It was murder music, heat-and-sex music, and Nadia was leaping, whirling, sliding and tricking her way through those thousands of frozen Roman candle lights. She never once missed the heartbeat. Wherever she was, at whatever speed, that footspike came down dead on the beat, every time, over and over. I could hardly breathe.
In her characteristically insightful Afterword to Nicola Griffith's short fiction chapbook, With Her Body (2004), L. Timmel Duchamp notes that the three stories collected here portray "an exclusively female sexual economy". Both sexual desire and sexual agency rest entirely with Griffith's female characters; all the meaningful relationships (whether platonic or, more frequently, romantic) are between women. The effect is initially disconcerting, and it was only reading Duchamp's comments that helped me to pinpoint why: it was because the focus wasn't where I expected it to be, where I had been subconsciously trained to expect it. In a world where most visual stories - and quite a few found in books - don't even pass the Bechdel Test, reading tales that are wholly and unapologetically about women's desire, and in which women's desire for other women is taken as a given rather than as a deviation to be preceded by agonised soul-searching, certainly made for a few double takes.
But it was also enormously refreshing. In this, it has much in common with the other volumes I've read in the Conversation Pieces series from Aqueduct Press, some of which I've written about before (see here, here and here); not all are overtly feminist, but all start with the assumption that women are human beings with inner lives and agency, and work outwards.
As it happens, the opener, 'Touching Fire' (1993; available online here), is probably the least satisfying of the trio; while neither Kate, the narrator, nor her sometime lover Nadia do any angsting about whether or not they like girls, there is nonetheless a great deal of processing, and that hoary old lesbian cliche, true love blossoming within days of a first meeting. Still, there's a lot to enjoy before we get to the inevitable melodrama of the if-you-love-them-set-them-free ending. The fact that Nadia's dances-with-lasers performances are so dangerous they have been known to set buildings on fire is a fun touch, and there is a real poignancy to her gilded cage existence. Above all, the story soars when it looks at the transformative nature of physicality and lust. Kate's world-weary narration is our way in:
She was small, asian-dark, her dusty black hair cut in spikes and not an ounce of fat on her, but not frail, definitely not frail.
I had to ask her to move her feet so I could get the mop under the table.
"My name's Nadia," she said, "and I'm a National Treasure."
"Right," I said, because the customer always is.
It makes for a perfect contrast, though, with the sensuousness of the language she uses, increasingly, to describe Nadia ("she slid out of her chair like she was made of oiled snake, not woman, and left"). When Nadia dances, Kate's otherwise detached narration gets visceral: even watching a recording, she finds she is "crushing the remote control in my hands, bruising my palms", and is left "coughing up sobs from deep places I never even knew I had".
In 'Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese' (1991; available online here), poignancy is the dominant note, but again there is a tug-of-war within the narrator, Molly, between willed distance from the world and (re)learning to live in it. The setting is an evocative post-apocalyptic dustbowl American south, with humankind is dying a slow death from what appears to be a form of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome:
I sat by the side of the road in the afternoon sun and watched the cranefly struggle. A breeze, hot and heavy as a tired dog's breath, coated the web and fly with dust. I shaded my eyes and squinted down the road. Empty. As usual. It was almost two years since I'd seen anything but Jud's truck on Peachtree.
Like last month, and the month before that, and the third day of every month since I'd been out here alone, I squashed the fear that maybe this time he wouldn't come. But he always did come, rolling up in the cloud of dust he'd collected on the twenty mile drive from Atlanta.
I turned my attention back to the fly. It kept right on struggling. I wondered how it felt, fighting something that didn't resist but just drained the life from it. It would take a long time to die. Like humankind.
Despite the narrator's self-imposed isolation - following the death of her partner, Helen, some years before - and that whole impending extinction thing, this is an intriguingly optimistic apocalypse. Perhaps it is simply that, in a world where the sheer exhaustion of giving birth is a regular killer, people lack the energy to be cruel to each other, but there is a strong sense that the crisis and trauma of the time has brought people closer together. Lacking individual strength, the survivors have been forced to help each other out more:
There's something about the human race: as it slowly died, those that were left became more needy of each other. It seemed that we all became a little kinder, too. Everyone pulled inward, to the big cities where there was food, and power, and sewage systems. [...]
The deaths have been slow and inevitable enough that those of us who are still here have been able to train ourselves to do whatever it takes to stay alive. It wasn't so hard to keep things going: when the population is so small, it's surprising how many occupations become redundant. Insurance clerks now work in the power stations; company executives check sewage lines; police officers drive threshing machines. No one works more than four hours a day; we don't have the strength. None of us shows any signs of recovering. None but the most foolish still believe we will.
