CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussion about sex, sexuality, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexually predatory behaviour and paedophilia.
Strap in, this is a long one!
Here is where we need to discuss the slightly postmodern structure of the novel itself. Firstly, I don’t think this is a deliberate stylistic choice by the author.
The opening is powerful, and actually the way the story begins would otherwise just be another tale of horrible abuse of a vulnerable person. If you’re into that there’s a whole genre of it out there. It has never been and will never be my cup of tea. For as much as I am a decadent and enjoy a bit of the suffering reading an entire book dedicated to someone else’s rubbish life just seems too much like…fetishing abuse.
This tale is categorically not about fetishing abuse. In fact it is pretty clear from the outset that the main character, our ‘victim’ if you will, has agency, has a voice and has power. I think this is one of the most important and strongest aspects of this book. Were the story to start ‘at the beginning’, as it were, there would be a long period where that agency, and thus the power of it to the reader, would be lacking.
But also this story…sort of…comes together. I would describe it like weaving a tapestry outwards, from the middle, toward both ends. We begin in the middle with this horrible night of Ashurst having abducted his dead child from the hospital, given his dead wife a tentative kiss and trudged who knows how far, through the woods, in the dark, in the snow in this fit of what can only be described as primal grief.
That’s a thrilling middle of a narrative, sure. But it’s also a very well baited hook. It is such a simple device, to narratively break your story, now-and-then it, so that it gradually unwinds. It’s so simple that to actually pull it off without it reading like an A-level creative writing exercise is tough to do and I think Vivienne nails it.
I think she nails it because it doesn’t seem like a conscious device, but rather just how the story developed, in her mind. It flows, meandering across this border of time, taking you from past to present, always pulled forward by the current, always moving forward in time but hopping between this past and the now.
I’m not a huge fan of post-modernism in literature, nor am I against it. If I had to give my criticisms I find that often the ‘device’ can overtake the narrative. It can become style-over-substance. Meanwhile plenty of writers have used postmodern structure to enhance a narrative and give us a greater understanding of characters and their place. I’m not a huge fan of de Bernières but the way he used postmodern aspects in ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is, I think, one of the reasons for the novel’s enduring success. It is, at its core, a very traditional, narrative driven, one could even argue derivative work, but the way that it is structured and uses postmodernism in that structure, gives it room to explore the characters and their place in the narrative in a way a traditional structured A-to-B-to-C, linear timeline, singular method, kind of story-telling can’t.
Naturally some people simply may not like the structure. That’s fine, but my argument is that if you place this story in a more traditional, linear, start-to-finish, timeline, it loses most of the potency – especially the potency of the main character, Antony Ashurst – and a lot of its intrigue, too.
You see there’s a reason I didn’t want to spoil too much of ‘The Bet’ in my introduction and it is because it is a novel constantly posing questions that Ashurst is on a quest to find answers to. You, the reader, are never quite in full possession of the facts – because of the way the book is structured – to make educated guesses yourselves. In a way the structure puts you in Ashurst’s mind, as he scours his memory, adds in the bits and pieces of data he’s gathered from elsewhere and puts together this picture of his own life, and how the other cogs within it turn in his absence.
Enough about the structure, though. On to the actual words.
Again we start with an exceptional opening sentence, almost disgustingly erotic.
“A Friday night in July, hot, sticky with the promise of a great night for all.”
It’s fucking filthy!
But, consider the snow. Remember what I talked about earlier, with the decadent use of the natural as being reflective of an internal state, a mirror of the humanity. I’m the one doing it! We are to blame for that reflection, it comes from us! The sentence is nothing but a description of a summer’s evening and yet I’ve sexualised it. Now, do I think it oozes sex? Absolutely, I thought it the moment I read it, before I even knew where the chapter was going, and knowing where the chapter is going just makes me even more certain that consciously or unconsciously that introductory sentence is horny!
We are at a bar full of women who appear to be celebrating. That is not innately horny and it would be sexism to suggest otherwise. But the description of a social event where the ties-that-bind are so relatable to anyone of an introverted or autistic disposition it’s unreal.
“There was something unwelded about this group…” I like the use of the term ‘welded’ – again it removes human from nature, the congregation of people is not fused or formed, it does not grow together, it is mechanical, engineered, welded. It is unnatural.
