Blackeyes is probably better known as the four-part television adaptation (directed by Dennis Potter himself) than it is as a novel. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Blackeyes is Potter’s exploration of how society values female beauty and examines the subjugation and appropriation of the female voice. It does so through Potter’s recognisable tropes – a story within a story; a writer as central character; the confusing of past and present, fiction and reality and the price of childhood trauma.
As such it has a lot in common with Potter’s masterpiece The Singing Detective, but Blackeyes is a much less effective, a curiously unaffecting work.
Maurice James Kingsley is a writer in his late 70s who, after years as a has-been, produces a best-selling novel ‘Sugar Bush’ – an on trend novel about the life and premature death by drowning of a beautiful and enigmatic fashion model who goes by the name of Blackeyes. Kingsley finds himself back in the spotlight, feted for his exploration of the exploitation of beautiful young women by lascivious, older, powerful men.
Kingsley’s niece Jessica has ‘murder in her heart’ due to the fact that ‘Sugar Bush’ is actually her story – a story she told her uncle in letters and in person, a story he has now passed off as his own. By telling him of her experiences in the modelling industry, she had intended to distress Kingsley, and give voice to her own experience but instead, she has to watch his career take off again.
How many times, she wondered, would allegedly sympathetic accounts of the manifold ways in which women were so regularly humiliated be nothing more than yet further exercises of the same impulse, the identical power?
Jessica does the only thing she can think of, she needs to rewrite Kingsley’s narrative and reclaim her own story.
Being Potter of course, this present tense narrative is told in a much more convoluted way. Jessica’s story is intersected with passages from ‘Sugar Bush’, memories of her past and memories of Kingsley’s past. Featuring flashbacks and possible flash-forwards, there is a lot here for the fan of the postmodern narrative structure (or lack of structure) to get their teeth into.
This is a mosaic of a narrative, which can at times feel a little precious and downright confusing, but it does build to a surprisingly satisfying and effective conclusion.
One of the main problems I had with Blackeyes is that its attempt to highlight the objectification of beautiful women and expose male misogyny is done in an often misogynistic way. Like the Blackeyes character of Kingsley’s ‘Sugar Bush’, Jessica never comes alive with an identity of her own and remains as elusive and flat as the fictional character based on her.
This may be a knowing statement on how women are often reduced to nothing more than their bodies, but there must be a more clever way to make that point than this.
The chicken had lain on the plate in a way that reminded her (as most things did) of what it was like to be a woman in a world commandeered by men. No – she corrected herself – of what it was like to be ‘beautiful’ and young and female in sick a slaughterhouse
As a straightforward revenge fantasy, Blackeyes actually works quite well, in both structure and tone, but some scenes appear to be really out of touch. Blackeyes audition for a body cream advertisement is particularly gratuitous while Kingsley’s interview with a young literary journalist strikes a dud note, despite being seemingly based on Potter’s real experience.
Potter, as expected, inserts himself into the narrative near the end of the book in an unsettling manner, making the reader complicit in the objectification of the female characters.
Blackeyes is definitely not the best of Potter’s work and what feels dated on the page works far better on the screen. Despite the themes of the work still feeling (depressingly) relevant thirty years on, as a novel, it is strangely dispiriting and seems at times to perpetuate the very discrimination it purports to rail against.
My advice? Watch the television version. Alternatively, even skip the television version and watch The Singing Detective instead.
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