— This piece originally appeared in The Weekend Australian
At what point does a work containing depictions of sex tip from being classified as a novel into the charged waters of erotica?
Brisbane writer Krissy Kneen has established herself, through her memoir Affection (2009) and the stories in Triptych (2011), as one of Australia’s foremost authors of literary erotic tales.
“It all comes down to sex in the end,” a schoolgirl tells her friend in Triptych. “Sex is the bright, throbbing centre of humanity.”
Whether or not this can be said of all humanity, it is certainly true of Kneen’s oeuvre. Her new book, Steeplechase, however, is marketed as a departure. Though passionate, forbidden sex scenes are still present, her publisher describes it as her first novel and “her first non-erotic work”.
If we accept the definition of an erotic novel as one written to arouse, then Steeplechase is indeed non-erotic: the work is claustrophobic, unsettling, characterised by a feeling of disorientation that at times brings to mind Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
It is, then, a question of emphasis. In a purely erotic novel, characters exist in a haze of arousal: the world shimmers with erotic possibility, devoid of consequences or threats to safety other than the danger that serves to heighten desire.
Triptych was an exercise in perversity: three artistic stories in which the illicit, forbidden and taboo were fantasised and lustily indulged in. Steeplechase, however, highlights the disturbing nature of the narrative to the point of making you hold your breath.
The novel is a story of two sisters linked by art and madness. Bec Reich is an art lecturer at a university in Brisbane, recovering from an operation. While sedated, she receives a call from her sister Emily, a noted Australian artist, as famous for her starkly lit, hauntingly beautiful paintings as she is for her schizophrenia. It’s their first contact in more than 20 years.
Emily invites Bec to visit her in Beijing for the opening of her new exhibition, and this call brings back a tumbling of remembrances of Bec’s confined childhood with Emily and the “terrible thing” that led to their separation.
In episodes that move us steadily back and forth in time, we watch as Emily is slowly taken by the madness that has already claimed their mother. Through Emily’s games and delusions, Bec too is drawn gradually into her sister’s dark imaginary world, following her – as in the equine metaphor of the title – “through a world of invisible hurdles, cantering just a little way behind”.
Kneen luxuriates in her erotic fiction; one can almost feel the author’s pleasure in the richness of her prose, heavy with reference to the history of literature and art – Triptych was an erotic reimagining of famous paintings by Rubens and Katsushika Hokusai. Steeplechase continues the interlinking of sex and art, with Bec’s student turned lover John gazing not at her while they’re making love, but at Emily’s early paintings on the wall: “he stared up and around with those huge awe-struck eyes, startled to be there in that room surrounded by paintings he recognised from books and magazines”. Similarly Nabokov, a key figure in Kneen’s erotic fiction, is again present in Steeplechase, with an epigraph from Lolita opening the work. Yet the passage selected is not libidinous but instead one of Humbert questioning motive and memory.
Steeplechase is thus marked by a change stylistically; more restrained, the prose flatter, unembellished. Though there are several passages depicting or preoccupied with sex, Kneen replaces all the licentiousness of an erotic tale with doubt, insecurity and concerns about propriety: “I am afraid that I am too old and too ugly for him. I am not a good enough artist. He would never abandon me if I were as accomplished as my sister.”
What lingers from Kneen’s erotic writing, however, is the emphasis on carnality. She is acutely aware, and able to render skilfully, characters’ visceral responses to situations. “I hold the phone to my ear and it seems there is no blood in my body. I am cold and I am sure I am paler than I was before the phone rang.”
For a work exploring the perversions of the mind, this is a text steeped in the reactions of the body. It is this corporeality, a style honed from earlier works, that makes Kneen’s prose so remarkable, and attempts to categorise her writings into distinct genres so meaningless.
Towards the end of Steeplechase, Emily laments: “No one sees my art anymore … They just see my signature on the bottom of the canvas.” Kneen’s art is still very much apparent, but with her most recent work she has cemented her place as an author to be read because of the promise, sensual or otherwise, signified by her name on the spine.
By Krissy Kneen
Text Publishing, 227pp, $29.99