Talia Taleh, Picnic with Patience (2021)
Follow Talia Taleh on Twitter here.
Nothing is more public than privacy. Or so, anyway, argued Lauren Berlant, a brilliant thinker of intimacy, gender and sex who sadly died in June of this year. In an essay co-written with Michael Warner, published in 1998 and called, appropriately enough, ‘Sex in Public’, they argued that our ideas about what ought to be public, and what ought to be private, have powerful political functions. To be reasonably brief about it, Berlant and Warner suggested that the divide between the public and private spheres is set up to normalise certain kinds of relationships, certain kinds of sex, certain kinds of sexuality; unsurprisingly, heterosexual, monogamous relationships are the winners, and queer relationships are the losers. ‘Although the intimate relations of private personhood appear to be the realm of sexuality itself,’ they argue, ‘intimacy is itself publicly mediated, in several senses.’ They responded to wave after wave of American puritanism which, through movements like Save Our Children and the Moral Majority, sought aggressively to regulate public discussion, indeed acknowledgement, of sex, culminating at the time with laws introduced in the 1990s with the aim of shutting down or marginalising adult businesses, many of which catered disproportionally to queer people.
It’s a persuasive argument, when you think about it; the observations that Berlant and Warner offered can often feel no less true today. Think, for example, about ongoing debates the world over about kink at Pride, or about the latest tides of puritanism which have seen large multinationals place pressure on independent web platforms to cease providing adult services (notably with Tumblr in 2018, or more recently with OnlyFans this summer). In the UK there was Section 28 which, at a time when public fear of HIV was at its height, forbade schools and other public bodies from acknowledging that non-heterosexual sex even existed. Who can and can’t talk about sex, and where and when sex ought to be discussed, is a constantly vexed question.
Think, too, about the twin-pronged and frankly medieval approach favoured by the state of Texas: aggressive, punitive restriction of abortion on one hand (enforced with a tacit encouragement toward public vigilantism), and no mandated sex education at all on the other, with the legal proviso that any sex education schools do choose to offer must position sexual abstinence as its favoured method of contraception. It’s a grotesque upending of the constitutional right to privacy emphasised in Roe v. Wade: sex is so firmly banished to the private sphere that we’re only allowed to talk about it in order to encourage kids not to do it; bodies with wombs, on the other hand, are so manifestly public property that their friends and neighbors are conscripted to reinforce their proper reproductive use.
Orwell taught us that doublethink is characteristic of totalitarianism. Reproduction is good, we are told, the family unit is good, the ‘unborn child’ must be protected, but sex is bad. Do all those other things, but for God’s sake, nobody talk about how much fucking is necessary to do them. All this in a state whose sodomy laws were only struck down in the landmark case of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, and where it was illegal even for married heterosexual couples to have oral or anal sex in the privacy of their own homes until the 1970s. Since this is nothing if not a good time to lighten the mood, I can’t help but think of a certain bit in which Dave Chappelle asks a white friend whom he intends to vote for in an upcoming presidential election. ‘Woah!’ the friend replies. ‘What’s with all these personal questions? So anyway, I was fucking my wife in the ass last night, and…’
It might seem like I’m getting ahead of myself. Talia Taleh’s Picnic with Patience is not a queer story; nor is it ostensibly a particularly political or philosophical one. But it is one explicitly concerned, in all senses of those words, with sex in public, and which has some nuanced, incisive things to say about the public and the private spheres.
Jamie is a regular guy, which is to say his life is partitioned reasonably neatly into all the regular boxes. He has a working life, which is unremarkable even if it seems to work wonders for his confidence; we open on him writing an email, adding an attachment ‘in the vain hope that the idiot receiving it would have even a faint idea what he was supposed to do with it’.
(Any thoughts, incidentally, on why erotica so often opens on a normal workday, let me know; I know what I think the answer is, but we just don’t have time to head down that road today.)
Anyway, Jamie also has a personal life, a life full of friendship and intimacy, and for a while he struggles with keeping all these spheres separate, bantering unconvincingly with a colleague in the opening pages:
“You’re meeting Patience?” He asked, surprised, “Patience from Promotions?”
“Yep,” I replied, “Been seeing her for a couple of weeks now.”
“How the fuck did you do that? She’s fucking-” he made a sizzling noise and pretended to touch a hot fry pan.
Patience, then, is the object of simulated sizzlings and locker-room lewdness, and it’s no surprise that she is, from the outset, a little more aware of the stakes of the public-private divide. After all, she is Patience from Promotions; what she promotes, we can only speculate, but she’s clearly a little happier in a public-facing role.
Not surprisingly, this divide rather sets the terms of the intimacy that unfolds between Jamie and Patience, and it’s pleasingly acknowledged in the first couple of chapters. As young and horny lovers tend to do, the two send each other pictures in anticipation of their picnic date. But whereas Jamie accidentally reveals a portion of his midriff, seen in the mirror of a literal locker room as he changes into more picnic-appropriate clothes, Patience responds with something more daring, lifting the hem of her sundress to photograph the reflection of her vulva in the darkened windows of a Brisbane office building. Jamie offers a glimpse of himself in a private setting; Patience superimposes a private part of herself on a public one.
