Tiny Betrayals and Naughty Poeticism: Jenny Diski’s “The Vanishing Princess”
JANUARY 10, 2018
THE VANISHING PRINCESS, acclaimed British writer Jenny Diski’s sole collection of short fiction, keeps the reader off balance in the most pleasant and unpredictable of ways. Originally published in 1995 and now reissued a year after the author’s death, it’s a slim volume, but it demonstrates the range of her astonishing talent and her refined, precise, jewel-like prose. Diski’s ability to explore and consequently explode stereotypes of femininity, carnality, desire, marriage, and innocence lost seemingly has no bounds. Almost all of these stories, once started, are impossible to put down.
The lead story, “The Vanishing Princess or The Origin of Cubism,” is the allegorical tale of a princess locked in a tower. She exists there in a state of perpetual peace, not realizing what she is missing outside, while she is slowly conditioned by her suitors to see the world in terms of fragmentation and attachment. By the end, this paradigm ends up erasing her and trapping her, literally, in an image of herself. Diski’s knowledge of philosophy, psychology, and feminism is woven seamlessly into the princess’s transformation from purity and contentment to self- consciousness and insatiable longing, a process that many women can relate to. The brevity and simplicity of the story provoke a powerful response in the reader.
What makes this collection so special and readable is its versatility. After the heartbreak of the first story, one that seems antiquated and yet timeless, we are plunged into the contemporary urban world of the second story, “Leaper.” One of the collection’s strongest tales, it traces the connection that forms between two women after they pass a subway station in which a person has jumped to his/her death. The story keeps peeling itself back, moving into stranger and more surreal territory, as the two strangers bond while discussing notions of suicide, death, selfishness, and the difficulty of living until words finally fail them. The conclusion of the story is shocking and leaves a lasting impression. I could not help but think of James Salter and his heralded ability to break a reader’s heart with a single sentence. Diski’s elegance and boldness create an effect achieved by Salter’s most unforgettable stories, such as the devastating “Last Night,” which haunts me to this day.
In “My Brother Stanley,” Diski unfurls a world of betrayal, sadness, and violence through a character’s simple observation of the facial expression forever frozen in the portrait of a dead relative. The precision of language and depth of insight are remarkable:
It was the look in my brother Stanley’s eyes that I remember best, though I searched for the rest of his features thoroughly to find angles and aspects that reminded me of me. We were, after all, closely related; his father was my father. The thing about Stanley’s eyes was that they seemed to know what was going to happen to him, and that he would be looking out on a future from which he would be absent.
That last line gives me chills every time I read it, particularly once it’s revealed how he was killed — the tiny, ordinary tornado that suddenly wiped him out of existence. It’s a poignant little story, wise and unafraid in its brief exploration of a life lived then finished suddenly and inexplicably.
Diski may be sophisticated, but she also enjoys delving into the carnal and pushing certain stories to the extreme, such as in “Housewife.” In this very naughty story, two married people carry on an affair, which is a common enough premise. What is delightfully shocking are the intense, graphic scenes of self-pleasuring and the penetration that occurs in every nook and cranny of the lovers’ bodies — an exploration that eventually gives way to a desire to consume each other’s internal organs. I am not prudish, but even I was startled and impressed by just how deep Diski was willing to go into the lovers’ delirious, boundless escapades. Diski is remarkably good at writing sex scenes with unabashed sensuality, shocking detail, and poeticism. “Housewife” ultimately moves beyond the baser pleasures to expose the true desire behind sexuality: to consume and to merge, to transcend the separate self in a way that is spiritual or even noble:
“More. More,” I said. And you gave me a gift of more and more. So much of you inside me. I wonder if there’s a critical dose, after which I am more you than I am me? Or more us than either me or you. I adore your madness and desperately hope no terrible attack of sanity comes over you.
This assignment of power to deranged thinking is a catalyst for getting to a rawer truth. The story is narrated at the beginning by a creature that is an embodiment of the dark and wicked instinct to consume. The creature tells the character Susan, “You’ll only know I’ve been there by the strange dreams you’ll dream. Misty, murky things, like swamps, with smiles hanging from the trees.”
