Guest review by Gareth Beniston
Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz)
“and the sound of the maple trees across the fence became sharper and full of the words that trees speak to the air” (Occupy Me 63)
I hate all that plot description that comes with a review – read the blurb I say – but if you need some clues Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me has an angel, dinosaurs, a suitcase – think Pulp Fiction, think Wile E Coyote, think The Rockford Files (!) – plus a vet and a doctor. It has higher dimensions and quantum foam, trees of all kinds though especially trees of knowledge that might just be libraries spanning time and space AND it has bird gods, though actually our avian overlords may just be artistic scavengers or better, refuse ‘artistes’. It’s a novel that is helter-skelter and overabundant; in some ways it’s like (a very glorious) extended episode of Doctor Who…and I’m sure that some readers may even think, a little on the twee side. Though of course, they would be wrong. Those same readers may wonder if the parts add up to an organic whole. And to be fair I wonder myself but it really doesn’t matter. There are many, many riches here – this is a marvellous novel – full of love, kindness, empathy and extraordinary ambition – the only one that can give Central Station a run for its money in 2016’s SF best of. But that is to get ahead of myself.
Somehow along the way I stopped reading theory and essays. I’m not sure how, I loved reading Winterson and Kundera, Eagleton and Jameson, Freud and Phillips. It’s so nourishing, trying to parse all that intelligence and creativity, watching how people make links and connections and test out ideas. It’s the joy of intellectualism and the pleasure of eclecticism. And actually it’s kind of a turn on trying to harness some of that suppleness and openness. So 2017 has marked a return to all this as I try to make sense of the terror and despair, fear, anxiety and melancholia that characterise a personal and political crisis. I suspect that many of you are trying to figure it all out too. For now at least I’ve recognised two main strands to my thinking that, although seemingly inconsistent, actually complement each other. First there is this from Sebald:
“Melancholy, the rethinking of the disaster we are in, shares nothing with the desire for death. It is a form of resistance. And this is emphatically so on the level of art, where its function is far from merely reactive or reactionary. When, with a fixed gaze, melancholy again reconsiders just how things could have gone this far, it becomes clear that the dynamics of inconsolability and of knowledge are identical in function. In the description of the disaster lies the possibility of overcoming it.”
This fits in with a conversation between China Mieville and Jordy Rosenburg and with Richard Seymour’s recent championing of Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia.
And then there is this sentiment, here summed up by Sarah Waters in her Introduction to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus:
“the narrative ultimately celebrates liberation, the casting off of myth and mind-forg’d manacles, the discovery of voice, empathy, conscience, the making of a ‘new kind of music’…Carter’s writing, not just in this novel but throughout her work, is a celebration of words – a celebration of language and all the marvellous things that language can be made to do.”
Neither are about the emptiness of false hope or dogma but about doing work: of mourning and grieving, and of creating space for the imagination.
When I first read Occupy Me, over a month ago, I loved it and really heard, in its generous spirit, that new kind of music. My thoughts went straight to larger than life women like Nicola Barker’s Medve in Five Miles to Outer Hope and Angela Carter’s Fevvers; then they went sideways a little to the humour of Sue Townsend and Douglas Adams. I also thought of Bertha and Pearl in Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and of H D’s Trilogy and her Tribute to Freud. All of this might seem bizarre to a SF reader – I’m not sure. But none of it felt forced – Sullivan actually mentions Doolittle in the text and, in a book of fantastically suggestive chapter titles, names a chapter after her: Occupy Me is undoubtedly an open and discursive text and dares to venture in all kinds of directions. Ali Smith discusses the “revelation that art itself is a broken thing if it’s anything, and that the act of remaking, or imagining, or imaginative involvement, is what makes the difference” (Artful 23). Occupy Me is a text that demands your imaginative involvement. Some might wonder if I am pushing the boundaries of a reading too far? Actually I think not, getting lost in the dense intertextuality of H.D.’s Trilogy is a bit like getting lost in Pearl’s higher dimensions and it’s a text that is, similarly, about the search for knowledge and freedom, justice and new possibilities. It is deeply interested in testing boundaries and exploring ‘other realms’ (60) – sexual, imaginative, political and in exploring the connections between past, present and future.