What is quite remarkable about Picnic with Patience, whose title after all centres Patience from the outset as the protagonist, is the way her own insights are mediated through the eyes of Jamie who, while of course he becomes sexually involved with her, remains in many senses a peripheral narrator, a Watson to her Holmes, a Nick to her Gatsby. Because here’s the thing: Jamie’s not all that great a guy. And it’s not that he’s a bad person. He’s just, as Anglo-Australian culture can happily conclude without surrendering any affection, a bit of a cunt. In a relatively short story, we get to see him come to terms—to an extent—with some of his less savoury perspectives, often with quite amusing results.
As the longer excerpt above might seem to imply, Jamie buys, even if not wholeheartedly, into the kinds of easy stereotypes by which women’s sexuality creepingly becomes a question of public property. Sure, there’s the ribald office chatter about who is fucking whom. Then there are some slightly more jarring moments which colour Jamie’s anticipation of his time with Patience. ‘One of the things I liked about her,’ he muses, on his way to meet her, ‘was that she knew she was pretty but she wasn’t an arsehole about it. She definitely didn’t give off the vibes of a high maintenance girl.’ Because of course, he’s worried about just this: what if she acknowledges, just as Jamie so easily does, that a part of her value as a woman arises from her attractiveness? What if she expects something in compensation for it? Everyone harbours a secret hatred, as Ani DiFranco sang, for the prettiest girl in the room. No wonder Patience feels more comfortable out of doors.
It doesn’t end here, either. ‘I honestly don’t know,’ Jamie ponders a little later on, ‘if women have any idea how much their bodies fascinate men.’ Aside from the obvious—straight women, as well as straight men, do in fact know what it feels like to experience sexual desire—how could Patience not know? She clearly understands a lot better than Jamie does what it feels like to move through a world which constantly stakes claims to her body, her sexuality. And if she can offer a solution, or at least a way to mitigate it, this is to have it happen on her own terms:
“I’m a bit of an exhibitionist, although that’s not really the right word.”
I ran my hands up her waist, then slid them around her, delighting in the feel of the fine muscles of her back.
“So what’s the right word?”
She considered for a moment, “I like to take a few risks, I think.”
“You like sex in public?”
She shifted her hips, holding my eyes with her own as her bare pussy dragged itself over the material of my shorts.
“God yes,” she said. “I like doing it surrounded by people who have no idea what’s going on.”
This is to say that Patience has constructed a paradox of her own, hopefully a more productive version of any Orwellian doublethink. She enjoys sex in public because it’s the only way she can maintain some privacy; she enjoys sex in public because she doesn’t enjoy being seen. She knows she’ll be talked about, she knows she’ll be looked at; she knows that even if she fucks people in private, they’ll talk about her in public. This way, by contrast, she’s hidden in plain sight. The alternative is the darkened office-block window, the two-way mirror which symbolises the male gaze: in her everyday life, she’s used to seeing herself in the terms others choose to see her, and she can never know if there’s someone looking back at her, but she might as well always assume there is.
One of the many strengths of Picnic with Patience is that it doesn’t go out of its way to rehabilitate its narrator. It is, again, not that he’s such a bad guy in the grand scheme of things, but Patience walks him, well, patiently, through a series of realisations, even if he protests:
“But no, I don’t kiss and tell. It’s no one else’s business.”
She smiled, her eyes soft as she looked at me, “Well that’s why. That makes a difference to girls. You’re safe. You won’t fuck up people’s livelihoods if things don’t work out.”
“I’m not a panty waist!” I told her.
I’ll admit that I had to look up the term ‘panty waist’, which means a weak-willed or effeminate man (of course, those are the same thing); here, having been congratulated for practicing a bare minimum of human decency, Jamie can’t help but protest that his choice not to fuck up anyone’s livelihood doesn’t make him any less of a man. Most darkly amusing of all, though, is a moment following Jamie’s realisation that ‘I didn’t want everything to happen at light speed’, which comes in the penultimate chapter. ‘She fascinated me,’ he goes on to say, ‘I wanted to talk to her.’ Charitable, indeed, that it only takes him a couple of hours in a woman’s company to conclude that, yes, she’s worth having a conversation with.
So it’s a tone of cautious epiphany on which Picnic with Patience ends. We see Jamie ‘astounded that none of these people had the slightest idea that my world had just been turned upside down and shaken by the creature lying on top of me’, reasoning that surely there must have been some shock wave, some collective coming to awareness. And maybe it is the case that it’s only Jamie himself who’s been changed by the experience, but at least there’s room to think that the world itself, too, is in need of a turn upside down and a shake. Grabbing hold of our ideas of the public and private, and deliberately jumbling them up, is worth doing once in a while, even if it’s only a step toward a bigger change.
Patience, after all, is a virtue.