Editor’s Note: The following essay by Florence King is reprinted from the Septemer 26, 1994, issue of National Review. It was inspired by her reading the work of certain lady novelists. It is reprinted now to mark her recent passing.
After Ayn Rand
Bill Clinton laughed. He stood naked on a soft muddy hill. It swelled out around him, the body of the hill and the body of the man blending and merging into a triumph of man over nature. He was softer than the hill.
He strode purposefully through the woods, his eyes fixed straight ahead, seeing nothing but the next election. He tried to clamp his lips shut with inflexible contempt but it was hard when you smiled all the time.
He was always striding purposefully. It was why his pasty white body was covered with scars, its soft quivering folds full of scrapes and bruises and half-healed cuts. He was always bumping into things and tripping. That’s how he got his distinguishing characteristic. One day while he was striding purposefully, looking neither right nor left, he fell down and landed right on his —
That reminded him. It was time to rape Hillarique. He approached her house and stepped through the French windows into her boudoir.
She was sitting on the bed wearing a long black cape. It made her look more than ever like a witch but it came in handy for purposeful striding, and besides, it covered her legs. Glancing up, she gave him a steely smile.
“Hello, Willie.” The two words fell like soft, silken waves of coiffed perfection around the tangled knot of her contempt.
“You ready for some exalted degradation, Hillarique?”
“Put your first principle away, Willie, we’ve got a problem. You remember that marble statue I threw out the window because I couldn’t bear the thought of unworthy people looking at it?”
“You mean your highest rational value? The one you swiped from the Greek battleship last time we were in Europe?”
She gave him a look of blistering contempt. “Yes, that one. Well, it hit Joycelyn Elders on the head, and it did something to her . . . brain. She started talking and couldn’t stop. Nobody can shut her up. She’s been examining her premises on C-SPAN for the last sixty-three hours.”
“Sixty-three hours!” exclaimed Bill with envious contempt. “Why didn’t you hit me with it?”
Hillarique strode purposefully across the room, her black cape swirling with Objectivist contempt, and turned on the television. In a moment, they saw General Elders in her admiral’s uniform, her jaw set in a rational clamp that made her tin-ear pronunciations sound more peculiar than ever.
“I have come here today to explain the philosophy of Ayn Ryan. My mind is on strike. I am an African-American who does not exist for others. Who is Russ Limbo? The altruist is a second-hander but the egoist won’t build Greek columns because he knows you don’t have to hold up the roof any more. Ayn Ryan says if you build a building and somebody builds something on top of it — blow it up! I want to hand out contempt kits in the schools. Every chyuld a purposefully striding chy-uld. Who is Russ Limbo?”
As the Surgeon General’s voice clattered on, Bill Clinton sank weakly onto the bed and stared down bemusedly at his distinguishing characteristic.
“You know, Hillarique, I’m about all strided out.”
Hillarique shrugged. “Who is Rush Limbaugh?”
BLUE EYES, BLACK HAIR
After Marguerite Duras
I sit here with my face in shadow beside the window opening onto the sea. The sea, the sea, inaccessible, turbulent, crashing. The sea, the sea, murmuring always murmuring, the insomniac sea that licks the sand in the stricken, artless calamity of night.
I have blue eyes and black hair and I am running a temperature in a teapot from trying to cure a homosexual. It all started in a cafe by the sea, the sea, after the beauty of the day had vanished as abruptly as whisky in a book reviewer’s glass.
I was sitting with a Jewish Prince from Vancouver who also has blue eyes and black hair. While we were swapping migraine stories at our table by the sea, the sea, the homosexual came in with kohl on his eyes. The prince left and the homosexual started weeping. He was alone and attractive and worn out from watching yachts on the sea, the sea, glide past his body like an infinite caress, so I asked him if he wished he were dead and he said yes.
He sat down and we wept a while, then he made me a proposition. Because I looked so much like the Jewish Prince with blue eyes and black hair, he asked me if I would move into his room and lie naked on the floor with a black veil over my face and talk about what it’s like to be tired and cold and despairing by the sea, the sea. I had nothing better to do, so off we went to our zipless Weltschmerz.
The room was empty except for wall-to-wall sheets. Our relationship was your average existential crisis by the sea, the sea; I slept, he wept, then we switched.
“I must tell you,” he said, “it’s as if you were responsible for the thing inside you, that you know nothing of and that terrifies me because it seizes other things and changes them within itself without seeming to.”
