Halfway through a discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Third World Imagination,” poet and critic Tom Paulin suddenly allies Bishop’s style and subject to her sexuality: “A lesbian who refused to go public, she imbues her verse with a luxurious eroticism that can be felt in her sometimes exclamatory cadencing and fascination with oily smells and swampy, scratchy, mallowy, and creamy textures.”
I read this sentence again and again, initial amusement sharpening into sheer irritation. Was Paulin, a poet as well as a critic, really getting at what I thought he was? Would anyone take this synecdoche — and, in Paulin’s view, what a part it was! — seriously? To quell any doubt, he goes on to suggest that Bishop had “studied Keats’s erotic imagery very carefully and then hid her tracks. Keats’s jouissance, his labial delight in warm, gooey textures, can be felt in many of Bishop’s South American poems.” This, combined with phrases like “private nature” and “sexual guilt,” made Bishop an exquisite, erotic poet but, more to the point, a cunt-struck sublimatrix.
Yet when I showed the passage to my office-mates, expecting a similar response, I didn’t get one. Perhaps I was getting exercised over nothing. It was the “oily smells” that incensed me the most, conjuring up as they did all sorts of alien unpleasantness. Why that was came to me rather later. The character Cora Ross in C.P. Snow’s novel The Sleep of Reason (1968) had eyes “so heavily charged that they stayed steady while averted from me, they seemed to be swimming in oil.”
I read Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series straight through at an impressionable age. The narrator, Lewis Eliot, a lawyer/ academic, is obsessed with the English mechanics of class and politeness but also with deeper questions of morality and personal responsibility. Snow took an early-’60s child murder case in the north of England and made it his own: two lesbians now did the torturing and killing. The cool Cora Ross is one of Snow’s lesbians. The other, Kitty Pateman, is described by the judge as “a fiend out of hell.” They were an early portent of what to expect whenever I chanced upon a fictional lesbian, or maybe even one in real life!
Throughout the novel there is no question that the two women committed the crime, no suspense on that level. They kidnapped, beat up, and killed an eight-year-old boy, a policeman reports Cora saying, because “they wanted to teach it to behave” (that inhuman “it” further demonizing the women). First Cora, “the butch,” is deemed the instigator, then Kitty, “the little one.” But their guilt is never in question, the true mystery being, rather, did they kill because they were lesbians? Interestingly, there is no overt speculation about whether their “barren” status led them to this pitch of horrible intensity. In view of the women’s lack of affect, let alone remorse, the chorus of judgment doesn’t seem over the top:
“Those two women are as bad as anything I’ve seen.”
“There are some people who aren’t fit to live.”
“The horror is that they are human.”
And so on. In a novel exploring evil and horror, freedom and responsibility, the code is clear. These women isolated themselves. They unhealthily provoked each other because they needed another limit experience. This is the sort of folie à deux most likely to happen to homosexuals, one psychiatrist testifies at the trial. The narrator is sympathetic, and even capable of catching his own hyperbole — “It’s unspeakable. . . . No, that’s foolish, we’ve been speaking about it all the week.” But C.P. Snow had already turned the book into a kangaroo court. Moral inquiry can only go so far when the basis for evil has been set from the start: lesbianism. Yet these are precisely the sort of things I’ve heard and read about women who are lesbians, not “lesbians who kill.” After all, Snow took his title from a Goya print, the full text reading “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”
I found some equally troubling lesbians in film, more often murdered than murdering (see The Conformist), though their glamour was a consolation. But lesbians seemed in shorter supply in literature, so I couldn’t really afford to give any book the body-swerve. I wasn’t sure if I could count the passionate women in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, but they were a rare consolation — until, that is, they were rehabilitated into society by the plays’ happy, marital endings. But I had twigged to that long before, thanks to the clue from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare: “They all laughed at the lady Olivia for the pleasant mistake she had made in falling in love with a woman.” And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to count (though I was fascinated by) the gothic despair of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. If I were really desperate, there was The Group’s Lakey, whom Elizabeth Bishop thought Mary McCarthy had based on her. Unfortunately, Lakey spends most of the novel exiled abroad. And then there was always Rosamund Lehmann’s puzzling Dusty Answer. The heroine, Judith, has some sort of spiritual lesbian interlude at Cambridge with the brilliant slacker Jennifer (“Do you call innocence a virtue? I don’t. I call it stupidity.”). Unfortunately, Jennifer, having the temerity to bring an actual lesbian into college, is immediately “threatened with nervous collapse” and then gets shunted off to Scotland for the rest of the novel, condemned to several more crack-ups. Nonetheless, she pervades the novel, a delicious threat, as evinced by Judith’s staccato speech to her fiancée: “Only there are — some things — aren’t there? — there might be things which can’t be told. Things one must forget — try to — at once –“
Occasionally I’d spot a foxed Fifties tale of lesbian desire, guilt, and remorse. Lee Server’s Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of the American Paperback reproduces several such pulp covers, including A Twilight Affair, set in “Greenwich Village and the twilight world where women are in love with women,” the teaser warns delightedly. I should have thought the illustration would have got the message across amply: a vision of a blonde-haired innocent kneeling in front of a dark-haired, older type who is leaning off the edge of the bed, legs apart. Not for nothing does the husband in Lianna, a film by a man about a woman’s coming-out, ask, “How was it? Like a drugstore paperback?”
