Till she came we were all just one big happy family. The summer laid itself like a lover's sweat over the rooms where we laid on our beds, Szzummer, Szzzummer, went the bright busy bluebottles in our rooms, Connor rooting Sweetness on her old pungent mattress, me in my nice tidy room relaxing with my collection of knives and sea-shells.
Then she had to come.
I first heard about Jane Gaskell's Somerset Maugham Award-winning A Sweet, Sweet Summer (1969) at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2010. China Miéville - some of whose work we've reviewed in the past here at Alexandria – was a Guest Director that year, and at one of his panels, in a response to a question (okay, my question) about great science fiction written by women, he singled out Gaskell’s novel for praise. Having never heard of Gaskell before, and with the SF Mistressworks project in mind, I resolved to track a copy down.
I’m very glad I did. It’s an odd, spiky, clever little book about people ill-at-ease in their own skin and inclined to take out their insecurities on those around them - one well represented by its cover, which features a sneering young woman brandishing a broken bottle. It took me a little while to settle into the voice, largely because of the narrator - the aptly-named Rat - who in many ways resembles the Dunning-Kruger Effect in human form. He is smarter than he self-presents to the world, but not nearly as smart as he privately believes himself to be. Reading the novel is often, necessarily, an exercise in reading between his savage and sometimes stupid - and sometimes arch - lines. What at first seems like clumsy writing in places gradually resolves into a vector of characterisation, and other sides to the story emerge from under his view of things.
He offers us a crabbed, stunted sort of narration, deliberately (as he eventually confesses, in a brief moment of introspection) constraining his language choices and his range of emotional notes: he writes run-on sentences with minimal punctuation, messes up his prepositions, verbs nouns and adjectives, uses ungrammatical phrasings like "could of" and "should of", and above all tries to avoid nuance and thoughtfulness at all costs:
Now I shall tell the real reason I hate Frijja. I haven't put this in this book before. I don't know really why I am writing this book. It disturbs me to write it. It is a sort of scratching of itches I thought I had deadened and made to rot away through neglect a right time ago.
She started me off on it. She has me picking through the old old feelings again and I am starting up that kind of perceptiveness I thought I had threw out along with the other old rubbish.
I see things with my ribs as well as my brain now. I mean, I can feel a quiver in my bowel when I see a patch of blue petrol spilt on a wet road. [...] And then along comes the right word, a nasty senseless habit that should have gone out with the garbage, along with all the things that clutter and soggy your life, and sugar and sticky and freshen it up, and make you waste time and nervous energy and make a fool of yourself over things that don't farther any ends, only pull us backwards in the race. You find yourself thinking That was not the blue of denim, like a summer sky is, nor the blue of an Admiral's eyes like a summer sea, it was the blue of mouldy gorgonzola.
Rat is anxious to avoid this sort of thing because he sees it as a signal of weakness, something that potentially undermines his masculinity. He has carefully developed a blustering, bullying and bully-appeasing persona, both as a survival mechanism and because he thrives on it. He runs a boarding house/(very tiny) brothel in the seedy, precarious underbelly of a future Britain that is half-cowering, half-bemused by an alien occupation that is barely-understood, and frankly rather Dadaist (at one point the aliens conduct a public execution of Ringo Starr to cast the populace into despair):
Meanwhile, the huge A craft just hung there casting 1000 foot of shadow across each of the big cities, over the Woolworthses and Dolcises and babies out in their prams for an airing. People rush under them when the rain starts so municipal authorities have erected seats and slot-machine arcades under them and charge you for using them.
This backdrop is cursory, but it is so because Rat's notion of what is going on consists of anecdotes like this, plus a few shaky theories that mostly pivot around his conviction that certain groups of people ("turban-wearers", for example) are doing suspiciously well out of the New Alien Order. He is inordinately proud of said theories, which he expounds at length to (female) audiences that he can count on to be impressed. ("Sweetness gazed at me in awe, as I hoped Frijja noticed. I use syntax when I discuss things. I can discuss like a public-bar pro.")
