Arousing journey leads to a hot mess
The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine By Krissy Kneen Text Publishing, 288pp, $29.99 The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine is — and I think Krissy Kneen would appreciate the term — something of a hot mess of a book. Like much of Kneen’s work, it is a strange hybrid, a joyful and ambitious mix of science fiction, coming-of-age, adventure story, literary fiction and, of course, erotica. It revels unselfconsciously in bringing these different elements together and is always playful and quirky, but the book never quite finds its balance and is uneven as a result.
The first section of the book is by far the strongest. Here we are introduced to Holly White, a gentle and beautiful young woman who, along with her three best friends, wears an abstinence ring engraved with the words “True love waits”. Holly lives with her parents and is vaguely infantilised by both them and her boyfriend; she hides the literature she likes to read within the covers of women’s magazines, so that her friends don’t catch her out.
Holly also happens to have, as we discover in the opening chapters, a glow-in-the-dark vagina. More specifically, she emits a phosphor-
May 16-17, 2015 escence from her nether regions when she is aroused. This kind of kookiness is Kneen’s special territory, and Holly’s reactions to her own strange power are pitch-perfect — funny, poignant and absurd by turns.
Kneen’s depiction of Holly is always skilful. Even though Holly’s life, at first, revolves largely around clothes, grooming and chaste parties, she is not simple or superficial, and Kneen’s portrayal of her is never mocking or unsympathetic. Holly is genuine and good-natured, but she is also a keen and funny observer — and this is delightfully evident when she attends her first lecture in her literature class, alongside bookish students she sees as ‘‘furiously intelligent, belligerently unstylish aliens’’ with ‘‘skin dry and crisp like paper spilling from the press’’.
It is under the auspices of one of these literature student aliens that Holly’s adventures really begin, when she unknowingly joins an erotic literature book club and begins to read about the kinds of experiences she has so far been denying herself. Indeed, these ‘‘erotic classics’’ inform not only Holly’s journey but also the structure of the book — each of Kneen’s chapters takes its title from a work of erotic literature, and draws on it as it unfolds. At times, this is as simple as a shared character’s name or a place; often it is more subtle — the chapter named for Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, for example, focuses briefly on Holly’s gold sandals — or playful, such as the chapter Eat Me, which delights in eroticising food. These allusions are one of the joys of this novel, and the conceit is one of the more successful results of Kneen’s mixing of genres.
The main problem with The Adventure of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine, however, is that it fails to live up to the promise of its establishing chapters. Holly’s early experiences of voyeuristic but necessarily chaste desire are incredibly sensual — and sexy — filled with longing and imagination and a highly attuned register of textures and scents in particular (one character smells of ‘‘cinnamon, cloves and … a rich wild trufflish musk like the den of a fox’’, another of ‘‘earth, wet leaves … spiced wine and fermented fruit’’.) More important, they are balanced by the developing plot and a series of interesting secondary characters, as well as an intriguing narrative about an obscure and renegade scientist’s experiments into ‘‘orgone energy’’.
But as the novel progresses and Holly leaves
Krissy Kneen’s latest novel is playful and quirky