“Was it the bourbon or the dye fumes that made the pink walls quiver like vaginal lips?” so begins Darcey Steinke’s “sensational” second novel, Suicide Blonde. I put the word “sensational” in quotation marks because a host of similar adjectives (“shocking,” “daring,” “scandalous,” and so on) greeted the novel at its publication in 1992. This may have given the book a well-deserved public velocity, but insofar as such adjectives also reflect the prudishness and insularity of many reviewers and readers, it also ran—and to some extent still runs—the risk of occluding some of the novel’s truest achievements, all of which are on display, in miniature, in its unforgettable opening sentence.
The swirl of bourbon, blonde hair dye, and vaginal lips is audacious, sure, but it’s also funny, and evidences a fairly rare and delightful phenomenon I might call feminist camp. Feminist camp—which can be practiced by persons of any gender (see John Waters, who regularly identifies as a radical feminist)—doesn’t waste time exhibiting its feminist credentials. It simply moves with invention and forcefulness into a new field, one which both belongs to a canon of outlaw writers (Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, Alexander Trocchi, William S. Burroughs, et cetera.), while also creating new ground to stand on (Kathy Acker, Leslie Dick, Virginie Despentes, and more). Suicide Blonde belongs to both of these traditions, as well as to other notable subsets, including noir, queer lit of the eighties and nineties (Michelle Tea, Leslie Feinberg, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles), classic twentieth-century fiction featuring itinerant, urbane women experimenting with dissolution and desire (Jean Rhys, Iris Owens, Renata Adler, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith), maybe even erotica (Steinke remains one of the few writers I know whose writing about sex manages to be both literary and hot). Read More