What's the Story? Reading Mary Gentle's The Architecture of Desire

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Every year I add the annual Tiptree Award winner and short list to my personal reading list.  Experience with the Tiptree list has taught me not to expect easy, obvious, or even necessarily agreeable reading.  But Mary Gentle's The Architecture of Desire[1], short-listed in the award's first year (1991), sent me into a rage.  Fiction rarely has this effect on me.  Although I attributed my anger to violent disagreement with the terms in which the author chooses to frame the narrative's events, I decided to take a closer look.  I now think that my first time through I didn't grasp what the narrative was actually about.

 Gentle's novel is plot-driven; its events are clearly described.   If the chain of events that comprises the narrative is clear and undisputed, shouldn't it be obvious what the narrative is about?  The discussion that follows argues that a chain of discrete (fictional) events is a component, rather than the sum, of what makes up a story and its subtext even as it attempts to work out what story Architecture actually tells.[2]
 
 "Structures compel," declares Architecture's Balthazar Casaubon.  We can't assume that an author speaks for herself through the statements of any of her characters, and the very tenet "structure compels" particularly argues against doing so, since what "speaks" in any piece of writing is, in part, the set of structures and conventions the author has chosen to use.  But Gentle's title places special emphasis on structure.  And Gentle herself, in "Gargoyles, Architecture and Devices; Or: Why write science fiction as if it wasn't"[3], cites "a device, or a piece of architecture; at any rate, a keystone of all the White Crow Books" (which, she tells us, is Renaissance drama).  My discussion of Architecture will accordingly concentrate on the structures of both the narrative and the relationships of its primary characters.
 
Gentle characterizes herself as a "reactive writer" who wants to "reform the SF/fantasy field."  The blurb on the back cover identifies Architecture as belonging to that subgenre of science fiction known as alternative history.  Since Gentle expresses frustration with the restrictions of genre conventions that are either exclusively fantasy or exclusively science fiction, we need not feel too confused to find that the epigraph to the novel suggests that her preoccupation here lies with fantasy conventions.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare.
--W.B. Yeats, Meditations in Time of Civil War

 I assumed from this verse that, notwithstanding the blurb, what followed would be something along the lines of Ian R. Macleod's or Michael Swanwick's grim(y) fantasies.  And I did find a few signs encouraging this presumption.  Eschewing lyrical evocations of nature, the text favors metaphors on the order of "Rising in the east, a piss-yellow moon stained the sky" (55);  the chosen name of protagonist Valentine of Roseveare, "White Crow," suggests a genetic freak of the species Gentle characterizes as carrion-eaters (142); and the leading male constantly spews snot and spills food on his otherwise opulent clothing.  But although the novel is set in 17th-century England, the text overlooks the constant presence then of vermin roaming one's skin, clothing, and hair (or wig), and the elite's fear of bathing and their consequent application of innumerable layers of powder, flour, and perfume.  The level of grunge, all told,  seems modest enough to make it unlikely that "fantasies" refers to the broad "SF/fantasy field" the author wishes to reform, suggesting that the epigraph gestures instead to a specific focus within the novel.  In sum, Architecture cannot be readily categorized as science fiction, historical fiction, or indeed any particular type of fantasy fiction, such that the meaning of its events is not mediated by the conventions and tropes of the SF/fantasy genres.  This is what makes the work of constructing the story an uncertain and arduous process for the reader.

 Although many of the characters' actions tend to be devious, the narrative's presentation of the events themselves is straightforward.  Casaubon and White Crow are your standard late-20th-century professional couple with children.  They live in a fractured version of the mid-17th century, in which the English civil war is Dahlgrenesque interminable, and do most of their own childcare, which they share.  Some six months before the scene that opens the novel, Casaubon, unbeknownst to White Crow, asked his "blood brother" to persuade "General Olivia" (a sex- and gender-modified version of Lord Protector Cromwell) to commission Casaubon to finish building the Temple of the Sun in London, a politically significant construction project that has run into lethal supernatural difficulties.  As the novel opens, said blood brother, Pollexfen Calmady, arrives at White Crow's castle with a troop of "gentlemen mercenaries," demanding hospitality.  As White Crow begins expelling the intruders from the premises, Casaubon appears and invites them in.  White Crow and her household display a deep wariness and resentment of the mercenaries.  "What ails your lady?" Calmady asks of Casaubon as they drunkenly renew their classic male bond.  "She misses the blade, and hates herself," Casaubon replies.  Certainly the most frequently repeated action in the novel is White Crow's (vain) reach for the sword she has given up.

