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Monstrous Bodies: Sexuality and Body Horror in Charles Burns’ ‘Black Hole’ and George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’

Pui-guan Man

In this age of unprecedented access to information, cognitive dissonance is a symptomatic feature of life. As Jean Baudrillard puts it in The Spirit of Terrorism, “reality is a principle, and it is this principle that is lost.” Fictional realism is thus limited in its capacity for depicting both collective and personal experience of emotional trauma (28). ‘Slipstream’ fiction, that is to say, fiction that straddles the middle ground between literature and popular culture, realist and speculative fiction, science fiction and horror, embraces this dissonance in order to pioneer new literary forms that embody the ways in which contemporary life grows increasingly more surreal. The term ‘slipstream’ was first used by Bruce Sterling in 1989, in an attempt to put a name to literary phenomena that saw writers engaging with the contradictions of contemporary life by presenting inverted versions of reality that register cultural cognitive dissonance: “This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility” (SF Eye #5, July 1989). Slipstream fiction, then, might best be defined as a decisively late-capitalist subject-position, at the heart of which is “an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality,’” which “sarcastically tear[s] at the structure of everyday life.” Though slipstream fiction remains a contentious category, Sterling’s identification of this emergent authorial approach provides a useful inroad to thinking about much contemporary American literature, including Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole (2005) and George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ (from his 2000 short-story collection Pastoralia), which engages with the problematics of late-capitalist culture through distorted, often horrifying realities[i]. Black Hole takes place in mid-1970s Seattle, and tells the story of a group of high school students who contract a mysterious sexually transmitted disease, known as ‘the bug’, the symptoms of which vary from subtle mutations, such as a second mouth grown on the collarbone, to more visible deformities, such as grotesque bulbous growths on the face. Shunned by normal society, those worst affected by the infection become social outcasts, the most visibly deformed amongst them living in seclusion in encampments in the woods and vacant tract houses. Burns constructs a surreal and decaying environment that is mapped onto both body and landscape in a combination of the erotic and the horrifying, which play out in the dreamscapes and realities of the teenagers affected. Saunders, meanwhile, presents his protagonist’s world as a hypersexualised capitalist reality that is unexpectedly disrupted by the re-animated corpse of his late aunt. By playing the mundane and the specific setting against the extraordinary and horrific body, Burns and Saunders create a distorted reflection of the (post)modern subject, depicting definitive ruptures within the unity of the self by dismantling the physical integrity of the human body.

This examination of marginalised aspects within the self and its culture perhaps accounts for the overwhelming presence of the abject in Burns’ and Saunders’ texts. In psychoanalytical studies, abjection outlines the conditions of the flesh that lie beyond the tolerance of our psyches toward self-definition, the innate sense of cleanliness or propriety; in other words, we expel in order to affirm “the place where I am not and which permits me to be” (Kristeva 3). The simplest relationship, between the ‘I’ and the ‘Other’, is confused by the abject, as it comes into existence once it is necessarily rejected by the ‘I’, whilst at the same time being the condition in which the non-integrated ‘I’ fears desiring unknown or un-definable ‘Other’ objects of desire. Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection alludes to the physical human reaction (from the sensation of horror to biological functions such as nausea) to a recognition of a threat of disturbance or disruption to “identity, system, order [,] [w]hat does not respect borders, positions, rules”, a higher sense of truth (4). As Magistrale neatly summarises in his studies of abject terror, the horror monster “signifies abject terror because it violates cultural categories, disrespects organizing principles, and generally serves to present a chaotic alternative to the place of order and meaning, socially as well as biologically” (7). The recipient of horror art, then, is drawn to the abject as presented by the horror genre, as it becomes a mechanism that enables the release of repressed emotions that are perceived to threaten the balanced psyche, and so it becomes “a barometer for measuring an era’s cultural anxieties” (xvii). The transforming body, whether the human body metamorphosing into a hybrid of species as seen in Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958), bodily possession as a vehicle for another’s monstrous expression (The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin [1973]), the mutilated victims of slasher movies, or the infectious mutations of vampires, zombies and werewolves, is an essential trope of the horror genre. In many modern works, horror seems to act as a makeshift discourse for larger social issues; a lack of politicised or political language denies expression of a larger framework of anxieties and discomforts with modern life, and so what cannot be said is displaced into estrangement and disgust at the body in order to form the most immediate template for expression. In both texts, the marginalised figure of the monster becomes a critique of socio-political patterns, most noticeably of compulsory heterosexuality, the nuclear family and corporate capitalism, in their manifestation as the unconscious repressed desires of mainstream American society; hence the monster becomes a critique of the 'normal' self as well as of the institutions that govern conventional morality.

