Sex in the Slaughterhouse: Sexual Repression and Meat in Sydney Bridge Upside Down

Posted by Timothy Jones on May 09, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , , ,

By Edith Paton

In Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature, Kai Jensen asserts that ‘The male body seems a straightforward physical entity, yet literature may filter perceptions even here. Size, strength and […] sexual vigour tend to be attributes of the ideal New Zealand man’ and ‘[b]oys are said to feel social pressure to enlarge and strengthen their bodies.’ [1]  This understanding of New Zealand masculinity and how it is conflated with the physical body is crucial to Ballantyne’s novel.  A novel not only concerned with sexual maturation and masculinity, but with a town whose central landmark is an abandoned slaughterhouse: a place where ‘body’ becomes ‘meat’.

‘The slaughterhouse is the perfect contemporary gothic setting because it deals in the futility and vulnerability of the flesh, as well as in the expendability of bodies.’[2]  Xavier Reyes establishes that the slaughterhouse in the Gothic novel is not just concerned with conflating human and animal, but also subject and object.[3]  As a structure on the outskirts of town the works becomes the perfect killing-ground for Harry, removing his victims from a social environment in which they are humanised and relatable, to a space in which the body becomes a disposable and expendable object.  This is the only environment in which Harry is able to assert dominance as it is shown throughout the novel that his masculinity is threatened by older or physically superior men. ‘I did not want to talk to her, or to anybody. I had been like this since dinner, since Dad had started talking.’[4]  He is also unable to speak within the domestic space of the house when it is invaded by Mr Wiggins,[5] instead leading him to the works, the only place he is able to ‘perform’ as a dominant male.

The slaughterhouse’s labyrinthine structure permeates the narrative, a significant parallel as Harry attempts to navigate repressions in the narration regarding fear, sexual desire, and adolescent maturation. The works operate simultaneously as a place of death, sexual activity and childhood playfulness.  So how does the slaughterhouse work as a symbol for the repression of fear and desire? And how can we use this symbol to identify a point of encryption for these repressions?  I answer these questions first through the use of acoustics in the novel.

In Sydney Bridge Upside Down acoustics work as a device through which the unspoken can be recognised and meaning can be uncovered. The only sounds of death within the walls of the works are in the echoes of past slaughtered animals.  The substitution of human death-cries for that of animal not only accentuates the primal violence enacted by men upon ‘lesser’ creatures, but highlights the narrator’s inability to confront or convey the violence he enacts as a result of his fractured sense of subjective masculine identity.  Acoustics are also used to imply a repression of his mother’s affair as he reports often hearing the sounds of his mother crying in the house[6] which the reader comes to understand could be the sounds of sex.

Harry’s introduction of Mr Wiggins as the town butcher provides a thinly veiled understanding of him as the town womaniser, [7] conflating meat with sex, and sex with violence.  Harry describes Wiggins as ‘one of those powerful fellows who killed animals with sledgehammers.’ [8]  Wiggins, then, is symbolic of a threat to Harry’s feelings of physical and sexual inadequacy.  Language also functions in the novel as a means of repressing trauma.  As Caroline reads to Harry about Uncle Pember his dialogue often regresses to ‘mumble mumble mumble,’[9] which functions as an implication that Caroline has repressed her own memories of abuse.  This is reinforced through her recollection of his appearance as a caricature of a sexual predator, ‘“[h]e had a big black beard and a black cloak, and he wore dark glasses’ and she recalls urinating in his presence.[10]  This scene once more employs the narrative device of elision as Harry’s trauma upon understanding the implications of the story is interrupted and he recalls his distress ‘I turned from her, but I had not been able to stop the choking sound, I could not stop the tears […] I go now to the morning of the day before.’[11]  The elision is also significant of Harry’s compulsion to repress memories which construe Caroline’s behaviour towards him as abusive.  In a dreamlike-sequence he refers to an incident where she sexually assaults him:

Do you want to grab my hand and do what you did when we were running the other morning? You know, when you held it down there between your legs and wouldn’t let me take it away.[12]

In these sequences Harry’s repressed fears are given form, and ‘truth’, memory and fantasy are intermingled. The incident is conveyed here instead of in the main narrative which belies an overwhelming anxiety regarding her actions.

Harry’s fears of his own sexual inadequacy can be seen in his rejection of Caroline’s sexual advances, a deviant sexual aggression widely ignored or wilfully-misunderstood throughout the main narrative. Once more the works act as a space of repression but also of revelation.  The secret chamber in which he sees Caroline and Buster having sex becomes a space in which he questions what it means to be a man:

[a] body stretched on a table and a man with a knife bending over it […] chuckling as he sticks it in […] killers playing cards […] a battle between an angry animal and some killers […] something sweet, like men who are not strong enough to be killers making sausages […] making skirts of them[13]

The crypt in which the origin of his trauma is hidden is the space in which he conflates all of his anxieties regarding sexuality with that trauma: physical male strength and violence; the male ability to penetrate; male feminization. He is unable to look inside, fearful of facing the moment of loss which is here prophesised, ‘no animal has a chance in there, this is where it must end.’[14]  It is where Harry is forced to witness the autonomous sexual desire of his cousin whose promiscuous nature he had previously denied in order to feed his delusion that women can only be passive sexual victims.  This delusion is maintained in order to repress the knowledge of the sexual agency of women, including his adulterous mother, and therefore deny his inadequacies as a male who is unable to fulfil their sexual desires.

In my next post I will explore Ballantyne’s novel within the broader context of New Zealand literature. I explore the cultural environment which allows for a repression of the violent past, focusing specifically on national perception and literary representations and understandings of ‘Small Town’ New Zealand.

 

Bibliography

Ballantyne, David, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2010)

Jensen, Kai, Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996)

Reyes, Xavier, Aldana, ‘The Slaughterhouse Novel’, Body Gothic, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014) pp. 97-121

[1] Jensen, K., Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996) p. 24

[2] Reyes, X., ‘The Slaughterhouse Novel’, Body Gothic, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014) p.100

[3] Reyes, p. 102

[4] Ballantyne, p. 37

[5] Ballantyne, p. 212

[6] Ballantyne, p. 3

[7] Ballantyne, p. 42

[8] Ballantyne, p. 15

[9] Ballantyne, p. 111

[10] Ballantyne, p. 112

[11] Ballantyne, p. 112

[12] Ballantyne, p. 104

[13] Ballantyne, p. 101

[14] Ballantyne, p. 101

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