But those were the rules. Marijane Meaker, recruited from Ladies’ Home Journal to write pulp for a primarily male audience, reports that her publisher instructed her only that “it couldn’t have a happy ending and he suggested it end with the lesbian going crazy. Otherwise the Post Office might seize it as obscene.” Even so, women in the 1950s who had no reference or referents seem to have found these “exotic” titles a solace; Meaker received boxes of letters from lesbians, much to her publisher’s surprise. But these novels were hardly prose classics. In her preface to Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Lillian Faderman recalls searching for books “that would help explain me to myself” and only having to go as far as the drugstore racks: “I was fascinated by their lurid covers and astonishingly graphic sexual scenes. I was depressed by their pathos and bathos . . . I was bored by their heavy-handed prose, stock characters, and predictability.” Often the best, and certainly the most amusing, writing was on the covers: “She Loved Her Husband — And Her Girl Friend!” and every variation on Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name” was used.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray the youth is corrupted by a book, probably Huysmans’s A Rebours: “It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain.” When I thought about it, I too had a long history of being poisoned by reading, though in the opposite sense. In the books and articles I read, from high to low, there seemed only three versions of a woman’s revolt against nature. In the conversion myth, a young, fair, and fair-haired woman, momentarily misled, is saved from her dangerous tendencies by the love of a (good) man. On a lower tier, there’s the lesbian who cannot help her unnatural desires but has the sense to stay lonely, sedate, and sexless in the background, supporting the status quo. At worst, she kills herself quietly or is killed off by accident or by force majeure (nature’s righting itself). And finally there is the eyebrow-raising female who refuses to be saved or subsumed. She is corrupt, corrupting, foreign (metaphorically, at least), and, alas, more often barren than wanton. There was obviously something desirable — for writer and reader — about these women’s forbidden tendencies, but it had to be cloaked in moral horror, with the usual pandering to societal strictures.
And variations on these representations were by no means limited to pulp. D.H. Lawrence, for one, was always eager to weigh in on the right relation between the sexes. “The phallus is a great sacred image, it represents a deep, deep life which has been denied in us and still is denied. Women deny it horribly, with a grinning travesty of sex.” In “The Fox” (1923), which he termed a “novelette,” one whiny woman is saved when a man (the fox) kills the woman she lives with. Lawrence is fairly subtle, but “The Fox” had enough hold on people’s imaginations to be made into a heated film in 1968.
Then there is the “Shame” chapter in The Rainbow. Lawrence initially presents Ursula Brangwen’s crush on her teacher as a good thing. Winifred Inger is beautiful, clever, “proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman.” Unfortunately, once the woman have some sort of hinted-at sex (undoubtedly swampy, mallowy, and creamy), Lawrence immediately evokes physical disgust and Ursula fobs Winifred Inger off on her even more repugnant industrialist uncle. But the switch is dodgy, too sudden, and the action reported rather than explored. If we read fiction to glean some knowledge of the human heart and mind, and one vision or moral keeps repeating itself, it’s easy to take it as the truth and shudder at “the grinning travesty of sex,” and to conclude, with Lawrence, that lesbianism is the sickness, man the cure.
In the 1970s novels by Rita Mae Brown and Lisa Alther went some way toward redressing my strange encounters with lesbians in fiction. In Brown’s escapist Rubyfruit Jungle, Molly Bolt is popular, pretty, ambitious, and loves women — and not because of that other cliché, that she was spurned by a man. Lisa Alther’s lesbian characters, too, see their sexuality as a starting-point, not a life sentence.
But if the novel is still a mirror along the highway, has its range increased, its glass taken in social change? Beyond Brown and Alther, has the common currency of fiction expanded to encompass solid and varied representations of lesbians? Certainly in the past ten years publishers — like other vendors — have been discovering the “gay demographic.” Whether heightened fictional awareness has accompanied increased sales, however, is an open question.