Finally, because I was trying to make a SF connection and find a way of orientating SF readers, I settled on Adam Roberts, the only other modern SF writer I know that can mix bathos and irreverence, high and low culture, comedy and political (and moral) seriousness with such dexterity and such command of tone. Moreover and more importantly, it felt like an overtly feminist text full of wonder and joy – something driven and original. A work that demands to be thought of in a tradition that celebrates women and the subversive potential of pleasure and play. This led me, as usual, to try to discover a little more about the author. What I found filled me with admiration for Sullivan and full of anger at the ridiculous gender essentialism that, in part, led her to stop writing and go back to university to study physics. To be honest it scared me a little that the Suck Fairy would visit on the second reading and I wouldn’t like Occupy Me as much. I needn’t have worried.
Okay, if you haven’t read the book – here is what you need to know. At the beginning of the novel Dr Sorle – a man who has been literally split into two by the greed and violence of modern capitalism and colonialism – forces the dying Austen Stevens – the billionaire baddie, into a magic, multi-dimensional briefcase. Actually Stevens wants to go, he believes it is a gateway to eternal life. He has promised the doctor a huge amount of money to be saved. With the money Sorle plans to build an organisation called the Resistance – a network committed to small acts of kindness and empathy in the hope of changing history for the better. However the briefcase is also a part of Pearl, an angel – maybe: a part that Sorle has stolen so that he can blackmail her into showing herself to Stevens, to show him that miracles exist. What follows is a kind of thriller as Pearl tries to discover who or what she is, as Sorle tries to make the deal go ahead despite all manner of complications and as the larger forces of fossil capital try to thwart them both as they try to recoup the billions that Stevens embezzled. Along the way they meet the novel’s third main character Alison, an aging vet who likes a wee drink. I should say too that though the plot does carry you through it is hardly a plot driven novel. Indeed it is an incredibly illusive novel, trying to pin down its overall meaning is like trying to capture a willow the wisp. At one point Pearl wonders if she’ll need “a metaphysical bomb defusion kit” to open the briefcase: the reader may feel a similar desire as they try to decipher the text. SF readers should be happy with its discussions of entropy, chaos and the butterfly effect but the joy of it is in the writing, a numinous sentence by sentence beauty that I probably won’t be able to capture, and in the characters and in Pearl’s search for justice and selfhood.
You should know too that I’m always criticising books for their simplistic politics but the main bad guy in Occupy Me has made his money from oil, exploiting the resources and land of a developing country, fermenting war, skimming profits and finding ways to avoid paying tax. He and the forces he represents are all out bad: “evasive, cunning, self-righteous, blind.” (176) Pearl, like the reader, is sick of the simplicity of their cruelty: “this is how these guys operate. I’ll never be able to understand it. Here I am giving it away, my energy, my compassion, my strength. And dude wants to sell my own love back to me at a price. Everything’s a fucking commodity.” (179). Finally she sees in Stevens “the decay of age and the algorithms of selfhood that were starting to harden up into parody.” (180) and in that image its hard not to find an echo of this “disaster we are in” – the obviousness of it – its unique grotesque – history forgotten; hatred and stupidity transcendent. Is it too easy to hate a character like that? Of course it depends on the purpose of the novel. And this is a book with a bold palette.
