An Uncertain Grace
The novel is made up of different parts, introducing us to different characters. There is an English lecturer who seduces/rapes his much younger female students; an imprisoned paedophile, represented as victim; an android boy, built to enjoy sex with paedophiles and save real children from these predators; a teenager embarking on transitional surgery; and a sex worker.
Their stories are united by the character of Liv. A former victim of the English lecturer, she now experiments with different types of technology to sexually educate her “cases”. She begins by devising virtual reality technology to teach the lecherous academic exactly what it’s like to inhabit a woman’s body during sex. She helps the paedophile overcome his original trauma and loneliness by “pairing” him with a Medusa jellyfish; he experiences the anonymous and communal sexuality of that species in a way that proves liberating. Observing the “machine boy” at a park, a female child apparently embraces her sexual agency – despite being 12 years old – mounting the android’s phallus and reaching orgasm. (Kneen has elsewhere written about encouraging acceptance of child sexuality.) The aged Liv also teaches the transitioning teenager, who wants to achieve a gender-neutral and asexual state, to enjoy the body and its desires. Finally, she shows the “prostitute” how to achieve her own pleasure.
Liv, a writer and scientist, is clearly a stand-in for Kneen, whose sexual libertarianism has been well advertised. The lesson is that to embrace sexuality is to “live”. However, the narrative’s veneration of the empathetic, non-judgemental Liv – all the characters love and respect her – and its self-righteousness are ultimately irritating. More significantly, the sympathetic portrait of paedophilia and the naturalisation of child sexuality are deeply unsettling. Can one ignore the horror experienced by paedophilia’s victims to pursue an arguably self-aggrandising agenda of idealising sex?
Bill Henson courted controversy for much less. Kneen’s novel, always clever in its cultural references, evokes another famous photographer, Sebastião Salgado, from whose work the novel takes its name. Perhaps the author is ready for a backlash. KN
Text, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace ". Subscribe here.