Review: Catriona Menzies-Pikeon Krissy Kneen

A Fluctuating Charm: An Uncertain Grace

Fret not, lonely hearts, there are plenty more fish in the sea. Are there? This homily is usually rolled out to console the broken-hearted, to persuade them that the tides will soon wash up an acceptable substitute for their lost love. The Plenty of Fish online dating megasite boasts over three million active daily users, which suggests that the line works as a hook for those seeking love, companionship, romance or sex. It’s a figure of speech that might soon become obsolete.

In Krissy Kneen’s 2009 memoir Affection, the Brisbane author extols ‘the constant distractions of a sexual world as wonderful and varied as the ocean, a world I could drown myself in and die happy.’ She writes with riotous good humour and impressive recall about a frenzy of sexual activity in her youth, followed by a long and happy marriage and the fulfilment of her ambition to become a writer. There’s more to Affection than graphic sex and emotional and creative satisfaction. The memoir begins with the author naked and tied to a pole with duct tape – ‘because I asked him to’ – and Kneen remains exposed throughout. Her voice is earnest, and the real frankness of the memoir doesn’t lie in the sex scenes, but in Kneen’s willingness to document the desires that linger after marriage (heavy crushes on friends and colleagues; intense sexual fantasies) and the anxiety about living in an ageing, unruly body. The terminus of the book is the love and security of the marital bed, at home with ‘the man who I once picked out of a crowd, and who I would pick again and again if I were meeting him anew.’ In another work this triumph of domesticity might read as a mawkish reinforcement of the cultural norm of heterosexual monogamy. Here, though, it’s the culmination of a full-hearted reckoning with the competing imperatives of sex and intimacy.

Affection established Kneen as a writer with an unusual repertoire: a limpid prose style, a disposition to write about sex and desire in explicit terms, a tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve, and a love of the ocean. The memoir was followed three novels, Steeplechase, Triptych, and The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine and a volume of poetry, Eating My Grandmother. She is currently collaborating with The Lifted Brow on a year-long epistolary project, Stranger in the Dark, that delivers installments of an erotic fiction to the inboxes of subscribers. Kneen is a visible presence on social media and her essays and short fictions frequently appear in literary journals. In spite of her profile and output, her novels have not attracted a great deal of critical attention. That may be because they stray from the standard tropes of literary fiction, not least in Kneen’s narrative prioritisation of female sexuality, desire and pleasure.

In her new novel An Uncertain Grace Kneen returns to the ocean – only here, over five linked episodes, the ocean changes. An Uncertain Grace spans a century and by the end of that century, the only fish that swim in the sea, in aquariums and in fishtanks, are synthetic. A young woman is horrified to hear an older woman confess that she didn’t just eat real fish, she fished in the sea, oblivious to the coming extinctions. Kneen’s belief in love and art abide in An Uncertain Grace and so does her interest in sexuality as a form of human connection. Here, though, her thinking is inflected by climate change and transhumanism. In the future that Kneen envisions in An Uncertain Grace the ocean is still wonderful and varied, and so is the sexual world. There are no more fish in the sea. Jellyfish, however, flourish – and these creatures provide the lonely and lovelorn with new possibilities for erotic, romantic and platonic entanglements.

The best poem written in English about a jellyfish, and maybe in any language,  is ‘The Jelly-Fish’, written by a 22-year-old Marianne Moore in 1909. One exquisite sentence, the poem trails down the page like a jellyfish tentacle:

Visible, invisible,
A fluctuating charm,
An amber-colored amethyst
Inhabits it; your arm
Approaches, and
It opens and
It closes;
You have meant
To catch it,
And it shrivels;
You abandon
Your intent—
It opens, and it
Closes and you
Reach for it
The blue
Surrounding it
Grows cloudy, and
It floats away
From you.

Moore might have looked closely at jellyfish at the Battery Park Aquarium in lower Manhattan. She also could have observed them bobbing by the piers in the Hudson River, where colonies continue to thrive. The term Anthropocene is anachronistic to Moore, but in her poetry Nature is never untouched by humans; it is mediated by cultural frames, such as the ‘blue’ surrounding the jellyfish. Moore’s complex practice of allusion and quotation places the animals she encountered in artworks and literature on equal footing with those she spied in the parks, zoos and aviaries she visited. Her jellyfish is beguiling, the embodiment of contradiction, in that it is defined by the intent of the observer and unknowable for the same reason. Is the jellyfish a metaphor or yet another floating signifier? The unrepresentability of the jellyfish is the poem’s true subject, not the jellyfish itself. Moore’s poem, typically, behaves a little like its subject, as the reader reaches for it, it opens, it closes, and it drifts away.

