Gender, Genre: A Culture Bomb,
by Robin Tremblay-McGaw
Gender/genre is pure experiment (as every boundary construction is a gamble, a dare, a hypothetical with consequences). That most have chosen to repeat old experiments does not logically negate the possibility of new forms; it is simply an indication of the degree to which cultures tend to discourage the disruptions of radical curiosity...
The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy is a history of a young unlady writing in San Francisco in the 1980s. Stoker's Mina Harker, "this plain Jane secretarial adjunct," in Bellamy's hands becomes her own subject who vows never to "perish in domesticity like a Jane Austen heroine." In the wings: AIDS and death exercise their insatiable appetites. By blurring the lines between sexual and literary articulation ("my throat is a cunt"), Bellamy/Harker "suck up the silence." Gender, genre, and class crash in The Letters in a culture bomb. "I am a post-punk Milton waging a one woman war against structure, taste, logic and even words themselves."(207)
Bellamy's "bestiare d'amour" has an affinity with Kathy Acker's no-holds-barred approach and the work of Dennis Cooper and other "new narrative" writers. Identity is always in question; boundaries always at risk. Mina and Dodie defy pinning down. They're shifting, in constant motion. Bellamy constructs a sophisticated doppleganger effect between author and subject, undermining her own position of mastery by implicating herself on the page. "Dodie's so much more constructed than I. She makes a clone of herself, Mina Harker." Mina/Dodie's voracious appetite/cunt/writing (where does one end and the other begin?) gulp down everythingcum, pop, cock, culture, films, history, literature, horror, philosophy, fast food, sex, and anything else she can get her hands and mind onspewing it back "bursting with plots you never stop narrating." (Although this is said about Sam D'Allessandro, it also describes The Letters.) Narrow and binary definitions of form and content, theory and creative work, high and low life, authenticity ("Who cares if it's true or merely a dream spiraling into the darkness, a piece of cheap dinnerware covered with jewels"), class, and gender are uprooted and exposed in all their complexity in The Letters.(62) This mish-mash of high and low raw matter is the stuff used to create a glittering universe. "Yet all that was sick or hysterical about her behavior in day-to-day life could be turned into something valuable through the act of writing."(15)
Historically, the epistolary novel has its origin as a form used by male writers to tell the private, supposedly "authentic" (read unmediated) story of a woman's seduction, abandonment, and fall. Claire Goldstein points out that "from the seventeenth century on, the letter becomes associated with the feminine" and is encoded feminine in several ways: "as an activity engaged in by women, as a published genre appreciated by a largely female audience, and also as a reflection of a certain cultural image of female character."(575, emphasis added) The letters are usually presented as written for private not public purposes. Once they have been made publicafter some remarkable or fortuitous chancethey are presumed to be part of a secret and therefore more revealing, more authentic text. Frequently the female subject, as in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Clarissa, is of a "propertied" family. That is, she is not working class. There would be no tragedy to reveal in telling the tale of a poor or working class woman's fall. She is already fallen. She is always the other woman: sexualized, disposable, already erased, not part of the cultural economy. Middle and upper class women are located as pure, clean, virginal, marriageable, and therefore part of the cultural economy though often as an object of exchange and consumption. Goldstein notes that "the style and format attributed to epistolary prosenatural, light, naiveresemble the style of conversation cultivated in aristocratic women and enforced by cultural discourse and instruction."(575, emphasis added)
As Kathy Lou Schultz points out, "while it is now possible to identify a trajectory of experimental women's writing, to inhabit a vocabulary of gender and sexuality, references to class often remain just that: mere codes." Bellamy's The Letters of Mina Harker challenges codes of social decorum and propriety, and their relationship to class, at every turn. In The Letters, Bellamy takes the form of the epistolary novel and wrests it from its "high" ground. She launches her culture bomb, exploding the discrete notions of anything that could be considered "natural," "authentic," "light," "naive," and makes something new and endlessly expandable, exponentially multiplying the details, descriptions, digressions sounding out"in medias mess""the joyful, troublesome, gender, genre [class] exploding noise."(Retallack 351)
Bellamys challenges expose even while acknowledging that the codes of gender (and Id add class) make anything she does twice as shocking than anything a man might do. "I like to talk dirty too," Bellamy states, "But sometimes it's such a yawn since all the cards are stacked on my sidebeing female, anything I do is automatically twice as shocking as anything you do..."(19). She out-others the notion of Other, thereby overturning one of the organizing principles of the epistolary genre: "...having been an Other since the day I was born, being the other woman was small potatoes to me."(56) Our author is seductress; married woman (to a gay man and writer, "KK"); the other woman; a woman fantasizing about her favorite "Victoria's Secret" model, Fredrique; the frump in a torn bathrobe at the keyboard, writer; woman who sits apart from another woman"her face every inch of it covered with lipstick"to "show they have different futures", and a host of others.(22)
Identity is always fluid and gender open for appropriation: "I loved it when my tits or my cock or my asshole would destroy my own ego with their needs."(181) "I'm amazed at my erection long and hard and colorful."(23) And while the effects of class in the hands of many may be buried in codes, Bellamy takes a different tactic: "Thus did I understand that Rendezvous and I were involved in a conflict of formhe approached me from behind sneaking up on my subconscious like a tracking missile (he calls this letting things pass, I called him a passive-aggressive asshole). I'm the William Tell type, firing at a person point blank (he called me a controlling bitch, I call this getting things out in the open)..."(214). Bellamy eradicates boundaries between what can be articulated and how in public or in private and risks the consequences of doing so, particularly at the heart of the intersection of class, gender, and innovative writing. Bellamy has remarked on the SUNY poetics listserv that "the feminist poetics scene in San Francisco nourished mebut it became quite clear fairly early on that I was not going to be supported there (quite the opposite) for the sexuality and vulgarity I was moving towards. (Though it wasn't as bad as when I recently read in Cambridge and nobody would look me in the eye or talk to me after my reading.)"