“…a sense of inadequate connections, a sisterhood too tenuous to truly justify the extent of the celebrations. This was someone’s great idea, and they were all going to do their best to enjoy it.”
Vivienne is describing literally every ‘works-do’ I’ve ever been on and that’s just what this is. They are a group of teachers having a bit of a get-together to celebrate the end of term. Of course it doesn’t take long before the pretenders have ‘ran out of steam’ and we are left with two women.
“Blonde, shapely and attractive.” Outside of that, though, few similarities but what they did share was “a look, a hint of something deep in the eyes more commonly seen in those of some hunting predator, perhaps one of the big cats.”
Cougars, in other words.
Now again we have an invocation of the natural and a comparison between the human and the animal that – it’s not specifically judgemental but it does heavily imply that these women are more attuned to…
…I’m going to interlude and say I am genuinely struggling to find ways to try to put this point non-misogynistically.
…These women are more in touch with, and comfortable with, pleasing their more primal urges than they are indulging themselves humanistically and spiritually.
Is that okay? I hope so. I do not wish to ‘slut-shame’, nor do I think this book is ‘slut-shaming’. I think it tackles the concept of a very harmful, predatory, asymmetrical sexuality where one party is effectively used or abused.
This is the interesting aspect of the more Christian-inspired, guilt-addled, internal psychological decadence. Decadence itself is very much about decline, and again it can suffer for it or revel in it. But once you make it internal you propose an alternative, a ‘better’ state.
In Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ the narrator makes it pretty apparent they committed a murder. They are not trying to argue their innocence, but rather their sanity – and yet the very development of the argument demonstrates their argument as false. This person, in guilt, has lost their mind. Therefore Poe is proposing a ‘better’, alternative state. Not sanity, but innocence.
I feel Vivienne, at various times, uses a similar device. There is no judgement on these women for their predatory eye, but sometimes a lioness gets a kick in the jaw from a wildebeest. Ideally you would know what prey to hunt to not get hurt but the only assured way to not get hurt is to not hunt. For cats, bless their obligate-carnivore paws, this is not a possibility. But for these women? They could be more selective with their prey or, perhaps, choose not to hunt at all. The zoomorphism, the presentation of them as animals, is a device indicative of their propensity for bestial behaviour, but they are still human.
The invocation comes again later, emphasising this wildness, this inhumanity, after discussing the ‘kindred’ nature of the two women we have the sentence “All cats are said to sleep with one eye half open.”
There’s friction, suspicion, these two wild animals stare each other down trying to figure out if they are safe or in danger, in humans often a process lubricated by alcohol and it is made clear neither woman has had enough to drink yet, caught somewhere in the buzzy-phase, post sobriety but pre-loss of inhibition.
I know this book was written before the great hipster gin boom as the ‘older’ of the two women, Judy, is drinking a gin and tonic. Meanwhile Jenny is drinking white wine.
As a reformed boozehound I want to provide a little detail about the drink selection, particularly the use of gin, ‘mother’s ruin’, a drink that had to rehabilitate its image after toothless women up-and-down working class streets would bounce a baby on one knee and a bottle on the other. It’s done a good marketing job in the last few years, and become very trendy, but once-upon-a-time this was a drink of ill-repute for ladies of a similar reputation.
White wine, meanwhile, is a step above a fruit juice in comparison. It’s an entry-level drink.
Through the presentation of what they are drinking we are already establishing a sort of mentor/mentee relationship.
Now for all of my dancing around trying to defend these women and their reputations from what could be perceived as my innate whitecishet misogyny; they speak, or don’t, and basically show themselves to be complete pieces of shit.
Firstly Judy slags off one of the other colleagues by saying she’s “too wholesome” and “eats enough pie.” So this fatphobe can fuck off and die.
Jenny, meanwhile, does nothing to defend her absent friend from what is described as “rampant bitchiness.”
They laugh at her boringly stable life with her boringly boring boyfriend and then Jenny goes on to talk about the affair she’s having with a married man which, for personal reasons, is a specific trigger of my ire so frankly she can already fucking die in a fire.
We’re not exactly off to a great start, here.
