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Seven Tales of Sex and Death
Patricia Duncker
London: Picador, 2003.
£16.99, 228 pages, ISBN 0330490117.

Michael Langan
University of Greenwich

 

If it is possible to claim that a writer has one defining characteristic then Patricia Duncker’s is wit. By wit I mean her ability to combine a razor sharp intellect with a sparkling sense of play to arresting effect. In Seven Tales of Sex and Death, Duncker uses her beautifully warped imagination to weave stories that make the reader shiver and smile at the same time.

These tales, Duncker tells us in her Author’s Note, were written ‘to disturb and to provoke’ and they are successful in this to a very large degree. Duncker wanted to engage with the narrative clichés she found in the late night B-movies and horror films she watched to help her sleep—clichés such as rape, murder, sexual abuse and the supernatural—where, as she points out, ‘the victims....are usually women.’ (vii) Furthermore, she aims to direct her readers to ‘revisit the clichés of sexuality and violence, to read them afresh—and to think again.’(viii) One can only assume that these ‘night pieces’, as she calls them, are the resulting bad dreams.

In the opening section of her selected essays, Writing on the Wall, Duncker writes:

Sexuality in the context of writing is, for me, about clichés, borders, limits and scripts... I see writing as a space where our sexual identities are interrogated, resolved and remade, or imposed and reinforced. Within writing we can create new borders and reconfigure our identities. We can, literally, attempt to rewrite the script. (xiv)

The title of this opening section is ‘Killing Daddy’ and in it, Duncker describes her relationship, as both a woman writer and a woman reader, to ‘The Fathers’; ‘the architects and advocates of our literary patriarchy, or The Great Tradition of Misogyny in Western Literature.’(ix) So, whilst reading The Fathers, it is important, she asserts, to ‘take personally’ what they write about women and to contradict them, to write over them and, as the Plath-inspired reference implies, rub them out:

Were anyone to ask me: who are the writers who have most deeply influenced you? I would list The Fathers, and I would begin with Aeschylus. (xii)

She gives The Oresteia as an example of a text which is about ‘killing Daddy and the consequences thereof’ but which also provides the possibility of opposition. ‘Patriarchy is not monolithic’, she says, ‘but contains its own fissures and contradictions. And it is within these gaps that I live, breathe and write.’ (xii) It is also within these gaps that the Seven Tales of Sex and Death grow like poison mushrooms. These stories are nothing less than the illustration of Duncker’s personal manifesto.

The first story, ‘Stalker’, yokes together the ancient and the contemporary. A famous archaeologist uncovers a Roman mosaic floor on what could be the site of the temple of Zeus. Also found is a carving of the birth of Dionysus who sprung from his father’s godly thigh. Dionysus’s mother was called Semele and Duncker’s story is narrated by the archaeologist’s wife, ‘Sem’.

Zeus, as we know, was the original stalker; an overpowering force who spotted and then tracked a series of beautiful young women, only to appear and assault them in a variety of guises. This usually led to their deaths in one way or another. In Duncker’s rewriting, Diana, like Danae, is penetrated by a shower of gold; Helena Swann’s violent end is cushioned by feathers; Lindsay de la Tour, ravaged and savaged and garlanded with flowers is the woman who connects them all. Such devices draw attention to Duncker’s reconfiguration of sexual scripts and identities.

The predominant female sexual identity, that of victim, is what Duncker seeks to interrogate here. Sem, far from being the victim of Zeus, is thrilled by the attention of the unseen eyes upon her and awaits her summons, so much so that it’s hard to tell which one is really doing the stalking. This is, above all, a story about the power of desire to cause us to seek our destruction.

This story, like all the Tales, is written in the first person, an exercise, Duncker tells us, designed to explore different voices and to engage directly with the aforementioned clichés. The use of first person, combined in ‘Stalker’ with the present tense, is alienating and strange, quite in keeping with the inversion of the way the tale is told—the stalkee awaiting her stalker in a state of suspenseful anticipation. The reader also stalks the narrators in these stories as they themselves discover the way the world is, uncover their destinies, their desires and how far they are prepared to go. At the same time, one is privy to the working of their minds as they themselves attempt to redefine their own identities.

The classical allusions continue in ‘Sophia Walters Shaw’, the darkest (and my favourite) of all the Tales, which uses the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades and her enforced dwelling in the underworld. Here, ‘The Underworld’ is a porno club where Sophia acts as hostess, procuress and tem. Duncker is ‘interested in characters who were amoral, vindictive and unforgiving, but who could argue the case with a rational persuasiveness that carried conviction.’ Sophia is one such character, someone for whom pornography has become an all-pervading way of life with a direct connection between sex and death but, through her total understanding of this world, she enables us to understand it too.

One evening a huge man wearing heavy gold rings and a dinner jacket turns up with his young, frightened, female companion:

She was being forced. I looked at the soft lawn hiding her breasts. The dress was covered in thousands of tiny green flowers, embedded in silk. In this world of pounding, violent dark, she was a precious thing being dragged down, down, down. (63)

Her purity and beauty have little chance of surviving—unless she can be rescued. Sophia becomes the bait in a series of apparently political killings (politics is just another form of pornography after all). The violent scenarios played out by her clients are turned against them and become real, before she and her companions become rescuers travelling ‘up, up, up into the hills’ to liberate the young girl from the ring-clad kidnapper. The young woman is restored to the pastoral idyll of her mother’s home which effects the breaking of an ancient spell. Sophia realises that, even though she wears the young woman’s lawn-like dress, they are from different worlds and that she herself, can never be rescued.

Another of the stories, ‘The Strike,’ is an apocalyptic tale in which a translator, holed up in France during an escalating general strike, works on a psychological thriller involving an actress who believes she is being stalked. The action of the thriller mirrors the events around the narrator as martial law is declared and there is anarchy, looting and murder. The translator withdraws into a pre-industrial existence. She becomes healthy, happy and relaxed before her peasant benefactors go missing and she is forced to leave her isolated enclave in search of food and fuel. She travels along disintegrating roads into a world that has been abandoned and destroyed in a Wyndhamesque tribulation. The story ends in a cathedral where the double meaning of ‘strike’ becomes apparent. It’s not just the pagan gods who can be accused of mass murder.

The final story, ‘My Emphasis’, is the most unashamedly comic of the Tales—King Lear as French farce in fact. Here, Shakespeare’s ‘family drama with cosmic implications,’ provides the backdrop for a playwright, Henrietta, struggling to find her own position in a hierarchy—her family of assorted actors, performers and companions—whilst attempting to create a new work in an environment polluted by the noisy family next door. Families are the stuff of violence and murder and tragedy and tempests, but for Henri (Henrietta’s shortened name giving her a fluidity of sexual identity) to express her own anger and frustration she has to use recordings of King Lear—being a middle-class English woman, such demonstrations don’t come easily! The story also manages to make violence amusing, though most of the violence here is all done by proxy, it is all an act that Henri is willing to allow others to believe. By the end Henrietta has resolved her differences and established her own place and identity.

As the last Tale, ‘My Emphasis’ finishes Duncker’s ‘interrogation’ on something of an upbeat note. Is she letting Daddy off the hook? Or, by poking fun at Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy is she pricking (forgive me) the pomposity of male writing, causing it to fly off in ever decreasing circles, rasberry diminishing in the breeze? Is it the case that Duncker’s Tales, paradoxically, illustrate the pervading power of these ‘borders, limits and scripts?’ Her wit is indeed a lethal interrogative weapon; at times as sharp as a stiletto, at others heavy as a cosh, but I don’t think she has dealt Daddy a lethal blow—yet.



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