Femininity, fantasy, and fever dreams: book review of Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster

0 Posted by - November 16, 2012 - Features, Reviews, Word

While some of postmodernism’s more vocal evangelists might claim otherwise, the post-Stonewall mainstreaming of queer sexuality has yet to deliver on its grand promise of erasing the gender binary. Politically, culturally, and socially, gendered differences and the power inequalities they uphold persist. Perhaps especially in LGBT communities, it is in fact masculine desires that continue to frame desire in general. The cis-male body and the attributes of “maleness” it carries continue to signify and perform operations of power; functioning as the allegedly neutral standard against which “deviations” like femininity, transness, and gender non-conformity might be judged, measured, and often attacked.

This stubborn persistence of male privilege also rears its head in much LGBT cultural work. In gay cinema, literature, poetry, and performance alike, we often find women’s experiences marginalized or erased; their bodies rendered unimportant, frightening, or tiresome; their sexualities neutralized or made repulsive; their voices silenced, caricatured or adopted as camp. In these moments of anxiety, the subversive potential of queer art is often derailed, its aesthetics and politics yoked once again to masculinist and even misogynistic representational practices.

The Lava in My Bones - Barry WebsterRunning (mercifully) counter to this tendency is Montréal-based Barry Webster’s delightful sophomore novel, The Lava in My Bones (Arsenal Pulp). In a delirious, hallucinogenic voice — equal parts Canadian-pastoral, queer-excessive, and fever dream-fairy tale — Webster turns directly toward the place and experience of femininity in a queer life dominated by masculine desires.

Far from rehearsing the conventional come-out-then-fall-in-love narrative, The Lava in My Bones instead skewers neurotic, normative masculinities at every turn. Throughout this wildly experimental text, Webster delights in abjection, incompleteness, and the experience of coming up short in any and every attempt to assign desire a “proper” location or direction.

Webster’s dark, wry, and often hilarious fairy tale follows one Sam Masontry, a Canadian geologist whose sturdy namesake and fascination with crashing tectonic forces are perpetually out of step with his wiry body and crippling shyness. Like the colliding plates he studies, Sam is always and irrevocably fractured. While his mind trades in pseudo-metaphysical abstractions about the energies that shape the planet, his shoulders fail to fill out so much as his poorly fitted suits.

But when Sam, during an academic excursion to Zurich, encounters the muscular, towering Franz, everything changes. Where Sam is perpetually at odds with the uniforms, performances, and scripts that maleness demands, Franz all but melts into them. His skin-tight shirts and fitted trousers accentuate the contours of his relentlessly tamed body, showcasing his meticulous dedication to the exhaustive craft of masculinity.

When an unlikely romance blooms between them, Sam and Franz collide (in a slightly too-heavy-handed formal pun) like tectonics along a fault line. They grind clumsily along one another’s confusing, mismatched edges, threatening at all times to collapse into some catastrophic quake.

If it all sounds a bit dramatic, well, it’s supposed to. In recounting the affair, Webster indulges in bombast and fantasy without a shred of reservation. The lovers, bewildered by one another’s bodies and desires, develop the miraculous ability to digest stone as part of their sexual rituals, connecting them them with the spectacular forces acting on the planet. Their relationship brings snow to Zurich in the summer, makes the fire at the centre of the earth audible on the surface, and draws cosmic maps of connection that defy national borders and human skin alike.

With this kind of kettledrum hyperbole, Webster adopts an unabashedly queer voice. Excessiveness, after all, is a hallmark of queer aesthetics; it is that which overflows and exceeds the “straightening out” of bodies by masculinist and heteronormative gender expectations. It is the limpness of a wrist, the swishiness of a walk, a languid lisp, an extended vowel, a particular crossing and uncrossing of the legs — and the way they ignite new ways of desiring.

The excessive is what allowed iconic queer poet Frank O’Hara to famously transform the mundane experience of sharing a Coke with a lover into something even more spectacular “than going to San Sebastien, Irun, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne.” The excessive configures desire as something both intimate and foreign, close and far; something deeply felt but impossible to locate, something that flows, overflows, reverses, traverses, transgresses.

Barry Webster

Author Barry Webster

Webster deploys this excessive voice with an almost obsessive force, a gesture that decentres the maleness of his protagonists and frustrates Franz’ attempts to organize and restrict his complicated desires. As the story unfolds, his fixation on appearing properly masculine through tedious grooming and dress becomes increasingly clownish. Eventually, these attempts to maintain his façade of maleness fracture, sputter, and fail altogether. The two bodies begin to slide anxiously, but passionately, through one another.

In an otherwise tumultuous affair, it is precisely these moments where the masculine fails to erase the feminine (and indeed where the polarity between the two slips away) that are the most redeeming. Fitting, then, that the romance should disintegrate the instant Franz insists upon reasserting his maleness. When the specter of discipline — so deeply programmed into structures of normative masculinity — reappears, intimacy vanishes.

Adding this biting critique of masculinity’s foreclosures is Webster’s clever choice to narratively alienate Sam and his relationship with Franz from the reader. The book’s opening chapter, for instance, operates in the third person, forcing us to address Sam, Franz, and their relationship as objects viewed at a distance. This gap, echoing Webster’s excessive prose, makes it impossible for either Sam or Franz to control the narrative of their desire. The third-person voice leaves space for extrapolation, elaboration, and alternative narrativization; precisely the sort of acts that Franz attempts in vain to enclose.

Webster even redoubles this alienation by narrating subsequent chapters in the first person voices of Sam’s sister Sue, his mother, and finally, Franz (whose masculinity comes even more dramatically into question in Sam’s absence).

And so, while Webster indeed presents a narrative of male desire, it is a desire that in fact divests maleness of its assumed cultural authority. Rather, desire is elaborated on excessive, unpredictable, unstable terms, as an always post-hoc, always-failing, avowedly non-masculine experience. And perhaps most importantly, it is elaborated mainly through the voices of women (or women in waiting).

Speaking through Sue’s voice in particular, Webster lambastes the notion that the feminine should be nothing but a blank slate upon which male desires are inscribed. Sue, a quiet outcast stricken with a curious affliction that causes her to sweat honey, is by no means a heroine figure. But all the same, the “sweetness” of her female body — a stereotypically masculine fantasy — becomes, in Webster’s fantastic universe, the subject of a macabre joke at masculinity’s expense.

Sue’s honey is, at various points, an object of shame, an object of ridicule, an object of desire, an object of danger and death, and finally, for Sue herself, an object of salvation, conviction, and self-possession. While once again the parallel between Webster’s chosen symbol (honey) and his referent (feminine sexuality) errs toward obvious, it loses no power in its heavy-handedness. Sue’s narrative reaps the themes sown in Sam and Franz: that a normative maleness, along with the desires, institutions, practices, expectations, and restrictions that accompany it, will always fail to capture — and so can never be taken as a measure of — feminine ways of feeling, knowing, and being.

The Lava in My Bones is a lucid, wildly imaginative, delightfully unpredictable book. At times, its bombast might seem a bit much and its symbols might feel obvious, even hamfisted. But it is, at its core, a fairy tale (a double entendre that I can only hope was intentional). And fairy tales are hardly the place for subtlety.

More importantly, it’s a refreshing attempt to reckon with gender normativity at a time when the mainstream LGBT movement and its allies have become fascinated with a very narrow and overwhelmingly male vision of what it means to be queer. It’s certainly not without its own problems, but at its best, it takes brave, beautiful, and exciting swipes at those unspoken assumptions that continue to leave so many without a voice.

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