Books: Scuba-diving with the enemy

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Iguana Love

by Vicki Hendricks

Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99

Considered unprintably vile by its original US publisher, Hendricks's second novel continues the project of her first, Miami Purity: to hijack crime fiction and ride it on the rapids of extreme sexuality, impulsive female violence and parodic pornography till the genre tips screaming into space. James Ellroy counts himself a fan; but in tackling themes like the gender gulf in physical strength, in a novel tauntingly playful and consistently raunchy, Hendricks has blazed down a path all her own.

Her heroine, Ramona Romano, starts off seeming normal enough, with a home life, female friends, and a wish for independence. But there's a photo that haunts her, a young woman swimming in a few feet of ocean, in ignorance of the looming shadow of a shark almost brushing her skin. "I saw freedom to dare and a challenge to brute strength in her innocent power," Ramona says. Leaving her husband, she joins a scuba-diving club. Delighted to find herself the only woman, she absorbs sexual energy from the desires she provokes, especially those of the at first indifferent, brutish Enzo: the "shark" she has to touch. Soon, though, she's stunned into creeping mania by the limits her immersion in masculinity reveals: especially her lack of physical strength, leaving her dependent on men to help her when she dives, helpless to fend off their advances. The giddy pleasure of male attention crosses into frustration with being female. She feels impotent.

Hendricks crosses a line, too, from a sly toying with porn genre conventions, as her naive narrator has men literally queuing up to have sex with her, to the darkening tones of noir. Hardly noticing it happen, Ramona becomes Enzo's creature, absorbed in his whims, till she's risking her life diving for drugs. More unnervingly, the strength she draws from male attention is perverted into a need to become male, to take on the physical characteristics she lacks. Her ordinary life disintegrates in the heat of her will to reinvention, her desire for self-improvement twisted into a programme of steroid-stoked body-building, causing chemical and sexual mutation. Soon, she has a three-inch clitoris, and breast implants, to compensate for draining oestrogen. She's alien, unrecognisable to those she once loved; but she feels "perfect, self-contained".

By the time the mist clears, her old life has decayed past the point of return. Like any noir hero, the trajectory she unknowingly fell into at the novel's start has run its fatalistic course, straight into a wall, and pounded her hopes to pulp. It may seem a story of astonishing seediness. Actually, in stretching noir's sexual borders so wide, beating at the boundaries of gender in a style of deceptive intelligence and disconcerting wit, Hendricks has achieved something important and new. She has used crime fiction's unaware, victim's voice as a means to satirise neuroses and break the shell of femininity. The dead diviners of noir's masculine psyche - Chandler, Hammett and Cain - might be shocked at such manoeuvres. But Hendricks is their first true female equivalent.