A Zoom of one’s own

Patricia Ray, Queen Without Clothes and Other Steamy Stories (2021)

Follow Patricia Ray on Twitter here.

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.

Queen Without Clothes is available to buy now. Review submissions are currently closed, but you can keep up with the latest news here.

Sweet, sweet fantasy, baby

Lacey Cross, Emily’s Secret Dom (2021)

Follow Lacey Cross on Twitter here.

Does anyone remember Second Life? Unfortunately I’m old enough—just about—to remember when the idea of virtual lives started becoming mainstream. And it was, for some people, a pretty scary time, one in which you could be sure of optimism and alarmism in equal measures. There were urban myths, doubtless grounded in reality, of arguments and fights and lovers’ quarrels that spilled from the virtual into the real: online affairs put an end to real-life marriages, and online feuds gave rise to real-life murders. Most lavishly reported of all—somebody, please, think of the children—were the stories of parents, so immersed in their Second Lives, that their real-world children starved to death just down the hall.

Some of it has started to feel impossibly quaint. Needless to say, most people back then weren’t so seduced by their online lives that they forgot all about their real ones. Humans are pretty good at understanding the difference between a real life and a virtual life when the virtual one is conducted through a blocky avatar. Besides, nowadays there’s a much more dangerous slippage at play between the lives we lead online and the ones we lead offline. The allure of Instagram, TikTok and Twitter isn’t that they provide some escape from our real lives, granting us a space to pursue whatever we want to be instead. They tell us that what we can control is how we represent the real life: they make us see what’s ‘real’ in a new way, gradually overlaying a new perception of reality onto a pre-existing one. The representation isn’t an alternative to the real: it steadily supersedes the real.

It’s not surprising, I don’t think, that there was always some hint of salaciousness about these stories. People getting so involved with what we used to call ‘cyber-sex’ that they forget that real-world sex has real-world consequences. ‘When a human dates an artificial mate, then there is no purpose, only enjoyment. And that leads to…tragedy.’ And forget the obvious—that it doesn’t take long for any new technology to be turned into sex—because it’s too mundane. We all know there are only two real drivers of technological innovation in the first place. One of them is killing people. The other is sex.

‘Phones with cameras on them?’ people were actually, seriously saying when I was an adolescent. ‘That’ll never catch on.’ Just imagine a time when you bought a new phone because the old one stopped working, rather than because you’ve had it with the logistical difficulties of trying to photograph your breasts with a rear-facing camera. ‘It may seem odd,’ as the article I just quoted has it, ‘that anyone would want to look at porn on a handheld-computer, much less on a mobile phone [Interpolation: when did you last own a computer you couldn’t hold in your hand?], but both the sex industry and mobile-phone firms believe that third-generation handsets represent the biggest-ever opportunity to sell sex.’ And we’ve had two more generations since then! Goodness, that’s a lot of sex.

It begs another question. Is technology changing how we have sex? Or is technology changing while how we have sex stays roughly the same?

I suppose there are two schools of thought on this. The first holds that sex has always been basically as it is now; we’ve always desired each other in roughly the same ways, always wanted to do roughly the same things with each other, even if some of them haven’t always been possible, or have been met on occasion with social ostracism.

The other holds that what we call ‘sex’ is just a social and historical construct, always subject to change and fashion and power, and that what passes for sex might change so radically between eras or generations as to be unrecognisable. Sure, your grandparents had a thing called sex, even if they didn’t say it out loud. But they would, thankfully, be mystified if they saw you trying to come up with a new and creative way to spell out ‘I eat ass’ with emojis. You’ll have to make up your own mind about this. Take a look at Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality and get back to me with your findings.

Emily—of Emily’s Secret Dom—is a protagonist who is happy to admit that she’s let her fantasies get out of hand, and her online life has had a big part to play in the process. Stuck in an unsatisfactory marriage, finding her crafty hobbies don’t make enough of a dent in the real world, she disappears into more lavish, more imaginary settings. ‘To pass the time,’ she says, ‘several years ago I started playing an online multiplayer fantasy game, and I hate to admit it, but I’m obsessed with it.’ It’s a pleasingly meta move, too, that a MMORPG is Emily’s ticket to a fantasy world, since in our present moment, ‘fantasy’ doesn’t just refer to the process whereby we imagine that life might be different. It’s also a product, a genre of entertainment which—with its magic and mythical beings, far-flung worlds and alternate histories—relies for its appeal on how unlike real life it is.

But Emily’s Secret Dom is mindful of the fact, too, that fantasies don’t necessarily have to be, well, fantastic. We also fantasise about extremely mundane things. And, given that Emily spends so much time inhabiting a world of fantasies which are explicitly sexual, it’s an amusing touch that the story opens with quite the opposite:

I’m a sweaty mess and I’m daydreaming about the cool mist of our showerhead and wishing I was under it right now. Instead, I’m in reverse cowgirl riding my husband, Nate, and staring at the wall opposite the bed, wondering how much longer he’s going to take.

