Unmastered aims, if Penguin’s blurb is to be believed, to be ‘a new kind of book that allows us to think afresh about desire.’ Given that writers have been teasing out and turning over concepts of desire since thought was first committed to papyrus, this is quite a claim for any book. Katherine Angel should, however, know her stuff: in her day job as an academic she researches sexual history, female sexual dysfunction as traced through the ever-controversial DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders), and takes a healthy interest in feminism and gender studies while doing so. Considering this bookish backdrop of cultural history and contemporary theory, the reader may fairly expect to be faced with a heavy and dry tome. It is therefore pleasing to discover that Angel’s book is light and rhythmic as she writhes through the tangled net of influences which grab at us as we try to define our desires, although it is perhaps not as original as the manifold influences it intimates.
I mention Angel’s academic credentials because they shape her understanding of her ‘self’, or the persona unveiled in Unmastered, and mould the form and content of the book. She toys with questions about the possibility of forming one’s beliefs and shaping one’s desires in the white noise of modern (or postmodern) life. This confusing mess of opinion assaults the reader before we so much as open the book: the subtitle, ‘A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell’, contains whispers of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, as Angel lets us know in the T. S. Eliot-esque endnotes to the work. Like Eliot, Angel allows the culture – popular, academic and artistic – which defines her flood her work. Observations on the expectation of female selflessness from Susie Orbach jostle with glanced-at lyrics from The Smiths or Kate Bush; feminist icons sit uneasily alongside remembered stills from pornography; formal techniques mirror Virginia Woolf as seemingly banal moments of everyday life recur and gain unexpected meaning.
Tension arises as the overlapping, conflicting and disruptive voices which swirl through the modern world clash with Angel’s need to mould her own conception of desire, which seems fragile in relief with the thunderous noise around her. The anxiety driving the book is voiced when Angel asks what it is ‘to define, or even to know our desires – to identify which are our own, and which result from a kind of porousness?’ This ‘porousness’ encompasses both a consensual and non-consensual penetration of ideas into the self, creating a perceived ‘ought’ (what one ought to be feeling, believing, desiring, saying when talking dirty, etc) with which one’s independent desires are ill at ease. Sympathy for the ideas of feminist icons such as Shere Hite nestle uneasily alongside Angel’s desire for and enjoyment of men. She observes her reaction against the grain of a room moving into agreement Hite:
Gradually, the starkness of her vision – supported by murmuring around me – becomes clear: penetrative sex is unpleasurable, and demeaning. Women, she says, should abandon sex with men, and instead focus on their clitoral pleasure. There is clapping, and there are whooping sounds. I want to growl, in defence of the men who, because they responded to me, because they loved me and wanted me, gave me so much pleasure…
This contrasts with the equally uneasy flip-side of the coin (‘Cosmo urges us to do it. Countless sexperts, and even the NHS, tells us to do it. It’s the mark of liberated modern lovers’) to confuse Angel’s perception of where her feelings lie. To read another woman admit to being ill at ease with the myriad extremities of opinion about what one ought and what one ought not to be doing or wanting within the intensely private sphere of sex is comforting. However, it is not terribly original. The worries Angel ponders can be found in the works of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Janice Galloway, Anaїs Nin, Angela Carter and myriad others, but are explored with greater care and have a depth of consequences within the fabric of the work.
Stylistically, the book does not give itself space to broaden its ideas on these subjects, content as it is to leave literal space in which the reader can muse, feel and make notes instead. The pages given over to single lines (‘Am I pornography?’, ‘Whose side are you on?’) are overused and often contain lines which are not weighted with meaning enough to sustain their existence in a sea of white page. Having said this, Angel writes with honesty and with intelligence, and more than once gives words to vague thoughts which float through the mind. It cannot be an entirely bad thing that by the end of the book you are curious to read another by Angel with less space for the reader to fill in the gaps, and more development of her own thoughts.
Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell
Available 6th September 2012