Linda Jaivin Eat Me (Text Classics: 2012 )
This is a review for Kim at Reading Matters' Australian Literature Month.
Kim is donating 50p to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation for each review she receives for the month that links to her blog. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation "aims to raise literacy levels and improve the lives and opportunities of Indigenous children living in remote and isolated regions. This is done by providing books and literacy resources to communities and raising broad community awareness of Indigenous literacy issues." (source). This is an excellent cause and I have clicked over and made a donation which "will buy 3 or more books for an indigenous child living in a remote community."
But, the review... (and, incidentally, I do not think that this will be a book handed out to children unless something goes rather wrong in the distribution process.)
Text Classics offer new editions of Australian books, "milestones in the Australian experience". I picked Linda Jaivin's Eat Me, first published in 1995, because it seems to have totally missed my radar, and I suspect that was because I was living in the UK in the second half of the 90s. I imagine that I missed rather a lot of Australian writing in those poor student days. I also picked it because I like books that link food and sex in interesting ways. That said, I may never be able to look at grapes in quite the same way again.
It was a warm night. He was just wearing a t-shirt and jeans. He was probably in his fifties and, as he bent over the hood, I got a good look at him. I was still thinking along the lines of how I would describe him to the police.
Eat Me is a very funny collection of erotic stories with a distinctly Australian voice, setting and aesthetic. (Although fortunately not always as memorably antipodean as "sucking to the beat of 'Waltzing Matilda'.") Set mostly in Sydney (but with a wholly unforgettable scene set at the Big Merino), it ostensibly relates the tales told by four very modern women who meet up - café society! - and offer each other stories based, one is led to believe, on personal experience. But this easy narrative style soon begins to break down both for the women and for the reader, and by the end of this very well structured book one finds oneself (as do the narrators) somewhat at a loss about what is real and what is not. Can these stories even be real, one might (even) ask?
This ambiguity begins to extend to Eat Me-the-book itself, trapping the reader in a very pleasant puzzle about what it is they are, in fact, reading: reading erotica about listening to erotica read by writers of erotica writing erotica from female and male perspectives... and so on!
Without further ado, he rolled on top and entered her. A zillion images flooded into his head: of marscapone, of Sharon Stone, of steaming cannelloni, of lingerie, of Elle Macpherson, of stallions, of stamens, of Mal Meninga on a run, of Madonna on a gondola, of cocker spaniels, Mick Jagger’s lips, of ET, of wet t-shirt contests, of mangos, of his father swinging a golf club, of a platypus wriggling its way down a muddy river. Much to his horror, Beavis and Butthead provided the soundtrack, laughing: hehheh hehheh hehheh.
This ambiguity is heightened, I thought, by Jaivin's use of a number of the stereotypes of erotic encounters: the mysterious sudden absence of all witnesses to very public sex acts; exaggerated, er [trying not to get myself blocked here!], manhood (shall we say?!); the ease of sexual conquest; an exaggerated brutality of genital language (love blender; goluptious trough); to name but a few. My assumption was that these features were deliberately signposting the fault-lines between reality and fantasy, that is, sexing up the intellectual calibre of erotic writing at the same it is implicitly undermined.
As one loses one's footing in the narrative, tripped up by its multiple narrators (unreliable? fictional? female? male? quasi-autobiographical?!) with distinctly different perspectives, one starts to question the dynamics of the genre itself. Sex is never simple; it is intimately bound up with power, for one thing. Jaivin's playful female reworking of the norms gives one a lot to think about re the genre and one's expectations of the erotic ("I think it’s important to valorise safe sex practices even in fantasy").
Is this too pornographic? Are you shocked? I can’t really stop here, though, can I? Besides, if it’s pornographic, do you think it proves or disproves Robin Morgan’s thesis that if rape is the practice, pornography is the theory? What happens when we women write the pornography? Can we rape ourselves? I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. The other day, Philippa shared one of her erotic stories with us and asked about the latest line on pornography. I’ve never quite understood the difference between erotica and pornography, have you? I mean, is erotica merely porn with literary pretensions? Or is something pornography if written by a man but erotica if penned by a woman?
(The narrator here is, one can perhaps guess, an academic!)
In sum: I would love to read some more of Jaivin's writing - she has a very witty and very Australian voice. Sexual fantasy is very personal, and there were elements of this book that almost certainly will not appeal to every reader (myself included;
especially the grapes), but I did rather like how this book made me consider my own generic expectations and the underlying power dynamics of (predominantly) heterosexual erotica written for and/or by women. Have I, for instance, been carefully over-intellectualizing the risqué to render respectable my reading of erotica?! ;-)
Thanks to Kim for encouraging us all to read more Australian writers during Australian Literature Month.