Nicola Griffith's The Blue Place

©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

On the face of it, Nicola Griffith's novel, The Blue Place, looks like a gripping thriller and tender love story that just happens to have one of the most believable and interesting characterizations to be found in any kind of fiction and a plot that serves beautifully to elaborate and exemplify it. The style is pure Griffith, as lucid and shimmering as anything she's written. But the book is not just a beautifully written thriller with an interesting and credible protagonist. On the evening I finished it I spent half the night awake, caught up in the hero, Aud's, so-peculiar point of view, revisiting scenes of my personal history with strangely new vision. The real shock came the next morning when I awakened to find that I had "snapped back" to my own point of view-- with the signficant difference of having fresh in my memory the power of the other point of view. Which is to say, though I returned to myself, it was with a difference. On the following day, though, yet another thought swept me off-- a thought that must have been inevitable, since I'd told my partner the previous day that for me the book qualified as speculative fiction, of an alternate-reality sort-- this thought being, namely, that this book is Tiptree Award material, and that probably very few people would see it. I see what Griffith does in this book as related to what I saw her doing in Slow River. Yes, these novels have very different protagonists, very different thematic material. But this novel employs the same general imaginative technique in both large and small, which is why I see in it strong speculative elements producing imaginative and conceptual effects typical of speculative fiction genres.

Of course The Blue Place is really about the character, Aud--- which fact, in addition to its realistic setting, technically puts the book outside the category of speculative fiction, since sf is not allowed to be character-centered. Everything in the book serves not only the exposition of this character, but the engulfing of the whole world into this character's construction of reality. The writing accomplishes this with such astonishing success that by the end of the book it's very difficult to question any of Aud's assertions or judgments. But although the power, certainty and craft of the writing itself brings about this effect, it is in aid of (and also partly the result of) the very extraordinariness of the protagonist. Aud is, to put it bluntly, a Hero in the classical sense, built along the lines of heroes in Sophocles and Shakespeare, a Hero from another time or place somehow successfully inserted into ordinary reality. One could even go so far as to say that she is a Nietzschean hero, his so-called Overman, free of all the pettiness, ressentiment, and corruption that bedevils the ordinary person. Which is the opposite, in modern fiction, of how heroism usually works. Usually the hero is an every"man" placed in extraordinary circumstances-- and this is particularly true of US-based science fiction and fantasy, which tends to imagine the ordinary American male as triumphing when put to the test, as though the ordinary white middle-class US male is so inherently superior, that it's only ordinary life that's holding him back. What became clear to me, as I slowly came to realize the mythic quality of her being, is that Aud is the Hero she is because she has the privilege of lacking certain kind of life experiences that most people (including, but not only, that which most women) have. Her take on people and life is narrow and sure; in real life (i.e., in our world) such a take would get her into all kinds of messes, but need not in the book because this is a constructed story, and thus can exclude the sorts of challenges that would make her like most other thriller-story protagonists (especially in the noir genre). The exclusion of such challenges is brilliant (and not simple or easy, either, as the word exclude might suggest-- since imaginative excluding is far more difficult to achieve than including). Such exclusion provokes in me an exhilaration at the freshness of the vision offered-- a new kind of "estrangement," in the sense that sf makes the familiar strange--- and empowerment (which I'll get to later).

In Aud's personal history, the defining moment for her character can be located in a harrowing night she spent in a vacant apartment complex, when she defended herself from an armed attack by an intruder. Aud, we learn, has unfettered access to her "crocodile brain" (a conceit Griffith has used in some of her short sf). By putting her entire being completely under its control, Aud is able to kill her attacker. It is significant that Aud is nude at the time. Nothing could be more emblematic of her unique, classical-hero status. Throughout the story, her nudity is an emblem of her lack of the cultural inscription that ordinarily cuts off that "crocodile brain" and all its reflex commands. And it is an emblem of her pre-dating, culturally speaking, Praxiteles' 4th- century (before the Christian era) Aphrodite (aka "Venus Pudica"), and of having escaped the gender-markings imposed on women (though not men). With this statue-- of a goddess, yet!-- the genitals of nude women became, for Western civilization, symbols of shame. "Pudica" refers to the defensive concealing of female genitalia behind the hand; the Greek word for the Latin pudenda signifies both genitalia and shame. Male statues, almost always nude, display no shame or self-consciousness. Pre-Praxiteles, Athenian Greek statues of women always depicted drapery, ornament, and hair-dressing: never the female body. It is rare to find any Western post-Praxiteles depiction of female nudity that is a celebration of natural strength without self-consciousness about genitalia or breasts. It is equally rare to find such a depiction in fiction. But Aud has no such self-consciousness at any time and is always most herself-- most "natural" and most powerful-- when she's stripped down.

