Patricia Ray, Queen Without Clothes and Other Steamy Stories (2021)
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What does it mean to be human, and what is modern society all about? I make no apology for the scale of the questions, since the last year and a half has given us an enormous prompt for thinking and hopefully rethinking our answers. One potential response comes from the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who offers an intriguing take, at least, on when modern humanity became, well, modern:
Since the times became new in the precise sense, being-in-the-world has meant having to cling to the earth’s crust and praying to gravity—beyond any womb or shell. It cannot be mere coincidence: since the 1490s, those Europeans who sensed what had to be done have built and examined ball-shaped images of earth, globes, like possessed members of some undefined cult, as if the sight of these fetishes was to console them for the fact that they would exist for all eternity on a ball, but no longer inside a ball. (Bubbles: Spheres Volume 1)
Apparently it’s all about the Copernican revolution. Until then, Sloterdijk suggests, humans had a nice, safe, organised sense of being on the inside of something bigger than themselves. A geocentric universe placed Earth, and us, at the centre of a series of spheres, all neatly expanding outward until we reached the largest one, the universe itself, beyond which there was nothing. Now, forever more, we’re forced to see ourselves as clinging to the outside of a sphere, an insignificant ball of rock hurtling through an abyss. All of our efforts since then, all our big global projects, our systems of thought, are just attempts to build artificial spheres in which we can safely enclose ourselves. ‘Now that God’s shimmering bubbles, the celestial domes, have burst,’ Sloterdijk continues, ‘who could have the power to create prosthetic husks around those who have been exposed?’
The Covid pandemic, too, might have burst a few of our bubbles regarding what life is like, but maybe it doesn’t have to be as meta as all of this. As humans we love to talk about getting away from things, about making an escape, about throwing off our figurative shackles. So much of the vocabulary we have to talk about freedom, it seems, works in just this way. I need to get away from it all. I’m getting cabin fever. I want to break free. Get out more.
For some, the pandemic has highlighted just this. We don’t respond well to confinement, which turns us into pale imitations of our true selves: in our natural state, we are predisposed to piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. But others, meanwhile, have felt guilty to say that they’ve rather enjoyed being ‘stuck’ at home. Sometimes we need a space whose margins we’ve very sure of. Sometimes we choose to exercise our freedom by staying in bed just a little bit longer, by throwing a blanket over ourselves to watch a movie, by taking a needlessly contemplative shower. Jane Eyre likes to enclose herself behind the heavy curtains of the window seat to read a book undisturbed. Cassandra Mortmain does all her best writing sitting in the sink. And with all his cloaks and narrow passages, secret chambers and ornately hung four-posters, uninhabited buildings and, yes, girls’ toilet cubicles, Harry Potter spends half his life trying to replicate the conditions of the cupboard under the stairs.
Patricia Ray’s short story collection Queen Without Clothes is unusually alive to just this paradox of being human. To be human is to want to escape; it’s just that often, what we really want is to escape into a tiny little box of our own. And while the collection is heavily influenced by life under Covid-19, inspired as several authors have been to consider what the pandemic might be doing and have done to our collective understanding of sex and relationships, it often seems to have a bigger point to make about how freedom, erotic and otherwise, relates to how we think of ourselves in spaces and places.
Take, for example, the story ‘Zoom Me, Baby’, whose implications regarding pandemic life are clear enough from the title. The story’s narrator is, it’s fair to say, feeling the strain of lockdown, reflecting that ‘I felt like I was close to succumbing to cabin fever after being snowed in for weeks’, latter adding that ‘I feel like a Dickensian widow cooped up in a cobwebbed castle.’ And yet, there’s just as clear a sense that Cass, the speaker, fears being cast adrift—being thrown outside something—in the same way as Sloterdijk draws attention to:
If it hadn’t been for the agency, the work and the people there, I’d probably have spun into a cycle of manic depression, like my mother often would. A chaotic maelstrom of low self- esteem, a loathsome view of the world, and ecstatic energy, alternating, spiralling me into an abyss.
