This post is part of The Sociological Review’s exploration of what it means for something to be ‘sociological literature’. In this strand of the work, practice-researchers and sociologists reflect on sociological encounters with contemporary poetry and prose.
“True capitalism was all about names on stuff, on clothes, on notebooks, on cars, on backpacks, on shoes.” So learns Zorka, one of Virtuoso’s six queer female protagonists, upon arriving in the USA from Soviet Prague. I write protagonist; I’m not sure ‘protagonist’ is the right name for what Moskovitch’s characters are. Their stories scrape, interrupt and symbolically echo one another, they almost read as different iterations of the same queer woman whose queerness manifests both as an orientation towards women and a friction against the times and spaces in which she finds herself. Many reviews begin with the novel’s resistance to summary, its Lynchian aesthetic; some have criticised it for being too weird, too complicated or not sufficiently engaging. I don’t intend on making a value judgement on Moskovitch’s surrealist aesthetic. Rather, I want to tease out some of the ways it helps us to think through processes of queer subject formation, intimacy and community under late capitalism.
It is difficult to put a name on the stuff that is the temporality of this novel. Told mostly, but not entirely, in the present tense, and from every conceivable narrative perspective, it is not so much unchronological as antichronological. ‘I don’t know what to do with history,’ Janka says, early on in the novel, ‘the big one that belongs to all of us and the small one, like a keychain’ (2019, 32). This not-knowing propels the novel both backward and forwards from the moment of Dominique’s sudden death on which it opens. We go backwards, to her failed acting career and long marriage with younger woman Aimée, and forwards, to Aimée’s grief; backwards to Zorka and Janka’s childhood friendship in Prague, to Zorka’s emigration to the US and then Paris, and to the chat room romance between an American teenager, 0_ _hotgirlAmy_ _0 and a frustrated Czech housewife, Dominxxika_N39. These queer rebellious women go to gay bars and gay chatrooms when they are both ‘too’ young and ‘too’ old to do so. They run away from home. They run into good luck — such as when Zorka finds a loving if brief home with a young trans guy after leaving the safety of her adopted American suburb. They run into bad luck — such as when with 0_ _hotgirlAmy_ _0 finally reaches Dominxxika_N39’s house in the Czech countryside only to be murdered by Dominxxika_N39’s abusive husband, who is also, incidentally, the owner of the ‘virtuoso’ mattress model for whom Janka translates and which gives the novel its name. I write probably because, just as Moskovitch’s collaging of incongruous timeframes against one another refuses the before/after narrative causation on which most fiction relies, so she refuses to make clear what happens to these characters; the novel’s closing sequence shows a woman, Amy, being helped through a city metro system by a kind older woman, but we don’t know if she is either, or any, of the Amys we have met before.
The formation of queer time and space by Jack Halberstam (2005) is invaluable in teasing out what this temporality illuminates about queer subject formation:
“Queer Time is a term for those specific models of temporality that emerge within postmodernism once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois production and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance. Queer Space refers to the place-making practices within postmodernism in which queer people engage and it also describes the new understandings of space enabled by the production of queer counterepublics.”(2005, 6)
Viewed through this lens, Virtuoso documents the potential for queer female desire — when foregrounded — to reshape both space and time to its own ends. It also points towards a relationship between queer time and space, suggesting that within postmodernism, queer spaces emerge from the embracing of risk, chance and the turning away from longevity and safety that queer temporalities entail. It takes us into the affective disorientation of being a queer migrant living between ‘big’ and ‘small’ histories, and how, through forging connections in both physical and digital space, such between spaces offer an opportunity for intimacies and communities to form across generational and national divides. Likewise, the formation of these connections — such as the bonds that forms between Janka and Aimée and Janka and Zorka in the novel’s final section — revisit opportunities which straight time would tell us remain lost in these women’s youth. The novel demonstrates the extent to which queer time and space are interdependent.
The last section of the novel contains a short passage in which lines from each of the characters’ previous sections are repeated, but this time, they are unattributed and interrupt one another:
‘ I don’t know what to do with History
Go online, Amy
the big one that belongs to all of us
Go downstairs, now.
and my small one, like a keychain.
… wish us luck…’
Here, Moskovitch repurposes key lines from the novel’s constituent narrative pasts to glue together a narrative present. In stripping these pasts of fiction’s conventional orientating devices such as tense, speech tags, and description, and in further disrupting the text’s already non-normative syntax, Moskovitch transfers her characters’ temporal and spatial disorientation onto the reader. In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed (2006) describes lostness as “a way of inhabiting space by registering what is not familiar: being lost can in its turn become a familiar feeling” (7). Moskovitch’s surrealist aesthetic allows us to glimpse the processes by which the queer female subject’s orientation towards what is not familiar becomes a feeling familiar enough to become a community of sorts— one whose essence perhaps lies less in the individuals of which it is made up than its ability to blur the distinctions between them.
Clare Fisher is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds, where she is also a Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
Ahmed, S. (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press: Durham and London
Bari, S. 2019. ’Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich review – surreal story of violence and desire.’ The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/10/virtuoso-yelena-moskovich-review
Coldiron, K. (2019). ’Like Secrets: a fully realised vision of a strange world.’ The TLS. Retrieved from: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/like-secrets/
Halberstam, J. (2005). In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press: New York and London.
Moskovitch, Y. (2019). Virtuoso. Serpent’s Tail: London.
Anon. 2019. Virtuoso, Kirkus Reviews, retrieved from: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/yelena-moskovich/virtuoso/