It’s a profound reminder that some of our most compelling sexual fantasies—our most arousing, even—are those in which we’re not having sex at all. It’s just that few of us would admit it. People are fond of asking questions like ‘what’s your most taboo fantasy?’, but most of us wouldn’t say outright that the answer is ‘one in which I’m having less sex.’ If indeed that’s what Emily’s getting at: I have to imagine that ‘cool mist’ isn’t the only setting that showerhead has.

Throwaway joke as it may be, there’s a lot of self-pleasure in Emily’s Secret Dom, and it often seems like there’s a point being made about the hierarchy between sex and masturbation, at the same time as the one about fantasy and reality. They say (alright, Seth MacFarlane said) that when Donald Trump fucks a supermodel, he closes his eyes and imagines he’s jerking off. But where exactly is the joke there? Who decided that it has to be the other way around? In the midst of her miserable sex life with her husband, Emily still quietly protests to herself that ‘I really needed the physical connection of a shared orgasm with him tonight, but our sex life is less than stellar, so deep down I knew I was asking too much.’ Maybe she’s right about that last part; she certainly seems a lot happier when she sneaks from the room to masturbate, even if she does enlist the digital help of a third party in doing so. And perhaps her mind is still a little full of the vocabulary of her online fantasy game when, later on, she muses that ‘I want to spear my fingers inside my wet hole’, but far be it from me to fault her for that.

Apparently this is just the way it is. Partnered pleasure is better than solo pleasure. The real is better than the imaginary. But Emily’s Secret Dom compels that we take a more nuanced view of how fantasies actually work. The common-sense view—that a fantasy is a stand-in for reality, that it provides a simulation which, in an ideal world, would become real—doesn’t work particularly well when we live in a world that has fantasy pretty much everywhere. And there’s no compelling reason why it should be this way anyway, no good reason why we have to regard fantasy as a pale imitation of reality. For some of us, it’s the other way around; we fear, as Emily might, that the real world is never going to live up to our fantasies. Besides, don’t a lot of us have fantasies which we never intend to become real? More than that, fantasies which we actually hope won’t become real, because we suspect we wouldn’t like them too much if they did?

And so Emily pursues an online relationship alongside her real-world one: increasingly, she can think only of Aiden, the titular ‘secret dom’. She prefers to masturbate to thoughts of him rather than pursue sex within the confines of her marriage. And all the while, her husband, Nate, unbeknownst to Emily, watches the development of her affair, ‘masturbating daily’ to thoughts of the Emily he fantasises, fantasising about Aiden. Maybe Emily really would like, some day, to have her physical body replace the pixels of the online avatar she guides through a series of instructions from Aiden. But while Emily’s Secret Dom, which is the first part in a series, culminates on the ecstatic note of Emily and Nate having sex while Emily resolves finally to meet Aiden in real life, you have to wonder if it can possibly live up to the fantasy.

Emily’s Secret Dom is available to buy now. Review submissions are currently closed, but you can keep up with the latest news here.

The Public is Political

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.

Picnic with Patience is available to buy now. Review submissions are currently closed, but you can keep up with the latest news here.

The Seoul of the Matter

Angelique Migliore, One Night in Seoul (2020, Tirgearr Publishing)

Find more from Angelique Migliore here.

I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.

Simone de Beauvoir was likely only eighteen when she wrote these lines, although they were published much later in her Cahiers de jeunesse. Probably it’s pretty common, at that age, to be caught between the twin possibilities of self-aggrandisement and self-pity; being one of the most important existential philosophers of a generation likely doesn’t make it any easier. The striking part, for me, is the assertion that ‘no one knows me or loves me completely’. It might not be so surprising, when you’re eighteen, to feel that nobody else knows you or loves you; it’s more astute to realise that you probably don’t know or love yourself as well as you might, either. A few lines later—and this part is so much more rarely quoted—de Beauvoir adds ‘seule je vivrai, forte de ce que je sais être’; ‘alone I will live, strong in what I know how to be’. There is a certain sadness in it, I think, since what we know how to be isn’t always the same thing as what we would like to be.

They say it’s naïve to think you can change the ones you love, or to expect someone to change on your behalf. And it’s true, too. It’s just that the only thing more naïve than that is to expect someone you love not to change at all.

Stormy Smith, the heroine of Angelique Migliore’s One Night in Seoul, is someone who knows a thing or two about change. As a close-protection agent with a particular flair for babysitting ‘less-than-desirables’ in the interest of what’s described, near-euphemistically, as ‘balance’, she understands disguise and is used to inventing and reinventing new versions of herself; she has a great stock of outfits and wigs, fake IDs, makeup and hair dye, and has long since become used to remaining as unobtrusive as she can be in Seoul. ‘I…did my best to blend in,’ she says, ‘by coloring my hair and wearing large Audrey Hepburn sunglasses to hide my light gray, non-Asian eyes.’ Her penchant for wearing pink, we learn early on, is ‘the one constant she kept in her life.’

