Book Review

Bear by Marian Engel

simply the bestial

Bears are big and dangerous and scary. Bears kill people, bears hunt, bears are unpredictable. Bears are fiercely intelligent and equipped with non retractable claws. They have a bone in their penis, they can run at speed, they protect their young with huge force and, according to Bear (a 1976 novel by the Canadian writer Marian Engel), they’re absolutely fucking A grade at cunnilingus on human women, even if you do have to – sometimes – tempt them in with a bit of honey.

Bear is a[n erotic] novel about Lou, a woman who falls in [erotic] love with a[n erotic] bear. Lou is an archivist who is sent to archive (obvs) the library of an octagonal house, deep in the wilderness of Canada. In the octagonal house, which is on a small, private, island near the end of a river, she finds a bear, the pet of the recently deceased homeowner who had bequeathed the property to the Institute that employs Lou. Lou and the bear – who does not have a name – bond, slowly becoming more playful, more physical, until one evening when Lou – alone and horny – begins wanking, nude, on the library carpet. The bear approaches her and begins to lick her naked chest, her naked stomach, and then she grips the bear by the sides of his furry head and guides his tongue between her legs and he licks and he licks and she bloody loves it. This happens a little bit after halfway through the book, and then the rest of Bear is mostly scenes of Lou a) getting the bear to tongue her, b) trying and failing to get the bear hard so she can fuck him, c) picking up a local married man because she’s so horny for the bear’s dick she’ll take anyone’s while she can’t get his, d) thinking about how in love with the bear she is.

Bear is an unabashedly explicit novel. Once Lou’s relationship with the bear is “taken to the next level” the book swings into a clear and constant focus on sex and sexuality, exploring Lou’s previous erotic life in a detail that is absent earlier in the text. In some ways, the final 50 pages of this 120ish page novel[la] are almost different in tone from the rest. Actually, no, that isn’t fair, it’s not the tone that’s different, it’s the focus, I was right before. From the start, Bear contains allusions to sexuality and physicality (temperature, smell, touch, physical sensation as key definers of experience), however there is an implied innocence to Lou, a certain naivety – which I think is incorrectly pressed upon a reader due to the [judgemental] use of the word “mousy” in the novel’s blurb. Because, as the book goes on, Lou is found to be a very sexual individual, however it is only now, with this bear, that she is taking a firm and committed agency in regards to her sexuality. Although Lou has had lovers and relationships and affairs, she has never had lovers in the way that she wanted them, she had never had lovers on her terms.

Maybe this is how I’m choosing to read Bear, and if this is a misreading, it is almost certainly a subconscious attempt to interpret the novel so that it chimes better with my own personal narrative, my own personal sexual/romantic development, I dunno. Maybe the way that Lou felt before the tiptop ursine cunnilingus is how, for a long time, I felt about sexuality and relationships: these are things that are unfulfilling for everyone. In my former pessimistic, depressed, lonely, world, romantic and sexual fulfilment were dead ideas that other people chose to believe in, despite their falsity.

I used to say – and mean – that I didn’t believe in the existence of romantic love. For several years, I used to work at weddings most weekends. Other than on the rare occasions when no one had a good time, I witnessed these regular celebrations of love and I saw groups of strangers exhibiting such, I dunno, affection, care, for other people, that I had to go and hide somewhere and cry, have a panic attack, or somehow stop myself from doing either with great personal effort and slash or intoxicants. LOLOLOLOL DEPRESSION AND A BAD RELATIONSHIP NAHT FUNNNNNNNNNNNN.

I empathised with Lou as I read this. Passionlessness, a sense of unwanted passivity, these are things I lived through and with, for a long time, in a way that is more traditionally associated with female experience. I wrote about this a while ago, in hindsight way too frankly given my then personal situation. It was my post about The Female Eunuch, a book that confused me through its dual championing of binary gender roles AND its descriptions of the female psyche and female lived experience that reflected my life far, far, more than its descriptions of what [Germaine Greer believes] it is to be a man. As noted in my recent reflections on reading SCUM Manifesto, however, I think my sense of powerlessness has, to some extent, gone.

There’s been no literal bear in my life, but there is the bear of being no longer depressed. What this has allowed me to change, though, is that I am finally doing what I want to be doing – or, more accurately, not doing what I want to not be doing – most of the time. I’ve got just about enough work to keep myself steady, I have a rich social life, I have a fucking adorable doggy and I’ve been cracking deeper into the literary scene like I’ve always fucking dreamed of doing. As I said in my end of 2017 blog, things are looking up for Scott Manley Hadley.

And though, right now, I have a few too many loose life ends to tie up to disappear into the Mediterranean sunset like I’ve always dreamed of doing, I’m making myself lists of pros and cons of all my practical options and working out what I should do with myself, now that I have both the freedom and the psychological health to make decisions about my own life. It’s fucking great.

Something that I want to do more of, as well as write and socialise and enjoy myself and support myself and take my dog to places that make him excited, is get back into compulsive, near constant, reading. I want to read bad books so I know what not to do and read good books so I get to learn even better what I like and what I want to write likeBear kinda fits into both camps, because it finally taught me the validity of that staple piece of writing advice: “cut the adverbs”. Much of Elgin’s writing overflows with adverbs, but when her sentences are crisp and direct and explicit, the text is deeply engaging. As I read the erotic passages on the tube last week I found myself laughing uproariously, giggling to myself in shock, confusion, whatever. The detail is significant, the detail is part of the fun and part of the point.

Bear is a novel about sex, but it is more a novel about self-discovery, self-knowledge, personal growth. Lou is intrigued, sexually, by the bear, and she gets him in the way that she wants him. Despite his teeth and claws and muscle, Lou is the dominant sexual partner. Lou uses the bear for much personal pleasure and – although she does want to – never arouses him, never gets him off. This doesn’t matter, because what passes between them is beauty, is love, is something more pleasurable than (cliche klaxon) run-of-the-mill fucking. Lou knows that she and the bear cannot love forever, but while they are together, they can enjoy each other, they can enjoy each other, they can enjoy each other.

There’s an important lesson here. Everything is temporary. So have sex with the bear, when having sex with the bear is what you want.

Live in the Now, like Lou does, up in the wilderness. Cover yourself in metaphorical honey and find yourself a metaphorical Winnie the Pooh.

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