By assuming multiple positions (or what Schultz calls "complex and mediated identities"), Bellamy marks herself as someone struggling against the system of fixed social, class, literary, and gender structures/strictures. She is then invested with the power to address, unseat, lay bare, redress whatever may fall under her gaze and pen. And yet, as Bellamy says in "Reading Tour" from Tripwire 2, "While I believereally believethat formal innovation opens new vistas of expression, better allows me to track a psyche's collisions with a fucked-up misogynistic culture, I'm still plagued with self-doubt. Am I an elitist, I ask myself, am I like one of those social climbing neighbors my mother scorned, the ones who traipsed around with shopping bags from Marshall Field when Sears and J.C. Penney have everything a reasonable person would need?"("Reading Tour" 127-28) She still questions her particular strategies for addressing vulgarity and sexual and innovative literary pleasures/pressures (class, gender, genre). She remains poised, sometimes hilariously ("Life is like marriage: who could stand the constancy if you didn't take it for granted") at an outpost on the edge of some nether world. (119)
In Bellamy's hands, Harker is no polite, anorexic, aristocratic debutante. Right at the outset, Bellamy's voracious appetite ("This book is the bag. So is my cunt.") is unleashed, chowing down everything from Nosferatu, Duchamp, Bram Stoker, "Hill Street Blues," William Gibson, The Hunger, Newton's machinery, herbaceous plants of the Amazon, bloody sanitary napkins used as literary and sexual fodder, literary theory, and Gregory Corso, to name just a few (and this is just in the first letter or two!).(11)
As Joan Retallack has said in another context, but which aptly describes Bellamy's Letters, "[T]he very act of attending entails a radical figure/ground shift."(345) Good middle class girls and women are polite, taught not to discuss (or even see) the monstrous; indeed this is part of the education for becoming a woman in middle class society. In discussing the social pressures to silence adolescent women, Michelle Fine notes, "The voices ... echo powerful, diverse, and yet share messages to domesticate, submit, and be nice, if not mute." Bellamy speaks about topics which are often veiled or kept hidden by the codes of polite, middle class conversation, literature, and sexual politics, such as "my nose against his soft-hard cock, nostrils itching with fabric softener and urine."(11, emphasis added) As she states elsewhere, "The monstrous and the formless have as much right as anybody else."(10)
Bellamy addresses these things using a vocabulary and diction that is the marriage of street and poetry, "I am so aroused my clit flicks like a tongue."(9) She violates rules about where it is O.K. to speak as well: "...in...the Roxie Theater...I shout, 'That's me on the screen you assholes!"(9) "Bad metaphors are the only way we can approach the really important things, don't you agree?" she confides, continuing by way of example, "the stars are astonishing, the sky speckled like the black-suited shoulders of a guy with really bad dandruff."(11) She understands the conventions of authenticity, privacy, gossip and voyeurism on which the epistolary novel rests: "DON'T TELL ANYBODY are the three most erotic words in the English language."(20) Bellamy challenges what one can speak about (subject matter), how one can talk about it (vocabulary, diction, form, taste), where (context), and by whom (gender). This Mina is no disgraced, fallen woman. Having joyfully positioned herself in opposition to this system, she revels in the full menu of pleasures (and pain, rage, etc) to which she has access and can give voice. In The Letters, sex, life, death, characters, the body, desire, the text will not be contained by rules of class, gender, and social decorum. There is mutiny here, but no muteness.