 While Casaubon and the troop of mercenaries are drinking themselves senseless, a woman half-dead with hypothermia is carried in by the servants.  White Crow puts her to bed and doses her with drugs that render her (inexplicably and conveniently) unconscious.  Later, White Crow catches Calmady beating and raping the woman's unconscious body.  The massively physical Casaubon arrives and rips his buddy out of his pleasure.  Calmady is outraged.  "She's willing, damn you!  Never said a word.  Never a protest." (34)  When the woman regains consciousness, she introduces herself as Desire-of-the-Lord Guillaime and reveals that she has been sent by General Olivia to fetch White Crow to London for a secret and delicate mission.
 
 The mercenaries, Roseveare household, and Desire-of-the-Lord travel together to London.  After much novel-of-manners style by-play, they arrive in London and go their separate ways.  We learn later that Calmady, with the relentless assistance of his "gentlemen mercenaries" (which include women), that same evening rapes Desire again, this time with the express purpose of intimidating and rendering her disreputable.  Over the next few days Casaubon ingeniously solves the mystery of the problems plaguing the Temple of the Sun, White Crow obediently acts the role of gofer for General Olivia, and Calmady announces to General Olivia that Desire intends to accuse him of rape, which has the dual effect of securing his own arrest and Desire's ignominy as defiled and therefore despicable.

 Concerned that she might be either pregnant (anachronistically, since the 17th-century English so firmly believed conception could not result from rape that their rape statutes made pregnancy a disproof of it) or diseased, Desire asks White Crow to examine her.  White Crow instead rapes her.  Calmady, bailed out by Casaubon, reveals to Queen Carola (the alternative-history version of Charles II living in London long after the execution of her father) that General Olivia is trying him for rape.  Outraged at this usurpation of her royal prerogative, Carola orders Calmady seized and tried before her judge, who sentences him to swing on the gallows.  Desire, in the meantime, visits a puritan doctor for the examination White Crow failed to make, only to learn that she will "become a stink and an abomination" and that her "soul is irredeemably diseased."  (141)  She duly hangs herself, leaving behind a note for White Crow.

 On learning of Desire's suicide, White Crow descends into a mental fugue.  On finally rising from her bed, she saves Calmady from the gallows, claiming that it would be hypocritical to do anything else since he and she are the same in their bond of guilt.  Abandoning the role of healer and again taking up the life of a mercenary, White Crow ends the book walking with blade in hand and singing.
 
 The events of the story are easily ordered chronologically, but constructing a coherent and plausible narrative out of them is not so simple.  Since this novel does not provide any of the sure genre conventions that work subtly to inform readers' understanding of a story's events, and Gentle, moreover, makes a point of never revealing her characters' feelings or motives,  I look to the novel's structural connections to make sense of an unfamiliar story.

 Gentle describes Architecture as a "love quadrangle."  This doesn't work for me, since the complexity of relations between and among the four main characters exceeds that indicated by the figure of the quadrangle.  I propose, rather, viewing the characters' connections as a set of three overlapping triangles.  The first triangle to appear in the narrative links White Crow, Casaubon, and Calmady.  The second triangle links White Crow, Calmady, and Desire, while the third links White Crow, Casaubon, and Desire.  At first sight, the relations of the second triangle seem to be the catalyst for the narrative's events, while those of the third promise to be the most intriguing and potentially most emotionally powerful.  But only the relations of the first matter.  Desire is a zero, a cipher, a null set.  White Crow says that she never imagined Desire actually living anywhere.  She is the Total Feminine Victim who has internalized the hatred everyone (men and women both) have for women in her culture.  "Suffering mitigates... sin is the failure to defend," Desire tells White Crow.  This cipher of Woman is so lacking in agency that she does not herself ever accuse Calmady of rape-- but simply assents when he accuses himself.

 To what desire does the novel's title refer?  Since the action in the book centers on a series of rapes, one might take the desire in question to be Calmady's and White Crow's desire for Desire.  The text itself argues otherwise.  Desire lacks substantiality for either White Crow or Calmady; they do not desire her, personally, but her annihilation.

 The most important desires in the book are Casaubon's for architecture and White Crow's for the sword, which she misses, constantly, as she would an amputated limb.  Since I do not believe that Casaubon's desire bears directly on the rapes and their sequelae, I conclude that the title refers to White Crow's desire for the sword.  Her "missing the blade" is the central problem of the novel, and the denouement concludes with her solution to that problem.