Judy boasts how she wears her toyboys out and they’re basically having a giggle at the expense of horny, fumbling young men. Honestly, usually the sort of crowd I’m all for having a laugh at the expense of but there’s a touch of the sinister about the conversation. There’s little self-awareness, there’s no resistance to it. This is not feminism in practice. It’s quite the opposite. These are users of people. These women are talking of men in the same dehumanising tones the same kinds of men they prey upon may talk about women. There’s no ‘shoe on the other foot’ satisfaction to it, though. It just highlights how deplorable and disgusting it is to dehumanise any person.
I stress this in just about any analysis I do, but I think it helps to know my perspective. I cut my teeth in biology. So I know a certain, inevitable horny exists. It’s a difficult thing for me to come to terms with, and I know others who struggle with it more than I do.
Humans reproduce sexually; biologically sexual reproduction is fundamental to most aspects of human life. Indeed, most life is sexual life. It is innate. Sexual reproduction is, far and away, the most unifying feature of organisms. They don’t all reproduce sexually, they don’t only have to reproduce sexually, and sexual reproduction does not follow the same mechanics in all organisms. But the vast majority of organisms are sexual, including humans. The human being is a sexual being. That’s not to say that people should be sexualised just for existing, but rather an acknowledgement that at some point, inevitably, they will be sexualised just for existing.
What we do, ethically, with this information is a different matter. I know there are some who believe this to be out-and-out ‘wrong’. That to sexualise someone merely for the act of being is, in essence, to dehumanise them.
The key, I feel, especially in humans, is being consciously aware of this and ensuring we do our best to humanise. We might notice someone in the street, our gaze drawn towards them in a subconscious sexual desire but our conscious mind must be trained to step in and realise that the person is a human being, with thoughts, feelings, emotions and desires of their own that may not line up with yours. Perhaps that person does not want to be sexualised or perhaps that person does not want all eyes on them.
In this case then it is not ‘wrong’ sexualise a person, but wrong to linger upon that sexualisation. A glance and internal admission of attractiveness is not innately bad, but to leer, to linger, to harass or worse. It is in the action that wrongdoing takes place.
But I don’t have the answers. Nobody has ‘the answers’ if there can be said to be any in the first place!
If you had to ask me the aspect of the politicisation of sex and sexuality that troubles me the most this is it! It is a biological truth to me that the human body is innately sexual. Humans reproduce sexually. Reproduction is one of the few things we have puzzled out as at least a flimsy excuse for the pain of existence. The human body possesses traits primarily aimed at advertising this sexuality, as well as secondary traits that demonstrate sexual fitness.
At the same time morally, ethically, one simply cannot use a biological argument as a justification for oversexuality, sexualised images, sexual exploitation and certainly never as an excuse for sexual harassment, assault or abuse.
Agency, responsibility and consciousness have to come into things. If anthropologists of old are to be believed we already have a multitude of ‘new’ (as in hundreds or thousands of years old, rather than millions or billions) behaviours intended not only to highlight our sexuality – women wearing lipstick, men showing a bit of chest etc. – but also those that mask it (uniformity of clothing, conservative, loose fitting clothing, haircuts and styles, deodorants etc.).
Somewhere our society is torn, battling between horny and respectable, rutting Dionysiac beast and asexual Apollonian higher-power, and I’ll be honest – I’m just lost in that argument! But it is an argument we are about to have due to this chapter!
I think it speaks volumes of a species evolving. Again, the genome is slow to adapt, but thoughts and ideas, the memome (is there a ‘meme’ equivalent of the word ‘genome’?) evolves much more rapidly.
I think our ideas about sex are advancing far quicker than our bodies, our hormonal regulatory systems, our autonomous reactions, can keep up. I think back on my awkward teenage years, when a hug might be enough to initiate an erection. I did not want to overly sexualise the contact consciously, but things happen.
The point I am trying to make, badly, is there is positive sexuality, an equal and consensual sexuality, where all parties are given a stake, a mutual pace of proceedings is agreed upon etc. this can even include kinks, explorations of consent, of being used, of playing roles of dominance and submission, but it is negotiated, carefully managed and all involved parties and their feelings are respected.
