Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Structure as Liberation: Unmastered

I finally read Katherine Angel's memoir Unmastered: A Book on Desire (Most Difficult to Tell). It had a strangely warm welcoming in 2012 in England - I say strange because it is a pretty direct and robust memoir about sexuality, and because England doesn't have the same memoir trend happening as in the States.

At a surface level, for me, this book is by a vanilla, heterosexual, cis-gendered academic woman exploring the edges of BDSM. Normally I wouldn't touch a book like that - I am much more interested in queer experience, as it is closer to my own, and playing with much more explicit depth around gender and power.

However, just like the apparent content and identity, the structure - complex but often showing just a few words a page - belies the complexity and depth of this book.

Angel uses roman numeraled untitled sections, divided into numbered chapters - at times the chapters are a few words long/one page - only occasionally longer. The Guardian reviewer linked above points to its fragmentary nature, but I wouldn't even use the word fragment - because actually she somehow coheres a whole with so many tiny pieces, more so than she would if she had made the book one long narrative with lyrical imagery. Definitely not dissociative - so fragmentary if in the end we realize how powerful it is to leverage fragments to make a whole, and to point to just how fragmented sexuality feels for so many women.

Her writing is sophisticated but clear, with plenty of imagery and dialogue. She reveals even the process itself of writing the book - how her male lover feels about it, as well as her mother's inquiries into what this next project is really about. She works as a researcher regarding women's sexual health issues - it can't be unusual in her life for her to talk about sex-related topics at the dinner table. And yet, she interlaces a great deal of personal experience, including an entire section dedicated to an abortion she had when she was younger. There are pages where all she says is "I am so fucking hungry!" or "This is a thing I cannot say." or "I do not know."

It is above all this not knowing, this being unmastered in writing about sex, not having mastered how to depict it, which is the strength of the book. Her vulnerability - intellectual as well as sexual - is preserved by the structure, honored by it. She refuses to take sides, which she explicitly depicts in a section where she visits a few conference talks on pornography. She sees complexity where others want simplicity. To whit:
Sometimes it would be nice, I think - it would be a relief - to be so certain. To be so sure, to have such sharp edges. To know where one began and ended.
But I did, in fact, use to be sure, to be that certain. And it felt like this: like a hard stone in my body that caught and scraped, and made it difficult to move. That made it impossible to feel, to taste and trace the contours of myself, of others.
Some further passages to give a sense of her voice and the breadth and depth:
What I like - or what I like to look at, which may not be the same thing - is the kind of classy kink that seems just distant enough from the grimy associations of porn ("porn," not "pornography") that I feel able to walk the tightrope of sheer instrumental lust without cringing...This knowing, ironic aesthetic accomplishes a neat function: it doesn't feel like porn. Or like how I think porn should feel, which is to say: misogynistic, coercive, tacky.
Sometimes when he fucks me, I feel I am fucking myself. 
When the doing is dominated by speaking, when there are too many words words words, it is because, in fact, you are somehow not enough. By which I mean that you do not feel yourself to be enough, and that feeling makes you shrink, in your eyes and mine.
The frenzy of words: I feel your fear, and I struggle to protect it from the truth. 
This is the paradox - how to use words to describe the ineffable? Even for a masterful writer, she knows we need just as much space and silence as we do words. To make contact with what is instead of covering it. To remain uncomfortable and unsure and write beautifully from that place.

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