Clive Barker’s Imajica is an enormous multi-dimensional fantasy horror novel which mostly focuses on the story of three characters : Gentle, Judith and Pie ‘oh’ Pah. I’m hungry for horror fiction at the moment and particularly for queer horror fiction, which is why I picked up a copy. Rather than attempt a review, which would likely be dissatisfying for such a huge and complex book, I thought I’d focus on gender, because, after leaving it to mull for a while, that’s what’s scratching at the back of my mind. Imajica both delighted me and annoyed me about gender, so here goes.
Imajica has a few queer characters, but I want to focus on Pie, because Pie is androgyne and I get very excited about the few rare non-binary characters I come across. Pie’s pronoun is “it” in the book, so that’s what I’m going to use. I know people vary on how annoying they find “it” as a pronoun, and likely, if it really flips you out, this is not the book for you. Pie is a rare type of alien species who is androgynous and usually appears as whoever the beholder desires. Only as he falls in love with Pie does Gentle begin to see Pie’s true form.
Pie is portrayed as exotic, and I guess that’s a little problematic (I’m writing about gender and I’ve already used the ‘p’ word *waves pompoms*), but I did overall enjoy how it was written. And, y’know, it may be problematic, and on the other hand, Pie is a gender divergent character who’s an object of desire in a cool and non-creepy way, so that’s quite nice. (With the proviso that this is Barker, and you don’t read Barker if you don’t want a bit of freaky sex and psycho-sexual mess.)
Although Pie first appears as an assassin, it is a very gentle character—insightful, patient and wise, and devoted to Gentle for better or worse. There’s a theme in the book that we love the people we love, not the people we ought to love, and that’s definitely true of Pie. Overall, I like Pie and I cared what happened to it a lot, and for me, that’s what’s important. Although its story is intrinsically tied to Gentle’s, Pie has its own history, its own tragedies and victories, and I think the character is well drawn.
So, what niggled me about gender? Here’s Barker with this cool non-binary character and I’m mostly very excited and happy. But there’s an idea about gender creeping around in the background. I can see it lurking there, as I’m reading, and my old gender radar is blipping a little. I’m getting twitchy. There’s a god in this multi-dimensional world, and he represents maleness, and he has a big old phallic pillar and whatnot. He’s tried to destroy all the goddesses and destroy a bunch of other stuff. A few characters opine that men are really intrinsically destructive—that’s what they do. And when the goddesses roll up, they’re all creative and fecund. It feels a lot like an essentialist gender narrative, and a tired one. But this is the very early 90s, so, more like the 80s. One of the reasons this stuff winds me up so much is I grew up with those narratives at that time, in all their sucky and limiting glory. For a while back then, that’s what feminism looked like. (Let’s face it—for some people, it still does.) But, having said all that, Judith and Gentle both overcome the gendered suck-fest that is their unhealthy hetero relationship pattern by the end of the novel, so things aren’t all awful.
Overall? I flat out hate essentialist gender narratives. I think they’re unhealthy and hurt people. There is that lurking at the back of the novel, and it comes to the fore much more towards the end. But then there’s Pie, offering a third way, and to an extent, that does redeem things for me, but it doesn’t completely expel my creeping discomfort. I was left with two separate feelings about the way Imajica deals with gender—one involving joy, and the other, eye rolling. They exist side by side, largely unreconciled.