Rat is, indeed, a performer, and one who performs in strikingly different ways depending on whether he is with men or with women; in mixed company, he plays primarily to the men, manifestly seeing them as higher status. Around women - like the two workers at his makeshift 'brothel', more dependent residents whose bodies are offered up as protection money to the local gang of thugs, than prostitutes per se - he flits back and forth, between being ostentatiously solicitous and lashing out to reassure himself that there are at least some people below him in the social hierarchy. When his favourite girl, Sweetness - the infantilised name is a give-away, I think - witnesses his humiliation at the hands of the gang, and attempts to console him, he promptly gives her a dressing down (accusing her of being a drain on his resources, and so on) to exorcise his own feelings of inadequacy. Bludgeoning her, verbally, with the fact of his power over her physically calms him: "I felt better", he tells us, "when I noted her cringe. I stopped my shaking."
Later, we get a more direct statement of this dynamic:
If she's hurt, though I hate her, I'll go and mother her. I like helping hurt things, the more hurt the better. It's worth hurting them yourself just to enjoy soothing them after, in fact that's best of all, because they're so trembly and distrustful and heart-wounded, and they take a long time to understand you're really going to cuddle them and make them feel better again now at last.
At which point, he concludes, you destroy that new trust by hurting them again.
Where Rat comes unstuck is with his cousin, Frijja, the woman referred to in such ominous tones in the passage quoted at the head of this post. Frijja is a punk avant la lettre, forthright and uncompromising and aggressive; she's a striking creation who dominates the novel, despite all Rat's efforts to cast her in the worst possible light. She upends Rat's sense of the world because she - much like Rat himself - does not fit into the neat gender binary he imagines. Whereas Sweetness "is all delicious, brown and rosy and smelling of her correct function" (he means, of course, sex), Frijja has short cropped hair, "such cold eyes" and "cheekbones sticking out like a haunted cat's". I love that last, vivid phrase: Rat can't resist the power of his imagination all the time, and here I can't help but feel that his sense of anxiety and inferiority around his cousin is coming through subconsciously - even a haunted cat could take down a rat, presumably.
Above all, Frijja is gender-ambiguous, something that - coupled with her aggression (also an attribute 'wrong' for her gender) and her capability, all of which earns her Rat's hatred - enables her to face down an attempt by the local thugs to take over the boarding house brothel:
I realised they reckoned she was a boy. She is so slight, like a wisp after the slow time in hospital being patched together, and there's nothing female about her crop, with the scars still plain under it where her skull was chopped. Her face is not exactly boyish, but it's not a girl's face just yet either, all eyes and bones and pallor, and she looks like she's a sickly kid its mother never expected to live, except for the capable tough matter-of-fact efficient-knuckled thin hands on the 'gun'.
Said 'gun', incidentally - an improvised projectile weapon - gives Gaskell the chance to indulge in some strikingly phallic imagery for Frijja's one-woman defence:
And there, on the landing below, was Frijja my cousin in her shirt and jeans, her cropped hair fluffing with electricity as she handled the bazooka or whatever you could call it on its small stand, the used magazine jerking out in a gorgeous solid stream of security at her knees.
Rat, meanwhile, gets the feminine-gendered actions and language in the confrontation. Although he puts himself between Sweetness and the invading gang, he does so from the upper floor, making sure he stays well clear of the stairwell where he might be visible. There is perhaps even an element of self-awareness in the way he describes his one contribution to the proceedings: "'Put those guns away, they might go off,' I scolded intrepidly, still master of my household." The gender-clashing juxtaposition of 'scold' (something women are assumed to do, not men) and 'master', the peevish, pleading tone of his half-arsed attempt to stop the fight, and above all the wonderfully absurdist 'intrepidly' gives a strong flavour of irony, although whether this is supposed to be a conscious choice on Rat's part, or Gaskell's way of undermining him, is a matter of interpretation.
