What do Women Want?

Context N°11

by Mary E. Papke

“Great Great Grandmother Olga Janovitch drew like an angel. She painted brilliant, radical paintings, unpacking the space in a painted room from the center of the picture outward like a Persian miniature, deep yet flat, several years before Matisse made the art world aware of that strategy as a fresh pictorial possibility. However, in one of the tragedies of the unjust world, Olga was not permitted to enter into the reciprocal conversation which is part both of the investigatory and the validation mechanisms of high culture. It is a story too familiar to need telling; as a woman she was consistently overlooked, and she slipped through the meshes.”

—Pamela Zoline


“Busy About the Tree of Life”


My argument is fairly straightforward and not particularly original: just as we work at reclaiming lost women writers of the nineteenth century, we must continually recover the tradition of postmodern women writers even as it is being invented. In a market in which even bestsellers are quickly remaindered and then tossed into the bin of oblivion, the work of experimental women writers is easily lost. Buy it when you see it, or it’s gone; write about it, or its very faint trace will be erased. Of course all experimental fiction faces this peril of instant forgetting, but it has especially been the case for postmodern women’s writing since the first text saw light. I remember, for instance, having a heated debate (oh, let’s just call it an out and out argument) in the very early 1980s with a professor of postmodern literature over why he included absolutely no women writers in his course readings, his presentations, his everyday conversations, probably even his dreams. His answer—there weren’t any real postmodern women writers (and what an interesting gesture toward authenticity that was for a pomo man). Early critics of the field seemed to back him up or, at least, were busy erecting a high pomo canon—Barth, Barthelme, the Big Boys—on the foundation of the low sub-canon composed of the new realists, the new historical novelists, the new fantasists&mndash;that is, women revising old models to incorporate a woman’s view. Women just weren’t invested in creating a highly self-reflective, aesthetically demanding fiction, I was told again and again. Yes, yes, there were flashes here and there of late modernism. Toni Morrison was certainly doing something with the novel, and Kathy Acker loomed on the horizon (and she would eventually take up the one space allotted for a high pomo woman), but postmodernism as we know it at its best was just not a site for women’s work. I’ll admit that I knew almost nothing about women’s experimental writing then and so had no snappy comebacks, no persuasive counterargument, no parallel tradition to smash up against that already marking the territory of the postmodern as taken. But I’ve since recovered.

I might begin with salutatory gestures toward some of those late modernist tours de force such as Leonora Carrington’s The Stone Door, Christine Brooke-Rose’s Out, Such, or Between, or Marguerite Young’s opaque epic Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, but I’ll turn tout suite to the late-1960s stories of Pamela Zoline, stories that, unfortunately for the long run required of canonical figures, were highly praised on their first appearance in print but left uncollected until the late 1980s, at the end of which decade Zoline returned to fiction after working in various art forms and, concertedly, for radical humanist projects in her Telluride community. Thomas M. Disch’s introduction to the 1988 collection situates the early 1960s Zoline in the New Wave Science Fiction movement then emerging in London, and he praises her as the equal of J. G. Ballard, in fact going him one better in creating, as she does in “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967), “the most technically accomplished and humane mosaic fiction produced by the New Wave. A Ballard story for human beings.” Despite the accolades, Disch’s categorization of Zoline probably did her no favors. Postmodernism, as we’ve also been told repeatedly, interrogates and deconstructs generic stabilities; it addresses genre types and narratives only to destroy them. Clearly, reading Zoline’s work as science fiction was to figure it, ironically, as radically contained and, hence, safe. It is not. For instance, “The Heat Death of the Universe,” her most well-known work, consists of fifty-four axioms/hypotheses, observations about the mundane existence of one woman/wife/mother and her world. That woman openly and covertly employs language (games) in a losing attempt at fighting off disorder and absurdity. Zoline’s deployment of scientific discourse unsettles profoundly the (female) realist narrative and in cahoots with quotidian chaos assaults any temporary stays against confusion the protagonist invents. Western civilization as we know it chokes and weeps. One sees a similarly purposeful disruption of space/time/matter continuums in Zoline’s 1969 “The Holland of the Mind,” another fragmented account of a faltering ordering of familial relationships. The home is scarcely a haven in a heartless world, and you can’t take it with you in any case. As Zoline will later write in her outright and amusing attack on Western generics, her 1981 “Sheep,” it is of absolute urgency that we wrest the right textual paradigms from all those on display, ones that foreground the need for global community and moral responsibility to others, as well as offering to us sweet, sweet pleasure. Should we fail in this necessary transvaluation of all values, in what she describes in “Busy About the Tree of Life” (1988) as the creation of “the narrative of a postmodernist, full of emblems and insistently pluralist,” we will invite catastrophe to do its worst to us. For Zoline, we are all children of calamity and woe if we live “without a myth sufficiently pluralist to save us.”

