Wednesday
Jul082015

Sphinx

By Anne Garréta


 

Deep Vellum Publishing
April 2015
978-1941920091


Reviewed by Meghan Lamb


 

My reading of Anne Garréta's Sphinx was preceded by the novel's mystique. I was excited even before this book was in my hands. To begin, Garréta is one of the few female members in the male dominated Oulipo movement, a body of writers dedicated to Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or writing built upon the strategic use of lingual or aesthetic constraints. For example, Georges Perec's infamous Oulipian novel La Disparition contains no words with the letter "E." The language constraint that Garréta writes through is far more abstract (and, I feel, far more compelling): the novel's narrator and love interest are not grammatically marked by their genders.

This is not to say these characters are genderless or otherwise devoid of signage. Garréta distinguishes these characters in numerous ways, from their races to their professions. The nameless narrator is a white French native while the character A*** is an expatriate and a person of color. The narrator's a DJ while A*** (derived from Anne?) is an exotic dancer. This is to say, Garréta's removal of gendered grammar is less an indictment of gender—or sign-bearing bodies—and more of a narrative challenge, a queering of language. This is also to say Sphinx is less of a queer romance novel than it is a poetic queering of love itself.

This Deep Vellum publication of Sphinx is particularly significant, as it marks the first French to English translation of a female Oulipo writer. French language gender expression is different from English in several ways, the principal of which is the French use of grammatical gender. Through this grammatical gendering, even inanimate nouns are identified as masculine or feminine. Garréta has vocally discussed this un-gendering of her amorous characters as part of "an enterprise of deconstruction of categories that comprise a particular ontology of sexes and of sexualities."

In the English language, gender is semantic; a subject's gender is identified through possessive adjectives and personal pronouns. The English translator of this novel, Emma Ramadan, was faced with the strange task of dismantling, re-assembling, and re-dismantling systems of gender expression. In other words, this English translation perhaps even better exemplifies the highly constructed nature of these gendered identities. They're projections, but they are so deeply embedded in language they're easy to miss. A hall of mirrors. Images refracted within images.

In light of this novel's embedded re(dis?)orientation, the lyrics of the (notably English) song "The Sphinx" seem apt. These are the words from which the novel's title originates:

I wish that I could be
a silent sphinx eternally.
I don't want any past
only want things which cannot last.
Phony words of love
or painful truth, I've heard it all before.
A conversation piece,
a woman or a priest, it's all a point of view.

These lines are very much in keeping with the sanguine, wistful, shoulder-shrugging language of Garréta's novel, which is as understated in tone as it is sweepingly theatrical. "It's all a point of view." That's all there really is to say. Which is to say, for better or for worse, that's all there really is.

 

My first queer romance was quite literally a "conversation piece." It was initiated from a distance through conversations on the internet. We bonded over shared interests in books and films and music. We constructed shared appearances and physical experiences. We cut our hair to look the same. We sent each other dresses in the mail. Where we lacked closeness, we created similarities.

A friend told me the way I approached this relationship was messed up. She said she thought that it was narcissistic. I was using this girl as a mirror for myself, she told me on the phone as I was trying on the latest mailed dress.

The dress looked good. I said, "I think I am." I thought, I need this, but I guess it's narcissistic. My friend asked if I thought all queer relationships were self-reflection. I thought, it's so hard to find a good mirror.

 

In the absence of gendered descriptors, Sphinx's narrator tries on a mix of different—but not always disparate—social costumes. This character's most notable role transition is from seminary student to the DJ of a nightclub called the Apocryphe. An apocryphe is a story of dubious authenticity that is so widespread it's accepted as the truth. In this character's nightly wanderings, they become acquainted with A***, a star performer at a nightclub known as Eden. Eden, of course, is the garden where Eve and Adam lose their innocence, become aware they possess different bodies.