Ten years later, Moore’s friend H.D. wrote about jellyfish in Notes on Thought and Vision. Her jellyfish is a figure for the ‘over-mind’, a state of heightened creative consciousness: ‘The over-mind seems like a cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body, contained in a definite space. It is like a closed sea-plant, jelly-fish, anenome.’ The corporeality of H.D.’s jellyfish is defined by feeling and floating simultaneously. Whereas for Moore this ability points to the elusivity of the jellyfish, for H.D. it is a sign of its sensual receptivity. Being jellyfish amounts to an erotic, creative state. ‘Should we be able to think with the womb and feel with the brain?’ asks H.D., and she’s prompting the answer that being an artist requires a consciousness that can both think and feel. Moore and H.D. are united in their recognition of the poetic possibilities of a creature that feels with its soft body, and is propelled at once by the current and by the gestures of its head, forever opening and closing.

Jellyfish appear throughout An Uncertain Grace, including on the cover. A sex offender named Ronnie volunteers to undergo a consciousness fusion with a jellyfish to commute his sentence. Why jellyfish? They are ancient creatures, Ronnie is advised, and they will continue to live in the sea after all the fish have died. In the future that An Uncertain Grace predicts, global sea levels have risen and cities have been flooded. Small human communities live in the top floors of inundated apartment blocks and jellyfish congregate in their wet basements. M, the young woman startled by the news of real fish being eaten, enjoys a watery tryst with the woman who had witnessed actual fish – plenty of them – swimming in the sea; she sees her elderly lover as a sea creature: ‘Jellyfish skin. It ripples against my fingers.’

‘These creatures’, Ronnie is told, ‘are so alien to anything we understand that we have made the wrong assumptions about them for decades.’ The fossil record shows jellyfish date to the Cambrian period, 500 million years ago. The jellyfish with which Ronnie is paired is likely Turritopsis dohrnii, the so-called immortal jellyfish. That species, it has been recently discovered, can revert to its polyp form when threatened by illness or stress. It can turn back the clock to childhood, to safety – and start again. The species is a model for humans learning how to adapt to a changing environment. Jellyfish live in networked colonies and when Ronnie is linked to one jellyfish, a new plural identity is revealed to him:

It’s a kind of connection I have never dreamed of making. I’m more than the sum of myself. I walk towards the light, which is streaming in through a soupy mess of kelp. The light touches my skin and I shiver. We’re all shivering. We are walking towards the light and the electric charge of sunlight excites us.

These advances in scientific knowledge mean that the early twenty-first century jellyfish can do even more as it floats and it feels than its Modernist predecessor did. And so Kneen’s jellyfish become vessels for her longstanding interest in mortality, corporeality and sexuality, and in the narratives and other technologies that give them meaning.

An Uncertain Grace is a strange, daring and clever novel and Kneen’s openness to connections that many other novelists never dream of making is exhilarating. Her characters wreck themselves with sex and science as they seek ways to live with extinctions, inundations and pollution – and yet Kneen is able to salvage optimism from the wreckage. An Uncertain Grace is constitutively queer and certainly feminist; and if, like Affection, it comes to rest with a love-match between a man and a woman, it does so in a manner that disrupts conventional romance.

Kneen writes about the post-human with deep compassion; the sadness her characters experience as the worlds they love disappear is met by her optimism about art, and particularly about literature. Local ironies abound. Read as a whole, however, An Uncertain Grace is a post-ironic work. As in Affection, Kneen mounts a startlingly sincere argument for the personal and political necessity of sex, love and art. She is willing to court sentimentality and to turn her characters into moral beacons to make her case. Unexpectedly this sincerity also governs her graphic depictions of sex. It’s hard to imagine this novel surviving a workshop process and easy to see how a critic might savage it. That critic would be reminded to regard speculative fiction as beneath consideration, queer sex and climate politics as just too politically correct, and irony as realism’s vital shield. Therein, however, lies the fluctuating charm of An Uncertain Grace.

What is it like to inhabit another body? In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch gives his daughter a now-canonical lesson in empathy: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ In the first episode of An Uncertain Grace Kneen has her first narrator wriggle into a skin-suit and experience an immersive narrative, a memoir with a radically expanded point of view. Harper Lee couldn’t have imagined a device that would allow a person to inhabit the body of another so literally. The skin-suit is only the first narrative technology that Kneen contrives to allow her characters to feel the world as others do. And her others aren’t necessarily human, they’re jellyfish and robots too.

