“I don’t usually go to a bar with one of my students. It is almost always a mistake. But Cornelius was having trouble with irony.” So begins In the Cut, Susanna Moore’s devastating 1995 novel on which Jane Campion’s 2003 film is based. I would call it a subversive masterpiece, but I imagine Frannie, Moore’s narrator, would bristle that “master” means male teacher.
The novel follows Frannie, a divorced 34-year-old English teacher living alone in New York, as she becomes entangled in a murder investigation. She half-sees a woman fellating a man in the basement of a bar and later discovers that the mystery woman has been murdered. The book is sexy and violent, on the knife edge between desire and danger, but it’s also interested in the framing of these kinds of stories: on the opening page, Frannie deliberates over giving her students certain texts to read as “they would be so sensibly outraged by the beating, murdering and dismemberment of women that they might not be able to see the intelligence in the books”.
In the Cut is reissued as campaigners are attempting to change the law that allows “rough sex” as a defence in murder cases, after the deaths of Grace Millane and other women, and the questions it raises about why stories featuring murdered women remain so enduringly popular are strikingly timely. But to focus exclusively on the erotic or violent elements of the novel, as much of its initial reception did, is to miss the provocative things it says about power and gender more broadly – from its depiction of a misogynistic, corrupt and racist police force to Frannie’s moments of complicity.
In her increasingly intimate dealings with the homicide detectives, Frannie does not reveal herself to be a witness to the encounter in the bar, having seen only the kneeling woman’s back and the lower half of the man. And though she begins to suspect Detective Malloy, now investigating the murder, to be the shadowy recipient, maybe even the killer, the two begin a sexual relationship.
Partly because it was written by a woman, and partly due to these narrative decisions, In the Cut confounded early readers’ assumptions. Frannie is a hard-boiled heroine alive to nuance, who resists literary and social convention. Putting oneself in harm’s way, as Frannie insists, is not the same as consenting to be harmed. I hope this message is clearer on its reissue, but it is still difficult to categorise the book in 2019. Imagine Gone Girl had it been co-written by Mary Gaitskill and Lydia Davis and you’re heading in the right direction. Kristen Roupenian called it “compelling, shocking, hot, scary”; Olivia Laing found the reading experience “electrifying”. Yet when she wrote it, Moore was known for a trilogy of books set in her native Hawaii, about children and mothers, lush Hawaiian landscapes and flowers.
Today, speaking to me from New York, she says she realised she had been pigeon-holed as a “woman’s writer”. “And I found that quite limiting. So I decided that I would write a noir thriller, which is more commonly associated with male writers. It was very conscious on my part that I would make it tough and as erotic as possible.”
Early 1990s New York was a time of relentlessly violent headlines. In the novel, Malloy tells Frannie his old partner was the cop who came up with the “rough sex” defence for the real life 1986 case of Robert Chambers, who strangled Jennifer Levin in Central Park. The media called him the “Preppy” murderer, while Levin was posthumously victim-blamed with headlines such as “How Jennifer Courted Death”. Moore is hypersensitive to the effect such language has – whether weaponised against women or by them. With her black student, Cornelius, for example, Frannie (who is white) claims to use language “in a way that is ironic, and playful”, so as to rebalance the student/teacher relationship, which Cornelius sees through immediately. He is one of her “guinea pigs”, he says, exploited for entries she is compiling for a dictionary of street slang and, he correctly assumes, his sexuality. “Cornelius was brazen. Brazen is a good word. I was brazen,” Frannie says, unable to stop herself kissing him.
When Moore writes about sex, all ornament is stripped away. Her ear is pitch perfect, and she is just as attuned to the power of innuendo and suggestion. The title of the novel itself is taken from the slang Frannie collects. “In the cut. From vagina. A place to hide. To hedge your bet. But someplace safe, someplace free from harm.” Moore heard the phrase on one of the first trips she made with the homicide detectives she shadowed for her research, and right away knew it was the title, even before she had a character. Language is Frannie’s hiding place, but the book deftly uses it to expose the matrix of class, gender and race through which it operates.
Moore taught writing in prisons and women’s shelters, and wanted to write not just about the violence women suffer but “the sense of powerlessness, that there’s nothing that can be done about it. The police, at least then, in the 1990s, were not particularly keen to help when women arrived at a police station to report a rape or an assault. Just recently in the New York Times, there was an article about a survey that had been done of 33 universities and colleges in the US – from Georgetown to Brown, Yale and Harvard – and the results show that, even now, the majority of students still do not seek assistance from their university or the police after a sexual assault. So has it changed? Yes, of course, and the #MeToo movement has made a difference, but I was very shocked by that.”
What is more shocking about the book in 2019 than 1995, then, is not the violence, or the fact of a woman having sexual desire, but how little else has changed – from misogyny to the futility of reporting it. Moore tells me that if she could edit the book now, she would want to make it clearer that Frannie is no masochist, as many early readers labelled her because she appears to lack a desire for self-preservation. Walking home alone at night in certain areas of New York was assumed to be a death wish, rather than a feminist insistence on personal freedom. Given the media response to Millane’s death – as if the combination of independent travel and interest in BDSM amounts to guilt for her own murder – we still have a way to go.
In her own life Moore has “gone back and forth between the necessity to protect myself, and a defiant, even reckless refusal not to take responsibility for what men do ... and I think that’s in the book.” I tell her it is. “I’m not careful enough,” Frannie says after the first murder. “I shouldn’t take the subway. Shouldn’t talk to strangers. Should lock the door ... Well. I don’t think double-locking my door is going to keep me, or anyone else, alive ... I refuse to be intimidated. I will be careful, more careful than I have been. I will practise a more sustained, more attentive listening, but I am not going to change the way that I live.”
I found a TV interview Moore did in 1995. She is poised and articulate, but the interviewer makes her, and me, increasingly uncomfortable. He has read her book as titillation, as she later tells me many men did. He takes it as an invitation to discuss the author’s sex life on national television, using his position to attempt the seduction and/or humiliation of his now trapped guest. As if by being a woman who dared to write about sex, she’s asking for it. He doesn’t seem aware it’s precisely this kind of dynamic Moore rages at in the book that he’s pretending to discuss. His name is Charlie Rose and it’s only later I make the connection. Rose was fired from CBS News and PBS in 2017, the day after the Washington Post published allegations of sexual harassment.
Frannie negotiates a similar minefield with the detectives, if not all the men in the book: when to stand up for herself and when to be jocular and accommodating. It’s difficult to discuss In the Cut without spoiling the ending, which is like nothing else. Suffice to say it’s pretty nihilistic. “I’m saying that they get you either way,” Moore says. “They get you if you’re careful – if you try to protect yourself – and they get you if you’re reckless. Or refuse to take responsibility for their action. Either way they’re going to get you. And that is pretty dark. The book offers no consolation.” We need books like In the Cut now not simply because it’s a cult classic, both timeless and timely, nor even for hope in the dark, but to allow us to articulate that darkness.