The University and the Beast: a fairy tale by Krissy Kneen.
In February 2011 Krissy Kneen enrolled in a PhD in creative writing, looking at pornographic expression through literature. In September 2011 after a brief but emotionally devastating struggle with the university over the content of her creative component (published now as Triptych (Text 2011)) she was no longer enrolled in her studies. In 2012 she wrote the following story. It is, she says, a work of fiction.
Sarah Dainler thought the strawberry cream cake in the cabinet looked like a vagina. It was something to do with the way they had sliced it, taking away a slightly convex piece of the cake, the freshly revealed pink sponge within, the too-soft icing slipping over the swollen crust of it which looked like some giant male beast had ejaculated on top of the whole thing. The strawberries that were sliding over the sponge vulva were of course part of the sex play. Toying with your food. She had just finished reading Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me and she supposed the supermarket scene had added to her reading of the image. She had begun to see sex everywhere which was probably exactly what you were supposed to do when you were writing your PhD on the power of perversity in pornographic literary fiction.
“Hey.” James folded himself into the chair opposite her. James was her supervisor, and perversely, Sarah was always struck by the fact that she didn’t find him particularly sexy when almost every other student at the university did. She looked at his sweet open face, the large intelligent eyes and the moment was less sexually charged than a minute before when she had been gazing into the cake cabinet.
“Hey.” She said, closing her laptop and resting her hands on the top of it as if her fingers were still poised over the keyboard. She had been on a roll.
“How’s it going?” he pointed to her computer with his chin, an oddly endearing gesture.
“I got hold of Irene’s Cunt.”
“Great. Good work.”
“I don’t know there is just so much. How do you narrow this kind of stuff down?”
“That’s the trick. I still think you should look at the bacchanal.”
James nodded. The waitress hovered beside their table. When James looked towards her, she blushed. Sarah wondered what it would be like to wield that kind of sexual power. The staff had always taken her for granted and she had been writing in this café every second day for a month.
He ordered a coffee for himself, raised an eyebrow at the cold cup beside her laptop.
“Sure.” She said, “You can’t have enough caffeine right?”
When the waitress hurried self-consciously away James leaned forward.
“Sarah. I just have to flag something with you.”
She felt her heart skip. She had handed in her initial notes on her research along with the first of her pornographic novellas. She was new to this kind of research. The story was good. She was sure of that, but the essay was a bit lumpy, perhaps a little under-cooked.
“The head of department wants to read what you’ve written.”
“No. Not the essay, that’s fine. It’s the pornography. There’s some concern about the – content.”
“I’m not saying you should worry or anything.”
“It is not like your writing is gratuitous. You have a clearly described reasoning behind your research.”
“What do you mean worry?”
“I mean don’t. I have to pass the fiction on to him, but it’ll be fine. I mean I’ve got a masters student writing about a serial killer. He goes into intricate detailed explanations of how to remove a person’s lower bowel. If he can get away with that…”
The waitress arrived with their coffees spilling some. James moved to help her wipe it up. Their fingers touched. Sarah noticed how the waitress’s hands were shaking. She looked around the café. There was a man sitting at the table next to them. He was short and non-descript and he kept wiping the palms of his hands against his jeans. He could easily be a serial killer and yet no waitress would start to tremble setting his coffee cup down beside him. Such is the power of sex she supposed.
On Friday the froth on the top of her cappuccino dissipated, not a slow bubble by bubble bursting, but all at once. One minute there was froth and the next minute it was gone leaving an oily smear of chocolate clinging to the hot meniscus. She had been working on the second novella. A sex scene. That was the thing with pornographic literature. There was very little of it that was not an actual sex scene. She liked writing it in the university café, the illicitness of the act, subversive. She liked the effort it took to keep her bored expression when a woman was opening her legs under the careful tapping of her fingers. She liked rubbing her eyes as if exhausted, picking up her coffee, sipping a little before turning her attention back to her protagonist whose fingers were sticky with the juices of her lover, her mouth a glisten of emissions from half a page of cunnilingus. Sarah sighed and feigned a yawn as her dark haired heroine took hold of one of her breasts, greasing it with the slipperiness of her lover’s cunt and pushed it into the orifice as one might push a butternut pumpkin into the yielding folds of a woman’s labia, marvelling at the way the orifice expands to accommodate the ripe globe of the fruit. The breast would be just the beginning. The woman would slide her whole body, an inch at a time into the ever expanding cunt of her lover until by the end of the story she had disappeared entirely.
