Sue Wilson talks to Jenny Diski,
whose latest novel juggles
Marxism and mental illness, dreamworlds and Darwinism, and throws in a talking orang-utan for
Madness, to use the politically incorrect term, has always been a fertile subject for an, offering as it does a direct route intojuicy issues like personal identity, reality vs illusion, the nature of ‘normality' and so on, but the combination ofempathetic realism, '
bold intellectual range. comedy and sheer
imaginative brass neck with which it’s tackled in Jenny Diski's new novel Monkey’s Uncle generates
some strikingly original new perspectives
worn theme. But that‘s perhaps no more than you’d expect from such a consistently inventive writer. whose five previous novels include a disturbing exploration of sado-masochism in Nothing Natural and an equally unsettling take on mother-child relationships narrated by a baby born without a brain
in Like Mother.
In Monkey Ir Uncle, middle-aged. disillusioned, lifelong socialist Charlotte FitzRoy. having been unknowingly pushed beyond her limits by the Berlin Wall coming down and her daughter dying in a car- crash, is one day found by a neighbour naked in her
Jenny Diski: ‘I don’t sit there writing novels thinking how to shock people.’ front garden pulling up her shrubs. Cartcd off to ; hospital. she endures the grey. grinding misery of a depression — rendered by Diski with painful vividness — but discovers to her surprise that part of her has acquired the ability to escape the unappealing confines ofthe ‘real‘ world. Much ofthe time. she finds herselfeither in a kind of neverland which she can shape according to her will. where she‘s shown the ropes by Jenny, a waspish talking orang-utan with a penchant for flowery dresses and elaborate hats. and where she meets and converses with Marx. Darwin and Freud, or shadowing the morbidly gloomy Robert FitzRoy, captain of Darwin‘s ship the Beagle and perhaps her ancestor. observing his crises of faith and his struggles with the conviction that he’s destined by ‘bad blood‘ to follow in his father's suicidal footsteps. ‘The division between madness and normality has never seemed to me to be obvious.‘ says Diski, who is refreshingly tip-front about her own history of
on a well-
mental illness. ‘You look at the figures on how many people will experience some kind of psychiatric problem at some time in their lives. and “nonnality” then becomes a bit of a funny word. There are two kinds of madness in this book: there‘s real madness, Charlotte's grim and awful and dreadful depression, but then there’s also the device of madness as another place to go. In a sense dreams are madness, all the illogical crazy thoughts we all have ﬂitting around are madness — or they‘re another kind of normality.‘
As the novel switches matter-of-factly between Charlotte's past and her weirdly triplicate present. the parallel narratives not only challenge our notions of what‘s real and what isn’t, but throw up some intriguing new perspectives on questions such as the conflict between faith and scientific or ideological ‘progress‘, and the nature/nurture debate. as the destruction of Charlotte's ideals is mirrored by the undermining of FitzRoy's religious belief by Darwin’s discoveries, and as Charlotte despairs over the fact that her children, despite what she saw as her best efforts. turned out to be avaricious 80s rnaterialists.
The relationship between Charlotte and her offspring. in particular her ready admission to her psychiatrist that the Berlin Wall’s fall represented a far more grievous bereavement to her than her daughter's death, has upset a good many critics, but this in itself was not Diski’s intention. ‘I don't sit there writing novels thinking how to shock people.‘ she says. ‘I suppose what I sometimes do is shock myself— i found those bits where Charlotte's talking about her children shocking to write. I had to really stop and think about them, but it seemed to me that for a woman like that, who because of her own emotional lacks had thrown herself into an ideology, this was a perfectly possible response. If that thought comes to me. then it belongs there — somehow you have to say what hurts.‘
Monkey's Uncle is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson at £14. 99.
:— Slice of life
‘ “Lie on your stomach,” he barked. George did. He heard a clinking noise, and felt a tiny sharp pain in his ass. “It’s lust some iIovocaine,” Tom muttered, “so I can take you apart, sans your pointless emotions.” “That’s considerate,” George thought. Just then his ass grew so numb he felt sliced In haif.’
And sliced in half he is. It might seem a cheap shot, quoting the juicy bit out of context, but this fragment from Dennis Cooper’s new novel Closer is not untypical, illustrating as it does one of the author’s central themes; middle class America’s blank generation indulging in gay sex that invariany spills over into violence. But it also illustrates his ability to Inject lust enough irony and wit to Ieaven often graphic descriptions of unthinking brutality.
Closer recount the story of George,
an extremely attractive but sexually passive adolescent, much fancied by his school peers and frequently abused by older men. George seems to lack the will to resist or maybe he just can’t think of anything better to do. This is the searnier underside of American slacker culture, exerting the horrific can’t-tum-away fascination of a snuff movie.
Cooper’s books, which are peppered with references to his favourite bands from Jesus And Mary Chain to Swans, have attracted a cult following among what he describes as ‘rock kids’. It might sound patronising but isn't
and, above all, obnoxious. In as much as he is opposed to political correctness, Cooper is reasonably happy with the tag. But, he contends, he doesn’t set out to write ‘gay’ books but draws on his experience as a gay man (though not one into violent sex) to describe how American kids relate to each other.
‘The characters in my books want to be artists,’ he explains, ‘but they’re so uncompromising they can’t have careers. There are no religions or power structures they’re interested In so all their passions and Interest are in sex. Sex Is this really privileged
intended that way. ‘A lot of kids read thing 5mm it's a moment of such my books and I think they get it better tummy and vulnerability and out-of- than others.’ he explains- centrolness. I don’t know . . . ,' be There have been plenty who haven’t mm on i. u. 3.. way his 90t ﬂ. 8" right A "38""! '0'" characters never quite manage to, promoting the previous novel Frisk, his that doesn’t like my work at all mg, mm. My mucus. first book to be published In the UK, because it doesn’t celebrate being comm mung, however, wields a was cancelled after Cooper received gay and doesn’t celebrate gay M, mtg. hm, laying hare as death threat from a group of activist relationships.’ mum but cmpolllng view of incensed at his portrayal of a gay This stance has led to Cooper’s ,0... mm... um, (auto am) lifestyle. “Relationships In my books writing being bracketed as mm and mm, . colloctlon or tend to be ugly,’ he admit. ‘There’s a ‘queercore’, a strand of American gay “at”, 3. you. "mum by certain faction of the gay movement culture which aims to be loud, proud 53m.“ nu at £3.99,
The List 25 March-7 April 1994 85