Extreme Modes of Being

I was at a reading in an artbook store a while back. The reader was an art critic to these people, reading from her latest novel. She is a novelist to me, well, a documentarian with words maybe. One of the smartest writers. A woman who made me understand literary theory for the first time, too far out of undergrad to be of use. Because of her I read more, I understood more, and I thought I could go back with all these new skills and take that master's . The universities laughed at me. The thing is, I get the words now. Until the art gallery where they spoke in a language that the book nerds know nothing of. (And where credit is due, the woman understands both. Seamlessness. She knows.) I asked a stupid question, about the book, and the answer was delivered with a smile (because she is lovely, always) but short. The last time I'd seen her I'd asked a question, that she validated in this book, but at the time was stupid. At that time the audience kind of laughed at me. This time there wasn't a single person in the room I knew, and they looked at me, at this interloper with a lexicon so different from their own, like I was some kind of  scumbag. Are you not, like us, committed to Art? Holy Art.

The night before I had that conversation that starts “I have a useless degree too...” Well, it started when we talked about what we do for a living. The bio section of all my webspaces has a joke in it, because I have no definition. Not a natural redhead, you can stop asking. Moz so hard motherfuckers wanna fine me. Not because I consciously refuse, but because I haven't one. “I'm a nothing,” I said. With my spreadsheets, 9-5, balanced diet with occasional treats, mommy-track fitness without the kids. I had to stop when I said my degree was useless, because I do use it now, occasionally. Other people ask me to write for them, and that's something.

Of course in the art room, it was nothing. I told the woman what I was writing next. The woman told me she remembered meeting me at another event months earlier. Thrilling.  “So are you a writer?” In the Q&A one of the art people had said “You've talked about extreme modes of being, can you talk more about that?” And the woman said that if you work a 9-5, have a balanced diet with occasional treats, you're living a non-extreme mode of being. “No, I'm not a writer,” I said. “I have one of those balanced lives.” She laughed.

Fake it till you make it. People declare themselves poets simply because they wrote broken lines. Applying the signifier like a magic spell. Being is insisting. I couldn't ever play this game because I do not use words so lightly. I'm a reader first, and I think because of that I'm very protective of who should be called a writer.  Titles have meaning, and to misuse them is to deny them power. If everyone is special, no one is. I always feel like I need to provide some definition, reach some currently undefined peak before I'm really allowed to exist. How did I get to 36 and still have to say “I'm nothing”? Why did I look that woman in the face, that woman who was never a writer until the day she was and say “I'm trying” not “Yes, I am a writer.” And when you want to live, how'd you start, where'd you go, who'd you need to know?

The Art Kids nodded so knowingly when it was suggested that one must dedicate oneself entirely to an art. That one must have an extreme mode of being, one must give up all the trappings of a comfortable life, risk it all. They nodded, wearing their small boutique bought clothes, their Fleuvogs.  It made me doubt any of them were lacking a safety net, should it all fall apart. So much art is privilege. I asked the woman if her book's character, middle-aged and comfortable, was tempted to hand over all her money because she had the guilt of privilege. If a comfortable writer, interested in social justice, who hasn't always been comfortable, sometimes wants to level themselves down again. Or if it's just all easier to fall back into a bourgeois hole? The safety nets for women are so often their men, and if I deny myself that (a safe man) to be on my own, and 9-5 on my own, and make my own balanced meals, is this any less of an extreme mode of being? Isn't being a fully independent female pretty god damn extreme? I'm not sorry if I don't spend 9-5 thinking about my art, because I'm paying my bills, extremely. Pardon me, Art Kids. I'm just trying to live in the world.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan

This blog is named after a Morrissey* song.  I had the live version on a tape, the b-side of "Interesting Drug."  Driving on the streets of my home-town I'd roll down the windows and crank up the volume and scream et cetera! et cetera! et cetera!.

