So, I am starting a new novel. The hardest part at the beginning is finding a good voice, the voice in which the story needs to be told. There will be starts and stops, lots of frustration. Probably a good dose of gut-wrenching terror, especially since this book wants to be in the first person which I find incredibly uncomfortable. But I don’t care if writing this whole damn thing feels like wearing an itchy sweater, as long as it works in the end.
Something else that is likely to be a challenge is that a lot of this book is going to be about scorching sexual chemistry. There was a bit of that in the last book and there will be more in this one. When sexy prose works, it is really really good. When it doesn’t, it is positively disastrous. Sex is possibly the hardest thing there is to write, one wrong word choice can render a steamy scene totally laughable. While polishing up the last book I had a whole exchange with my editor about the word “cunt.” She had concerns that it would be too jarring for some readers. I wrote back the following:
I kind of avoided naming female genitalia with circumlocutions like “inside her” and stuff like that, but eventually you just have to name the thing you’re talking about. “Vagina” is not hot, it’s too doctor’s office. “Pussy” has the disadvantage of being both too cute and too porny. I decided to go all out and use “cunt,” after all this is not a shy book. But I didn’t just throw it around willy nilly, I saved it for one or two special occasions.
The argument boiled down to: dude, sorry, but this is just a cunt kind of book. And the argument worked, because it was.
Now that I am back at square one with a new novel, I have to ask myself: is this one a cunt kind of book? The narrator is a very stark person, oftentimes unflinching. But she is also very young, and sex is in many ways her softest spot. Figuring out what language she would use, what she would say and not say, is going to tax my skills. Everything has to match up with who she is; the silences have to be just as telling as the graphic detail. At this point I still don’t know what word she would use to talk about her ladyflower (probably not “ladyflower” though), and if I had to guess I would say she herself would have a devil of a time choosing a word that fits her. Part of what I may have to portray with the text is her struggle to find words for an experience so powerful and puzzling, one that is both ineffable and thoroughly embodied. (This is part of the reason why I think first person may kick my ass: having the language still flow while also trying to render its troubles attempting to find a flow… Christ on a cracker, this is the sort of thing that may make me chicken back out into third person!)
One thing at a time though. Before I find out what words she would use to talk about making love, I have to find out what words she would use to talk about her morning commute, her cat, the dreams that wake her up in the middle of the night.
You first came to me one morning long ago, while I was working at the bank. Your voice simply announced, I am not a child of America, and suddenly I felt your presence in my body like a vaporous specter. You were standing where I was standing and performing the same mechanical tasks I was performing but you were not me. You were superimposed over me, like a drawing of a girl overlaying a drawing of a slightly different girl. When I was granted my lunch break I went upstairs into an empty office where I knew there was an abandoned typewriter and spilled out a paragraph or two of your voice.
That year I was the same age as my students are now. That year I fell disastrously in love for the first time. You had a different name then.
You liked to let him paint your face. You liked the feel of the plush brush against your skin; you liked the expectation in his eyes. You laid out your lipsticks for him in a neat row and asked, “what color do you want my mouth?” He picked a plum shade which would shortly be smeared all over him. You didn’t know why it made him hard for you to do this, yet you felt the blood rise to your cheeks to meet the powder blush he was applying there. Pink on pink, impossible to tell the real arousal apart from the cosmetic mimicking it.
When he lined your eyes, your lids didn’t even quiver. Not because you trusted him not to hurt you with the pencil–his hand was, after all, trembling slightly–but because a hurt inflicted by his hand was the best hurt of all.
You came to me again some years later. I wrote a whole novel about you that time. Unfortunately, it was no good. At least, you met him then, the man who liked to paint your face. And you gave me your name, Irina. When I saw how closely it mirrored my own, I laughed, and thought, all right, we’ll go with that then.
My last protagonist, Louise, made mischief with the impish glee one might expect. You are strange; you make mischief with something like grim determination. It must be some kind of Eastern European thing. Whenever I ask you why you do anything, you say, why not? What else is there to do? and I have, of course, nothing to answer.
You are a violinist playing chamber music on the sinking Titanic. You are a thief who steals even when what he pockets has no value. You are a man who still neatly parts his hair and cleans his fingernails on the morning he is to be executed. You are a futile gesture of humanity in the face of oblivion.
I watched this rather fascinating documentary on the French channel in my cable package called Le Crazy s’enflamme about the Parisian cabaret Le Crazy Horse. It featured the process of putting together one of their artsy nudey shows, from the auditions for new dancers to the finished product. The rigors these girls went through were amazing, from the relentless rehearsals to the necessary sacrifice of personal relationships. It made me wonder why these women dedicated themselves to their dancing to the detriment of all else, almost the way nuns marry Jesus. Why go through all of this just to become a disposable piece of unrecognizable ass to be discarded at the first signs of aging?
There was a bit of background on the cabaret, how it came about during France’s mid 20th century explosion of love for all things American. The founder was Alain Bernardin, and he was of course banging a great number of his dancers. He looked a bit like the French Hugh Hefner. If there is a single visual that thoroughly embodies the patriarchy, it would be a jolly-faced older man enjoying a parade of gorgeous young duplicate women, an undifferentiated mass of nubile female flesh without end. The individual female can’t stay long in the spotlight; the moment a laugh line or ass dimple shows up on her, she disappears. So why would an individual female subject herself to this treatment?
In the case of Hugh Hefner’s mansion show ponies, the answers present themselves easily: a shot at fame, a comfortable life, money. For the girls at the Crazy Horse the motivation is less obvious. They do not get paid much (following one home, we got to see her modest apartment in the banlieue), and they will not be famous. The whole point of the show is the multitude of perfect identical bodies, these girls do not get individual faces. Is it just that they want to be admired? But the audience is not admiring them, it is admiring an idea.
Perhaps it is the idea, then, that draws them. The mythos of the place, the artistry of the shows, what it means to be one of the bodies that form The Body. At some point in their formative years they saw in the cabaret a picture they wanted to be in, like a boy who sees a line of upright men in tidy uniforms and wants to be in the army when he grows up. The singular desire to embody an idea drives them through the strain of their daily grind. Certainly, they are artists. But the simile I used two sentences ago highlights the fluidity of what the word “artist” means–are soldiers, too, artists?
Some images, for they are indeed quite lovely: