Reviewed: Jackie Ess, Darryl, Clash Books
There’s an uncanny way in which certain ‘queer novels’ can quickly become a thing of folk legend, surpassing even word-of-mouth to become inoculable. Neither good press nor criticism can necessarily move it. Those ‘in’ on the secret may (annoyingly) regard themselves as sybaritic, chosen for a kind of sainthood. Books such as Bluets (Maggie Nelson) or Autobiography of Red (Anne Carson) become doomed to a sort of possessiveness. Accessorised with a knowing wink, they weigh like a trophy, at least in allocated circles.
Jackie Ess’s first novel, Darryl, released in May this year, has already become that thing. In Darryl, the world Ess creates is largely nebulous, a place only known through the syntax and narration of the eponymous character. Introspection, like sex, is mostly only possible under the blanket of night, and daybreak offers no respite. In other words, we find ourselves at home in the suburbs. It’s these surrounds I sink into, as Ess slowly paints a compelling picture of the subaltern desires of the protagonist—that is, to be ‘cucked’ by the riskiest men imaginable. It’s a selling point that could all too quickly become trite, but develops into something like parable. What could be tongue in cheek becomes sexy and existential, ultimately asking: why do we want what we want?
In order to be ‘cucked’, a word that is very funny and in its modern usage not so literal as it is here—one requires a partner to be so obliging. For Darryl that person is his wife, Mindy. She is so rarely characterised that even when she’s centred, the reader’s imagination is elsewhere, likely conjuring up the fantasy of some powerful, brawny figure pistoning in and out of her—i.e. men. ‘It used to feel like I was the one pushing for a lot of the cuckolding, but now she’s doing her own thing,’ Darryl utters later. He sounds disappointed. Then again, his emotional certainty never lasts for more than five pages—his thoughts are finicky and inconclusive. Ess takes pleasure in prioritising the build-up.
Mindy takes her pick from the lovely buffet of torsos, dicks and attachés, selecting them from Craigslist ads and selective use of ‘the apps’. One of these strapping young men, Bill, is a ‘union guy’—a characterisation that briefly suspends disbelief, and reading it, I wonder who still uses that language. Certainly it is a description that can only come from someone who has not yet realised that Ronald Reagan, too, was a ‘union guy’. Here Bill is a Democrat, and Clive, the other ‘bull’—to use the words of our beloved Darryl—is a Republican. Where politics is absent, the alpha males act as chess pieces.
It’s hilarious that the Democrat of choice is named ‘Bill’; it’s one of the few moves that gestures towards politics with a capital P. Mercifully, the other candidate is not a ‘Donald’. Regardless, Clive and Bill are so indistinct that they become American electocracy personified, and the tension builds from this sense of difference. Whether the cuckolder presents as inclusive and ethical, like Bill, or transparently corrupt, as with Clive, Darryl is quite literally being fucked (over). The ‘civilised capitalism’ (per Toni Morrison, in an interview with Angela Davis) of the Democrat dom competes with the primitive kind. In fact, politics is not something that is made discursive as much as it is a sort of air, one that characters breathe and absorb without necessarily identifying a source. It is the unravelling of Darryl’s certainty about his own place in the food chain and its implications where ‘politics’ starts getting too real. He begins to ask questions, doubting the cuckolding arrangement.
Much later, when the couple become so enlightened as to allow a woman to become primary cuck, Darryl does not invest psychically in the set-up. He confesses that it is unlike the thrill of previous experiences, and more like ‘watching a computer win a chess tournament’. To him, it’s ‘a different emphasis’: lesbianism is too nuanced, an opportunity beyond the accessible (or limited) horizons of male domination.
In Darryl, the desire for a digestible, porny narrative is often nixed. Ess regards the reader as a faceless man at a confessional, or reading a once-contraband journal.
When Darryl gets the opportunity to diverge from the choice of two men, their ‘reliability’ becomes too hard to reject—anything else is made to feel somehow unviable due to outside pressures, which might sound like electoralism. Then Darryl tells us this: ‘Bill talked to me a little about a local group of socialists, but I find them annoying.’ One can’t help but sympathise.
Ess foregoes an attempt to make this a thoroughly ‘contemporary’ book ‘about the internet’ or, more boringly, ‘internet culture’: what Darryl uses the internet for, and what he refers to the internet for, is almost wholly to source the depressant GHB. It’s a drug that can either make you irrepressibly horny or psychotic, and it’s so on the money in the funniest way; why on earth would you be using the internet for anything else?
