AUGUST 23, 2018
IN 1922, A HOUSEWIFE from Blackburn, Australia, outed a new species of orchid that imitates the genitalia of female wasps to swindle male wasps into trying to mate with it. Her story is chronicled in a book called The Wasp and the Orchid, but an infinitely more engrossing and duplicitous protagonist is featured in the Orchid & the Wasp, the debut novel of award-winning poet Caoilinn Hughes.
Gael Foess is a Machiavellian young woman whose talent for deception rivals the Australian orchid. As an 11-year-old, she hawks virginity pills to her female classmates. She asserts, “It’s our right to be virgins as often as we like,” revealing either a shaky understanding of science or an outright disdain for it. “I did mine already with this finger,” she says, evincing the fierce agency that fuels all her adventures, and urges the other girls to follow her lead. A ridiculously precocious child, Gael is a primary-school con artist who will grow up, over the course of nine years, to blarney others with increasingly outlandish scams, in her native Dublin, London, and Manhattan.
The story begins in April 2002, during the financial crash following the Celtic Tiger, a period of prosperity for the Republic of Ireland. Gael and her younger brother, Guthrie, grow up in a privileged household, the offspring of a senior Barclays banker and a self-absorbed conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra. Their family structure disintegrates as time passes, and Gael develops a profound cynicism coupled with a fervid desire to make her way in an inequitable, unpredictable world.
A burgeoning young capitalist, Gael is influenced by the biblical parable of the talents — the ultimate tale of good and bad investments — which she learned from her father at age nine. He also instilled in her the maxim: “Business is the art of extracting money from another man’s pocket without resorting to violence.” Observing the power asymmetries in post-crash Ireland, Gael quickly loses faith in the concept of meritocracy and becomes determined to game the system at whatever cost.
As a college student, Gael ponders whether positive liberty, Isaiah Berlin’s concept of acting upon one’s free will, is achievable “if the constraints that apply to others don’t apply to you, because you can slip around them or fit through them or dance over them.” In taking on a succession of different identities in varying environments, she finds that not only is it attainable, but it is also easier than expected.
Armed with an incomparable amount of chutzpah at all times, Gael brazenly shows up to a London Business School interview even though she is a 20-year-old liberal arts student without a résumé. She is intent on taking advantage of Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, the ability to act without obstructions, wherever she goes. When asked what she will do if the school doesn’t accept her, Gael responds: “Realistically, I’d break something. Not like a jaw! A laptop. Crockery. The hourglass my father got me as a metaphor-heavy gift. And then move on. […] I don’t make plans for failing with my personal goals.”
Undeterred by the rejection that follows, Gael teaches a literature seminar when her professor doesn’t show up. Her general contempt for authority is unshakable, her self-worth immeasurable, and her modus operandi apparently summarizable in three words: Because why not? Gael eventually sets her sights on a more financially promising target, the decadent world of bankers, and decides to penetrate their cloistered social circles, driven by a feminist defiance.
Gael understands the underpinnings of the financial crisis and the heteropatriarchy responsible for it. She describes the Fortune 500 businesses complicit in the downfall as “[a]ll the menfolk, none of them gents.” She sweet-talks a sauced and stoned banker into letting her use his credit card to buy lingerie but ultimately procures a first-class ticket to the United States without his knowing.
As a rule, Gail eschews emotional attachments to people with only one exception — her younger brother. Guthrie is a male version of the Victorian heroine: ethereal with a gentle-hearted temperament and mystical inclinations. He experiences seizures that he believes come from epilepsy but are caused by somatic delusion, a secret kept hidden from him by his family. Along with the seizures, Guthrie witnesses “auras” that he paints and ultimately regards as a blessing. Gael’s approach to his malady is paternalistic. She presumes to know how to help him and embarks on a madcap plan to procure him financial rewards.
In yet another convincing disguise, Gael pretends to be a journalist for ArtNexus magazine to land an interview with an exclusive artist whom she can use to burrow into the Manhattan gallery scene. She schmoozes a cutting-edge Chelsea gallery run by three curators inscrutably named Enn, F, and M. Once she has sold them on the work she’s brought, Gael trawls the Silk Road, the online black market, for art forgers who can assist her in the next step of her scheme.
The strangest, most paradoxical example of trickery is when Gael infiltrates Occupy Wall Street and exploits the movement for its free food and shelter after exhausting her stay at The Plaza, the grande dame of luxury hotels in Manhattan. In her “protest posturing,” she listens to the arguments of the protesters but ultimately scoffs in their faces, impugning the rhetoric of the 99 percent. Gail knows the mentality of the one percent: they will do nothing to share their wealth. Her view of the movement aligns more with those of the “Wall Streeters [who] had come onto their balconies with champagne buckets to pour down scorn on the city’s troops below: the piddling group of sweaty-crotched anarchists parading their puny dreams; being escorted by the NYPD to their third-choice destination.”
