Jenny Diski's Curious Women
The Vanishing Princess, the late essayist’s only collection of short stories, is an eloquent take on the rules governing femininity.
To my mind, the quintessential Jenny Diski moment comes in her essay “Rape-rape,” published November 2009 in the London Review of Books. Considering the director Roman Polanski’s statutory rape of a teenager alongside her own assault at 14, Diski explains, “I was neither dazzled nor drugged into sex when I was 14—I was embarrassed into it.”
It’s the kind of thing you’re not supposed to admit. It’s shameful, it’s uncomfortably honest, and it is a relief to hear it told with clarity and directness. Diski, in this essay, insists on telling her own story of what her rape meant to her, examining it just as skeptically as she would a new biography of Princess Diana. It was not “the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me,” nor “spiritual murder,” she writes. “I had no sense that I was especially violated by the rape itself, not more than I would have been by any attack on my person and freedom.”
Diski conveyed such frank observations in breezy, witty prose, across 10 novels and eight books of genre-bending nonfiction. It’s a refreshing antidote to the overburdened metaphors streaming from too many MFA programs, and the cliquishness and superiority that plague too many cultural critics. Her work offers a feeling of liberation from lazy thinking, fearful indirectness, and any instincts toward image management. It’s permeated, too, with what Heidi Julavits calls a “feministly interrogative nature” in her introduction. (Full disclosure: I’m a former employee of The Wylie Agency, which represents Julavits.)
The recent U.S. publication of Diski’s only book of short stories, The Vanishing Princess, offers a delicious opportunity to delve into some of the writer’s principal preoccupations: pleasure, the writing life, the difficulties of family life, and the rules governing femininity. The collection, which appeared in Diski’s native United Kingdom in 1995, is also the first work of hers to be published Stateside since In Gratitude, a chronicle of her battle with cancer and perhaps her best-known work. (Diski passed away in April 2016.)
Diski makes these familiar themes—gender, domesticity, and artistic creation—entirely her own. Most short stories have an event at their center; Diski’s heroines, instead, tend to be stuck is some kind of stasis. Her approach to action is perhaps best summed up by the final story’s protagonist, a princess who has spent her whole life inside a tower without ever meeting another person, her sole sources of stimulation books and a pet cat named Dinah. “So, she thought, Dinah has died, and now there’s another cat. What a busy life it was.”
Some of Diski’s characters are physically stuck in place, which mirrors their helplessness to alter their circumstances. Others are mired in sexual obsession or trapped by the dysfunction of their families––which both psychoanalysis and genetics, Diski wryly reminds readers, tell us we’re somewhat powerless to escape. In “Strictempo,” the teenaged Hannah stays in a mental hospital until some adult authority can figure out what to do with her. She’s already been bounced out of both parents’ unhappy homes, as well as a progressive boarding school.
Hannah is not mentally ill enough to require institutionalization: The staff considers her “small overdose” and depression “perfectly rational responses to her circumstances,” considering her intensely volatile parents—yet there she stays. She feels that she has “run out of possibilities,” as she circles around and around the hospital dayroom to old fashioned music, “[closing] down the part of her mind that wrestled with the future.”
Avoiding the spectacle and noise of events, Diski can better burrow into her characters’ minds, where the substance of her stories is found. Though all save two are told in the third person, she captures the movements of her characters’ minds at their slightly off-kilter work with an intimacy often associated with first-person narratives.
In “Wide Blue Yonder,” the middle-aged Christina’s apparent staidness conceals a mind whirring with deliciously dry observations about married life. Gazing at her husband’s “frenetically self-conscious dance” as she reluctantly participates in his frisbee game, Christina wonders whether there’s a chance he “would change over the next 20 years.”
Lillian, the protagonist of “Short Circuit,” is physically circumscribed by strict routines of work and a lunchtime stroll around the same park. Her mind, on the other hand, is continually whacked out of orbit by concerns over her boyfriend’s infidelity––which stretches into epistemological concerns. “How do I know what you say is true?” she demands over and over again, as Charlie reminds her that he loves her and that he wouldn’t cheat.
Though these stories contain little action—Lillian broods and walks, Christina drifts through her vacation—each “cover[s] miles of intellectual and emotional ground,” to quote Julavits.
Diski may be at her most original in her treatment of pleasure. In “Bath Time,” the protagonist Meg hatches the dream of a perfect bath. It would be day-long, in a gleaming, white room, uninterrupted by phone calls or familial responsibilities, unmarred by cooling water. It would be “a private, solitary stoking of her fires”––a set of circumstances wholly out of reach for a young and, later, single mother.
By the story’s end, the protagonist’s dream seems both like self-actualization––anticipating her bath, she thinks, “How many people had lived their lives up to the point [she] had reached and could say they were about to fulfill their great ambition?”––and like suicide. She’s spent all her savings constructing a bathroom to her precise specifications, and purchasing “astonishingly expensive French designer foaming bath oils,” meaning a comfortable dotage is definitively out of reach. The night before her bath, she sits “wrapped in her duvet in the freezing, desolate room, with the smile of a cat savoring the prospect of tomorrow’s bowl of cream.” From an innocent beginning, the quest for pleasure can become obsessive, dangerous, a basking in oblivion.
Diski had a taste for ambiguous endings like this one. In her memoir-cum-travelogue, Skating to Antarctica, she explains, “There are infinite ways of telling the truth, including fiction, and infinite ways of evading the truth, including nonfiction. The truth or otherwise of a book about Antarctica and my mother … didn’t depend on arriving at a destination. Nor in failing to arrive.”
Perhaps Diski’s relative disinterest in the literal truth of events is what leads her to so often blur the line between autobiography, criticism, and fiction. Each sounds distinctively Diski, with the same unfussy prose, and events from the author’s life recur in each form. Though The Vanishing Princess is her only book of short fiction, it doesn’t seem meaningful to sharply delineate it from her other work––she was not one to do so. Of her writing process, she said, “I just wanted to write things down in shapes, really.”
Diski was, however, curious about form in the structural or geometric sense. In nearly every story, a Cubist description or aside pops up. It’s most evident in the title story, subtitled “or the Origin of Cubism.” Through the lens of this artistic style, Diski explores how men see women and teach women to see themselves––and how that might lead to women disappearing––if not always so literally.
In the title story, a princess in a tower is introduced to the pleasures and cruelties of courtship by two knights: small quantities of delectable food, anticipation, disappointment, and learning to evaluate one’s appearance through another’s eyes. “[Seeing her reflection] was still very disturbing, and yet, there was something about it that she found pleasant,” the princess observes.
The two soldiers begin to scratch depictions of her body parts onto the mirror with their diamond rings, leaving her unable to see her own eyes and lips, and eventually, any part of herself. Their drawings are increasingly fragmented and unrealistic, “a buttock curved beside an anklebone; one ear rested on a fingernail.” That’s when the flesh-and-blood princess vanishes.
As Cubist painters did their muses, these soldiers remake the princess’s anatomy, simultaneously exploring and exploding her body. Drawing over her face, they echo Picasso replacing two prostitutes’ faces in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon with African masks. The princess’s disappearance makes no difference to the soldiers’ game of creation: They remain engaged in a conversation in which she herself is inconsequential.
The story implicitly rebukes a certain kind of male-dominated art which erases the women it purports to represent. In Diski’s hands, fiction instead brings them, idiosyncratically and wholly, to life––spiky humor, strange pleasures, and all.