 Gentle has declared that Renaissance drama is the "keystone" of all of her White Crow and Casaubon fiction.  Renaissance drama featuring strong women characters is obsessed with the question Can you trust her?[4]-- meaning, is the heroine loyal to the man (or men) to whom she belongs?  Repeatedly we see Casaubon rendering unquestioning loyalty to Calmady: he backs him in every situation, whatever the circumstances.  White Crow begins the book opposed to Calmady-- first, for the sake of her children and household, and then for the sake of Desire.  En route to London she consciously positions herself in physical opposition to Calmady, even as she fights her attraction to the "gentlemen mercenaries."  In London she tells Casaubon that she is "not bitter" (58) about Calmady's rape of Desire.  But it is her rape of Desire that bonds her positively to Calmady-- and helps her to recover the identity she has been missing.  The rape, she believes, makes her exactly like him.  Where previously Calmady's intrusions appeared to threaten her bond with Casaubon, the three of them are now, suddenly, all on the same side.

  By giving up her tendency to side with nonpowerful women and servants, White Crow-- blade again in hand-- will no longer "hate herself."  The means by which she reacquires the blade and resumes the identity she has been longing for is her rape of Desire.  Although the reader might be tempted to believe that Casaubon's resentment of White Crow's "obsession" with Desire suggests otherwise, in fact, the rape actually paves the way to proving her loyalty, by putting her on the same side as her man and his "blood brother."

 Desire is the casualty incurred in the course of this apparently happy ending.  She is necessary and expendable at one and the same time.  Without the presence of Desire in the story, White Crow would not have found the means to place herself on Calmady's and Casaubon's side.   She would have continued to define herself in opposition to Calmady and thus found no way out of the motherhood-healer role.  The text never explains why White Crow changed careers in the first place or indicates their relative status.  General Olivia refers to White Crow's "promotion" from soldier-scholar to healer, and Casaubon describes it as the result of White Crow's study as a scholar, but the narrative implies that there is nothing prestigious about being a healer.  Since her change in vocation tends to be linked with her motherhood, one suspects that the meaning of the difference can only be taken from the novel's gender system.

 Gender systems assign (gendered) differential significance to acts and facts.  The immense difference in significance imputed to the venereal infection of Desire and Calmady respectively offers a clear example of gender operating in Architecture's world.  But the novel's gender system is often difficult to comprehend, chiefly because White Crow and Casaubon embody gendered values alien to Architecture's world and White Crow, at least, often appears to be oblivious of the gendered values of that world (which is why her purported incomprehension of Desire's suicide may be less a matter of self-deception than an inability to grasp the gendered meaning of rape and venereal infection for unmarried, impoverished women).  No woman of White Crow's station (except a puritan, which she is not) would ever have breastfed an infant in 17th-century England, and no parents would ever have hauled their children with them to London, much less assumed any direct responsibility for their nurture and safety.  It is through our own gender system, surely, that we understand why White Crow chooses to wean her infant at the moment that she does.
 
 As a rule, gender systems work at a level so far below consciousness that most of their operations appear natural and thus invisible.  Recent studies of the gender system of 17th-century England suggest that our understanding of Shakespearean drama, for instance, in no way resembles contemporary (and authorial) understanding.  Often we simply ignore its gendered meanings and crudely reshape them to fit our own (gendered) understanding.

 Gender impersonation and disguise were favorite tropes of Renaissance drama.  Inserting a postmodern heterosexual couple into a model of such a world is hardly outlandish, nor is changing the sex (and gender) of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, a couple of "gentlemen mercenaries," and a few unnamed High Justices-- particularly while taking care not to do so with any of the many intellectuals who appear in the book.    Just as Elizabeth I's monarchy did nothing positive for women in 16th-century England, so such shifts in individual sex assignment have little effect on the rest of Architecture's world.  Its gender system, which bears no resemblance to that of Civil War England and only a slight resemblance to that of English Renaissance drama, is a patchwork construction of the author's imagination and the reader's understanding, forced through the prism of its leading couple.  Our reading necessarily focuses on their fuzzy (being seen from too close) bourgeois values.

