Bloodied without a wound in sight

September 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

“I’ve beat girls before,” whispering, holding the truncheon in the dark, bracing himself with one far hand against the wall, “and I don’t leave bruises. . . . And if I happened to be without my weapon . . . the next best thing is a newspaper rolled and soaking wet. But here, get the feel of it, Miss.” He reached down for her and she felt the truncheon nudging against her thigh, gently, like a man’s cane in a crowd.

“It ain’t so bad,” he whispered.

She was lying face up and hardly trembling, not offering to pull her leg away. The position she was tied in made her think of exercises she had heard were good for the figure. She smelled gun oil–the men who visited the room had guns–and a sour odor inside the mattress. . . . There was a shadow on the wall like a rocking chair; her fingers were going to sleep; she thought that a wet newspaper would be unbearable.

Then something happened to his face. . . .

His arm went up quivering, over his head with the truncheon falling back, and came down hard and solid as a length of cold fat stripped from a pig, and the truncheon beat into her just above the knee; then into the flesh of her mid-thigh; then on her hips; and on the tops of her legs. And each blow quicker and harder than the last, until the strokes went wild and he was aiming randomly at abdomen and loins, the thin fat and the flesh that was deeper, each time letting the rubber lie where it landed then drawing the length of it across stomach or pit of stomach or hip before raising it to the air once more and swinging it down. It made a sound like a dead bird falling to empty field. . . . When he finally stopped for good she was bleeding, but not from any wound she could see. (The Lime Twig)

Needless to say, I hope, John Hawkes has written here a terrifying & brutal scene. Is it confessing too much of myself to add, then, that he has done so beautifully?

My first thought was that the beauty of the scene, that is, not the beauty of the brutality conveyed but the conveyance itself, resided in Hawkes’ use of contrast. As we know, contrast is a wonderful tool in an expert hand. Whether it is a depiction of holiness by way of blasphemy or indulgence by way of privation, or in this case ugliness by way of beauty, to achieve its end, contrast appeals to a formal difference that itself makes possible a shared experience between reader and that which is read.

This all sounds well and good, but one has to wonder, too: does our experience of reading about this beating beautifully rendered, jarring though it may be, at all put us close, approximate, or even analogous to the violence suffered by Margaret? The least important objection to this, I think, is that it is perverse to suggest such a thing: that words are words, blood is blood, and rarely do the two ever meet. My concern, rather, is whether any such shared experience of a depicted violence is even possible. (Let alone something like love; or more specifically, lust; or, heaven forbid, orgasm.)

In his book On  Being Blue, William Gass takes a slightly different approach and cites this passage as an example of Hawkes’ tight control over his prose. By virtue of this control alone, Gass contends, brutality is thus beautifully depicted. This seems to me to tell only part of the story–and the part untold is deeply significant. Inasmuch as Gass is intent to focus singularly on the passage as a beautiful depiction of brutality, he more or less avoids touching the brutality itself. His and Hawkes’ hands remain clean in the name of aesthetic distance & authorial control. This seems, though, to glide over Hawkes’ provocative and unsettling wager: namely, that by exhibiting such total control (this, I agree, cannot be denied) Hawkes not only creates the space/distance necessary for a beautiful depiction of the attack, he at the same time draws himself & his depiction indistinguishably close to its depicted attacker. No innocent bystander, Hawkes. Beauty, as a result, comes not only at a cost, but precisely by way of the blows themselves.

If this passage is an exercise in controlled contrast, its most significant effect is not merely to align the reader’s experience with that of Margaret. To leave it at that does her suffering (and Hawkes’ depiction thereof) no justice at all. (Readers, we will recall, unlike poor Margaret here, have the option of not reading, skipping, rejecting, etc. Hawkes’ prose.) On the contrary, and more unsettling & violent still, readers receptive to Hawkes’ mastery and thus appreciative of its beauty, find themselves suddenly active participants in the suffering itself: not merely its victims, but rather now, simultaneously or cyclically (hard to say, that), on both ends of the bludgeon. Appropriately, not unlike the one description that fits both Thick & Margaret. bloodied without a wound in sight.

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