Friday, May 1, 2015

Unmentionables

"Beauty is just as vapid as its distinctions."

The recent translation of Anne Garréta's Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan and published by Deep Vellum, has got me thinking about apophasis, and not because the protagonist is writing an essay on the apophatic tradition. Rather, I'm trying to figure out what it is that I've missed here.

Apophasis is a rhetorical device in which a subject is brought up by denying that the subject is actually being brought up or that it's even possible to bring up the subject in the first place. Example #1: She is smart, not to mention pretty. The "not to mention" actually does mention what is being or shouldn't be mentioned. Example #2: I'm not going to argue with a stupid person. That very statement is belligerent. Example #3: It wouldn't be polite to talk about your bad taste in music. You get the point.

Sphinx is well written, albeit overwritten. Even the character's apophatic name–A***–seemed unnecessarily unwieldy. Why not a single letter? Or a symbol? I read the first 20 pages and felt like the language part of my brain was on fire. I concurred with the blistering critique of graduate school. The nightlife sounded sexy and exciting, reminding me of the time I used to know such haunts. But the next 100 pages I found to be tedious, pretentiously and unnecessarily erudite without much substance. Something was missing.

The reader's work was constantly narrated by the protagonist. I tired of the incessant narrativization, the talky voice that wouldn't shut up: "I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being…" (25). "I was discovering the rules as I went along, establishing what had always existed without any basic precepts" (27). "I had reached a limit, and after that came repetition and ennui" (29). "My eclecticism pushed me to ignore differences and transgress against exclusions…" (30). On and on this voice drones. I would have liked the option to remove all first-person pronouns from the text. Such a truly apophatic lipogram would have improved the story for me. And shorted the novel several pages.

At first, I did like the forced indeterminacy of the two main characters' sexes and genders. At times, I perceived them to be considerably more female; at other times, more male. Throughout the novel, both genders/sexes blurred into one another and crossed over the spectrum between male/female, masculine/feminine. After a few chapters, however, this came across more as a gimmick than anything else.

In the end, I'm not sure this novel succeeds in what it purportedly attempts: a troubling of gender and gendered identities. One truly troubling sentence stood out as a hesitation, a mistake, a misstep: "What was I, truly? A drag queen of intellection, a gigolo of enamoration" (87). Are not both of these examples male? My powers of imagination are perhaps too weak to overlook such obvious gendering, particularly in a novel that allegedly renders gender unnecessary.

And let's think through this last statement properly. Who really thinks or believes that an elision of gender/sex can or should be considered also feminist or queer? I didn't mention the unmentionable details of my lovers for the first few decades of my life, not because I was being experimental or cutting edge but rather because of something else altogether: the unmentionability and invisibility of queer sex. So do not call this a feminist or queer novel when something as important–despite, yes, the possibility that gender/sex may be entirely socially constructed–as gender/sex is not and (perhaps) cannot be mentioned in it. No, that is not how queer or feminist means what it means. Queer, if anything, is a radical politicization of gender/sex and its sexualities; feminist is not far behind. By not mentioning gender/sex in the novel, the author, in effect, renders it unmentionable or at least unimportant–the opposite of what queer and feminist works do.

If anything, this novel made me want to read more Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Judith Butler–writers who truly trouble gender/sex without making it/them disappear from view.

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