176 pgs/ $18.95 CAD
I struggled for a long time with this review.Â MaidenheadÂ has been well-received in reviews across the internet, but my personal response was murky, confused. My copy is dog-eared and when I touch it seems to trigger flashbacks of puzzlement and revulsion and interest and anger. It’s that sort of book, not one that will sit calmly on the shelf, glowing with read-ness.
The story is of the sexual awakening of a teenage girl, Myra, of her obsession with a Tanzanian musician Elijah who she encountered on holiday in Key West and who follows her up to Canada in the company of Gayl, his sick, voyeuristic lover. The details of the first, twisted days trigger Myra’s Â plunge into sexual frustration and ferocity, of her awareness of her virginity like a dam that needs demolishing with Elijah-dynamite.
“‘Tomorrow. Saturday. Day of action.’ Elijah smiled. His jaw was like a sculpture. His white turban stood. ‘You come and I’ll fuck your tight pussy all night.’
Blood pounded so hard through my body, pumping and crooked like wires of light. I was going to scream his name when I was coming. I wanted my hands tied behind my back. Just like those sucked and slapped girls in my video clips. They always had to look the men in the eyes when they were coming. The guys wanted to see how much they were destroying them with their big hard cocks like hammers and pipes. It was amazing, that look in the girls’ eyes, rabid eyes, glossy, pleasding, unnameable eyes, like the loved being tortured and pounded and kept.
‘You’ll be there, yeah?’
I was breathless. Elijah walked away. I held my virginity up in my fist.
Desire and promise. SuspendedÂ fulfillment. Yes, I understand this. But the idea of performative sexuality, of sex-for-male-gaze, sex as desirable violence, degradation, violent acting, suspended selfhood not purely for the fulfillment of desire but to let men see they are destroying – that for me, was difficult to take. This feminist response – and I would say here of course there are more than one responses to this book which could be labelled feminist – is addressed in the novel by Lee, and older, rebellious and smart girl who befriends Myra:
“This is what I think,’ Lee said. Then she waited for silence, until a buzzing sound stopped. ‘Girls are completely naturally receptive. Someone so receptive is easy to be silenced. I mean, our openness can get fucking crushed.’
‘You know what occured to me?’
‘Birds don’t chirp at night.’
‘Fuck, man. You’ve got to speak up with guys, Myra. It’s frustrating. You’re allowed to speak up, you know. Fucking five it to them.’
I wasn’t tough like Lee was. I wasn’t as blunt or susinct. Being stoned with her in the ravine made me feel shy but poetic., like I could light a match inside myself and see what it was that I even wanted to ask for.
‘I was willing in that motel room, you know. I was open like a book.’
‘Yeah?’ Lee seemed impressed for a moment. ‘Well, I think some of us are even more open than that.’
I knew what she was talking about. Lee and Wils were best friends and lovers. From the little I’d seen, their relationship seemed really open, like they could tell each other anything. It wasn’t like how I’d seen Jen with her boyfriends, coy and always scheming. The problem for me was that I didn’t want Aaron. I wanted Elijah. I wanted to be pissed on. I wanted to enact all my porn.
I’d be more open than a book too. My spine would crack, I’d fall out in halves.
I can’t say whether I agree that girls are naturally anything, but the character here is speaking something that resonates a little.Â Far more often in reading characters spoke and acted in ways that were alien to my experience of reality that it was hard not to peer over my glasses (that I never wear, but you know what I mean) and pucker my mouth and raise eyebrows too.Â And I did not want to have that attitude, which the book does not deserve. Â MaidenheadÂ is provocative, thanks Â to its subject. It engages with theory and framing of sex and does this with an unblinking scouring attention, but the sexuality in it is posed as outward looking. AsÂ enactingÂ porn. As a form of hollowing out. As a form of slavery that freed.
One idea in the novel Â that is explored in ways I’d particularly like help fathoming is the notion of the master-slave dialectic, of slavery as a form of freedom. I have only the haziest awareness of the theory in this area. Myra herself struggles to write an essay on the subject, taking in her experiences at a Key West museum on slavery and her reading of her mother’s book on the ‘Comfort Women’, those Korean girls and women stolen and raped by Japanese soldiers during World War Two. The phrase ‘You can be raped a thousand times and still be a virgin’ echoes Â through these passages. And I, in my ignorance of Heigel’s theory, or Bataille or Weil, struggle to see how it is relevant. The calling voices of Gayl and Lee, who insert themselves into the text at various points to comment, are not sufficient for me, though I found their presence stabilising and brilliant. A whole book of female dialogues like this, in their abrasive, contradicting style would be incredible.
So it was that, with too flimsy a context, too little reading done or some fault on the part of the author, I am not sure, I struggled with the morality of parts of the book. Of using the abuses of slavery as metaphor to describe the sexual awakenings of a middle class teenager. Â Slavery is involuntary. It is horror. I am not sure of the age of consent in Canada, but in the UK it is 16, and Myra is 17. She consents. She submits. She cannot, by voluntary submission, make herself a slave.
What complexities are Myra engaging with – I could only read her teenage theorising, her passionate deliberate throwing of herself into sexuality, into what she and those around her deem taboo and excess. All important, to see displayed in contemporary fiction that sort of desire and self-formation of girlhood.
But I want to understand why Myra uses slavery as metaphor. But what is transgression? Is it enough to say I am transgressing, as a woman, in ways that are traditionally pleasing to men, for that to be considered rebellious and for such a metaphor to be justifiable?Â What is Berger is doing with her positioning of Elijah, a black African man in the role of ‘degrader’ of a white girl. I don’t feel I can engage on my own. I don’t understand the workings of race politics and third wave feminism enough. I read all the way through, and while Myra’s hunger is not my hunger, was not my girlhood, I can understand its messiness, its spine-crackedness. But I feel my throat tighten. My fingers buzz.
I want more references. I want externality in order to position my position towards this book. It is an important text, though one that triggers revolt. I think about girlhood in the internet age. I readÂ Marie Calloway. I read Kate Zambreno,Â Roxane Gay,Â Kate Durbin’s Women as objects Tumblr, the excellentÂ Derica, who reblogs and comments on the intersections of race and literature and feminism.
But what I’d really like? That would be to sit around a table with these women, with Berger herself. With former and current sex workers, and advocates for women’s rights. WithÂ women who have been sexually enslavedÂ and who want and need their voices to be heard. I’d like a huge, sprawling conversation in an open space. Â To treatÂ MaidenheadÂ as the centre point of a spider’s web, as a platform for leaping off into a void, aÂ cacophony of opinion and contrasting literatures and discomfort and abjection and repulsion and morality, a writhing pit of ideas. That’s what I crave, my fiercest desire.
Helen McClory was raised in both rural and urban Scotland. She has lived in Sydney and New York City and is currently to be found in the South Side of Edinburgh overlooking a prehistoric cliff face. The manuscript of her first novel KILEA won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: http://schietree.wordpress.com/