Indeed Occupy Me is often a bit daft, not just bold but a little broad perhaps, a little flirty, but that is part of it’s appeal – its lusty joie de vivre and egalitarianism. Pearl is larger than life; she has the sassy swagger, and the hint of vulnerability, of a Hollywood dame – Mae West perhaps. But then she is also one part Hulk, one part Clarence Odbody, one part Fevvers, one part sensuous lesbian role model:
“My body: not much shy of two metres tall, wide-hipped, umber in colour and packed with lively muscle and enough fat to last a long winter. My grey-streaked twists bounced around my shoulders when I moved. I was fond of myself already.” (31)
“I stood looking at myself in the bathroom mirror and saw what Marquita saw: a fifty-something woman of indeterminate not-European ancestry, her denuded head wrapped in an orange cloth, her weighty breasts moving as slow pendula even in the tightest exercise bra. Shoulders like a linebacker. Traps so steep they looked like one of those road signs that warn trucks to use a low gear. Legs bowed and springy, feet large and high-arched. A nice thick layer of subcutaneous fat: no chance of this one passing as a ripped-up bodybuilder. She was packing power. Marquita looked at me with open adoration, but I always look at myself with surprise. There’s so much I haven’t figured out yet, and most of it is myself.” (68)
She is endlessly open to life’s possibilities but also has a problem: ‘I don’t know which parts are me and which parts are my environment and which parts are … other beings.’ (62). And later she addresses her missing part: “You are mine but you’ve been made into something else. I am yours but you don’t know me anymore. How do we put ourselves back together? Where to begin?” (116) This is a text about ontology, identity and alienation just as much it is a book about higher dimensions and the desire for a better world. This is where, even in its playfulness, Sullivan’s text also nudges us toward those big questions that I alluded to earlier: “We begin by not being crushed to death and progress from there.” (146)
The dinosaur and the briefcase (again)
I think I could convince most discerning readers to try this book simply by quoting passages from it. Here is the Pterosaur:
“Over the railway bridge the ancient animal glided black and lunar, like a cracked piece of sky… The creature looked like forged emptiness. It breathed smoke and the vast unlit places between stars. On the ground it seemed amplified. Its wings made a hard wind with even the most casual movement, and its breath rebuffed the waves. A pheromone fume seeped from its fur. There was a disturbing hum in my occipital bone, a sensation of drag on my consciousness. Like magnetism. The sensation was out of all proportion to my physical body. I felt I could be reeled, wings and all, into a single one of the quetzlcoatlus’ black-hole pupils and never be found again.” (140-1)
But Sullivan’s dinosaurs are much more. They are a BIG metaphor for linking the past with the present; in thinking about irony, change and permanence. So too with the suitcase. Sullivan excels in using her genre tropes to expand and deepen the philosophical, scientific, speculative and moral parameters of the text. She can be completely literal in questioning SF tropes:
“This is for everyone who thinks ships are made of metal and petrochemicals and that they travel through space like sailboats travelled the high seas, propelled by mysterious engines that grant them impossible speed. That space sailors have space battles with space pirates and electrical cables and explosions and space bars with space booze.”
But then there is this:
“I feel the substance of the briefcase slither between the clacking grip of my claws. The substance of the briefcase itself is deep, and its intermolecular spaces are suspect: they look back at me like eyes. But these clever engineered depths are as nothing compared to the skirling void of that frank maw. Eater of dead men, mother of questions, it is before me and presents itself without sound, without smell, without sight. Without touch. My claws hold the edges of its containment, a mystery field that shows me my own blindness without mockery and without pity. I try to breathe. I need something to anchor me to the visceral but claws and breath and blood are not enough.” (166)
There is existential dread in that skirling void and in the pitiless need to see and understand ‘without mockery and without pity’. The text’s celebration of language and imagination goes hand in hand with its sense of the battle between self and ego.
There is a point when Pearl is questioning her need for deep connections and the way she falls for people. Her lover Marquita suggests ‘Love is attachment. That’s essential for the survival of the species. Women who love too much? What the fuck is that? The whole idea implies that love is a pathology. So now women are devalued because we can attach deeply.’ ‘I still wonder if I’m violating boundaries by letting myself reach into people like I do.’ ‘Maybe it’s not love at all,’ Marquita said. ‘Maybe you’re training your mirror neurons. Learning the species by empathy.’ Pearl notices people’s “humanity even when they couldn’t see it anymore themselves.” (98) The little episodes where she sees into the pain and contradictions of the humans she encounters are moments of delicate grace.
This is a book about training your mirror neurons and to (re)turn to Katherine Mansfield, Occupy Me “is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.’” (quoted in Artful 84). It’s a text that transforms H. D.’s mystical feminism into feminist SF. To be known by Pearl, one imagines, would be a wonderful thing. To occupy is to fill, to keep busy and active, to hold. Occupy Me is a text that wants us to hold each other and fill each other up; it asks us to occupy the spaces that Stevens and his ilk don’t understand and cannot comprehend.
And I didn’t even get to Akele, kindness, environmental reclamation and of a luminous, deeply political dénouement:
“Something wants to burst out of the ruination. Out of futility, out of crushed hope, out of that broken place where nothing can ever help. No superglue to repair this tear in the universe. Loss is just the way it is.” (263)
And it does.
Gareth Beniston lives in Birmingham and is a librarian at a large girl’s school. He wishes there were more hours in the day to read books and watch films. He believes that an episode of Blake’s 7 will improve most days. He blogs at Dancing on Glass.