Blogging the Caine: Lauri Kubuitsile’s “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata”

by zunguzungu

Week Four of the Caine Prize blogging! Today, it’s Lauri Kubuitsile’s “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” which you can read here, and should. Others blogging on it (so far; will update as they come in): The Oncoming HopeMethod to the Madness, The Mumpsimus, Backslash Scott and Sky, Soil, and Everything in Between

“In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” is strikingly distinct from every other story we’ve read so far, mainly because it’s fun. But the silliness of Lauri Kubuitsile’s story is less the particular kind of “war of the sexes” story she tells as it is the kind of storytelling it represents: an exaggerated, embellished, slightly-farcical version of an utterly recognizable reality. This is, in other words, serious fun, the kind of story that might only entertain but might also, if you let it, reveal something quite cuttingly true about ridiculous things we do in all seriousness. Or maybe, in fact, it’s just fun?

First, though, that word “we.” As I was re-reading the story, I started to wonder whether it was appropriate to bring up “traditional African storytelling” as a point of reference, and whether it would be useful to contextualize the particular sense of gender and gender relations that animates the story into something we might call “African” attitudes about marriage, love, and sex. But as soon as I began to peer down that line of thinking, the problem in doing so became apparent: those deadly scare quotes that settle on the word “African” like a pestilence shout their warning to the critic that would ignore them. If this is not a story that an American author living in America would be likely to write — and I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t — the markers of its origin do not so much explain what it’s about as liberate us from having to try. Once you know that its author lives in Botswana, it’s easy to then call the things that characterize it — that make it stand out as particular — as particularly and characteristically “African.” But as so often is the case, naming a thing is a prelude to thought that can then become a substitute for it. And pretty soon, we would find ourselves struggling with the fact that Lauri Kubuitsile is, as she puts it, “a white woman with a black name,” and the story itself would be lost for good.

So let me put that aside. This is a funny story, and what animates the humor, it seems to me, is a gendered division of labor that has become a social division of a very profound kind, which is to say, the way a marriage bond has become a kind of work contract with the result of completely evacuating anything like the personal or the intimate from the relationship. To be less deadeningly sociological, it’s a story that takes sex and deadeningly sociological-izes it, with the result that it’s pretty much the un-sexiest story about sex you’ve ever read. And this is exactly the point: since sex has become work — a thing dictated by necessity and functionality — it has ceased to be sexy. Sex is referred to  as “the business” throughout, because the characters in the story appear to have no other business than sex. And the fact that sex has become so workman-like — and thus, a hilariously Taylorist proposition — is to be seen in the context of a story in which we don’t actually see anyone work at all (other than working at sex).

The plot, such as it is, is simple. All the husbands and all the wives in town appear to have come to a kind of stable consensus on what marriage was: the husbands would do “the business” to their wives in such profoundly unexciting ways that the wives would, as a result, spend as much time as they could “being troubled” by McPhineas Lata, “the perennial bachelor” whose only vocation was making trouble with wives, a very lazy man whose life was “all sweet and no sweat” and who managed to let others “carry” the consequences of his actions. There’s a clear line drawn between sex and work, in other words, one which reflects the social reality of the town. The husbands work all the time and make very bad sex while McPhineas Lata works never and does sex really well. And this seems to be the more or less normalized status quo — and a curiously stable system, too, by all indications — until McPhineas dies and throws the whole system into uproar: after the husbands do a characteristically workmanlike job of burying him under a mound of earth , the wives sneak off to hump the mound leaving the men to nurse their beers and figure out what to do next, which turns out to be to use the scientific method to break down the labor process — with diagrams and movement studies and a careful division of tasks — such that they can figure out the best way to make sex to their wives. They put this method into action and it turns out to be, more or less, a success: the wives are at first confused but intrigued, then, gradually, get into it. And in a charming turn that I can’t say I anticipated, the industrialization of sexual relations is such a complete success that the very narrative of marriage in the village is re-written, in a way I won’t spoil for you by relating.

Two quick points. It’s interesting to note that “cuckoldry” is never the problem and that McPhineas Lata’s death is the thing that starts all the problems. These points are related: marriage is more or less a community relationship between the two more or less homogenous (and very unified) groups that compose the community, the husbands and the wives. And McPhineas Lata’s role in this community seems, actually, to keeping that system intact: despite the fact that he is introduced as the character that “troubled” wives, it is clear that the trouble only really begins when he is dead and the husbands and wives have to therefore figure out how to relate to each other without his interventions. In other words, his role as a figure of radical sexuality meant, in practice, that the husbands didn’t have to bother, and that their wives didn’t really want them to anyway. He kept the spheres of sex and work separate. And with his death, that separation falls apart and society has to be reconstructed.

Now the point of sociology is work, if not labor in the purest economic sense, then the metaphorical “work” that is done by culture, custom, and social norms. In the sociological imagination, the work of sex becomes the production of babies, stabilizing relations, creating regimes of domestic production, and so forth. If it’s not quite the injunction to enjoy as little as possible, it certainly does tend us towards an instrumental attitude towards pleasure, such that the point of enjoyment is always that it achieves some kind of purpose, does some kind of work. When it comes to this story and this post, then, I find myself now reaching the point where I would normally start saying things like “and this is what this story does,” or “the point of this move is to…” and so forth. I start, in other words, to instrumentalize the author’s moves, to take what was fun when I read it and start to think about the work that it does. And if I do this because it works, in other words, because it’s part of the “toolkit” of critical methodologies I’ve developed and refined as a critic, it’s also because I tend towards that kind of quasi-sociological approach. And given the terms I’ve been using to describe the story so far, I suddenly stop short.

Should we do that sort of thing with this story? Is it “worth” doing? Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a person that has fun reading and talking and working with stories — obviously — and I think that people who just want “to read a story without thinking too hard about it” are missing out on exactly that fun. So I don’t mean to do the kind of criticism-is-ruining-the-story move by which critical thought is seen to be antithetical to the pleasure of reading. It has never been for me, and I don’t think it ever needs to be. But still, we want to find the right level of analysis for this particular story, the right kind of approach to make it more fun than it would otherwise be. And it’s worth noting, in that sense, that the problem with the old husbands in the story is not simply that they make sex into work, full stop: it’s that they miss the point of sex when it doesn’t have to be work. For example, when RraTebogo reflects to himself that ever since siring his son 36 years ago, he’s regarded things like foreplay as beside the point, the thing that’s staring him in the fucking face (litearally!) is this: if he’s having sex at that age, it almost certainly isn’t for purposes of procreation. Not to put to fine a point on it, but having sex at that age can’t really be for anything but to have fun.

I’ve worked on this post all morning, but the endpoint of doing so was to make it more fun. And since thinking of this story as a “critique” or a “statement” or a “commentary” would not do that very effectively, I won‘t. And yet — and here is where the ending of the story surprised me and delights me — doing it more effectively, efficiently, methodically (and all the other adverbs of Taylorist industry) is not quite as directly at cross purposes with having more fun in doing it as I think I was expecting to find in the story. After all, while the wives have their own narrative of what has happened, the blunt fact is that — after all the chalkboards, diagrams, committee meetings, and painfully inept experimentation with pleasure (and the milk cow episode is truly teeth-grinding) — the husbands actually do manage to produce a working model of a passable sexual technique that gets the job done. Working at fun, it turns out, can still be fun? But since that’s the point when the talking and discussion and chalkboard analysis comes to end in the story, I‘ll let my analysis come to a close as well.