While Gael is unafraid to use her financial privilege and aspires to be part of the one percent, she has reservations (and not just at tony hotels). She lambasts her father, a high-ranking executive at a bank complicit in the financial collapse, stating, “It’s not merit that’s earned you your wealth. It’s having been let in on the rules of the game, thanks to being a straight white guy born into a ‘good’ family. For good, read rich.” She darkly concludes that nobody gets what they deserve and what’s more, “There is no such thing as deserve!”
The entitlement that Gael calls her father out on is exactly what she exhibits when regularly bulldozing other people’s boundaries and dismissing their needs. She has anonymous sex, carefully avoiding any emotional connection. When faced with a potential love interest, she experiences an almost visceral sense of denial: “The endorphin-flooded feeling has all the weakness of addiction and Gael hasn’t trained all her life to deny this vice for no good reason […] the want to bond to someone, which is the same as to be bound. But no. No. There is no such need to admit.” Predictably, Gael has no maternal desire for children and callously declares, “Kids should be kept in cages at night,” a statement that will resonate poorly with those who know that they are already, in the United States.
Besides being motivated by autocratic ambition, Gael is impelled by a feminist rage. Even as a young girl, she observes, “Thankfully, he never said ‘good girl’ […] A denigrating thing to say. It even has the sound of a gag. G-g.” When her father’s patronizing friend asks if she wants to grow up to be like her father, Gael says she’d prefer to emulate her mother, an orchestra conductor, because “[s]he directs a hundred people at a time, not including the audience.” As a young adult, she reflects on patriarchal freedom, maintaining, “Newton’s third law: His privilege is her restraint.”
Even though Gael is aware of the objectification of women in society, she will use her body to manipulate men, such as by wearing a negligee to hand-deliver a piece of forged artwork to a gullible old man. To distract a forgery artist from guessing her intentions, she flirtatiously tells him: “I’ll throw a tip at you, if not my fucking body. You talented bastard.” Rather than becoming a victim of sexual oppression, she capitalizes on the male gaze for her own aims. Yet even in the age of the postmodern pin-up, her actions feel less than liberatory.
Throughout the novel, Hughes makes deft use of the elasticity of language, so the text is packed with neologisms and wordplay. The abundance of figurative language gives a luminous clarity to the characters. Gael is assisted by a “man with eyebrows like correct-answer ticks in a child’s copybook.” Her toddler nephew “spends much of his time staring at people’s chest as at an aquarium.” Her mother’s hair, which hung loosely fastened, “dripped like a convent faucet.”
While the narrative’s dense prose sparkles with acuity and concision, the pacing is uneven. There are chapters when it slows to a crawl before accelerating to a surge. In one particularly tiresome passage, the ingredients of the four family members’ restaurant entrees are painstakingly listed. Being a poet, Hughes delights in minutiae, which accounts for some lengthy descriptions of orchestral music that become as interminable as rush-hour traffic. However, a sentence like this one, describing an uninspiring community orchestra, scintillates: “But then the flutes take over the melody from the strings and it’s even shriller and accidentally syncopated and like they’re blowing into the holes of crutches.”
Hughes also has a good ear for regional dialects, often showcased in long stretches of monologue, but there are occasional lapses in character voice. Art, a gregarious Englishman whose speech is salted with glottal stops, makes statements like “’At’s putting it soft like” but wouldn’t necessarily say, “Bev fell into an exhausted state of satisfaction.” Likewise, a pragmatic, elderly American businessman wouldn’t describe the aroma of his mother’s homemade breakfasts this way: “We’d wake up to the smell of her determination.”
Gael herself has a consistent voice, but is ultimately a static character buoyed by an unflagging and somewhat unrealistic self-assurance. A protean figure only in appearance, she shows no personal growth through the 300-plus-page narrative. She continually cheats, blackmails, and steals with a take-no-prisoners attitude on an imperturbable path to self-gain. Gael’s lack of maturation is what prevents this novel from being a conventional bildungsroman but makes it a modern one.
As unlikable as she can be, thanks to her hubristic audacity, Gael can be considered a contemporary antiheroine. If nothing else, she is an indomitable, highly adaptable character who can navigate through tumultuous times and wildly disparate environments with ingenuity and grit. She is amply equipped to take full advantage of the “fake news” and bullshitting politicians that define this historical moment. She can get down and dirty with the best of them.
Like the seductive orchid, Gael entices through her elaborate disguises, but her uncompromising behavior and eviscerating wit deliver a venomous sting. It is no surprise her name, Gael Foess, resembles “gale-force,” because she is nothing less than a force of nature.