NOVEMBER 26, 2019
FOR WOMEN LIVING during second-wave feminism, the great tragedy was that you were unable to reconcile the life you could imagine with your daily reality, claims one character in Gail Scott’s novel, Heroine: “[I]t’s as if the words or maybe even the syntax have to be invented to close the space between what you’re living now and future possibilities.” The problem is not only one of language, but of narrative. A woman may be able to glimpse alternatives for herself, but unable to maneuver among temporal contradictions. Scott’s novel grapples with the patriarchal systems, like language, that structure a woman’s relationship to time.
Scott, a Canadian, first published Heroine in Canada in 1987, when feminism’s second wave had receded and conservatism had dug in its heels. Now issued for the first time in the United States, the book takes on the narrative problem confronting women with competing visions of the self: “[F]rom what angle can a person start the story?”
The novel is structured by the roving lens of memory, while the narrator, GS, lies in the bathtub of her Montreal flat. A prismatic, looping montage includes her arrival to the city from rural Ontario in the 1970s; the political agitation of the Quebecois independence movement; her feminist education among leftist organizers; and her love affair with a comrade whose commitment to sexual freedom leaves her feeling jilted and full of self-reproach. In the “enamel embrace” of the bathtub, GS appears trapped by the apparent contradictions between love and freedom: “A feminist (I kept repeating) / cannot be impaled / by a white prince.”
The novel’s metafictional conceit is that GS is trying to write a novel and struggling to construct a “modern” heroine. But what makes a heroine modern? Literary scholar Nancy K. Miller has observed that in the French and English novels of the 18th century, the heroine meets a fate of either marriage or death — both in consequence of how she navigates the requirements of men. For 200 years, the “heroine’s text” was marked by these temporal horizons: a break with the past — to the extent that marriage annulled a woman’s prior status, property, or name — or a future foreclosed.
For GS, working to create a modern heroine, the question is how to live in the present — that “small point” (figured, in the bathtub, by her clitoris and the narrow threshold of climax). Her relentless delving into the past signals not only obsession or melancholy, but an impulse to interrogate history, even as she strives to create something new. “A heroine locked in time could be the ruination of a novel,” she declares.
In Montreal, the heroine’s circle includes a group of surrealists whose cartographie du hasard provides a template for her own interior flânerie. She thinks of André Breton’s Nadja, who gave the author’s games of chance an erotic thrill, before he abandoned her to poverty and madness. “[H]e wrote a great novel,” observes GS. “Except I don’t like the way he used her. Oh, I’ll have to test the guys in my surrealist group on the women’s issue.”
On the women’s issue, GS is herself conflicted. She tries claiming Breton’s narrative point of view for herself, with the heroine now in the role of pursuer, tracking her lover through the city streets. But equal rights among the sexes do not guarantee equal freedom or justice, as second-wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin pointed out. While GS may adopt the male sexual model — the right to pursue who she wants — this doesn’t satisfy her desire for ways of relating that reflect the experiences of women.
At a meeting of radical feminists, GS witnesses grandstanding, in-fighting, complaint, a faith in the emancipating power of lesbian desire — a whole array of 1970s women’s lib, including “a disturbing mixture of perfume, fur, and wet leather.” This is more interesting than the Marxist catechism recited by wire-rimmed young men at the Cracow Café. How do women talk to one another when they are alone? GS says:
[W]omen must have a different way of speaking BECAUSE OUR LIVES ARE DIFFERENT. Somebody says Virginia Woolf wrote the same thing decades ago. But my words keep tumbling out. I say maybe we feel resentment toward men because there’s deference to the male in all sectors of society, including the left (a few boos). But this obvious exclusion at least points to the possibility we have another place to speak from (I got this from a book Marie lent me).
Scott’s interest in the role of language in the formation of a female subject and her insistence on l’écriture féminine establishes a dialogue with French feminist philosophy, including the work of Hélène Cixous. The novel also bears comparison to work by Scott’s American contemporaries, including Dworkin (whose resistant grammar ditched the uppercase letter and the apostrophe) and the fiction of Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus.
Scott’s suggestion, via GS, that women “have another place to speak from” reminds me of Kraus’s observation, in her 2017 biography of Acker, that the experimental writer had to create a position from which to write. For Acker, in novels such as The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula and Blood and Guts in High School, and Kraus, in her novels Aliens and Anorexia and I Love Dick, the formation of the self is a literary project.
For Scott, too, literature is the medium of self-invention. Literary tropes such as the epistolary address and the device of autofiction serve a literary performance that provides a medium for the emerging self. Scott deploys the motif of erotic obsession to examine the role of desire in the structures of the self. By foregrounding the heroine’s desire for the absent lover, the novel reveals her desire not as a symptom of lack or void but a valuable asset in its own right.
Since Scott first published her book in Canada, the language of feminism has gone mainstream in North America. Broad sectors of society — from pop stars to political figures on both the right and the left — have adapted feminism’s demand for antisexist representation, while within feminist ranks, queer and trans activists have worked to hold feminists accountable for their political commitments. First-person narratives have played a central role in this shift, as a method for identifying structural patterns of male supremacy within individual experience.
But as Kraus has pointed out, the feminine first-person point of view remains an isolating place from which to speak. A man may speak with universal validity, while a woman’s account of her own experience is generally viewed as confessional and contingent. (Evidence abounds. Think of journalist Thomas Friedman, falling all over himself in The New York Times this fall to explain why he would bother to review a memoir by former US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.)
Indeed, GS remains solitary in her auto-erotic project. The other women in her circle appear as objects of fascination, rejected lovers, or competition for the affection of their male comrades. Throughout the narrator’s bathwater reverie, her friend Marie is a distant presence in the other room, always on her way out the door. Solidarity among feminists remains elusive.
For the contemporary American reader, Scott’s treatment of the markers of identity is complicated by her French-Canadian milieu and by how the markers shift. GS, an Anglo born in Ontario, is a colonizer living in solidarity with the colonized in francophone Quebec. Dialogue slips between English and French. GS slips in and out of loving women and men. Race in the novel is marked by the presence of a “Black tourist,” who, along with a “grey woman,” appear in and out of the heroine’s kaleidoscope gaze. The Black tourist and the grey woman, likely homeless, are outsiders and possible doubles for GS, though they also serve to confirm her place at the center of the story. GS wonders whether she should drop the raced adjective, then does. For the contemporary reader, familiar with the language of intersectionality, this moment registers as a clumsy attempt to slip these markers altogether.
From what angle can a person start the story? “There’s no tomorrow, baby,” Janis Joplin sings on the radio while GS lingers in the tub. “It’s all the same goddamned day.” Scott’s novel, with its fragmented syntax, its recursive narration, its movement from the masculine “Sir” in the book’s opening line to the final, feminine pronoun, doesn’t invent a new language — though it does claim a position from which to speak. In the novel’s final pages, the heroine emerges from the bathtub into the city streets. She trades first-person exceptionalism for the corroborating, third-person angle. The heroine’s desire — her need to be narrated — manifests a narrator who grants her an unbounded subjectivity and an ongoing temporal horizon.