‘What’s this one about?’ my husband asks, gesturing at my Ipad.
‘Men having sex with mushrooms.’
The book begins after women have been wiped out by a disease, a yellow fungus that emerges from their wombs and continues to grow after death. Its protagonist is Nathan, the storyteller of a leaderless society living in harmony with nature in The Valley of The Rocks. The men of this community (and the rest of the world) are grieving for their womenfolk.
‘Grief is better alone,’ Nathan reflects. ‘It has a cleaner edge, a sharper taste’ (217). Through his stories, Nathan gives the community’s griefs back to them in more manageable forms. He describes their loved ones with ‘lustrous hair and never a bad word on their plump lips’ (27). ‘I can remember this is not who they were’, he confesses, calling into question his reliability as The Beauty’s narrator as well as the community’s storyteller (27). Is this a story we are supposed to believe in and if so, in what way?
Nathan is particularly in tune with nature’s rhythms. He ‘feels spring’s shoots arising and winter creeping over the rocks’ and this description foreshadows his own erotic awakening (110). So far his physical experiences with others will all have been with men. We are told ‘there is still, once the cider is thick…still love. Tenderness’ but for Nathan there is a lack (188). Nathan was too young to be sexually active when the women died and is the first to discover what the mushrooms are becoming.
His most formative association with the feminine is his mother and the Oedipal analogy is evident in the seductive ‘mother-hum’ produced by The Beauty, the name given to this new species that has sprung from dead women (264). The hum subsumes him and the other men experiencing it. It takes them into that cosy part of a fairytale in which the protagonist is out of time and (apparently) away from the threat. It temporarily shields them from the growing they must do in facing that threat.
One threat is men’s own mortality. After all, as the doctor has pointed out, the disease could mutate and come next for the men (110).
Yet the all-absorbing, too-cosy female sexuality, its rotten fecundity, is the most imminient danger. Nathan describes the ‘breasts, globes of yellow and rounded hips that speak to me of woman, of want, and that disgust me beyond words’ (273). This othering of female desire is reminiscent of 19th Century vampire novels such as Dracula:
They took all the best qualities of the dead, designed only to bring pleasure to men (406).
As they commune with the mushrooms, the men search for meaning and for intimacy, even though this is something they fear. With Nathan’s mushroom Bee, ‘Everything it thinks, feels, wants and needs is open to [my] discernment’ (331). ‘Embrace and rock them, absorb them until terror and pleasure become one and the same’ he tells us (421). You can see why this sublime combination might be repulsive and yet attractive.
Whiteley’s novella deals with toxic masculinity: ‘To be a man was to find a hole inside and know it could never be filled’ (703). Later Nathan says, ‘now I no longer have a hole to fill, and so I do not think so much. I only feel. How I hate such feelings.’ (1170). Although it is never made explicit, the disease could be seen to have originated as punishment for misogyny’s crimes, as visited on women by men like Nate’s Uncle Ted. As both men and women metamorphosise physically and socially in The Beauty, the negative reaction of some of the men in the book feels inevitable and the reader neccessarily makes links to current societal prejudices around gender equality and transgenderism.
The fecund messages of the book don’t reach us most profoundly through linear logic – rather they are visceral. Perhaps this is down to the book’s uncanniness. Like the best of the literary uncanny what is most disturbing is the combination of the alien and what is familiar. In reading we feel both disgusted and fascinated. We begin to feel uncomfortable in our own skins, perhaps because this story risks making us aware of aspects of ourselves we don’t yet have words for, that won’t fit into a satisfyingly neat tale.
Whiteley, Aliya, 2014. The Beauty. London: Unsung Stories.
N.B. The numerical references refer to locations in the Kindle document.