutic technologies – daily affirmations, New Age spirituality, BDSM – Amelia isn’t really into any kind of ‘practice’ herself: her motivation is simply to ‘outrun experience,’ which requires outlets too many and varied for anything to build up or pay off. As the defining characteristic of a first person protagonist, this is exciting – embedding the narrative in a roaming, insatiable perspective, essentially uninterested in explaining herself. Instability is built into the organisational pattern – the chronology is unevenly weighted, halts, falters, sprints. Clumps of exposition are dropped in haphazardly, jerking the reader in and out of action. Direct address is flirted with but never committed to. First person only makes this stranger, giving the impression that Amelia is unwilling or unable to represent her experience directly, and her editorialising seems to prevent, rather than facilitate, her ability to metabolise experience, so that cold remove and urgent feeling are constantly competing:

I lie face down on the bed, howling. Finally I’m crying, salt water streaming from my eyes. Chaka Khan. I can’t deal with this. I need to remove this head of mine and replace it with the two-headed thing. I need to flee these feelings. I need someone unfamiliar. I need skin-to-skin contact like a newborn.

As she flees one extreme experience for another, one reflection or revelation for the next, the reader remains stuck in the closed circuit of Amelia’s inner monologue. The first-person present-tense also creates a structural irony; while seeking escape in the body, Amelia is locked on the ‘side of [the] mind,’ not stream-of-consciousness so much as a faltering commentary on the surprising movements of her own emotion, flattening the distinction between her real-time interpretation of events and her reflections on the same. There’s a slippage, too, between the slapstick of situational comedy, the ironic delivery, and heartfelt sincerity; no one register is foregrounded for long. Metaphor is persistently off-kilter: ‘Death always comes too soon, like a bus leaving minutes earlier than the timetable said it would,’ Amelia says, right after her mother dies. She describes her coworker, Judy, as having ‘something like a tap about her, in that she just keeps going, past the point of anyone needing a drink.’ Granting that these fumbled, drunk-uncle idioms are a charming note of characterisation for a hypersexed 28-year-old – ‘Other people have always been the canary in the mine for me’ – as the novel wears on, this tonal weirdness becomes harder to parse. Amelia takes Judy to one of her haunts, the site of a local suicide:

I can sense that Judy has a growing amount of mysticism in her. She loves crystals and her big orange cat is named Hypatia after the first woman killed for being a witch. I’m sure lying here has something to do with witch alignment. I lie in a version of the position that Floyd’s son would have landed in, and feel nothing but the usual itchiness that comes with being too close to the ground. It would be great if lying in the spot where someone died connected you to them. It’s likely that he would have heard birdsong – either at the top or the bottom of the ravine, perhaps even both. Which would I prefer? Which would any of us choose for him? If I push myself to think about that a little more, I am devastated by his death – not more than my mother’s, but inside me they rest side by side.

This passage is typically circuitous – there’s a flat, arbitrary feel to it, a vacant flitting from one object to another. The restricted affect is reminiscent of a Moshfegh character, but Amelia’s apparently sincere analysis of her own interiority makes it hard to buy the comedy – too much shifting between modes, an ironic posture for a real feeling or vice versa, landing in some stripped-back territory where the emotional stakes are obscure.

There’s pleasure to be found in a character who refuses to be known. But Amelia’s voice doesn’t quite bear out the indeterminacy: ‘Our mother is zipped into a bag and loaded into the back – a slice of trauma seared into each of us to be digested at another point in time.’ Trauma sliced, seared and digested like a tuna steak? A little baroque for a checked-out misanthrope. Is it a quirk of narrative voice when people take care to ‘an unfathomable level’ or do things in a ‘panic-driven rush’? And how to square her deadpan cynicism with moments of pure purple? ‘The fuzz of their leaves more magnificent than the fabric of the robes of the gods,’ Amelia says, about geraniums. The trouble, too, is that for all her remove, all the potential nuance of this tonal uncertainty, Amelia is always telling the reader how to understand the emotional moment. ‘I could light this whole island up with my heart-fire,’ she says, about halfway through the book, and it starts to feel like she’s selling too hard.

