Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks — Harry Gallon

Exercises in Control, the debut collection from Annabel Banks, fills the space between stimuli and reaction that resides just out of reach of the page. Cast like a fishing net, these unsettling vignettes of the everyday paint white subway walls red and smear bodies with mud and concrete. Bodies that twitch. Brains that stall. Hearts that tick over like engines, waiting for the push of the throttle. Banks invites us into the lives of these stories’ others – to be intimate. To gain insight. To learn secrets. To clean up afterwards and keep our mouths shut.

In the collection’s namesake, a transport worker on the Underground spies on a young commuter through the CCTV network. Silently, he watches her. Imagines her. Idolises her. ‘Her lips are just inside-out skin, but they are pale and smooth.’ She is to him a pet, held in his possession for the moments that she stands inside the camera’s field of vision. But the moment is fleeting, changes with a snap. A train whistle. A crack of electricity on the line. The man experiences acid reflux – a physical reaction induced by anger, when the woman throws litter into the deep, unoccupied space beneath the train tracks. But the space is occupied – by the subterranean city-dwellers who subsist on the detritus of their human counterparts. Rats, mice, unseen creatures, who, like this young woman, suffer the consequences of the man’s anger: a violent and gruesome gesture to remind her what the rules are.

If, as Banks suggests, ‘animals are a good way for children to learn about death,’ then her men are adult-sized boys, armed with magnifying glasses, squatting on anthills.

If, as Banks suggests, ‘animals are a good way for children to learn about death,’ then her men are adult-sized boys, armed with magnifying glasses, squatting on anthills. They treat women like curious playthings, running their fingers the wrong way over their fur and marvelling at their bodies – ‘tiny sacks of organs’ with ‘raspberry hearts’ – but are unable to look them in the eye.

In ‘Harmless’, however, Banks’s women have agency, and these sub-level spaces instead become populated by catcallers and wolf-whistlers and knights of the ‘it-might-never-happen’ order, who make women suffer their every vocalised thought, but who cannot believe that those same women might make them suffer in return.

Banks writes revenge deliciously devoid of remorse, because remorse need not be. The fact that this story’s protagonist does not actually commit the act herself is essential. Banks lets the antagonist commit it upon himself, because he has to. By invading this woman’s life, he ignores the impact of his intrusion on a wider scale, and bares no witness to his immediate surroundings, forcing himself, through nothing but his own ugly actions, to suffer the consequences.

Throughout Exercises in Control, woman are ‘possibilities’ and men are interchangeable. Their gaze polices women, ‘frisk[ing]’ them like corrupt police officers. These interactions are treated as part of the female rite of passage, which also happens to be the name of another story in the collection. The problem is, with that phrase comes the suggestion of an exit, a breaking through, an emergence into something better. But for women, the light at the end of that tunnel does not get any easier to reach. A better world still does not exist, and the passage narrows as each woman grows old, becoming less desirable, useable, saleable. If, then, the passage is the route to escape, the only emergence, the only exit, the only light left available at its end, is, whether at the hand of man, or by the woman’s own, death. Banks asks: Is this more preferable than continuing the struggle? When the protagonist in ‘Rite of Passage’ tries to climb through a hole in a rock, the man she is with tries to stop her, thus demanding that she continues to suffer. He grabs her legs. He says, “Oh no you don’t”. He tries his very best to take away the one freedom that only she can still possess.

Banks plays with the male assumption that power flows through them, and that the universe revolves around that power. ‘With each cell-border flex or capillary pulse the universe finds its permission to be real’, and Banks demonstrates that no prisoners will be taken as the male belief in divinity and privilege is drawn out in all its absurd, laughable charmlessness. And yet the volatility of the masculine becomes no less threatening. Though Banks writes her male characters as subjects almost worth pitying, they remain at all times dangerous. They acknowledge their potential to commit atrocious acts: a pushchair in front of traffic. A slap to the face. ‘You’re not a bad man,’ they repeat to themselves, mantra-like. And yet there is petrol in the tank. There is fuel. The men are always ready.

What Banks achieves is a deeply layered mapping of female experience that plays itself out as much in the blank space between each line as in her poetic use of language. Alongside this is a sharp, hilariously dark and excruciatingly honest portrayal of modern Britishness, with all its micro-dramas unfolding rapidly in the eaves of a society that still holds women in second place. The threat of male violence looms and is a presence ever-felt by women, keeping them caged with a strange type of Stockholm Syndrome, as they maintain the ‘soft spot under [their] breastbone’, to which awful, abusive men can cling.

These women are victims of a land, of a world, founded on violence, the unscrupulous falsifying of the past and the subsequent issuing of it as propaganda to be lapped up by generations of stunted men. Masculinity does not haunt Banks’s women like some spectre. It attacks them. It holds them. It damages and pushes and kills them. They are denied their right to edit their own past and move on uninhibited, because, even today, ‘Flesh is all [women] have… when you get down to the meat.’ In Exercises in Control, men like women ‘best on [their] knees’, and expend great energy in denying them everything but their own bodies. So, what does Banks allow her men? A mirror, perhaps – to see and acknowledge their behaviour, not simply by looking at it directly, but by forcing them to live it themselves when their ghosts become real, and their chickens come home to roost.

Annabel Banks is an Award-winning writer of poetry and prose. Her work can be found in such places as The Manchester Review, Litro, The Stockholm Review, Under the Radar and 3:AM, and was included in Eyewear’s Best New British & Irish Poets 2016. Her writing has received multiple nominations for the Pushcart Price, with further nominations for the Queen’s Ferry Press Best Short Fictions, Blazevox’s Bettering American Poetry, Best News Poets [US] and the Derringer Awards, and was recently longlisted for the Royal Academy/Pindrop Short Story Award. In 2019, her debut poetry collection DTR (Broken Sleep was nominated for the Forward Prize in two categories. She lives in London, where she is working on her novel.

Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, was runner-up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in 2017. He lives in London and is writing his third. @hcagallon