Garréta describes the labor of this role transition and details the process through which the narrator learns how to be a DJ. It only takes one night for them to master this performance, switch from a religious student to a deity, summoning bodies to dance. I could probably write a whole essay about the dichotomy of DJ versus dancer, the way the narrator's profession requires A*** to be its subject. In any event, they discover their bodies depend on each other. The narrator relates how their "crotches crossed, sexes mixed" and became part of the same strange dance.

In many ways, these lovers grow to be inseparable. In just as many ways, they recognize a growing distance. The narrator's anxiety over this distance builds to a sudden tragic epiphany when A*** dies onstage from an accidental fall. Faced with A***'s death and the process of grieving, the narrator comes to the realization that they have constructed "love too much in [their] own image." They explain that all they wished to bury kept returning to them, as "there is no way to assassinate the cadaver [they] have been carrying [inside] for eternity . . ." This cadaver, they elucidate, is what they both gazed at when A*** spent hours by the mirror, preparing their reflection. The narrator confesses:

I would lose myself in the distance of that gaze, closing myself off in mere vision. Little by little, my gaze, isolated in the mirror—a living enclave—became petrified in the glass facade that formed around that face.

In this way, Garréta's un-gendering language strips some of the trappings that hide these reflections. I'm not sure how to describe what it reveals. My vocabulary just veers back to social theater, how lovers perform each other so they see themselves. "What am I, truly?" the narrator asks themselves. They then answer, "A drag queen of intellection. A gigolo of enamoration."

This description reminds me of David Hwang's play M. Butterfly wherein a French man, Rene Gallimard, falls in love with a Chinese drag queen, Song Liling. Gallimard falls in love with Song when he's performing as a woman, completely convinced by the feminine image that Song presents. In a pivotal scene, Song strips down and reveals his male form. When Gallimard responds with disgust, Song attempts to convince him he's still the same woman:

SONG: Now—close your eyes.
(Song covers Gallimard's eyes with one hand. Gallimard, like a blind man, lets his hands run over Song's face.)
GALLIMARD: This skin, I remember. The curve of her face, the softness of her cheek, her hair against the back of my hand. . .
SONG: I'm your Butterfly. Under the robes, beneath everything, it was always me. Now, open your eyes and admit it—you adore me. (He removes his hand from Gallimard's eyes.)
GALLIMARD: You, who knew every inch of my desires—how could you, of all people, have made such a mistake?
SONG: What?
GALLIMARD: You showed me your true self. When all I loved was the lie . . .

In the final scene of the play, Gallimard dons the costume of Madame Butterfly, applying his makeup before the mirror of his audience. We learn the true drag queen was Gallimard, performing love's reflection, breathing life into this "cadaver carried for eternity." There is no "true self," when the play comes to its end. Gallimard drives a knife in his gut. Smoke drifts up from the lights, then fades slowly to black.

 

My ex-husband is a woman now. I say this because when we were married, she did not appear to be a woman. She is not a person who identifies as female. She is not a man transitioning to become something else. She was always a woman, somewhere, underneath what I saw. She was always a woman pretending to be a man.

I say this as someone who is supportive of this fact. I also say this as someone who knows her story isn't mine. I also say this as someone who feels written out by language. She's a woman and it's like she never knew me.

 

No reconfiguring of words and all their limitations can erase the violence between language and our lived identities. By removing the language of gender, Garréta simply moves obstructions that prevented us from seeing our reflections. The accomplishment of this exposure is best illuminated by the narrator as they begin to process A***'s death:

I was then forced to recognize what I had always secretly wanted others to discover: "I" is nothing. It was a painful triumph when, faced with this beloved being, I finally achieved what I had always been aiming toward: The ability to confess my own weakness, my nothingness. But the weight of this nothingness was revealed only to me; it remained unintelligible to A***, and I remained in the barrenness . . . this confrontation with my own nudity and death. "What am I," I was asking myself, "other than what you do not know how to say about me?"