by Helen Palmer
Prototype, June 2023
Reviewed by James Reath
Beamed in from the seedy circus shores of Blackpool—Bloomsday, 1999—Helen Palmer’s debut novel Pleasure Beach is a cult classic in the making: a lyrical riot of queer love and Barcadi Breezers, as rich in high modernist hijinks as it is heartfelt political urgency.
Orbiting the lives of three 19-year-old girls—a budding “socialist playwright” and all-round hedonist, Olga Adessi; a self-harming intellectual and sensitive wordsmith, Rachel Watkins; and a troubled single mum old beyond her years, Treesa Reynolds—Pleasure Beach unfolds across a single day in June 1999. Amidst oulipian word-games and queer structuralisms, drug addled teen lovers and commodified 1990s mosh pits, Helen Palmer reformulates James Joyce’s iconic modernist epic Ulysses (1922)—stretching-and-squeezing Joyce’s modernist take on classical Homeric form into a millennial funhouse of doodle-laden semiotics textbooks, young mums dancing to “U Know What’s Up” (1999), and End Times tourists paddling round the sunken ruins of Blackpool Tower.
The bulk of this queer and delightful novel revolves around the budding romance of Rachel and Olga, two monumentally hungover teenagers trying to make sense of the night before. In turn, Rachel’s and Olga’s experiences of the previous night are interspersed throughout the day’s more humdrum happenings. Leading the reader through 18 brief chapters—from “Telemachus” to “Penelope”—Palmer re-imagines Ulysses as a crazy quilt of 11am arguments in the local Chippy (replete with Vodka & Vimto, Cinzano, and cheesy trance tunes); 10am scooshes at the Sandcastle Waterpark (feat. Prozac, teen mums, particle physics, and Toy Story cozzies); 9pm tram rides along the Blackpool Promenade (alongside Kathy Acker parodies and skits on Mina Loy worshipping pneumatic neon mobile-phone shaped sofas); and 12am acid-trips through “Alice’s Wonderland”.
While this might sound confusing—at worse, tedious—the novel’s fragmented 24-hour timeline serves, first-and-foremost, to amplify the novel’s emotional apex: the awakening of queer love in Rachel and Olga. To this end, Pleasure Beach tends to be at its best in the emotionally fraught, early-morning scenes of the night-before. As Olga and Rachel teeter on the brink of “fall[ing] deeply, heavily, painfully in love,” they lie in bed together in “The Other Bedroom” at 4am, surrounded by empty wine bottles, exploded bath bombs, and naff CDs. “I don’t know if it’s just the drugs talking,” Olga says, “and I know I’m completely straight so it doesn’t make any sense, but I think I could fall in love with you.” In these fleeting moments the novel’s high-concept intertextual modernist trickery falls away and Palmer’s talent for arresting description and piercing yet tender (and always naturalistic) dialogue soars. “You’re so fucking special,” Olga swoons, before Rachel laughs: “Isn’t that a line from a Radiohead song? Right before he screams about being a creep and a weirdo?” Queer love’s soft and silly, Palmer reminds us, it’s full of irony and sincerity; it’s full of shame and pride; it’s a thing of mixture, confusion, ecstasy, uncertainty, and all too often, precarity. “Will we remember this,” Olga thinks as she looks at this girl she hardly knows, “It feels big and scary.”
Aside from these brilliantly constrained gooey moments, a great deal of fun is to be gleamed from detecting Palmer’s array of “cerebral fizz-pops” that deconstruct Joyce’s Ulysses (and in turn Homer’s Odyssey) alongside swaths of other cultural objects, from “blue Huba Bubas” to Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense (1969). Specifically, Pleasure Beach crumples, folds, and tears at the structural surface of Ulysses, as Joyce’s infamous “Linati Schema” is subject to what Palmer—in her academic writing as a literary theorist—calls “queer defamiliarisation.” Consequently, Palmer indexes each chapter not only with a specific “Homeric Title,” “Voice,” “Setting,” “Colour,” and “Hour,” but also an exact scientific “Formula;” a certain “Pleasure Beach Ride;” a precise “Substance;” “Organ;” and even “Hormone.”
One of the many delightful results of this is a rigorously queered structuralism that collides royal chemical formulas for ethanol alcohols and hi-tech liquid crystals with Space Invader rollercoasters, sausage barm substances, ectoplasms, and ice cream. Queerness here isn’t so much a fixed identitarian category as an invitation to indulge in what queer theorist, Mel Chen, calls “improper affiliations.” In this way, Pleasure Beach is quite fundamentally something far more than another gimmicky rewriting of Ulysses; it buzzes with a variable network of queer meanings and errant formal possibilities that underscore its status as a distinct and utterly singular novel just as in thrall to the typographic games of Christine Brooke-Rose or the intertextual collages of Kathy Acker, as it is the high modernist hijinks of James Joyce.
Furthermore, by queering the “scaffolding” of Ulysses—typically from a feminist bent—Palmer infuses stereotypically apolitical experimental modernist strategies with political urgency. As when Leopold Bloom’s obscene masturbatory act over Gerty MacDowell on the shores of Sandymount Strand morphs into Treesa’s loving female gaze upon Olga and Rachel as they smooch in the sun (in Chapter 13: “Nausicaa”), or when Palmer performs an all-female rewriting of Joyce’s all-male history of the English language (in Chapter 15: “Oxen of the Sun”), Pleasure Beach tends to reformulate Ulysses in accord with an explicitly queer, feminist, and working-class mould. The result of these experimental writing constraints can, however, feel strained.
“Oxen of the Sun,” for example, may sing as it swerves from the 23rd Century BCE poetry of Enheduanna to the modernist meta-theatrics of Gloria Anzaldúa and Hélène Cixous, but it also tests the limits of Palmer’s desire to contain the epic sweep of Ulysses in a novel less than half-its-length. Pleasure Beach tends to stylishly skim the surface of sociologically and politically destructive forces native to a burgeoning 1990s neoliberalism, such that we are bombarded with enigmatic glimpses—of single mum’s worrying about their futures, sexually predatory schoolteachers, jingoistic school bullies, lesbian teenagers, and more—that are arresting but only superficially explored.
Nevertheless, Pleasure Beach offers a tantalising and politically astute snapshot of Blackpool “at the arse end of the twentieth century”; at a time of apolitical passivity and ascendant precarity. As a time-and-place, as Palmer says, at once “afloat but also specifically in a grotty northern English seaside town.” To conclude, we might crudely frame Pleasure Beach as a queer iteration of Mark Fisher’s “popular modernism”—meaning a kind of “post-postmodernist way of being a modernist”—that rekindles the political agency of experimental modernist form by way of reworking the supposedly ahistorical post-modern jetsam of 1980s pop songs, poststructuralism, and toxic B&M Bargains. But such heavy-handed categorising belies the queer and truly radical nature of Palmer’s achievement that will undoubtedly reward readers for many years to come.