Where will we find such a myth? Certainly not in the old family romance, Zoline repeatedly insists, most hauntingly in her simulacra-filled “Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire” (1985), the central action of which is the kidnapping and forced exchange of children between warring states. Here the hope for any sort of salvation depends upon radical reconceptualization of natural bonds. Another postmodernist who investigates in perhaps more playful fashion the possibilities occasioned by such absolute loss of natural ties is Ursule Molinaro in her 1967 Green Lights are Blue: A Pornosophic Novel, long out of print. In the novel, a man’s mother dies; he returns home for her burial; he leaves that home once more, no longer now a son, his “last root . . . cut.” Somewhat paradoxically, his desire and that of everyone close to him—his aunt, his wife, even his parrot—is suddenly unleashed and then exposed. In nineteen fragmented chapters riddled with ellipses, the novel limns the discrete and sometimes discomforting spectrum of desire awakened by intimations of mortality. The title refers to the “fact” that green traffic lights are really blue: nothing is what it seems even if it seems transparent; everything, even beauty, must die; and the fragility of natural and voluntary bonds is evident in the smallest of gestures. Each chapter captures the consciousness of a player in this family romance, including that of Mondrian the parrot (“I was an only egg”), each mind a reflecting pool for the larger psycho-drama, each a witness—at times a voyeurmdash;of the narcissistic self-regard in which some are trapped and in which others (that parrot!) delight. An anti-novel recalling to us Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, Molinaro’s work is a highly sophisticated psychological maze through which we wander (Chapters 1-9) only to be led back (Chapters 9 to 1) to zero (Chapter 0), to the egg, again. “It might be a mistake to turn backward,” Mondrian warns, “to dig up one’s roots. Which might turn out to be unbearable when bared.” We must but at the same time cannot go home again, but even in the face of primal loss, there is the consolation of being sensually alive. While Molinaro is (perhaps) better known for her numerous translations and for her “women’s” texts—such as The Autobiography of Cassandra, Princess and Prophetess; A Full Moon of Women; Power Dreamers: The Jocasta Complex—her early experiments merit rediscovery and careful consideration as part of the making of postmodern fiction.

Whereas Molinaro offers in Green Lights a multiplicity of antiphonal voices, the British postmodernist Ann Quin’s Tripticks (1972) also offers a journey into consciousness—here sub-, un-, as well as waking, and now relentlessly that of one American man. This highly disturbing and graphically dark novel, complete with notational illustrations by Carol Annand, seems both strangely all surface, littered with the detritus of the American mythos, and the deepest of interiors, a vivisection of a mind exposing once more the “hardwire files that reached into every family; eager pegs waiting to be plugged into some 1,500 holes.” Quin’s four short novels, like those of many “foreign” experimentalists, remain largely unread in the United States, victims, in part, of Quin’s intense and demanding originality, the lack of sustained critical attention to her work, and her (too) early death (some believe suicide). As one critic has said of Marguerite Young’s epic, readers simply did not have the critical and imaginative vocabulary necessary for its appreciation. So, too, did Quin seem to be writing texts for a time and audience other than her own. Further, whereas Molinaro allows us some purchase on interiority by constructing various reflecting if self-centered consciousnesses, a hall of mental mirrors, perhaps, but one in which the reader can take up different positions, Quin refuses clarity, conflating impression, action, fantasy, and reflection into one long rant. There is no escape from the utterly intimate, transgressively violent mental intercourse of her male protagonist. Tripticks is all voice, that of a singular (yet simultaneously multiple) persona engorged with American culture who vomits it out in one long androcentric erotic nightmare that defies interpretation and easy categorization. Her work is, then, despite its surface similarities to the anti-novel, sui generis. It’s the road novel through the travails and demands of an extended “family”—three wives, an evil step-father, domineering in-laws, split selves—one individual’s personal hell, “part love story part lecture in existential psychoanalysis and part rumination on the frayed boot-straps of mankind.” Recalling Zoline’s early work, Quin elaborates a “closed system to which everyone but the dreamer has a key. Like a spiral staircase set with mirrors. He ascends by units of pain, glimpsing pieces of himself until he comes to a landing of incomprehension.” The protagonist believes his role is to be “provocative rather than profound,” “to sting minds” compromised by the blandishments of “ads, texts, psalms, from those who had attempted to persuade me into their systems.” The protagonist’s monologue concludes abruptly in silence, but the ongoing interrogation of “canons of construction” demanded by this “hero” nevertheless gives the text’s refusal of certain ways of meaning its revolutionary flavor.