But there can also be a negative sexuality, a predatory, exploitative and unequal sexuality. This does not necessarily have to be non-consensual. Judy’s very comment about “Wearing them out,” implies overuse, implies she wants more from them than they can give and yet clearly they feel expected to perform until a breaking point. It may be consensual, but there is an imbalance created and a harm caused, and Judy’s only care about the harm caused is for her own dissatisfaction. She has little to no concern for her partners.
As ever, my apologies if I have said anything that has offended you. If I have got anything categorically wrong I am happy to be corrected so please discuss it with me. Otherwise please forgive me, as I explained in my introduction issues of sexuality like that have seldom been a thinking point for me and it is remarkable the aspects of my own life and sexuality that I have been enabled to think about by reading ‘The Bet’.
I’m still on the path of learning, I will get things wrong! Back to the story.
They say you only get one chance to make a first impression and my first impression of Jenny and Judy is I fucking hate these people.
Eventually the conversation moves from how Judy is not merely a cougar or a sexual predator but a paedophile.
She tells a story of how she deliberately and wilfully pursued a pupil in her care, at her school, despite his obvious lack of interest. This pupil is Antony Ashurst. She talks of how she specifically manipulated him psychologically, putting his academic performance in jeopardy, targeting him and longed for his attention.
Jenny then replies with the sort of homophobic twattery that heterosexual men and women use to attempt to insult anyone who rebuffs their sexual advances. “Gay?” She asks. As if any boy who refuses the advances of her friend cannot possibly be sensible, smart, moral or just not interested, but must be gay.
In this case it’s a frank discussion between two disgusting, vile people, but when used against prospective partners it is specifically a homophobic manipulation tactic, as if being ‘gay’ is ‘bad’ and the only way to prove you’re not gay is to engage in sexual behaviour with the person accusing you of homosexuality. It is coercive.
I cannot express strongly enough how much this chapter makes me dislike these people!
It’s difficult to express (there is a lot of difficulty in expressing these things, forgive me for continually bringing up those difficulties), if I am honest, because the way we form, and consider, relationships and human interactions is so shaped by our selves and our personal experiences. In my case I have experienced first hand, and second hand, the miseries of deceit, being used and infidelity. As much as I understand the so-called ‘irrationality’ of my relationship expectations they are as they are because of what I have been through and experienced.
I won’t go into too much detail but I am a monogamist, although I understand humans find it difficult to be exclusively monogamous for lengthy periods and thus for transitional phases it is often best one has open, and honest, communication with one’s partner. People change, lives changes, expectations change and I think it is only ethical to try to perform those changes as mutually and respectfully as possible. Sadly this rarely happens.
Sex is a weapon. The physiological and psychological links between fear and arousal are well noted and to anyone who has experienced either sensation, obvious. Every act of sex for as loving as it may be, is also, to some extent, an act of mutual violence. In the cases of consensual sex this can be an incredibly tender exchange of violence! A naughty wrestle! Sometimes people like a bit of kink, sometimes people are open to sharing their partners with others – whatever, that’s their business.
In my case, that violence has hurt me, directly and indirectly in the past and I think it’s important, since this book deals with sex as a tool of violence, that you know my personal position.
I do not judge promiscuous people, much as I do not judge boxers or MMA fighters for their profession – in fact I quite admire wilful, consensual violence.
What I judge are assaulters, people who inflict violence on unwilling victims, or worse, coerce submission to violence.
Jenny and Judy are those kinds of people. They enjoy hurting people, sexually, for fun. I find that fucking abhorrent in a human being. I fucking loathe these kinds of people. For one, because I think sex is one of those exceptional primal pleasures. Sex, food and a good walk in the wilderness! Many people have had their enjoyment of that primal pleasure ruined by people who take pleasure in causing harm. The other reason is it breaks people, it breaks families and it shatters happiness.
Culturally sex has become – I dare say almost considered virtuous. The idea being that only someone truly rational and liberal can be free and open with sex. I think this is folly. I think this disregards, admittedly, the scant research that has been done on the psychology of sex and its importance in close human bonding. I think sex has been cheapened, when it is, in fact, one of the most primal and sacred acts one can commit. Sex has been cheapened when the consequences of it, literally in the case of children, or even emotionally and in terms of relationships and connections, are incredibly expensive.