Most immediately apparent is the fact that novels by straight authors with “gay themes” or characters seem to have a greater chance of being bought by major houses so long as they purvey that all-important sense of “universality.” They’re easier to “position” and there’s less opportunity for embarrassing (embarrassing for whom?) questions and pauses in author interviews as well as articles. And fiction by gay men now has a hard-won literary and commercial heritage and an increasing urgency. As David Bergman writes in the introduction to The Violet Quill Reader, “the very act of representing gay life altered that life, by indicating that it was worthy of depiction.”
Despite the advances in representation and comedy in novels by women that feature lesbians, there are a number of straight men creating fictional lesbians and getting more attention by doing so. The question is, are these novels still windows only into men’s souls, productions of their desires? Are lesbians, to some extent freed by history (or at least momentarily chic), still enslaved by fiction?
Scott Spencer is one of the most gifted and powerful novelists of the past 20 years, his works, including Endless Love and Waking the Dead, probing and expansive, his characters unique and memorable, their emotions huge. In 1990, Knopf published his Secret Anniversaries, a novel about the sentimental education of Caitlin Van Fleet — a young woman intent on escaping a proscribed existence, both social and sexual — who moves to Washington in 1940 to work for Congressman Stowe, a German sympathizer.
Spencer keeps shifting time throughout the novel, these dislocating and elegant juxtapositions creating ironic and tragic connections between events. So, before Caitlin meets Betty Sinclair, Stowe’s assistant and Caitlin’s future lover, we already know that Betty will die in 1941. Coming upon a picture of her dead boss, Caitlin is initially ecstatic, forgetting that “next to Stowe, screaming as he screamed, surrendering her mortal soul as his was snatched, was her friend Betty Sinclair, whom Caitlin had cherished and loved, and whose death was for Caitlin the true beginning of human knowledge, which is sorrow.”
Spencer paces the revelations about Caitlin and Betty’s relationship and avoids the sensational (well, there is that pubic hair caught in Betty’s teeth one morning). One of the novel’s pleasures is that heterotextual rarity: lesbians are actually seen together. Caitlin and Betty are allowed to speak to each other, they have sex, even breakfast together. Of course, public displays of affection are not on, but that’s realism, not fantasy.
The problem is, nothing becomes Betty Sinclair so much as her death. In life she is beautiful, witty, and ironic, but also anti-Semitic and unconcerned, until the very last, about Congressman Stowe’s pro-German stance. The author usually juxtaposes a scene between Caitlin and Betty with one between Caitlin and Joe Rose, a committed journalist intent on exposing the pro-Nazis. While Betty blithely goes about her treacherous business, Joe, the voice of reason, tries to wake Caitlin up.
Betty, on the other hand, is sheer sensuality and almost suffocating concern. As if there weren’t already enough to damn her, Spencer uses one image to brilliant effect. After Betty asserts that if Hitler is crazy that’s not America’s concern, Caitlin hears the sound of a cuckoo clock but can’t spot the bird. Betty has blocked its exit. Caitlin, infatuated, manages to find this idiosyncrasy endearing — the reader may find it less so.
“But the bird can’t get out.”
“Correct. I nailed the door shut. I can’t stand it when the bird just pops out.”…
At last the mechanical bird gave up trying to escape; its frantic calls and tapping were replaced by the steady, deeply authoritative tick of the clock.
But in a novel about belonging — something Caitlin can’t seem to do — a novel about shame and secrecy, complicity and loyalty, at least the shame and secrecy have nothing to do with lesbianism:
Caitlin felt her skin come alive. She pulsated. It was as if in order to live an orderly life her body had to be anesthetized, but now the ether of the everyday was gone and she felt everything — . . . Caitlin did not think: But this is a woman who lies beside me. She did not think: Then I will be a homosexual, a lesbian. She did not think about going to hell, or living with it for the rest of her life, or even of tomorrow. All of that seemed completely beside the point. They were just ideas — not even ideas: they were words.
Words or not, we are back in familiar territory. Betty in true lesbian-in-fiction fashion must die. Culture will out. And despite various jolts of remembrance and mourning throughout Secret Anniversaries, the book takes a strange — or strangely familiar — final turn. In a letter to her son, Caitlin states that the best time of her life was when his absent father, Joe, appeared one night and they were momentarily a family: “My heart was never so huge and never so happy and everything I felt and everything I was made sense, and in so many ways that clarity has lasted.” No mention of Betty Sinclair, despite the context — a passage about erasing borders between countries, people, the public and the private. It is the righteous Joe and a brief vision of family that triumph over Betty Sinclair, an imperfect embodiment of love and acceptance.
In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf asserted: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” Can men let women mirror themselves? Arno Strine of Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata certainly doesn’t mind — “There is nothing so sexy as seeing a solid young dyke coming with her legs bent in a diamond shape feet together, and one of those Hitachi camping flashlights, those Hitachi huge-eyed deep-sea exotic fishes, doing its blunt tireless thing in her Marianas Trench” — as long as he can watch.