 White Crow's internal conflict rages over most of the last twenty-five pages of the novel.  On my first reading, the very terms of this debate offended my feminist sensibilities, and White Crow's resulting identification with Calmady struck me as a species of woman-hating rather than as the achievement of a romantic idealization of the soldier (so dear to the heart of the best sword and sorcery).  Now, however, I see White Crow's conflict as symptomatic of how present-day professional women who have chosen to pursue the "Mommy track" (as White Crow apparently had) may find it difficult to maintain a strong sense of identity once they have given up a position of power in favor of staying home with the kids and of how they are positioned to oscillate between seeing themselves as being like other women on the one hand and as being allied with their men on the other.  Although feminism tends to assume that maintaining a strong identity is concomitant with identifying as a woman, Architecture tells a different story.

 Gentle gives a detailed physical description of White Crow's rape of Desire, but a lack of psychological verisimilitude renders it emotionally implausible.  She is the lord of Roseveare but never abuses her power over her servants.  As a mother, she is never domineering or arbitrary.  As a vanilla heterosexual, she never shows signs of being sexually wired to enjoy her partner's pain.  At the end of the book, she damages a young girl without pleasure, to draw on the power of the girl's blood to help effect Calmady's rescue.  She (and the text) refer constantly to her "obsession" with Desire, but without any unequivocal indication that the obsession is sexual in nature.  Once one understands that the rape has nothing to do with her taking sexual pleasure in exercising power over her victim and only with her status change back to being a soldier and her concomitant need to prove her solidarity with Casaubon and Calmady in opposition to the vulnerable victims exemplified by Desire and the girl White Crow stabs, one realizes that the nature of her obsession has more to do with her anxiety about Desire's gendered status and role than with fantasies of sexual aggression.

 Calmady says: "I've seen women-- and men-- raped with knives.  With broken bottles!  Cut, butchered.  Women raped by half a company, and then murdered.  Male soldiers sodomised.  The blood's hot after battles, so... that's rape." (68) Calmady's riff attempts to define his assault on Desire as something less than rape.  The text, I think, offers the riff as a reminder that one doesn't need a penis to commit rape.  More importantly, it establishes the association between being a rapist and being a soldier.  Calmady rapes because he is a soldier; White Crow is able to resume being a soldier by raping.  By raping Desire, she puts herself on the side of agency rather than victimhood, on the side of those who do rather than those who are done to.  She feels guilt at first; but, by the end, she is relieved, and the problems that her empathy with Desire caused her at the beginning of the book have vanished.

 Significantly, it is not White Crow's husband who puts her to the test.  His anxiety about Desire, while couched as sexual jealousy, is actually a matter of his wanting to remove the spectacle of female vulnerability that Desire poses from the moment she is carried half-dead into the castle.  "She is stunning," White Crow says of the sight of such wounded, necrophiliac passivity-- the apotheosis of what White Crow herself most wishes to escape.  Rather, it is the timing of Desire's entrance that proves fatal.  She arrives at a moment that finds White Crow, already restless in her role of nursing mother, reminded by the soldiers' appearance of the identity she has given up, even as Casaubon's summons to Court positions her as a mere wifely auxiliary.

 Hypothesize a professional woman who gives up a public career and assumes another because it meshes well with motherhood; a confluence of circumstances sends her into a crisis; flushed with the hormones of nursing motherhood, she may find herself in sympathy with other women qua women, but when she has to choose between seeing herself as a victimized cipher or seeing herself as she once was, which will she choose?  Gentle's answer is obvious.

 As for the epigraph, I think we are meant to understand that White Crow's heart has grown brutal.  But on what fantasies has her heart fed?  Perhaps on the fantasies that make her so anxious and obsessed-- the fantasies embodied in Desire's bruised and fragile nullity-- or perhaps on the fantasies that romanticize violence-- fantasies that metaphorize the moon as piss-stained, fantasies that imagine a soldier as the embodiment of centered confidence and freedom.   Or perhaps on both.
 

 

NOTES

With thanks to K. Wilham.

[1] Mary Gentle, The Architecture of Desire, ROC, New York, 1994.

[2] Shortly after composing the first draft of this essay, I serendipitously encountered Samuel R. Delany's theoretically sophisticated explication of this problem in "The Rhetoric of Sex/The Discourse of Desire" in Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary, Wesleyan University Press, 1999.

[3] Gentle's essay can be found at http://www.philm.demon.co.uk/Baroquon/MaryGentleArticle.html.

[4] For a discussion of can you trust her?, see Chapter 3 in Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on
Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, New York, 1989.

Seattle
March, 2001
©2001 L.Timmel Duchamp

This essay first appeared in the Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, No. 8.
Publication Date: 
2001