Between Dog and Wolf, by Elske Rahill
The “pornification” of the culture and its effect on women is at the centre of this debut novel
Elske Rahill: Photograph: Dave Meehan
Between Dog and Wolf
978 1 84351 411 4
Beyond Irish literature there are works by women that have contributed strongly to literature of the body, gender and sexuality: works by Lidia Yuknavitch, Eileen Myles, Kathy Acker and, especially, in last year’s Maidenhead , Tamara Faith Berger.
These writers employ and invert porn tropes, they confront the body, the voice of the “being fucked” woman, in prose that is precise, urgent and muscular. Between Dog and Wolf , the debut novel by Elske Rahill, joins this dialogue but does not quite keep pace with it.
On the surface, Between Dog and Wolf can be read as (by today’s standards) a mildly sordid tale of three students engaged in the polyatomic life of 21-year-olds. The loneliness of displacement, the burgeoning meaning and anxious passion attached to every passing cloud, the posturing and sexual messiness that comes of “sparse timetables” and meeting deadlines.
Interrogate it more closely and the soil is richer. Between Dog and Wolf attempts a detailed examination of gender and, more specifically, “gender performance”. This admirable sifting of critical-theory ideas into her first novel is refreshing.
The novel also seeks to expose the tricky dynamics between young women, another subject that certainly warrants fictional exploration, but if you create women who are little more than ciphers, the subtle exploration necessary to expose such dynamics becomes impossible.
Cassandra, a part-time model and sizeable narcissist, previously in a relationship with an older artist, Brian, shares a kitchen in her student residence with Helen, a more financially privileged but emotionally fractured student. Helen spends much of the novel navigating memories of an abusive schoolteacher and the current sexual demands of Oisín, a Tipperary boy displaced to Dublin for college. He is a tepid public misogynist and a full-on private one. (He hates the sound of women piddling but finds choking them during sex a turn-on.) He’s an odd mixture: a flagrant douche nozzle, who comes off as emotionally bumbling, with a stunted sexuality and, frankly, not much to recommend him.
Still, he manages to spend much of the novel on his divan, conquering the rumps of women foolish enough to have him (and needing an ear test since, according to him, “hymens pop” in the process. Are they inflatable?) Not Cassandra: she nails him sexually on her own confused terms, which undermine her friend Helen, while Oisín hits bingo and further solidifies his douche-nozzlery.
It’s implied that both women wind up pregnant by Oisín. (Cassandra takes pills to miscarry.) Frustrated by pompous lecturers ranting about love and youth, neither woman attends to her education too rigorously – “I bore myself when I start like this,” Cassandra tells us at one point during a lecture when she actively confronts what the professor is positing – and both contort themselves to perform what they believe to be required of their gender.
Being “a hotty”
These days, or at least in this book, this includes silent piddling, being “a hotty”, worrying only about what your male will like, cock-sucking – along with deep throating where necessary to deflect your man’s bad moods – and allowing his “big, hot, hard, fat” you-know-what into spots where you might not actually want it.
These women navigate intense pornification and must compete with offshore German “pussy” and tolerate very annoying terms of endearment, such as “siren”, “Lolita” and “chicken”. They also face date-rape drugging and almost constant physical evaluation. There is a relentless commentary on the appearance of all women: what they wear, the state of their faces and hair, the shape of their arses. (Even their mothers’ arses do not escape – “an ass that stretches all the way round her”, if you’re wondering.)
Oisín, strangely the better-drawn character, is depicted from a position of his inadequacy and the pressure he imagines he is under to measure up as a lad. This involves strip bars, sex shows, and watching porn and rape links emailed by chief moron “Kev”.
All this is recognisable territory that young people traverse and are surrounded by. Rahill does not sidestep the dirty work required of her interrogation. This is her strength. She uses an effective transcriptional style to deliver the gritty content. The pity is that she doesn’t apply the same rigour and discipline elsewhere. The book would have been much stronger. Instead she sometimes indulges in overwritten, clunky prose that drains the novel to an aural ouch. Sentences are at times burdened with baggy, infantilising description (“the building expanded like a magic wardrobe”).
The animal metaphors begin at the title and do not stop. They needed to stop. On page 83 alone Rahill subjects her reader to metaphors including Bambi eyes, small bird in your palm, silvery snail-trail, tight as a shrimp and shut like an oyster, all largely in the matter of a character being born. We are yelling for epidural mercy. The excellent lines “I gave mum stretch marks . . . my milk made you sick” are sunk by the surrounding seafood cocktail. It’s a case of a writer embellishing her work with overwrought flourishes that destroy its strength.
Three points of view
The novel takes an admirable cylindrical form. Three points of view, of the first, second and third person, roll around each other. The second-person point of view on Helen is curiously befuddling, as you’re unsure if the narrator here is Helen or Cassandra. Are they the same woman? I enjoyed it, as I am happy to be muddled by point of view.
The women in this novel to some degree have their own sexuality on pause – or amputated. While trapped in notions of gender performance, a full-time job, they do not express much desire of their own. The novel doesn’t permit us to contemplate some of the variables in this hypersexual reality that it so readily allowed us to enter.
At the end of the novel Helen continues with her pregnancy and sensibly dumps Oisín, who, in some kind of rage at his internalised misogyny, begins cross-dressing. It’s a welcome if abrupt inversion. It confronts what has become apparent to all three main characters: that we fail at gender and it’s a disappointment and we’re angry about it.
Anakana Schofield is an Irish-Canadian writer. She won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Debut-Litzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 for her debut novel, Malarky.