One breast and then a second. Her girl had pushed forward with her tongue, licking down the squeezed tight globes of her own cleavage, her tongue slipping into the soft yielding wetness of flesh. It was then that the froth on the top of her cappuccino began to hum quietly. Sarah stopped typing. She touched the edge of her cup and yes, there was a slight vibration. Sarah frowned. She sat back, staring, puzzled at the cup. Nothing else was vibrating, just her cappuccino. Then the froth was gone. Burst. All at once.
Sarah looked around. Nothing had changed. Her computer was still open, the woman in her story paused in the middle of a perverse act. The woman behind the coffee maker was frothing milk, sliding the metal jug up and down on the hot breath of the wand. The cake of the day, this time a chocolate cake, still gaped lewdly, dripping brown icing in a predictably suggestive manner down it’s sliced black heart.
Sarah pushed the cup away from her. She closed the laptop.
When boys write about sex it is literature. When girls write about sex it is erotica. This seemed clear enough. She pushed her copy of Wish by Peter Goldsworthy to the edge of the café table. The consummation of the sex act between an ape and a man. There was nothing explicit about the moment of interspecies sex. Unspeakable. Words could not describe it according to Goldsworthy, and yet she knew this was not true. Words could of course describe it. In her case, the acts involved a woman and an octopus, a dog, a small pony. Words could in fact describe anything. That was the wonder of the written word, the world transformed and yet still potent.
Her supervisor, James, had left a packet of mints on the table. She supposed this was on purpose, a small gesture of his support, a sweetener to take away the bitter taste of their conversation.
They wanted her to remove the creative component of her Thesis. In short they wanted her to stop writing pornography.
When men like Frank Moorhouse, Ian McEwan, Rod Jones, Nabokov, when these great men of literature write about sex it is elevated to something transcendent. The mind overcoming the content of the work.
“Call it erotica perhaps?” James seemed agitated, shifting a little on his seat, his usual calm broken by the weight of the information that he had to convey. She could smell a slight acidity emanating from him, a nervous sweat perhaps. He usually smelt like expensive cologne.
She had three options it seemed. Remove the creative component from her PhD so that she was effectively analysing rather than creating pornographic literature, remove the word pornography from her study entirely, veiling the naked sexuality of her work under the softer, more feminine word ‘erotica’ and with it, remove any reference to perversity including the bestial sex at the heart of her latest novella, or three, move to a different department where she would be thrown from hand to hand like the hot potato that she so clearly was, till someone dropped her, eventually, after years of struggle.
She could still smell the distinct odour of distress. It had seeped into the chair, permeated the cushion that he had been leaning against, rubbed into the laminate of the table. As her supervisor they were in this together. Her transgressions would be his transgressions. She was still on scholarship here but these days were numbered. The Dean had made it perfectly clear. University Funds Pornography was not a newspaper headline that they were happy to wear.
She had planned her day, a meeting with James, some readings on the bacchanal that he was so insistent that she research, finishing the second story, a cold glass of wine at the university bar. She looked into her empty coffee cup as if the dark stains on the bottom were a sign of something. A tempest perhaps, the dark clouds of a storm brewing. She had been so excited about receiving her scholarship. A PhD would be hard work but she was dedicated, smart, fearless. She would tackle the very hardest questions in her study, she would wade into the cess-pit of literary sexuality, taking on the great men of letters who disguised their actual names and clothed themselves in the upraised skirts of prostitutes to romp in the filth of unfettered sexuality. She would show them all that a woman could be just as perverse and yet a hundred times more ethical than they could be. She would level the playing field with detonations of foul language and lewd acts.
Now she sat, staring impotently into a coffee cup. All the virile sexuality of her undertaking seemed to have gone suddenly flaccid in the space of one short conversation.
“You want another cup of coffee now?” It was the waiter, the sweet young one with the curls and the much older boyfriend who would pick him up on his motorcycle when his shift ended. She knew the staff a little now. She had written 50 000 words at this particular table. They knew how many coffees she would order, they knew to make her a salad at 12.15. She had imagined she would spend the next two years here, sitting in this now familiar corner, secretly detailing the exact shape and scent of a woman’s genitals, struggling over the perfect descriptors for the pearly whiteness of ejaculate, Googling ‘sex with horse’ using her iPhone hotspot so that she wouldn’t contravene the university rules about inappropriate content on their wifi network.
She looked at the screen in front of her. The protagonist had fallen in love with her dog. The dog loved her back, so much so that he was poised above her, his penis a little wriggly pink finger of flesh, she was a virgin, but she was in love and even the pain of the consummation would, with a few careful canine thrusts transform into sexual pleasure.
