At The Right Distance
by Leon Craig
Chloe Caldwell, Women Fourth Estate, 144pp, ISBN 9780008254919, £10.00
‘Loss, I thought, did not have to be a void of grief and pain, it could also be an encounter’ realises Echo, the protagonist of Saskia Vogel’s debut novel Permission, as she is comforted by her dominatrix lover. While staying with her parents in a coastal town outside Los Angeles, she goes climbing with her father in a nearby cove and he suddenly disappears into the waves. As harbour patrol and the rescue divers slowly abandon the search, she remains trapped in her parents’ house, isolated from her mother by their shared sorrow and desperate for distraction. Driving around the cliffs looking for somewhere to be alone, she is forced into continually re-encountering her lost adolescence.
A failing actress without any upcoming roles, Echo has no reason to return to her flat in the city. She tries working as a life model at the nearby community art centre, only to be confronted by the furious Mr Moradi, who still blames her for the breakdown in his relationship with his daughter after he caught the two in flagrante delicto. ‘Hoping for time with a person who didn’t know I no longer had a dad’, she turns to her on-off lover, only to find him enraged by her refusal to fall unrequitedly in love with him. Her agent’s assistant pressures her into sex in the hope of reviving her stalled acting career, then loses his temper when she unexpectedly starts her period.
Still heavy with the superstitious hope that lives in grief, she sees a stream of ‘daddies’ entering and leaving a neighbour’s house and half-convinces herself that her own father will come there too, on his way back to her. When she finally crosses the road, Echo does find a family, but of an unconventional kind. The house belongs to Orly and her house-servant Piggy, a man who has willingly given up everything to serve Orly and assist her with her other clients. While the relationship has a transactional aspect, it goes beyond the purely commercial and Orly is affectionate towards him, though she is also desirous of another woman to share her life with. Echo is tentatively welcomed into the arrangement as it becomes clear she can be trusted.
Despite the subject matter, the novel is more concerned with making us feel empathy than titillation. Orly’s work is often presented as a kind of ritual therapy, encouraging people to make safer contact with overwhelming emotions like shame and fear. Echo’s complicated feelings of pity and anger at Mr Moradi, mingled with longing for her own dead father are carefully untangled. So is her mother’s grief, muddled as it is with disappointment in what had not been an entirely happy marriage. Although Piggy is clearly jealous of Orly and fears Echo narrator monopolising her affections, he is not presented to us as a villain: the middle section of the novel describes with sympathy his journey out of a stultifyingly miserable marriage and the search for someone he can love in the self-abnegating way that he needs to.
Permission also contains one of the few portrayals in literary fiction of a sex worker who is neither one-dimensionally depraved nor a doomed device to propel someone else’s storyline. Echo realises that if they are to have a genuine relationship, she must treat Orly as a human being, rather than just an authority figure: ‘In my fog of lust and sorrow, in all my need, I hadn’t seen her. I hadn’t given her the space she had given me to unfold, to get to know her.’ Permission is a generous and perceptive novel about confronting the complexity of other people and learning how to live with heartbreak.
Chloe Caldwell’s Women takes on theme of absence to a more disorientating effect. Even beyond the generalising title, the narrator has a tendency to flatten out identifying details. We are told that ‘I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with [Finn] inexplicably, inexorably and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will.’ The affair with Finn is recounted in roughly chronological fragments from first online contact to last tearful recriminations. The novel strenuously avoids naming the American city in which it is located, the book the narrator wrote or the name of Finn’s deceived girlfriend. The narrator even declines to fill in the details of Finn’s taste in poetry or how she liked her hamburgers cooked, in case we don’t love her for it. As a result, Finn remains a cypher, barely individuated beyond the details of her trysts with the narrator and so she is indeed difficult to fall in love with. Without feeling for oneself the supposed magnetism of Finn’s physical presence, the scale of the havoc she is allowed to wreak upon the narrator’s life is unintelligible. Phones are smashed, bottles are drained, work is skipped and other relationships are neglected.
Both women work at the library and the text is peppered with quotations from the pair’s emails, their quotations of other writers to each other and Finn’s own Eileen Myles-lite poetry (‘You were already in your pyjamas, but I fucked you anyway, because sometimes life writes itself’). Everything becomes quotation, pointing us recursively in the direction of Finn’s irreducible absence. Although we are afforded a glimpse of her body in the first few pages, even that feels curiously anonymous. She is ‘an olive-skinned woman that touches you just so’, tattooed with a quotation of another fictional work in which someone else’s aphorism is quoted: ‘love, said the poet, is a woman’s whole existence’. Finn’s substance is only affirmed either through her contact with the bodies of others, or by becoming an inscribed surface. The narrator tells us that she is a published writer and makes reference to the novel she is writing about her experiences with Finn, which we are now reading, pushing the already spectral Finn further into unreality.
Women is a deceptively simple metafictional portrait of someone struggling with her own complicity in a disastrous affair. The narrator tries to make Finn’s behaviour sound predatory: ‘she mirrored me. She listened. I would say something to her and she would paraphrase it back to me.’ She drops hints that Finn refuses to be truly known, because this is what gives her power over the narrator. But Caldwell further problematises the narrator’s perspective by having her quote her therapist, who insists that ‘my hand was right up to my nose and I couldn’t see it’. We see the narrator fly into rages and even begin stalking Finn. In the end she is the one who must be told that not only is her behaviour frightening, but that she will never be able to understand her ex-lover and needs to stop trying. We are led to suspect that in her evasiveness, Finn may actually have been protecting herself.
In both of these novels, the difficulty lies in getting someone you adore at the right distance and keeping them there. Too far away and they become a symbol, too close and you risk overwhelming the other person. Permission and Women are inventive queer takes on this timeless problem.