Review: 'Jane, Jill and Jasie', by Malcolm Cross
The first story in this collection, “Dick and Jane", deals with the disillusionment and despair of Jane, who must learn to live with the fact that the love she putatively shares with a human man is something altogether more depressing.
“Jill’s Forty-Ninth" (which, for my money, felt to be treading the most well-worn formal path of erotic fiction), tracks Jill, one of Jane’s “sisters", who works a dull office job during the week, but gets dressed up at the weekend to invite sex and other pleasurable indulgences from wealthy men. The story concerns her attempt to negotiate an agreeable arrangement with one man in particular.
The final story, “Jasie’s New Start” is a more straight-forward and minimal affair about Jasie, who seeks out a childhood sweetheart in an attempt to escape from the reputation of her kind as superficial and oversexed, and kindle a new, more stable life. [Bad Dog Books, 2013, $2.99.]
On the whole, Cross writes very well; the register and feel of his writing is very much informed by 1980s cyberpunk fiction. The richly staccato narration and dialogue-heavy scenes carry the distinctive generic DNA of sexualised, late-modern (and postmodern) cityscapes fed through Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming and Jack Kerouac. The collection is self-described as erotica, and is not for those who want to (or should) avoid explicit sex scenes. But unlike many erotica writers – particularly the furry kind – Cross does not submit to the notion that just because sex is a strong and regular presence in a story, it must be to the effect of excluding anything a laundry list of sex acts.
In other words, I’m glad to say that this is an honest attempt to give erotic writing the respect of pairing it with a reasonably wide spectrum of emotions and consequences. This is not to say, of course, that sexy words for the sake of sexy words do not have merit or value, or that there’s some formal canonical list of literary fiction criteria that must be fulfilled to make erotic writing “credible”, but rather that it’s always refreshing to read something that gives you more bang for your buck (or bang for your bang).
However, Cross is not always absolutely successful in forging the connections between the eroticised elements and the wider concerns of the text. The sex scenes are largely visceral and frank in a pleasing way—again, this corresponds with the influence of cyberpunk. Importantly, though, the sex lacks the joylessness of many scenes characteristic of cyberpunk fiction: sex, in this collection, is not the slightly condescended-to guilty pleasure of people who have relegated their bodies to meat. The body is a central and driving force to individual character actions, and it is treated as such. Sex is pleasurable, important, and needed. I felt some attempts to keep the sexual elements easy and integrated into the story didn’t quite work, though. Occasionally the peppering of the stories with accounts of sexual encounters—particularly ones which took place in the characters’ pasts—veer dangerously close to the dreaded laundry list of sex acts that characterises less-ambitious erotic fiction. This doesn’t happen often, but it sticks out.
I was also jarred by the very slight mismatch in the weighting to the collection: the first two stories seem naturally complementary, providing two sliding perspectives on surviving the urban experience as a member of an extreme minority. They concern the ideas of decoding the tangled relationship between sex and the city and of trying to use the promise and anonymity of the urban experience to mask a rebooted past and construct an identity and a life from fast, temporary encounters. In contrast, the final story is not only shorter (more like a vignette), but dramatises more of an escape from the city. There’s nothing wrong with this, as such (and for reasons I’ll outline in a bit, the final story was my favourite from the collection), but it lends a certain imbalance that, for me, left a faint taste in my mouth – as if the final story was an afterthought. I’m not saying that it is, just that that’s how it feels when stacked against the other two (much more mutually complementary) stories.
When the central characters driving three different stories are genetically identical, one of the biggest tasks is naturally finding ways to differentiate them. Cross has mixed levels of success here. The bruised naivety of Jane (the protagonist of the first short story) stands in vivid contrast to the studied, self-preserving cynicism of ravenous bedpost-notcher Jill. But while these two are set apart by different outlooks and attitudes, there was still recourse at times to generic archetypes and plotlines to help structure this contrast. While Jane was a nuanced character, taking control of a situation stacked against her while attempting to maintain a notion of personal integrity that has already been badly compromised, Jill was a little more boilerplate: the Sexy-Secretary-Out-For-What-She-Can-Get is a well-known character in Mills & Boon / Harlequin, as is the procession of scenes in luxurious hotels with lavish food and clothes, contrasted against dull workplaces. I don’t want to be too reductive about Jill or her story—she’s more three-dimensional than most such characters, and we gain insight into her past that hints at real reasons for this lifestyle—I just felt that she cohered most faithfully to the more well-established area of erotic writing; whereas Jane and her story left more of an impression, and illuminated the most enduring connections between sex and the rest of life (not that these are dichotomous or mutually exclusive).
I want to give the final story, “Jasie’s New Start”, its own (suitably short) paragraph. While I found its differing tone and subject slightly jarring, I found that if I don’t try to track the connections too firmly with the other two stories, and instead appreciate it on its own merits, it stands out as my favourite. Jasie’s literal rejection of the city is examined in a long introspective scene as she glides away on a maglev train, and her arrival in a town that is simultaneously full of the old and promising the new is like a cool breeze compared to the claustrophobic urban negotiations of the Jane or Jill. Obviously, this is a more sentimental story, and I can’t ignore the slightly Nicholas Sparks quality of the idealised rural boy who’s good with a boat. But the lightness of touch in the writing (for the first time I felt the formal elements of Cross’ composition start to escape from the bounds of cyberpunk) and the measured vagueness of the situation all felt right to me, as did the sense of renewal and escape from a damaging past.
Thematically, I enjoyed the collection’s treatment of alternative and shifting relationships between work, sex, and family. Cross’ characters are necessarily more defined by the kinds of work they do because they have literally been created to embody certain roles, but the impression left by these aborted predestinations provides rich ground for development. The exploration of how those roles intersect—with family, with love, with sex—is rewarding (the ending of “Jill’s Forty-Ninth" comes to mind here; and it coheres with his multi-part story “War Dog", which I’ll cover in a separate review).
More generally, Cross avoids one of the biggest generic pitfalls of furry fiction: while the work does explain the existence of the furry characters, it does not belabour them or recite enormous rafts of alt-history that we just don’t need. We know that anthropomorphic animals were genetically engineered, that they were ‘emancipated’, and we get glimpses of the unusual non-nuclear families in which their culture has become organised. There’s a deftness and restraint in this that is admirable; it’s easy to tell that the backstory work has been done and the universe is there just from how the stories proceed. There is no infodumping. What we see feels like the tip of a considerable story iceberg; but, to labour the metaphor, we’re thankfully not exposed to dull sonar charts and surveys of the iceberg’s underwater bulk.
To sum up, this is a collection of smart, well-written stories. It is not easy to write erotic fiction, and erotic science fiction is less forgiving than other kinds given the temptation for fantasy excess that lurches into the absurd. Cross avoids this pitfall and many others, making this book a memorable and worthwhile investment of your time and money.