Overwhelming physicality

Sue Thomas
Mar 18 · 9 min read

The story of a woman who, by the intense power of her imaginings, conjures a lover from a drop of water.

Photo by Marcis Berzins on Unsplash

Overwhelming physicality 1992–1995

Chapter 3 of my 2004 PhD Thesis “A Journey of Integration”.

After Correspondence I turned my attention to a different reading of physicality and, perhaps taking direction from the damp sensualities at the end of the first book, began to imagine the body and its potential beyond flesh, in my second novel Water¹. With the inorganic substance H20 as my reference point, I constructed a conceit around water and its effect on the human imagination. Where Correspondence had focused on the inorganic via metal and plastics, Water explored its penetration into human sensibilities.

In the first novel I had set myself the technical challenge of engaging the reader in a kind of pseudo-interactive narrative, experimenting with the device of fiction, and the resulting book had attracted a positive if very specialist critical reception. But I wanted a wider readership for my second novel and it was this desire to broaden my audience which led me to embed a simple storyline into a complex set of narratives about water, undersea life, the ocean, loss, longing and desire. The themes of Water are commonplace — divorce, motherhood, isolation, reconciliation — but the real interest for me lay in the opportunity to look for new ways to write about water, a somewhat obscure ambition which, although I think I achieved it, did not sit well with the rather mundane plot-line of the book, The result was not very satisfactory — this compromise of a novel was not experimental enough for the critics who had liked Correspondence and not formulaic enough for those who had not, but looking back on it ten years later, it is clear that despite its weaknesses Water formed a very logical succession to the icy estrangement of Correspondence, and its intense imaginings were certainly forerunners to the immersion I was later to experience on the internet.

Where Correspondence posited an escape from the body, Water indulged in overwhelming physicality. Writing Correspondence had been a highly cerebral experience, supported by a great deal of reading and research, but Water came out of nowhere and literally caused me nightmares. I even stopped writing it for six months in order to retrieve my unbroken nights. My research consisted of the natural history of the ocean and the lives of fish; the physiology of salt-water and fresh-water drowning, and true accounts of shipwrecks and survival.

Five Leaves Press, 1995

The book tells the story of a middle-aged woman who, by the intense power of her imaginings, conjures a lover from a drop of water. There are no computers in this book [unlike my previous novel Correspondence] but the entire scenario is driven by virtuality so strong that it can create a man and sustain him within a dream. Water operates the mind beyond the constraints of the known physical world, and does so without either machines or prosthetics. It is a book of darkness, floods, sex and ecstasy, addressing the sublime and accessing the dreaming self to visit the recesses of the body.

At the same time, I was also exploring these themes in other works. I produced, abruptly and out of the blue, a short story ‘All Strapped In’, written from the point of view of a woman confined to a wheelchair. Like the anonymous narrator of Correspondence and the phantom Ruari in Water, she is subject to the physical manipulation of others, but whilst in Correspondence the interference is deliberately solicited and trusted, and in Water it is exerted upon the powerless subject by the main protagonist’s intense desire, in ‘All Strapped In’ it is enforced by chance physical disability.

A quadriplegic woman has arranged for her carer to leave her propped up on a bench in a public park so that she can appear to be just an ordinary participant in everyday life. Her plan fails, mainly due to her unusual posture, and the only person she manages to connect with is a small girl being lifted across between her separated parents for a weekly access visit to her father. The child, too, is physically powerless. In both cases, it could be said that other people act as their prostheses because it is other people who perform the acts which keep them alive — lifting, feeding, protection. However in the child’s case the protectors themselves are under threat due to their unreliability and the fact that they are distracted by their divorce; and in the woman’s case it is clear that her carer is simply an employee with no emotional responsibility or link to her. So in effect these human prosthetics are on a par with the more obvious machine prosthetics of wheelchair and baby buggy, and in both instances the recipient of ‘care’ is secondary and neglected.²

Overlook Press, 1994

I included ‘All Strapped In’ in an anthology I had been commissioned to edit by Tracy Carns at Overlook. Tracy had published Correspondence in the USA and had also bought the first (US) rights for Water. The book, Wild Women: contemporary short stories by women celebrating women, would form a companion volume to Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With The Wolves³, a reworking of myth and legend which was a best-seller in the USA at the time. This area was new to me and I was surprised to see how well it complemented my second novel. In her introduction to my collection, Estes herself applauds the ‘psychological extravagance’ of a number of writers in the anthology — a comment which may or may not have applied to my story but to which I am happy to lay claim. Further, her analysis of ‘wild nature’ perhaps answers the question as to why I had followed the digital rule-based world of Correspondence with the analogue fluidity of Water:

‘…from the scholarly point of view, the wild nature would be called something like this: the elemental instinctual nature, a psychological and perhaps even biological drive that rests mostly in the unconscious and is often over-socialised by too stringent requirements to conform…

‘But, what of describing this nature from the inside, from the actual experience of it, for there are aspects of it that cannot be described by a sequential language alone. Understanding a bird comes not only from a schematic of the aerodynamics of its bone structure: to understand a bird absolutely requires poems so that a bird’s essence might be known…