Lest I give the impression that only early works suffer from the shortness of critical memory, let us look briefly at a more recent work. Gabrielle Burton’s Heartbreak Hotel, originally published in 1986, too quickly tossed into the oblivion bin but in 1999 rescued by Dalkey Archive, might profitably be read beside her 1972 I’m Running Away From Home, But I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street: A Primer of Women’s Liberation, the latter written for those who missed the first wave of modern feminism and in celebration of “the cooperative essence of the Movement itself—women working together to grope toward new ideas and expressions and then generously and eagerly sharing them with other women.” Heartbreak Hotel is set in an alternate Buffalo, New York, in which women have taken over twenty blocks to stage the Museum of the Revolution, an ever growing exhibition of all of women’s experience, complete with a name-calling room, a Hall of Fashion, a library of girls’ heretofore untold stories, an Up Your Ess (as in authoress) Room, and a Waiting Room in which some women spend the majority of their time. We learn of the museum through seven of its “living exhibits,” seven women of markedly different types ranging from the ex-nun curator to the hunchbacked surd who spends the entire novel in a coma. The women, on leave from their duties in the Museum, must fight off an all-out assault by the City Fathers, led by Richard A. Dick, on their home and their vocations. Additionally, they must continually rehearse the psychodrama of being female; as one character reflects, “our sexual [and gender] nature is at the heart of us: our wounds are coming from the same source as our power.” The politics are recognizably those from Burton’s Primer—the need to raise consciousness not only of the individual but also of the city-state—much the same overarching theme of the other books discussed but here couched insistently in feminist terms. The novel is at various times a romp, a roar, and a scream (and take that descriptor every which way). While the characters are discreetly constructed, the most naive of readers will early on suspect that Burton has transfigured one American woman into seven singular personae, each alternately dwarfed and empowered by her particular history and expertise. It’s an interesting take on pluralism. Unlike Quin, Burton offers the dreamer the key to the quest in the six-page frame, but it is the almost 300 pages of litanies, rituals, memorials, and curses all centered on women’s sacral and profane experience that is the meat of the book. Look in it through the past to see a future for women as well as one compelling primer of women’s postmodern fiction. Pity that it’s Burton’s only novel, but you can check out her latest work as scriptwriter for the independent Five Sisters Productions, a company which comprises her five daughters who direct, produce, edit, and act in films aimed at mainstream distribution, the most recent of which is Manna From Heaven.

But just as there are feminisms, there are endless variants of women’s postmodern fiction. I should have liked to celebrate Angela Carter’s early work, particularly The Passion of New Eve (1977, out of print) and her most seductive The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1980), Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (1977), Theresa Cha’s Dictée (1982), Helena Parente Cunha’s Woman Between Mirrors (1983, out of print), Christine Brooke-Rose’s Textermination (1991), and the utterly bewildering and haunting stories in The Embroidered Shoes (1999, out of print) by Can Xue, the author’s pen name tellingly the words for the “tenacious, dirty snow that refuses to melt.” All of these women, they just won’t go away. What do these women want? A hearing, an audience, a place at the table would be a good place to start. It’s your great loss if you refuse to savor their tasty offerings, the chance to delight in new delectations. So pass the Consciousness II Chutney, please, and be careful not to choke on the little green snake. Come and feast, and then we will talk again. I promise we will have subjects enough for a strikingly new reciprocal conversation.

Selected List of Works Mentioned

Christine Brooke-Rose, The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four Novels: Out, Such, Between, Thru. Caracanet Press, $19.95.
Gabrielle Burton, Heartbreak Hotel. Dalkey Archive Press, $13.50.
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Penguin, $11.95.
Leonora Carrington, The Stone Door. Out of Print.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée. University of California Press, $15.95.
Helena Parente Cunha, Woman Between Mirrors. Out of Print.
Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star. New Directions, $8.95.
Ursule Molinaro, Green Lights are Blue: A Pornosophic Novel. Out of Print.
Ann Quin, Tripticks. Dalkey Archive Press, $14.95.
Can Xue, The Embroidered Shoes. Out of Print.
Marguerite Young, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Dalkey Archive Press, vol. 1: $15.00; vol. 2: $15.00.
Pamela Zoline, The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories. McPherson & Company, $12.00.

← Return to index

Comments are closed.