But not all male narrators are content merely to watch. Last year I came across what threatens to become a new and strange subgenre, the novel where a young man attempts, with different degrees of ease and success, to seduce a woman whom he knows to be lesbian. This is the modern twist on the man rescuing the woman who has been momentarily led astray. Denis Johnson’s Resuscitation of a Hanged Man is one example, and even with such dislocated characters he doesn’t seem to pull off this conceit. But a straight reader might disagree. Two novels of 1993 — LOVE ENTER by Paul Kafka and Everything Looks Impressive by Hugh Kennedy — have similar plots. Nice college students fixate on lesbians, one “unwittingly,” the other not.
In LOVE ENTER Dan Schoenfeld writes a long letter to Bou, with whom he was involved four years earlier in Paris. In fact, Dan fell in love with Bou and with another woman, Margot, both Yale girls abroad. The fact that they’re lovers doesn’t seem to bother him, though his roommate is appalled by Dan’s interposition. “You mess with that pristine relationship of theirs, you try to turn it into a New Age, Parisian love threesome, and you’ll find out quick that you’ve been living in Never-Never Land.” Dan does have a fractured fairy-tale view of the women — he even remembers mawkishly, “you and Margot spooned like a beautiful dwarf and a handsome noblewoman in the TV moonlight” — and no thought that there’s anything wrong with his machinations. After all, Margot may be gay, but Bou is still “curious.”
Not only does Dan eventually bed Bou, but he even gets to show Margot that he “knows how with a woman.” A kiss ensues. A likely story! And then, fair’s fair, she has to tell him how lesbians have sex, which apparently has something to do with what she calls a rider mower: “It cruises. All you do is steer once in a while.”
Suddenly I could see where she was heading.
“So you just,” I said, “let yourself.”
Is this a metaphor? (When it comes to agricultural imagery, the ancient Roman “She will shimmy as if she were winnowing grain with her haunches” seems to have rather more going for it.) Is that how lesbians have sex? What about the tickling in Personal Best? I always thought that was how lesbians did it. Or they suddenly start intoning in French, even though they’re American, as in Lianna. Lesbian sex doesn’t seem very articulate in these examples.
At least Margot isn’t trying to bump Dan off. She is, instead, supportive. Dan writes to her plangently: “I’ll ask you if you still think about Bou all the time the way I do. And then I’ll ask once again, Margot, why you never abandoned me.”
Supportive lesbians — supportive to straight men, that is — have been popping up elsewhere of late. In the mixed-message mainstream film Three of Hearts, Connie, bravely played by Kelly Lynch, contrives to get her ex-girlfriend, Ellen, back by hiring a gigolo to seduce her. Incidentally, Connie wears more ties than Annie Hall ever did; that’s how askew the film’s sign system is. According to the heroic male whore (so it is an alternate universe!), “Most guys are assholes, so she’ll come running back to you.” When, instead our hero falls for Ellen and then loses her, Connie resolves to help him get her back. “Just don’t invite me to the wedding!” she joshes. Perhaps some might argue: See, lesbians are sewing the social fabric together now. Isn’t that better than being killers and killed? (Or vampires, for that matter. See The Hunger, among other gothic lesbian tableaux vivants.) But they’re still victims. And, as Edmund White declared, heterosexuals “have decided that we are victims, and they want us to behave accordingly. When we don’t . . . they hate that . . . Having a sex life and having lovers and having adventures didn’t require compassion from anyone.”
In the Scottish writer Andrew Greig’s novel Electric Brae: A Modern Romance there’s another good-egg lesbian victim, Les, short for Lesley, not Lesbian. “Indomitable care-less Les” is initially presented as strong and swashbuckling. In fact, she’s wrestling another woman (at a gym). But her energy from then on is extended only for others. Nursing a silent, unrequited love for the occasionally crazed artist Kim, and some damaged tendons in her hand after Kim attacks her, Les is still enabling and understanding. And her reward for botching a relationship is to become, unsexual and unthreatening, a member of the extended heterosexual family cobbled together to take care of Kim’s daughter. This myth may be more benign, but it’s still oppressive. Lesbians can now be inserted into the body politic — as long as they don’t have sex. Don’t the armed forces have a similar policy?