Diski is indeed naughty, not in an off-putting way but in a way that begs the reader to consider revaluing herself and her desires, simply because she is made of flesh and bones and has yearnings grotesque and romantic, sweet and salty. Diski celebrates the senses with a lushness that brings to mind masters such as Walt Whitman:
Susan’s hand casually stroked his lower back and continued around the curve of his buttock. As a sudden spasm of desire ran through her, she gripped him harder, her fingers digging into the dividing slope, and for a split second the rhythm of his movements was interrupted. She looked up at him and saw some new longing in his eyes. That time, the moment passed, and they continued their slow and sensual reacquaintance, but Susan took note.
There is a philosophical diplomacy that often appears in Diski’s narrative voice, a sense that she wants to view things from all sides and thus avoid stereotyping. She will at times repeat herself for rhetorical effect. Repetition provides a heartbeat for the world she evokes. In “Shit and Gold,” it is used to symbolize stability for the miller’s daughter who, plagued by loneliness, takes comfort in the rhythm and redundancies of daily life at the mill:
So I was a solitary child. I watched the stones grinding and listened to the rhythm they made as the slight hollows and bumps in the granite altered the pitch. Strraagga graast, scrummm, scrummm. Straagga grasst, scrummm scrummm. It inhabited my dreams, that beat, becoming as much a part of me as my own heart’s rhythm. And I was content in spite of my loveless surroundings.
Every now and again, this repetition leads to a bit of over-explanation of ways of looking at things, an intentional obsessiveness (this is perhaps her only weakness, if it is even that). But that is nitpicky. Overall, her tendency to explore and obsess is a strength of her work as it allows her to “go all the way” in drawing a world and its myriad complexities. As a reader, I would not want it removed, even if at times it reads as relentlessly philosophical or explanatory.
Diski’s troubled childhood and teenage years infuse the book’s exploration of pain with authenticity. A sense of weariness that comes from surviving family violence permeates many of Diski’s stories and brings to mind her own troubled past before she began living with the writer Doris Lessing. She seems truly to know the ugliness of two parents fighting and the distress it can produce in their offspring. In the strange and meandering story “Strictempo,” we ultimately arrive at a scene in a mental hospital of two parents screaming at each other over the devastated patient, their daughter:
Each turned towards her, their heads almost touching over Hannah’s body like the apex of a triangle, shouting at her in unison.
“How dare you do this to me!”
“…do this to me! You’ve never been anything but trouble! I’m sick to death of you…”
“…sick to death of you … and the trouble you’ve caused me…”
“…you’ve caused me…”
In the wonderfully titled “Wild Blue Yonder,” Diski uses her gift of insight and understanding of human psychology to full, beautiful effect. A family of three vacations in the Caribbean, and the wife, Christina, reflects back on all the safe choices of her life while floating on the striking, green tropical waters, majestic fish below her. Later in the day, she watches her husband take their toddler son out on the same raft and then release him into the water a few feet after promising not to let him go. Christina meditates on this tiny betrayal, on the utter terror in her son’s face as he stares at the expansive sea alone before his father ends his torment and holds the raft again. The story calls to mind Joy Williams, her surreality, her examination of the odd and baffling hidden just underneath the surface of daily life. The effect of this story is that we feel the agony of daily living, particularly when juxtaposed with the terrifying beauty of the calm and vast ocean. We end up with a complete portrait of married life, which can be a mix of tiny betrayals, stability, love, predictability, and irrational behavior.
Diski’s legacy, her gift to the literary world, is imagination pushed to its extremes and insights so deep and probing that the reader actually reconsiders her own views of the world, of sexuality, death, vice, and virtue. This seems to be her intent, and she achieves it. Beyond this, she delights in language — she is playful and precise, which is what many writers, living or dead, have aspired to achieve in their work. She clearly had fun writing; she played with language, played with ideas, and then enjoyed polishing them up — readers can feel it when they read her sentences, that inherent joy.
Diski may be well known in sophisticated literary circles, but she deserves to be a household name. Her range and unique narrative voice are why readers read. This volume should be devoured by lovers of traditional literature as well as those interested in experimental prose: she has something to offer all, as she completely defies categorization. The Vanishing Princess is raw, gorgeous, truthful, and deliciously defiant.