Hex Offers a Deep Dive into Queer Obsession
Author: Carson Beker
April 9, 2020
Let us now take a brief screen break from Portrait of a Lady on Fire to consider this specter of longing in queer fiction; this well of loneliness from which you suddenly see the stars, this pewpewpew laser battle of queer stares and hints, of “You left your gloves” and “No way does she see me.” This slow pin wheeling arm-reel from the double patriarchal uppercut to queer girlhood: “I am not meant to have desires” & “This desire doesn’t exist,” from which we so often crash land on the next set of cheekbones or eyes or hips and have to text our friends I’m lost, go on without me.
Let us begin with the admission that queer longing is still a thing, everywhere from Portrait to TikTok, and talk about why it emerges, and why (or whether) we still need it, what it illuminates, and what it misses, and what extra dimensional portals it creates. Let’s add to this the enigma-machine-worthy communication so many of us have engaged in, I like your hair, I like your style, I like your rainbow pin, do you like Mazzy Star, are these your gloves? and how well it tracks with those poor Victorians trying to flower arrange their unmentionable wants into words, and you could begin this discussion by saying it was only a matter of time before flowers, and poison, and desire featured together in a novel about queer longing.
Hex (Viking Press, 2020), by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (author of The Sunlit Night 2019), is a luminous, manic, clever, sometimes-too-clever, funny, tragic, and frustrating botany of desire and taxonomy of poisons.
- Nell, a Biology PhD candidate expelled from Columbia when her lab mate poisons herself trying to find an antidote for the toxic castor (ricin), from which Nell grows plants with stolen poisonous castor seeds and obsessively writes to the novel’s you.
- The you in question, her mentor Dr. Joan Kallas (read: Joan of Arc, complete with cult following, read: Maria Callas-level divatude, read: killer of hearts), who is acerbic, sexy, mean and ultimately bloodless as a turnip.
- An assortment of other desirous PhD students (the friend, the ex-boyfriend, Dr. Joan Kallas’ creepy-uncle husband) who also want.
Over the three trimesters of the novel, they grow and twine around one another for all the wrong reasons, choking and breaking one another’s stems trying to take over the window box. It’s a setup reminiscent of Dangerous Liaisons, where Nell, exiled from that privileged court of Columbia to Red Hook (reader, can you imagine!), writes journal entries and grows poisonous plants, and throws herself at Queen Kallas’ ever kicking feet and may or may not engage in witchcraft, depending on how you read her intentions.
The real witchcraft of this book is in its prose. Knight’s Nell, thirstiest of cacti, prickly with sadness, projects her longing, grief, exile, and loneliness onto the object of desire. In each invocatory chapter, you feel the poison and withdrawal symptoms. You believe her desire and her new adult desperation and confusion. You hear her whyyyyyyyyyyy:
Imagine a pudding cup of a person and encountering a confident, elegant, powerful scholar who knows what to do with her shoulders. Imagine encountering you…What thrilled me about you was your absolute needlessness. You didn’t seem to need anybody’s approval, friendship, witness, or opinion. You didn’t need color, flavor, vacation, or exercise. There was this crystalline, atomic, ancient permanence in your center that i knew you’d inherited from some original lord. It made me feel that if I worked very hard, I could be as alone and as perfect as whatever that thing is inside you. You made me feel irrelevant and totally free.
You believe Nell’s 20-something self-absorption–there is little more important in this world than Nell’s desire and feelings, first for Kallas, and then for anything: poisons, tortellini, flowers. When Kallas appears in the narrative, Nell heliotropes like a sunflower, with a full body ecstatic devotion that makes the later appearance of Hildegard von Bingen on brand, and also unsurprising.
The intellectual joy of this book is where, in the time honored tradition of William Blake, Georgia O’Keefe, and Seymour Krelborn of Little Shop of Horrors, Nell gardens her feelings. She takes us on a tour of flowering poisons, from sassy bark to ricin to monkshood, to cashews. Nell presses flowers and poisons and desires into her journal until they become a single universal language. Nell writes of her ex: “Tom studies dragons, the venom is in the dragon’s tooth. Our overlap is that you are the dragon.”
These are times this novel makes you feel smart and driven and desirable for being desirous. You sense the tendrils of Nell’s poison trees growing in her Brooklyn apartment towards their inevitable catastrophe. If resentment, as the sermon goes, is drinking the poison wanting somebody else to die, Hex is a book you could gladly read to yourself at someone(s) who won’t have you. Take that, we might all have said at various stages, and that. And that, while listening to Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” or Brittany Spears’ “Toxic”, or better yet, ordering Thea Matthews’ poetry collection Unearth The Flowers. Add Hex to that bookshelf.
Who hasn’t wished they could read these words to whoever has spurned them:
Lose me as you lost your cat, your bearings, your wherewithal, your identity. Lose me as you lose autumn each year to ice, as you lose a year each year. Lose me as you lose a little weight and your bones show. Lose me like a wet food dropped face down. Both earrings. Any key. Lose me like what blew off the ferry…lose me and fuck you.
The thorn of this book has something to do with this Dangerous Liaisons business, combined with cleverness, combined with Nell’s desire. As the trimesters and chapters wear on, there are times when I wished the shimmer would part so I could land in the narrator’s feelings–about losing a collaborator to poison, about all her former colleagues and friends sleeping with one another and telling each other about it in Bond Villain-style one liners (“Have you seen your husband? ‘Cause I have”), about what it means that a kind of attraction she didn’t have the words for before is manifesting right now in queer time. If the narrator can be so cleverly flip about these things, I am not sure I can always feel them–if spells, sadness, etc are not felt, I can’t tell if they’re metaphorical or real–and it’s sometimes hard to care.
There is that moment in Price of Salt/ Carol where Therese wanders into a record store and runs into a butch femme couple. They’re there to illustrate Carol’s internalized abjection I am not that, but whenever I watch it, I wish we could follow them instead. What are their lives? How are they supporting one another in this world? What struggles and triumphs and utopian glimmers are their lives made of? Who gets to be narrative, and who gets to be metaphor?
This is the moment I lose interest in Carol and Therese, Nell and Joan, K.D. Lang and whoever she was constantly craving about. The cracks this queer longing business appear when you begin to notice what the protagonist doesn’t: Red Hook isn’t a deserted island you go to when you’ve been exiled, people live there. If the characters are tangled up in alliances and longings, what are they missing? Longing belongs in the world, but so does its opposite. How long before Nell’s triumphant liberation from Joan Kallas and we witness the beginning of her real work? How long do we have to wait between getting from a Price of Salt and to a Zami?
Hex almost gives us these questions: it asks, “Which is fuller, the longing, or the union? How do you take the toxins out of poison? How does longing serve us even when it brings us to our knees?” I think of Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, in which he writes that queer desire is a signal flare that illuminates the darkness:
Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. There here and now is a prison house […] We must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds […]
Unrequited love, is not, cannot be, the whole story, but it might be a starting point. We might have to read about, or experience queer longing to begin to free ourselves from the structures that create it. Maybe these are the cracks that allow in the plants that are, if not botanically significant, if not useful, at least resilient, adaptive, and rebellious.
Maybe at least desire is a signpost that reminds us we have bodies. Maybe one day we can use these bodies to create a world in which longing is pale and old compared to the joy of creating a world together. Meanwhile, if you’re a fan of desire, if you’re a fan of cacti, if you like poison, here’s a book for you.
By Rebecca Dinerstein-Knight
Hardcover, 9781640092846, 224 pp.