The story is essentially a study in mourning and recovery; Molly spends much of the narrative in a state of carefully controlled dislocation, describing her actions in the most bald terms ("My arms and hips ached. I ran a hot bath and soaked for a while, until I got too hot, then went back to bed where I lay on my back and did chi kung breathing. It helped. The song of bullfrogs steadied into a ratchety rhythm. I slept"). She avoids emotional editorialising about anything but her continually reiterated desire to be left alone. She rejects what she sees as the empty hope of struggling to survive ("I saw no reason why we should struggle, just for the sake of struggling, when it would do no good. I am not a cranefly"), and lives only with her memories:
I woke up briefly in the middle of the night to the soft sound of rain and eerie chorus of bullfrogs. Even after two years I still slept curled up on one side of the bed; I still woke expecting to see her silhouette.
Gradually, both we and she come to realise that this retreat is also an avoidance of responsibility; Molly is an immunologist, and the memory of her inability to find a cure and thus save Helen has mutated into a fear of letting others down. The climactic outburst of overdue emotion, the necessary cleansing before Molly can truly let Helen go, and move on, is not the best piece of writing by Griffith - there's quite a bit of pounding on the ground and screaming "Why?!" - but Molly's overall trajectory from withdrawal back into life is sensitively and convincingly drawn. The repetition, at the end, of the line "I am not a cranefly" transmutes the sentiment from one of defeat to one of hope, as Molly finally comes to recognise the value of human community once more: "If I personally could not finish the research I intended, then those who came after me would", she notes; "If I struggled and failed, that was not the end."
Finally, 'Yaguara' (1994) goes for all-out, infectious sensuality in a vividly humid Central American jungle. The broad outline of the story is fairly clear from the opening lines; uber-straight-laced Jane Holford, we're told, became a photographer in order to "keep herself armored, inviolate, safe", "neither subject nor object but invulnerable observer". She is sent to Belize to photograph the Mayan glyphs at the site of an on-going excavation. Omnious climate abounds ("Wind, sly as a great cat’s breath, stole from banak to ironwood to Santa Maria pine, stirring hot perfumes"). Could it be that the "poised, unhurried, competent" lady will unravel, out in the wild?
Jane stumbled over a hidden tree limb. She fell to one knee, her nose seven inches from a log over which Azteca ants marched in an endless, silent line. And it was as if she had been looking at the world through a camera and had only just found the right focus. Everywhere she looked life leapt out at her: huge black carpenter bees buzzing around red melastoma flowers the size of roses; a leaf-frog, gaudy and red-eyed, peering from the depths of a sapodilla; the flicker of a geckos tail. And there were millipedes and rove beetles, silverfish and wood lice, and spiders spinning their silent webs to catch them. The air was luxuriant with rot, like the breath of a carnivore.
She stood up feeling hot and hunted and hemmed in. A snake slithered in the undergrowth. Her heart began to thump like a kettledrum. She licked salt from her lips, wondered how many different eyes were watching her from behind tree trunks or under leaves. A twig snapped under a heavy paw.
(Appropriately, I'm writing this review on a very humid day, albeit only by UK standards...)
She does, of course, but not in quite the way I expected; I refer you back to my introductory comments.
Jane's sole companion at the excavation is Cleis Fernandez, an archaeologist, and it swiftly becomes clear that Jane's much-prized privacy will not be an option; the two women must share a single corrugated iron shack ("Two bunks. No room into which she could retreat and close the door") with an all-too-public toilet. Worse still, Cleis makes (gasp!) assumptions about Jane, which Jane rejects irritably - within her own head:
"Especially mosquitoes. They carry botfly eggs and things out of your worst nightmares." Cleis had no idea about her nightmares, Jane thought.
Naturally - and with perhaps a shade too much exoticisation of the landscape (and by implication the people; although we meet only one local) - there are supernatural forces to be unleashed, namely the jaguar spirit of the story's title.
Just as in the other two stories, Jane's immersion in the world and her escalating attraction to Cleis is echoed in the increased awareness of her physicality; from the closed-off woman of the beginning, creeping carefully through the undergrowth in an effort to avoid being touched, Jane comes to be grazed and sweaty and present, feeling every thorn and leaf, and even the wall against her shoulders as she sits in the shack. "For the first time she was unclothed and not covered with a sheet", we're told, and it really does feel like a landmark; "She lay naked to the world, as an offering."
When Cleis, feverish one evening, cries out "The jungle is a siren", Jane silently agrees and drinks rum to keep herself from hearing it. There's a claustrophobic Heart of Darkness madness to the whole thing, and it comes as a relief to reader and characters alike when Cleis and Jane finally succumb to their mutual attraction. Heady stuff.