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I mentioned the other day that I was reading Small World by David Lodge:

It’s a rather delicious book, apparently in the vein of something called critifiction, which is a combining of literary theory and practice. That is, it’s quite as much about drawing attention to and examining literary criticism and such even as it plays with it and practices it. Which might sound quite dry, but it’s really very funny and clever, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

The novel follows a number of academics as they attend conferences around the world. It’s a rather intriguing exploration of romance and it’s a lot of fun to see how everyone’s stories tie in together. Having now finished it, I have some thoughts on how gender plays into the representations of sexuality and sexual assault in the novel. I have more thoughts than those below, but I am going to be brief here!

The novel opens at a conference at fictional English university Rummidge, where Persse McGarrigle of University College, Limerick, falls hard for the mysterious Angelica Pabst. Persse places a great deal of importance on Angelica’s being, if not a virgin as he is, at least sexually conservative: he goes through huge emotional highs and lows as he gains new information on this (particularly during a sequence when he suspects she’s working as a sex worker in Amsterdam, which, as it turns out, she isn’t, leading to another big emotional moment). And that’s only the start of it; many of the men at this conference are vying for her attentions. A romantic scholar, she seems to realise she’s operating as the agencyless object in a kind of romance and, suffice it to say, has a little fun with her role as quest object, playing a trick on Persse and another conference attendee. Of course, that’s just conjecture as we never get to understand the story from her perspective. We’re trapped in receiving the facts through Persse’s viewpoint, and we never get to understand Angelica’s thoughts, or gain any picture of her as a person of sexual agency rather than as an object of these men’s desires.

Probably the most nauseating centring of men’s sexuality at the expense of women’s can be seen in the relationship between academic Arthur Kingfisher and his, er, companion, Song-Mi Lee. For most of the book, she exists solely as a glaring example of the submissive Asian woman sterotype. She’s his ‘secretary, companion, amanuensis, masseuse and bedfellow, her life wholly dedicated to protecting the great man’ (94). She’s pretty much silent when she’s not answering his phone; my “favourite” bit is probably on page 143 where ‘Song-Mi Lee silently recommences the removal of wax from his ear’ after Kingfisher (possibly) loses an erection. It goes on like this until page 297 (this is a 339 page book) when Persse has a conversation with a woman on a plane to South Korea, on one of his many trips around the world trying to find Angelica again. The woman tells him about going back from America to visit her family, about operating across two cultures, and about her family’s attempt to marry her off to a nice boy. And it’s quite a jolt when we learn that she’s Song-Mi. Here’s a full person where we’ve had a silent woman who functions pretty much entirely as a sexual servant up until now. It’s a good reminder that even the people who we read in the most one-dimensional terms are full people. I’ll not spoil the end of her story, but suffice it to say while it’s a bit questionable in my eyes, it seems to be a merging of her desires and worlds that satisfies her, and that’s what matters, really.

This paragraph is spoilerific, so do avoid it if you’re planning on reading the book! Also be warned as there’s non-graphic discussion of sexual assault. The primary example of a woman with sexual agency in the book is Angelica’s twin sister, Lily, who is working as a sex worker at the time of the novel and has a history of seeking sex on her own terms that no other woman in the novel does. At the end, Persse initiates sex with Lily because he thinks that she’s Angelica. There’s a little ambiguity in the book, that is, it’s unclear when precisely she realises that Persse wants to have sex with her because he thinks she’s Angelica, rather than just being some random bloke who wants to sleep with her, but there’s pretty clearly a stage at which she realises that this is the case. Persse pretty clearly considers this a violation when he finds out, and right enough. But Lily is far from apologetic, in fact she uses the confusion to convince Persse that he’s not really in love with Angelica, or he would have recognised that Lily wasn’t her if so. This releases Persee to move on with his life, so it serves the narrative; and that’s what it is, serving the narrative. Persse’s horror is left behind disturbingly quickly, and Lily isn’t held accountable at all. It’s really disturbing.

There’s so much more I didn’t discuss, suffice it to say there’s an almost overwhelming focus on men’s sexualities at the expense of women’s. That said, it’s a really good book and I do recommend you give it a read if I haven’t put you off too much!