USEREVIEW 140: The Unspeakable
Joelle Kidd articulates all that’s left unsaid and ineffable in Meghan Greeley‘s debut novel Jawbone (Radiant Press, 2023).
ISBN: 978-1-99892-600-8 | 102 pp | $20 CAD — BUY Here
“It’s amazing how much living you can do without opening your mouth at all,” says the narrator of Meghan Greeley’s debut novel, Jawbone. The narrator, referred to as Velvet, has had her jaw wired shut. Recently, the wires were snipped. But, she finds, she still cannot speak.
A man put his latex fingers in my mouth and cut out the wires with gardening shears, and now the ghosts of the wires wire me shut. Like when a fence is knocked down but you’re in the habit of walking around it. You just walk right around it.
Haunting, tender, melancholy and funny at once, Jawbone is a free-floating ode to queer joy, queer longing, self-discovery and the pain that can come along with said discovery. It’s also a novel about silence: things unsaid, things that can’t be said. About a narrator’s repression creating an un-crossable invisible barrier, a torn-down fence still walked around.
The book opens in a remote Airbnb, where Velvet has holed herself away to record a one-minute video explaining why she should be chosen for a mission to Mars — a mission which amounts to a one-way ticket.
The narration is addressed to a mysterious “you,” soon revealed to be Velvet’s best friend and roommate, a costume designer she meets while acting in a play. “You’ve got shoulders like a velvet hanger,” she says, christening the narrator. Velvet is new to the city, and her (now long-distance) boyfriend has just moved to California. The two new friends decide to live together. “In a city of strangers, it felt nice to be your chosen one,” the narrator reflects.
The portrait of these two friends is intimate and lived-in, a deft exploration of the contours of female friendship — and something more:
Promise me we’ll grow old together, you said. Okay? Promise me we’ll always be friends.
I loved what you said.
I hated what you said.
The love story that grows is sweet and gentle, meditating on queerness and its intersections with friendship. The two women blend together, so much so that their director confuses them for one another, calling the narrator by her friend’s name. “I felt a strange pride that in his head we were all tangled up together, you and I. Synonymous.”
The narrator’s long-time boyfriend, referred to only as “D,” intrudes on the text in the form of emails, addressed simply to “Baby.” His presence provides slips of comic relief alongside the offer (or perhaps, threat) of heteronormative life that he represents. From afar, he questions the narrator’s career choices, encourages her to spend time with her new roommate and even sends tips via a cursory Google search for “how to make female friends”:
You haven’t mentioned your roommate much — are you girls getting along? Have you ever visited the website WikiHow? There is a wealth of information on this site, which can be useful for people who are grappling with simple problems but are perhaps too embarrassed to ask for advice or help.
Such questions about female friendship undergird the novel. What does it mean to be friends? From where comes the particular closeness that can grow between two women? How do you know when friendship is something more?
In a society that pairs women together, these queer slippages become a kind of intermediary space in which some women live. As a queer woman myself, I remember acutely these kinds of confusing relationships, and the way they operated on a strange set of double standards; as a teen, when I had male friends over I was not allowed to close the door to my room, but my female best friend was allowed to sleep in my bed. Female friendships, particularly the all-consuming relationships of our teens and early adulthood, allow a kind of sweet intimacy; allow touch; allow love, in a way friendships between straight men, or men and women, are not socially prescribed to. Braiding one another’s hair, holding each other’s hands, changing in front of each other, applying each other’s makeup. Desire can simmer, or hide in plain sight.
For Jawbone’s narrator, this desire feels fraught, repressed, at a remove. Velvet is disconnected from her body as well as her emotional life. When a costumer inappropriately comments on her chest backstage, she mishears the comment as “nice boots,” and blandly nods. More than once she faints immediately after stating that she never faints. Later, the mistake that results in her broken jaw ultimately arises from another case of bodily disconnection and violation.
Meanwhile, the colour red haunts the novel, pulsing through it like a rush and swell of pumped blood. The recording light of the camera, a wrinkled dress, fingers stained by cherry juice, Velvet’s coat, the lightbulbs in a dark party, irritated skin, animal blood on a butcher shop floor, the dye used to soak Maraschino cherries, the flush of a fevered cheek, Velvet’s journal. Tied, usually, to the narrator’s femininity and her awakening queer stirrings. “I would like to say that red is my favourite colour,” she announces. The novel culminates, and loops back to the beginning, with the narrator’s desire to abandon her life for the Red Planet.
The dust of Mars, I think, to people born there, will smell like red. The way that red candies taste red. They will wipe the dust from their boots and smell the red, rouge, scarlet, carmine, rose.
The writing takes the form of brief numbered sections, vignette-like. At times, this choice can create the effect of wilfully obfuscating what is actually a pretty straightforward story, but mostly it feels aligned with the subject matter and the narrator’s fragmented state of mind. Greeley has a lyrical touch, and a knack for a good line. The emotional drama is told through subtle shifts of tone, secrets and body language, and Greeley’s tight attention to these emotional turns layers a beautifully bittersweet story of love, punctuated with humour.
First performed as a one-woman show, the book retains a musical quality in its adaptation from stage to page. The setup-and-reveal formulation of the plot is perhaps unnecessary; the characters and relationships that make up the novel are compelling enough, and the revelation of the “mystery” of the narrator’s situation at the beginning of the novel feels a little too rushed at the end of the book. Its pacing would perhaps have benefitted from a more straightforward telling that withheld less from the reader.
Overall, though, the book is punchy and affecting. When, on the opening night of the play, Velvet realizes her roommate has snuck off to make out with the lead actress from the show, she quickly drinks three drinks and begins to choke:
My throat closed and I wanted to cough but I couldn’t cough because my throat was clamped shut, so I choked. I tried to choke very quietly because beside me the director was talking to a critic about the oppressive weight of our endless parade of yesterdays.
Even under threat of bodily harm, she is unable to express herself. But amidst the suggestion of the importance for this character of finding her voice is a concurrent idea: that two people might know one another so well that to speak is not even necessary.