This intensity is reserved for her dead mother; other relationships are sources of frustration and boredom. Despite Amelia’s ostensible ease with blood, sex, physical intimacy, she doesn’t like feelings, doesn’t like touching, doesn’t like hugs; she’s into cold, hard bodies, vacated of their capacity to invade, irritate or disrupt her. ‘What I need is someone to look after me,’ she says, while rejecting or repulsing any attempt to do so, so that love and desire feel peculiarly absent from this book, even as an absence. ‘I prefer the barrier up,’ she says, a prim containment that is anything but abject, and her attitude toward sex is grim, businesslike. She looks at a lover and wonders ‘how I would do his make-up if he passed,’ and some of her admissions sound ripped from an incel manifesto –

Talking generally wears my patience out faster than almost anything else, but unfortunately people need talking to relax before they can connect physically. It’s so misguided. Attaining a quota of words that each person has to say in order to unlock the possibility of sex is completely unnecessary. It’s exhausting.

 – which, admittedly, is funny. But the limitations of this tone are tested by the minor characters, all of whom are drawn with a degree of contempt: her brother ‘snivels’ as he delivers the news of her mother’s accident; her grieving stepfather is drunk and hysterical, slapping clownish makeup on a beloved local casualty; her coworker Judy is belittled for everything from her daily affirmations to her ‘puffy’ and ‘blistered’ feet. Characterisation is generally vague, and most of the minor characters are shorthand for an archetype the reader is supposed to recognise and plug in to the text. This resistance to specificity in the descriptive detail itself feels disconnected, dissociated. It’s difficult enough to have a conversation behind the back of a first-person protagonist, and New Animal doesn’t give us anyone sensible to sustain a conversation with. Every character is foreshortened by Amelia’s totalising viewpoint, giving the reader no other point of access. Developing these characters would admit the possibility of other, legitimate perspectives, which might offer partial but alternative authority over the events of the novel. In this limited sense, Amelia truly is a domme, or the aesthetic of the novel is one of domination.

Part of this dominance is withholding. For a book about sex and grief, New Animal lacks what Bataille called the ‘heavy, sinister quality’ of eroticism. No matter how gross, gory, ostensibly visceral its imagery or action, everything is held at arm’s length, like a dirty napkin, which seems to be the point: ‘It’s like looking after a big dog or something, having a body; it’s kind of more than you need.’ There are flickers of desire – Amelia fantasises about ‘a strange man letting me render his body full of holes’ – but the greatest sensuous intimacy in the book is with the deceased, who Amelia finds ‘beyond beautiful,’ whether it’s her play-reenactment of a suicide, wearing her mother’s sundress under her clothes, swaddling the corpses of premature babies, arranging a stiff body in a brand new dress. She holds ‘deep commune’ with the dead, lingering on the sensation of touch, the adjustment of limbs and hair, delicately attuned to what each corpse ‘wants.’ This is as sexy as the novel gets. The frequent comparisons of the bodies of lovers and cadavers are disquieting; not because of the collapse of the former into the latter but the other way around. Sex is deadened. What does this ask of our interpretation, to think of these things together? The book doesn’t tell us. It seems not to know.

This murkiness undercuts the novel’s central principle that ‘life is either boring or shocking, there’s not much in between.’ Sex? Shocking. Death? Shocking. Amelia, a shocking person, is bored by shock. But real shock requires extremity, which requires a clarity of vision, and here the novel shares an important problem with its milieu: at its conceptual core, where there should be an idea, there is instead something marshy, desultory, drifting. Its boring/shocking distinction feels less like an extreme binary than a commitment to ambivalence. Shock is empty reaction, and boredom is the absence of reaction, so everything else on the spectrum of human experience is a gradation of interesting, which is where we end up when we’re shocked and bored at the same time, abdicating any real feeling.

Amelia’s simultaneous detachment from and commitment to experience could be best described as ‘interest’; the frustrations of the book are ‘interesting’ too. Sianne Ngai, regarding the ‘interesting’ as an aesthetic judgement without content, says that ‘the feeling at its root [is] a feeling so low in intensity that it can even be hard to say whether it counts as satisfaction or dissatisfaction.’ Following this, you could say it’s the affective state of shocking and boring as a co-presence, of shocking and boring as possibilities to which a judgement could attach, and this is generated by an inability, or an unwillingness, to form a position, so that we must entertain both at once, suspended in a tremulous both/neither.