Each of the five episodes of An Uncertain Grace is narrated by a different character. The first, Caspar, is a near-contemporary of the reader; his successors describe a future in which the oceans have risen, fish are extinct, and substantial distinctions between the human and the machine are beginning to dissolve. It’s an ambitious structure and Kneen emphasises the thematic conjunctions between each episode to bring coherence to the novel. This is not always successful, as An Uncertain Grace grapples with so many large ideas that threads are left hanging. Continuity is provided by the character Liv, who features in every episode and narrates the last. She is the novel’s empath-in-chief and an advocate for narrative as a tool for building empathy and attachment. Her job is one of those ‘jobs of the future’ that universities use to scare undergraduates into further study: narrative is ‘what she does’, to borrow the words of the teen sex-robot to whom she is a kind of confessor. She watches, questions, imagines, documents, empathises – and she writes. She creates narratives that give form to the jumble of human and post-human experience, and allow readers to understand and empathise with different subjectivities.

An alternative job title for a worker with Liv’s skill set could be, novelist. Readers of An Uncertain Grace are prompted, not particularly subtly, to immerse themselves in the stories Kneen is telling, to squirm into the skins of her characters, to feel what they feel, and to learn from their diverse desires and experiences. Kneen’s grounding as an author of erotic fictions helps here. She has learned to pull readers both into and out of their bodies at once by telling them stories about sex, inviting them to imagine themselves part of whatever libidinous escapade she is narrating. Accordingly, there are sexual bonanzas in every episode of An Uncertain Grace and visceral descriptions of sensations such as swimming, eating, and the textures of clothing, sheets and furnishings.

Back to that skin-suit: Caspar, the man who puts it on, is a lecherous lecturer from central casting. He’s contemplating his next student conquest when a parcel arrives that contains a memory stick and a synthetic skin. It was Liv who sent him the parcel and authored the narrative stored on the memory stick, and although this opening episode is narrated by Caspar it is as much Liv’s story as his. Caspar seduced Liz when she was his student and introduces her with a backhanded recollection:

She didn’t stand out from the rest of the class; I might have missed her among the blonde curls and ginger ponytails. She handed me her assignment and I weighed it between my fingers, the paper thick and buttery. I looked a second time at the girl standing in front of me and noticed she was pretty.

Caspar reveals himself to be a teacher in need of a lesson, but he twigs to Liv’s subtle erotic appeal. (It’s worth noting that this appeal is, apparently, monumental. Every major character Liv encounters across the five episodes of An Uncertain Grace sizes her up as a sexual partner and all of them find themselves desiring her. The irresistibility of Liv is a very loud theme.)

The narrative, a memoir titled First Person Present Tense, is Liv’s account of her affair with Caspar. The technology of the suit doesn’t only give Caspar access to Liv’s point of view, it allows him to feel the world as she did. And so Caspar discovers what it’s like to be seduced and fucked by Caspar, to be cheated on by him, to be discarded. No surprises here: it ain’t that great. Worse, he finds himself in a story in which he has no agency. Liv’s First Person Present Tense is a forced experience of radical empathy, and it discombobulates Caspar. He loses himself in her narrative, and when he emerges days later the certainties of his world have withered. His voice is interrupted and reshaped by Liv’s voice:

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

When we meet Caspar he is giving a lecture on memoir. ‘First person is a very narrow and limiting point of view,’ he tells a hall full of students. It is limiting because ‘you can only learn new information when your character learns it.’ He closes the lecture by inviting students to contemplate a mode of memoir that might stray from the norm of first person, present tense. This is a tease, of course, as An Uncertain Grace is a lengthy answer to Caspar: it is Liv’s fictional memoir in five voices. Each episode is narrated in the first person and in each episode the field of view of the ‘I’ is widened. Pronouns change – the singular becomes plural, she becomes he – as Liv and Kneen explore the ways in which a textual consciousness can reach beyond the first person singular.

