She’s Got Issues
A couple of years ago I reviewed The Flood by Maggie Gee. It isn’t a very good book and one of the main ways in which it isn’t very good is in its incredibly clumsy handling of issues like race and politics. Still, Gee is well regarded (she was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 1983) so when I saw a copy of The Ice People in a secondhand bookshop I thought I’d give her a second chance.
The book gets off to a unfortunate start with the way the publisher has truncated its cover quote from Jeremy Paxman: “A remarkable novel… very funny.. up there with Orwell and Huxley.” Well known jokers, both. Inside, Gee’s own words are equally unintentionally eyebrow-raising. The issues are back and they are back in abundance. Here we have narrator Saul reflecting on his childhood in the future (AKA pretty much now):
I started to hate these foreigners. There wasn’t enough to share with them. We lived in a three-bed brick twentieth-century cottage with plasterboard doors that never quite shut, and my parents worked harder than anyone.
One day when my mother had come home exhausted from an all night run to Edinburgh, I told her I hated black people. She came into the garden in her dingy pink nightgown, and begged me to stop slamming my football against the shed. I did three more kicks, then went and lay down on the prickly yellow lawn, ignoring her.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘For heaven’s sake.’
‘I don’t like black people,’ I said. ‘The screen said even more of them are trying to get in.’ To me they seemed like liars and scroungers who would keep my family poor for ever. ‘I hate black people. Why must they come here?’
She looked at me with a little frown, a puckered white thread in her sun-reddened forehead. ‘Saul – they’re not all the same, you know. You can’t go hating black people.’
‘It’s true, Mum. I saw the pictures.’
‘You don’t understand.’ She sounded peculiar. ‘Saul, listen … look … there’s something …’ She stared at the ground, her mouth working. Then something burst out like a stone at a windscreen. ‘Haven’t you noticed your father’s black?’ (p.7)
Actually, I take it back – this isn’t eyebrow-raising, it is agonising. Our narrator continues: “In the bathroom mirror I looked for the truth. My skin was golden, as it was before, but I watched it change and become light brown. Spots, I saw, and curly black hair, and features broadening with adolescence. My nostrils, flaring. Yes, and my lips. I saw Dad’s face behind my own.” (p.8) We then skip forward ten years to the 2020s and from race, we move to gender:
…the fashion was for shaving, of heads and bodies. Why was that? Hard to recall now, but it lasted for decades, that egglike baldness. Perhaps it was a kind of streamlining, an attempt to keep cool at any cost. And the style appealed to both men and women. The fashion of the time was for androgyny, so hair was suspect, for it signalled gender.
And yet, though our clothes and hair denied it, a great gap had grown up between the sexes. Segging we called it. From segregation. Almost everything we did was segged. Girls with girls, boys with boys, great droves of animals bypassing each other, eyes darting across, wild in the neon, jostling, signalling, twisting through the night, two big streams that couldn’t make a river. (p.12)
George Melly says the book can be read as “an analysis of the widening gulf between men and women.” I must have missed that. Saul’s role in the novel is to represent men in this laughable gender wars set-up. In particular, he embodies pig-headed conservative masculinity which means that he has to fall in love with Sarah, the first woman with hair that he sees:
‘Oh god,’ the woman said. I looked at her. She had long hair. Most females under fifty had short hair, unless they were under ten, that is. She was small, slim, in a loose white dress, not fashionable, a ‘pretty’ dress. What my mother would have called a pretty dress… That weird waterfall of hair. Such childish hair. Reddish-brown, shiny, glinting like conkers against their white shell, and her skin had tiny freckles like dots of honey. She looked miserable, but her eyes were very blue. She came closer. The music gathered and poured. My heart swelled absurdly. (p. 14)
Sarah is a new type of teacher for this brave new world where humanity has spontaneously given up on heterosexuality:
‘It’s a new post,’ she said, shy. ‘I’m something called a Role Support Officer.’
‘What does that mean, then?’ I asked her.
‘The government’s decided that boys and girls have to be taught to get on together. It’s partly political, I’m afraid. They’re making appointments all over the country. Because the fertility figures are down again, and they have to seem to be doing something. Elections next year, of course.’
‘How do you mean, get on together?’
‘Well – I mean – you know – ‘ She was intensely embarrassed. ‘Live together, I suppose. Try to get them living together again.’ (p.15)
I was pretty intensely embarrassed by this point too. Is Gee joking? The tone isn’t comic and there is nothing to indicate satire but this can’t be meant seriously, can it? (As with The Flood, you can tell when Gee is doing satire and it is bloody awful: the Conservative Party have become the Conserver Party, theatres have become lloydwebbers, etc, etc.) If it is a joke, it is in pretty poor taste:
‘I like the look of you. You’re – different. You’re not just English, are you? What are you? French? Spanish?’ She looked straight at me. Her curiosity was like a kiss. Then she lit up. ‘You’re beek, aren’t you. You must be, of course! Tell me I’m right.’
And she had seen the thing that I wanted her to see. Beek was short for bicolor, the French insult that black people themselves had taken over to mean ‘mixed race’, and she used it so easily.
‘Yes, I’m beek. Most people don’t notice. My father’s half-African, my mother was white.’ Had I ever said it straight out before? She made me feel I could be myself.
‘That explains why – well, you look good to me.’ She finished the sentence in an awkward rush. ‘I’m very interested in all that. It was part of my Ethnicities diploma course.’
I’d always disliked the word ‘ethnicity’ – it sounds like someone cleaning their teeth – but on her lips, it seemed tolerable. (p.16)
This would be bad enough in its own right but Gee seems not to have considered that it might be problematic to make your misogynistic avatar of everything that is primitive and base about masculinity a black man. This is how Saul acts when they are first together: “She made the food; I ate it, gratefully. She washed the clothes; I put them on. I never really noticed that she was doing more (but she could have spoken; she could have complained) until one day we had our first quarrel.” (p.24) And here he is after ten years have past: “I was slow to resume our sex life after Luke was born. I wanted to be sensitive. I spit with derision to think of it now, but I didn’t want to hurt her where she had been hurt. If you love a woman you don’t want to hurt her. And then you want to smash her, rape her, kill her. (p.42)” Gee’s ability to inhabit the male psyche is uncanny! Everything is is so baffoonishly broad that you suspect it was written in crayon. Here, for example, is Saul’s entirely realistic reaction to discovering he has a low sperm count:
I was angry, and hurt. Sarah claimed I exploded. ‘Oh, you don’t know it all, then?’ I sneered at him. I tore his form in two, then in four. ‘Do you think that’s a surprise to anyone? Science knows fuck all about making babies –’
‘He’s upset,’ said Sarah, pre-emptively. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Um – I can never remember your name. Sorry.’
‘Wang. Dr Wang –’ (I laughed, rudely) ‘we quite understand these are stressful experiences.’
Dr Wang ‘understood’ – but no one understood. I had just been told my sperm was semi-fertile. My balls were no good, that was what I heard. They were big and firm, I had trusted them, I’d secretly believed the problem was Sarah’s – (p.33)
Dr Wang? “Big and firm”? This is unreadable and, impossibly, the depiction of fertility treatment that follows is even more offensive than the rest of the novel. I very rarely put down a novel but after 50 pages I could take no more. I started by mentioning Paxman’s quote on the front cover but there is an even more troubling one on the back: “Martin Amis once said Gee was the only female author of his generation he would bother to read.” Let that be your warning.