Jordan Black, Stormy’s latest quarry, is anything but unobtrusive. He’s a hacker with a private jet, a bounty on his head and a few too many anger issues. In a scene which is revealing in more ways than one, we’re practically introduced to him as he’s stripped naked on board his jet on the apron at Gimpo Airport:

She walked around behind me and lifted my arms out to my sides. “Any tattoos?” She gently moved my dreads away from my shoulders and unnecessarily raked her hands across my arms and down my back while she spoke.

So Jordan, from his dreadlocks down to his distinctive genital piercing, sticks out like a sore thumb, while Stormy is the consummate chameleon. And what might seem at first like a race against time to even the score—to apply, perhaps, a little of Stormy’s disguise savvy to Jordan—what in fact ensues is a much more deliberate process of breaking down identities in order that new ones can be formed.

Stormy and Jordan have a history together, having been friends and near-miss lovers during their military training back at home in the United States. And, in a version of a classic romance trope, they must feign a close romantic relationship in order to avoid the prying eyes of those who apparently want Jordan dead; naturally, the romance and the sex into which we’re dropped almost straight away begin, just as soon, to blur the lines between what is fictional and what is real. And it’s easy, when you’re forced together with an old flame, to want to regress, to look upon the past as an idyllic and prelapsarian time in both of your lives; needless to say, more often than not, this just leads to missing the wrong things—not only the person our lover used to be, but also the person we used to be ourselves. Stormy and Jordan, it seems, are looking constantly for ingenious ways to outrun this tendency, even though it sometimes catches up with them.

The opening chapters, then, give us plenty of idea what’s at stake. And they do so in exuberant fashion, too; Stormy’s narrative in particular (One Night in Seoul is told in shifting first-person perspectives, a kind of split-personality storytelling which sits very appropriately indeed alongside the themes of making and unmaking identity) begins with a barrage of figurative language, mixing in great palmfuls of metaphor reminiscent of Raymond Chandler:

The name of my former best friend and one-time lover, who I hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, slid down my throat and churned my guts. My eyes scrunched so tight I might as well have been sucking on a disgusting black licorice. I waited for the familiar feeling of being kicked in the belly by a mule once again.

And she’s not done yet, either; Stormy smiles at ‘the image of him madder than a sack of rattlesnakes’; she acknowledges that ‘there was going to be hell to pay over this one but knocking him off his high horse would simply tickle me pink.’ Given the themes that will soon arise, I can’t help but think of one of fiction’s all-time great similes: ‘he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food’, from Farewell, My Lovely.

It’s somehow appropriate. It’s not just pleasing in a classic, pulpy way, this mix of pacy, gritty action and colourful prose. It seems, too, as though the language can sometimes cover up, obscure and distort the sentiments lying beneath it. Of course Stormy, who has a history of heartbreak with her client, dresses up her feelings for him in layer upon layer of simile and metaphor; of course, given her professional expertise, doing so comes naturally to her. And it makes sense too that, in remaking herself and remaking her lover, some of these layers are stripped away, never to return; while I could happily devour much, much more of these figurative salvos, skipping ahead to Stormy’s final chapters reveals a stark contrast, wherein the language has become a lot more straightforward, less flowery, much more focused on dialogue than on introspection.

In between times, Stormy and Jordan set about unmaking and unmasking each other in myriad ways, some of which are metaphorical, and some of which very literal. And from the beginning, the narrative approaches these processes with a healthy degree of scepticism: often, stripping away one aspect of an identity simply leaves another one beneath it; at other times, the characters are so used to their conceits that they’re unwilling to take a good look at what they’ve been hiding. At the midpoint of the novella, Jordan is forced to shave off his dreadlocks; the reasoning may be that they’re too eye-catching in the surroundings of Seoul, but Stormy allows us plenty of space to doubt her motivations: ‘he looked younger without his dreadlocks,’ she says, ‘like the past eleven years hadn’t happened,’ leaving him looking ‘like my Jordan all over again.’ By way of payback, Jordan insists on Stormy removing her makeup—“do me a favor”, he says “and scrub that shit off your face. I want to see my Storm”—and then on his being allowed to shave her pubic hair. “Every part of me was now visible”, Stormy reflects, dropping another of those delightfully pulpy lines as she spreads her legs for him, “except my heart.”

It seems we’re getting closer to the central insight of One Night in Seoul. Amid the does-the-carpet-match-the-drapes jokes and the frenal piercings which are, as the story wears on, put to ingenious use, there’s a serious musing on identity, its truths, and its deceptions:

I picked up the passports she tossed aside and looked at the pictures. “How many of these do you own?”

She belted out a bitter laugh. “Like I have any idea. I’m not even sure what my real name is anymore.”

“Your name is Storm.”

“To you, maybe.”

I understood her meaning as I held her fake passports in my hands. All the different names. All different identities. All different targets.

