Observer Review: Pandora By Jilly Cooper Essay, Research Paper
Laughing all the way to the bonkPandoraJilly CooperBantam Press ?17.99, pp558
It would be fruitless to summarise the plot of Pandora, Jilly Cooper’s new novel, for the book is too long and the story too silly. It is, however, possible to offer a paradigm plot for all of Cooper’s novels which fits Pandora snugly.It goes something like this: driven by desire, The Archetypal Shit (who has ‘manganese-blue eyes’) couples with The Beautiful Young Thing (who has ‘eyes like huge green traffic lights’). Mad with jealousy, The Trustafarian (who has ‘huge hazel eyes, like amber traffic lights’) impales herself on The Superstud (who has ‘Cambridge-blue eyes’). Keen to make her way in the world, the Tempting Temp (who has ‘eyes the colour of love-in-a-mist’) pleasures the Slightly Overweight Millionaire (who has ‘bright blue eyes’). Et cetera, et cetera.Meanwhile, in the brief intercoital pauses, upper-class life goes about its arduous duties. In the bosomy Cotswold landscape, girls called Laetitia or Fenella trot round gymkhanas on fat ponies called Snowball or Stardust. Their braying mothers sluice themselves in Chanel No 5, start suckling the gin bottle at breakfast, and dream wistfully of their lissom youths. Rubicund colonels get tight on vodka martinis in country houses, and adolescent rakehells plunder the ranks of the debs who are only too happy to be rogered by Toby, or Percy, or Henry, providing he’s got enough cash to back up his banging.Sex, money, power: it sounds a simple enough recipe. It is. And it’s one which Cooper has deployed with almost no variation over the course of seven bestselling, bonkbusting novels. Fair enough – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. About the only thing that has changed between books, indeed, is the milieu. For each new novel, Cooper has selected a differently glamorous world in which her stories can unfurl. Thus Riders was set in showjumping, Rivals in TV, Appassionata and Score! in classical music, and so on.The backdrop for Pandora is the contemporary art scene, a setting which allows Cooper to take some rather successful swipes at the Saatchi-fuelled excesses of Britart. The superbrat Sienna, for example – all piercings, pouty lips and ripped denim – manages to get Turner Prize-shortlisted for her work ‘Tampax Tower’, an edifice ‘built of used tampons sent her by women of substance’. At the Commotion exhibition in New York, an artist called Trafford exhibits his gay rights canvas, ‘Assholier Than Thou’, which ’showed a gigantic puckered anus surrounded by a halo’. Then there’s the ‘extremely volatile’ Czech artist, Galena Borochova, who likes to drench her pubic hair with cobalt oil paint before writhing, crotch down, on a blank canvas, until a suitable state of artistic and carnal climax has been reached. Jackson Pollock, stand aside.One thing to know about the Cooper oeuvre is that it’s possible to read her novels together as a grand roman fleuve: a tremendous orgy of some 5,000 pages’ durance. Most are set in the marvellously make-believe English counties of Larkshire and Rutshire, and there are several characters who pop up in every novel.Of these, the most important is the showjumper Rupert Campbell-Black, Cooper’s ravisher-in-chief, who – like so many of her men – is hung like a Grand National winner. Rupert appears again in Pandora, though in terms of promiscuity he is distinctly bested by Zachary Ansteig, a well-endowed and ‘tigerishly beautiful’ Austro-American journalist (’Ay hope ay’ll be able to accommodate you,’ protests the demur Anthea delightedly to Zac halfway through Pandora).Sexually, Jilly Cooper’s world is an idyll. No one is frigid, no one has difficulties in bed. Mutuality of orgasm is a given. There are no venereal diseases, and rarely any talk of contraception. Pregnancies, which seldom happen, are always OK when they do, if only because that introduces a potential new orgiaste into the scenario in 16 years’ time.Above all, no one seems to mind the incessant bed-hopping. If an infidelity is discovered, the wounded party mourns briefly, and then goes out and finds someone else to fuck. The only recurrent casualty in Rutshire, indeed, is marriage. Happy sex rarely takes place between husband and wife. Lots of people get married – for money or convenience, usually – but they then get on with the much more important business of sleeping around.This vision of untrammelled sexuality lies at the heart of Cooper’s success. For what she offers the British is a corrective to the stereotype of Anglo-Saxon inhibition. In Rutshire, men do not keep their socks on in bed, nor are they fish-belly white all over. Women do not lie there, Y-shaped, and count the cracks in the ceiling over a heaving shoulder. No! In Rutshire, men and women come together in glorious, celebratory, lustful, uninhibited union. And then they do it again with someone else. The powerful desire that Jilly Cooper so clearly satisfies in the British people – she has now sold 11 million copies of her novels in this country alone – is the desire to see themselves as a bawdy, roistering, sexually guiltless race.Cooper’s novels have got steadily ruder down the years. A simple statistic bears this out: in her first book, Riders (1985), there was an average of one coupling every 60 pages, while Pandora (2002) averages one every 30. The sort of sex has changed, too. Riders was full of rustic Lawrentian clinches – the women wiping themselves down with handfuls of grass or hay – and ‘lesbian’ was a sufficiently foreign concept to require capitalisation. Breasts overflowed from their brassiere like ‘a river bursting its dam’ [sic] (an image which, to this reviewer at least, conjures an unfortunate vision of a liquid uniboob loosed upon the world).There’s plenty of the same pastoral lushness in Pandora . Pubic hair rises from Galena’s pale belly ’spiky as a blackthorn copse in the snow’, and Emerald’s breasts escape like ‘two white doves’. But as well as the straight stuff, we also encounter oral, anal, incest, and a profusion of implied (but never described) same-sex shack-ups. So often does the sap rise, indeed, and in so many different ways, that the early novels now seem positively chaste by comparison. Presumably this upping of the tupping has been an attempt on Cooper’s part to keep pace with our increasingly libidinal age.It would be impossible to parody Jilly Cooper. She’s been there already; she is her own best parodist. You can’t get a bigger bounder than Rupert, a brattier brat than Sienna. Cooper is splendidly aware of just how silly her books are. And this is what people always come back to in praising her (Ian Rankin is presently her most vocal fan): her knowingness, her irrepressible sense of fun. The soundtrack to every Cooper novel is a big long giggle. So self-aware are her novels, indeed, that they’d be classed as high camp if they weren’t so ruttingly, thrustingly heterosexual.Ultimately, her priapic fictions – of which Pandora is among the best – are a definite force for good. They vibrate with glee and gusto: qualities of which we all need an infusion every now and then.