The Body Problem
by Jennifer Mills
Published July 2021
In Jennifer Mills’ The Airways, we travel through a series of bodies. The we here is us, the readers, but we share this journey with something else too – a ghost, a consciousness, something that speaks and thinks and feels but isn’t necessarily a body. It is something that will call into question the way we think about bodies. Our bodies, this book leads us to believe at first, are systems, often compared, by its author and characters to a city: numerous independent processes amounting to an overarching sense of generalised, automatic, anonymous function.
If we take The Airways to be a sort of body, we tune into the consciousness of three of its functions:
In Beijing, Adam has ‘picked something up’ on the train. He works in a company with other expats in a marketing job he doesn’t know how to describe, selling a product he isn’t clear on either – ‘bespoke global brand solutions’ – he supposes he will ‘get a sense of his function over time’.
In Sydney, some years prior, Adam shares a house in Sydney with three other University students, Marita, Kate, and Yun. At night, sometimes Adam watches Yun sleep, and these sections of the book reveal slowly over time the extent of Adam’s gaze, and just how deeply into Yun’s existence it penetrates.
And the third consciousness, the one that opens the book, begins with a violent death. Linking this past Sydney to the present Beijing, is a fragmented self, lingering after death, which travels from body to body, seeking revenge. We come to understand that this ghost is Yun and the person they are looking for is Adam.
These three functions work together to unseen but felt effect, in the way of the city/body system the book is designed to emulate. They represent three categories of self humans have manufactured in order to organise our thinking: the physical body, which belongs to Adam, the social relational experience between Adam and Yun living together, and the pure consciousness of Yun, that exists beyond their physical death.
Following Adam’s infection on the train to work, the book charts this haunting of Adam, shifting in time to gradually illustrate the events, interactions and atmosphere in the weeks leading up to Yun’s death. At the same time as that past slowly unfurls, Yun’s present consciousness gains rapid momentum, travelling seemingly through breath, leaping from host to host, in search of their target: the body of Adam.
Mills’ prose is ambiguous and disorienting, you have the feeling that things are supposed to slip by you, like passing strangers or traffic, and to work beneath your consciousness as you read. The mystery in the pace of large cities, and the fact that our bodies are mysterious to us, their processes, the life within them, is the only thing the narration, across each section, rests on and repeats enough to be sure of. As Adam rides the train to work that morning he thinks about Beijing as ‘easy to chart, its shape already familiar, as if it had been copied from a cross-section of the body… He could get lost repeatedly in a single square block, but at scale its logic was unquestionable. Like a body, the details could remain strange.’
I could easily say that this is a book about ‘The Body’ and then let that statement hang. This is often done around contemporary women writers, in particular. Carmen Maria Machado for instance, or Tilly Lawless, or most of the writers on The Guardian’s ‘top 10 books about the body’. If you have the word ‘body’ in your book title, then you must be exploring ‘The Body’. But who does this capital B Body belong to? In Why I Don’t Talk About ‘The Body’: A Polemic (2020) for Monday Journal, Gordon Hall writes against the usage of this phrase in the art world. He does not argue against exploring the importance of the body in this rapidly decaying world, but rather that ‘the body’ presupposes, within its general gesturing, a singular body: some neutralising force to work against the power of the white, cis, able-bodied, male body. ‘The bodies of “the body” are not complicated by difference,’ he writes ‘they are raceless, genderless, and sexless.’ Beyond this assumptive singular body, the phrase also sets up a meaningless distinction between mind and body. If ‘The Body’ is generalised and made singular and external, then it is separate to the self, made distinct from identity. The danger of this phrase is that when it is used generally – ‘The Body’ – and when it is made specific – ‘The Queer Body’, ‘The Black Body’, ‘The Trans Body’ – it can only ever be singular. It inevitably implies an essential body within these singular categories, and an expectation that the viewer of its exploration either adheres or deviates from it.
What excites me about The Airways, then, is precisely its commitment to depicting ambiguity and ghostliness. By adhering to ambiguity, never bailing to absolutes or distinction, Mills creates space to think about bodies and identity, plurally. This is a ghost story, and a haunting one, but the three functions of self, the physical body, the consciousness, the social relational experience, are separate narratives that are unceasingly acting upon each other. While the narrative jumps to different times, cities, states of being and narrative form, each is never wholly separate. The writing haunts itself. Mills manages to depict not only the ambiguity of the body-consciousness connection, but simultaneously disperses and connects this ambiguity across two ‘selves’ with very different experiences of a politicised body. As reader, we are never solely understanding Adam as just Adam, and never solely understanding Yun as just Yun, we are constantly aware of the difference in their experience of the other and feeling (but not yet understanding) the impact of that. This misunderstanding is the haunting that links them and which gives us a new narrative perspective from which to think about a body as the subject of non-consensual gaze.
The bug that Adam has picked up on the train at the start of the book is not a virus, but this ghostly iteration of Yun. In haunting Adam, Yun has not caused him to become someone with a ghost inside his body, but rather the haunting is the experience of his body no longer being singular and private and the norm against which others are defined.