Which identity, after all, is the truest? The identity you were given at birth? Or the identity—the identities, perhaps—you adopt for yourself, you fashion of your own free will? You don’t have to be a pseudonymous author of erotic fiction to see the real-world implications of this philosophical dilemma.

And so, inevitably, it turns out that there’s more than the mission at stake. If keeping Jordan alive requires disguise, discretion and deception, then breathing new life into their love requires more still than this; conveniently enough, the pretext shows up just in time for a more radical, permanent shift in identity for both Stormy and Jordan. When Jordan protests that “you’re killing me, woman”, and Stormy insists that “actually the point was to keep you alive”, it seems like both of them are right, in slightly different ways. And by the time the two of them collapse into cathartic sex, the transformation is all but complete:

We claimed each other, and she was mine. I pounded out my victory inside her. I had successfully rewritten her code, and she’d let me. After years of wanting her in college, years of waiting until I could safely locate her, and even more years of searching for her, she would finally be by my side. She was the bug I could never get out of my system.

Self-fashioning is good, but sometimes having some help to do it is better still. Change isn’t a bad thing—in fact it’s the only constant. And, if you really want someone to know and love the real you, you have to give them a hand in making it. A self having shed its attachments, as Virginia Woolf once wrote, is free for the strangest adventures.

One Night in Seoul is available to buy now. Review submissions are currently closed, but you can keep up with the latest news here.

Embracing the Normal

Rianne Burnett, Embracing the Storm (2020)

Follow Rianne Burnett on Twitter here.

When King Acrisius of Argos began to despair of ever having a male heir, he consulted the oracle of Delphi for guidance. Not being one to mince words, the oracle told Acrisius that his daughter, Danaë, would bear a son, and that this son—Perseus, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves—would kill him. Beset with the kind of alarm that only an ancient Greek family drama can provoke, Acrisius locked his daughter away from the attentions of men (either in a subterranean chamber or a tower of brass, depending on your version of choice). Little did Acrisius know that Danaë’s suitor was none other than the thunder-god Zeus; undeterred by walls, pits, towers and the like, Zeus turned himself into—ahem—golden rain, by which he duly impregnated Danaë, and the prophecy was fulfilled.

Of course, this was far from the only time Zeus was transformed by a desire for mortal flesh. There were Cassiopeia and Chloris, Europa and Elara. There was Leda, to whom Zeus came in the guise of a swan, their union resulting in the eggs from which hatched Pollux and Helen of Troy. Despite wielding the power to cast bolts of lightning and raze houses and cities to the ground, Zeus often aspires to a more figurative kind of home-wrecking. And all the while, in these unions between the divine and the ordinary, the very notion of consent barely figures at all.

Rianne Burnett’s Embracing the Storm also revolves around the courtship of a mortal woman and a god of storms and lightning, but their union is a rather more wholesome affair. Burnett’s protagonist, Ophelia Madden, may bring with her the literary baggage of madness and death by drowning; her storm-god, Raegarn (his name sounds less like Greek myth, and more like the Japanese storm-god Raijin after a detour through Game of Thrones) may appear at first to have all the untamed fury of his literary predecessors. But this mixture of electricity and water, it turns out, is one rather less hazardous to human health.

For all that it’s concerned with the divine, Embracing the Storm never feels ungrounded; in fact it looks, at first glance, to be a workplace romance. The first couple of chapters serve mostly to establish the workplace; Ophelia sells accounting software (that the software comes on CD, and that this feels like a quaint and pleasing nod to a setting in the recent past, makes me keenly aware of my own mortality), and the opening scene sees her in a manager’s office, hesitantly accepting a promotion. Perhaps there are hints from the very first page that Ophelia feels out of sorts in such an environment—the office feels ‘too hot and too cold at the same time’—but her fantasies of escape are, at first, limited to thoughts of seducing the customers. An idle sexual fantasy in the first few pages doesn’t quite succeed in throwing off a kind of corporate, procedural language:

I’m forced to close my eyes and let loose a sigh. Increasing his pressure and pace with experienced efficiency, Weston’s strokes would spark a fire I couldn’t wait to feel all over my body.

Sure, sparking a fire might carry an early connotation of what lightning can do to a tree in a storm, but this overflow of the natural is rather belied by Weston’s ‘experienced efficiency’. When her fantasy peters out into nothing, Ophelia notes that ‘the atmosphere in the room had faintly but resolutely shifted back to a professional one’, but we’re left wondering if perhaps this is what it always was: the language of work seems to affect everything it touches.

No surprise, then, that Ophelia dreams of breaking free. She is, she happily admits when the weekend rolls around, ‘a walking contradiction’: ‘loud and assertive’ as a salesperson, she finds a truer, more fulfilling version of herself in her home life. Ophelia has land, she has space; she has potted plants and dreams of livestock, but no-one to share them with. In lieu of anyone else, she talks to her plants, her jalapeño seedlings ‘flourishing even though their growth was being limited by small pots’. Would that Ophelia could say the same for herself. Like any of us under capitalism, Ophelia finds herself pulled in different directions by her personal and professional lives; like only some of us dare to dream, she believes that one day, a resolution to this dilemma will come. Much later on, she reflects that ‘I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to have your core identity ripped away’, and it seems likely that this is because she has yet to find her own.

