Irina Sturges, once an art student on the up and up and now a Newcastle bartender, scouts average-looking local men for her explicit photographs. When she is offered an exhibition at a prestigious London gallery, the opportunity sends her poring over her archive and spinning out of control in a vortex of self-destruction and aggression—often targeted at her best friend Flo and her latest model Eddie, a timid new cashier at the local supermarket. This is the plot of Boy Parts, Eliza Clark’s intelligent debut novel. Two lights shine throughout this dark, dark book: the author’s interminable talent for deadpan humor and a flickering, pale memory from Irina’s past persistently threatening to resurface.
Irina’s erratic memory and manipulative streak make her a model unreliable narrator. As Vice interviewer Lauren O’Neill says, it is hard to tell whether Irina has actually done some of the violent things she talks about, a fact that Clark hopes will elicit reader interpretation. But Boy Parts goes beyond generating doubt about its protagonist’s grasp of reality and invites readers to consider whether they can tell truth from falsehood in any representation at all. As a visual artist, Irina comments on the “academic craic . . . about the ‘presumption of veracity’” that makes people assume what they see in photographs is real whether that is the case or not. She also remarks on more everyday forms of deception, like the hard work it takes her to look effortlessly beautiful, or the speech patterns people adopt to disguise their true backgrounds. When an old art friend who has moved to New York City asks her “How’s Newcastle?” Irina observes that “she says Newcastle with a nasal ‘a’ now, too, and that makes me wrinkle my nose.” Wherever there is representation, there is also risk of misrepresentation.
The first scene of the novel encapsulates this concern elegantly. While Irina works a reluctant afternoon shift at the bar, searching for an excuse to go home and sleep off the previous night’s hangover, a middle-aged woman comes in and confronts her about taking sexually suggestive photos of her underage son and posting them on her website. Irina dismisses the woman, who strikes her face in response and leaves. Irina takes advantage of the occasion and tells her manager that the woman was an “alkie” who attacked her at random and that she is badly hurt and needs to go home. The manager hesitates, sensing that he is being manipulated, but Irina insists that “it’s all on CCTV.” After she finally departs, the manager texts her that he has taken a closer look at the security camera footage and apologizes for doubting her honesty. In this case, the reader knows that the camera lies—the soundless footage gives a false impression.
But does it, really? If the manager scrutinized the footage like he says he did, he also saw the patron “[thrust] her phone into [Irina’s] face,” which might lead him to realize there was more to her anger than craving a drink. Did he really take a closer look at the footage, or does he only say so to excuse what he worries may seem like his former insensitivity? Or do Irina’s feigned tears make him undermine the evidence and accept her version of the events? Then again, Irina’s lie may also be truer than even she is willing to admit. The repeated questions from her family and friends about the dark bruise under her makeup suggest that she has been hurt worse than she is letting on. In the novel’s opening, it’s lies all the way down. If anything at all is convincing, it is not the images caught on camera, but the way speech can be used to manipulate people into certain feelings—the manager’s wanting to please Irina, the reader’s becoming gradually enthralled by her character.
Just when readers become comfortable with (or at least used to) Irina’s white lies, however, the novel turns the expectation of unreliability on its head. Irina tells Flo that she has been sexually assaulted at a party, and Flo responds with skepticism. She blogs about the incident:
Aaah jfc this is sort of messy to explain but ive caught her in lies before . . . So all the time in uni she’d get blackout drunk (when i was with her, and not as fucked up as her) and she’d just sort of fill in the blanks for herself and repeat it for people, and I’d literally be with her thinking ‘well that’s just not what happened???’
The post concludes with an acknowledgement of the unsettling implications of Flo’s disbelief: “Im a shit friend for even thinking it. Shit friend, shit feminist. Urgh.” Flo has reasons to doubt Irina’s integrity, and by now, the reader does, too. But nevertheless, there is also a strong sense that this time Irina should be believed. This is partly because of how she narrates the events of the party, but also due to the crucial feminist policy of always believing those who report sexual injury, an approach that has transformed the cultural treatment of victims of sexual violence. This political standard is alive in Flo’s guilty self-deprecation, but her failure to meet it is worded so casually as to almost be dismissible. Everyone is a “shit feminist” sometimes, falling short of perfect adherence to their political commitments, or as author Roxane Gay put it in her 2014 essay collection, a “bad feminist.” As for the readers, a feminist hermeneutic challenges us to consider the limits of unreliability in fiction as well as real life—in certain circumstances, we may need to believe even people who don’t inspire trust.
Whereas the ongoing crisis of rape culture encourages readers to believe even an unreliable narrator’s report of sexual violence, Boy Parts shows that the context of artistic creation can blind people to such violence even when it is real. At her London exhibition Irina displays a video in which she hurts Eddie so badly that he is trembling. Taking a jab at cultural criticism, Clark has a writer for the Observer compliment Irina for the piece: “The way you’ve played with consent here is wonderful . . . Critical, bold, a wonderful actor, your boy.” The abuse is real, but the setting of the exhibition makes it invisible. All the gallery visitors can see is pretended violence, which they presume has been ethically staged for aesthetic effect. The art critic’s misinterpretation of the video may be a warning against misreading the novel—Irina’s aggressive behavior should be read as bad, not merely entertaining, or worse, admirable. The aestheticization of violence in literature, like other representations, can be deceiving.
