Sex and death: two timeless and oft-coupled themes that can be traced back even to the earliest Sumerian literature. Think of the epic tale of Gilgamesh, his quest for eternal life, the death of his best friend, his irrepressible sexual desire which of course leads to a downfall. Sex and death: powerful imperatives of our existence that have been explored countless times and yet always seem abundant. Perhaps the most intriguing mystery to explore of all is why these two processes seem intrinsically linked, why, as Laurence Fishburne’s Marion Bishop remarks in Assault On Precinct 13 (2005): ‘The Greeks called it Eros and Thanatos’.
Sex&Death, edited by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall, is a collection of short stories around these two colossal themes. Unfortunately, while the stories in this collection are for the most part well crafted, the majority fail to deliver much in the way of revelation or catharsis, or even to really shed much light on the realities of sex and death. Then again, it was an ambitious and portentous undertaking to say the least, so the bravado of the editors and writers is to be admired.
‘In each story, there is no consolation or answer to be found, other than looking into the bare mirror of ourselves, the phenomenology of our shared and varied fates, the beauty of simply saying, ah, yes, here we are, or there we were’ (p.2).
This quotation from the foreword by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall epitomizes the issues with Sex&Death. The editors present the idea that meaning, or ‘answers’, are an unfashionable or undesirable quality in a story, when in fact, we all know at the most basic, basic level that we all crave meaning, and look to stories to give our lives meaning and make sense of everything. What can be interpreted from the Joycean statement: ‘the beauty of simply saying, ah, yes, here we are’? That there is nothing deeper than to merely be conscious and aware? That existence is truly just that: existential? I must say that I find this kind of post-modern sentiment rather empty.
The stories, with one or two notable exceptions, all seem to present a form of this philosophy, the plots (when there is plot) merely a feeble device to facilitate discussion of a sociological or political message rather than really getting to the heart of human feeling on the subjects of sex and death. With two such emotive themes, I expected to be riveted and moved, to experience heart-ache, arousal, grief. Instead, the stories for the most part are academic, perfunctorily telling a tale simply so the author can deliver their premeditated social commentaries. At times these commentaries are fairly devastating, such as in ‘The Postcard’ (Wells Tower) in which we are treated to a daring and brilliant exposition of what 9/11 has done to the consciousness of America: ‘For you, this is your drawing of Muhammad. This is the sacred thing of America no one is allowed to touch.’ (p.77). The comparison is genius, but, the impact of such a statement is lost amidst turgid and directionless storytelling.
Many of these stories left me merely frustrated as they avoided a true climax or even any kind of resolution. Perhaps the most prominent example of a story that fails to end satisfactorily is Alan Warner’s ‘Porto Baso Scale Modellers’. This story started so well, telling a compelling narrative about a group of overweight, male, middle-aged miniatures painters (whom I could instantly relate to from my Warhammer days), whose world is turned upside down when a super-model-attractive beauty-parlor worker called Josephine joins their group. Josephine quickly demonstrates she is one of the most creative and talented modelers out there – a fact which frustrates and hypnotizes her male colleagues. The three men undergo a transformation: losing weight, dressing smartly, sharing their skills with each other rather than competing. Josephine is a fascinating character, the dialogue is spot on, and the story is engrossing as it is oddball. Josephine’s relationship with the men deepens: she reveals she used to be a drug and sex addict and miniatures painting is the only thing which stops her going back on the lash. The commentary on addiction and craft here is exceptional and insightful.
Disaster strikes when one of the men presents her with a gift: a limited edition wooden model which is notoriously hard to construct. Josephine can’t complete the model, loses it and goes off back to the island where she used to engage in her sex-orgies. Heroically, the three men decide to go after her and bring her back. At this point, I was ecstatic, the story had me gripped an electrified. I anticipated a humorous and thoughtful re-telling of an Orpheus narrative. The three ‘heroes’ rent a jet-ski and start out to the island. Halfway there the jet-ski runs out of fuel and they are stranded on the dark waters.
Then the story ends.
Yes, you read that correctly. All of a sudden, within a paragraph, the story grinds to a halt and stops before they get to the island. It’s unthinkably disappointing and I can’t suppress the thought that there is not a literary justification for it. Instead, Alan Warner chickened out of ending his story. There were too many questions once they reached the island, too many difficulties, and the rescue attempt would be too difficult to execute successfully. So, he chickened and ends on a gag. If alternatively the story had ended with them setting off to save Josephine, that would have been different – that would have been leaving it to the reader’s imagination. It might still not have been 100% satisfying but it would have been more interesting and certainly more like an ending. Just stopping it blunt, however, midway through the rescue attempt feels like being short-changed. Had I been the editor, I would have politely asked the writer where the rest of the story is, because frankly, it isn’t finished.