Jill Lanigan, the Yale senior in Hugh Kennedy’s Everything Looks Impressive, is a freebooter as well, a perplexing one to freshman Alex MacDonald. Alex meets Jill on his first day at college and is too naive to catch the signals — she’s at the Women’s Center table at orientation, has strangely dyed short hair, and wears men’s cologne. “Antaeus. My brother Marty used to brag about how it made him unstoppable. It was such a strange choice for a woman,” he muses. Of course, the jacket copy has already warned that Jill is “a troubled senior of ambiguous sexuality,” neither assertion, incidentally, substantiated by the text, where she’s a gifted student and a lesbian. Yet even after Alex and his patrician roommates come upon Jill and her girlfriend feeding each other ice cream — suggestively — Alex continues to obsess.
There’s something fascinating about this conflicted book. Alex wants to take care of Jill — something she hasn’t asked for — especially after she gets knocked out by some Yale yahoos at a party. But he comes off as a tedious hanger-on, convinced that he can turn Jill. Who exactly is the novel’s ideal reader? In order to please a “universal” audience, does Kennedy have to lose those of “ambiguous sexuality”? He seems to think so, because a plot twist suddenly kills her off. And now that Jill is no longer a threat to the body politic, Alex attains some understanding, which he does his best to convey at her funeral, in a eulogy far more moving than her lover’s. Naturally.
No doubt Everything Looks Impressive, like LOVE ENTER, was published as a result of the new openness about homosexuality. But it seems oddly voyeuristic and imperious. Gifted upper-class lesbians can be partially integrated, but then must be done away with. At the novel’s end Alex muses on Jill’s “subversive smile” and focuses on the spot where he first saw her. “If I concentrated, perhaps this vague plot of patchy grass would evoke a presence far longer than memory dictated, a presence with the prick of truth about it” (italics mine). And for all the power of Jill Lanigan’s presence, the Sunday New York Times review of the novel excised her completely.
In these novels by men, then, lesbians are always defined by their relations with straight characters. It’s as if lesbianism were a statement, and one more about men than women. The fact that women who delight in other women seem to get killed off with some frequency surely reflects cultural traditions and needs. Perhaps it’s some sort of absurd variation on that old Geritol ad — but this time the man chuckles proudly, My dyke, I think I’ll kill her. (Language speaks, man is spoken.) In novels by women where lesbians are center-stage, does what Michèle Roberts calls “that category of Otherness, meaning Worse,” disappear? What happens to the equation of female maturity with marriage and family? And do lesbians see and write differently?
Being a lesbian used to entail lowering one’s literary standards — the need to see oneself represented, at least occasionally, could lead to some very low-level pleasures. Women’s presses, in particular Naiad, have produced many lesbian romance novels in the past 20 years. Harlequin-like, the form allows little variation: a (monogamous) woman, who may or may not have had prior experience/girlfriends, slowly becomes involved with a more dominant woman. Two thirds or more of the way through the book, they finally have sex. Then something or someone (from self-loathing to a homophobic co-worker) throws a spanner in the works, allowing, paradoxically, both women to realize the strength of their love. The writing in many of these books is banal and breathy, but I maintain that, because of the dearth of literature at hand, many women who would never pick up a bodice-ripper were they straight have been practically forced to read them. Good for the “pink economy,” though.
Naiad is also the publisher of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt — Carol: “in the eyes of the world it’s an abomination.” Therese: “You don’t believe that” — though it was pseudonymous until very recently, of many decent dyke-detective novels, of Gertrude Stein’s Lifting Belly, and of Jane Rule. Rule is best known for Desert of the Heart, and that mainly owing to the film. Her realist novels which happen to be about lesbians should be strong backlist for any bookstore. Instead, most often unreviewed, they are confined to women’s and gay bookstores.
But Naiad’s niche-monopoly is over. In the past several years an increasingly broad spectrum of writing by lesbians has appeared, much of it impressive and published by large, established houses. There are even two new canon-founding anthologies: The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories, edited by Margaret Reynolds, and Faderman’s 800-page Chloe Plus Olivia. Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion are perhaps the apex of lesbian writing (and among the very best writing by anyone of any shape or form), her characters either outsiders or exiled in some way, her style rich and inventive. But Winterson’s last book published in the United States, Written on the Body, is narrated by someone of undisclosed sex, as if to stress the universality of her fictional explorations of love, repression, heartlessness, courage, and loss. The last entry in Margaret Reynolds’s anthology is Winterson’s “The Poetics of Sex,” which turns the classic queries about lesbian sexuality into a swaggering, lascivious, needling celebration, making free with, rather than fun of, clichés. To “Were You Born a Lesbian?” the narrator riddles “I could say yes, I could say no, both statements would be true, the way that lesbians are true, at least to one another if not to the world. I am no stranger to the truth but very uncomfortable about the lies that have dogged me since my birth.” Winterson has been acknowledged as a virtuoso by the mainstream, but many other lesbian stylists and chroniclers have been less fortunate when it comes to coverage.
