272 pages; $29.95.
I bought Triptych at the 2012 Brisbane Writers Festival after hearing author Krissy Kneen on a panel about erotica, pornography, and censorship. In a world where discussing sex and pornography in public is usually frowned upon, it was a refreshing hour of discussion.
I was intrigued, and also enjoyed the idea of literary pornography (who was it who said ‘”erotica” just means “porn that works for me”‘?). Generally speaking, my only reactions to sex scenes in books before had been detached curiosity (for sexy plot points to keep the story going) or giggles (for the really bad ones – we’ve all read one of those).
Triptych contains a lot of sex; in fact, it’s mostly sex. Overall, though, it’s something more than just smut, despite the conspicuously NSFW cover (a slightly chastened image of Hokusai’s 1814 painting The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which you should not Google at work).
The first novella, Susanna, follows a beautiful, but isolated, woman as she discovers an outlet for her sexual urges: Chatroulette. The titular character gets off on watching anonymous men do the same (which, in my brief experience, is pretty much all that happens on Chatroulette). Eventually, though, she strikes up a fairly one-sided relationship with one of her ‘onanistic torsos’, who she gradually comes to realise lives in the same apartment building as she.
This novella introduces the reader to the world of Triptych, where (fairly) well-adjusted characters are revealed to have sexual tastes which could be described as ‘kinky’, or perhaps even ‘deviant’. Susanna comes across companionship, acceptance, and possibly love – through essentially masturbating with strangers online.
The second novella, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, is the one the author warned me about when I was getting my copy signed. It follows Leda as she goes through puberty and a sexual awakening, eventually becoming the lover of Paul, her lifelong companion. Paul, it is soon revealed, is a German shepherd.
Stepping back for a moment, the first part of the Fisherman’s Wife follows fairly common themes. A girl is growing up into a young woman; she is innocent and naive; she falls into a sexual relationship with a knowing male. It’s almost secondary that the male in this case is a dog. Though Kneen describes the carnality thoroughly, for Leda herself, it’s all about love.
Leda meets a girl who shares her tastes in lovers, and together they experiment with horses, and, yes, an octopus. One of my favourite parts of Triptych is when Leda’s new friend Rachel expresses a desire to have sex with Paul. Suddenly, it’s a teenage love triangle, with the familiar themes of jealousy, resentment, and revenge. It reminded me of stories where Girl 1 steals Girl 2’s boyfriend. I always wondered – what does the boyfriend think about this? Kneen cleverly sidesteps that: the boyfriend is a dog, and doesn’t think about it. Again, beyond the confronting bestiality aspect, it’s quite a tender and heartfelt coming of age story.
As the novella goes on, the sex scenes become increasingly bizarre and, probably, physically impossible. Leda’s foray into the octopus’s rockpools was particularly surreal. I really liked that the reader is drawn in by Kneen’s beautiful and well-executed prose. There is an atmosphere of peace, through the familiarity of the underlying stories and the realism of the characters. Then, almost without warning, we’re in Bestiality Town.
The ending, however, reminds us that despite the backdrop, the real theme here is human connection. Leda and Rachel become friends and lovers, connecting through their shared desires. It’s squicky, sure, but it’s also Kneen’s quiet reminder not to judge people too harshly by their sexual preferences.
Speaking of people, the third and, perhaps, weakest novella, Romulus and Remus, is from the point of view of one of Susanna’s ‘torsos’: Aaron. He’s been married for thirty years, and his sex life is not what it once was (which is why he spends his evenings on Chatroulette). The reader is only occasionally reminded that Aaron and his wife are also brother and sister.
This is another familiar story – a marriage becomes sexless and cold – complicated by the addition of some taboo arrangement. The sister, also dissatisfied with the relationship, has sex with a coworker in an alley, in some of Triptych‘s more vanilla sex scenes. I felt like Romulus and Remus is Kneen’s nod to straight-up pornography; with the incest angle played down (when it comes to physical sex, anyway), it’s just no-strings fucking. Either way, the sex, as well as the incest angle, is an aside to the theme of this novella, and of Triptych as a whole.
It’s all about love.
Triptych reminds us that sex is not an unusual act. Animals do it all the time. Humans are animals too, after all, and we all do it in our own ways. Triptych describes (in sticky detail) some of the unusual – or unnatural – ways to have sex; but it also shows that, for humans, sex can be a part of love. On the surface, Triptych seems to be a simple, gross-out exploration of unnatural sex. But it’s actually about what brings people together: we have empathy, consideration, acceptance. The capacity to build a life together, to feel happiness, to feel love.