It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I've been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn't soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs.
Tricia Sullivan doesn't really do slow build-ups. Maul (2003) hits you right between the eyes with its opening paragraph - quoted above - and then runs off, cackling. Three pages and two more sucker punches later (I won't spoil them), you'll either by throwing the book aside in disgust or - as I was - laughing in dazed delight at Sullivan's audacity.
Which essentially describes the whole experience of reading the book: equal parts glee and bemusement.
I thoroughly enjoyed this dual-strand tale of warring schoolgirls and future!genetics, but there were substantial chunks of it, towards the end, where I had only a very fuzzy idea of what on earth was going on. Every time you think you've got your bearings, off goes another narrative cluster bomb (as I put it in a discussion about her most recent novel, Lightborn, here): Wait, the stand-off at the make-up counter turned into a shoot-out? How on earth did he just escape? She stashed an Uzi in Laura Ashley? His sperm carries immunity to the plague? So now she's controlling the whole mall via an arcade game? OMG everyone's gone crazy and now they're wrestling on the floor of the lab! ("wtf" appears quite frequently in the notes I took while reading.)
And so on. Even when the plot isn't lurching off into headfuck territory for the fourth time that chapter, Sullivan revels in the non-sequiturs of her information-saturated world(s) and her attention span-challenged characters. Dialogue and narration alike flit restlessly from topic to topic, as Sullivan throws out ideas as fast as she does the real and invented brand names; characters lose their train of thought and don't regain it, distracted by adverts and data feeds and horniness and interruptions from other characters:
"So, if that's solved, should we talk about the--"
"Carrera has testicles the size of ellendales. He masturbates five times a day. There's something about him."
LOSE WEIGHT AT SKINNYBITCH. ENTER OUR VIRTUAL COOKIE SIMULATOR OR HAVE YOUR THIGHS ZAPPED WITH OUR REVOLUTIONARY LASERS WHILE YOU EAT NOCALORIE CAKE.
"Should I try going to Skinnybitch?" Maddie asked with her mouth full. "You're so slim, Kaitlin, how do you do it?"
"OK, wait. Wait just a cottonpickin' minute. In the antiparasite war waged by multicellulars against bugs, sex creates human culture and intelligence, which then tries to subvert and overturn sex. Right?"
Even if it gets difficult to follow, at times, though, it does mean that Sullivan gives good teenager. One strand of the novel belongs to Korean-American Sun, a pitch-perfect blend of smart and smart-aleck, bravado and self-consciousness. Like all the best fictional teenagers, she’s essentially the much quicker-witted version of you at that age, all melodramatic-ironic pretend nihilism ("In disaster movies I'm always rooting for the tidal wave" sounds like something I wish I’d said) and feeling overshadowed by the inevitable much prettier/funnier/cleverer/weirder best friend [delete as applicable according to the circles you moved in…].
In Sun’s case, the best friend is flighty but well-meaning Suk Hee, a girl who even manages to make teen sullenness look pretty (rather brilliantly, when we first see her she’s sporting "a fetching scowl"). Suk Hee is "just beautiful, end of story", and Sullivan is insightful on the traces of admiration and envy woven Sun’s devotion to her friend, without ever letting the friendship tip over into the parasitical self-esteem killer of, say, Jennifer's Body. "I want to stand next to her as if it will somehow rub off", confesses Sun, and immediately we’re being invited to share the constant sense of measuring yourself against others, and through others’ eyes, that lies behind so much of being a teenager. But it is also made abundantly clear, throughout the novel, that the two girls care about each other a great deal. It proves to be a useful emotional hook, grounding the novel when everything else is going completely off the rails.
Because while Sun might look like a fairly ordinary teenage girl, sulking and snapping at her parents before heading out to the 'maul' with her friends Suk Hee and Keri of a Saturday afternoon, there’s something more than just chipped-black-nail-polish edgy about her:
After I leave I feel guilty because I used to be nice, or at least some of the time I was nice, or at least I wasn't the complete mean bastard at all time like lately; but the weight of my piece drags at my thigh and I know it's just nerves. Nerves. I'll be better once today's over.
Sun is pretty ordinary - except for that opening chapter, and then the part where she straps on her pink ammo belt ("It's heavy, but who said fashion was easy?") before leaving the house. She’s in a gang. Kind of. It mostly seems to revolve around rival fashion blogs, except that on this particular Saturday they come face to face across the make-up counter with the Bugaboos, "the crew that outclasses, outguns and outbra-sizes us". After a stand-off, said make-up counter erupts in a hail of bullets, complete with loving descriptions of perfume displays exploding in the prose equivalent of action film slow-mo. It’s incongruous and hilarious, at least up to the point where actual people start getting shot.
Well, okay, I confess; it’s still pretty funny even then. Just in a wrong way.
"I sujjest you get a plan and quick or they be nerve-gassing us out of here." She sniffed and resumed filming.
"That's not nerve gas, that's Joy," Keri said.
I hollered, "DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT GAS BECAUSE HITLER--"
Keri grabbed me and pulled me back down.
"Shut up!" she hissed, her brown eyes going all adult and bossy on me. "This is fucked. I'm starving, I've got a major chocolate craving, I have to study for a physics test, and this is no way to spend a Saturday. Let's just turn ourselves in before somebody gets hurt."
"Somebody did get hurt," I retorted. "Did you see that guy's body out there?"
