Review of The Vicious Red Relic, Love by Anna Joy Springer

Anna Joy Springer. The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir. Seattle, WA: Jaded Ibis Press, 2011. 202 pp. $18.00, paper.

Anna Joy Springer’s fantastical memoir, The Vicious Red Relic, Love, is a thickly layered exploration of love, lust, loss, and grief—and of the differing selves called into play as imperfect humans navigate desire. The beginning of the book lays out its improbable task: The primary narrator, Nina, is to create a guidebook for a creature she has fashioned to go back in time, to be with her first female lover, [Gil], as the lover commits suicide. The creature, named Winky in imaginary real time and Blinky in imaginary past time, must negotiate a series of enchanted forests, each offering different enticements, pleasures, and dangers. Associated with each forest is a document or set of documents through which Winky and the reader may piece together not only the lovers’ story but also its parallels in (a reimagined) ancient Sumerian literature, most notably the loss of a partner in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the netherworld sequence in Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld. (Though “Nina” may be seen as a derivative of “Inanna” and “[Gil]” as an abridgment of “Gilgamesh,” character correlations are fluid throughout the book.)

For all its lavish use of fable, The Vicious Red Relic also functions as a snapshot of 1990s San Francisco—specifically, of the world of a third-wave-feminist college student who is also a sex worker, punk-rock musician, and fledgling lesbian. Nina’s efforts to juggle these identities become ever more complicated as she enters into a love-and-sex relationship with [Gil], an archetypal Bad Girl—damaged, addicted, brilliant. Dazzled by [Gil’s] past as cult/abuse survivor, street thief, and prostitute, and by revelatory sex (“I felt like a muscular black-winged horse had flown out from between my thighs, then burst open like a star”), she attempts to fulfill her partner’s violent fantasies, learning in the process “that in my heart I could be anyone, even the ‘father,’ and that I owned nothing, nothing of me, not a damn thing.”

The Relic unfolds as a seeming miscellany of narrative shorts (some clearly fictional, others disturbingly realistic) punctuated by journal entries, class notes, poems, doodles, drawings, collages, and other “artifacts” that may or may not be historically authentic as memoir. The work is, in Barthes’s famed terminology, a writable text, one that flaunts its artifice and dares the reader to assemble its meanings, irreducibly plural. As such, it doesn’t lend itself to summary review. A conclusive understanding of [Gil], for example, is thwarted by (among other things) the character’s dissociative identity disorder, an irreducible plurality in itself. How much of her reported lethal past is “real,” and does it matter that we (and Nina and Winky and quite likely Anna Joy Springer) will never know?

And the author’s disregard for the “sanctity” of classic master works—Nina’s first reading of Gilgamesh is titled “How to Read the Ancient or Hackneyed”—reminds us that even what is carved in stone may prove to be writable, that foundational texts can be shown to have feet of clay. The extant official version of this work, dating from between 1300 and 1000 BCE, was selectively constructed from multiple stories, many of which survive on tablets and fragments of various origins. The earlier stories do not form a coherent narrative, and significant lacunae in both these and the sanctioned redaction invite significant editorial intervention. Springer’s radical rewrite is thus a revision of a revision of a revision for which there is no urtext. The official version of Gilgamesh is a forcibly unified myth in the service of ancient Mesopotamian kings—why shouldn’t a twenty-first-century queer feminist writer adapt/expand/transform it for her own aesthetic and political purposes? Why shouldn’t Inanna, who functions in Gilgamesh primarily as a narrative device (the petty, punishing bitch-goddess), be restored as epic hero, as the only deity who braves the realm of death and yet returns to the heavens?

The audacity of The Vicious Red Relic, Love is less a matter of intricate design and daring appropriation than of Anna Joy Springer’s willingness to acknowledge the book as memoir. The work is a study in pain, abjection, fear, betrayal, and devastating tragedy—familiar themes in feminist confessional writing—but the protagonist and her lover are at times cruel, indifferent, hateful, bored, funny, manipulative, and/or self-destructive, both within and without the theater of their BDSM. While Nina and [Gil] are clearly not documentation but representation, fictive enactors of “womanhood” through manifold (and sometimes startling) gender identities, their basis in real-world lovers makes for a kind of intimacy that not all readers will welcome. In this book of shattered boundaries, the line between public and private may be the most challenging to forego.

As must be clear from the above commentary, in many ways The Relic is a classically postmodern text, forsaking the idealizations of literary realism and moving between registers with disconcerting ease. If, as Lyotard has suggested, the postmodern aesthetic calls for presenting the unpresentable, this fable of impossible love and terrible death very nearly achieves that unattainable goal. But if a hallmark of postmodern literature is cool and ironic detachment, the play of surfaces without concern for depth, The Vicious Red Relic, Love defies categorization. Numerous reviewers have attested to its pathos, and Springer herself has described the work as intentionally emotive:
     A writer has to theatricalize, to teach a reader how to read this particular      book, to bring a reader into a psychic state, to work on the reader’s nervous      system, to pace the experience, to guide the reader but not overguide, to give      moments of crescendo, moments of rest.
Her aim is not merely to produce a tragic spectacle but to engage the mournful imagination—as prelude to critical reflection.

Through Springer’s commemorative art, we face the certain and irrevocable loss that shadows all human life. We are reminded that bereavement triggers more than individual sorrow, that the anticipation and experience of loss are intersubjective, socially shared. In this difficult book, sharing functions as an occasion not for sentimentality (Winky and Blinky notwithstanding) but for raising difficult questions. What do we think and feel in relation to death, and why? Do memorials heal us? Have they typically provided an artificial closure, a way of avoiding the presence of absence? In the performance of mourning, how do we speak of (and for) the lost person, the lost body? To what extent is human subjectivity a precipitate of lost attachments, physical and emotional? Despite multiple personae, do we share with the ancients a core experience of connection and sorrow? The Relic prompts us to consider how cultures have taught us to express—and to suppress—our love, our sexuality, our grief.

Janis Butler Holm lives in Athens, Ohio, where she has served as Associate Editor for Wide Angle, the film journal. Her prose, poems, and performance pieces have appeared in small-press, national, and international magazines. Her plays have been produced in the U.S., Canada, and England.