Fighting Mad

Nicola Griffith
The Blue Place
Avon Books

My 13-year-old "Little Sister" knows how to break a nose; she's thrown more punches than I've thrown insults. And I've just read a novel, Nicola Griffith's The Blue Place, in which a 6-foot dyke lives for this same slow flow of the fight, her body thrusting, ducking, and spinning in a dance beyond thought. If asked, I would type all of this as feminism: my Little Sister explaining her life; a book that expands the idea of the possible; me, trying to track the entwining paths of culture, relationships, and politics.

Earlier this summer, Time magazine ran a cover polemic titled "Is Feminism Dead?" The story's author, Ginia Bellafante, is worried that the feminist doctrine "the personal is political" has grown too weighted toward the former. Such '90s charlatans as Katie Roiphe and Elizabeth Wurtzel currently drown the world with a pissing stream of unexamined opinion. Women should be banding together around health and child care, Bellafante stresses, not vagina monologues. All true. But when baseline assumptions about identity and social roles are challenged, as they were by feminists 30 years ago, we shouldn't feel surprised that people want to mull over the issues. Just one question--what if women as a group are no morally better or worse than men?--has fueled a 15-year battle within feminism, between anti-porn and pro-sex advocates. My own theory is that this period of introspection has deepened and complicated feminism in a way that will prove itself in the long haul.

It's fascinating, for example, to watch Griffith at play with the building blocks of her genre--not just classic detective noir, but the lesbian mystery that was contemporary dyke literature's beachhead. Throughout the '80s, gay-detective novels erupted regularly from Naiad, Spinster's Ink, and Seal Presses, some clumsy, some stylish, all tense with desire. Those stories are remembered, and re-envisioned, by The Blue Place, which self-consciously plumbs their often reckless violence. More tellingly, the danger to this heroine arises less from her expression of gay lust than from her refusal to involve herself in the world.

Aud Torvingen is the only child of a Norwegian diplomat. Her father left the family when she was growing up, frustrated, it's implied, with her mother's omnivorous career. Aud spent most of her childhood at boarding schools. She came to Atlanta for college at 18 and remained there as an undercover police lieutenant. When her businessman father died, he left her rich. She now occupies her time woodworking and picking up one-night stands at nightclubs. Save one buddy, she is alone. And her wealth distances her from the scrape and fumble of everyday interaction; she is free not to care what anyone thinks of her.

Into this isolated life barrels noir's usual woman-in-distress. Except Julia Lyons-Bennet is no cool femme fatale: Angry and engaged, she arrives with a flaming explosion. An art supplier, Julia believes a dear friend was murdered over a counterfeit painting. She asks Aud for help. Protecting Julia, Aud rediscovers what she calls the "blue place," the still, translucent state she goes to when she fights--a state so attractive to her that she came to find the police codes on violence too limiting. And yet, falling for Julia, Aud detects a disconcerting, sweaty ardor stealing into her dispassionate frame.

The two flee Atlanta and the treacherous heat fanned by Julia's inquiries, flying to Norway for a working vacation. As she enjoys both her lover and her early girlhood home, Aud sets aside her uneasiness about their safety. She should know better. Her blue place lives inside Norway's northern glaciers, deep down in the crevices where old ice survives. It is made of cold emotion: abandonment, loneliness, impotence--the compressed anguish of a child whose parents gave her everything but time. Battles are joined, and finally Aud saves herself, by torching the blue place along with her hard-won detachment.

Griffith's last novel, the Lambda Literary Award-winning Slow River, rests too on a bad-parenting subplot. In that science-fiction story, the mother is invasive, suffocating, greedy. Aud's mother in The Blue Place follows the model of the successful (male) breadwinner: an inaccessible workaholic. Together, the books subtly present the damage done by those American family prototypes, distant dad and ever-present mum. Nor does help lie in gender-role switching. Indeed, Griffith provocatively suggests that the pathologies of men--such noir standbys as addiction to violence, fear of intimacy, concealed anger--also plague women if their mothers abandon them like fathers abandon sons.

Battery and abuse within women's communities was used as a plot device in those early lesbian mysteries, but violence was never confronted as a key attraction in the detective genre itself. Resembling John Woo's movies, The Blue Place swims inside violence as in a lushly colored dream; it makes a polar opposite to Martin Amis's gaunt Night Train, which also stars a big-boned, quick-fisted woman cop. Amis's anti-heroine is clearly a man in disguise, weary of the cruel noirish milieu the author can't quite admit to creating. Griffith, meanwhile, writes Aud as convincingly female, because she would claim for women the entire spectrum of human behavior, including brutality and its sometime converse, rage.

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