What keeps it from becoming fetishistic or downright traumatising is, as here, Maul’s irreverence: that delight in non-sequitur, the Buffy-esque commitment to expressing emotional seriousness through essentially ironic dialogue, and the use of irony and seriousness alike to completely upend the mood of a scene, mirroring the see-sawing emotional states of the protagonists. The passage above is a fine example. We get a repeated bathetic puncturing of tension - the ominous idea of nerve-gas is shown up as melodramatic silliness in the face of another snarky joke about cosmetics; Keri losing her temper with Sun’s wisecracks becomes an endearingly prosaic and childish list of complaints - before Sullivan delivers a punch all the more effective for the banality of the short speech that just proceeded it. This is not just a game; they cannot make the effects of their actions go away when they’re tired of playing.
Unless it is, and they can. Because it might – or might not - be all a simulation happening in the head of a character from the second strand of the novel. This part is set in a near-future in which most men have died from Y-chromosome specific plague(s), and women preserve the remnant of the opposite sex as primped, pampered and patronised ‘breeders’. Breeders are young men who increase the market value of their sperm by perform cartoonishly exaggerated masculinity - body-building, daredevil stunts, training as firemen to rescue kittens from burning buildings - on TV and at special, sell-out arena events. (Again, funny in a wrong sort of way.)
Insofar as you can summarise anything about Maul, this part of the story is an exploration, let’s say, of the idea that, given half a technological chance, women will happily let men slide into obsolescence. Or actively encourage it. Because of course straight women don’t actually like men, they only use them to get the babies. As one (male) character puts it:
"[Women] can do everything we can do. Thanks to assassin bugs they can even protect themselves against other men, which was always our big selling point as, like, a gender. We need them more than they need us. And that's why we're reproducing through pigs and they've got a thriving market in vibrators. We screwed ourselves, Squeak. All that technology made an end to us."
I can't really think of any better way to describe the resultant society than perfectly ghastly. The distillation of relations between men and women to the purely biological - functional, exploitative - seems to have turned every character in this half of the novel into complete basket cases. The least odd is career research scientist Maddie (who reflects that she "worked with bugs […] because she didn't like people"), but when push comes to promise of sex and/or sperm, she's scratching and kicking on the floor with the loopiest of them. I have to say I did quite a lot of eye-rolling over the way all of the women go crazy for the cock, and in general I was much less absorbed and entertained by Maddie's story than I was by Sun's - but, with some distance, I can see Sullivan is making important, challenging points, in a parodic way.
Sheri S Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, mentioned in Sullivan's acknowledgements, is undoubtedly being interrogated here, with its gender-segregated society and secret women-led programme to selectively breed the violence out of mankind. It's been about fifteen years since I read The Gate to Women’s Country, but looking back it seems to me that Tepper portrays women's impending victory in the sex wars as rather more Pyrrhic than is sometimes acknowledged. "There’s no fucking in Hades" is bittersweet at best; more regretful than triumphal, I think.
Nonetheless, Sullivan drags women's separatism out of the middle-class academic earnestness of Women's Country, and slams it up against a window onto the selfish middle-brow megalomania that we all secretly suspect would result:
"I think you'd like to detain him, take his sperm by force and use it to make... to make..."
"Say it, Maddie - go on. To make Chiefs. To make Boyz. Y-immune males, and they'll all have my genes. I'll be the new Eve."
Maddie hadn't gotten there yet, so when G-ma said it, she had to keep stroking the cat and trying not to laugh. Oh, fuck, was the only thing she could think.
Absolute power absolutely corrupts women, too; it’s not precisely a revelation, but rarely is it seen without coming across like an anti-feminist straw man. Because Maul also passionately critical – if still in a darkly humourous way – of the way toxic masculinity works at the expense of women's autonomy and safety ("I'm the little princess," reflects Sun, "They dominate, they aggress, they protect"), and the subtle but pervasive ways in which young women are trained to be compliant, to ignore their wants and needs for fear of seeming uppity or slutty and (horrors) scaring off that nice boy in their class. (As ever, the patriarchy hurts men, too: what could be more demeaning to men than women feeling they must coddle the fragile male ego by lying about their desires?)
One example is Sun's deeply disappointing sexual encounter with Alex, which she describes as "like a root canal". He is ecstatically "oblivious" – and, post-coital, predictably fluffy ("This is the most awesome day of my life") – while she, fearing to enhance an existing reputation as a slut, can’t bring herself to tell him that he’s, er, significantly less good at stimulating her than her own gun. Instead, she chooses to absent herself:
I just wanted it to be over. As Alex carried on enjoying himself I scanned the shelves, looking for something to focus my attention on.
But then, for all the examination of the gender divide, and the girls with guns turning shoppers into literal fashion victims, in many ways Maul is about experiences common to both boys and girls at Sun’s age. Sex as anti-climax; crush objects turning out to be crushingly dull; the fear that growing up might mean less anger and joy and colour and fun, not more. For that matter, Sun's heartfelt cry - "But I look around at this shoebox of a reality that somebody forgot to cut air holes in and contemplate my future existence and how can I not lash the fuck out?" - has gained some extra urgency and resonance in the light of the recent student protest movement here in the UK.
Finally, there is the sense that, for better or for worse, change is inescapable. Prone as I am to losing myself in nostalgia - sometimes even for things that haven't actually ended yet - passages like this did get me:
You can't be sixteen forever. I've read all about this phenomenon and I'm ready for it. You adapt or you implode. You say haha and get on with it. It's a weird feeling to know this is going to happen to you, to know the ironic raised eyebrows and stifled giggles you share with your friends in the back of Chemistry class are a limited-time-only offer. They'll expire with the season, like bikinis in December unless you shop really upscale where they cater to the cruise market. This awareness is going to end.