‘So too, the psyche has its own idiosyncratic and symbolic language, one that is and has been used by mystics, poets, writers, artists, dancers, painters, and all those who want to describe, not just size and shape and duration, but depth, vitality and numinousity of matters that can never be justly counted by logistical words alone.’⁴

This clash between wild nature and socialisation is a common feature in my writing, and often manifests itself in the way I deal with physicality. During this period I also wrote for the first time about Irene, an aphasic woman whose sole means of verbal communication is via the internet and who would later appear in Hello World⁵, and a further story about disability and physical constraint, ‘Sistema Purificacion’⁶, written in 1997 but not published until 2004. (online at Medium)

My third novel, In the Sensorium, was an attempt to harness the sensuality of Water and place it under more control, but the book was never properly completed. It was here that the aphasic Irene appeared again, this time as part of a broader scenario involving a house where three women live in separate flats. One of them steals a child from a mother-and-baby home and when the other two find out they conspire to keep it. I wanted to explore the intense physical connection between mothers and babies as well as the urgency of sex and other physical interactions. There were no computers or technology issues in this book at all. Indeed it is very noticeable that during this period I was using computers in my daily life but after the surge of fascination during the writing of the early stories, and of Correspondence, I had not pursued the topic further in my writing.

From around 1991 to 1995 my interest lay principally with the physical body. Virtuality, although still intensely present, was to be found only in the human imagination and in the physiological disconnections caused by sickness and disease. The sequence of repeatedly reworked narratives described above reflects my ongoing struggle to reconcile a number of issues such as how one can communicate via words and what happens when words are taken away; how to cope with the irresistible attraction of the physical sensorium; how dreams and the imagination can transform us, and how both bodies and imaginations can run wild and become overwhelming. Until quite recently I viewed my writing in this period as something of an embarrassing aberration — much of the work was intensely emotional and obsessed with sex, the body, and various kinds of entrapment. I realise now that these writings were a natural product of the stresses in my personal life — after the break-up of my marriage in early 1984 I had developed a coping mechanism of determination combined with strict self-discipline, and so the early rules of programming had provided a welcome and familiar structure. But as that period passed and I found my way both as a person and as an artist, the Jungian undercurrents of Water came to the fore. This dualism continues to be both a strength and weakness in my work. I would prefer to sustain a level of orderly and balanced intellectualism but repeatedly I find myself not only driven by a fluctuating state of mind but also drawn to the occasional richness of its creative insights.

The period of uncertainty came to an end abruptly in 1995 when I fell into cyberspace and my preoccupations of the previous four years came together rapidly and unexpectedly. Soon my real/online existence was more absorbing than my literary life, and within a year In the Sensorium had been cannibalised once again and was reborn into its third incarnation, The [+]Net[+] of Desire. This would become my third failed attempt at the same novel, and would also mark the end of my fiction.

[Update: In 2018, 14 years after completing this thesis and 22 years after abandoning that novel, I started writing fiction again.]

This is Chapter 3 of my 2004 PhD thesis A Journey of Integration.
For more see Introduction | Ch 1 |Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6

I’m currently writing my 3rd novel ‘The Fault in Reality’, a story of life, nature and technology. Latest book: ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’. Amazon Author Page. www.suethomas.net

Paperback and Kindle


[1] Thomas, S. 1994, Water, Overlook Press, New York; 1995, Five Leaves Press, Nottingham.

[2]Thomas, S. 1994, ‘All Strapped In’, Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories By Women Celebrating Women, Ed. Thomas, S. Overlook Press, New York; Vintage, London.

[3] Estes, C.P. 1992, Women Who Run With The Wolves, Ballantine, New York.

[4] Estes, C.P. 1994, ‘Introduction’, Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories By Women Celebrating Women, ed. Thomas, S. Overlook Press, New York; Vintage, London. P.xxi

[5] This story later became a scene in Hello World and also reflects a real life experience I had when running a computer workshop for severely disabled people in Kielder Water, Northumberland. All the participants had limited life expectancy and most were already severely physically disabled. One of them told me he used the internet a great deal to chat with and meet other people. He enjoyed the net because, he said, ‘it is like being dead’. His explanation for this was that when he was dead he would be able to escape his wrecked physical form, but on the internet he could do so ahead of time. In a space where the mind is all you are, he felt freed from the constraints of his damaged flesh

[6] Thomas, S. 2004, ‘Sistema Purificacion’, Pulp Net, London, http://www.pulp.net/fiction/stories/10/sistema-purificacion.html January 2004. Esperanta and Juan are a long-time married couple living in a subterranean house of their own design. Caving and mineralogy have been their lives but now they are growing old and making mistakes. The year before, Esperanta made an error in their lab and was blinded by an explosion. At the moment of the story, Juan has lost his way in a moment of confusion and is trapped underground. Rescuers are trying to reach him. Meanwhile Esperanta, at home, suffers a stroke and instead of seeking help is prompted to burrow deeper into their cave-dwelling, intuitively crawling closer to Juan who is also underground, miles away but somehow close. Their bodies rest in the stone like trilobites, each of them separately folded into diluvian mud, then liberated a million years later by the sharp hammer of some gigantic intergalactic geologist.

Sue Thomas

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Writing my 3rd novel ‘The Fault in Reality’, a story of life, nature and technology. Latest book: ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age’. www.suethomas.net

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