Again – I have no problem with people who are sexually liberal. I merely disagree with many of their assumptions about what that liberty means, can mean, or suggests. If liberal sexuality is something you do ethically, and enjoy, then congratulations. But in suggesting casualty of sex is in some way virtuous you are ignoring the many people who will use casual sex to inflict harm. Sex must come with a heavy weight of responsibility. Many people merely want the ecstatic pleasure without the responsibility.
Jenny and Judy embody the disregard – in an almost caricature of a villain sort of way, they are so abrasively, coarsely sexual that we are supposed to be disgusted by their actions.
But there are some who may merely see them as icons. As taking back the sexual power from the masculine world and inflicting upon the hapless, dick-led men exactly what they have done to women for years. Again, I think this is misguided. Ashurst is certainly not that man, and the kinds of men you may be forgiven for meeting disgusting behaviour for disgusting behaviour, sexual power for sexual power, are unlikely to fall for it. I think that’s revenge thinking that will merely target those vulnerable to it and I don’t think that makes for a better society. I think it promotes selfishness and harm.
Anyway – I just wanted to share that. A lot of my dislike of these characters does hinge on my own personal experiences, beliefs, thoughts and philosophies on sex and I want you to understand if your thoughts vary, that’s okay. You may have different ideas to me.
They continue their conversation with Judy explaining that it seems like Ashurst’s head has “far too much else going on for the old biological urges to stand much of a chance.”
These women are leaning upon a trope that men are always ‘up for it’ – they must be, for they’re men. This is a dangerous stereotype. If we are to combat incidents of sexual abuse of men, particularly in a female-on-male abuse scenario, this stereotype is particularly damaging and must be challenged. One only need think of the reaction to incidents where, in real life, female teachers have assaulted male students, to see that the reaction is starkly different to if a male teacher assaults a female student.
The male, even if he is just a boy, is always given more power, more agency – though he is the victim of abuse! It’s shocking.
That Judy has this idea, that there are these ‘special’ boys who aren’t thinking about sex all the time is a demonstration of that toxic stereotype. I’m fairly certain most men and boys aren’t thinking about sex all the time!
Judy was offended, “Seriously pissed off…” in fact that Ashurst may not have found her attractive. It then becomes about her insecurity. So let’s circle back to a little internal decadence.
To me ‘internal decadence’ is a psychological recognition of the slow, steady decline of everything. In some cases this may manifest as an outward fear, existential crises, nihilism, giving up or depression – that sort of thing. But then think of a mid-life crisis. To me this is an outward projection of an internal decadence. But whereas existential crises, nihilism, giving up can all be seen as recognition of the inevitable decay, mid-life crises are almost defined by rejection and denial.
One behaves in a manner as though one is younger. Risk-taking behaviours increase, impulse control reduces, often people will drink or do drugs, perhaps even perform sexual acts they otherwise would not consider due to their prior stance or, perhaps due to their illegality.
Say, for example, you’re a middle-aged school teacher who gets attention from all the boys except this one. This one makes you feel old, he makes you feel unwanted, he makes you feel like you are the age you are, he reminds you, daily, of that decay, of that inevitable decline. So what do you do? You deny, you reject – You prove him wrong by seducing him and demonstrating to yourself that the decline is not, and never was, real!
To me this is Judy. She is a wrecking-ball of thanatophobia, of fear of death, and the only way she can feel not only alive, but as though she is immortal, is by preying on young men. As long as she can attract young men she can feel as though she is never aging. She denies the decadence.
I know there’s a trend these days that asks “Why can’t people just be bad? Why do villains always need to be explained or need a reason?” and to me the answer is simple. There is no innate good or bad.
People do not act on innate impulses. Almost every study of human behaviour has placed the nurture over the nature, we are creatures of learning. We adapt our behaviours based upon our experiences.
Could Judy just be a total piece of shit? It’s possible. But if we only acknowledge her as total piece of shit we can never come to understand villainy. Only through understanding villainy will we have any potential chance to prevent it from happening. It is our imperative, for the sake of those potential future victims who could be saved, that we understand the scenarios, the mindset, the experiences, the thoughts, feelings and fears, of people who abuse so that we can stop them before they perform abuses.