The longer I spent with this book, turning it this way and that in my head to try and shake out an interpretation, the more I became obsessed with it. I couldn’t figure out what it wanted from me, and so I couldn’t figure out if it was formally exciting or, like, not very good. This vacillation is itself a kind of dramatisation of the interesting. Mediocrity can be the most interesting thing of all, so long as you let ‘interesting’ be cognate with ‘irritant’ – a sense of failure that can’t be confirmed because of an uncertainty about intent – and it’s exactly the novel’s obstinate qualities, its formal failures, that make it compelling. It is resistant to interpretation: this is a book about obstructed agency that itself obstructs; a sexless book about empty sex; a hyperliteral book about evasion; a death drive with no pleasure principle. Its formal and thematic disconnects mirror, on a technical level, that central thematic concern – the separation of mind and body – so that the total experience is one of dissociation. Interesting is, here, a dissociated mode, one that might make some new expression possible if one had something new to express.

Amelia is not a political animal; there’s little sense of her being positioned within a social and economic world, a world of dynamic and moving parts. The family is the site of repair, and repair can only be achieved through individual transformation. Any novel that renders trauma suggests, at least symbolically, that it can be recuperated and restored to order. While a therapeutic mode can give us the opportunity to revise the terms of our attachments, more often than not it hooks us back into departicularised, depoliticised narratives about how to make meaning out of trauma, making any process of healing a matter of individual psychology.

This therapeutic frame gives the depiction of trauma a kind of self-evident value, providing the gloss of meaning without the need to express anything in particular, and permitting a fundamental vagueness, an indifference to the implications of its own proposals or a failure to make any proposals at all. It relies on the assumption that traumatic suffering has a purifying or edifying effect; you need not interrogate it if you wrap it in some cheap introspection and call it a journey. The hazier the engagement, the better: when a therapeutic narrative’s symbolic associations don’t cinch to produce a new or coherent idea, it still gives the impression of having done so, even as it reveals nothing, relying on narrative patterns we already recognise, bringing along all their unquestioned ideological attachments. Sometimes this associative ‘thematism’ in novel form gets called poetic, but in poetry we would call this ‘bad poetry’ – overdetermined imagery in cursory formation, too mediated to have the power of ‘raw material,’ too arbitrary to deliver us to meaning. A better word for this is ‘sentimentalism.’ This is literature-as-processing, i.e. not heartless but maybe more proximate to some other organ, one with a purgative function.

New Animal’s obstinacy – in particular, its tonal uncertainty – only compounds the temptation to ask, what is the book trying to tell me? and this is where the ‘learning’ frame of therapeutic narrative, the compulsion to read and write novels as if they’re teachable moments, overcompensates for an essential absence. ‘We learn along with Amelia that you need to feel another person’s weight before you can feel your own…’ the blurb tells us. A funeral, like a novel, is a therapeutic procedure, folding traumatic experience back into the world of the living. By skipping out on it, Amelia inadvertently signs up for an intensified process of repair, one that delivers redemption as a form of aftercare and so requires a deepening of the original wound. The upwards turn of the therapeutic J-curve and the shocking site where this learning occurs is, of course, the sex.

I try not to be too precious about sex in books. My sense is that sex is uncomplicated for few; that an uncomplicated experience of sex is often the result of an unquestioned relationship to power, itself a kind of tragedy; and this being the case, the way that other people fuck, in life or in literature, is essentially mysterious and none of my business. This has to be reconciled with the much stronger sense that violence is everybody’s business. I’m ambivalent about how the concept of ‘symbolic violence’ is applied to discussions of sex in art. I do believe in what Leo Bersani calls the ‘violence of symbolic intent’: a divestment from specificity that robs the world of reality by massaging it into universal categories, the reduction of life to art at the expense of life.

New Animal is dogged by the threat of unsavory or violent sexuality – a Tinder date proudly declares that he is ‘not a murderer’; a MONA installation of a disembodied voice moaning ‘no’ presented without comment; an honestly distressing paternal interest in Amelia’s sex life; and the faint suggestion of some originary trauma which brought about her dissociation in the first place. When sexual violence looms, it’s with the novel’s characteristic deadpan. ‘Like every other woman, I have spent most of my life trying to avoid sexual violence, yet here I am on the eve of my mother’s funeral, at an industrial lot with a sadist.’ We’re directly informed of the action with the clinical reserve of a witness statement.