The simultaneity of perception that the suit enables is a recurring theme: Ronnie, for example, experiences ‘paired’ consciousness with a jellyfish. Kneen finds other ways for her characters to inhabit different bodies. The young genderqueer narrator M undergoes a transition to a ‘twilight’ gender identity. In her future, people can transition easily between genders, living in a body that is male, female and in-between as they choose. In the final episode, Liv has died and narrates as an incorporeal consciousness. She rents bodies to inhabit, an arrangement which involves a master-mind in dialogue with the servant-body. It’s not through the body of another that she seduces her true-love match, but via messages, chat and email – more familiar forms of disembodied communication. The plural identity of the immortal jellyfish finds a human form in this last iteration of Liv, whose narrative voice is an expanded and inclusive first person.

After Caspar, Ronnie tells his story. He is in prison. We’re never told in so many words that his crime involved sex and minors. His miserable present is interrupted by memories of the beach, of his domineering father and his dangerous, desirable sister, a swimmer. These are people who are lost to Ronnie, and his saltwater memories ache.

Liv returns, and here she appears to Ronnie as ‘an ordinary middle-aged woman with dark hair pulled severely back into a ponytail’. Liv’s role is to guide Ronnie through an experiment in which he is, by the intermediary of a mysterious future technology, tethered to the consciousness of a jellyfish while lying in a hospital bed. She watches and listens to his experience, prompting him to tell her about himself, and to reflect on his life in ways that are useful to the reader. Ronnie experiences an extraordinary connection not with a single jellyfish but with the whole colony. With the jellyfish, finally he is elsewhere: beyond desire, out of prison, free of the fortress of family: ‘I am located in a thousand elsewheres.’ His first encounter with the jellyfish is such a success that it is repeated once, and then again. He makes a break for it, quitting corporeality for the gorgeous inclusive drift of the jellyfish colony.

Caspar’s story was not too difficult to summarise. As An Uncertain Grace moves further into the future, the action becomes harder to reduce and the explanations of each new scenario become increasingly cumbersome and confusing. Kneen has to do a great deal of world-making in each episode in order to make the scenarios work, both as stories and as components in a larger structure of ideas about sexuality, death, mortality, identity, technology, and narrative. As Ronnie is blissing out with the jellyfish, he’s part of a new model of connection between creatures, a bellwether for the posthuman – and he’s experiencing something like redemption. He’s also a component of the novel’s longer argument about the limits that an exclusively corporeal understanding of self places on sexuality and identity. Meanwhile, Liv is extending a set of ideas about the significance of narrative and waving flags for gender non-conformity and middle-aged sex appeal, for compassion, for art.

Each of the five episodes responds to close reading: to discuss the chapter narrated by Cam, the teen sex-robot, as he confronts mortality would take us to the limits of the human and the knowability of desire. We could isolate Cam’s art-making as central to the novel’s thinking about creativity and identity. In M’s episode, the body is in metamorphosis: M and Liv are undergoing gender transition; Liv and M’s mother are dying; guided by Liv, M discovers that she cannot exclude sexuality from her identity. All this is a good indication of the curiosity and intelligence at play in An Uncertain Grace and also of its busyness. This is not a restrained and virtuosic treatment of one or two themes. The structure of ideas is heavily loaded, especially in Cam’s section, but it does not collapse.

I’ve written that Ronnie was ‘paired’ with a jellyfish in an experiment. What does this actually mean? Context makes the narrative purpose of this pairing apparent: to allow Ronnie to experience a different mode of consciousness, to escape his literal and corporeal prison. The networked consciousness of the jellyfish is in counterpoint to the loneliness of the incarcerated man. We know Ronnie can hear Liv’s voice in his head and when the experiment begins he reminds himself that there isn’t actually any water, that he’s in ‘some high-tech room with monitors and machines that beep and a screen with brainwaves on it.’ We figure it out: jellyfish and human merge, just as we reckon a working understanding of what Liv’s post-corporeal form involves, even though her explanations invite more questions than they answer: ‘I can’t go round telling everyone that I’m just a collection of neural patterns. No flesh left, just a jumble of quantum probabilities.’ For narrative purposes, she’s a mind without a body that can enter into a shared state of consciousness with another body.

Readers of speculative fiction are habitually asked to make such leaps. Intergalactic travel, sex with aliens, everlasting batteries, mind-merges with jellyfish: they all require a narrative sleight of hand to coax the reader to faith in a new reality. The difficulty of Kneen’s task is flagged in An Uncertain Grace when Liv is talking to Ronnie about jellyfish. ‘I don’t really know the science of it that well, she says, ‘but basically each different type of jellyfish is just one big colony’.

