coeur de lion press (2006)
Reviewed by Kathryn Linge, July 2007
When I was first presented with c0ck in late 2006, I was very pleasantly surprised. Smaller than your average, black and shiny, the c0ck volume is very tactile and, frankly, I can’t help but fondle it. It’s so sweet! I believe my first words upon seeing it were Oh it’s much smaller than I expected!, but I assure you, dear reader, that it was a pleasant surprise, and not at all the disappointment that a small c0ck might be assumed to be.
This is the first clever thing about c0ck.
The second clever thing about c0ck is its title. I defy anyone to overlook it and the unusual spelling (that’s cee, zero, cee kay) should mean that a web search would find it for you in amongst all the pornography (should you wish to). From the Forward by editors Andrew Macrae and Keith Stevenson, we learn that c0ck seeks to “question and problematise the male perspective from within”.
So what are men thinking? The theme that surfaces first in the anthology is control – and loss of control. The topic is most engagingly examined in Paul Haines’ “The Devil in Mr Pussy (Or How I Found God Inside My Wife)”, recent winner of 2007 Ditmar for Best Novella or Novelette, and certainly one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Mirelle and Paul have moved to a new house in the hope of starting a family. However Paul is feeling impotent; his novel has dried up and his sperm is defective. His desperation leads him to start taking the cat’s antidepressants (hijinks ensue). The ‘gossip’ in me wonders how true to life this story is. Paul Haines’ nameis Paul, he is a speculative fiction writer, and he has (relatively) recently produced progeny. If not completely drawn from life (and I do hope he’s keeping out of the cat food), the parallels between Haines’ life and that of his character do give the story more emotional resonance. If Haines has deliberately chosen to use these facts to enhance that resonance, it was a good move. Haines cleverly interweaves religious imagery and hallucinogenic episodes, as he relates (fictional) Paul’s fear of fatherhood and his inability to control his surroundings, to how Joseph might have felt when God got Mary up the duff.
I found the other stories examining power and control less satisfying. Stephen Dedman’s “Cutback” starts with a chance meeting between Will, an actor, and old pal Rich. Rich has given up acting to fill the traditional male role of husband and provider. However, Rich’s department is becoming downsized and he is too. The analogy between Rich’s physical size and his self worth, now solely defined by his job, is almost poignant. However, my sympathies were lost when Dedman ended the piece with a lame joke about privatisation. In “My Beautiful Wife”, by Geoffrey Maloney, a similar emasculation occurs when the narrator finds himself becoming smaller and less attractive, as his wife becomes more so. Whilst more than competently written, I’m afraid the story left me indifferent. Possibly Maloney is trying to convey something about fear – as the narrator diminishes, his fear (particularly of bridges and hanging escalators) increases. However, the narrator’s final cartoonish transformation into a devoted and slavish pet was one herring too many.
c0ck is a pretty sexy anthology, and sex, sexual desire, sexual politics, sex, Sex, SEX! dominate many of the pieces. In Lucy Sussex’s “A Sentimental, Sordid Education”,“The best things in life last at least three minutes” and we find Kurt reliving a pivotal night in his life, over and over. But what is it that makes that night so significant? Sussex’s strong prose is both readable and believable and, in amongst the sex, Sussex presents the most interesting question of the anthology for me. Why would someone, who had lived a full and interesting life, prefer to dwell forever in fantasy? I think one reason why I find this idea intriguing is that I think this desire is inherently human – not just masculine. There is more human desire in “The Pheromone Tango” by Chris Lawson, although it conforms to much more orthodox sexual politics. After an ill-advised anniversary gift, Dick and Jane spend the next forty years “not entirely happy, but not in misery either”. Can Dick finally understand why his gift caused Jane such offence? On the face of it, this story serves to provide an example of man-as-complete-thicko, as I understood why Jane was so upset immediately (Of course, I am female and perhaps that has made all the difference). However, there is a subtle undertone that emerges that went some way to saving the story for me. Both Dick and Jane’s conscious actions are enhanced, if not controlled, by more basic and subconscious sexual messages – pheromones. Maybe it wasn’t the gift after all.
