Welcome To The Maul
Earlier in the month, trapped by the weather in a tent only marginally bigger than my own body, I read the first chapter of Tricia Sullivan’s Maul. Entitled ‘!’, it was so remarkable that I wanted to tell someone what had happened. Cut off from civilisation, I instead read it again. Having just read it for the third time, I am again struck by what a fitting, bold and exciting opening it is:
It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I’ve been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn’t soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs. Its tip snuggles around my clit. (p.1)
Yes, it very quickly becomes clear that our narrator is masturbating with a firearm. What better collision is there of humanity’s twin obsessions of sex and violence? Happiness is a warm gun, indeed.
The image is startling enough on its own but it is also so cleverly and skilfully evoked. The languid first sentence is immediately derailed by the “grey infinite smell” of the second sentence. It is an alien intrusion in what we think is a familiar scene (it also conjures up the gun as a physical object with remarkable economy). Having subverted our expectations, Sullivan goes on to subvert the language of pornography. As the narrator fellates the gun, it initially seems to be a straight forward penis substitute. “Courting” is a nice word choice, erotic in its restraint, but the mechanics of the act are familiar. Then we are told that the gun “doesn’t soften” and “remains achingly solid”. Of course not, it is metal after all, but the deployment of this porn cliché has the effect of both ironising the scene and transferring the ache from the gun to the narrator. The gun is not a penis and she aches for it because it is not. (The final sentence doesn’t really need quoting for my argument here but I love the specificity of “around” so quoted it anyway.)
The difference between the gun and a penis is highlighted when, on the next page, Sullivan moves from the mechanics of foreplay to the mechanics of orgasm:
It’s narrow enough that I can slide it into my cunt without breaking the hymen. I grope around for a while trying to find my G-spot but the urge to pee is too great when I press there and anyway I think the whole thing’s gotta be a myth so I go back to where I started. (p.2)
The transgressive word in the first sentence is not “cunt” (which her has the earthiness of the UK usage rather than the porny misogyny of its US usage) but “hymen”. An enthusiastically sexually active woman with an intact hymen is a rejection of traditional narratives about both sex and virginity. Later the narrator explicitly articulates what the opening scene has suggested: “I used to wish I had a boyfriend but now I know better.” (p.3) The word also implies something that is confirmed later: she is an enthusiastically sexually active child. So why is she keeping her hymen intact?
She doesn’t want a boyfriend but is she saving herself for someone? From the mechanics of orgasm, we then move to its depiction:
no. oh no. don’t go.
Hmm. Not bad.
What time is it? (p.3)
This is attempting to capture the ineffable and since I’m never going to directly experience the female orgasm I won’t try and judge its success. I am, however, very taken with Sullivan’s approach: the wild glee of its arrival, the attempt to ride the sensation with that poignant “oh no. don’t go”, the final burst (that last “!”) and then relaxing into lazy, satisfied contemplation. The final line provides a casually dismissive coda which reminds the reader that orgasm isn’t life-changing but it is a fun way to start the day.
We then move straight to a domestic scene, the sort of scene I’d like to see a lot more of in SF. The narrator gets dressed, teases her brother, negotiates her mom’s requests for breakfast. All the time the gun remains an alien, alienating presence, strapped to her leg and accessorised with a pink ammo belt – “It’s heavy, but who said fashion was easy?” (p.4) The narrator – Sun to her mom – is out the door: she is off to the maul.
(Sullivan uses the US homophone “maul” throughout instead of “mall”. The cover strapline describes Maul as a novel of “sex, shopping and terrorbugs” but it is shopping and violence that are inextricably linked by the title. The thematic density of this text is intense.)
Sun meets up with her girlfriend Suk Hee at the bus stop. Suk Hee calls her Katz so the Korean girl appears to have an (absent?) Jewish father; this is not a novel where identity is going to be simple. They talk about wrestling, boys and cosmetics. In the middle of this our narrator starts thinking about the complicity of women in supporting the wars of the patriarchy:
It turns us on when you fight, I thought. That must be why. We get off on it. It’s OK with us if you don’t give head or haven’t historically – we don’t need orgasms as much as we need wars. Otherwise why would you guys fight them? (p.8)
This is leftfield stuff; unexpected, perhaps unwelcome and considered at length. It could be an incredibly awkward scene but then we’ve already established that our narrator is the sort of high school girl who masturbates with a gun. So, instead, it is strange and disconcerting and leads us deep into both the novel’s entanglement of sex and violence and its core concern about gender and itentity. And who are the “guys” she talking to? Who is our narrator narrating for? Again, we are kept off-kilter.
Their friend Keri arrives in her car, a Saab (with a moonroof rather than a sunroof – what is Sullivan up to?). Thoughts of war are replaced by lust for Keri’s car and Sun attempts to translate this lust directly into a sexual fantasy. However, she is unable to do something as natural as this without problematising it:
I tried out several models in my mind but I couldn’t work out what kind of man would be dangerous enough and dark enough and hot enough to be next to me in the car commercial , and yet not be totally repulsed by me. Or for that matter who I’d trust to drive my Saab, if I had a Saab (because it definitely wouldn’t be his Saab). This is the main reason there are never any men in my sexual fantasies. I just can’t seem to construct one that fits. (p.9)
Until now the novel has been concerned entirely with character, mood and tone, now we sense the intrusion of the plot. The girls have been emailed by 10Esha, a “cryptic email”. There is a suggestion of impending violence but actual contents are not revealed. After all, Sullivan doesn’t need plot to hook us, she already has us tangling from her string. Instead the girls keep listening to The Sugacubes and talking about sex. The Sugacubes? Wrestling? Is this the future or the Nineties? Sullivan does everything in her power to keep us off balance. This scene allows Sullivan to sketch out the other two girls but the focus remains on Sun and, specifically her intellectual achievments in unsuccessful pursuit of boys: “Why did you have to take a summer course at Columbia, Sun? And then he goes out with Kristi Kaleri.” (p.11) Given her independence, there in everything we have seen her do or think, there is a seeming contradiction. Does she actually want a boyfriend? Does she subconsciously seek male validation? Has Sun recently come to a new understanding about herself or are these dichotomies still to be wrestled with.
The girls pull into the maul under a bad sign. The chapter ends.