On Friday I went to see a Morrissey show, my second, eight years after my first. Angry at him for not playing Canada any more, furious at the hypocrisy, but still owing so much.  Below is the last song of the set, before the encore.  When it started I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  This hadn't been on any of the set lists.  For the first 30-odd seconds I just kept saying "Holy shit, holy shit!"

I read later he's not done this live since 1988.  That tape I had.  During the encore of "How Soon is Now" I tried to get over barrier to get that hug I was scared of in 2004.  I didn't make it, but Moz did shake my hand a minute or so later.  I cried, I left the show crying. I sat on the curb in the middle of a boarded up apocalyptic street-scape in Niagara, NY (that they forgot to bomb), and I wept.  Because I was given so much.

We're older.  It just wasn't like the old days any more.  But there are joys, still, to leave you weeping on the curb.

*Yes, originally a Smiths song, but not how I know it.

Get Off

The latest round of my Yelling on Twitter revolved around a recent rabble.ca article by Megan Murphy.   In it, Murphy makes some pretty wild assumptions about BDSM while discussing the case of an RCMP officer who was found to have posted pictures on Fetlife.com.  It's unnerving that in this analysis, Murphy completely ignores the sexual agency of women.
The recent push of a ‘sex-positive’ ideology which has permeated our discussions of sex and sexuality in North America says that anything goes so long as it happens in the privacy of our bedrooms and is ‘consensual’. 
Murphy, as we will learn, disapproves, with some seriously second-wave ideas about men and sex.  I get where Murphy is coming from.  I'm a bit more 70s radical than a lot of my feminist friends. For example, I'm generally pro-sex-worker, but not pro-sex-work (due to its gendered nature, and the very real dangers women in the industry face).  But feminists have worked a long time to have the world recognize that women have sexual desire.  In the name of feminism, Murphy would rather erase all that to make a point.
We’re only permitted to say ‘he should have kept it hidden from public view’ because to say anything else defies the modern ethos, post-sexual revolution, that says: Sex is always good. Erections are always good. If it turns you on, so be it.
 For Murphy, for the purposes of this article, it's the erection that dictates sex.  Again, this is something feminists have been fighting for a long time, trying to erase the idea that PIV sex is the only sex that counts.

 Do we really believe that any man who gets off on degrading women in his ‘private life’ somehow doesn’t bring those views into any other arena? Is his fantasy of abuse and domination erased the minute he shuts off his laptop or leaves the brothel?
 A couple issues here.  The first is that, yes, some men do have fantasies that aren't related to anything outside a sexual context.  But so do many woman.  Nancy Friday's first book, My Secret Garden (1973), gave voice to — among many other topics — women's rape fantasies. If we are to believe them, that their fantasy does not equal the desire to actually be raped, how can we think that men are so different, unable to make the distinction? 
Based on the upset and the level of disgust coming from the public with regard to Brown’s behaviour, the answer is ‘no.’ If we truly believed that what happens behind closed doors has no real social impact, I doubt that people would be so upset.
I agree with Murphy here, though for different reasons.  Yes, the popular conception of BDSM is upsetting for most people (Murphy's "we").  They don't engage in it, and they possibly don't understand it.  It can be scary to have to confront something so totally alien to your current existence.  Conflating sex with violence (to be simplistic about it) isn't for everyone.  Beliefs, however, can sometimes have very little to do with fact.  Sure, there are probably some awful people into BDSM, but there are awful people into all sorts of things.  I'm sure there are awful celibates.  In my opinion, BDSM is no more a misogynist practice  than any heterosexual sexual encounter.**  (There's also a total erasure of gay and lesbian BDSM practice here.)  Murphy not only ignores the desire of any woman that would enter into a submissive relationship, but the proportion of women who are dominants and men who are submissives. The only mention of female dominants is of Terri-Jean Bedford, who is not at any time called a dominatrix (ie her chosen professional identity is never mentioned).  Murphy devotes almost a whole paragraph to pathologizing her interest in bondage, recounting Bedford's abuse as a child.  How very 50 Shades, Ms. Murphy. 

