The second chapter of A Game of You begins with Hazel coming to Barbie’s apartment to get some advice: Hazel reveals that she is pregnant, and doesn’t know what to do, because she knows more superstitions about pregnancy than facts.
Such ignorance seems odd to me for a woman in her subculture in New York City, and strains credibility a bit — not so much that Hazel thinks standing up during sex is an effective method of contraception (plenty of people, to their regret, have believed this), but that Hazel thinks a pregnancy test requires killing a rabbit. That’s more something we might expect to hear from a stereotypical character from Deepest Appalachia than from a lesbian in Manhattan.
But stranger things have been known to happen. Hazel’s ignorance about her body and about the basics of human reproduction serves to make us, the readers, suspect that she is not the brightest person to walk through these pages, but it also shows the power of myth.
Somewhere along the line, Hazel heard that standing up minimizes the risk of pregnancy during heterosexual intercourse. She probably heard it from a source she considered reliable, and without any evidence to the contrary, she accepted it. Her own inclinations were not toward heterosexual sex, so it wasn’t something she had to give much thought to. Her schooling must have lacked adequate sex education, as so much schooling does, and whatever else she was told about sex didn’t contradict in any strong way her belief that standing up is just as good as a condom.
Sex remains a realm of many mythologies, because mythologies grow especially baroque where the desire to know something is at least as powerful as the obstacles to knowing. For many people, sex is something hidden, something vaguely shameful, something that polite society doesn’t talk about. It sprouts vast gardens of euphemism and repression. On a purely logical level, this makes no sense — most humans possess some sexual drive, and this drive has allowed us to be fruitful and multiply with extraordinary success; it’s a basically biological process, utilizing body parts that are hardly exotic; and the various ways humans can gain sexual pleasure are many, but not infinite. Thus, talking about the mechanics of sex shouldn’t have any inherent oddity, grotesqueness, or shame — no more than should my admitting that I am currently typing these words with my fingers on a laptop computer, a rather common activity using body parts most people posssess, aided by a technology common to many people of my class and region, a technology that allows the propagation of words.
But sex has been coupled with morality in a way typing has not, and so it has gained mythologies, because it is no longer a basic biological activity, but an activity people want to imbue with meaning, to wrap in ritual, to make mysterious by hiding from view. The discourses and mythologies of sex have also been powerful tools for creating and controlling ideas of normality, health, and goodness (see Michel Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality for a taste of some of this). Hazel’s pregnancy is just one product of her culture’s need to keep pragmatic talk of sex underground, whispered at best, not shared in any public way, and most especially hidden from children — whose inherent innocence is mythologized as at least partly an innocence of sex, leading to the construction of virginity as purity, a construction that has been destructive to the health and happiness of many women throughout history, since women have been the people most thoroughly burdened with expectations of virginal purity.
We see other mythologies in this chapter, much of which is devoted to dreaming. Some of the most striking dreams offer images of corrupted goodness. Weirdzo No. 1 is a nightmare version of Superman, with truth, justice, and the American way now transmogrified into something from one of the Saw movies. He exists to torture Wanda about her transition from male to female, determined to force her into a surgery she doesn’t want, determined to make her body conform to the narrow either/or choice of male/female. “So what you am?” Weirdzo 1 asks, struggling with subject and verb agreement. “A man or a woman?” Yes, those are the only choices! “Whatever you am, we make it better.” The binary must be enforced!
A nightmare, indeed.
And then there’s Hazel’s dream of her child. The baby has been dead for seventy years. It has an autopsy scar, but is otherwise “perfectly preserved”. Hazel puts it in a crib with Foxglove’s baby, which is beautifully alive and well. Or, rather, it’s beautifully alive and well until Hazel’s baby starts moving, then reveals a massive mouth of fangs, and proceeds to chew Foxglove’s baby to shreds. “Then it will come for us,” Hazel thinks.
Even more than we mythologize virginity as purity or human bodies as only male or female, we mythologize babies as innocent. We gaze upon them and believe we feel their goodness radiating like light from an angel. Superman should not be a monster, sure, but babies should really not be monsters. (One of the most disturbing novels I’ve ever read is Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child; it plays with just this idea, to devastating effect. And the sequel, Ben, in the World, complicates everything.)
Things are seldom what they seem, however, as we discover at the end of this chapter with Thessaly, who has seemed to most people around her like a harmless nerd. This does not appear to be the case. Barbie hadn’t exactly seemed like princess material, but the chapter ends with her ready to lead a quest.
Perhaps we will discover Hazel to be more than she seems: smarter, more resilient, and not the mother of a monster. If she’s lucky, her dreams will not come true.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.