Sylvia Bayer and the Search for Rubber

By Fraser Sutherland

Reliable biographical information is scarce about the Montreal novelist Sylvia Bayer, perhaps the most unjustly neglected fiction-writer of her generation. What little we know has been vouchsafed by the author herself in a note accompanying an extract from Fetish Girl1 published in an Ottawa little magazine.

. . . I have been writing since I was eight; but my poetry was all birds and flowers, and my stories all waltzes, heartbreak and moonlight. After doing stints as interior decorator, swimming instructress and interpreter . . . I started writing this kind of thing six years ago, and my first book, Eros, My Angel (Gargoyle, 1965) had just enough success to keep me at it. I am a native Montrealer, a fourth-generation Canadian of U.E.L. (German-American) stock, and proud of it ... My favourite poet is Margaret Atwood, and I still hope to meet her some day.2

Consistently, Bayer has shunned the glare of publicity that has attended her gifted and better-known contemporaries, the fanfare of signing parties and media interviews, preferring to pursue an ambitious but intensely private vision that is unique on the Canadian scene. Regrettably, her earlier works are largely unavailable,3 but Fetish Girl remains in popular circulation, and may stand as the product of her artistic maturity. The purpose of this brief essay--the first devoted to her work, I discovered to my astonishment--will be to examine this important and increasingly relevant book, with some reference made to its social and cultural context.

     The narrative of Fetish Girl unfolds with deceptive simplicity. Ursula Ware, a thirty-year-old interior decorator, has been seeking a man who combines intelligence, physical beauty, and a love of rubber. After having suffered an unsuccessful affair,   Ursula finds herself at a motel poolside and is agreeably surprised to spot as fellow guests two men, Adrian and his friend Tony, who supremely share her affinity for the versatile substance. To her dismay, however, she discovers that the two aficionados are also homosexual. Notwithstanding, Ursula takes up a passionate, reciprocated involvement with them, and their activities include fellatio, cunnilingis, anal intercourse, and kindred ecstacies, all bound by their triadic delight in rubber. (It had been Adrian's black latex bathing trunks which had first attracted her.) The resourceful plot complicates when Adrian, sensitive because of his miniscule penis, grows jealous of Ursula's esteem for the well-endowed Tony, and resorts to locking Tony into a chastity belt. The threesome--in their various partings and reconciliations--expands to include an aged rubber roué, Mr. Phipps, who maintains two pubescent Mexican lads in latex aprons, and Phipps' statuesque black mistress, Inez, who initiates Ursula into the joys of triple-refined Singapore inter-racial sado-masochistic lesbian fetishism. Finally, Ursula resolves her quest for rubber by marrying Adrian, and forming a happy domestic triangle with him and Tony.

     Such a bare summary does scant justice to the penetrating depth of Bayer's psychological analysis, or to the subtlety with which she elaborates her powerful theme. The multilayered verbal ingenuity deployed throughout the novel suggests the post-Freudian, post-Structuralist school; in her artful deconstruction of the Oedipal code she has obviously read her Jacques Lacan well, and might even give that Paris master food for thought. One is reminded, too, of D.M. Thomas' recent, gripping The White Hotel,4 purportedly based on a Freudian case history; it is perhaps unnecessary to note that Ursula first meets her fellow fetishists at a motel, and that her vocation is that of decorating rooms--patently the familiar verbal camouflage for womb. Ursula is bent on decorating her womb. Bayer explicitly acknowledges Freud when she has her heroine say of Tony and Adrian:

. . . I can hardly wait to be in bed with the two of them once more. They've spoiled me for any one man and shown me a girl always needs two men to love her. O glorious gleesome threesome. It's what they call the primal sexual constellation, I suppose, the real Electra setup, with father and brother fucking you by turns and all three loving each other all the more because of this sexual restatement of the family pattern, the blessed consummation of a nice comfy three-way incest . . . Oh, cool it, Miss Freud; sex is going to your head, the one place where it doesn't belong.5

Ursula, we are told, began her search for rubber as a little girl after she saw her father naked in a shower "with his shiny bathing cap and big rubbery penis."6 Yet, in a startling analogue with the psychoanalytic patient's unwitting self-reveltion (like Freud's patient Lisa Erdman in The White Hotel) she says:

Come now, girl, don't quarrel with your avocation, your lot--which is simply to please. Face it: Your character is basically soft, even mushy. I suppose that goes along with your psychosexuality, your imposed status of a Dona Juana who is always looking for new loves. But how did I ever come to be saddled with this rubber business, this fetish which complicates everything still more? I really can't lay it to that accidental sight of my father--the nicest, kindest, more moral man that ever lived, even though his penis was the most hideous thing I've ever seen. Any normal, well-balanced little girl would have swallowed it easily . . . Now what am I saying? Idiot. 7

