Flickers without the flame, Elizabeth Smither

Lust: stories from Australian and New Zealand writers
Michael Gifkins (ed)
Vintage, $24.95
ISBN 186941 2435

Of the seven deadly sins, most of us have a predilection for one or two. If two are combined, like sloth and gluttony, it is rarer to find a third. For to rouse one to the level of deadliness it often requires an apprentice. Remember Bedazzled where the devil worked through scratchers of phonograph records or bashers of crates of bananas?

In a witty and provocative introduction ‑ more a challenge really ‑ Michael Gifkins seizes on the Concise Oxford. There is lust for and lust after; lust as Lust which is fleshy, erotic and demanding and also something of a social welfare problem in that it disallows the victim, if there is one, the necessary space for autonomous decision. Then there is lust where something substitutes for flesh, like money or power. This is a capacity for lust diverted: a likely candidate would be a politician or a captain of industry. A little lust might be welcomed by a consort. Whatever it is, Lust is a powerful title and we are right to have expectations.

There is a flicker of lust ‑ about the length of striking a match or flicking on a Bic Flick lighter ‑ in Tom Hyde’s Minimalism. Nonetheless it is a genuine lust, aborted by food and drink, an abandoned attempt to masturbate, an undeveloped fantasy of chasing and wrestling with someone covered with vegetable oil. The plot is very simple and deadpan: a dinner party guest has dog shit on her shoe and goes into a bedroom to have it removed by the host.

I escorted Doris to a back room where things like that could be taken care of. We were alone. She took her shoe off. She handed it to me. She balanced on one leg. She leaned against the wall. Shoeless, leaning against the wall and still feeling flustered, she was vulnerable. My heart beat faster. She apologised again. I said it was no problem really. I thought of my son’s death. I thought of my own death. Simple existential logic told me we are born, we eat, we sleep, we work, and we die. Life is short. Get it while you can. Doris turned me on. Jane walked in and asked how we were getting along. “Fine,” I said. I handed Doris her shoe. “All done,” I said.

Tom Hyde, in a minimalist way, has caught something of the reasoning and opportunism of Casanova who would doubtlessly write it up as the doo doo on shoe manoeuvre.

Marilyn Duckworth too has an excellent slobbery idea of lust involving shoes in Footloose and Frangipani. Kim, in pursuit of a man who keeps looking at her “abstractedly somewhere in the region of her feet” falls asleep in the library through exhaustion.

She wakes because something odd is going on. There is something heavy and snuffling on her feet, like a large dog lapping at her. Or a pig? Dribbling from its snout there is a wetness and a rasping grunt. Where the hell is she? Her open book skids from under her dented cheek and she jerks upright on the library chair. The library! She kicks out instinctively at the slobbering beast attacking her toes ‑ and gives a sharp scream…

More than a torchlight of lust here.

Whereas Stephanie Dowrick’s account in “Claudine and Zoë” of mutual pleasuring though reading like unexpurgated Colette, is no more than that. “Claudine moves away from Zoë to hang over the edge of the bed and rescue the duvet from where they’d kicked it to the floor. She shakes it, then places it over them both.” The concern in this story is performance and, once that is arranged, happiness. “Love, romance, lust ‑ the three are intertwined,” Michael Gifkins explains. “But lust (and here I generalise) has about it something of the harsh reality that romance generally declines to suspect, and love has elements of altruism and concern for the loved one that lust can function quite happily without.” Zoë cares for Claudine and that is the problem; it reads closer to a sex manual with characters than lust.

With Shonagh Koea’s “The Widow” we seem to be on to the real thing. Bunty lusts after the little widow and plots her capitulation. “He looked at her with a rising lust”, “He ravished the secrets of upstairs”, he possesses a “salivating rush”, a “careless and lusty enthusiasm”. It is delightful to come across this element of calculation. Unfortunately the little widow knows how to use a chainsaw and the lust component abruptly dies, making quite a different story of it.

Rosie Scott, who packs more sensuality into a sentence than most can manage in a page, creates a lustful mother: “I can’t help it if the Good Lord’s given me a sex drive that would kill an elephant.” Stella Kent’s The Body in Question has a flash of lust in the “thought of the god Zeus, lapping against inner thighs, his breath hot behind me.”

Bronwyn Sweeney’s “Pricktease” offers a good understanding of the mechanics of lust: “The slightest shift of the hips, the merest tilt of the arse, the most imperceptible clutch and closure of the pelvic floor muscles which bring a desperate orgasm provider to untimely climax.” Obviously some sort of grail or goal is required.

Lyn Hughes makes use of Flaubert (“Beyond Flaubert”) when Cal’s partner, Sue, leaves her for someone else. “Cal thought that Flaubert must have travelled the whole of Egypt with an erection.” Her son, taking over a year to read it, has had a similar relationship with Anna Karenina. “Sue looked like someone else. Cal would have recognised Flaubert at once.” Lust‑revenge, lust by evasion. Obviously, as Casanova knew, it needs working at.

“Suck My Toes”, Fiona McGregor’s steamy butch femme dyke escapade featuring Fleur and an improvised dungeon works at it but undermines it with shoddy housekeeping and maintenance. A dildo drops on the floor. “Shit! Now it’s covered in dust, you grot, didn’t you vacuum?” The swing in the dungeon creaks, a hand goes numb (RSI) at the crucial moment and a chain breaks. “This is supposed to be a S/M party but Fleur’s seen more excitement at a Ballarat barbecue.”

