Daisy Dunn

Unmastered: A book on desire, most difficult to tell (…or read)

Unmastered: A book on desire, most difficult to tell (…or read)
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Among the new words which entered the English Dictionary last year was ‘overshare’, def: ‘to reveal an inappropriate amount of detail about one’s personal life’. If that detail pertains to common experience, though, is it inappropriate to share it, or just unnecessary?

Unmastered, I think, will divide on that question. It will divide readers, in fact, quite generally. It presents itself as something more than a book, as a corporeal embodiment of an experience that, while common to most, is presented as peculiarly the author’s own. Katherine Angel essentially seeks to re-create in book form the sex she shared with a lover (‘The Man’). In it, she also discusses the aftermath of an abortion.

The layout of the book is bizarre, some pages are blank, some contain merely a couplet, others a longer stanza, each piece numbered and affected to read like a fragment of poetry or an adage or the miscellaneous leaf of a private diary. At times one is reminded of a twentieth-century Vorticist publication, in which seemingly disjointed words are set in a sequence to which all manner of meanings could be attached. Angel’s writing often hankers for the reader to impinge an interpretation upon it. Reflecting on pornography, for example, she writes:

‘Stylized bodies, full of knowing and play; highly aestheticized, even down to the disavowal of that aesthetic. Talented, witty photographers – playful, full of Postmodern intertextuality!’

Writing like this doesn’t do a lot for me.

The points the author raises about gender are slightly more interesting. Among the intellectual topics she broaches (she is an academic at Warwick University) are the role of words in defining masculinity, the degree to which female desire can intimidate men, and most centrally, the role a woman plays in defining a man’s masculinity.

At one point in the book she hesitates over the fraudulence of her female desire to fuck her lover. The feminist writer Sontag, whom Angel quotes often, perhaps too often, got round that problem by concluding, ‘Fucking vs being fucked…the deeper experience – more gone – is being fucked’. But that’s not quite satisfactory. As a woman Angel fears she won’t entirely satisfy on top (is that the only way a woman can dominate?), and besides she wants to be overcome by masculine force; her femininity needs it. She is scared of becoming a man. She needs to be a woman to lock a man into his own masculinity. All very real concerns, perhaps, but not very new ones.

The anxiety manifests itself in irritating, repetitious outbursts, ‘Am I Leda? Is he the swan?’ Later, ‘Can I be the swan? Must I always be Leda? Must I either take, or be taken?’

The low point in the book is when she relays how she rendered her university lecturer ‘a bit flummoxed’ with her amazing question: how can porn possibly show the full range of female pleasure? Big pat on the back.

The description of her feelings after her abortion is moving, and probing, and courageous. It is that which precedes it that makes one feel that the book has been more a therapeutic process for the author herself than something that warrants sharing with a wider readership. There will doubtless be many women (and perhaps a handful of men) who disagree, and see this as a powerful and utterly original manifestation of sexuality and gender. But rhythm, fractured rhythm, discursive, vacuous sentences, and recourse to a surprisingly limited number of gender theorists and writers, seemingly prohibits the initial idea from being successfully executed.