Laline Paul’s ‘The Bees’, Hauntology and Acceptable Types of Lying

heart stabbed with a pen


I’m rereading, for the fourth time, Laline Paul’s ‘The Bees’. Its subject, Bees, is one I love revisiting and the writing style is untaxing. It’s a work of anthropomorphic fiction, same genre as ‘Watership Down’ or ‘Duncton Wood’. But, the switch from mammalian to insect protagonist means Paul is less reliant on mysticism for plot than a lot of these books. The alien nature of a hive provides all the drama of the story. Indeed, the only big step away from proper, believable bee science (other than the anthropomorphicism) is the conflation of two subspecies of domestic honeybee.

The book has been a huge success, both critically and commercially. Paul deserves this. But the language used to praise the books has sometimes been worth questioning. I’ve heard the word ‘pastoral’ used, which seems out of place. There are no shepherds. The feel of the book is claustrophobic, sweatily cloistered, with more of the feel of a convent or a space ship than Arcadia. Pastoral has to mean more than ‘it has trees’.

Another word I’ve heard is ‘lyrical’, and again, this book isn’t that. Part of its charm is its directness. It is paced like a commercial thriller, every chapter has a piece of capital P plot. There’s no room in it for meandering play with language. It doesn’t want or need musicality.

But I also hear what the critic is pointing towards. There’s a fullness here, a kind of abundant license taking we might call ‘poetic’. Laline Paul is not, as far as I know, a bee. But when she writes about a worker bee’s experience of the queen’s hormonal control as a type of ecstatic ‘mother love’, I believe her. Or, rather, I find the image so evocative, so suggestive of the genuine mysteriousness of other types of life, that I don’t mind being lied to.

I spend a lot of time thinking about lies and writing. My witchcraft practice is a kind of very pretty lie. My novel has involved a lot of lying about very real events. There are types of truth that don’t fit into the facts.

Until very recently, I used the language of hauntology to explain this. I’d talk about truth in terms of ‘ghostliness’ and Derrida’s ‘infinite deferral’. The ambiguous relationship between representation and truth imagined as a doomed séance, ghosts co-mingling but never touching. Truth as a phantasm that can’t quite be grasped or refused, not living or dead.

And that works, as far as it goes. But it’s started to bore me. It’s very clever, maybe even ‘true’. But it doesn’t sit right. The feeling of the image is too gloomy.

Hauntology rests on the idea of absence, of the endlessly retreating real, just beyond reach. It feeds a sort of nihilism. I agree that selves, words, ideas do not have fixed edges or centres. I agree that things are never self-same to themselves. I agree that truth is slippery. But the denial of identity doesn’t have to be read in terms of emptiness. The great potential in the gaps of language don’t feel like an emptiness to me anymore. It’s not that the words are empty, it’s that the truth is too enormous to live inside them.

This is an old understanding, almost mystic. I’m not being novel here. The Tao is both the formless and its manifestations. God is both Ain Soph at the top of the tree and Malkuth at the bottom. A lot of people, clever navel gazing people, have looked at the world and said emptiness and infinite possibility are the same thing. I’m not wise enough to expand on the work of the sages. But my experience, in this moment, is that truth is not slippery like a ghost. It is slippery like a Turkish wrestler covered in olive oil, and it is big, and I can’t get a handle on it, and the act of grappling means I am frequently thrown to the ground and frequently aroused. I am not scrabbling after ghosts. I am cheerfully adrift in multiplicity.

I’ve reached the end of my language here. Let’s return to facts. Laline Paul is not a bee. She, and all writers, are liars. But it’s not an absence of truth, it’s something else. Something we should have a German word for. Not a white lie — nothing in the text is intended to deceive. Not Terry Pratchett’s ‘lies to children’ — Paul isn’t laying down groundwork for something that I will eventually understand. Paul isn’t offering me a route to actually understanding what it’s like to be a bee. Annaliese Mackintosh, whose genre blending memoir/fiction practice was very helpful in shaping my thoughts here, spoke to me about Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’ at a literary festival last year. But this isn’t that either. Paul isn’t reaching for the ‘emotional truth’ of being a bee. This is an act of total projection. It is totally honest about its falsity.

What is the word? Fable, perhaps?  But even that feels too pedagogical. Too clearly moral. I need a word that means ‘a fiction that points to the mysterious unknowable in’. A koan? A lie-that-enlarges?

