Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Feminist Abject: Death and the Constitution of Theory

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Feminist Abject: Death and the Constitution of Theory

Article excerpt

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance.

--Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror(1)

When Ginny Babcock, the wealthy, white, Southern protagonist of Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1976), moves from Cambridge to Vermont to live in a women's collective with her lesbian lover Eddie, she soon grows impatient with the pieties of her liberationist friends. That impatience swiftly yields poetic justice, however, as Ginny's irritants are hoisted, jointly and severally, by their own petards. First falls Laverne, best known for her close relationship with an enormous vibrator; Ginny writes, "Just then there was a scream and a sizzling sound from upstairs, and all the lights went out."(2) Putting out the electrical fire, Ginny and her friends find Laverne, charred and apparently dead, lying under a sleeping bag. They resuscitate her, and when the ambulance arrives, the driver inspects Laverne's prostrate body: "Folding down the sleeping bag another turn, he rolled out one of her knees and discovered raw burned patches on the insides of her thighs. With a frown, he noticed an electrical cord. As he pulled on it, Laverne's vibrator popped out of her ... The doctor held the phallus-shaped vibrator, turned it over, sniffed it, scratched his head. It had a big crack all the way up it. Laverne had apparently achieved her goal of the Ultimate Orgasm" (p. 332).

Laverne survives the trauma but leaves the commune to take up life in a convent; this is either a retirement or a retreat, depending on one's perspective on her pursuit of the Ultimate Orgasm. The next victim is not so lucky, however. Ginny's lover Eddie seeks revenge on freewheeling snowmobilers who trespass on the commune's property. In defense of that property, and hoping to entrap the trespassers, she erects a thin, nearly invisible piece of wire along the property line. But in a hysterical rage against Ginny, Eddie herself steals one of those snowmobiles and shoots across the snowy meadow:

   But just before Eddie reached the pond, Ira's Sno Cat appeared to hesitate
   slightly. The next instant, Eddie's head flew off her shoulders and bounced
   and spun across the ice like a crazed basketball. I watched with utter
   appalled disbelief: What I had just seen couldn't possibly have happened!
   Ira's Sno Cat coasted to a stop, and Eddie's headless body rolled off the
   seat and onto the ice with a dull plunk. (P. 335)

Most shocking for Ginny about this death is its very cleanness: there was no blood spilled as Eddie's head and body were severed far more precisely than even the adjective "surgical" might suggest. And if Eddie's decapitation underscores the flimsy logic of her feminist commitment, dying as she does in defense of private property, Laverne's self-inflicted injury suggests the dangers inherent in appropriating the phallus, especially when that phallus comes equipped with an electrical cord.

Soon thereafter Ginny leaves the commune to marry Ira Bliss, the owner of the snowmobile on which Eddie met her demise. Thus ends Ginny's radical feminist phase, and with the death of Eddie and the claustration of Laverne, thus ends the novel's engagement with non-heterosexual eroticism of any sort. Eddie's wire boundary would in the end prove brutally efficient as the commune becomes its own structure of feminist containment, securely detached from the world at large.

My purpose in this essay is to suggest that such episodes of violent death serve a profoundly constitutive, boundary-establishing function within feminist novels produced in the U.S. during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Death acts as the invisible wire that kills Eddie, marking a distinction between feminist survivors and feminist scapegoats, marking a distinction, too, as it does here in the most graphic of terms, between the feminist mind and the feminist body. …

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