This is writing without shame. Bellamy presents the particular details of her characters' existence, giving voice to their complexities as educated people living at a lower economic status. An example is her description of the Kentucky Fried chicken wedding meal, which is had while sitting on a sofa with "springs poking my butt" in front of a 12 inch black and white TV (this is not a description of a first married meal in middle class land!), alongside an invocation of a Duchamp nude.(10) Others might include "KK" fixing his zipper with a staple gun or the kitschy apartment with a photo of Deneuve ripped from a magazine, strewn dirty clothes, and an ashtray from a local restaurant. "KK's" face is lovingly described as being "like his thrift store clothes: worn but to the innovative never beyond mending" while his TV dinners come from Canned Food Outlet (201). Or there is the description of sex in the car with Dion, whose day job is hauling around carcassesand Dion holding up a bloody finger (She has her period and he's not cleaned up from work).
Bellamy addresses without simplifying the intricacies of class, suggesting that any elision of such distinctions would itself be a wrong: "Voice spit tears shit a crythe refusal to emit seems like a crime."(158) This notion of complexity is enacted formally, as the letters are addressed to multiple others: the reader; an individual who is dead (the writer, Sam D'Allessandro); fans; lovers; personal friends; and others who may be "fictional" characters (Qunicey, Dr. Van Helsing). Bellamy locates the class, gender and social pressures/conventions underlying the epistolary form and plays with those conventions. Out of this is created a form that performs a complex relation. It's both kitschy and sublime.
In The Letters, Bellamy marries high and low culture. Texts, movies, and a host of other second-hand material are used as jumping off points to create something new. And because the reader may be familiar with many of these other materials, and because of the resemblance to seemingly real people, say in the San Francisco writing scene, the boundaries between these things are constantly moving and in question. The novel is a performance in which, willingly or not, everyone participates.
The writing itself is sexualized in what could be considered a particularly female strategy. As Genre Tallique says, "Attention to the complex discontinuities of the feminine in language will explode the shortest distance between points and turn it into a field of sinuous, labyrinthine lanes." Dodie/Mina say that "the simplest narrative is the history of a gratified desire" but then go on to create a world/text in which "she cannot resist cannot withhold she reveals things too early, slips in the vulnerable the unwise the embarrassing the scandalous."(42) Writing is sexy, sexual, generative, voracious, expansive: "Writing has always been more sexual than sex, the sustained arousal of never quite getting it right."(73) Desire is anything but gratified, certainly not simple, or linear. Yet Bellamy understands the allure of narrative, "I am eager for his ejaculations as I was for Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennett to marry," although she refuses the mousetrap of plot.(38) The book openly struggles with how to "end" such a text: "So here I am, working on my ending, going crazy with endings..."(197). The writing is full of desire at every turn. "Eagerly he licks his cum from my mouth: I want to bring the reader this close to writing." And she does.
Perhaps the social and reductively defined codes of middle-class life and literature, or any bounded areafeminist writing, the novel, relationships, for exampleattempt to too narrowly structure the world, whatever particular world we're talking about. Bellamy gives voice to the complicated, the messy, the vulgar and explicit. Her writing is multiplicitous and interwoven, blowing up boundaries of silence and absence in whatever guise in the class, gender, genre big bang. Like Jane Austen, an author Bellamy talks about reading in The Letters, and other writers who have gone before, Bellamy provides an important role model for writers breaking with traditional strategies and codes about what can be explored in a literature interested in narrative and how to address class and gender issues in the context of innovative form.
Bellamy, Dodie. The Letters of Mina Harker. West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press, Inc. 1998.
_____, "Reading Tour." Tripwire: A Journal of Poetics, 1.2 (Fall 1998).
_____. SUNY Poetics Discussion list, March 25, 1999.
Fine, Michelle, cover blurb for Women, Girls, & Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance. Eds. Carol Gilligan et al. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1991.
Goldstein, Claire. "Love Letters: Discourses of Gender and Writing in the Criticism of the Lettre portugaises." Romantic Review 88.4 (Nov 1997): 571-591.
Retallack, Joan. ":RE: THINKING:LITERARY: FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds)" in Feminist Measure: Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Eds. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994. 344-77.
Schultz, Kathy Lou. "Talking Trash, Talking Class: What's a Working Class Poetic, and Where Would I Find One?" Tripwire, A Journal of Poetics, 1.1 (Spring 1998).
BIO: Robin Tremblay-McGaw co-edits Lipstick Eleven [http://www.duckpress.org] with Kathy Lou Schultz and Jim Brashear. Her work has appeared in 6ix, Mirage, Potepoetzine, non,lyric &, TO and elsewhere. Her 1996 chpabook, after a grand collage is available from SPD. By day she is a librarian and webmaster for a nonprofit working on the prevention of gun violence.