It’s most striking, then, that when Ophelia meets the lightning-god who will become the object of her affections, his situation is not so different. She imagines him, at first, to be a mere stranger—it doesn’t appear to take any great effort for the gods of Embracing the Storm to take on human form—albeit a stranger who is unusually perceptive. ‘For a stranger,’ Ophelia notes, ‘he was weirdly in tune with my own predicament’. But, we seem invited to ask, how weird is this, really? Ought gods to be more attuned to our wishes, whims and foibles than strangers, or is it the other way around? And when a fuller introduction comes, it unfolds in what is getting to be a typically understated manner:

“I’m the god of storms. Things have been a little hectic with the other gods and that’s why the weather here has been so ridiculous.”

[…]

“I’m sorry. Did you say that you’re a god?”

Instead of answering, he closed his eyes and made a first. Once again, lightning flared and skirted around his knuckles. Out of the blue, bright flashes lit up outside and my windows vibrated with rumbling thunder. The trees in my yard bent under the sudden downpour.

He opened his eyes and his fist. I didn’t need to look outside to know that the skies were clear again.

“Point taken,” I mumbled. “Well, I’m Ophelia Madden – goddess of the property you’ve been pummelling with rain since last night.”

For the first time since he’d appeared on my lawn, his lips curled in a smile.

Fortunate, indeed, that Raegarn is not the kind of god who’s unduly bothered by blasphemy. The effect is clear enough; any distinction which may exist between mortal and god is rendered close to meaningless. Raegarn is troubled, not so much by godly matters, as by unnamed ‘things’ getting ‘a little hectic’. Ophelia, meanwhile, is a goddess: perhaps all of us, the story seems to say, are gods or goddesses of something, however insignificant it may seem. And when Raegarn arrives, conveyed earthward by lightning and scorching a section of Ophelia’s lawn in the process, it seems we’re getting a very literal warning of the dangers of thinking the grass is greener on the other side.

Burnett’s prose is decidedly, deliberately unadorned. Her gods speak like normal people; her people speak like very normal people. Gods and mortals alike seem to have the knack for plain speaking, and why shouldn’t they? Their hopes and fears in life are apparently the same: Ophelia aspires to being something more than an accounting-software-salesperson, and Raegarn aspires to being something more (or something less?) than a lightning god. Even the sex scenes—scenes, lest we forget, in which a mortal is having sex with a god—are careful, understated, devoid of sensationalism if not devoid of sensation. And permeating it all, showing itself in the unlikeliest of places, there’s a wry sense of humour which casts well-timed bolts of lightning at the absurdity of it all; the absurdity of work, the absurdity of love, and the absurdity of existence. ‘A mortal life seems to be the best fit for you for a while’, deadpans the king of the gods, apparently unaware that he has said anything funny. Later on, as the consummation of all consummations seems imminent, Raegarn reveals that just like the gods of myth, he’s not averse to a touch of bawdy humour:

“I’ve never been with a human before. My lightning touch doesn’t really do much for goddesses.”

“Well, that’s a shame.”

“Indeed. Do you want to know something else?”

“What?”

He leaned forward to whisper in my ear.

“The lightning doesn’t only come out of my hands.”

One has to wonder if Zeus ever tried that pickup line.

We’re left in a pleasing double bind, and the story heads boldly toward a climax with this in mind. Of course, in the classic romantic vein, it turns out that Raegarn and Ophelia each have just what the other needs. With a little help from the rest of Raegarn’s pantheon, Ophelia might just be able to leave her workplace woes behind; with a touch of mortal insight, Raegarn might just be able to talk his way out of some family drama. And all the while, in the background, lies the unanswerable question: does it take divine intervention to fix the woes of life, love and work? Or do all of us suffer a tendency to make gods of ourselves—a tendency which only an injection of the everyday can fix?

There’s no easy answer. And maybe this, at the heart of it all, is the point: in order to find the fantastic in the mundane, it’s necessary to find the mundane in the fantastic. And even if the route there goes via Olympus, Valhalla, or whatever else you want to call it, in the end, Embracing the Storm is just what it set out to be: a workplace romance.

Embracing the Storm is available to buy now. Want to submit your own book for review? Read my submission guidelines here.

Call for Submissions; or, a Seriously Sexy Manifesto

Review submissions are currently closed; if you’d like to be notified when they open again, you can follow me on Twitter.

Allow me to venture a couple of observations:

Fiction on the erotic-romantic spectrum struggles to be taken, well, seriously.

Legitimate criticisms can be made of the explicit or implicit politics of, say, ditsily-swooning femininity, heaving torsos and casual racial fetishisation. Similar criticisms could be levelled at any other field of literary production.

It’s absurd to draw any sweeping conclusion about the erotic-romantic fields of writing when, frankly, all they have in common is a direct engagement with love and/or sex.