If there could be said to be a common theme through all the pieces in the anthology it must be desire. The desire in Cat Sparks’ “The Jarrah Run” borders on obsession. Joe Gunner has fled from the city where his wife disappeared two years ago and now finds himself working on a rescue shuttle looking for a crashed aircraft. While Gunner does acknowledge that the craft’s missing pilot is not his wife, Sparks’ portrayal of his growing delusion and obsession to save “her” makes it hard to decide whether he believes that. Spark’s story is the most ‘complete’ story of the collection; Gunner’s personal actions are entwined in a larger story of corruption at the Jarrah Run, a very lucrative hardwood forestry operation.
A less attractive side of desire is presented with Paul Haines second piece, “Father Father”. Like “Mr Pussy” this story deals with prospective fatherhood, but it is a very different affair – shorter, more concise, and a lot darker. Michael is on enforced abstinence as part of an “assisted contraception” program, but without sexual release he finds it difficult to control certain desires. The climax (yes, almost literally) is well paced and the last line is ambiguous enough to be suitably icky, should you not give Michael the benefit of the doubt (I didn’t). Whilst a solid story, it does pale in comparison to “Mr Pussy”, lacking its intimacy and well rounded characters.
Desire flows into full on competition in “Honeymoon” by Adam Browne and John Dixon. Bob, a waiter at an unusual high-society function, pops a pill and finds himself joining a re-enactment of the great “Spore Wars”. Winner takes all (or at the very least the hand of Miss Nellie). The ensuing sperm-filled battle is moderately entertaining and filled with action, but on my part so forgettable that I could never remember what it was about unless I reread the first few pages. “Domestic Arrangement”, by Richard Harland, also suffered in some part from being ‘forgettable’. A straightforward detective story investigating the apparent homicide of Henry Schumann by his wife Margaret, the motivation of the killer, as the narrator say at the end is “totally weird”. I do wonder if the inscrutable nature of the motivation is enhanced because the POV is not that of the killer. However, I get the feeling that the killer wouldn’t have been able to explain it any better.
Violence is an inherent quality of ‘masculinity’ so it is unsurprising to find it represented. “Men bring fear to others rather than allow it to make them weak”. Robert Hood’s “Birth Mark” is set in the Intractable City, a far-future world where humans have shed their organic bodies and those emotions that bring instability to society. Birth, a spontaneous condensation of all human experience, is random, but regulated to ensure that chaotic forces remain discarnate. Thus “Birth Mark” is less about masculinity, but instead questions its place within a society that no longer needs hunters. But is such a society stable, and what would happen if a “hunter” finds a way to be born? Although at first difficult to conceptualise, Hood’s Intractable City does eventually find form.
Disjointed, grammatically incorrect, full of menacing euphemism, Jacinta Butterworth’s “Love Affair” is, to put it bluntly, freaking awesome. A boy is obsessed with a girl who is, in turn, obsessed with scoring her next hit. As the boy moves from adulation, to resignation, to desperation, his final resort to violence appears justified. But is he really saving her, or is that just how he sees it? Whilst lacking the finesse of “Mr Pussy”, or “Birth Mark”, “Love Affair” for me had both immediate and lasting impact, and I think demonstrates that following a traditional narrative framework is not always necessary.
While I think the unusual external dimensions and title work in c0ck’s favour, internally the text was crowded and I think the book could have benefited from more white space in the margins. This crowding was exacerbated by the unusual typeface used. Although perfectly legible, it did stand out as being ‘different’ to the norm and this meant I was sometimes more distracted by the shape of the words than words themselves. (It is a nice font, though). Nevertheless, at eleven stories, c0ck is a very good example of ‘it’s not the size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts’. Having now slogged my way through a number of anthologies for ASif!, most clocking in at 20 stories plus, I would much rather read a shorter, more selective anthology than one where it feels that some stories have just been added as filler While this doesn’t mean that each and every story in c0ck appealed to me, my overall impression remains very positive, and this is reflected in its DAMN Index of 72.7. Does it deliver on its aim of interrogating masculinity? I think the diversity of ideas presented amply demonstrates that there is not one male perspective. Interestingly, for me, some of the most rewarding stories were by the female authors. Has it made me question my own views of masculinity? This is hard to say, as it would require me to work out what they actually are. However, while the majority of pieces did use common aspects of masculinity (power, control, violence), there were certainly some ideas that took me by surprise…
All in all, I think c0ck can be rated as a gentle success, and hopefully represents the beginning of continued quality output from coeur de lion publishing. Personally, I’m looking forward to how some of the other themed anthologies, expected from the Australian small presses in the next 12 months, compare. I hope they will be aspleasurable as this bit of c0ck turned out to be. (I’ll stop with the puns now).