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A black book cover featuring the title Maul in white letters descending vertically and a bright red lipstick fully extended from its shiny, silver base

Tricia Sullivan's "Maul" tells two stories: one about a group of teenage girls who, at the beginning of the novel, are on their way to a charged encounter at the shopping 'maul'; another about a man named Meniscus who is a captive subject, part of a scientific study, in what appears to be a separate world where women control all the power. The narrative swaps between the two stories, strictly alternating every other chapter, and as often happens when I read very structured alternating narratives I ended up wishing one story would get out of the way because I preferred the other. The story of three girls (Sun the protagonist and her two friends) trying to make it out of their local maul alive was the story that left me whining when it dropped out to make way for Meniscus. Mostly, I was at a total loss for how to interpret the set of chapters that showed his world and would have taken five more gun battles in their place if I'd been offered them.

In her review of "Maul", at Eve's Alexandria, Nic Clarke mentions that in the chapters which follow Meniscus and the female scientists, like Madeleine Baldino:

'…Sullivan is making important, challenging points using parody. Sheri S Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, mentioned in Sullivan's acknowledgements, is undoubtedly being interrogated here, with its gender-segregated society and secret women-led programme to selectively breed the violence out of mankind.'

As I haven't read "The Gate to Women's Country", I think I was pretty much doomed to misunderstand this part of "Maul". Parody relies on an audience's familiarity with an attitude, argument or specific source for its effect; once the audience recognises the source they can start to work out how the parody is poking fun at it. When the audience isn't familiar with what is being criticised by the parody they have no frame of reference and confusion can run amok. And no one likes to miss the joke.

I just didn't have the context to understand everything that Sullivan was trying to do in this novel. Worse, without that context it sometimes seemed to me that "Maul" was reinforcing the need for men to conform to traditional masculine shapes.Carerra, the dude Maddie is salivating over, displays a violent, crude streak which seems to be precisely what gets all the women going. "Maul" also seems to push the inevitability of all women, no matter their sexual orientation, being desperate for a “real” man to fuck them. There are an awful lot of lesbians in this novel who are, as Nic says, 'crazy for the cock'; in fact the whole reproductive part of their society seems to involve venerating the cock even as it strips other power from men — making captive, breeding men into superstars who are watched avidly by all. If "Maul" was written by a man I'd probably be rather cruel and say this element of the novel looked like regressive wish fulfilment justified by a deliberate misunderstanding of feminism 101. Read all about it, ditch civilisation, boys — behaving badly brings all the lesbians to your yard. Women need men to take the power or they'll become bloody DICTATORS, I tell you!

However, as Sullivan isn't a man and other reviewers, like Nic, think her novel is interrogating other feminist texts, I assume she's doing something I just can't catch. That's on me, but unfortunately, I have no way to untangle how much of the novel seems weird because of my lack of knowledge and how much comes out of, as Sullivan says, 'things I messed up about the non-binary nature of gender'. At least, I have no way of pulling that apart until I read "The Gate to Women's Country" (which to be honest I am less than excited about). My lack of useful context isn't the book's fault, but it does mean that I can't safely analyse Meniscus' storyline without potentially criticising "Maul" for problems it doesn't actually contain.

Instead, I'll talk about the other narrative line in "Maul", which I think I have a better handle on. This line follows Sun, a Korean teenager, and her two friends, who end up involved in a violent gang shootout in the local maul. Sun is a discontented female character caught up in a society that encourages women to satisfy themselves by dulling the edges with consumerism; offering them no real opportunity for escape but creating a mirage of agency. Don't believe the adverts and take care of your soul while you shop seems to be the general gist behind Sun's journey.

Sun, her friends, and other girls try to reassert their power by carrying guns and making political statements through bullit-videos, but they still gravitate to the maul where they are easily distracted by the displays they're told to focus on. Their response to life on this particular day swings between aggressive attacks, which seem to be partly triggered by frustration and an incomplete understanding of how to revolt against lives that offer nothing real, and a mesmerised attraction that leads them to believe the maul and its contents can give them real consequence. The way these girls are physically trapped in the maul, surrounded by police, and the violent way they react, underscores the theme of entrapment and shows the ways that people try to escape the cages life makes for them. Violence is a source of power when you have no other outlet for your dissatisfaction and so, unlikely as it may seem, is shopping. Is one source of power more real than the other, or are they both illusions that the disenfranchised take for lack of other options? I think that question is at the core of Sun's storyline.

At the beginning of the novel, Sun narrates a teasing, sexual scene which she eventually reveals is between her and her new gun, not her vibrator as the reader may initially think. Nearly every review mentions this scene and I can see why. Masturbating with a weapon is a shocking, tantalising, unusual image in the mainstream publishing world, although in other circles it's probably become quite ordinary. Sun's gun makes her come in these opening pages, and gives her great satisfaction. It stands as a symbol for female sexual empowerment; Sun satisfies herself with the gun rather than having a male partner bring her off with it. As I said, the girls in Sun's culture routinely carry guns, and this, alongside Sun's sex act with a weapon, implies, by the rules of our violence obsessed media culture, that the girls of Sun's world have power.