If the art critic is confused about consent, she is not the only one. Eddie himself negotiates his experience with Irina, first admitting, “I don’t know how to feel about what we did together,” but later apologizing for his ambivalence: “I’m sorry for getting weird and freaking out.” Did Irina violate his boundaries, or did he fail to set them clearly in the first place? Did she act within the limits of his consent, or did she exceed them? The questions seem beside the point, because Irina should have been attentive to Eddie’s feelings during the sensitive filming. But consent is too binary a concept to capture this kind of interpersonal expectation. Consent is about the terms that people agree to, not about what they want or even need. Eddie expresses the painful gap between desire and consent when he writes to Irina:
When I’m with you, I feel like the only person in the whole world, and no one at all at the same time. No one has ever made me feel so wanted (which is a weird thing for me to say, because I don’t think I’ve ever ever ever felt sexually desirable before) but so awful at the same time. It’s weird.
Eddie’s expressive abilities are limited—he uses clichés, and the repetition of “weird” suggests a lack of emotional granularity—but his email bluntly shows how his bottomless need and desire can make him consent to anything that resembles approval. Irina is indignant, saying that it was up to Eddie to withdraw his consent if he was uncomfortable: “I probably would have stopped if he’d said something.” But at other times she comes close to recognizing that consent is an inadequate standard for interpersonal ethics. When a sexual partner ignores her requests, she wonders: “Did I even properly consent to that?” She finds the question perplexing, because her desires and expectations have already been shaped by former interactions with exploitative men. If adverse circumstances have led her to consent to harmful actions, is consent much different from mere resignation?
The novel’s criticism of consent is at its peak when the person who assaults Irina at the party also asks her permission to share her phone number with a friend: “He asked me for your number but I’m not giving it over bc you know privacy and consent and shit.” Seeking consent in relatively trivial matters while violating significant boundaries reveals the concept’s superficiality. At its core a transactional idea, consent is insufficient for regulating human interactions. It reduces mutuality into mercantilism. Rather than express care and respect for other people, in Boy Parts requesting consent means participating in an empty linguistic convention that conveys faux moral superiority.
Linguistic conventions are important. In a lecture delivered at a Southern Writers Conference and recorded in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, author Flannery O’Connor decried the fact that the writers in her audience made “practically no use . . . of the local idiom.” Instead of using Southern expressions to enliven their prose, these writers created characters that “spoke as if they had never heard any kind of language except what came out of a television set.” As a result, their characters lacked the depth that region, society, and history give real speech. This is sad news for me, a person who writes in English but has acquired the language from a mixture of schoolbooks and American sitcoms. But O’Connor would not have caught Clark in a similar fault. Clark’s sensitivity to the language of the English North East goes beyond using expressions like “Brexity pub” or “Cry-wank and a Pot Noodle” (although those are nice); it also shows in her agility in moving among different voices. Within the book’s first chapter the reader has been introduced to Irina’s acerbic tone, Flo’s manic prose, and the mannered emails of a mysterious Mr B (“Why deny Zeus his Ganymede? Olympus is so heavy with treasure”)—only a few of the characters that Clark brings to life through their language. This unique talent makes it especially fitting that Clark’s next novel, scheduled for publication by Faber and Faber in spring 2023, is projected to be a murder story told through the contradictory accounts of friends and suspects.
Although Irina’s explicit concerns lie in the visual arts, like Clark, she is also highly aware of voice. Irina constantly tries to place people by their accents—especially when they fall into their real accents—and mocks those who assume a false idiom. Her keen attention to language makes her failure to notice that Eddie is mixed race an even stronger expression of her willful disregard for him (“Had you not twigged?” he asks her. “My last name is Arabic, it’s proper obviously foreign?”). In its thematization of language, Boy Parts reflects on the literary medium as well as on photography and memory. Irina says that she is “not much of a reader” (she prefers extreme cinema), but Clark certainly is. Responses to the novel often point out its affinity to works such as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, both intertexts that position Clark in a literary tradition concerned with capitalism, misanthropy, and personal deterioration. But the book’s epigraph is taken from Susan Sontag’s essay collection On Photography: “Images which idealise are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness. There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” In the same essay, Sontag observes the difference between photography and print. Words, like photographs, can lead to harmful abstraction. But whereas writing openly admits its interpretive distance from real people and events, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.” For Sontag, both photography and writing misrepresent reality, but writing does so more transparently. Clark examines the potential of both mediums to mislead, finding disturbing possibilities in each of them.
Boy Parts is about how images appropriate and deceive—from security camera footage to art exhibitions, the visuals in this novel conceal as much as they reveal. But the novel is also about how language can do the same, and more. As rhetoricians have known since antiquity, language creates its own mental images that persuade not the eye but the heart. This moving power of words is responsible for fiction’s most intense pleasures, but it can also be used manipulatively. Irina’s words steer other characters, as well as draw the reader in. Clark never lets language out of her sight, making her novel a brilliant reflection on how fiction works as well as its delights and its dangers.