On her Twitter page, Murphy has a real laugh about the reaction of those involved in BDSM, and says she doesn't "care about your SECRETNAUGHTYOHSOBADANDWRONGANDREBELLIOUSKINKY sex life." Again, Murphy discounts women's sexual experience and preference as important or real (the mockery factor is off the charts here). The loudest negative reactions to the rabble article were by those that have — at the least — some interest in BDSM. Recounting experience, and speaking up as normal functioning members of society, is a necessary part of erasing stereotypes and misconceptions.  That Murphy doesn't want to hear from individual women is disheartening.  Dehumanizing experience into overarching theory and sociology is, I think, inherently anti-feminist.  Do we not want to get away from the idea that women are one thing, and one thing only? 

Murphy is correct when she tweets that BDSM isn't free from misogyny.  Our world is not free from misogyny.  The inference that it's all about misogyny is the problem.  There are a lot of things to think about, around sex and misogyny, and I think it's even possible that BDSM practices would lose something in an egalitarian world (and if I could only have one or the other, I will definitely take equality). However, "Private fantasy, public reality" refuses the possible avenues of conversation with its Murphy Knows Best attitude.

In a funny coincidence, I was reading Venus in Furs the day this all happened. In it, the submissive is male.  (The masochist "M" in S&M comes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the author.)  I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to this book.  A friend mentioned the closing paragraph to me a couple weeks ago, and while she quoted it pretty much verbatim, it's still a wonderful surprise to find the following at the end of a 19th century, male-authored work: 
The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.  She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.

And this tied in so perfectly with the Firestone I had just finished:
A man must idealise one woman over the rest in order to justify his descent to a lower caste.  Women have no such reason to idealise men—in fact, when one's life depends on one's ability to "psych" men out, such idealization may actually  be dangerous—though a fear of male power in general may carry over into relationships with individual men, appearing to be the same phenomenon.  But though women know to be inauthentic this male "falling in love," all women, in one way or another, require proof of it from men before they can allow themselves to love (genuinely, in their case) in return.  For this idealization process acts to artificially equalize the two parties.Love requires a mutual vulnerability that is impossible to achieve in an unequal power situation.  Thus "falling in love" is nor more than the process of alteration of male vision—through idealization, mystification, glorification--that renders void the woman's class inferiority.
-The Dialectic of Sex
Severin, the male submissive, understands (as Masoch did) how falling in love is not free from the machinations of power.  He goes beyond lowering himself in caste to love his woman as an equal, but finishes the job by giving her total power over him, signing his rights away to her, and begging for physical punishment.  Wanda, for her part, knows about the "psych out" and the closer she and Severin get, the worse she treats him.  This is foreshadowed early on:
Don't you know me by now? Yes I am cruel — since you take so much pleasure in that word — and am I not entitled to be cruel?  Man desires, woman is desired.  That is women's entire but decisive advantage. Nature has put man at woman's mercy through his passion and woman is misguided if she fails to make him her subject, her slave, no, her toy, and ultimately fails to laugh and betray him.
So how is Wanda able to be on top at all, given the constraints of the unequal power dynamic in the world?  Firestone notes that "[i]n addition, the continued economic dependence of women makes a situation of healthy love between equals impossible."  Masoch has a way around this, and gives Wanda has all the power a woman could possibly have at the time: she is young, beautiful, and a very wealthy widow.  The conditions under which she would need to chase Severin or need to keep him around are null. Masoch is aware that Wanda could never be an agent of her own destiny without these gifts.

Does BDSM only exist in a society in which the sexes are unequal?  Since we've never lived outside of that society, there's no real way to tell.  As I've said, it's very possible that power games lose something when there's no real power dynamic to re-enact or fight against. I think it's very possible that male dominants are acting on urges that a patriarchal society says they should have, but their more progressive (and I'd venture to say true) nature says aren't acceptable.  It's not at all original to think that the taboo is what makes it exciting for both parties.  Further, I contend that most of them men who hit a woman consensually would never do it outside a sexual context; the taboo nature would be lost otherwise.  (Just as rape is not about sex, neither is domestic violence.)  If a woman would like to act out those desires with him, or if either of them would like to flip the script, in a consensual way, then yes, let them. So if, in fact,  you really don't care about their SECRETNAUGHTY-OHSOBADANDWRONGANDREBELLIOUSKINKY sex lives, maybe stay the hell out of it?