The Dean wanted her to cease and desist. There had been a directive. Despite the love, the consent, the care, the Dean demanded that she remove the bestial content from her manuscript or the university would remove their support for her project despite the rigorous questioning of pornographic expression and perversity, despite the great men of letters who had been here before. Despite de Sade and Bataille and even Felix Salter who was the writer of Bambi as well as one of the many fake prostitute memoirs that had been circulated illicitly in hand-bound volumes throughout the ages. Cease and desist.
“Or are you finished? Should I get you the bill?”
She took a deep breath and plucked her copy of Wish from the edge of the table before it tipped over and plummeted on to the floor.
“Yeah. Another coffee would be great thanks. And maybe, in an hour or so-“
“The salad. I’ve already saved you a serve of the parmesan rocket and roast pumpkin.”
“Excellent.” She tried to smile. She raised her fingers above the keyboard. One thrust of those neat little canine hips and the girl would be a virgin no more. Sarah bit her bottom lip. She began to type.
Sarah stood outside L block and her hands were trembling. She had been ambushed. She knew it. It was too late now to storm back into the Dean’s office and demand the support of someone, anyone, student services, a councillor, a lawyer, even the simple courtesy of having her own supervisor present. She held her hands up in front of her, stretched out to catch the dapple of sunlight on her fingers. It was, indeed a beautiful day. A group of young women walked passed her clutching folders and library books. One of them laughed, a sweet sound, the same sound she would have made running with her friends in the playground at high school less than a year ago. Sarah felt terribly old. Too old certainly to be treated like a naughty child. The Dean had used soothing words. It sounded for a moment like they were praising her for her boldness, taking on difficult areas of research, too difficult certainly for the limited skills of their time-poor staff. She looked into her hands, the light and shade of them and was almost surprised by the drops of water that had begun to spatter her fingers. Rain, she thought, and looked up at a sky bereft of clouds. A cold rainless glare and it was only when she felt the droplets of water slide down her cheeks and gather at the edge of her jawline that she realised it was not rain, but rather tears, her tears, and it was then that she realised she was upset.
She had two weeks. Two weeks to find a new supervisor, a new department, a new topic of research. Two weeks to abandon and rewrite a 40 000 word document from scratch without the calm, smart, sweet support of James. They had fired her supervision, fired her whole department it seemed, but when she stopped, trying to calm her breathing and looked at it another way, it was easy to see that in reality they had just fired her. Ultimately she would be the only one without a job, without a scholarship, without a future at the university.
Her bag was inordinately heavy. She opened it, glanced at the stack of books in there. 120 days of Sodom. She was suddenly too exhausted to carry the Sade another step. She lifted the heavy volume out of her bag and placed it on the footpath. Lighter. Certainly, she could turn now and walk a little way down the hill. The next book to be abandoned was Goldsworthy’s Wish. A book about bestiality that had been hailed as literature, transformed into a stageplay, an award-winning author when she herself had been silenced so dismissively. She placed the book on the bench at the bus stop, wondering vaguely if the sweet image of an ape’s hairy fingers on the cover would tempt some child into reading the transgressions stored inside. She picked up pace, her boots slamming against the pavement as she made her way down the hill. She reached into her bag and pulled out Irene’s Cunt, tossing it casually into the doorway of a chemist as if it were their mail. Lolita, the lovely Lolita found a new home on a table outside the burger place, she deposited The Story of the Eye under the windscreen wiper of some student’s shiny red mini coupe. She was running now, a rain of paperbacks thundering down onto the pavement behind her, Henry Miller, Kawabata, Sacher-Masoch, Devereaux. All these men of perverse letters abandoned in her furious downhill stride.
She stopped outside the café where she had been working so diligently for the first four months of her studies. They were minding her computer while she ducked up the hill for the meeting with the head of school. Her laptop was resting on top of the cake cabinet.
The Dean had read the first of her perverse narratives. The second was almost finished, silently waiting in her word documents to be unleashed on the unsuspecting reading public. If they thought the first story was disturbing, too dangerous for their program of study, too wild and furious to be unleashed on the world, then what would they think of the second, darker, more sexually transgressive story. Or the third, which was only the germ of an idea in her brain, but which was gestating day by day, growing larger and more wriggly, causing her head to throb with it’s dark and dangerous potential.
“How’d your meeting go?”