I don’t know. But I know when I read her book, and I go out into the garden, the blank spot of a bee’s mind is made enormous to me. A mystery that doesn’t tell me anything about a bee, but which makes me aware of all I don’t know. She is telling me a lie, but it is forcing me to look at a truth. I feel my limits, and I push against them.

I genuinely don’t know what a bee would make of that.

Feminist Utopias and Path Making

*Spoilers below for The Power, The Handmaids Tale, several older feminist sci-fi works

I've been thinking about 'topias (dys—, u—, eu— or other) and about the purposes of writing speculative fiction. Partly because I'm pulling together strands for my dissertation, and partly because Handmaid's Tale is doing so well, but largely because I've just finished listening to the audiobook of Naomi Alderman's scorchingly good The Power.

Alderman's story is set in the present day, but framed as if it were a fiction written by a male author living 5000 years after the events he is describing. His story, or her story through him, is about the sudden evolution of 'the skein', an electricity generating organ akin to that of eels, along the collar bones of almost all human women. What starts almost as a pleasing revenge fantasy (listen, I always though Lady Macbeth had a point) ends up as something else much more visceral and profound. I found I spent most of the last two hours of the audiobook with my hands bunched up at my chest.  I won't spoil the novel beyond this, it's still new and it's very much worth your time, but I loved its focus on process. Not only 'what would happen if patriarchy reversed?' but what would happen next, and after that. How do we move from one world to another?

Dystopia, which Alderman's book isn't quite, always has this focus on 'how?'. Part of its purpose as a warning is saying 'look, these steps, don't take them!'. Margaret Atwood's brilliant The Handmaid's Tale describes with great clarity the route, via coup, between 80s America and a 'bible-based' theocracy called Gilead. Like Alderman (who was mentored by Atwood), the examples of gendered violence she describes all echo real life examples. The abuses of power she's talking about, the political tendency towards fascism, are familiar enough that signs at the Women's March read 'Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again'.

But utopia works on different lines. It is, famously, 'no-place'. It doesn't exist. There isn't the burden of 'how do we do this?', or, if there is, it can be waved away with magic. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's seminal 1915 novel Herland solves the problem of patriachy with the sudden arrival of human parthenogenesis and, oh dear, eugenics.  The Power, in as far as it is a utopia (I just really like art where straight men get fridged, okay?) relies on the arrival of an electricity generating organ. Both novels can depend on women developing the powers of fish because they aren't really about the 'what if?' so much as they are about questioning where we are already.

There is also such a thing as a eutopia. The e at the beginning switches the meaning from 'no place' to 'a good place'. I didn't know the distinction, but it's useful. Fictions that aren't about impossible places, but places that could be, maybe, please, if we work towards it. It makes me think of Ursula K. Le Guin's comment at the 2014 National Book Awards.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope...We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.

And I also think of the brilliant, essential book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. In it he suggests that we keep making post-apocalyptic fictions because 'It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.' We have zombies because we can't think past money. Maybe we have fish-women because we can't think past men?

This is, in reality, massively unfair on Naomi Alderman, who has actually laid out in some detail her practical suggestions to move beyond gendered hierarchies. If there is a failure of imagination, it certainly isn't hers. And holding her book to account for genres it doesn't actually belong to is the kind of dickish thing that should, rightly, have people calling me a prick on the internet. But I think it's interesting how few feminist eutopias are produced. Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.

Another scorching book, this one tells the story of an institutionalised woman who is able, via psychic power, to send herself forward in time to an eminently sensible community run along queer, socialist, democratic and ecological principles. Whilst her route there is questionable, and Piercy leaves us free to question how real Connie's visions are, the future described requires very little suspension of belief on our part. It seems to run entirely on polyamory, 3d printing and kindness. The 'what-if' is 'what if people were kind?', and then it gives a complete image of what that might look like and how problems with that system might be negotiated. It seems workable. It seems infuriating that we aren't all living in that sensible, technologically viable world right now. I want 3D printed dresses and sexual liberation and comfortable trousers. It all sounds so reasonable.

When I think of my writing, I can see the ways I shy away from attempting eutopia. Utopia's never been my bag, but I know I've written plenty of dystopic work. Despair is less frightening than hope, I suppose, because it requires so much less of you.  The possibility for change also implies the moral imperative for change. It's hard to sit down at the page with that in mind and not shit yourself. But I hope one day I will. There is a path, I hope, between there and here. In the mean time, excellent reflections like Alderman's provide a light for map making.