By Lise Funderburg
Voyage to the End of the Room By Tibor Fischer Counterpoint/$23.00
Kelly + Victor By Niall Griffiths Vintage/$12.00
Empress Orchid By Anchee Min Houghton Mifflin/$24.00
Desire is the very essence of man,” wrote philosopher Benedict de Spinoza in The Ethics, but what is the essence of desire? At base, it is a predatory hunger that threatens to consume both hunter and prey. Frequently expressed through the exchange of bodily fluids and near-actionable preoccupation with another person, desire can be more than corporeal: the thirst for political power, the insatiable need to protect one’s principles, and the simple craving for emotional connection with another human. In three new novels—two based in present-day England and one in nineteenth-century China—all of these iterations are explored.
First is Tibor Fischer’s droll Voyage to the End of the Room. In it, Oceane, the agoraphobic but otherwise uninhibited narrator, lives in a London flat that she never has to leave, thanks to unexpected, unending royalties from a freelance graphic design job. A Japanese company hired her to create a computer game character, and while neither she nor anyone she knows has ever seen or played the resulting game, its popularity in other parts of the world has made her “as-good-as-rich.”
Oceane’s self-imposed incarceration was long in coming, catalyzed by running into a woman on the street who carried a wedding cake and kicked Oceane in the stomach in passing. “It was the full stop in a long unpleasant sentence,” Oceane observes, noting that going out had started to consistently put her in bad moods and that London seemed to be designed for “vagrants, nutcases, drunks and thugs.”
By the book’s opening, Oceane only ventures as far as her hallway, glimpsing wayward mail and passing neighbors, including a cadre of daft but jovial Australian surfers. She has much to say about the world outside, about the men who want to shag her and the different styles of begging on the streets, and Fischer endows her with a keen though dispassionate eye. Most of life’s quotidian goings-on don’t interest her, even the daily news. In a typical commentary, Oceane remarks: “The big question is why do we need the news? … Is it because it gives us something to talk about, the human weather?”
But Oceane’s eminently rational voice describes an irrational world, and with the same emotion one would use to comment on the weather, Oceane describes her extraordinarily active sexual history, starting with her teen years. “Almost any man with good skin, a rigorous tooth-brushing policy and a car could have gone to bed with me in my teenage years,” she notes. “The affection simply spills out of you on the nearest object. You eventually perceive that most packets are empty. Fulfillers are few.”
Oceane’s own emotional range lacks fullness, and her equanimity in describing everything from the death of a boyfriend to her time spent working in a live sex show in Barcelona takes on an edge of sociopathology. Indeed, the absence of deep feeling is the antithesis of desire, and the phrase “empty sex” seems to apply again and again. Fischer’s imagination leads to amusing scenes and clever plot turns, and his characters are, to a person, quirk-ridden, but Oceane’s disconnectedness is so absolute that the reader can’t ever get a foothold on her essence.
Conversely, Niall Griffiths’s Kelly + Victor is a streaming tangle of desire and despair set on the streets of depressed Liverpool. Griffiths writes in a vernacular that is quite a thicket to navigate, full of prozzies, gobs, parro, shite, and beak—more like Trainspotting than Upstairs, Downstairs in terms of decodable imports.
The story spans the weeks following Y2K celebrations. Victor and Kelly are two disaffected, underemployed young Liverpudlians who ingest copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine, pot, and downers. They hate their jobs—when they have them—and face lives without prospects. They are in parallel, desperate searches for meaning and connection when they happen on each other in a bar. Griffiths underscores the parallel by telling the tale twice: first from Victor’s point of view—start to finish—then from Kelly’s.
He thinks she’s gorgeous, not so much in how she looks but the way in which “she’s like a torch in all this gloom.” Kelly is drawn to Victor’s loner status and singles him out from his more boisterous friends. The two have a beer, go back to her flat, and have sex that renders them completely obsessed with each other. The sex is rife with a dominance and submission that surprises them both. It is also suffused with a raw violence completely absent from the puerile, stilted conversation that happens between them whenever they’re in each other’s company outside the bedroom.
Kelly compares Victor to past sexual partners: “Thee all lack Victor’s presence, the way he displaces air as he moves, his slim hips, his smile. Thebare fuckin need in him an the wholeness surroundin him as comes, his neck gulpin for air under me thumbs.”
Sex is rough and consuming, increasingly edgy as the days go by. But none of it (and there’s a lot and it’s not easy reading and not meant to be) as edgy or rough as life in Liverpool, where no one has aspirations, football team loyalties are the local religion, the world seems to have forgotten or stopped caring about anyone, and pubs that endlessly play Beatles music offer tourists a sentimental destination that locals abhor.
Kelly and Victor read as such victims of circumstance that they engender sympathy: you want them to escape, to find hope through love, and yet the world Griffiths has constructed for them is so claustrophobic, so bounded by the absence of opportunity, it’s as if they are agoraphobic; they are the ones who can’t possibly break out of the prison of their own lives.
Finally, Anchee Min’s newest novel, Empress Orchid, is about desire of a different stripe. There’s sex here and there, but barely more than enough to provide Orchid’s husband, Emperor Hsien Feng, with an heir. What Min is interested in, as she was with her first novel, Becoming Madame Mao, is the extraordinary passion for duty and country shown by major women figures in Chinese history. Orchid is eminently less self-interested in personal pain than was Madame Mao—Min’s Orchid is filled with the honor codes of her Manchu ancestors, and in the interest of her country as it fights losing battles against the British in the mid-l800s. In her concern for the fate of her country and its culture, Orchid risks everything—from alienating those dearest to her to her own safety.
Life in the Forbidden City is infused with pomp and circumstance as well as intrigue and the petty jealousies that could result in beheadings, dismemberment, and innovative tortures. Empress Orchid, once selected to be among the emperor’s concubines, is outfitted with her own palace, maids, allowance, and eunuchs, who are valued for their ability to serve without threat of infidelity. Orchid is overwhelmed at first by having to allow others to serve her, clean her, dress her, and carry her from place to place on human-shouldered palanquins. When she accepts her privilege as part of her duty, however, she is able to reconcile its extremes. Her desire to be an honorable Manchu forces her to relinquish her own needs, as both a woman and a mother.
On balance, Min successfully brings the ritual-driven society to life. The novel only truly falters when Min’s loyalty to historical accuracy burdens the narrative with too many characters, plot reverses, and behavioral codes. They may have all happened, but they strain the capacity of the form.