The Right to Bear Arms

Katharina Volckmer, The Appointment

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 112pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781913097325

reviewed by Liam Bishop

There is a stage in our young lives, said Freud, where we undertake ‘research’ to begin trying to understand our body in relation to others, and in Katharina Volckmer’s debut novel, The Appointment, with a narrator about to undergo an unspecified medical procedure, it’s as though laying — assumedly — bare she’s harking back to a state of exposure that might have been lived as that ‘researching’ child. The narrator asks what the hell is right or wrong with her body. She provokes us with fantasies of Hitler, candid disclosures about her parents, and intimate portrayals of sexual encounters. The search for a venue to expose herself, psychologically and physically, has led her here, to Dr Seligman's room.

Nudity does provoke us in many ways sexual and intellectual, but nakedness and nudity are disparate terms. As Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote in an article in Vogue, ‘if [a woman] takes off her clothes, it is to be seen a sign of her insecurity and validation, rather than feeling comfortable with herself.’ Here, the narrator recalls once debating the purchase of a vibrator:

Just think of the headlines: single woman with two cats killed by faulty vibrator. What could be more tragic? Are you aware of any such cases? I mean. I know that there are guarantees and that Japan is not China and that they produce everything to a very high standard, but in the past I never dared. Or, to be honest, and since this is a medical examination and this information might be relevant, I never got beyond inserting a banana into my vagina.

Volckmer’s narrator is often theorising, and the proliferation of questions suggests that they routinely go unanswered. Yet, as her monologue gathers momentum (or rather plows on relentlessly from page one), the idea of research becomes intimate to a strip-search ‘stripping away the layers.’ Arguably, we relate to a feeling of exposure or vulnerability in her, but it’s as though the narrator is trying to create discomfort for the person witnessing this projective display of embarrassing fantasies and confessions. With the silent Dr Seligman remaining acquiescent, it’s clear that the discomfort is directed at the reader.

Learning that it is an inheritance from her grandfather that pays for the procedure, we also get an insight into what ideas she might also have inherited from her family about the world:

I knew that underneath the blanket that I would pull away, he was usually naked. People often think that the German approach to nudity is very avant-grade, that it’s a sign of our liberation, but thinking of my father’s nudity now, it doesn’t strike me as a symbol of freedom. Dr Seligman, if anything, I think it’s a way of showing that you have nothing to hide.

This sounds like one of those researches she might have undertaken as a child, and if there ever was an image that reflects how our idea of the world can be moulded by the environment of the family to be refracted into the world, well, this is it. Why wouldn’t having ‘nothing to hide’ represent a symbol of freedom? Instead, for the narrator being nude shows ‘[t]hat your body is healthy and that you have not grown a third nipple or lazy foot, that you have not accidentally fucked a Jew or polluted the entire race’ as if the coruscating searches of our national and personal histories can be inscribed in the individual’s body. Whilst we’re a society that apparently values honesty and remorse on a governmental stage, bearing all on the individual level can be socially destructive rather than constructive.

By this point we become curious about the silent Dr Seligman. Passing references are made to his baldness and ‘velvet walls’ and, indeed, Freud wrote how ‘velvet’ can represent ‘pubic hair’ and, ultimately, the ‘longed-for sight of the female member.’ Hair is undoubtedly important to the narrator though: the novel opens with a ‘feeling’ of Hitler’s moustache on her top lip, and she often refers to hair either animal, pubic, or head-topping. But with Volckmer’s narrator questioning the ‘stupid rules [that] apply to women’s bodies’, whilst she might long for the sight of a penis as Freud might lead us to believe, I think the hair and velvet gives us a clue as to where all this research eventually leads:

Did you go swimming with your mother as a child, Dr Seligman? Did you have to share one of those small changing cubicles with one of your own parents and wonder how long it would take for your body to look the same? When your pubic hair would start thinning and little warts would start growing under your armpits? . . . I remember how her body used to terrify me, how I used to think it was the ugliest thing in the world, and every time her soft skin brushed against mine I felt like I was drowning in that little box of warmth and the smell of our old towels. . .

In her essay, ‘Notes Toward a Theory of Hair’, Siri Hustvedt writes how, ‘[n]o doubt phallic significance has accumulated around hair in many cultures, but the persistent adoption of an exclusively male perspective (everybody has a penis) consistently fails to see meanings that are ambiguous, multilayered, and hermaphroditic, not either/or, but both-and.’ The Appointment champions the ‘not either/or, but both-and’; its articulated rage against gender binaries makes it more than just an artful provocation.

Liam Bishop is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham researching modernist legacies in 21st-century literature. He is also a founding editor of the non-fiction literary journal Tolka.