"I do not mean I perform-see my swiveling neck my changing mouth, arms that open wide-a tremendous pile of meat that sings 'I love you'-then I explode." People used to say that a poem should not mean, but be. Today, we might better say that a text should not mean, but perform. Dodie Bellamy's novel, The Letters of Mina Harker, is such a performative text. It's not what this book says that matters, so much as what it does. It dances its way through the minefields of female desire. It steps lightly from spot to spot, even as explosions detonate all around it. It cuts a swath through language and life alike, shattering identities wherever it goes. Warning: this text is dangerous, it bites.
On one level, The Letters of Mina Harker seems to be about certain events in Dodie Bellamy's life. The book speaks of her marriage to "KK." It narrates her tumultuous affairs with two other men, whom she calls Dion and Quincey. And it movingly memorializes Sam D'Allesandro, her close friend, now dead of AIDS. All of Dodie's relationships are described in intimate, sometimes embarrassing, detail. No secret is too private to reveal, no event too trivial to recount, no emotion too fleeting to be analyzed in depth. Most of all, the book is about Dodie's sex life. It feels as if every erotic fantasy, every twinge of jealously, every last orgasm, has been transcribed into the word processor and pinned down on the page. And the realistic vividness of all these happenings is only enhanced by the fact that they are set against the background of everyday life: domestic chores, art world gossip, and recognizable scenes from San Francisco during the Eighties.
Yet despite all this, The Letters of Mina Harker is not a confessional text. Even if the facts it recounts are true (which may or may not be the case), it isn't an autobiography. This is because The Letters of Mina Harker is, above all, a book of and about writing. It's a verbal performance, not a series of revelations. In this postmodern reinvention of the epistolary novel, the story itself is relegated to the past. The present tense of the book is the time in which its letters are written. These letters are addressed to the Reader, to the dead Sam D'Allesandro, and to other lovers and friends, fictive or real. Unlike in traditional epistolary novels, these letters can never receive replies. They are rather like messages in bottles, urgent communications sent out with no hope of return.
The only thing truly present in this text is a voice; or better, a pair of hands typing. The novel's main character is not Dodie Bellamy, the woman to whom all these things happened. Rather, it is the narrator, Mina Harker, the one who actually signs and sends the letters. Mina is a ferocious vampire woman, the undead companion of Count Dracula. She is not Bram Stoker's compromised Victorian heroine, but a fiercer, harsher, more independent figure. Mina haunts Dodie, possesses her body, takes her outside of herself. For writing, like falling in love, is like falling prey to a vampire. The person who yearns, like the person who writes, is taken over by an alien entity. She finds herself acting in all sorts of ridiculous, dangerous ways. She finds herself saying things she does not mean. The writer, like the lover, is a vessel for outside forces, a host for a ghostly parasite, an echo chamber for voices of the dead.
The aim of confessional writing is to achieve an absolute transparency: to get through the words, and arrive at life itself. But Dodie Bellamy knows that this is an impossible task. Life and writing can never coincide. Each thrusts repeatedly against the other, without success. At best they may trade places, as in a perpetual dance. "Writing versus life-is the one flight, the other hot pursuit?" The body cannot be spoken in its entirety. Sex is forever beyond language, or before it: "my cunt has lips but no tongue it clenches dilates and drools but will never speak." To write about something is necessarily to transform it: to distort it or embellish it, but in any case to lose it. Experience is always being exchanged for words, and body parts for parts of speech: "there's metaphor on one side and literality on the other and I'm stuck between them two mountainous silicone tits crashing against one another." Speech is a huge and cumbersome prosthetic organ. Even if it's bigger and heavier than whatever it replaces, we can't help noticing how phony it looks and feels.
But of course prosthetics also have their own pleasures and rewards. Language, like a cheap horror film, is moving and scary not in spite of its fakeness, but precisely because of it. No wonder the novel is littered with lurid, hilarious descriptions of horror films seen on VCR or on late-night cable. Dodie (or is it Mina?) see herself as Jennifer Jason Leigh being torn apart in The Hitchhiker, and as Drew Barrymore playing the teenage slut in No Place to Hide. And yes, I admit it: this grotesque, artificial heightening is what really lures me into The Letters of Mina Harker. I'm seduced and intoxicated by the novel's viscous prose. This language never sits still on the page. It gestures, it screams, it sings; it ties itself into knots. It squirms all about like a living thing, dense and squishy and gelatinous. The novel is filled with metaphors stretched well beyond the breaking point. It crackles with epigrams, anagrams, and brilliant throwaway aperçus. And it's loaded with distorted, rewritten citations of texts both famous and obscure (including--conflict of interest warning--one from a book of mine). The Letters of Mina Harker is hot and cold, immediate and distant, passionate and ironic, all at once. In the way she calls forth the myriad pleasures of sex and texts, both high and low, Dodie Bellamy may well be America's answer to Roland Barthes. I can say of her book what she (or Mina) says of one of her lovers: "I may not have liked what he did but he made me feel alive, overburdened with random meaning."