I’m not versed in the ways of jellyfish either, or neural nets, AI and cognitive science so ‘I don’t really know the science of it that well’ is an accurate disclaimer about the expertise that I bring to the task of critical reading. Even with help from Google, I couldn’t tell which parts of An Uncertain Grace are a gloss on new scientific knowledge, and which are speculation. Is Kneen fudging or imagining it when she has Liv tell Ronnie, ‘It’s just that we’ve figured some things out using quantum entanglement and when you were hooked up to the jellyfish you were hooked up to a much larger thing. A six-million-year-old collection of interlinked parts. Maybe older.’

It may be that Kneen has chosen to let her storyteller be a little negligent about the hard science so as to subvert established hierarchies of knowing and to gird her claims about the significance of narratives of self, body, and connection. Given Liv’s bona fides as a storyteller are stressed so frequently, this inability to tell a convincing story about the technological engines that drive the narratives of An Uncertain Grace is grating.

Genre styling can discomfit readers habituated to the conventions of literary fiction, especially realism; the loose manner in which Liv and Kneen sketch a future world and its technologies are unremarkable in the context of genre fiction. A realist writer who ties her novel to familiar temporal and spatial markers has far less explanatory work to do. Kneen joins a growing group of Australian writers, mainly women, who are working with the tropes and structures of genre fiction to write about climate change, Jane Rawson, Merlinda Bobis, Briohny Doyle, Mireille Juchau and James Bradley among them. These authors project futures in which their characters must live with the consequences of a changing climate. Like almost every climate scientist on the planet, the novelists warn of rapid change and difficult adaptation. In this company, Kneen is a notably upbeat in her insistence on the redemptive potential of love, sex and art. Even as it depicts a vandalised environment, An Uncertain Grace comes to rest on human connection, agnostic as to whether that is partly mediated, incorporeal, or entirely embodied.

If the infiltration of genre tropes and techniques befuddles readers of literary fiction, sex is straight out confronting. Writing about sex makes a writer vulnerable to ghastly humiliations. In the final months of each year, the Literary Review doles out their annual Bad Sex Writing Awards. There’s a lot of tittering involved and the winning excerpts are circulated widely on social media, along with a lot of jolly innuendo. Bad sex writing, at least in the context of these awards, has nothing to do with the absence of consent or the reproduction of sexual norms. More or less any writing about sex seems to qualify, and award recipients are required to be good sports. It all carries the suggestion that sex is unrepresentable, that it has something of the elusivity of Moore’s jellyfish, that novelists of taste and sensibility should just let their erotic scenes float way. The best way to avoid winning a gong for bad sex writing is probably not to write about it at all, and many literary novelists don’t. Sex occurs off the page, behind closed doors, by hearsay, or in the past.

Kneen does not cordon off sex from the other human encounters that interest her. To write about bodies, identity, ageing, and love is to write about sex, imagined or actual. When Kneen asks her readers to inhabit other bodies she is also asking them to inhabit their desires – as if it could be possible to do otherwise. Reading An Uncertain Grace the question that arises is not so much why is there so much sex in this novel, as why is there so little elsewhere.

In a recent essay on erotic fiction in the Times Literary Supplement Eimar McBride complained of the normalisation of violence against women in erotic fiction and pornography. Of an edited collection that promises ‘literature’s sexiest stories’, McBride observes ‘story is heaped on story of the most extreme physical and sexual violence towards women.’ An Uncertain Grace shouldn’t be noteworthy because it grants sexual agency to women, but it is. The extravagant vision of sexuality that propels the novel is plural, consensual, queer, and liberated from violence. As the world changes and what it means to be human does too, desire endures in a thousand forms. Kneen imagines a sexuality that is unrestrained by familiar binary opposites: body-mind; dominant-submissive; male-female; present-absent. The result reads nothing like a rehearsal of theory – a character achieves orgasm while experiencing the consciousness of a jellyfish. It makes the inhibitions around sex in literary fiction and critical culture seem juvenile.

An Uncertain Grace is refreshing in its break with the several species of realism that still dominate the fiction lists. Kneen’s prose, measured and unfussy, lures readers into an entirely bent reality, into speculations that break with the habitual psychological, historical and political concerns that preoccupy much Australian fiction. It’s also a surprisingly earnest novel. Writing about sex might leave a writer exposed, but writing about love and art, as Kneen does, is even more risky. Thinking and feeling at once, like one of H.D.’s jellyfish, is not only the province of the erotic writer, it is also that of a writer deeply committed to human happiness, against the melancholy backdrop of a world irrevocably altered by human actions.