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  • “Her Lips Are Slightly Parted”: The Ineffability of Erotic Sociality in Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat

There is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image.

—Marquis de Sade, qtd. in Bataille, Eroticism

Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death.

—Georges Bataille, Eroticism

What is at stake here is the priority of rendering oneself vulnerable to the risk of the stranger.

—William Haver, The Body of this Death: Historicity and Sociality in the Time of AIDS

In Muriel Spark’s short novel The Driver’s Seat—described on the cover as “a metaphysical shocker”—we are presented with the story of a thirty-four-year-old woman, Lise, who, in the throes of a nervous breakdown, disengaged and prone to manic laughter, flies abroad and orchestrates her own brutal murder at the hands of a [End Page 544] man who has just emerged from an asylum after six years of treatment for sexually assaulting women. The fact that her murder is foreshadowed at the start of chapter three led Spark to call the book a “Whydunnit?” rather than a “Whodunnit?” This echoes Lise’s own description of a book she carries prominently throughout the story and finally gives to a hotel porter, telling him it’s a “Whydunnit in q-sharp major” (101).

The style of Spark’s prose in this novel is lean and taciturn: we are given very little on which to base any speculation as to Lise’s motives, certainly no psychological explanations of her actions are offered in any straightforward manner. Everything is described externally, as if it were being viewed through a camera lens. This narrative device is an example of what we might call subjectivity without psychology, actions and speech offered without any explicit recourse to the inner workings of the mind. The familiar novelistic device of an omniscient narrator with insight into character motivation is replaced by a sequence of snapshots that offer external description without access to the internal state of Lise’s psyche. In this respect the narration is almost cinematic in its attention to surface detail and action. The narrator/witness is no wiser as to why Lise does what she does than is the reader. It is, in a very real sense, superficial, all surface, but self-consciously and stylistically so for reasons that will be offered. No attempt is made, in other words, to explain the purpose of the events reported or to speculate on their causes. To put it yet another way, unspeakability and its effects have become part of what the novel might be suggesting, its theme.

In this essay I offer a queer reading of The Driver’s Seat that focuses on the symbolic meaning of Lise’s murder as a kind of existential comportment that gestures toward the ineffability of the death drive’s compulsion to transcend the isolating fact of death through the continuity offered by lust. A gesture, that is, toward the unsayability of self-erasure as a limit-experience on which sociality as such is predicated. Developed in dialogue with theorists ranging from Luce Irigiray, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and David M. Halperin, my reading can be called queer not because it argues for a homoerotic or same-sex desire at work within the text, but because it is pitched against the norm, buckling commonsense notions of the self by excavating all psychology; queer, that is, in that it offers no essence to the self, but rather posits the self as some form of discursive residue devoid of meaning or interpretable content. Queer in the sense offered by William Haver, as a loss or lack of authority: “Here, at the site of a pure interruption, at which we never arrive because it is never outside the here and now, there can be no authority” (“Queer” 292). Spark’s use of the present tense [End Page 545] refuses to escape the here and now and as such sustains the text’s interruption, its disruptive, queer energy.

Lise’s Parted Lips

I suggest the novel can be read—through the motif...


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pp. 544-557
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