History-bound and social beings that we are, we are always constructing our identities. (May I open you to Jane Rule's new novel with such a ploy?) During the 18th and 19th centuries, various Europeans and North Americans constructed a range of identities that they came to label "homosexual." During our century, the "lesbian" and the "gay" identities have been formed. New homosexuals, new lesbians and new gays come into being every day. That odd notion of one-in-ten-no- matter-where-no-matter-when is a construct that met the needs of a 1950s male homosexual identity, but it is a fiction with no more universal validity than that of the homo male as limp-wristed, or that of the dyke as man-shouldered.
Likewise for our arts. Those special constructs that we, in our time and place, label "art" have varying relations to the historical and social identities we create. Take Jane Rule. Her first two novels centred on women-loving-women in tight personal relationships. Her subsequent two novels turned to communes of characters which included lesbians alongside a black faggot here, a moron there, grandmother types, babies and heterosexual lovers. Rule's early constructs of lesbian identity, that is, were based on personal emotion; her subsequent ones were based on microcosmic societies mixing lesbian pairs in among other kinds. She has yet to engage a community of lesbians in which lesbian identity is constructed as part of a separatist setting.
Her fifth novel, Contract with the World, continues to construct lesbian identity with reference to a mixed group, though these identities are more diverse than in earlier novels: Roxanne is a thorough-going lesbian-feminist: Alma is a married mother having a significant lesbian affair: Carlotta is an independent woman who sleeps, once, with Roxanne. But the main difference between Contract and Rule's previous two novels is that it studies the artistic identities of women. All three of these main women characters are artists. The interplay of their sexual identities with their artistic identities is Contract's subject.
lf, then, you seek another Rubyfruit Jungle or Nights in the Underground, with constructs of lesbian identity predominantly involving women's emotional relationships to other women, ignore Contract. Karla Jay has already suggested, in Gay Community News, that Rule might "lose" her lesbian audience with this book. Jay might have said the same about Rule's last two; for Jay, the "lesbian audience" seeks only books in which lesbians predominate. But if you're interested in how women's sexual identity might interact with their artistic identity in ways that evoke but surpass Woolf's Lily Briscoe or Cather's Thea Kronborg — then, reader, read it. Today.
The terms of the Contract: six characters, three women and three men, all artists, somehow conceive of themselves as a group even though they assemble only twice. Near the beginning of the, novel they come together for Alma's thirtieth birthday party — in a year when they all turn thirty — and at the end they come together for Carlotta's show exhibiting the portraits she has painted of them all, five years later. All six are passing through the first half of the "terrible decade."
They do so together because Joseph (an "artist in bed," his wife says) visits them a lot in the first chapter and from the second through to the last, Carlotta paints them all, but mostly because Rule spins a narrative web that binds them together in our minds. As spinster-spider Rule is thus close to Carlotta, who tells Alma that "the myth for women is Arachne and Athena." Arachne, the consummate spinner and weaver, informs this book from Alma, the spider-woman/mother, through Carlotta, whose namesake may be E B White"s famous spider Charlotte. (See Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology for more about spinsters as spiders.)
Rule spins out so many connections that almost nothing appears without an echo elsewhere. She constructs her characters by having them mirror each other repeatedly. "Why do you paint?" Alma asks Carlotta at her easel. "To say, 'See, we exist,'" Carlotta replies, adding, "It seems a lot of work when any mirror has the same message." But a mirror, Alma retorts as Rule herself might "doesn't say it matters."
"We all have our contracts with the world," Carlotta says later, and the novel carefully examines the dialectics of sexuality and art within these contracts. Straight Mike Trasco's art, Alma writes, "is like Mike's sort of sex, an attack against foreign material." When he abandons his manifestos and hardware for making money, one of his sculptures, intended to redeem art from usefulness, becomes a useful climbing toy for the children to play on.
With an energy and innocence devoid of theoretical justifications, Roxanne constructs a sound map of Vancouver, which she wonderfully calls "Mother Tongue," while living with the novel's loving mother, Alma. But then she goes off to LA, where she contracts both a new lover and a discursive jargon.
Alma's art is largely mothering, which she can do lusciously despite her shell of respectability and man-clinging. But for a while she writes — beautifully. Of Roxanne, she can say, "I understand why the clitoris is called a pearl, hidden in oystery frills. I am inside her one of the instruments of her song; also, she is the instrument I play, music a faint imitation or memory of the staccato tonguing, accurate fingering, long bowing that makes her body into song."
Carlotta's art undergoes the most dramatic transformations. At first, she is the solipsistic painter of her own bones. Then, she paints her friends out of envy of them — art gives her the illusion of possessing what she lacks in herself and admires in them. But in her thirty-sixth year, just before rednecks douse these portraits with red paint, she anticipates another change: "She would invent the images she had so far only been able to take from life."
Contract plays these constructs off against each other in a webbing and mirroring that says, indeed, "it matters." But the webbing is so thorough, the patterning so blithe, that no loneliness, terror, darkness, or bad dreams are allowed to introduce jaggedness and mystery into these lives. Knitting while Carlotta paints her, Joseph's wife Ann inadvertently offers a definition of art: a lot of energy and agitation under control. Rule brings them under so much control that they may not adequately confront the unruliness that we may experience, in our space and time, constructing ourselves.
Allen Dent, the sixth of these artists, comes closest to ripping apart the close-ruled web. When he is arrested at a Toronto party and brought out in the newspapers, and soon thereafter learns of his boy-wife's suicide, his response is a vengeful coming out, burning with the energy that only anger can give. Karla Jay has jeered that, because of Dent, Rule will become a pin-up of the North American Man Boy Love Association. But this is to misread Contract as much as Jay does when she says that Pierre kills himself upon hearing of Allen's arrest. Rule gives us an intractable portrait of a man whose slick craft is transformed into art through anger, hardly a soothing model for anyone. But the destructive construct that is "Allen Dent" illuminates, unforgettably, the interplay of sexual and artistic identities — our contracts, the liveliest ones, with the world.