In the world as Aud defines it, violence is naturalized, i.e., stripped of any sadistic character. At the beginning of the book I read that perversity into every situation such that I believed, at first, that she must be quite a cynical monster to be putting so much additional power into the hands of people so likely to abuse it (i.e., police officers)-- until, that is, the power of Aud's innocent gaze completely took me over. Very appropriately it's this particular innocence of how power corrupts-- her imagining that police only use their power against "perps" and that the main question of another's reliability rests on competence narrowly defined-- that results in her making a fatal error of judgment. Aud, being a Hero, is pure of heart and incorruptible. And when Aud comes to love Julia, that love is an extension and blossoming of her love of beauty, life, and the world. Aud is such a perfectionist about the way she lives, she has such stringent standards for herself, that if it weren't for her love of weather, and trees, and the earth, and beautifully made wooden objects and so on and so forth, Aud would be locked in an impossible psychological cycle of ego-idealism. The respect for the other in her loving is made clearest when she allows her beloved Julia to return to Oslo without her. A moment of great anxiety for the reader, it is nevertheless a tribute of the quality of her love and of her ability to love without arrogance. In fact, Aud would be a lost soul if it weren't for her habit of respectful loving. As it is, she's managed to cobble together a view of what is natural and orderly and correct that allows her to keep her sanity. Indeed, if she weren't a Hero, gifted with such wonderful unself-consciousness and innocence about violence, she would be a horror to herself and others.

Aud's relation to violence, as is always the case for heros, lies at the heart of her heroism. She calls her experience of violence "the blue place."

It's the adrenalin. When everything slows down and my muscles are hot and strong and the blood beats in my veins like champagne I feel this vast delight. Everything is beautiful and precious, and so clear. Light gets this bluish tinge and I feel like a hummingbird amongst elephants, untouchable.


...looking into the eyes of a man with a knife... is the ultimate competition-- there's one life between us, and it's mine. You feel how fine life is. It's a sort of possessiveness. A bit like sex. Just as you can't suddenly rpi someone's clothes off in public when you have the urge, you have to train the urge to violence. It's like always singing sotto voce when all you want to do is take a great breath and let it rip. Violence feels food. It's so simple and clear. There's no mistaking the winner. I like it, but I avoid going there, to the blue place, because I think I could get lost, might not find my way back, I wouldn't want to find my way back because it's seductive.

This description of the moment of violence as an expression of the love of life is possible only to this utopianly naturalized character, since it is ordinarily impossible that violence and pain not be culturally inscribed. In the real world, pain is the means a superior uses to humiliate and debase an inferior, and violence is a means for producing the pain that accomplishes that. In our society, violence presupposes a hierarchical dualism of superior and inferior, where the inferior is programmed against not only fighting back, but even raising an arm to shield her face. Such violence has no relation to the crocodile brain, but is, rather, a culturally-determined process that writes itself over and over on the body and brain until no conceivable "natural" response is possible (unless freezing, or nausea, or struggling to get the aggressor to make eye contact with you, is a natural response).

Similarly, "pain is just a message," Aud says again and again throughout her narraitve. Yes-- but only the privileged, such as Aud, can read it as a message. In childhood many of us learn to write anger on our own bodies. And in general pain carries cultural inscriptions that make it almost impossible for people to detach themselves from its power as Aud does. For her, pain doesn't encode cultural messages-- of shame, of punishment-- and it's not a message written on the body by either the damaged self or an aggressor. It's simply "natural" and doesn't tell lies. Aud's ability to relate in this way to pain rests on an enormous privilege--- and is essential for creating her as Hero.

What all this adds up to for me is a sense of enormous empowerment from reading Aud's story. That first night when my thoughts were still organized by Aud's view of things, I found myself reconstructing my life with an emphasis on plucking out of my memory one powerful, generative act of agency after another in an orgy of egotism I ordinarily would never permit myself. Lying awake, reviewing a plethora of my life's events, I began to feel like a superwoman. The next morning it all seemed ridiculous (i.e., egocentric). But a footnote in Jane Donawerth's Frankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction suggests that my reaction may forecast the reaction of other readers. In the footnote she describes her undergraduate classes's discussions of the cocktail party scene in Joanna Russ's The Female Man, which she says always divide along gender lines. "I ask how many of the students have been sexually harassed at a party, and all the women raise their hands, while only one or two men do; then the heterosexual men in the class listen with growing horror, and the women with growing jubilation, to personal stories of what women did to revenge themselves on men who oppress them sexually-- I do not ask for these stories, but they are always told; having read about Janet's resistance, they feel authorized to tell of their own. This is a moment of great guilt and solidarity among the women in the class, when they talk out loud about their anger." I myself have one of the best of these stories anyone could ever imagine. I had completely forgotten it until the night I finished Aud's story. The empowerment I took from The Blue Place, though, is far broader than that of inspiring stories of revenge. The stories that came surging to the surface of my mind were stories about making myself and shaping the world I live in, stories of creative (not resentful or vengeful) agency. There is something about Aud's Heroism-- told from her peculiar point of view-- that makes one do this. In other words, it authorizes one to do this. I'll be very surprised if other women don't react in this way to the book.

Examples of other utopian-tending acts of will in the narration that help underscore the sense of agency in the book include the text's refusing to play the is-she-a-lesbian-or-isn't-she game which is usually used to provide sexual tension in lesbian noir. The text also excludes homophobia. And perhaps most importantly, it excludes the real-world double-standard about women using violence to protect themselves or others, with the result that after a while I stopped feeling anxious about likely legal retaliation against Aud (while in the real world, when a woman kills or injures a man in self-defense, even when he's a stranger, she usually ends up doing jail-time. Just as when a young girl physically defends herself against physical attack, she's told such behavior isn't "ladylike" or that she's a "bad girl").

Read this book. Even if you don't experience the whirlwind of thought it provoked in me, you'll probably find it as immensely pleasurable as I did.

June, 1998

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