Helen Hodgman’s Ducks was well reviewed in England in 1988, but didn’t get attention or readers in the US the following year. Hodgman uses short scenes, multiplying the banal by the tragic, to create, very precisely, extremely messy lives. Hazel and Moss, two women entering middle age, have money worries and are struggling to raise Moss’s son, stay together, and not betray the movement.
In brief, juxtaposed segments, those who have played or will play a part in Hazel and Moss’s undoing are introduced — men searching for women (the Bogeyman, Le Professeur de Judo), often with the intent to kill them, women searching, after years of ideological soundness, for comfort and ease. “With money, life would be more pleasant. That, perhaps, was the point to it.” Hodgman writes series of terse sentences to create the visions of those searching for “the possibility for the daily practice of ethical love.” She is also brilliant at the longer breathless phrase which is layers-deep — amusing, sad, nostalgic, satiric: “Afterwards Buster had cried because she’d liked it so much and it had been so long since she’d done it and because they’d been guilty of practicing a style of love-making often put down by the politically correct as being imitative of heterosexual intercourse and because she’d indulged in gender swapping fantasies.”
Ducks is a funny nightmare, and Hazel and Moss’s expressions of longing and innocence are heightened by their often violent and seemingly hopeless context. But there’s no dice-loading; the ending is open if pessimistic: “I love you. Since we were tiny. Since my mother told me you were a pervert. But it hardly ever works out does it. Love?” This is the classic Forsterian showing, not telling. Entire tracts have been written on the difficulties homosexual couples encounter owing to cultural traditions (hatreds), on homosexuals being disowned, but Hodgman’s character wistfully encapsulates these realities without resorting either to pathos or a loudspeaker. And Ducks ends with Hazel and Moss still striving. In Barbara Trapido’s new novel, Juggling, a student discourses on the superiority of Shakespearean comedy over tragedy: “Survival is admirable. It is more difficult than death, since it takes more energy and guile.” (This novel, incidentally, has, in addition to a raft of straight characters, a fair share of gays and lesbians — and has yet to be bought by an American publisher.) When lesbians in fiction begin to survive, that is, are not killed or recuperated, it’s clear that culture must be progressing.
A lesbian writer’s perspective may be formed by the experience of living in a culture that renders her conveniently invisible — in discussions of weddings, or having actually to attend one, for example. One comedienne jokes about going to showers and taking a gift home with her — payback. Max, the heroine of Rose Troche’s film Go Fish, doesn’t want to be “always off to the side, uncoupled in the family portrait,” having to use the phrase “good friend” or “that desperate qualifier, really good friend.” There are, however relatively few reminders of the straight world, with the exception of one character being disowned, in Troche’s universe, the focus insted being on Max’s search for a girlfriend. Go Fish has a classic film scenario, with, of course, the sexual difference: Max is “a carefree single lesbo looking for love,” that first adjective indicating a sea-change in the lesbian self-image. She’s not tormented about her sexuality or even remotely concerned about its origins.
Many of the film’s sequences concern lesbian imagery and knowledge. Max fears that she might “crack under the strain of never being out enough.” Lesbian “shallow fashion requirements” are “regular, crunchy, or extra-crunchy.” The promiscuous character sleeps with a man and then envisions the bullying and horrified reactions of a court of her peers. There are lyrical scenes of passion, jolly morning montages, even a ribald discussion of endearments for the vagina. In short, the women in this romance are defined by one another and never have to apologize for doing or saying anything the straight world might deem offensive. In Go Fish the objective point of view is lesbian — the only countercultural activity is sleeping with a man. But men appear little and, apart from the trial fantasy, are discussed less. I wondered if this exhilarating film would make the average (i.e., heterosexual) filmgoer squirm. I have yet to find out. No one “average” I know has gone to see it.
This happens to books by lesbians as well. Perhaps audiences pass lesbian works by because they think they won’t see themselves or find characters they can identify with therein. Yet, as Ralph Ellison declared, “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority.”
Sarah Schulman might have taken the plot skeleton of her fourth novel, People in Trouble, straight out of a 1950s pulp triangle, but the twist is very modern. Her three narrators, Peter and Kate, a married couple, and Molly, Kate’s younger lover, are trying to get through a particularly depressing time in Manhattan, witnessing the insistence of AIDS, riots in Tompkins Square park, medical waste washing up on beaches, and the homeless everywhere. The scope and social resolve of the novel are impressive, though it is most compelling as an examination of entanglement.