This isn’t quite true; what they also have in common is a large readership among women. This is not unrelated to the critical perspective that romance and erotica are unworthy of serious consideration.

Book reviewing is, in general, in a miserable state.

Short, largely quantitative reviews predominate (‘3 stars; well-written and relatable protagonist’).

These reviews function, principally, to provide numerical data to outlets who want to sell us more of the same.

More serious reviews are out of reach of independent authors, taking place largely in the closed shops of academia, a few high-minded publications, or predatory services charging upwards of four hundred US dollars for a paragraph-length review.

So this blog is my small gesture toward rectifying the above. It’s a place for reviews of (mostly) erotic and romantic fiction, which will be careful, qualitative, detailed and personal reflections on what I’ve read. There will never be any star-ratings, marks out of ten, thumbs up or anything remotely quantitative, because neither a book nor my thoughts on that book ought to be reduced to just a number. On a related note, there will be no negative reviews here. Negative reviews are for restaurants that give you food poisoning, or consumer electronics that burn a hole in the desk. I don’t anticipate it happening often, but if a book really doesn’t work for me, I won’t review it. And, finally, I’ll lean heavily—perhaps exclusively, but we’ll see—toward independently published or self-published books.

Before we get down to brass tacks, here are a few FAQs (Frankly Anticipatable Questions):

Why don’t you give star ratings?

Star ratings are for consumer products with an easily-definable function, for the kind of restaurant that serves food in the forms of smoke, dust or gel, or for ascertaining whether your hotel is likely to have a dead rat in the minibar. A work of art takes serious creative labour, and it deserves to be met with the same; reducing that labour to a numerical score or function is nothing short of barbaric.

Relevant further reading can be found here.

Who the hell are you, anyway?

I’m a pseudonymous author of erotic fiction with literary pretensions, and literary fiction with erotic pretensions. If you want some credentials, I have a Master’s degree, have taught literary theory and writing, and have written book reviews for academic, literary and mainstream publications. But there’s no reason you should take my word for any of that, and I’ll understand if you conclude instead that I’m just some pretentious ass.

The best thing would be to read the reviews and draw your own conclusions. And since I believe all literature is criticism and all criticism is literature, you could also read one of my books if you want to get a sense of what I’m like.

What do you review?

I am particularly interested to read: gimmick-free contemporary erotic romance; narrative and/or formal experimentation of any kind; non-monogamy and polyamory in any and every permutation; anything queer; anything speculative or ecologically-minded or magical realist; anything with social commentary or an axe to grind.

I am not interested to read: abusive relationship dynamics of any kind; anything excessively violent; anything non-consensual; anything committed, for whatever bizarre reason, to the notion that billionaires are in any way attractive.

If what you write does not sit comfortably on either of these lists, you can safely assume it’ll lean heavily toward the former—I’m pretty open-minded and more than happy to consider anything I don’t find explicitly nauseating. Oh, and I strongly prefer something in the novella-novel range—that is, not a single short story or a hundred-thousand-word shag epic—but am likely willing to make allowances here and there.

What if my book isn’t romance or erotica? Will you still review it?

If it has something reasonably sustained to say about love and sex, sure, try me.

Erotica critic, huh? You must be really good at sex.

Thank you, but that’s not a question.

What do I do if I want you to review my book?

Now you’re talking.

How to submit your book:

If you think I would make a good reviewer for your work, and you have a book of yours in mind, you can send me an email: charlottenewings at gmail dot com. I do ask for a review copy (it’ll take me a few hours to read and review it, and I’m not getting paid for this, so y’know); pdf, epub, mobi, I don’t really mind. Put something in the subject line and the message body, for heaven’s sake. I am an actual human.

You can also send me an informal message if, say, you have something but you’re not sure if I’ll like it, or you have three books and can’t decide which one to send me. Email or Twitter DMs are fine for that kind of thing. If you have a more general question, feel free to drop a comment below this post.

Review submissions are currently closed; if you’d like to be notified when they open again, you can follow me on Twitter.

The Gland of Milk and Honey

Davina Lee, Dance Until the World Ends (2020, JMS Books)

See Davina Lee’s full catalogue here.

Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.

I took these words from the opening of José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, an era-defining work of queer theory first published in 2009. Muñoz’s book, subtitled ‘The Then and the There of Queer Futurity’, allowed queer theory to turn to a more positive way of thinking, to consider the future as opposed to the past: queer theory began as an academic discipline at the height of the AIDS epidemic, trying to think through queerness at a time when queerness was perhaps more aggressively marginalised than ever. Thinking about queerness—I’m going to use the term ‘queer’ here in the sense that queer theory does, which is to say anything that challenges the heterosexual, binary-gender norms of our society—is actually thinking about the future. It’s thinking about how we could be different. Thinking, in other words, about how we might disrupt the norms of our society to come up with something better for everyone.