That vision of Ursula's showering father sets in motion the aquatic motif which stretches across the novel's frame of images. She first embraces Adrian in the motel pool; in a later episode, she, Tony, and Adrian stroll rubber-sheathed through heavy rain, "like a marvellous walk through water, she thought, a kind of submarine promenade by three amphibians moving in their double element."8 The trio meets Mr. Phipps at seaside, and when Ursula goes alone to a beach she is raped by a rubber-masked intruder from the sea. Her client Mr. Phipps, whose "room"--the womb again, since Phipps wears a latex brassiere--Ursula decorates, has a swimming pool in his mansion. Inez gives Ursula enemas. The champagne flows at Ursula's wedding. Each successive acqueous image, then, restates, reinstates that first crucial domestic imprinting.

     Just as Freud reached deep into Greek mythology to name the primal seat of man's desires, the Oedipus Complex, so Bayer has crafted cultural permutations of signifier and signified based on what is evidently her own thorough grounding in the classics. She compares the sea-rapist to Ulysses to Poseidon, to Glaucus, and herself to Nausicaa. Her initial perception of Adrian is couched thus: "Hmmmm: tall, wide shoulders, mini-waist, Apollonian legs and arms, small feet and hands, but all with the slight, amost feminine layer of fat that hides the bones and muscles, and gives the lazy voluptuous effect. Perseus by Canova." 9 This first impression of Adrian is precisely the point at which truth and metaphor merge, for his "feminine" aspects, his clitoris-sized penis, prefigure Inez's protruding nipples, as well as Ursula's and Inez's "shaven vulvas meeting, her [Inez's] little erected finger of flesh finding and probing me."10

     However dense the sensual matrix Bayer constructs, her light touch never falters. Space does not permit a detailed textual examination of Bayer's novelistic technique, her supple prose rhythms and deft pacing, but the author's superbly acute ear for speech should be remarked. The unforced blend of brisk businesswoman's idiom with that of a vulnerable little girl's is plain in the examples already quoted, but one should also commend how masterfully Bayer handles Black American cadences when she has Inez speak. Bidding Ursula adieu after they've first met, Inez says, "You just give me a call. Any time a-tall.... Now I give my li'1 man a good mass-age and a bit of strap for his ass. What he likes." 11

     Though Fetish Girl is set in the United States, and most of its dramatis personae appear to be American, there is at least one modest injection of Canadian content. When Adrian rescues Ursula in the motel swimming pool he says, "You're all right? Mustn't drown, you know." She detects "A vaguely English accent: Canadian perhaps?"12 Though the tell-tale confirmatory interrogative "eh?" is missing, we may take it that Adrian is indeed Canadian, and that his tiny penis symbolizes the Canadian sense of organ inferiority toward powerful America, the latter represented by the well-hung Tony. Yet Bayer is not tempted into tendentiousness, for Adrian is also the sadistic partner in the sado-masochistic pair, and can inflict pain like a cold front moving down from Canada.

     In dealing with Fetish Girl in its Canadian context, Bayer's influence on contemporary feminist-oriented fiction is one fruitful line of enquiry.  Certainly, the central metaphor of Margaret Laurence's The Diviners13owes something to Fetish Girl: Ursula Ware is, of course, a sort of water-witch. Marian Engel has gratefully--and cleverly-- acknowledged her own debt to Bayer in the punning title of her novel Bear.14 But it is in the work of Margaret Atwood, conspicuously in Lady Oracle,15 that one finds significant parallels with Bayer's achievement. The alert eye for telling detail, the sober sociological analysis, even the pixie sense of humour in Lady Oracle all owe much to the trailblazing Montrealer who has, after all, called Atwood her "favourite poet." It's possible, in fact, that Bayer did achieve her wished-for meeting with Atwood; in any case, the former's novel had a seminal effect on the latter's work. Ursula Ware's mania for rubber corresponds in Lady Oracle to Joan Foster's obsession with her own weight. Both protagonists are great swallowers, consumers of comestibles and men. Ursula intimates that she's had her fill of men.