“It’s true I’m responsible for the astral nature of my sex,” I replied, “its lunar, bloody rhythm. In relation to you as to the sea.”
Most of the time he walked around and around my supine body and then shrank back against the wall and wept. I got to like the idea of being repulsive when I realized how much it was adding to my sense of hopeless torment. Still, I have to admit that I got a little restless lying on the floor all day long, talking about being stricken and knowledgeless beside the sea, the sea, so one day I went out and picked up a man.
When I got back, the homosexual wanted to hear all about it, personal things like “his name, his pleasure, his skin, his member, his mouth, his cries.”
That’s when I started to worry. Let me tell you, when you’re locked in a room with someone who calls a penis a “member,” you’ve sunk about as low as you can get.
MORNING IN BOOK CAMP
Provoked by Joan Didion
Welcome to Camp Jejune. The Sublimes are lookin’ for a few good novels and I got one right here. Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion.
I bet you denouement-diddlers never read it, did you? Yeah, that’s what I thought. You look like the kind of blurb-heads that wouldn’t know an elegiac spiritual wasteland if it jumped up and bit you. Well, that’s gonna change ’cause you’re in Book Camp now.
Play It As It Lays is about a girl named Maria Wyeth whose hometown in Nevada has been turned into a missile range. What’s that a symbol of? Lemme hear it loud and clear!
SIR! THE ARID LANDSCAPE OF THE SOUL, SIR!
Correct! Now, if there’s one thing the Sublime Corps won’t tolerate, it’s the kind of reader who likes a novel to start out good and puts it down if it don’t. If I catch you plot-suckers doin’ it, I’ll turn you into a slice of life quicker’n you can say “exposition.” Here’s how Play It As It Lays starts out:
“I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more.”
All right, story-ballers, whadda we got here?
SIR! NIHILISM, SIR!
Correct! Nihilism. Nada. Nothin’. That’s what this whole book is about. That’s how you separate Sublimes from civilians — nothin’ matters to a Sublime but we’ll tell you all about it anyway. It’s like the Sublime Corps Manual says: You gotta read Proust when you have a fever and Joan Didion while you’re havin’ a miscarriage.
Now back to Maria Wyeth. Her husband’s a movie maker. When he stars her in a movie about a girl who gets gang-raped by 12 motorcycle guys, she keeps goin’ back to see it over and over again. You know why she likes it so much? Because “the girl on the screen seemed to have a definite knack for controlling her own destiny.” Whadda we got? Lemme hear it loud and clear!
SIR! EXISTENTIAL CHAOS, SIR!
She starred in another movie where her husband just followed her around New York and shot film: “The picture showed Maria doing a fashion sitting, Maria asleep on a couch at a party. Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale’s, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the subway. At the end she was thrown into negative so she would look dead.”
All right, Aristotle freaks, whadda you call that?
SIR! ANOMIE, SIR!
You bet your ibids it’s anomie! It’s like her husband says: “Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping.” She’s not what civilians call an outgoin’ gal. Her and her husband go to this party where she curls up in a ball until he happens to say that he likes to eat breakfast out. Then she comes to and says, real low and to nobody in particular: “In fact he doesn’t always get breakfast out. In fact the last time he got breakfast out was on April 17.”
All right, McMuffdivers, tell me what her problem is!
SIR! ALIENATION, SIR!
When you study the Sublime Corps Manual I want you to pay special attention to what the Lit Crits say about Joan Didion’s technique. Here’s what General Guy “Blood and Guts” Davenport wrote: “She has given the novel a pace so violent and so powerful that its speed becomes the dominant symbol of her story.”
Let’s see about that. Listen to this:
Maria drove the freeway . . . it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway, but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day’s rhythm. . . . an intricate stretch just south of the interchange . . . required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On this afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio . . . she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly. . . . So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body). . . .
All right, lube jobs, whadda the Crits call that?
SIR! VOYAGE OF SELF-DISCOVERY, SIR!
Now, lemme tell you about Joan Didion’s vision. If anybody drives that much on the L.A. freeways they’re gonna run into a lot of smog. That’s why Maria’s out there, so she can see things without a lot of sharp edges. If Sublimes find a clean window, we blow our breath on it so we can show off our exquisite sensibility. Opaque is where it’s at! Heat must shimmer! You gotta have haze! You gotta have refraction! You gotta glimpse everything intermittently through squinted eyes! Squint, you lousy potboilers! Squint! Now tell me what you see!
SIR! AMBIGUITIES, SIR!