The characters are somewhat haranguing and platitudinous when discussing politics or the role of art, but their sexual taunting and jealousy are raw: Kate on more than one occasion torments Molly with the gibe “I like cock.” There is one magical passage where Peter sees two women kissing on the street. Impressed by their beauty and abandon, he catches the eye of one, who turns out to be Molly. “She was flushed with cold and lust. As soon as she caught this man staring at her, she flashed a laugh like a knife. It was a weapon, a stare and an icy resistance. Her gaze was a powerful sexual defiance of him and his.” The male gaze seems to have lost its clout.
The problem is that Peter and Kate seem stiff and programmatic when they’re reacting not to Molly but to the misery around them. As it is, Molly’s encounters with Kate, and later in the novel with Sam, “the girl from the Golden West,” are more nuanced and seem to have behind them the weight of personal experience, giving the lie to the superior notion that lesbians have double vision, having been brought up to follow the universal outlook yet possessing a parallax view. But if the scales are tipped in the lesbian character’s favor, she does not end up winning Kate. Her triumph is not over a man, but entails returning to, as some would put it melodramatically, her own kind. Nature has been righted, and the unnatural foray is over.
What if a novel is not specifically positioned as lesbian but has a lesbian character and catalyst? The average reader might be less resistant. Carol Anshaw’s first novel is not about lesbianism per se, but turns on one extraordinary early experience, the lasting effects of a “few supersaturated moments.” Aquamarine opens with the 1968 Olympic rivalry between Jesse, a seventeen-year-old from Missouri, and an older Australian, Marty. Jesse, whom Marty had seduced the night before, glances briefly in her direction, enters the water late, and ends up with the silver. Marty takes the gold. What will Jesse make of herself afterward? Anshaw divides the book into three novellas, each presenting a different Jesse living 22 years after the 100-meter freestyle:
n After the Olympics Jesse returned home, distracted and expectant, and soon married Neal; they run his family’s low-key tourist attraction. Something more should have happened, she feels.
n After the Olympics Jesse got a scholarship to Columbia and is now an academic in New York. She has been living with Kit, an actress, for six months.
n After the Olympics Jesse went on a tour for a line of women’s racing suits and married the heir to the business. In Florida, the mother of two teenagers, with “a truly stupid marriage behind her,” Jesse teaches swimming to make ends meet.
The book’s supporting characters also shift shape depending on which Jesse they’re dealing with. For instance, the first Jesse and her husband regularly see Laurel, her oldest friend, and Laurel’s husband. In the second novella, Laurel is appalled when she comes upon Jesse about to kiss her lover: “She is now here only until the first possible moment she can leave, go home, and tell her husband and the two sisters she’s close to, but probably (after a brief internal debate) not her mother.”
Aquamarine raises not just issues of acceptance and exclusion but provocative questions about the effects of key moments on individuals’ choices and mysteries. Carol Anshaw doesn’t come up with any answers, but in a novel about making a life she does seem to load the dice: the second sequence is much more sexually cheerful, and the academic Jesse is more successful, at least professionally. The straight Jesses decide not to get “riled” about things; one retreats into “the right love,” motherhood, the other into the consolations of the past and television.
Heather Lewis’s first novel is infinitely more grueling, its view of humanity devastating. Set in the Eastern horse-show world (neither author has let the code, WOMEN ATHLETES = PERVERTS, daunt them), House Rules is told by Lee, a fifteen-year-old who has already fallen into drugs, drink, and meaningless sex with strange men. “Seemed like not caring one way or another might be the thing that made you immune, maybe made you safe.” Lee’s voice is one of debauched naiveté, her evocations of riding painfully physical, and throughout the novel she illuminates horrors to the reader but not to herself.
Having been thrown out of boarding school, Lee returns to competition rather than to her sexually abusive father and complicit mother. She’s also eager to see Tory, an older girl. But the adults in the show world view the riders, like the horses, as commodities and, instead of protecting them, pump them full of drugs to keep them going — or to control them. As Tory tells Lee, “Darling, everything’s always for sale.” Tory doesn’t fit any stereotype; she’s reckless, wise, cruel, corrupting. Unfortunately, her version of love, or sex, has violence and control confused with desire.
Though it alternates between brutality and tenderness — something Lee and Tory find harder to handle — their relationship isn’t a screaming message about the wickedness of lesbianism, or even an encoded one. The book is, however, replete with fist-fucking, a practice difficult to discuss in polite circumstances, but one that forces the reader to pose such questions as “Do some lesbians really do that?” (Mind you, from high lit to low, there has been every possible depiction of straight sex and sexuality.) And their trainer, Linda, who drugs the girls as a prelude to sexual brutality, is the embodiment of cruelty, not a position paper on lesbian manipulation of young girls. This has to do with the quality of Heather Lewis’s unflinching descriptions but also with the world she delineates. Almost every adult in this novel is vile, an exploiter, one more reason to stay numb: “I just didn’t think Tory’d given me enough, because everything bothered me still.” House Rules is brilliant and ugly, a nightmare for any reader. I hope, for riders’ and horses’ sake, that it’s a work of imagination rather than reportage.