To me this is one of the key reasons for understanding villainy. I do have my problems with it, once it becomes tropey – when a woman can’t be badass until she has experienced some form of trauma etc. then it gets a little daft. Women do not need to be ‘broken’ or traumatised to be superheroes or villains. However what I recognise in Judy is not some major traumatic event – it’s fundamental human development. It’s learning to cope with aging and mortality and how we go about it. People deal with it in different ways and in her I suspect she uses sex with younger men to ‘keep the demons at bay’, to stop her thinking of the inevitable, eventual decline in mind and body.
Judy goes on tell her story. How she specifically targets a 14 year old boy, emotionally and psychologically bullies him and manipulates him into acting out so she can specifically put him in detention. She deliberately chooses a detention room that would be remote, where she could do as she pleases. She spies on his school records to get an idea, a notion, of his vulnerabilities and his situation.
“He was shaking when he arrived that afternoon.” A nervous system doing the job it’s supposed to for a nervous boy trying his best to act civilised in the face of bestial brutality. Then she gets in with the good-guy act, emotionally pulling him this way and that, acting concerned when her only concern is gratifying her base desires. She touches him – “just to make first contact,” a technique used in hypnosis, suggestion and manipulative psychology.
He begins to cry, not merely at the situation he is in at that moment, but the weight of that situation and a whole lot more. It’s a cry that begs for escape, for quiet, for peace, for freedom. What does Judy do? Have some compassion? Ease off her hunt? No. “That’s when I moved in for the kill,” she says. She kisses him, and gropes him.
If there was any doubt in your mind that my hated for Judy may just be lingering misogyny and this doesn’t put that to bed then you need to go away and think hard about what behaviour you exactly think is acceptable. I don’t dislike Judy for being a sexually empowered woman; I dislike her because she is a sexually abusive animal.
I find the use of the zoomorphism, the description of Judy and Jenny as ‘cats’, interesting. Many people, when they wish to zoomorphise loathsome behaviour, will use an equivalent loathsome animal, something with a bad reputation. It’s an undeserved reputation but hyenas, for example. Wrongfully considered dirty scavengers – I’ve a whole article absolving them but the popular reputation outside of their home ranges continues.
So why use cats? Because cats are cute, they are inviting, they are admirable, and they look amazing. Jenny and Judy, it is made quite clear, are attractive women. But there’s also pretence. We forget when the bundle of fluff is curled up in our lap that this bio-machine kills. That’s its job. It’s what it is evolved and adapted to do.
Likewise Judy has been getting away with her obviously disgusting behaviours because she utilises expectations, her cunning, her sexuality and should the need arise, society’s ignorance, society’s consideration of women as cute little bundles of fluff and the neglect that they, as much as any man, have evolved to be a socially cunning killing machine. In this way misogyny can be weaponised against men and this is one of my key points in my fight for equal rights for all sexes and genders. When we make assumptions we permit injustice.
Judy is the animal. It’s almost not zoomorphism at this point! She’s driven by baser urges, perhaps to squash deeper, more human aspects, fearful aspects, deep, poignant and scary aspects, but base nonetheless.
If she fulfilled her needs sensibly, consensually and, God knows there’s a willing enough community out there, I’m sure! I’d have no problem. But there are people who need to use sex to feel powerful, and those people are dangerous. There are people whose insecurities about their own potency, or lack thereof, in the universe mean they must control what they can. They use sex as a means of expression of power and control and those people are dangerous. Those people are assaulters, abusers and rapists.
Judy is one of those.
Ashurst leaps out of a window, a desperate act from a desperate boy and far from being concerned about him or his welfare Judy is only concerned with who he might tell and what it might do for her life and her job. Somebody get two-belt UFC champion Amanda Nunes on the phone to beat the shit out of this fictional woman, please!
Ashurst confided in his doctor. The same family doctor who attended him during the dead baby kidnapping incident in chapter one. He doesn’t want things made official but the doctor warns Judy off.
Of course Judy is more interested in trying to seduce the doctor!
And then, to finish her story, she makes a gag about the size of Ashurst’s genitals.
“And they collapsed into fits of raucous laughter, more like hyenas than leopards.” And there it is!
A zoometamorphosis! A shapeshifting from one animal into another – as I mentioned, cats have a touch of the loveable or the innocence about them but this whole story demonstrates not a lick of it in either of the two women. Vivienne with a deft touch, at the very end of the chapter transforms them from one animal, a respectable predator, into one with a less respectable (albeit undeserved) reputation.