Sweet young man. Genuine smile. He hadn’t yet noticed the snail-trail of dried tears staining her skin with their salt, the tremor in her fingers, the incredible lightness of her bag which only moments ago had been weighed down with the legacy of great men. She was free of it all now. Free to walk out into the world unburdened by her obligations to the university. She was no longer a student here. She no longer had deadlines and dead white males to reference. She stood in the café unfettered for the first time. And, for the first time she heard it. The throbbing, a pulse. She wondered if the waiter could hear it too.
She stared at him, trying to hear his voice through the suddenly thunderous pulse in her head. Was she ok? Did he really want to know if she was ok? Or was this, like so many words we speak, yet another politeness. Did he actually want to know what was wrong and what she could possibly do to right it once more?
Her laptop was vibrating. She looked past him, to where it was perched on the cabinet behind him, and she was certain this was where the pulsing was emanating from. The little heartbeat of a light on the top of the laptop pulsed, a warning that although the lid was closed, the computer was still turned on, the content of her story still open on the desktop. The terribly dangerous sexuality of her fiction throbbing there like the ticking of a bomb as it counts down to detonation.
She heard a rattle of crockery and glanced to the table beside the door. A hiss and the froth disappeared off the top of the coffee. The same sudden absence of froth. The same thing that had happened to her own coffee only a few days before. She saw the man lift the cup and peer into it confused. She watched as his chocolate slice began to bubble, to melt down to a dark, almost black puddle, which slid over the edge of his cake plate and onto the table.
A sound like ice melting, a cracking, surfaces dividing. Sarah watched as a sharp line etched the surface of the kitchen cabinet. The cakes dripped their cream onto the plates, the sponge peeled back.
“Are you ok?”
The waiter hadn’t noticed. Perhaps it wasn’t happening at all, perhaps it was just in her head that the pastries were reshaping themselves, the hills and valleys of fruit glaze realigning. The strudel gaped, the puff-pastry labia parting, the sticky sweetness oozed out to the surface.
He put out his hand to touch her elbow. She must have looked quite pale, perhaps he thought she would faint. His fingers touched her bare skin and he flinched away again, shaking his hand as if it had been snapped at by some wild beast.
And the cabinet exploded. The Brewster pulling a coffee at the machine beside it shrieked. The waiter held his still stinging fingers up to cover his face. Glass shards shot out and thumped into the feature wall with its row of books, ripping through the leather and sending slithers of paper scattering like feathers. She heard the clatter of her laptop as it fell through the suddenly shattered cabinet and came to rest, the screen flipping open, in the middle of a black forest cake. She saw the document still open on the screen, her words, her sex words, the power of them, her own ideas so charged that they had frightened a whole department, leading to her expulsion from these halls of learning. The throbbing seemed louder now. She pressed the palms of her hands against her ears. There was blood on her cheek, glass shrapnel perhaps, or maybe just the terrible sound tearing at the thin membranes in her ears. She held her hands in front of her face, blood now dappling the skin where there had been sunlight.
“Oh god,” said the sweet young waiter, holding out his hands to her, too afraid to touch, “are you alright?” he said again. She didn’t hear it but she saw the words, lip-read them and her own voice when it came was a bellow, a roar, a rush of air that hit him hard in the chest and sent him tumbling back against the door to the male toilets.
“No!” she said. “No! No! No!”
The fault-lines spread out from her feet. She hadn’t stamped but it was as if she had raised a giant heavy boot and crashed it down against the floorboards. The concrete cracked, the door-frame buckled, cars trembled, pitched sideways, scraped along the now crumbling bitumen of the road. The fissures stretched out towards L Block, Z block, A block, the whole alphabet of the university began to shake, the students held onto their desks, ducked underneath them, threw themselves into stairwells, plummeted from windows. The buildings shuddered and then, one by one they began to fall.
Sarah lifted her hands from her ears.
A terrible silence had settled around her. People ran, screaming along the footpath. She could see them, but the sound had been turned off. They were like a movie played on mute. Their terror now seemed almost comical.
She stepped towards the cabinet. Her computer was open, jammed into the prised-apart orifice of a dark and creamy cake. She reached in, avoiding the shards of glass and the profiteroles that had burst open like cysts. Her story was still there. She balanced the thing on her arm and hit the keys ‘command’ and ‘s’.
Saved. Her story was safe.
She felt a shudder in the ground, another building toppling, these inviolable halls, nothing but inviolable rubble now. She closed the laptop and cradled it against her chest like a baby. She slipped a thumb in her mouth, it was wet with the remnants of the cake, thick, sticky, and oh so sweet.
The University and the Beast: A Fairy Tale by Krissy Kneen reproduced with the permission of the University of Queensland Press from ‘Destroying the Joint’ edited by Jane Caro (UQP 2013).