Richard, who bought me my first rubber leotard and fucked me in it tirelessly and impersonally until I was worn out--he was really a selfish beast; Cyril, in his red latex dressing gown, who cared only for oral sex and was simply trying to escape from his humdrum wife and children; Robert, pretty as a picture in his transparent rubber nightie, but just an ineffectual transvestite. And a few others, ending up with that lovely imbecile in the black raincoat last month, and oh, God, I've even forgotten his name. 16

In the same fashion Joan, assailed by the victimizers in her past--the Polish Count Paul, husband Arthur, the"CON-CREATE" 17 poet the Royal Porcupine, the blackmailing hanger-on-of-the-arts Fraser Buchanan--retreats to an insecure temporary haven in Italy, just as Ursula had sought peace at an out-of-the-way motel. There are other points of similarity. Ursula is an interior decorator, and Joan, too, is a professional, a writer of poems and gothic romances--as is Atwood herself. Like Joan, Ursula never tires of self-reproaches. After her coupling--or tripling--with Tony and Adrian, Ursula wakes up the next day to reflect:

Men, men. She felt herself flushing with shame. They were probably still laughing at her--at Miss Nose-in-Air, Miss Round-Heels, Miss Nympho, Miss One-Night, Miss Pass-out. No wonder. Foreward, brazen, demanding hussy--Miss Bitch-in-Heat. But what did it matter now, anyway? She had been so before and would be again. That's the trouble with you, Ursula, you want things just so, the way you want them. You're too aggressive: No, face it, girl, you're just greedy for sex, you're just a common or garden pig.18

     Obviously, the "pig" image lent itself admirably to Atwood's purposes in sketching Joan Foster's character. Count Paul, the old-worldy writer of nurse novels John lives with in London (England), interfaces with Bayer's philandering client Mr. Phipps; a similar connection may be established between Tony's padlocked chastity belt and the ineffectualness of Joan's husband Arthur. Inez, who introduces Ursula to the full potential of her femininity, becomes transmogrified into Leda Sprott, the medium in Lady Oracle who confirms Joan's psychic powers. Even more significantly, Joan's childhood encounter with a dangling exhibitionist in a Toronto park points back to Ursula's observation of her father. Ursula's father has a "rubbery penis"; the exhibitionist "lifted his daffodils up to reveal his open fly and the strange, ordinary piece of flesh that was nudging flaccidly out." 19

     There can be, of course, no question of plagiarism here; Atwood pursues her own artistic purposes in the later novel. Yet she has learned a great deal from Bayer, and to her profit. Interestingly, Atwood's Joan Foster gains not just from the portrayal of Ursula Ware in the text of Fetish Girl, but from the circumstances of Bayer's own life. Lady Oracle is not a roman à clef, yet we know that Bayer's "poetry was all hearts and flowers, and my stories all waltzes, heartbreak and moonlight", thus suggesting Joan's vocational preoccupations and her askew romanicism. But just as Bayer passed through several careers before finding her métier as a dynamic modern woman and consummate professional, so Joan takes her life--and fake death--into her own hands. The further analogy to be drawn--a detailed biographical comparison between Atwood and Bayer--must await scholarly research.

     For all their lesser imitators, however, Sylvia Bayer and Fetish Girl remain utterly secure. William French's accurate words in terming Lady Oracle "an exhilarating performance," 20 apply even more strongly to Bayer's exemplary novel.

     Bayer's influence has been massive, as is only fitting, since the growth in Fetish Girl's artistic stature has been exponential since its inception. Not only is it the first Canadian rubber fetish novel, but it has taken its rightful place, without qualification or apology, as one of the most scintillating and satisfying works of our time. In the unforgettable figure of Ursula Ware, Bayer has created a character whose destiny is polymorphously refined, and thus emblematic of our post-Modernist age, and her search for latex delves deep into the phylogenetic layers of the human psyche. Moreover, Ursula's quest takes us from the origin of rubber itself, the sap latent in her father's penis, to its physical expression as adornment and desire. Like Athene bursting fully-armed from the brow of Zeus, the adversity-racked Ursula springs from the paternal fountainhead--wearing rubbers.


  1. Fetish Girl (New York: Venus Library, 1972).[back]

  2. "Canadian Writers' Cards," Northern Journey No. 1 (1971), n.p. Ellipses are Bayer's.[back]

  3. Attempts to locate Eros, My Angel have proved unavailing. I would be extremely grateful if readers could provide me with a copy, or direct me to its location. All assistance will be acknowledged. [back]

  4. D.M. Thomas, The White Hotel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.). [back]

  5. Fetish Girl, p. 44.[back]

  6. Fetish Girl, p. 151.[back]

  7. Fetish Girl, p. 126.[back]

  8. Fetish Girl, p. 74.[back]

  9. Fetish Girl, p.7. [back]

  10. Fetish Girl, p. 155.[back]

  11. Fetish Girl, p. 124. [back]

  12. Fetish Girl, p. 11.[back]

  13. Margaret Laurence, The Diviners (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974). [back]

  14. Marian Engel, Bear (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976). [back]

  15. Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976). [back]

  16. Fetish Girl, p. 78.[back]

  17. Lady Oracle, p. 239. [back]

  18. Fetish Girl, p. 39. [back]

  19. Lady Oracle, p. 60. [back]

  20. William French, dustjacket notes to Lady Oracle, n.p. [back]