“Rooted in Time” (Denis Edwards) mixes lust, Frenchies, accidental grunge dressing with a time warp. “The only safe sex he’d ever heard of was when you were doing it well away from a television aerial when there was a thunderstorm outside.” The relative merits of food and rooting are discussed and guess which wins?

“Teledildonics”, Mike Johnson’s not too futuristic story builds on the video/massage parlour scene to a virtual reality world where a small bankcard can buy “45 minutes of pure, hot and uncensored Reality”. The Mark 7 with its “fully interactive non‑linear feedback systems can dish up a Reality that makes the cranky old Cunt‑struck/Cock‑happy machines look like a 3‑D matinee picture show”. Lust as a lube with literary fairydust, for Molly Midden, unpromising patron, augments her routine with Greek myth while Roly Hope, technician, reflects on Scrooge McDuck.

Ian Wedde’s postman in “Paradise” admits “the true voluptuary needs to be able to draw a clear bead on the target”. His daily pee in sight of Madame Ngaei, wife of a Chinese doctor, is suffused with regret on both sides. “He saw her clitoris as a delicate morsel in a bowl of soup” while she considers “how barbaric nature could be. How she longed to be educated in its gross intrusions.”

Chad Taylor’s “Archie and Veronica” have a very clear bead on one another. Beginning with stones inserted in shoes and virginity surrendered on a vaulting horse, they now require fingers crushed in doors, endless verses of “Old MacDonald”, charcoal eating, the suppliant sleeping under a bed. Only their dog, temporarily in kennels, bounds free. Chad Taylor’s prose possesses the same ability to carry distasteful freight as Maupassant’s.

Equally assured is Debra Daley’s “Chemistry Experiment”. Celia, who is having such trouble with her equilibrium around Therese, can run through a catalogue:

… white spirits on ice

… thin psychologically

… the vampire of nightspots

… so well‑dressed people take it as a personal insult

but the actual encounter when she appropriates Therese’s chiffon scarf to mop pink sloe gin from her shoes has all the risk‑taking egotism of love.

Whereas most contributors deal with a specific instance of lust, as though lust is an intrusion into normal life, Gary Disher, in his remarkable story, “No Risk”, paints a wider landscape. “In fact I was infected with a drowsy kind of badness that final summer at the Trusthouse.” The narrator, a 12‑year‑old boy, of confident though slightly suspect parents, is spending a summer holiday in the Adelaide hotel with his older sister Diana and Jess, “a love‑child”. Present are the less socially confident Parr children on whom an impulse to experiment and torment can be acted out. But lust is abroad in the community like a lowering and hectic sky in a painting. Followed day after day by a strange man, the narrator cannot rest until some sort of consummation takes place. His small sister joins the list of missing never to be discovered children. There is not a footfall out of place and the story is full of rich considered cameos: “Waitresses were emerging from the wall panels. I liked to watch them lean into the rich air, slapping silver trays against their thighs.”

The narrator of John Connor’s “Hard” is prevented by a sympathetic “blunt‑nosed pyramid sticking out of the front of his trousers” from intervening in the fall of his friend Benevente; Joy Dettman evokes a cold whisky‑toothache-abetted lust in “Slayer of Vanity”: “Forcing her to her back, he mounted her in the doorway and she lay like a length of stringy dough beneath him, attempting to ease first one bony hip then the other away from the unseen floorboards.” Peter Wells, in one of the collection’s most stylish and controlled stories, “Poses Plastiques”, tinges animate and inanimate with a patina of “petrol and flame”. There is “a couch, all green velvet, with hints of forgotten Venetian lust”, the young men “dressed in clothes that emphasised to welling perfection the glories of their anatomy”. And there is this perfect sentence: “Everyone in the room could see ‑ feel ‑ hear as clear as a sweet bell peeling joyously throughout the vast dark mansion ‑ that the young man’s companion was a beauty of almost unparalleled grace”. Yet the prospect of excess seems to hover for a moment on the ingredients of sauce tartare. What careful orchestration lust requires!

Peta Spear’s “The Mouth, The Eyes” begins ideally: “The frenzy of the body was the thing between them.” But “Lena was always wet and Nino was always hard” requires maintenance: the scent of privet, a voyeur opposite, a window, a kimono. Casanova would be at home here for surely, like Maupassant, he understood the declension of desire.

If, as the introduction promises, the most lustful are left to the last, Peter Carey’s “Peeling” seems an odd choice. Assuredly one essential is present: the perpetuator’s desire to control, like a day‑lasting barley sugar, the sequence of events. Instead the elderly narrator’s prey, Nile, a young woman abortionist’s assistant who collects hairless, eyeless white dolls, reveals too much in conversation, provoking an equivalent undressing. An attempt to remove an earring results in the Orlando‑like unzipping of her skin to reveal a young male, then a younger female. The lustful moments have fallen behind, at the junction to stall progress.

Outside my window I can see the grey tomcat marking his territory. Lean‑hipped, battered from many a skirmish, but with a still proud tail (read codpiece) like Giovanni Jacopo. Regretfully, there are no Casanovas in this volume, no one so concentratedly self‑aware, so technically honed. Lust flickers and is thereby unlust‑like. For surely, being a deadly sin, it should burn?

Elizabeth Smither is a New Plymouth poet, shortstory writer and critic.

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