Monday, August 17, 2015

"Oneness: A Triptych" by James Patrick Kelly

As the title indicates, this is a series of three scenes dealing with the fantasy (in the non-generic sense) of transcending the individually physical and really joining with another. The three are linked by a kind of symphonic progression rather than by "plot," and though some aspects of this progression — the transformations in the section titles (Trick-Tryst-Test) and character names (Carson-Ciran-Kheran/Beata-Barika-Beckah), for instance — are a bit on the nose, as a whole it is surprisingly powerful. The first section is the weakest; it feels very much like cissexual heterosexuality's attempt to imagine the "extreme" possibilities of gender and sexuality and falling, obviously, far short (and missing the fact that opening up possibilities entails a closing off of others, and comes with responsibilities), and features the kind of slightly embarrassing sex writing that usually comes with such attempts ("She'd prolong his delicious agony"). But while the following two sections don't exactly remedy these problems, they do — almost — make them irrelevant (and I enjoy the way they play on similar language in their different contexts — as in "Tryst", about consensual parasitism, when the acids in Ciran's stomach begin dissolving the larval Barika "into exquisite molecules") in their ongoing movement away from human sexuality per se into the alien and, finally, the religious — though I wouldn't want to imply that the sexual ever departs entirely; of course it can't (and, by a reverse movement, the religion of the final section reveals another weakness of the first, because of course some aspect of the religious should be felt there as well).

As usual, Kelly's prose is polished to an opaque, inert perfection; even in his best stories — of which this is one — I tend to wish he would leave the workshop behind and open himself up to something other than technical achievement: to ask himself, perhaps, what writing is rather than merely how best to do it (or to realize that these are not different questions). But in this case there is an interesting tension/overlap between this way of writing and the conceptual ground he seeks to explore. Because of course one reason this kind of writing — especially with its "psychic mind-tap of the lead character for some comforting intimacy", as Steve Mitchelmore put it (with a more direct meditation on the subject here) — is so addictively appealing to so many people is that it provides a temporary illusion of precisely the oneness, the merging of selves, that the story is trying to be about; it is also both the product of the same atomization that leads to such fantasies (or perhaps that makes them be fantasies) and one of the tools by which it is enforced. (I'd like to connect this to my problems with the first section, too, insofar as heterosexual cissexuality is, similarly, both a cause and an effect of this painful separation.) As such the story almost feels accompanied by running commentary on why it exists and what is wrong with its existence — which paradoxically both subtracts from and adds to its considerable power.

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