Around men, Rat is cringingly deferential. Of the group of thugs who spend much of their time at his sort-of brothel - and do, at length, stage a successful invasion - he reflects, "I started off keeping in with them once long ago". Although they treat him with contempt and abuse, he hovers around them obsessively, entreating them to stay even while he is privately wishing they would leave, and egging them on whenever they select a weaker target than him for bullying. But his fixation on the ringleader, Connor, goes beyond simply self-preservatory appeasement: "I am excited by the idea of Connor," he tells us, "the brute and unpredictable unmarked clay, difficult and dangerous to touch." He fantasises that he is useful to Connor - "his right-hand man I am, his point-maker, a loyal creature" - and someone who, being smarter, can give voice to things Connor does not properly understand about himself and his intentions. He imagines that he can use Connor, subtly using him to take down people he cannot reach or threaten on his own.
It goes further than even this, however. Although Rat explicitly insists that he is "not queer for Connor", he admits that it is Connor he's thinking about as he writes ("Who am I writing this book for? Connor will never read it"), and he finds Connor's violent dominance both terrifying and a turn-on. The same behaviour that he deplores in Frijja, because it places her outside the category of 'woman' (or rather "girl", with the obvious subordinate power dynamic that entails), is something he watches with open-mouthed fascination when Connor does it. After one incident, he notes, half-defensive, half-matter-of-fact:
I had to rush away and masturbate after, but do you know it wasn't that I enjoyed it. My nerves was so terribly jangled by it, I wasn't right for days after.
In particular - and what makes me think Gaskell has not simply portrayed a stereotypically bitter, unloved gay character, but rather a young man deeply fucked up by confusion over his gendered place in the world - Rat enjoys watching Connor dominate women. His apparent jealousy of Connor's (unwelcomed) attraction to Frijja ("I don't want her to get him, that's all. Why not? Because she don't want him. Because she don't deserve him. She don't understand him") may indicate he's in deep self-denial about the queerness of his feelings for Connor, but I think it's also about gender performance. Rat longs for the absolute, unquestioned masculinity he believes he sees in Connor whenever Connor interacts with - that is, threatens and degrades - women.
Connor is, let's say, not the healthiest of role models - his habits include wanking over unsuspecting women sitting in front of him in cinemas - but the thought of Frijja influencing him with her entirely unsubmissive femininity fills Rat with horror. "'You must save him from my cousin, Sweetness. She's dangerous'", he says, after Connor's gang have physically manhandled Frijja into Connor's room, Connor has repeatedly overridden Frijja's clearly-expressed boundaries and wishes, and the door has been shut on the two of them with Connor wrenching her away from the window and threatening to handcuff her to the bed (altogether, a very well staged and deeply disturbing sequence). It's not completely clear whether Connor rapes Frijja: he flatly denies it, ridiculing Frijja's account of events to the extent that Frijja herself comes to doubt her own recollection, although this closely resembles a classic tactic of abuse and so cannot, I think, be taken at face value. Rat, for his part, is surprised by the denial, and his description of his reaction is revealing: "I don't know am I disappointed. Or more magnetised than before." He was excited by the idea that Connor might have raped Frijja, because he longs for Frijja to be reminded of her proper place; she is
not like a proper girl who is fit for one thing and glad of it, her scorn of that function (and of me and you who she was made for and she won't admit it and looks at you and me her masters with coldness)
Above all, he is worried that she outshines and emasculates both him and Connor, turning their own desire into a weapon against them and demonstrating at every step that power is not something inherent in men, accruing to them simply by virtue of their maleness: power is also something that can be seized, and can be lost. At any sign that Frijja might be defeated, Rat exults: "Now she would be ordinary. She would no longer be a trap of steel and diamonds. She would lose her height and her glitter, and be much less than ordinary." He is an unbearable little shit, and also a fascinating, complex, pitiable figure; overall, this is an impressive piece of work.~~Nic