Heather Lewis, Carol Anshaw, Sarah Schulman, and Helen Hodgman all use indirect third-person or first-person narration, not an all-knowing and generalizing voice. Creating an individual’s impressions, reflections, and reactions, the author should be able to open doors for the reader. Imaginative sympathy should result, and I’m not referring here to unreliable narrators or to a mystery writer’s occasionally allowing one into the mind of a psychopath. And without an omniscient narrator, there’s less opportunity for generalizations which the average reader might find alienating.
But Anshaw’s book gained the most attention, probably because, in addition to the easy strength of her writing, its characters were the most “palatable,” its situations less obviously threatening. There is a good deal to be said for the middle ground, however. The bigoted mother in Aquamarine is frightening less because of her beliefs than the stark way in which she enacts them, cutting off Jesse’s attempt to justify her relationship: “‘You don’t have to tell me. It’s on all the shows. Donahue. Oprah.’ And that’s that. Her mother reaches and tugs the quilted cozy over the toaster and shuts down the subject.” But Aquamarine is a long way from a plea for understanding, Carol Anshaw signaling clearly that we should be beyond that stage, and almost at a point where sexual orientation is a characteristic, not a fate.
Meg Wolitzer also gives her three women modified stream-of-consciousness in Friends for Life, a group novel about “the overwhelming force that was MerLisAn.” Meredith, Lisa, and Ann have been friends since grade school. Now in their late 20s, they meet once a month to eat Chinese food and check on one another’s lives. When Ann becomes involved, painlessly, with another woman, for example, the experience won’t be real until Meredith and Lisa have heard. Otherwise it would be like a tree falling in the forest, she thinks.
And in a hilarious nod to one of the novel’s forebears, Meredith tries to understand Ann’s relationship by finding the Lakey passage at the end of The Group. “Studying Lakey with the customs man, they asked themselves, in silence, how long Lakey had been a Lesbian, whether the Baroness had made her one or she had started on her own. This led them to wonder whether she could possibly have been one at college — suppressed, of course.” Nothing in these women’s lives is safe from Meg Wolitzer’s sharp eye and ear. And since everything is fair game, the amused descriptions of lesbian clichés seem more for sport than to restore what Veronica Geng has called the myth of hetero-heroism.
Yet at the novel’s end, her girlfriend having left her, Ann suddenly needs wiggle room. Perhaps she’ll end up with a man, perhaps a woman. Friends for Life becomes a classic comedy, down to its final scene — Meredith’s wedding. The already-married Lisa is somewhat content, Meredith is the bride, and Ann is alone and unsexed. Is this a concession to the average reader? One can’t dictate that for every nine unhappy lesbian endings in straight works, one woman be allowed a modicum of contextual happiness, but the question is, who or what is dictating that fictional lesbians must end up unattached?
In Wolitzer’s novel there’s only good sport, not moral horror, to be found in Ann’s relationship with a woman. It and her sudden activism are just as amusing as her friends’ bemused reactions — and, for that matter, their own personal flailings about. The lesbian reader should be grateful for the demonstrations of how ridiculous heterosexuals are about same-sexers as well as thankful for its signs of lesbian silliness. Arriving at a point where gentle parody is possible would seem an advance. But the straight reader has the lasting heterotextual consolation.
Meg Wolitzer, who is married and has a son, once wrote a quiet novel about two lesbians raising a child in the suburbs. Hidden Pictures was never reprinted in paperback and I doubt that there are plans for a film version. Friends for Life, on the other hand, is slated to be filmed next year. My pessimistic wager is that Ann will not be much of a “queer poster” presence in the screen version, but I hope I’m wrong.
Seeing lesbians in films and books, and (even more rarely) on television shouldn’t be that stressful an activity. As the British writer Rose Collis points out: “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger and think: ‘That’s a dyke.’ Then you blink and she’s gone. This is the case as far as mainstream television dramas are concerned, anyway.” Yet people read works in translation that are set in foreign countries and expect to pick up the codes. And then there’s science fiction. In life, lesbians are not representations, and they shouldn’t be in literature. If authors are talented enough to create a range of lesbian characters — and brave enough not feel required to rehabilitate or kill them — that might disprove the stereotypes. (Of course, that means publishing will have to get over a good deal of pudeur.) More importantly, doing so will expand the pleasures of the text. Future readers really shouldn’t have to try to locate themselves in the literature of the abnormal and the furtive. To paraphrase Alastair MacLeish, a lesbian must not mean, but be.