In his studies on 21st century sexuality, Gilbert Herdt notes that “Americans are fixated on sex. This obsession is age-old and not unique to the United States, but the packaging is new—and it is causing harm” (17). Sexuality has become increasingly visible across all forms of media, and the definition of it has expanded during the past generation to include more diverse subjectivities when it comes to experiencing intimacy and pleasure, particularly in relation to gender and sexual orientation. The increased visibility of sex and sexuality, however, has only sporadically resulted in a better-educated public; instead, it remains largely unrealised in light of both sex-positive and sex-negative cultural and political forces. Sexual imagery permeates the media in a way that is unavoidable, in the form of what Herdt calls “packaged sex”, which presents an impersonal hyper-perfect image of the sexual object, drawn largely from mainstream porn culture, in order to market products, whether they serve an explicitly sexual function or not (17). People draw their ideas of not only what sex should be, but also what people engaging in sex ought to look like from this culture, stifling communication and a healthy relationship with one’s own sexuality. Such examples populate the narrative of ‘Sea Oak’, by way of phone-sex infomercials (in which girls “in leather jumpsuits eating bananas in slo-mo” is headlined by the streaming disclaimer “Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones!” [124] in a comical inversion of expectations of gender, desire and labour) and television shows such as ‘Nathan’s Body Shop’ with its close-ups of “washboard abs” that “drive the women wild” (120). In this late capitalist market economy, sexuality is thoroughly commoditized, standardized and sanitized through its economic functions. Herdt and Howe note that “[s]ome of America’s most prestigious media companies net billions of dollars of annual profit from […] adult entertainment platforms, while very little money is spent promoting sexual literacy”. (5) Indeed compliance to the standards of marketable sexuality is indispensable to the central character’s economic status, being his greatest ‘asset’ in terms of employability. The protagonist of ‘Sea Oak’ works as a stripper-cum-waiter in an aviation-themed restaurant called ‘Joysticks’, where both income (by way of tips) and job security are dependent on appearance and compliance to consumer demands; customers are invited to rate the employees as either ‘Knockout’, ‘Honeypie’, ‘Adequate’ or ‘Stinker’. In the opening pages, Lloyd, a waiter who has gained weight and whose hair is thinning, is fired after being ranked a ‘Stinker’, despite having a family to support (92). The health inspector’s visit blurs the line between evaluating dancers and the food they serve (“I went to school to learn how to inspect meat, but this certainly wasn’t what I had in mind,” he jokes embarrassedly [96]).

The sexually-driven dehumanization of the workers acts as a displaced critique of the wider effects of capitalism on the dispossessed individual. Saunders is concerned with the plight of the working class male who finds himself emasculated and impotent. Though the labour he performs is humiliating, he nonetheless struggles to adequately support his dependents. Despite the apparent inversion of the gender relations typically found in this kind of sexualised commercial environment, Saunders does not necessarily present a straightforward reversal of male and female roles. Whether one is able to become subject or object, the customer or commodity in this semi-alternate reality seems more divided along lines of class than gender. This is perhaps best encapsulated in an episode in which the protagonist cannot bring himself to bend over provocatively for a female customer who has dropped a dollar on the floor, despite her insistence, and is subsequently voted ‘Stinker’ (110). The dignity of the worker exists in negative relation to market demands. The customers that frequent the restaurant highlight the similarity between erotic desire and desire for a consumer product, as the lines between the two are significantly blurred – their overt leers illuminate the actual lack that the consumer object or the erotic gives the illusion of being able to fill. Indeed, the appearances and dispositions of the waiters that they ‘consume’ is false; the waiters wear ‘oversized Penile Simulators’ (95-6) to titillate their customers. Their voyeuristic interest essentially highlights the pornographic nature of consumption in contemporary society, a phrase that, as Linda Williams puts it, adequately describes “the obscenity of a consumption that lacks substantive content” and represents the “excess of our contemporary consumer society,” since “[t]his society superficially sates itself on useless “goods” whose only real function is to lead to the consumption of more goods, none of which really satisfies in any deep or lasting way.” (Herdt and Howe, 74)


Into this world of sanitized bodies Saunders injects abject flesh made sentient. Aunt Bernie, a virginal and timid sixty-year old woman “so nonbitter it gets on [the protagonist’s] nerves” (95), comes back from the dead, supernaturally powerful, uncharacteristically abusive, and vocally sexual, despite her rapidly decomposing body. Her post-death rampant sexuality is intertwined with her monstrosity – having “never had a date in [her] life” (98) “because Grandpa needed her to keep house” (95) and remaining a slave to patriarchy even after her father’s death enabled a potential liberation, she comes back to life with a comically uncharacteristic outspoken lust. “I am getting me so many lovers. [...] I died a freaking virgin. [...] Nothing went in, nothing came out. Ha ha! Dry as a bone, completely wasted, this pretty little thing God gave me between my legs. Well I am going to have lovers now, you fucks!” (113). On the one hand, Bernie’s horrific expressions of desire undermine the dominant sexual culture, questioning who is entitled to publicly express their sexuality, and how this must be performed. On the other hand, sexual illiteracy can be seen to have a moralistic flipside in which sexuality is seen as something dangerous to be controlled or repressed entirely; a cultural demonization of sex, that is often far more damaging to the individual than free and open sexual exploration, and Bernie responds to this in equal measure. It seems as if Bernie has suppressed and repressed so much of the abject, in terms of sexual energy, (sexual) bodily functions and alienating herself from any type of otherness, from other places apart from that which is familiar to her (“Once she went with Ma on a bus to Quigley, Kansas [...]. That was it. That was the extent of her tourism” [102]) that it has been unleashed all at once to transform her into an abject body, into re-animated dead tissue, body parts literally falling off her as she speaks. From veering from one extreme type of character, cheerfully subordinate to a patriarchal and late capitalist culture, to another extreme that chaotically subverts the conformity of her previous life, zombie Bernie illustrates the difficulty of reconciling social and sexual desire, as her re-animated body, with its disrupted physical unity, highlights the metaphorical ruptures within the unity of her self. Being ‘good’ has failed to satisfy her, creating a huge spiritual void that may only be solely compensated with travel on airplanes, summer houses (113) and ‘sexy bras’ (119) – all of which are also hallmarks of consumer desire.

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[i] As there are no page numbers in the text, all references taken from Charles Burns Black Hole appear as the section heading followed by the panel number.