:: Article

Feminine Tension

By Brendan Boehning.

Johanne Bille, Elastic (Lolli Editions, 2019)

In the very first scene of Johanne Bille’s brief but incisive novel, Elastic, we find a woman in the shower. She’s probing her own vagina, these “pink curtains of flesh” that she hates, considering it an alien entity. “Today, I think cunts are ugly,” she concludes, and this is where Bille’s book begins: an exploration of gender identity and body discomfort from the inside out, often in an excruciatingly literal sense.

This woman in the shower is Alice, our narrator, and the locus of an extreme interiority of perspective. We only experience the narrative through her eyes and her mind. It is the core strength of the novel that Alice’s mind, as expressed through Bille’s elegant control of narrative voice, is acutely attuned to the sensual, physical world. Nearly every page is awash in sensuous, erotic similes. A half-erect penis is described as “caught between two poles, like a ripple moving across the surface of the ocean.” A door with a faulty latch keeps “creeping open like a stab in the back.” Mathilde, the centre of Alice’s attentions, her lusts and desires, and, increasingly, sense of self, is described as “enthroned like a kingfisher in a nest of cotton.”

Mathilde is the pivot around which the plot swirls, since Elastic is decidedly not a plot-driven novel. Rather, it’s a story of personality and personhood, and can be summed up thusly: Alice, in a foundering relationship with the hapless Simon, becomes infatuated with her co-worker Mathilde, who is in an “open marriage” with Alexander. These characters overflow with desires, and as they try to navigate a kind of quadrilateral relationship, Alice finds herself increasingly destabilized by her self-consciousness about notions of openness and her consuming love for Mathilde.

The novel’s preoccupation with the physical and the bodily is bound tightly with its broader thematic concerns. Alice is hyper-aware of the bodily condition of being female. The menstrual cramps, the intrusions of contraceptive devices (the IUDs and their discomfort, the pills and their side effects), the simple fact that “I have a hole that a penis can fill,” all contribute to a yearning to transcend the normative definition of femininity. Here, the bodily and the conceptual become inextricably intertwined.

In straining against a plethora of binaries — monogamous coupledom, masculine/feminine, internal/external — Alice finds herself stretched to breaking point. She yearns to be, like the elastic of the title, pliable and flexible; in her romantic life, in her sense of identity and relation to the world around her. But elastic can also be a constricting agent.

Recall the childhood game of wrapping a rubber band so tightly around a finger that it turns purple. Also, it can only be stretched so far before it snaps. The novel’s principal concern is Alice’s struggle, and that struggle is a pushing against all of the limitations set upon her by the societally/culturally defined existence of the “female”. And, at least in this narrative, the struggle is deranging. Some binaries, some imposed norms, seem capable of being bent, pulled, stretched any which way, while stubbornly refusing to break.
There is a sense that Bille, in lending such potency to the gender-coded language of the body, is using her narrative to try to explode that language, and its concomitant normative coding, from within. From this angle, the author’s struggle mirrors Alice’s struggle to escape the construct of femininity. If the novel doesn’t entirely succeed in that struggle, it is surely no discredit to Bille. It is, after all, a huge and extremely fraught task she has set out for herself, and which she tackles bravely, with vulnerability and mordant humor.

Picture by Mads Holm

The question of the “feminist novel” is unavoidable here, and it is hardly the place of this male, white, hetero reviewer to declare whether or not Elastic meets this or that feminist criterion. It would seem that the author does consider her book to be of at least a certain feminist stripe, and it if is, it’s in the way it gives Alice free rein to be as messy, contradictory, unreliable, and irritating as any human being can be. Dramatizing the tussle between constructed feminine identity and the hunger for liberation as potentially psychologically destabilizing places Bille’s novel comfortably alongside the works of other explorers of the female uncanny, such as Deborah Levy and Ottessa Mosfegh.

Elastic allows its protagonist to be bracingly, absurdly, wretchedly human. But its extreme interiority of perspective has certain pitfalls. Alice is given vivid life. She is the only character allowed such vivacity. The male characters are basically ciphers, though I suspect this is intentional — a wry turning of the tables on the usual secondary treatment of female characters in male-dominated novels. The guys (and they are best described as “guys” rather than “men,” to mimic the Danish word gutter) share beers and smokes with Alice, they talk bullshit, they fuck her or want to fuck her, but they don’t really get to her. They don’t reach her core. Simon is needy, devoted (though not above lying and deception), and possessed of a vague sense of social responsibility. Alexander is “beautiful” in an undefined way, and atavistic and amoral in his desires (though scrupulous about condom usage and etiquette). That is as deeply as we know them, and that’s fine: it isn’t really their world we inhabit.

Mathilde — Alice’s true obscure object of desire — is more problematic. She is given far more presence and life than the guys. Her introduction is another splendid bit of minute physical detail: “A dried bit of sleep was caught on one of her short, greyish eyelashes, and the little, bright speck moved up and down when she blinked.” Yet since we hew so close to Alice’s viewpoint, we only get to see Mathilde through that singular, blinkered perspective. As a result, Mathilde remains remote. More than once she is described as the “queen” of her festive surroundings, with all the haughtiness and remove that suggests. With Mathilde accessible only via Alice’s obsession, she becomes in some ways merely a reflection of Alice’s overwhelming desire.

This may be purposeful. Certainly, mirroring imagery recurs throughout the text, and thematically it fits with the novel’s concern with entrenched binaries that fragment but refuse to shatter entirely. Yet, still, there is a lingering sense that a surface is being skimmed, where even greater insight might be yielded by penetrating through the reflective pool. Such quibbles hardly sink the novel, and don’t detract from its force and insight.

In the end, Alice is the one who breaks, not entirely without forewarning and not entirely without agency — at one point a friend cautions, of Mathilde and Alexander, “they’ll chew you up and spit you out … and then they won’t want to be around you anymore because you don’t have your shit together.” The breaking point is reached with an act of violation (of penetration, in fact), the consequences of which — hinted at but never made explicit — could be more far-reaching than Alice is prepared to handle. It is to Johanne Bille’s credit that we reach the conclusion with fused sensations of calamity, bereavement, and, strangely, calm. As readers we arrive at one terminal point in Alice’s tumultuous journey, but surely it’s an excursion that will stretch beyond the page.

Brendan Boehning lives in Copenhagen, where he is active in the independent music scene. His novel In Love with the Furies was longlisted for the 2016 Bath Novel Award.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 9th, 2019.