However, as hot as Sun is for her gun, for its solidity and ability to make her come, carrying weapons does not automatically grant these girls the confidence and power which guns often seem to convey on male characters of our world - for example Bond. Sun still internally berates herself about her looks and sexual appeal despite the fact that she could potentially shoot the people who set up toxic beauty standards. Girls in her culture often carry weapons 'for fashion' rather than for purpose. When Sun's association with violence seems to attract the boy she's been pining for, as Bond's association with guns and action implicitly appears to attract women, that attraction does not guarantee her the same kind of automatic sexual satisfaction that makes Bond constantly look like the smuggest cat who got the cream. She may have the gun, but she also lacks societal power, something which carrying a weapon apparently cannot transfer on to her and which the maul keeps robbing her of with it insistence that power is to be found in its shops.

At the same time Sun still has the gun, and I would argue that the satisfaction she finds in the sexual encounter with it sets up two conflicting ideas about women, weapons and violence — weapons and violence as satisfying tools that women can use to free themselves from an oppressive society, and the troubling image of women needing to use weapons and violence as replacements for other forms of power (like the ability to say 'fuck me better'). The gun takes on an obviously phallic form as Sun describes using it inside herself, and I wondered, as I read, if "Maul" was providing the girls with guns to equip them with the automatic phallic societal power they miss out on by not being men. And if the narrative is using the gun as a symbol of phallic power, does that make Sun's gun such an empowering symbol of sexual freedom after all? Can the women in her world forge their own power and their own sexuality without taking on the trappings of men? Or, if they try to make an exclusively female power, are they doomed to become megalomaniacs, who perpetuate a system of injustice and inequality that looks just like the patriarchy, as the women in Meniscus' world have?

In Sun's world there are pros and cons to using cock symbol guns to get where you want to be. Sun begins to feel her way to freedom when she alienates herself from regular society through extreme violence; when she ends up shooting in the "Maul" she becomes more confident, starts to drop more and more into thoughts about the problems of consumerism, and she has previously found sexual satisfaction with her gun while the boy she loses her virginity to in the maul is totally uninterested in bringing her off. Through violence and gun play, Sun creates new power for herself which eventually leads to her escaping the maul and becoming more connected to nature — riding away on a motorbike exposed to the elements and ending up eye to eye with a wolf she can wish on. These are the positives, but taking part in violence also makes Sun afraid; she kills people, which she feels sick about after it happens. Her gun doesn't give her the easy passage and the dead, selective conscience of your regular male spy or action hero character. And in the end, she chooses to put the safety back on the gun, walk up to the police, and use her 'nicest smile' even though 'it was like pulling the trigger' on herself. I have absolutely no idea what that means for Sun's future or how she'll liberate herself from the frustrating oppression of the consumerism that grinds her life down. She loves the world briefly at the end of the novel, and maybe that means she'll find a way without guns.

Being so interested in Sun means I find it frustrating to be left wondering, at the end of the novel, whether Sun's life and her future, even matters. See, there's a strong suggestion that Sun's whole world is just a virtual reality game controlled by Meniscus. When Meniscus is stressed he retreats into Mall, a game linked to his consciousness — I think we can all see the connection between maul and Mall. As the novel goes on, he learns he can control and shape Mall. Bits of Meniscus' world, reconfigured into symbols, objects and people, start to turn up in Sun's maul with increasing frequency as the novel progresses. And if I went back and re-read "Maul" I'm sure I'd find more of these elements leaching into Sun's storyline from the very beginning of the novel. "Maul" is certainly a novel that enjoys a clever pun. Over at Eve's Alexandria, Nic says there's some doubt about whether the girls are just a simulation in Meniscus' head. I'm going to run with that little bit of hope because it would be a terrible waste if, after all her struggle, Sun were definitively just a fantasy or a coping strategy brought up by a male mind. By the end of the novel, she's too vibrant and full of promise to be consigned to that fate, and any absolute clarification of this idea would have left me howling. I think, at the end of "Maul", I feel much like Jeanne did after she finished reading "Liar"; if I were to believe Sun's reality was an illusion then the whole story would become 'not worth telling', something I couldn't care about. As Sun says, 'We are all made of stars', and in the end, if the book has to force a choice, I'd rather Sun burned as long as our own solar star and Meniscus' world had faded away light years ago.

Other Reviews

Eve's Alexandria
Read Irresponsibly

Supplemental Materials

Maul: What is Reality?
Maul: "the new face of feminist SF"
Maul: product placement


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