There’s not a lot of imagery to study in this chapter and I think that’s quite deliberate. It’s a conversational chapter. It’s a development of scenario and character.
For one thing we get a lot (far too much…but then any is too much…) of Judy, and the establishment of this sort-of mentor/mentee relationship between Jenny and herself. There are parts when Jenny is lost in Judy’s story, as if she’s looking up to her, lost in her power! There’s something aspirational to Jenny about the way Judy behaves.
This is a juxtaposition chapter. Whereas the opener is a limbo, a between-worlds, caught between the corporeal and the ethereal this chapter is firmly rooted in corporeal. It’s literally all about our bodies and their gratification. It sets up, perfectly, one of the key themes of the book which is the idea of the human versus the bestial.
Humans are animals – you don’t even need to flunk undergrad biology to figure that out! But something of our lives, pursuits and cultures attempts to remove us from that. Now it is my belief that a healthy balance between the two things is the ideal human condition, so one can enjoy the primal – cooking some good food over an open fire, dancing to some rhythm no matter how primitive the music, fucking like a good ‘un – spiritual pursuit need not exclude those sorts of things. The pursuit of something ‘higher’ does not need to exclude the animal in the human, but rather needs to understand and harness it. Reel it in where necessary, or let it go when needed.
We don’t know enough about Ashurst yet to know if he enjoys open fire cooking, skanking to some rhythms or having a quality shag, but we do know enough about him to know that his mind is often too elsewhere to let go in that primal fashion. There is something ‘higher’ about him, as if the consideration of how to be, and what it is right to be, is more important to him than being.
Judy, and by extension her little pupil Jenny, quite clearly try to dull those ‘higher’ thoughts and considerations by immersing themselves in carnal, primal desires. Nothing wrong with that in moderation, everyone needs to let their hair down but they have no balance.
Ashurst harms himself through his overemphasis on, for want of a better term, a spiritual enlightenment. To think what’s right. Although he clearly acts on impulse (jumping out of the window) he also demonstrates remarkable restraint (biting his lip when he wants to chastise Judy). In trying to do what is right and honourable harm can enter his life – but this is not his fault. He is merely trying to be good. He would not have harm done to him if other people acting in a less considerate manner had the same restraint he does.
Judy harms herself by acting solely on animal desire. She’s a piece of shit and for all her life might be okay now she’s fucked. She is using sex as a tool of denial of the decadence, of the decline and the decay that will take its toll on her mind and body and she is neglecting what we might call the ‘soul’, the inner peace. She will be a very bitter, sad, lonely old woman if she doesn’t take her life sooner. She has no restraint because restraint is a tool of those who aim for something higher and she is as base as it gets. She harms herself by leaving in her wake a line of people she has harmed, and any one of these people could, themselves, learn a harsh lesson, act just as base, and come back for revenge. Living that kind of unbalanced life will inevitably harm you.
There is no balance, yet, to these people. But we are learning about a 14 year old boy and a woman who has been getting away with it. Balance comes with age, experience, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, hurt, consequence and most importantly an acceptance of fault. Whether you are too reliant on your thinking to ever just be, or whether you’re too busy trying to stop the thoughts by being – it’s unsustainable.
I think that’s one of the points Vivienne is trying to make, here and I think this chapter serves as the perfect juxtaposition to the opening chapter with its atmospheric spirituality.
Chapter one is a solemn hymn, echoing through a Cathedral, the scent of frankincense sending you to the halfway-house between heaven and earth. Chapter two is a hot, sweaty mid-summer bonfire, the smoke will be a pleasing aroma until it smothers you tomorrow, soot caught in your sweat as you dance barefoot, toes feeling the earth, lustful and animal.
This is what I mean about the tapestry coming together, the structure of the novel permitting this slow meet-in-the-middle of the apollonian aspirations of Ashurst and his spiritual purity, this angel slowly descending to learn the realities of earth; whilst these chthonian spirits, demons of the underworld, slowly climb and realise their powers are not so potent or without consequence on the surface.
Religious and spiritual considerations – in the most gnostic fashion – ooze out of this novel and had it been written by any number of dozens of other names it’d be considered a work of genius and be held in the highest regard as a part of the modern literary canon.