In an essay on Freud in the London Review of Books, Jacqueline Rose offers a thought: ‘Psychoanalysis begins with a mind in flight, a mind that cannot take the measure of its own pain.’ When one is immeasurable, others start to notice, as in the men gathered around Bill and Darryl at the former’s house when they decide to have a dudes’ night, each surveilling the other for any missteps in the social contract. All of that yummy subconscious matter rises to the top, though Darryl instead opts for bottom. Rose continues: ‘It begins, that is, with the recognition that the world—or what Freud sometimes referred to as “civilisation”—makes demands on human subjects that are too much to bear.’
Throughout Darryl, Ess takes us through the slow unfolding of the unconscious, its humours and reliefs. Like a thriller, a little bubbling under the surface can quickly lead to what’s on top being soundlessly absorbed by an unknown monstrosity below. Questions about identity, such as: ‘could I be interested in men?’, can quickly develop from a once improbable curiosity into a workable one—all of a sudden you’re sucking cock.
When Darryl starts following the lead, whether that be about himself or regarding sinister accusations concerning Clive, things become sort of dark. He surmises, ‘there’s a feeling of being doomed by my curiosity, reminds me of old movies’. One pylon begins to crash against another, threatening to upset the order of things as he knows it, but oddly Darryl navigates it well, all the while unpicking the stitches of identity. An unexpected bump-in with a transgender woman, Oothoon, turns into an ongoing correspondence—she might be leading him towards a light. Or is it a fire? Ess does not give us the satisfaction of knowing. Speaking to Mindy and her new side-chick Kit, about Darryl becoming ‘more sissy’, they have a surprisingly mature conversation. This is not an issue per se, they tell him, but as they infer, it might become one if it were to reach a conversation about actually transitioning, a peculiar affront to the two women. Darryl notes this ongoing ‘grudge between lesbians and trans women’, as if it were impossible to be both.
At its heart, Darryl cannot answer why the grass is not greener—why our lives are not necessarily improved in any way by ‘becoming’, by getting what we want and realising the ideal self. The book’s underpinnings feel indebted to something from the expanded universe of Andrea Long Chu, a decidedly nonfiction writer who has said that desire is ‘independent of the object, even as it is structured by dependence on the object’. Chu has also written an academic paper titled ‘why sissy porn made me trans’, stating in an interview:
One of the things about desire is that you can not want something for the first 30 years of your life and wake up one day and suddenly want it—want it as if you might as well have always wanted it. That’s the tricky thing about how desire works. When you want something, there’s a way in which you engage in a kind of revisionism, the inability to believe that you could have ever wanted anything else.
If you are someone ‘of trans experience’, there is a certain linearity demanded of you, quietly and sometimes more publicly. Your new forays into transition may have to become even stricter than those of your compatriots! Like the famous poster girl from the 1958 B-movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, gender has enormous legs and, occasionally, a gun. Those demands, even if implicit, can be so distilled in your mind that they reach a dull roar, although the silence may persist in other ways. It is not always kosher to say, for instance, that it was porn that helped you to come out, or even abuse, or drug use, as opposed to a more acceptable example, such as seeing a ‘relatable’ character in a show and saying ‘literally me’ or ‘same’. This is essentially the paradigm of gay marriage and other similar projects that announce their intelligibility; it is about clarifying your place in the political language of a limited public imagination. This could be called ‘respectability politics’, but even the usefulness of that phrase doesn’t quite get us there.
In Darryl’s hypothetical universe, questions regarded as previously untenable become the stuff of acceptable conversation. I witness scenes that smell like the ‘dark web’: a sinister current wedged below the consciousness of daily life, where despair is the main sensation. To suggest that a killer (I won’t reveal who it is) would face consequences would have you laughed out of town. You could say this is post-Epstein, but what it might be referring to is a climate post–Ed Buck, the financial donor to the Clintons (there they are, appearing again) who had a habit of inviting young men— specifically sex workers—into his home and seeing them out in a body bag. Bret Easton Ellis could never! Darryl is an example of how literature can be soldered to meet this new atmosphere, one where ‘official sources’ are worth questioning and conspiracies feel rote. If this is paranoia in its most distillable form, a slick acceptance of something lying far away from the speculative, then so be it.
Jonno Revanche is a writer based in Campsie.