There are other examples. Ali Smith’s final story ‘Metaphysical’ (even the title lacks any kind of indication of a plot) in the collection does not make any effort to synchronize its message with its narrative and so resembles two separate stories randomly shackled together. The stories have no plot relation to each other, and neither has an arc. In the first half, an old man wakes up in hospital bed, leaves the hospital at night and makes himself a cup of tea in someone’s home, then is returned to his hospital bed the next day by an ambulance. In the second half, a young man discovers a dead mouse in their home and it becomes infected with blue-bottle flies, which they then kill. The story ends on the image of the narrator killing fly after fly, day after day, which is symbolic of the toll of existence, people dying every day in droves, only, this kind of grand image has not been earned by any kind of narrative journey. Several stories attempt to use imagery in this way, reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s work in ‘Are These Actual Miles?’ where a car becomes symbolic of a deteriorating relationship between husband and wife. The difference is that Carver works his anchoring image into the story from the start, turning it into a developing motif.
‘The News of Her Death’ (Petina Gappah) and ‘Dr Pacific’ (Robert Drewe) both strive for this kind of powerful impact but fail to achieve it. In ‘The News of Her Death’, we follow the Pepukai as she gets her hair done in a special kind of braid, only, the hairdresser who used to do this, Kindness, is dead, shot by an ex-lover. The story focuses on the interaction between the three hairdressers, their customers and Pepukai (though Pepukai is often forgotten because the narrative becomes so absorbed in describing the hairdresser’s endless dialogue). The topic of discussion is frequently Kindness, her promiscuous life with many nefarious lovers, and her personality. We almost come to feel like we know the dead woman even though we only have had the ‘news’ of her death. At the end, once the braids are done, Pepukai leaves the shop and catches a plane. It concludes with her enjoying a meal and only eating ‘the most delicate slivers of apple’ (p.161). I wanted to feel something at the end, but I couldn’t. I didn’t care about Pepukai or get the sense Pepukai cared about the dead woman or even get a sense that the writer cared about either. The meaning of the imagery is so strained and unrewarding after 6,000 words plus of frequently repetitive and very taxing dialogue that it cannot but fall flat.
In ‘Dr Pacific’, a much shorter tale, an old woman walking along a beach laments her husband Don’s sudden death. The beach opens out onto the Pacific Ocean which she calls as Dr Pacific, anthropomorphizing it with moods and intent. She also thinks about how Russell, a sailor friend who used to flirt with her, died out at sea. She discovers a thigh bone on the beach, comes to believe the thigh bone belonged to her flirtatious friend, and feels a strange guilt at owning another man’s thigh bone when she doesn’t own anything of her husband’s body anymore. The story ends on her thinking of the thigh bone ‘shining’ in the water. The symbolism here is fairly obvious: the femur bone is white and phallic, representing a penis and a sexual encounter with Russell never fulfilled. What is mysterious is what we are expected to feel as readers. ‘Dr Pacific’ does not develop its protagonist other than to allow her the revelation that she once experienced sexual attraction to a man that wasn’t her husband (not particularly ground breaking). It does not have a plot (entire story is one character walking on a beach). It does not even make us really feel sad about the death of either of the two men or the protagonist’s coming death. Is this what the editors meant about ‘no answers’?
There were a couple of redeeming stories in this collection.
‘Visitation’ (Damon Galgut) conjured a vivid narrative about a loser good-for-nothing returning home to his father’s house after a series of failed jobs and one terrible accident he cannot bear thinking about. He meets a homeless man on the overnight train, they have a brief interaction. In the morning, the homeless man has died, and this sparks the protagonist to thinking about the accident, his life, where it’s all going. Later, at his father’s house, he has a strange meeting which offers him a kind of healing experience. It’s a simple but powerfully told tale. Though there are a few clichéd elements, it carries off a great atmosphere and delivers an ending which is satisfying and emotional.
‘Where Hast Though Been’, by Jon McGregor, at once told a compelling narrative and offered devastating insight into the grand themes of the collection; a startling piece that is at once literary, allusive, gripping and emotional. The narrator is likeable, three-dimensional and an intriguing way into this coming-of-age story that hides much deeper depths. The narrator cannot get laid, simply can’t, and as he stumbles through a surreal and fast-forward life, he gets increasingly desperate and unlikely. The main counterpoint to the protagonist is his ‘friend’ Godfrey, nicknamed ‘God’, a seven-foot-tall charismatic morbidly obese bearded party-animal shit-talker who yet, in rare moments, seems to offer up profound wisdom. As we go deeper into the story, we see, strangely, that Godfrey’s nickname is perhaps more than a joke; he truly does embody a modern Christ, a compelling leader and revolutionary who one day leaves the narrator’s life, as though at a calling, to go to Bethlehem and do rebuilding work.
‘Where Hast Though Been’ does reach a conclusion that is at once funny, moving and effortlessly integrates the religious re-telling and the modern story. It is a shame this masterpiece does not sit in better company.
Overall Sex&Death is intriguing and thought-provoking, but rarely emotive. This is an academic and no-doubt literary body of work, but not one that really resonates or induces that moment of revelation which is so key to a satisfying short. Stephen King once described himself unashamedly as the ‘fast food’ of the literary world, a pure straight and simple storyteller, and there’s something to be said for a story told that doesn’t try to be clever, that is told with power and conviction and nothing else; as much as I consider myself a little bit of an aesthete, and value the literary, the traditional and the formal, I’m coming to the realization I’ll take King’s fast food over ‘delicate slivers of apple’ most days of the week.
Sex & Death was published by Faber & Faber on 1st September 2016.
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Review by Joseph Sale
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