An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s the only commercial radio I heard was on the farm during school holidays, the radio in granddad’s ute tuned to 3SH Swan Hill (except around midday when he insisted on Blue Hills and the rural stock prices), playing Bobby Darrin, Dion, Ricky Nelson; I can still sing Vic Dana’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Even when I was a teenager the most popular singers on radio included Frank Sinatra, Matt Munro, and Tom Jones, and this at a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been around for 2 or 3 years. As the 60s passed I got into the Animals, the Loved Ones, Janice Joplin, King Crimson, the Doors – though sadly my all time favourite was and is Roy Orbison – but Sinatra et al were still around.

It was years before I realised that this confusion of singers hadn’t popped up out of nowhere but represented the continuation of a variety of streams – pre-war Swing (Sinatra), African-American Blues and White Country Rock. And of course over time they merged, continued, threw off new streams (and somewhere around Hip-Hop became unlistenable*).

Literature has as many streams as music. And for some reason – maybe with Climate Change its time has come – the stream that has come to the fore recently is Speculative Fiction and in particular Women’s SF – which I have argued elsewhere differs in significant ways from Men’s (aka ‘Mainstream’) SF. I wonder (idly!) if a part of the reason for this emergence -within Literature, rather than off to one side in genre – is the popularity of Margaret Attwood and her resolute refusal to be genre-ised.

In the past few years I have reviewed Jane Rawson (here, here, here), Ellen van Neerven (here), Alexis Wright (here). Charlotte Wood (here), Claire Coleman (here), and, to throw in a guy, Rodney Hall (here) not just because of my ongoing interest in SF but because they are genuinely at the forefront of new literature in Australia. And then there’s also Georgia Blain (here), Nathan Hobby (here), Robert Edeson (here, here) and Sue Parritt (here), of whom only the last is completely ‘straight’ SF.

Krissy Kneen is not an author I know, but this appears to be her sixth novel. It is a mixture of Speculative and Erotic fiction that I enjoyed. As for “streams”, the only direct predecessor I can think of is Linda Jaivin and the lightweight, amusing, sexy Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

The novel begins with Caspar, a lecturer in Literature – a guy in the first person, lecturing: “If an author uses first person, a reader is trapped in her or his perspective …” – focusing his attention on the prettiest girl in his class. It soon becomes apparent that Caspar serially has affairs with a girl from each of his classes.

He gets his comeuppence when Liv, a previous afairee, leaves him a gift of a memory stick and a virtual reality suit which enables him to re-live their love-making as she experienced it, and he becomes “trapped in her perspective”. This on its own is a powerful short story. To be a man experiencing his fumblings and shortcomings from the woman’s point of view is intensely humbling,

I still have her skin on me. I still feel her hurt, her disappointment, her terrible bittersweet scent of ennui.

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

┬ábut Kneen’s ambition is greater than this and she leads us on through four more ‘short stories’, each also in the first person, from the POV of a person other than Liv, as Liv ages and refines her use of the suit.

Liv is a researcher working with paedophiles to see if they can use the suit to develop empathy. Her subject, Ronnie becomes a jellyfish, becomes all jellyfish through all time.

Cameron is a – 50 years of science fiction and I can’t recall the word for a robot with human consciousness, ahh, android – an android who looks like a pre-teen boy and who ‘genuinely’ wishes to make love with paedophiles, no. 35 in a sequence of androids who have been progressively “improved” and their predecessors eliminated, happy in his work until he is subverted by a girl his own age, Ellen.

M is trans, in a time when gender reassignment is readily available to minors. She has a genuinely asexual partner but slowly becomes attracted to an old lady, Liv, who is belatedly undertaking her own transition to trans.

Finally the ‘first person’ is Liv, beyond a century old, using all her money to to hire, becoming friends with a beautiful prostitute, in the suit experiencing youth and sex for the last time. In each of the stories Liv is a person who constructs narratives from the captured experiences of herself and others.

If this were one of my narratives I would begin here.

The first time I paid a prostitute to masturbate me was when my body had died. I was nothing more than a collection of thought patterns, memories stored digitally, circuits firing like synapses, and yet this woman was slipping her fingers up and inside me.

Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction. If she were a singer I think she would be Ani DiFranco.

 

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

see also: Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)


*Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer shows how much I know – New Yorker

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16 thoughts on “An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

  1. I have a love of the Bog-O too, I must say.

    I have read one book by Krissy Kneen, Steeplechase, which I liked. This sounds interesting too and is getting a lot of good press. As you know I’m not a keen a SF fan but I’ve read a few of those you’ve mentioned because, as you say, they are not “pure” SF, a genre-benders. That tends to appeal to me more.

    Does Kneen have a particularly aim in telling this story do you think?

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  2. Yes, I read and enjoyed Steeplechase too. But the politics of this one doesn’t appeal to me.
    Have you read (or seen the recent film of) On Chesil Beach? Sexual ineptitude can be humbling for both genders, I suspect…

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  3. Yes, I loved On Chesil Beach. One of my favourite McEwan’s. He got the era down beautifully – and it can be seen more universally in terms of inability to communicate and what they can to to a relationship.

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  4. McEwan’s Chesil Beach got a big tick from me. As did Kneen’s Steeplechase. But An Uncertain Grace left me almost speechless, amazed. It was the sheer scope of her imagination, I think. Or was it the execution? Perhaps it was the sometime confusion. I found myself thinking that the writing of An Uncertain Grace was somehow bold and brave. But it is hard to explain why.
    Tackling the author’s aim would be a big call but I can share with you some of the issues it brought to my mind: 1) the notion of gender confusion/bending/altering and how many people feel it is some sort of a threat to their own existence which manifests in things like the heated debates in taking sex/gender questions off official forms and documents; 2) the ability (or inability) of humans to look at issues from perspectives vastly different from their own; 3) the way that love and lust and attraction does not have to be defined within the narrow constraints of gender or sex (I can’t remember who it was . . . might have been Anne Heche [or maybe Portia de Rossi] that said, when hounded by press about a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres, you fall in love with a person, not specifically a male or a female.)
    Anyway, that’s my ‘two bob’s worth’. Great book and a great review!

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    • Thankyou Karenlee, I agree totally with your summary of Kneen’s aims, particularly (2). We Australians are blessed with imaginative writing (and I see now I left out Storyland – I wonder what else). I think the standard is set by Alexis Wright and Kim Scott, and that perhaps Heather Rose has come closest. But Kneen here certainly deserves to be considered.

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  5. I also read and enjoyed Steeplechase so I was very interested to read your review of An Uncertain Grace. Speculative fiction is not really my thing, if I do stretch myself to read SF I often feel I miss the point but this one does sound intriguing. I love the idea of a virtual reality suit to show how others feel – what a totally unique idea! Imagine using this in politics, so many extrapolations come to mind…

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    • Politicians know our reality, they just choose to ignore it (spending all their time with other ‘important’ people). But the suit is an intriguing idea which Kneen handles very well.

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