I slow my breathing down, so it’s hard for him to tell I’m frightened. I glance over at [him] squinting through the windshield[…] and place a hand over the buckle of my seatbelt, ready to undo it and bolt out into the night. I turn in my seat to see whether the lights of the town are still visible. They’re not. I could fling myself from the car now and make a break for it, but I need more of a head start; I’ve never been a fast runner.

Again, there’s the cool remove of the narratorial voice, out of sync with its own description of present-time terror. ‘Interesting to note my spiraling in real time. Strange to bear witness,’ she says. Again, we have a narrative consciousness divorced from itself, a recollection told in the present tense, the mind/body divide in action. In some ways, it’s perfect: in forgoing the temptation of descriptive flourish, the scene comes closer to capturing the particular dissociation brought on by the threat of imminent violence. But if this is a formal trick, an interesting one, to what end? Amelia, in the industrial lot, decides that she owes it to herself to ‘commit to the experience’ by following the sadist into a warehouse, and if this is satire, I don’t know who or what it’s satirising. It’s tempting to call it sheer absurdism, but Amelia is the only character who doesn’t conform to a recognisable trope – how are we to determine what is and isn’t strange behaviour in a world of poorly-drawn caricatures? By the time this man, on stage in a sex club and about to hit her with a bullwhip says, ‘Damn it, I forgot to get consent,’ it’s tempting to think this is the ‘dark humour’ the book has been praised for; but Amelia describes the ensuing experience as being ‘dismantled,’ ‘eviscerated,’ and ‘crushed into the ground.’ Even this powerful language lends no affective charge – there’s a lack of scene, a lack of image, almost nothing but mediation, mind triumphing over body. What follows, if not a rape scene, suggests itself as such: ‘I decide, while fully penetrated, to consent, because you can always throw your body on the fire to keep others warm. I was already filled with petrol; he’s just a man-shaped match.’ This half-baked metaphor is the apotheosis of boring/shocking; a flippant cliché for a gruesome moment that is somehow self-cancelling, that means nothing.

Generously, this scene could be read as a troubling of ‘consent’ as it is often (poorly) conceptualised – a legal tool that attempts to safeguard against the most demonstrable abuses of power, forgetting in the process that vulnerability is not a situation but a condition. However, it is not enough to say that this book ‘questions’ this, as if mere provocation did the work of thought. Everybody knows that therapy is a process, which means seeing things through. There is a second BDSM encounter which is equally, for want of a better phrase, rape-adjacent: Amelia’s underwear is stuffed into her mouth, which is then taped shut, through which she screams nearly until she passes out at her scene partner to stop penetrating her, which he is reluctant to do. It’s only following this that Amelia is finally able to feel sorry for herself, connect to her body, and process the death of her mother, to ‘open up and let the feelings in.’ The problem is finally named: ‘if you’re fucking to stop feeling,’ she is told towards the end of the book, ‘that’s disassociation’. There is an implicit comparison to a memory of a young woman’s corpse that ‘needed to be re-broken in order to be put back into human shape.’

How this sits alongside the book’s feminist overtones, I am not sure. The lack of what Annie Dillard called a ‘self-relevant artistic whole,’ a coherent context undergirding so much action and reaction, makes every connection that isn’t purely associative feel radically unstable. ‘I feel like I am learning something important but I can’t put my finger on it,’ says Amelia. ‘I want to know what I don’t; I want to be there in the centre of the unknown.’ This is a neat encapsulation of the novel at work – a nonspecific, ongoing sense of revelation, one woman’s quest to remaster traumatic experience, always on the edge of understanding. But new knowledge never comes.

‘It’s important to know why people need pain. If you know, you can take them right up to the edge and then pretend to push them off,’ an elderly domme tells Amelia. It makes sense that Amelia can’t figure out how to domme: BDSM is only a metaphor for therapeutic process, not a therapeutic process itself, something Amelia, remarkably, fails to understand, even as this information is relayed through her perspective. Of course, we’re deprived of the satisfaction of this reading, too, when a young domme at the club tells her that she ‘worked through a lot of issues’ there, that it ‘saved her life’. The contradiction seems important, but, like much of the novel, it’s hard to know what to make of it.

