Swelter, helter-skelter and sweet sisterly devotion
The author of ‘Room’ returns with an irresistible wild ride of a novel set in a steamy San Francisco in 1876
Four young women on the vaudeville stage, San Francisco, circa 1890. Photograph: Getty Images
On the first page of Frog Music a train leaves San Miguel Station, south of San Francisco, and from that point on this wild ride of a novel shakes, rattles and rolls its way along, throwing off sparks of sensuality and intrigue and transporting the reader through the steamy demi-monde that is the city by the bay in 1876. A rare heatwave makes the place literally steamy, and its numerous gambling joints and brothels lend it the air of a DIY Las Vegas. Local colour is provided by race riots targeting Chinese immigrants. And, for good measure, there’s a smallpox epidemic. From pretty much every point of view the body is under siege.
These conditions exact a particular toll on the bodies of the novel’s two young protagonists. There’s cross-dressing, pistol-toting, frog-catching Jenny Bonnet, a character for whom the work “spunk” might have been invented. She befriends Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant former bareback rider at the Cirque d’Hiver, who is now turning tricks as Blanche la Danseuse, her tasty frog legs a counterpart to the culinary delight of the amphibians Jenny supplies to restaurant kitchens. ( Frog Music is full of associative leaps of this kind; witty at first sight, rather edgy and challenging when you think about them.)
Jenny is a freelance, and suffers for it, having often been beaten up and sometimes jailed for the affront to good order of wearing trousers – a fine expression of civic hypocrisy, given prevailing attitudes to, say, housing, public health and the policing of violent crime. But Jenny is cocky, street smart and worldly, whereas Blanche is a bit of a nervous ninny, easily confused and put out. Largely, her insecurity is the result of her pimp, Arthur, a disabled trapeze artist and chronic gambler, who with his sleazy pal Ernest squanders all Blanche earns. Neither woman can call her body her own. The sieges they must withstand assail not just their sexuality but their right to one, whether the right is expressed as a choice, as in Jenny’s case, or as an endowment, like Blanche’s.
Of the two, the latter is the most complicated. Jenny is as free as a breeze, and as cool as one, too, in no way tied down and certainly under no compulsion to engage in the various kinds of performances and obligations that heterosexuality imposes on Blanche. She is the one who describes admiringly the metamorphosis of tadpole into frog, a process analogous to her own evolution into “this eccentric frog girl”, with cross-dressing the social version of being amphibian. And as a mark of her blithe spirit, Jenny is the one with most of the songs. She has quite a repertoire: bawdy, plaintive, comic and ardent, largely folk in origin – the music of what happens, particularly to women. There is even a scholarly appendix giving the seed, breed and generation of all these songs (although it’s a bit strange in the course of the story to find a mention of “Stephen Foster’s latest”– he died in 1864).
As by word and deed she exemplifies, Jenny is the freedom that Blanche needs. Clearly she also has a thing for Blanche (actual frog music is made by mating calls, as Jenny herself points out), but to think of the attraction in sexual terms only is to be as reductive about the nature of sexuality as Blanche’s pair of pimps are, or as Blanche herself declines to be once she experiences motherhood. Intercourse is a rather more elaborate set of transactions than bed can accommodate, and Jenny’s nature comes across more in the sisterly – or disinterested – caring she exhibits with a view to freeing Blanche from the two cadets who abuse her than in sexual activity. Not that the latter is discounted. But it also so happens that when the friendship does express itself sexually it takes a bad turn.
As for Blanche’s complications, these are made more difficult by her having had a son by Arthur. She calls him P’tit, and initially he’s warehoused in a baby farm, an unfortunate and unprepossessing tadpole. But once Blanche retrieves him, P’tit is an alternative for her to cling to, even if with his penchant for producing unsavoury fluids he is someone only a mother could love.
A deliberately degrading tryst arranged by Arthur and Ernest separates Blanche from P’tit, and that leads her to a more intimate acquaintance with Jenny. But no sooner is their intimacy consummated in the San Miguel shebeen run by an unlovely Irishman than Jenny is shot. By whom? For what?
As well as being a vivid reconstruction of what, in terms of sexual identity and in many other ways, is a frontier town, a town in the grip of its own evolutionary energies, Frog Music is a murder mystery, with Jenny’s gratuitous death a variation on the waste of life mindlessly inflicted by the smallpox epidemic. And both are the product of ignorance, at least in part. But they are also the result of randomness, of the sheer brute force of circumstance. “I thought the whole point of luck is that it just happens,” Jenny says.
That cuts both ways, though, and this novel is very aware of the two-way nature of its reality. Blanche is the one who determines that luck can be made, and she succeeds where her faro-playing keepers miserably failed. But her success will depend on how well she maintains the young-widow persona that she adopts. And fashioning a front does connect her to Jenny, after all. By means of such cunning tracery, primarily suggested in its elaborate use of time, a novel that forges full steam ahead also manages to weave an engrossing web of interconnections.
And as if the vivid scene, the provoking mystery and the suggestive themes weren’t enough, it turns out that Frog Music is not merely a novel. A journalist covering Jenny’s murder calls news “a crazy quilt of fact and fiction”, and in an afterword Emma Donoghue uses this phrase to detail the story’s background. In fact, Jenny had a real-life prototype, and the author has delved long and deep in the archives to throw some light on her, thus making her novel a work of sisterly devotion the result of which is to expand awareness of the scope and value of gay histories.
For this and for Frog Music ’s swelter and helter-skelter, its regard for the presentness of the moment as well as for the drives that see us through, and above all for its irresistible readability, the only word is formidable .