I don’t know whether or not Davina Lee’s Dance Until the World Ends is a utopia—more on that question later—but it’s certainly queer. It’s a work of speculative fiction and of lesbian romance, of fantasy and fairytale, sci-fi and of cli-fi. In it Lee imagines a world that has torn up the rule book of our heteronormative society, upsetting all the beliefs and practices that make it, adopting new ways of thinking about relationships, gender, power and sex. Bodies are made strange, divided into haploids and diploids, queens, workers and drones. Social structures take some getting used to; the post-enlightenment, Western model of the nuclear family is nowhere to be seen. Sex is both a private practice and a frank, exuberant public one, the subject of intimacy, but also of ecstatic, arcane rituals carried out for all to see. What appears at first to be a love story—it soon becomes much more than this—unfolds against this world between two diminutive haploid women, Lina and Arabel.

The queerness of Dance is not just societal; it extends to bodies themselves. Both the strangeness and familiarity of this world’s bodies are revealed gradually, not easy to pin down for at least the first few chapters. They both are and are not human. Indeed, one of the novel’s most remarkable achievements lies in just this fact, and in the way Lee writes in such a moving, sensuous manner about bodies with which we have to learn to be familiar, learn to be comfortable. Dance teaches us to feel at ease with these bodies as the story progresses: they never feel fetishised and nor do they feel tokenised, and the narrative certainly never falls into any of the weird, quasi-colonial tropes beloved of certain Hollywood movies which I couldn’t possibly name.

As well as their inter- and intra-gender dimorphism—the aforementioned split into haploid and diploid—these are bodies with scent glands; the human sense of smell, notoriously poor as compared with other animals, has advanced here to something much more sophisticated. Scent glands are used for semi-voluntary forms of communication, and scent may betray a character’s intentions if the scent information they release is at odds with what they say. Thus, in the scene which introduces Lina, we see a school teacher scenting a warning to her students which ‘Lina could smell…in the air, by the alpha pheromones she released.’ Pretty quickly, though, as Arabel joins Lina in the novel’s first chapter, it becomes clear that scent, too, has both public and private functions:

Arabel smiled upon seeing Lina, and released a bit of mating pheromone as she puckered up for a kiss. Lina happily obliged, letting herself fall into the trance provided by Arabel’s heady scent.

“You naughty girl,” Lina chastised. “You ought not to be scenting in the tunnels. You never know when there might be children about.”

Arabel shrugged, and took turns rubbing the back of her ears—the place where her scent glands were located—against the side of Lina’s neck. Lina’s eyelids fluttered, and she nearly swooned until Arable clamped her teeth on an earlobe and hauled her back to reality.

“You’re trouble,” Lina said.

“And that’s exactly why you love me,” Arabel proclaimed, wrapping her arms about Lina’s neck.

Scent can often feel like the primary way of experiencing this world, and the novel has descriptions to match; Lee’s prose is filled with intense, luscious accounts of the smells of fruit, fire and flesh. It’s interesting for this reason that the scent gland becomes an erogenous zone, unabashedly sexualised, and I can’t decide whether or not this is refreshingly different or somewhat familiar (it’s a common experience), just like the sexualisation of mouths in our own world, wherein speech is our most social bodily process, and taste is one of our most intimate. Scent glands form a central part of sex, and we learn, in a pleasing set of counterintuitive turns, how scent glands feel, how they taste, how they look, in depictions that are often frankly and forthrightly yonic:

Lina continued ever closer to Arabel’s glistening scent gland, enjoying the drifting of mating pheromones she was getting.

Arabel moved the tip of her finger to the top of Lina’s scent gland and drew it slowly downward around the outside, close, but never touching Lina’s sensitive gland itself.

It feels far from accidental that scent glands resemble vulvas; one of Lina’s own is referred to early on as a ‘tight, moist slit’, even if we have to wait until the novel’s climax to see the near-consummative image of a ‘tongue plowing straight through the center of her scent gland.’ It’s difficult not to think of the conceptualisations of women’s genitals for which psychoanalysis has long been criticised, wherein a clitoris is a debased penis, a vagina a housing for a true penis:

The clitoris is conceived as a little penis pleasant to masturbate so long as castration anxiety does not exist…the vagina is valued for the “lodging” it offers the male organ. (Luce Irigaray, ‘This Sex Which is Not One’)

Yet the scent gland is an opportunity to break out of this framework; it is an erogenous zone radically removed from the implications of reproduction; it is sexually receptive, and yet it engages in complex signalling processes with the world. Dance is, we might say, a novel with a powerful olfactory fixation.

While we’re on the subject, and appropriately enough for a story which seems to have turned the family unit on its head, the plot is a twist on what Sigmund Freud called a ‘family romance’. Lina, a small and insignificant haploid, has visions and dreams of herself as something more, perhaps of noble birth; just like in any fairytale, she turns out to be right. Her heroine’s journey leads to her learning more about herself and her people, and finds that self-knowledge is the key to helping others to a better life.

