From The Vanishing Princess
In her foreword to the Ecco reissue of Jenny Diski’s 1995 story collection, The Vanishing Princess, Heidi Julavits adumbrates one of the late English writer’s signal artistic strengths: “Diski calls attention to the ways in which women are taught to doubt their cognitive journeying through quotidian space, while also authentically investigating how personally restricting, in the end, such involuted mental spirallings might be.” To call Diski a feminist writer is anodyne; her particular brand of feminism – developed in part at the feet of her mentor and guardian angel, Doris Lessing – examines strictures placed on women by conventional societal norms and mores that are often unquestioned and unexamined, even by the women whose lives they most directly affect.
Diski’s approach in her fiction was wide and varied: she could create revisionist fairy tales (“Shit and Gold”) as readily as sexually explicit examinations of female desire that riff on popular romance literature (“Housewife”). But equally interesting are the stories that address the female experience in the context of straightforward realism, because it is here that the stylistic pyrotechnics take a back seat to the emotional power of the material.
Julavits points out that Diski was a highly self-aware writer. She quotes a line from the story “Short Circuit” that identifies a problem the protagonist experiences: she is “not mystified about why she was like she was.” This is not a problem that Christina, the wife and mother at the centre of “Wild Blue Yonder” suffers from. It becomes apparent quite early in the story that Christina is entirely mystified about why she is the way she is; the movement of the story involves a journey from abject bafflement to something resembling self-recognition.
“Wild Blue Yonder” unfolds during a Caribbean vacation taken by Christina, her husband Michael, and their four-year-old son Thomas. As the story opens, Christina, now in “her twenty-sixth year,” has just discovered “the most perfect, the most complete pleasure, physically and mentally … she had ever experienced.” The pleasure in question involves floating in the sea on an inflatable mat, which inspires in Christina feelings of peace, freedom, and wonder.
Significantly, this revelation comes to Christina while she is alone, outside the company of her husband. It is sensual, but not sexual, her experience with sex – both Christina and Michael were virgins when they got together – being somewhat less than stellar. In this regard, “Wild Blue Yonder” exemplifies another aspect of Diski’s writing that often goes unremarked: her blistering humour. The retrospective section detailing Christina’s sexual history with Michael is blazingly funny in its ability to capture a certain kind of masculine hubris and cluelessness:
Christina did not dislike having intercourse, at least in the beginning, but, as far as she knew, she never managed to have an orgasm, no matter how solicitous her lover was. Though he pointed out, for their mutual benefit, the exact site of Christina’s clitoris, and massaged it assiduously, having explained the mechanism of women’s pleasure, Christina failed to experience what he said she was supposed to.
The sex as Diski describes it is spectacularly bad, due in large part to Michael’s assumption that his reading has given him all the information he needs to please his lover without ever bothering to check in with her about what she likes or wants. When Christina begins to fake pleasure out of a desire not to disappoint him, Diski delivers the coup de grace: “The noises were miniature versions of what she had gathered about orgasmic behaviour from some of the more explicit European films of the nouvelle vague (Godard, Antonioni, Fellini) which they’d seen together at the Film Society.”
This is all hilariously funny, but it carries with it an undercurrent of seriousness in its dramatization of a marriage that is stifled by a husband’s ego and a wife’s impulse to go along to get along. Christina laments that she did not have many sexual opportunities in university, being not so much “disliked, but more overlooked.” A bookish woman, the men at school “didn’t find her positively unattractive, but they didn’t notice her.”
That Christina has compromised with her own desires in exchange for a comfortable domestic life seems irrefutable. What is most interesting in Diski’s depiction is the reason she does this: a lack of experience and curiosity leads Christina to a kind of self-delusion. She doesn’t yearn for a better life because she authentically doesn’t realize a better life might be possible for her.
Christina, we are told, “hadn’t got a colour television until she was already the only person she knew who didn’t have a video recorder: it wasn’t that she didn’t want one, but it hadn’t seemed to her that she could.” Christina’s horizon of possibility is artificially constrained as a result of her inability to envision a different, more fulfilling existence until one is more or less forced on her.
Her first trip out on the float mat provides her glimmers of potential beyond the confines of her stifling home life and the husband whose pride is so overweening he refuses to acknowledge fault when he terrifies his four-year-old son for no other reason than to prove his masculine dominance.
Christina’s second trip out on the float mat, which occurs at the story’s close, offers her an even grander epiphany. She spies a man on the shore taking a tray of coffee to what she assumes to be his partner waiting back in their cabin for him to return to her. The reverie that Christina indulges about the other couple’s domestic bliss (a reverie that is entirely imagined, given that she cannot know anything about this man and his situation, having never seen him before and exchanging but a few words of small talk with him) provides her with an inkling of what another, fuller life might be like.
The final scene in the story finds Christina floating on the open water, again on her own, contemplating the idea of freedom and fulfillment. The story ends with Christina drifting away from shore and gazing out at the panorama of sea and sky all around her, alone but for the thoughts that have begun stirring in her imagination. She leaves behind the land and its solidity, surrendering herself to the emptiness and promise of the water. Does she drown? Does she turn around and return home? Does she float off in search of new adventures? The story ends before Christina’s ultimate fate is revealed. What we are given is her repeated musing about the most complete pleasure she has ever felt and, in a final moment of recognition, her wonderment at never having attempted anything like it before.