When critics and writers invoke ‘The Body’, in Australian publishing, usually in describing the themes addressed by a particular work (whether their own or someone else’s), I think what is usually referred to is writing about a few types of bodies: mothering bodies, POC bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies. We are talking about the fact that the writer is writing about an experience of a body. When we talk about writing the body, we usually aren’t referring to the reader’s body as witness to the writing so much as the writer’s body explored in the writing. And this categorisation of the writing links their body to a category of identity, rather than an exploration of self. To read writing this way, we take the writer’s body away from them, ostensibly to democratise it, to share it among as many people as possible, to find its place as ‘relevant’. But I think what actually happens is it becomes no longer relevant to our actual experience of bodies, and no longer relevant to our actual experience of self. To present writing in this way falsifies a version of bodily experience; the writing doesn’t become false, but the way we are set up to interpret it does. This singular term, ‘The Body’ doesn’t name what is being written about. It names what is being written away from – that singular body, that easy body, the body that isn’t even worth writing about because it moves through the cities and systems of the world so smoothly (Adam’s body). When we write about writing using the term ‘The Body’ we are clumsily superimposing non-universal bodies into the position of universality, as it that gives them the same power. As if by saying it we’ve made it true. But rather, it reinforces the idea of some singular body, existing elsewhere, that we are imbuing with more significance.
While the deftness of Mills’ handling of plurality and possibility is challenging and sophisticated. I found myself, while reading it, continually remembering one of the most useless movies ever made: Osmosis Jones.
Osmosis Jones is a movie from 2001 that blends live action and animation. In the live action storyline, Frank, played by Bill Murray, is a repulsive father figure. He eats KFC and drinks beer like it’s water and is the neglectful widower father to his young daughter Shane, who acts as caretaker to his rapidly declining health. Shane is often tasked with tending to his cramping legs and ingrown toenails, to little acknowledgement or appreciation by Frank. The film begins with Frank getting into an argument with a chimpanzee over a boiled egg (I told you this movie was useless). When the chimp knocks the egg into some faecal matter on the ground, and Frank picks it up and eats it, a deadly virus enters his bloodstream. Here, in the animated sections of the film, a white blood cell named Osmosis Jones, voiced by Chris Rock, working for the Immunity (Police) department of ‘Frankville’, must chase down and stop the virus, Thrax, voiced by Laurence Fishbourne. While these internal animated sections of the movie are charming and fun, spending time with Frank is so repulsive and tedious, that ever since seeing the movie as a child, what I have remembered as much as the idea of our internal world being akin to a governed city, is a scene where the virus Thrax meets up with other viruses in a zit nightclub on Frank’s forehead. When Osmosis Jones blows up the nightclub to foil their plan, a clump of thick, white pus bursts from Frank’s head lands on the lip of Shane’s elementary school teacher. Thinking about this still scene still makes me gag.
Osmosis Jones is directed by the Farrelly brothers, who made movies like There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and Shallow Hal. The comedy of these movies is predicated on the idea that a certain type of man can get away with whatever he wants. Farrelly Brothers movies are also generally very white. In Osmosis Jones, the cells that decide Frank’s fate are mostly voiced by POC actors, Osmosis, Thrax, and the assistant to the corrupt Mayor (voiced by William Shatner), Leah, voiced by Brandy. In Osmosis Jones, like in The Airways, there is an exploration of masculine entitlement on a cellular level. There is a narrative desire to get inside this body to understand, rearrange, and reform.
Adam’s recurring belief about himself in The Airways is that he is ‘a good guy’ who’s ‘done nothing wrong.’ What Adam does is look. In Sydney he has a habit of watching Yun when they sleep. And in Beijing, his girlfriend Natasha has left suddenly after some argument between them. Again, he seems to have watched her in an unwelcome way. Adam’s looking is a compulsion – along with his social anxiety. The root seemingly being an interrupted grieving process following the loss of his father:
His mother had started it. She had bundled up his father’s clothes and taken them to the op shop much too soon. As a child he had looked for traces of him in drawers, pockets, high shelves: anywhere he could gain entrance…Over many moths, he had learned to be consoled by the search itself. … He could not fill the space that was missing. It was in him too, an emptiness that he carried in his body, from the chest, the throat, the fingertips.
Adam often takes out his phone to photograph something he sees, a ship in the distance on the coastline, some light, but through his phone, he always ends up finding these images lacking. He puts his phone away without snapping anything, and gives up on capturing. It is not the image Adam wants, but the life in what he is seeing. An impulse that is impossible to satisfy, and one which is driven by his desire to possess what he is seeing, whether he is aware of the transgression of that desire to own or not. Adam trespasses on privacy in order to squirrel away an illusory element life. He wants to make the freedom he recognises in someone else’s privacy, his privacy, his freedom. ‘Yun was not a land, he knew that. They were a person. But a person could disappear while sleeping. Slip out of themselves. A person could be free like this, be open, though they were not awake to see it.’ Adam is missing something, and he looks for it in other people, and when he finds it he thinks it is something they share and are equal in. He assumes his role as witness is a form of validation.
