Guest Post by Erin Handley
It’s difficult to know what position to take with Martha Schabas’ debut novel, Various Positions. On one hand, the plot is fraught with clichés connected to ballet and to ‘coming of age’ plotlines. On the other, it’s an ambitious homage to Nabokov’s Lolita that questions the nature of truth and responsibility. Either way, Schabas’ prose is beautiful, detailed and engrossing, and Various Positions is worth reading for this alone.
At times, Various Positions was akin to reading a book after already having watched the Hollywood version. The plot had a familiar feel to it, thanks to ballet films like Black Swan and Center Stage. The novel follows Georgia Slade, a 14-year-old ballet student, who is accepted into Royal Toronto Ballet Academy after a risky audition.
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Naturally, the predictable issues of eating disorders, beauty, image and perfection arise. Georgia seems to fulfill the trope of a young, misunderstood but highly intelligent teenager, who feels out of place in school, ignored at home and on the fringes of a clique at the Academy. The precision of ballet has a transformative power over her and gives her a sense of control:
Sometimes when I’m dancing, I feel like my eyes are closed even though they’re not. My body takes over and it’s like I don’t need to see, like I’ve lost control and have tons of it at the same time. Every movement harbours a secret fall, and it’s the danger that makes it beautiful.
The novel also broaches the tender, uncertain terrain of sexual tension between a young ballet pupil and her older, male instructor.
Dealing with teenage angst may not be a new theme, but it’s one that Schabas executes well, writing skillfully about the pressure to belong. She perfectly evokes the group mentality of teenage cliques, and writes each sentence as a purposeful step heading inevitably towards an outcome that is both predictable and uncomfortable.
The novel also raises some interesting questions about feminism, even if it doesn’t answer them satisfactorily. Georgia frequently substitutes her half-sister, Isabel, for a mother-figure, as her own mother is wrapped in a cocoon of a spiraling but silent depression. Georgia perceives that her mother’s emotional behaviour infuriates her father, but fails to see how her father impacts her mother. Unlike Isabel, she always takes her father’s side. She yearns for his attention and privately condemns her mother. When she’s applying for ballet school, her father says ‘God knows how I ended up with a ballet dancer for a daughter.’ Georgia feels his disdain intensely:
I wanted to laugh at this with him, be a really good sport. It burned though, the disappointment in his voice. The worst part was that I understood it. Things like ballet tripped on his heels, slowed the world down from more meaningful pursuits…I wished I had some brilliant argument that drew on history and philosophy to explain why ballet was okay.
There are significant parallels between Georgia’s father and Roderick Allen, the artistic principal of the ballet academy. The Oedipal undertones of the novel are hinted at through Isabel’s casual reference to Freud at the dinner table one evening. Roderick, like Georgia’s father, urges his students to check their emotions— ‘A dancer is never hurt or embarrassed’— and he teaches his students by harshly pointing out their flaws and humiliating them in front of the class.
In what seems to be a contradiction, Georgia becomes increasingly sexually transfixed on Roderick. He shows approval for her dancing and Georgia dwells on this attention, translating it into other feelings. At the same time, Georgia perceives from Roderick that sex is capable of ruining ballet, and she is determined to avoid being seen as a ‘sex girl’. The most alarming thing about Georgia is the way she views men viewing women. They are either too emotional or too sexual. Georgia develops a habit of watching people on the subway and recasting women as sexual objects for men, and she fantasies a rape scene for herself.
Various Positions tries to be an inverted Lolita. It’s the teenager Georgia who narrates for us. Like Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, Georgia is a somewhat unreliable narrator, all the more so because we don’t expect that she’s keeping anything from us, her readers. She doesn’t censor her most humiliating moments at school or her sexual fantasies. This leads us to believe that we have an all-access pass to Georgia’s thoughts, and for the majority of the novel, we do. The reader observes the world as Georgia does and we read (and misread) the signs in Roderick’s behaviour along with her. There are some heavy themes in this novel—adultery, pornography and glimpses of mental illness—but the most disconcerting thing as a reader was getting to the end of the novel and not knowing where I stood with Georgia.
The uncertainty was caused by the first few pages of the novel: they are captivating, filled with beautiful turns of phrase, and we are given a snapshot of Georgia in the future. This prelude is dramatic and hints at just enough to draw the reader right into the heart of the narrative. However, there’s a moment described in the prelude that doesn’t come to fruition in the main story. This felt inconsistent. At the end of the novel I doubted its beginning: was this moment an invention or fantasy of Georgia’s? Or is it the truth of the matter that was omitted in the main story to protect Roderick? There’s one line towards the end, where Georgia says that she ‘fixed things, told everyone the truth.’ She continues: ‘And the truth I told was even better than the real one, edited of all its grey zones and uncertainties.’
I wondered if Schabas was trying to make her readers rethink the truth that Georgia had provided for them. It could be a clever authorial move, but it is ultimately confusing. A clearer question in the novel is the issue of responsibility in terms of the relationship between Roderick and Georgia, and the eating disorder developed by one of the students. Roderick bears the full brunt of responsibility, but we are forced to ask if Georgia is complicit in these situations, and to weigh in the other factors—her family life, societal expectations, ballet culture.
The real reason to read Various Positions is for Schabas’ incredible prose. Each phrase is deftly turned, and she writes exquisite similies that give new shape to the ordinary. Patterns repeat and double themselves in this novel, creating an enticing but claustrophobic world. Some readers might tire of the metaphors, but they were essential in carrying what initially seemed to be an all-too-familiar plot.
— Martha Schabas’ Various Positions is out now through Text. RRP $29.95
Erin Handley is a Melbourne-based writer and is currently undertaking her honours in literature at the University of Melbourne. She co-edited Farrago magazine last year and she blogs about books at dappledsunlight.tumblr.com.