A Book, a Playlist: Steeplechase
Steeplechase, a novel by Brisbane-based writer Krissy Kneen, explores the relationships between many things: between sisters Bec and Emily, between art and madness, and between the past and present. Bec, a painter and tertiary art teacher living in Brisbane, receives a phone call from her estranged sister Emily while recovering from surgery. Emily, an acclaimed artist and now living in Beijing, invites Bec to visit her for the opening of a new show. With this, Bec is confronted by an awful past, some great and terrible event during their isolated childhood in rural Queensland that drove the two sisters apart.
In this way, Kneen engages the past and present in a kind of dialectical synthesis: alternating chapters set in the then and the now, alternating narrators between Bec as a child and as an adult, and drawing parallels between these two threads until they unravel and clash in a heady, powerful climax. Within this, Kneen’s realisation of the complex exchange between the past and present is subtle but well-rendered. For Steeplechase’s epigraph, Kneen quotes Humbert Humbert of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:
I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?
This passage, interestingly from a text charged with the complexity of sexuality, foreshadows the relationship between past and present that Steeplechase explores. For Bec, the past is simultaneously finite and ephemeral. It haunts the present, but is subjective and penetrable. Kneen seems to argue that reality and the historical real are slippery, influenced by Bec and Emily’s restrictive upbringing and their experiences with mental illness. The mother of Bec and Emily, rendered low-functioning by mental illness, walks around their childhood home as if a ghost, a manifestation of some traumatic unknown past. Actuality and lived experience in Steeplechase are hard to grasp, both for its characters and its reader.
However, for a text that has been touted by its publisher as “non-erotic”, Steeplechase certainly doesn’t avoid considerations of sexuality. Sex and the erotic, rather, appear in Steeplechase as they do in much of Kneen’s previous erotic writing: not just as mere titillation performed by objects, but instead as something primordial and innately human. Through visceral descriptions Kneen gives a great sense of her characters’ corporeality, but each body seems to move with a sunken edge of sexuality. Much of Bec and Emily’s artwork is described as depictions of humans morphing into animals, being consumed by flames. The carnality of flesh in Kneen’s writing echoes on from her work in sexual memoir and erotica. While sex is not at the centre of Steeplechase, it is ever-present. Like its epigraph from Nabokov, sexuality and the body in Steeplechase are also implicit in anxiety and reverberations of the past. When Bec, and her romantic interest—one of her students, John—begin to have sex, Bec thinks she is “a pale substitute for the intensity of flesh and fire that he so admires in my sister’s work.” She worries she smells oceanic and of “seaweed caked with salt” where her sister smells of “candy apple and fresh baked bread.” As early teenagers, Bec and Emily’s burgeoning sexualities are subsumed by their oppressive Oma and the onset of Emily’s mental illness. Sex is not only of the body, but aims to characterise the body in Kneen’s writing.
Like Lolita for Humbert, or the “terrible thing” that pushes Bec and Emily apart to then pull them back together, a corporeal eroticism echoes throughout Steeplechase as a past haunting the present. However in this new work the lyrical eros of Kneen’s writing past not only reverberates, but sings. For this playlist, then, I’ve looked for songs that I think sound like haunting: nine songs that mix sparsity and dark gentle quiet with surges of energy, that feel like both the past and the present at the same time.