Despite its themes, its premise, and, of course, its marketing, New Animal is a book afraid of risk. Each trauma brings Amelia closer to a reconciliation with herself – the chastened deviant, restored to the site of the family, can now begin her healing. What could be more conventional? Placing sex and death, violation and the corpse, fathers and daughters in close proximity summons certain symbolic possibilities that are left to run ragged – besides which, the thing about Othello is he very much killed Desdemona, that was an important thing that happened, and so even the symbolic foundry of this novel is lousy with tensions it seems unwilling or unable to address. I’m not calling for more novels to collapse into some kind of perverse, necrophiliac horrorscape in order to demonstrate the impossibility of redeeming damaged experience (I am), and I literally can’t think of anything worse than a feminist treatment of Othello – but why engage these themes, going so far as to enter a safe space, depict sexual trauma, and then deliver the protagonist into the arms of her fathers, if nothing is to be made of these associations? You’re not allowed to demand that a novel be more depraved, and I of course can’t say that the only way for this bizarre, stilted plotting to resolve in a satisfying way would be to escalate to ever greater heights of absurdity and extremity so that Amelia ends up fucking an actual corpse, but really – maybe we can call this one Bataille’s gun – why drag the corpse out if you’re not going to fuck it? Why stage violence, or stage the staging of violence, or stage the sexualisation of violence dressed as staging, and then not even have the good manners to use it for some old-fashioned social critique or, failing that, for sex? And maybe what I mean by ‘risk,’ here, is just commitment to ideology, to some politics that isn’t a passive regurgitation of every contradictory cultural precept a woman might be expected to absorb in a lifetime. The impulse at the heart of this book is a conservative one. This is an aesthetic of reparation at work in a novel that appears to have no comprehension of its own project.

Some provocations are just stupid questions. Are we not tired of insisting there is something bold, brave, and transgressive about the mere mention of female sexuality, no matter how deeply, achingly conservative its implications? Especially when, to absolve a heroine of abjection, the novel must both disavow that abjection and demonstrate that it was all a choice in the first place? Does this book advance a feminist politics? No. Does it have any discernible politics at all? Hard to say. Why does this matter? Because for something to be ‘interesting’ rather than ‘good’ suggests it resists interpretation in some way, or we’d know what to make of it; because some suspension of recognition and judgement is required to make room for the radically new, so that we are not forever tethered to the same narratives like a dog on a leash. But to take something seriously not in spite of its mediocrity, its apparent failures, but because of it, risks imputing artistic and political seriousness onto frivolous objects, ones that exist only to adorn themselves with our attention, and for evidence of this I spread my hands wide and invite you to consider the festering morass of cultural critique that does little but ask whether this or that prestige TV series adequately satisfies consumer expectations of politicised representation. Certainly this book replicates that lustless cooptation of an oppositional force by the corporatised mainstream – evacuating feminism of meaning so that it ceases to describe any coherent ideology at all, all the while leeching the texture and complexity of sexuality into a mere suggestion of the thing, a deadened pantomime that resists sustained interpretation, which then gets called a daring interrogation. If I tell you this book is interesting, I am suggesting there is something here that ought to be taken seriously. I don’t think that is the case. What does strike me as important is to give a shit about the question in the first place.

Works Cited

Georges Bataille, ‘Eroticism: Death and Sensuality,’ City Lights Books, 1986

Leo Bersani, ‘The Culture of Redemption,’ Harvard University Press 1990

Annie Dillard, ‘Living by Fiction’ Harper & Row 1982

Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’, 1884

Sianne Ngai, ‘Merely Interesting’, Critical Inquiry, Summer 2008

Published February 28, 2022
Part of Emerging Critics 2021: Essays by the 2021 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Gemma Betros, Sarah-Jane Burton, Dan Dixon, Ursula Robinson-Shaw, Isabella Trimboli. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2021 essays →
Ursula Robinson-Shaw

Ursula Robinson-Shaw is a writer from Aotearoa, living in Naarm/Melbourne. She is a PhD...

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