In the Sydney storyline, before Yun’s death, there is another assault that harrows the housemates. Adam forgets to go to the vigil. A shiver of guilt runs through him that he can’t convincingly locate for us. It is not that there is the suggestion Adam is behind these attacks. But even without that suggestion, despite Adam’s assertions that he is a ‘good guy’ who has ‘done nothing wrong’, Mills has created an environment of wordless fear that he has. We can’t fully believe Adam’s assertions because his reasoning for any of his actions is never quite convincing – ‘The door had been left ajar, a clear invitation.’ ‘It was not the same, of course. A look had passed between them, an understanding. It was hard to name. There was a connection, that was all … He had crossed over to join them. It was nothing like violence. He did not think of it for long.’
Adam believes he and Yun understand each other. Adam believes that they share a world. And despite all the real loss that has led to Adam’s compulsion, his gaze is still a transgression. The Airways explores the danger of this projection, of the elimination of the private that can make a person permeable, the way that physical violence makes a body permeable.
Yun is quiet, we only hear Adam’s version of this looking for a long time. But we’re aware that Yun seems to avoid being left alone with Adam. One of the only times they are alone with Adam while awake, they make a comment that alludes to knowing that he watches them. After waking Adam, sleeping in the sun he asks,
“Were you watching me sleep?” Adam’s voice wavered. These cicadas were unrelenting. The music had stopped. Yun’s hands came together, their slender fingers folded. “Who would do such a thing?”
For a long time, we understand, more than their experience of the watching, their hunger in ghost form, for revenge. ‘They know who they are looking for… They’ll find him again. Next time, they’ll be stronger.’
Yun is a plurality that seeks unity – the ‘they’ pronouns for this character are used deliberately but not cheaply, not without thought. Yun is mysterious in their plurality, their unfixed, undecipherable (to Adam) nature. Yun is not characterised as ambiguous because their pronouns are ‘they/them’, they are characterised as ambiguous only to Adam because we have the sense that Adam wilfully misinterprets their interactions. That Yun uses neutral pronouns is another thing Adam could twist, in his cerebral tic of internally accounting for behaviour before he has been asked, as a point of connection – that he feels like an outsider and Yun, using different pronouns to the other housemates, might feel that way too. When Yun sleeps, they are still, and Adam can feel like he understands something that was mysterious to him. But this moment of not being in their body is not the real Yun. The ghost Yun yearns for wakefulness in their body, ‘Their own wants are dislocated, disembodied. They long for a saturated moment, the intensity of fully being.’
While Adam thinks he is only looking at Yun while they sleep, that he is a good guy, this looking does in fact disturb the body. It is done without consent. And though, to look at someone, is not something typically thought to need consent, the looking crosses a line that all characters implicitly understand, including Adam – remembering, again, that flimsy justification, ‘The door had been left ajar, a clear invitation.’ The self and its body, a body and its self, are simultaneous and inextricable. Yun’s body senses this looking, and so the looking does disturb the self. This looking is a deliberate and unwelcome act upon the body. But it is impossible for Yun to resist this gaze and by not resisting, there is a silent twisting – Adam believes it to be consent. Adam allows himself this possessive, non-physical desire to look.
The Airways isn’t just a book exploring ‘The Body’. It is a work that dramatizes the tensions inherent to perception and exploration of bodies in art. Gordon Hall invited us to reconsider this phrase ‘the body’ – to think away from the generalised cis, able-bodied, male body. But it is challenging to make work about bodies and capture both the universal wonder and mystery that we share in our self-body experience, and acknowledge the infinite and politicised differences within that. Mills writes through this by layering narrative consciousness, by having each section attributed to a different character and state of being, but never in first-person. We experience, through fiction’s ability to multiply and manipulate consciousness, the effect of Adam’s gaze on all the bodies that move around his body. The people who make him uncomfortable, whose judgement he fears, and the people who he makes uncomfortable by searching them for a means of rescue. Adam might not enact physical violence, but he does want Yun to be still for him. Adam wants Yun to be someone who he understands, who matches him exactly. Adam will not leave Yun alone and so Yun, haunting him, entering his breath and existing at once as him, forces Adam to become plural.
There are times when the prose in The Airways is difficult to follow. It is hard, sometimes, to imagine how Yun is moving between all these bodies, what exactly this moving consciousness is and what governs it – this ghost is not a body and is not comparable to a city. Sometimes Yun can move between people easily and sometimes they can’t and it isn’t clear, to me at least, why. It is, in many ways, easy to get lost in this prose. It is easy to be expelled. I was expelled a few times and when it happened I thought, why should that matter? Bodies are ambiguous and mysterious, so a work about them will in ways remain mysterious to me, not every part of this text will belong to me and what I can understand. Queer literature like this lives because it enters a bloodstream. It is picked up and carried and understood in the body. It doesn’t have to be explicit or educate. It shirks this responsibility.
What Mills has achieved isn’t just an experiment with genre, a new kind of thriller within a body. She has made work which embraces the multiplicity of this mode of writing about ‘bodies’. The unfixed, non-explicit nature makes the work challenging, but it is not a failure of the writer or reader to let parts of this book pass you. That is part of the process of haunting, letting things you can’t see or understand have an effect on you, giving up the control of perception.