Inhabiting the Slash

Emerson Whitney, Heaven

McSweeney’s, 200pp, $24.00, ISBN 9781944211769

reviewed by George Ttoouli

Several years ago I attended a reading by Alan Hollinghurst at which Germaine Greer was in the audience. During the Q & A, she expostulated the impossibility of authentically representing one’s other: straight people couldn’t write gay relationships, nor gay men lesbian relationships and so on. After this lengthy outlay, she left the provocation hanging with, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Hollinghurst replied, ‘I’ve never really thought about it,’ then turned to another raised hand in the room: ‘Next question.’

Lionel Shriver’s counterposition to Greer, outlined in her provocative speech to the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival, suggests writers deserve full permission to write whatever they like. Yet this seems to find itself at the other end of a false binary to ‘impossible authentication,’ one that gives writers free rein to ignore history, appropriating without acknowledging the inequalities many have and continue to suffer.

The spectre of impossibility haunting Greer’s argument in turn reminded me of feminism’s ‘gendered writing’ argument: women lack antecedents through which to construct a feminine identity, ergo there can be no such thing as women’s writing. How do you give yourself permission to construct a new language without prior examples and with only masculine structures and influences to work with? And: what’s the alternative to a catch-22 of cultural appropriation that ignores or denies the possibility for new cultural paradigms? Is it privilege that allows the world’s Hollinghursts to never have to think about it?

These impossibilities and binaries haunt Emerson Whitney’s essay-poem account-of-oneself, Heaven, and their response is marvellous. Taking up Luce Irigaray’s post-Freudian analysis of patriarchally-defined femininity – phallic/non-phallic, and so on – Whitney declares, ‘I want to be the slash in all of those examples. Can I?’ That sliver of typography turns out to be enough ground to grow a new wild. Heaven is as much about the act of giving permission to be oneself outside of categories, as it is an account of a self.

To support the account the book also marshals and celebrates a range of antecedents and contemporary allies from sociology, philosophy, biology and critical theory, representing Native American, crip, queer and crip-queer identities (but taxonomy is a mug’s game, after all) and, of course, Ru Paul and a similar gaggle of mainstream enablers of post-category bodies and selves. Together this intellectual pack voices-through just how hard it is to construct a new tradition, and also how valuable it is to strain against the bounds of acceptability.

Heaven’s emotional trajectory hinges on mother-child (and grandmother-grandchild) relationships. A second question posits: ‘how do we think about our mothers with a new language?’ With outsiderly panache, Whitney throws sentences into odd yet meaningful constructions, treating language as material and refashioning ideological structures, as if to show the potential for a post-gendered syntax.

Reflecting on the writing of a scene of domestic abuse, Whitney responds, ‘This responsibility was monstrous and is still glowing, a porn.’ The tangled brevity of the line reflects the scene’s chaos. The surprise, the doubled was/is verbs and the abrupt noun, with indefinite article: you can read the parts, make sense of the words, but the experience is unfamiliar and shocking.

In the scene, Jeb, the abusive partner, stands in his boxers outside Whitney’s bedroom, ‘slamming our white corded phone into its holder. Sweaty chunks of broken phone shot crazy into the carpet’. Running outside, they find their mother ‘topless, her breasts wagged against a light fog. She held herself and a smatter of wire glasses that he’d broken over her nose.’ The shock here isn’t just the abuse, but the shock of reading such an experience sandwiched between transgender critical theory and meta-commentary from a friend (who describes an earlier version of the book as ‘trauma porn’) alongside flashback characterisations of mother-child intimacy – a love letter of sorts – all the while serving as a condemnation of how domestic abuse shapes and breaks social relations. The scene is emotional, personal and intellectually reflective in ways that are inseparable, even necessarily co-dependent for their impact. All this in a few pages.

Whitney’s Heaven marks a wider trend in Western culture, of growing away from toxic conventions, binaries and negativities. Maggie Nelson’s influence is clear, not just from her puff on the book’s jacket (and thanks in the acknowledgements), but woven through the book’s intellectual argument. Explicitly, Whitney works through that aspect of The Art of Cruelty in which Nelson asks ‘why matricide has to be the sine qua non of our individuation’ from our mothers. Yet the stronger resonance is with Nelson’s essay poetics in Bluets and The Argonauts, apparent in Heaven’s formal design.

Against the formal control and pacing of the essay-vignettes in Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Whitney’s messy (messay?) poetics are coherently alive and disturbingly irregular. While the whole is built along a three-act, coming-of-age structure, the propensity for flashbacks and flashforwards disrupts some of the causality of chronology. Each vignette offers a haphazard collection of prose blocks, with frequent single-sentence paragraphs peppering the flow, many of which are delivered with the punch of poetic lines.

In one of the more astonishing scenes – one of many tracing the addiction tying generations and relations together – Whitney describes being home alone and emptying a bottle of vodka down the drain, before falling asleep half-undressed while masturbating with a vibrating doodle pen. The scene escalates into disorientation and violence as Whitney’s mother drags them from bed and through the house to the garage, before finally demanding, ‘What did you do with the fucking alcohol?’ Following Whitney’s confession, their mother whispers, ‘I thought you drank it.’ The movement from sexuality to sensuality, from rebellion to love, is brutal and unpredictable. I couldn’t help thinking how clearly the scene’s ending captured how I felt after reading it: ‘She pulled me into her lap. I was spinning. I wanted to rip my fingers off and throw them to her.’

The narrative arc of each vignette is well earned, and though the leaps between reflective meta-commentary and the hot mess of experience do their best to reject linearity, as if reaching for a new order for communicating experience, Whitney’s control of conventional narrative structure is acutely realised and satisfying. One riveting paragraph begins, ‘In sixth grade, I was put into special ed and it was clear that the whole point was to separate kids like me out.’ It ends six sentences later with: ‘A friend of mine hung himself off his bunk bed by his dad’s tie.’ The whole paragraph reads like the plot of a tragic novel.

Such patterns of dense micro-narratives abound, and show Whitney’s attempt at an account of oneself hasn’t given up on story conventions, so much as it strives toward fresh light. Perhaps my one gripe is how the underlying chronological progression through Heaven’s three acts speeds up and detaches from the emotional engine, as if by trying half-heartedly to impose, or make sense of, the memoir, the veracity of the account loses traction. The last section in particular moves through its vignettes with less immersion in the scenes and less emotional clarity.

With good reason, Nelson signals Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself in her puff for Heaven. Whitney gives us a version of that task, written through a network of selves and empathetic others, inhabiting the slashes between experience, mimesis and theory. Heaven invites the reader to attend to life and, simply by accounting for their lived experience, Whitney makes the ground in which inclusion can flourish, not just for themselves, but for a burgeoning new culture in need of its own tradition, as much as permission to not have to think about it.
George Ttoouli is a writer, editor and teacher based in Coventry. His second collection of poetry, from Animal Illicit, is forthcoming November 2020 from Broken Sleep Books.