So where does utopia fit into all of this? Gradually, masterfully, we learn that this is a vision of the future. There’s no Statue-of-Liberty moment. But through a series of gentle revelations it’s made clear that Lina and her people are not so unlike today’s humans: in one particularly inspired scene, she has a vision of a human body without any scent glands, and finds it alarming and grotesque at a point when we, reading her story, have long-since ceased to be shocked by hers. An author’s afterword, incidentally, goes into much more detail regarding these questions, but I won’t touch upon it here.

But actually, at first glance, Dance has many of the hallmarks of a dystopia. There are gentle suggestions of catastrophe in the past: one of the mechanisms deployed to drip-feed information is a metatext called The Book of the Origin, a volume forbidden to the people of Lina’s community. ‘Too long,’ the Book reads, ‘had humankind strayed from the path of righteousness. And so it was that the land would become barren, the water poison, and even the very air thick and choking.’ The novel’s quiet ecology comes not just through these frank accounts of environmental destruction in the past, but through humdrum details: we first see both Lina and Arabel working ordinary jobs concerned with preserving environmental equilibrium, one in air filtration and the other in waste management. And in addition to this dark history, there are other calling cards: dense and impenetrable social hierarchies, an always-present threat of violence from initially-unspecified ‘rebels’, carefully organised and carnivalesque displays of public exuberance, brief escapes from reality found in drugs and sex.

Some of the most compelling scenes in the novel come when these elements are combined. The showpiece that brings the first act to a close is the clearest example of this, an elaborate mix of festival and ritual known as the ‘Queen’s Fertility Gala’. Part of the novel’s sense of intimacy arises from the careful shifts between private and public displays of affection, and this one is no different. Whereas in an earlier scene we see Arabel fashioning skimpy party outfits from strips of hazard tape, here, in a manner that feels significant, outfits are made instead from organic matter:

Lina continued exploring the area around Arabel’s scent gland, while she sent her fingers blindly tracing out the vines that wrapped around Arabel’s chest, squeezing her tiny breasts from above and below, before running over each shoulder to be tied off around back. Lina held a nipple in each hand, rolling it between her finger and thumb. Arabel threw back her head and moaned. There was no mistaking the scent now—the air around Arabel was thick with it.

“Once we get these covered with leaves,” Lina whispered, while casually rolling and tugging Arabel’s nipples, “you’ll be all set. At least for the top half.”

The event itself, though, is characterised by a much more violent eroticism. The Gala culminates in the making of ‘Royal Wine’, a clear human analogue to the royal jelly produced by bees (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, form a key influence on the social and cultural dynamics of the world of Dance). I don’t want to quote too much from this scene lest its impact be lessened; suffice to say that Lina must watch ‘helplessly’ as a shocking, even frightening ritual unfolds, and into which she is eventually dragged herself. It’s a key moment, and one which establishes without debate the dark workings of power in Lina’s world; appropriate, then, that it’s also the event which prompts her to embark on her heroine’s journey.

In a kind of microcosm of some of the novel’s wider ideas, though, Lina’s journey teaches her that things need not be this way. The violence which forms a centrepiece of her culture could just as easily be something else. Those events which make a spectacle of humiliation and pain could instead make one of pleasure. The forbidden texts and substances, the comfort and the knowledge they offer, could be made available to all. It’s a journey which finds its triumph in discovering a new, ecological and egalitarian imagination, one which melds the best elements of the past and the present, all in order to look with hope toward the future.

There’s a lot more I would want to say about the ecological thought of the novel. Lina’s coming-of-age is characterised by a oneness with nature, a sense of being in tune with the environment which, sure enough, is inseparable from a sense of being in tune with oneself and with others. The Great Tree which is spoken of in the ancient texts takes on a significance which Lina and Arabel come eventually to realise:

“I feel the sap flowing inside, its lifeblood, coursing through it, carrying nutrients from the leaves to the roots and back. I understand how it connects the land to the sun and the air, and how all of us are connected to the land and air, and therefore to the Great Tree.”

The Great Tree, which ought rightfully to be venerated, is not just an empty symbol, but a clear tie to the tree-shaped diagrams of evolution by natural selection, and the radical insight that ought rightfully to be at the centre of the Darwinian revolution: we are, all of us, more alike than we are different, and human kinship, whether with animals or plants, fish or trees, birds or bees, is not a metaphor but a very literal truth. ‘For any people of the Great Tree,’ the Book of the Origin reads, ‘are all of the same family.’ The novel’s approach to family, it turns out, is not to debase it but to perfect it: as Lina reaches a triumphant moment, it is no accident that she is able to perceive for the first time the scent of ‘familial love’, secreted by everyone she encounters.

In Greek, Lina’s name means ‘sunlight’; in Arabic, it is a young tree. And it just so happens that Lina’s journey teaches her to return triumphantly to her people with both these gifts in hand.

So does it take a catastrophe to turn the world queer? I’m not sure, but Dance Until the World Ends will have you wondering if it might be worth it.

Dance Until the World Ends is available from JMS Books now.