Venus Rising in Vengeance
By Steve Finbow.
Layer upon layer it enfolds us, like a sex thesaurus with pages made from human skin, or the pearlescent intricacies of an onion enamelled by Fabergé. Yes, Hillary Raphael’s beguiling novel Ximena has the reader entranced, involved, and addicted from the moment we read, “You, Luz-divina, must, by now, reside in hell.”
Outwardly, Ximena is a novel about revenge, voyeurism, and manuscripts – an episode of Sex and the City scripted by Patricia Highsmith or Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club rewritten by Kathy Acker. Yet, behind this thriller-façade is a complex narrative involving identity, sexual morality, and cross-cultural power plays. A 21st century text on the fetishization of capital, the commodification of art and identity, and sado-masochistic guilt.
The plot – as snug and breathless as a gimp mask – revolves around the clumsy blackmailing of Ximena’s mega-rich sexual partners by her Mexican maid Luz-divina. The blackmailing results in Ximena’s loss of income, job, and her sense of value – to get all Saussurean on your ass – Ximena only exists because of what surrounds her, she is determined and defined by her clients, and without them becomes stripped of the signified – hence the revenge. Lists, extracts from journals, appendices, and an afterword litter and buffer the text. The lists – shopping, personal belongings, and household hints bring an obsessive-compulsive almost Objectivist (Williams/Zukofsky) feel to the narrative, while the translations of classic Spanish literature and the inclusion of advice from how-to books – Your Maid from Mexico, In English and Spanish – filigree the novel with Borgesian metatextuality, accreting a complexity of author and subject, ipseity and frame of reference.
The retrospective plot shapes the characters through Ximena’s first-person narrative, diaries, unreliable memory, and reflections. The characters have presence: the comical Luz-divina (divine light – a sumo-shaped piñata of greed and gullibility); Segismundo – Ximena’s trusty hound and the revenge tragedy’s fulcrum; Pedro Algodón – Ximena’s quondam protector, lover and provider – a mythical or quasi-Judaeo-Christian master and servant who seems to have escaped into New York City from a 19th century fairy tale; and, finally, Alvaro, Ximena’s Mexican doorman/stud/agent. All characters are multi-faceted, manipulated by sex, money, and location.
New York City is also a main character, as is Mexico City – NYC’s third-world dark mirror, conjoined twin, or ectogenic economic dependant. The action occurs in apartments, airplanes, libraries, and prisons – areas of sex and death, travel and connectivity, information and memory, carcerality and punishment; postmodern spaces of insularity, voyeurism, containment, and self-referentially. The novel’s geography creates a modern mythical space of the city in which its characters enact a reification of their sexual and economic experiences – the self in constant pursuit of the mundane in the alien space of the world at hand. Ximena is the embodiment of being here and being there – the fetishized object economically empowered, the narrator and narratee, the murderer and the murderee.
Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths”, Jean Genet’s The Maids, and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” are Ximena’s forerunners; while the Mayan Codices and Classical Greek theatre supply the ur-texts for this contemporary revenge tragedy. Hillary Raphael slips magpie-like through avant-garde, classical and modernist literature, stealing motifs, pickpocketing ideas, and lifting quotes – the numberless pages of the book leaving no time for the reader to check we haven’t been fleeced.
What lifts Ximena out of a form of neo-nihilism – and what makes it stand apart from precursor novels such as Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam, and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero – is an exuberance, a joy in sex, a long swan-dive into pleasure. To paraphrase Richard Wright on Gertrude Stein, Hillary Raphael “has realized the difference between Today and Tomorrow.”
An important subplot concerns the theft, sale, and loss of a book: The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco: Utopia and Empire in Sixteenth-Century Mexico. Not only has Ximena stolen the book and sold it to fund her pursuit of Luz-divina, but, as the book has never been catalogued in the library, it is lost forever to scholars. Like the original murals of Malinalco, it has been whitewashed from history, become a palimpsest upon which Ximena can write her new history. Unlike Voltaire, but like de Sade, Ximena and Hillary Raphael have forsaken the cultivated paradise gardens for the chaos of the hedonistic city.
Hillary Raphael’s previous works include I (Heart) Lord Buddha (2004) – a novel set in and around Tokyo hostess bars in the late ‘90s concerning the Neo-Geisha Organization, a sex-death cult who replace consumerism with hedonism. The novel pre-empts Ximena in its use of classical texts as a base – in I (Heart) Lord Buddha it is The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. In these novels, Hilary Raphael creates a new aesthetics of pornography for the hypermodern novel.
The characters in Backpacker: New York, Seoul, Phnom Penh, Sapporo, Hong Kong, Vancouver, Mexico City, Maputo, Tokyo mon amour (2007) prefigure those in Ximena: Helena its beautiful redheaded heroine (see Ximena), a dead boyfriend (see Segismundo – sort of), a dominatrice mentor (see Pedro Algodón), plus there’s the interest in drugs, travel, and technology.
With Donald Richie and the photographer Meital Hershkovitz, Hillary Raphael published Outcast Samurai Dancer (2003), a book on Butoh – the Japanese avant-garde dance form. In Ximena, rather than Butoh body exercises, Hillary Raphael uses words to create a textually physical revolution. Butoh performers push their bodies to the limit and Hillary Raphael’s prose enacts a similar exertion, sometimes to the verge of breaking point. Ximena provides new possibilities for the novel – it is a liberation of the text from the stuffy confines of the Western canon.
Hillary Raphael’s work is both subversive and transgressive. It is also a bloody good read. I could have written an entire review using quotes from Georges Bataille but will make do with this from The Use Value of D.A.F. De Sade:
“But the postrevolutionary phase implies the necessity of a division between the economic and political organization of society on one hand, and on the other, an antireligious and asocial organization having as its goal orgiastic participation in different forms of destruction, in other words, the collective satisfaction of needs that correspond to the necessity of provoking the violent excitation that results from the expulsion of heterogeneous elements.”
In an era in which one of the judges of the Nobel prize for literature announced that American writers are ignorant and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” when British writing suffers from accusations of insularity, and when Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio – the eventual winner of the Nobel prize – is barely read let alone known outside of France, Hillary Raphael’s novel stands as inclusive, progressive, and cosmopolitan. Reading it is, in fact, a violent excitation.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 1st, 2008.