A Pair of Ragged Claws

Jackie Ess, Darryl

Clash Books, 192pp, £15.95, ISBN 9781944866846

reviewed by Dominic Fox

Among the several eccentricities for which the Canadian Professor Jordan B. Peterson has become widely known is a peculiar choice of example to illustrate the formation of dominance hierarchies outside the sway of human society and culture. Peterson might have settled on rutting stags, or chest-beating orang-utans; instead he picked a non-mammalian species, the European lobster, whose outsize claws serve a primary purpose not of predation, but of violent competition for mating opportunities. Crucially, for Peterson, the neurotransmitter serotonin, associated in human beings with feelings of well-being, is also circulating in lobsters as they engage in their trials of strength, surging within the victorious (and spurring them to greater aggression) and depleted in the vanquished (who accordingly show signs of discouragement). According to Peterson, lobster losers feel shitty: hierarchy among crustaceans is not only externally verified through displays of prowess, but internalised as a waxing or waning biochemical élan.

The titular narrator of Jackie Ess's Darryl, a lifestyle cuckold who embraces the shitty feelings occasioned by being outdone and pushed around to the point of ecstatic self-obliteration, might be considered an object lesson, in the words of William Burroughs, in how far human kicks can go. Like Peterson, Darryl is a firm believer in dominance hierarchies, not only as an observable feature of the mating and social behaviour of certain of our evolutionary cousins, but as a primary metaphysical fact about what it is to be alive. The innermost truth of the world discloses itself whenever a virile male with a confident swagger and an astonishing cock pounds a willing female into whatever counts for her as consummation: Darryl likes to watch. So, going by the percentage of internet traffic devoted to streaming pornography, do many other people — but for Darryl it has to be his wife, and he has to be in, or just outside, the room. In other words, the feeling of being a loser, in a scenario in which there are incontrovertibly losers and winners, is a central focus of erotic intensity for him. Shame, defeat, diminishment: these are the unpromising materials out of which his deepest satisfactions are woven.

A front-cover endorsement from Torrey Peters (author of the celebrated Detransition, Baby) declares Darryl to be a ‘pilgrim’s progress’ through the contemporary queer landscape — a good description of Darryl’s passage through serial degradations and misadventures, although now I put it like that an obvious comparison would seem to be Sade’s Justine. But no, Peters has it right: Darryl is a seeker, rather than a hapless victim, and what he is looking for is a crisis of sufficient severity that it will cause him to feel real to himself. Living off an inheritance which he seems intent on being defrauded out of, flickering moth-like around the major moral and intellectual controversies of his time, Darryl’s recurring question is ‘what is it that connects my life to life?’ I read him initially as a modern Prufrock, and was obliged by what seemed to be a couple of nods in the text towards this notion: ‘I never wanted to be the star of the show. I'm a simple guy, supporting cast, maybe.’ (cf Eliot: ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two’), and, later, a complaint about how ‘the only thing I'm sure of is that it's impossible to talk now, impossible to say what you mean, that's the world the young are building'. (‘It is impossible to say just what I mean!’, as Prufrock famously expostulates; although he isn’t blaming it on ‘cancel culture’.) But where Prufrock concerns a faltering of agency on the threshold of desire — ‘Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?’ — Darryl embraces a complete collapse of the virile prerogative of ‘forcing’ things to happen. He is, emphatically, not the one who knocks.

Instead, Darryl routinely contrives, through a combination of ingenuous pot-stirring and strategically letting things drift, to enable situations to develop in which it is inevitable that something untoward will happen, while avoiding the appearance of being in any sense to blame for whatever comes to pass. He reminds me of what R. D. Laing wrote of the psychiatric patient who lacked ‘primary ontological security’, that ‘if the individual cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy, and identity of himself and others for granted, then he has to become absorbed in contriving ways of trying to be real.’ His unsettled sexual identity — he cannot be recruited into queerness, kink, transness or any of the available vocabularies of sexual rapport — has a defiant aspect to it, as if in becoming any determinate thing he himself would softly and suddenly vanish away. In declaring his comfort with being a ‘cuck’, a despised pseudo-category largely defined by a deplorable political tendency (the revanchist masculinism of the alt-right), he espouses an unpalatably heretical form of abjection. The novel steers him somewhat in the direction of becoming a fulfilled and self-realised gay bottom, but I am inclined to read this as simply a successor mask for a fundamentally unstabilisable personality. Chaos, mustering inexorably at the periphery of the scene, will attend him wherever he goes.

As a literary endeavour, Darryl is simultaneously polished and uneasy, making strategic use of glibness as a sign that something dangerous is being glided past. It’s often hilariously cutting at the expense of the sexual subcultures it ranges across, in the sorts of ways that this cishet reader would have felt guilty about enjoying if he were into feeling guilty about enjoying things. (The chapter on the ‘trans flat’ was brutally funny, but only a trans author could possibly have gotten away with writing it.) But I found it most interesting in its eschewal of melancholy, its use of Darryl’s primary ontological instability as a way of shucking off the twin narrative temptations of nostalgia and closure. Most iterations of the ‘trickster’ archetype have a self-congratulatory aspect: they picture a figure who successfully puts one over on the world, dancing around its snares and evading its tedium. Darryl introduces a genuinely novel figure: a chaos-agent who is at every turn a loser, on whom the world continually puts one over, but whose very passivity is explosively charged.

Dominic Fox is a writer and programmer living and working in London. He is the author of Cold World and blogs at www.thelastinstance.com.