The Sublime Corps has racked up a lot of tributes to Joan Didion, but this one is engraved on the statue of us plantin’ the flag on Pointless View that stands at the main gate of Camp Jejune. It’s from Lore Segal’s New York Times review of Play It As It Lays: “Her prose tends to posture like a figure from a decadent period of art, whose fingers curl toward an exposed heart or a draped bosom swelling with suspect emotion.”
Whadda you print lice call that?
SIR! NEGATIVE CAPABILITY, SIR!
Correct! Now, Semper Vortex, as Sublimes say. Maria Wyeth turns up again in another Joan Didion novel called A Book of Common Prayer, only this time her name is Charlotte Douglas. After her daughter gets mixed up with terrorists and disappears, Charlotte goes to a Caribbean island named Boca Grande and waits there for the kid to turn up because Boca Grande is “the very cervix of the world, the place through which a child lost to history must eventually pass.”
All right, wit-holes, whadda the Sublimes call that?
SIR! METAPHOR, SIR!
There’s another woman on Boca Grande who spends her nights waitin’ for her generator to break down so she can recite Matthew Arnold in the dark, so naturally she’s impressed by Charlotte’s energy. You wanna know about Charlotte’s energy? Listen to this:
I once saw her make the necessary incision in the trachea of an OAS field worker who was choking on a piece of steak at the Jockey Club. A doctor had been called but the OAS man was turning blue. Charlotte did it with a boning knife plunged first in a vat of boiling rice. A few nights later the OAS man caused a scene because Charlotte refused to fellate him on the Caribe terrace, but that, although suggestive of the ambiguous signals Charlotte tended to transmit, is neither here nor there.
Civilians would call that a shaggy-dog story but Sublimes have a different name for it. Lemme hear it!
SIR! ILLUMINATING THE HUMAN CONDITION, SIR!
After that Charlotte spends every day sittin’ at the airport havin’ hot flashbacks until a revolution closes the airport down and she has to find another place to be a symbol of futility in. Life on Boca Grande gets worse: “The bite of one fly deposits an egg which in its pupal stage causes human flesh to suppurate. The bite of another deposits a larval worm which three years later surfaces on and roams the human eyeball.” That’s just like Camp Jejune in August — good Sublimes like Joan Didion never forget their Book Camp days.
Finally Charlotte is shot dead in the Boca Grande birth-control clinic while she’s handin’ out rubbers, and her body is shipped back to the States with a red, white, and blue T-shirt draped on the coffin because nobody could find a flag—
Just a minute! I saw that smirk! All right, you cheek-tonguer, you asked for it. You’re gonna do fifty op cits up Hostile Universe Hill before breakfast! That’ll learn you to stop lookin’ for a laugh in a Sublime book! And just in case any of the rest of you get any ideas, let’s go through the drill:
What did Joan Didion say when they asked who’s on first?
SIR! I KNOW ABOUT FIRST, SIR!
Who’s on first?
SIR! I NEVER ASK ABOUT FIRST, SIR!
Who’s on first?
SIR! OTHER PEOPLE ASK THAT BUT I DON’T, SIR!
That’s better! Now back to A Book of Common Prayer. Joan Didion never gets around to explainin’ why Charlotte thought Boca Grande was the cervix of the world, so we gotta turn to the Sublime Corps Manual to get a straight answer from the Crits. Here’s what Mark Royden “Wild Man” Winchell said: “If it is not altogether clear why Charlotte has come to Boca Grande, it is even less clear why she stays. At one level her insistence on remaining may simply be another indication of her solipsistic innocence.”
Well, bookfans, what do you say to that?
SIR! ON AN OPAQUE DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, SIR!
Now listen to me, because I’m only gonna say this once. There’s a certain Crit that Sublimes are sworn to hate, and if I catch you readin’ him, I’ll cut off your classical unities and eat’em for breakfast. His name is John Simon and this is what he said about Joan Didion: “After reading such outpourings of hypersensitivity in quotidian conflict, one feels positively relieved to be an insensitive clod.”
That’s a civilian for you. Now, while you’re marchin’ to the mess hall for breakfast, I wanna hear the Sublime Corps Hymn loud and clear. Column right, har! Forward, har!
From the halls of ambiguity
To the shores of Psychic void,
We secured the arid landscape–
Every sentence was destroyed!
Just to fragment every story line,
And to drop anomic bombs,
We’ll obsess through suppurating climes
Until every Crit succumbs!