That is, being violently unmoored—the maelstrom, the abyss—is just as scary as being attached, and the ideal escape from one kind of confinement happens to be an escape into a different one: the structures and rigours of work are, in fact, a saving grace. And when she and her boss embark on what Cass is happy to call a ‘Zoom affair’, it seems that part of the appeal—as the scene climaxes with him ejaculating on his laptop camera—is that sex is kept in a neat little box, just as a prior affair between the two begun with a realisation in an elevator. Keeping the world of sex small, framed neatly in a picture on a screen ‘like a snapshot in a holiday album’ is oddly empowering, turning sex into a thing we can grasp and understand and master. It’s just that the other part of the appeal, of course, is that Jonathan and Cass might someday break out of these confines.
It’s far from the only example of this kind of paradox, or this kind of relationship. ‘I felt trapped in my own house,’ the titular character of ‘Godiva Genovese’ confesses. ‘Images of the plague haunted me. I really thought I would go crazy if I wasn’t able to get out soon and breathe[…]I needed to get out somehow.’ This comes shortly after her long-range lover confesses that, as a habitual consumer of porn, ‘I felt guilty and ashamed. I considered myself as someone who is always lurking in the dark.’ Which kind of desire, then, is going to win? The desire to get out, or the desire to be confined? It can’t be both, and yet it can, in a sense; Covid has forced us to think about what kinds of relationships we consider to be ‘real’, what kinds of possibilities there are for sex to be something we experience remotely, or something we experience alone, or something we experience through the screens of laptops and tablets and phones.
One of George’s favourite content creators, before the Tumblr adult content ban pushes sex to the margins, is named ‘Cubicle Cutie’. But there are, in fact, a number of Cubicle Cuties in Queen Without Clothes since, when in-person sex does occur—and it often does, even while the collection has a lot to say about online relationships—it takes place strikingly often in a confined space. There are Cass and Jonathan, who learn that they cannot resist each other when they’re together in an elevator. There’s Mady of ‘Mady’s Countdown’, whose fantasy of ‘being taken by Asmita in the toilet’ turns out to come true. There’s Stella, instructed to strip naked in a fitting room which turns out not to contain in full her desire for the designer Leyla; later, she admits that ‘today I seduced an intern in the broom closet at work.’ And in the final story, ‘Vicky’s Neighbour’, Vicky masturbates in her apartment’s bathroom before, later, triumphantly leaving ‘the tower in which she’d been cooped up for far too long.’ Is the appeal of secretive, remote relationships to be found in the way they emulate open, real-world ones? Or is it the other way around?
The question then, or one of them, is to ask what the pandemic mentality has done to change sex. On the one hand, it could be that it’s merely revealed things that have long been true: sex is something tacitly shameful, it’s something that ought to be kept locked up in its rightful place, and when we can only have sex remotely, we’re only seeing a visual representation of these facts in the words and sounds and bodies emanating from our devices. It’s a pale imitation of a thing, a representation of a thing it’s sort of shameful to represent. On the other, it could be said that Covid-19 has necessarily led us to broaden our definition of what sex is. Why should ‘sex’ refer merely to bodies, usually two of them, squeezed together in a small space? Why does sex have to be a thing that happens in a designated physical space, usually behind a closed door? Sex can be something that happens between people thousands of miles apart; it can be something that happens through a device, through a medium, or between the pages of a book.
‘Once inside a book, any book,’ Cary Howie’s book Claustrophilia begins, ‘it’s impossible to emerge from it absolutely intact, to be outside it in quite the same way as before.’ We don’t just enter into stories; stories themselves enter into us. Something similar is true of our sexual imaginations, our fantasies and our desires: they don’t just happen inside us; we also happen inside them. And this, if I can be so bold, is why erotica, as a space in which to imagine anew what sex can be and ought to be, is important: because while there’s no limit to what we can imagine, what we can imagine will end up limiting us.