Update: Megan Murphy responds. You know, I think part of my problem is that she talks to other feminists, those of us ostensibly on the same side, like we were little children or MRAs.  "I don't give a shit about your leather fetish." "I don’t care how much super awesome empowering fun stripping on stage for an audience is for you." That's her schtick, though. It's fine.  And there's a lot to like in her response, things I'm definitely on board with, like which of our "choices" (her examples include wearing makeup) are really capitulation to a patriarchal standard.  I'm even down with the idea that porn, pole-dancing, and yes, BDSM are not particularly feminist (and most people I know would disagree with me here).  As I've said before, I don't watch porn for the feminism. So if  Murphy didn't talk to me like I was a particularly exasperating 12-year-old we might meet up ideologically somewhere.  Though she probably wouldn't give a shit.

*Bitch Magazine is doing a series with both sides of the issue here
**There are feminists that would argue this very thing!

 And this isn't even going into the many men and women who "switch" and can take on either role, for whichever reason is appropriate for them.

What She Said

Shulamith Firestone is one of those super-scary 70s feminists, the kind people seem to carry with them as proof that feminists are castrating harpies. (Strawman! Drink!)  Firestone was a revolutionary, and The Dialectic of Sex (1970) calls for nothing less than dismantling the entire notion of "family" and complete freedom from biology to release women from second-class status. It hasn't happened, but you get the feeling she really thought it might.

But Firestone isn't scary at all.  Like a lot of works that go out on a limb, The Dialectic of Sex would have been threatening to a patriarchy intent on retaining power.  She was also writing from a Marxist perspective in a country that had gone on a communist witch hunt 20 years earlier.  I read about half of the book many many years ago, and the idea that women are controlled because we are the means of production, has always stayed with me.  I'm sure it informed my later choices about family. 

Firestone rejected the idea that the 60s had liberated women's sexuality, insisting that all it had done was make sex more readily available for men, who could then refuse women their only protection in a still oppressive world: marriage.  Why buy the cow?  And why are we cows anyway?

Very little has changed since Firestone wrote, and some things have gotten worse.  Female Chauvinist Pigs is a good contemporary examination of the idea that liberating women's sexuality isn't -- in many ways -- really for us.  The ideas of acceptable beauty have gotten narrower -- as have our acceptable bodies.  And with the rise of attachment parenting, women are being taught that returning home for 24/7 parenting is the ideal.

Firestone's work  is learned, serious, well-informed and solidly researched, but with the ability to imagine wildly and vividly.  She's also funny, which is unexpected.  After re-shaping Freud's Oedipal and Electra complex as a societal, rather than inbuilt unconscious phenomenon, she says:  "Really, Freud can get embarrassing." She was 25 when she wrote Dialectic.

But the point I wanted to get to, is about the chapter entitled "(Male) Culture."  It begins with an epigraph from Simone de Beauvoir:
Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.
Given the time I've spent thinking and writing about the nature of criticism (and the sometimes sexist responses that follow) over the weekend, it was significant that I'd read the following paragraph today:
We may also see a feminist Criticism, emphasizing, in order to correct, the various forms of sex bias now corrupting art.  However, [with] that art which is guilty only of reflecting the human price of a sex-divided reality, great care would have to be taken that criticism be directed, not at the artists for their (accurate) portrayal of the imperfect reality, but at the grotesqueness of that reality itself as revealed by the art.  

Come at Me, Bro

When the TV show Girls came out, I bemoaned the excess of coverage, not just of the show, but of the responses to the show.  However, I'm about to critique a critique of a project in part spurred by a critique of a critical method. Still with me?  Allons y!

In the National Post this weekend, Michael Lista took issue with one of the editors interviewed on the recent CWILA website:
 On the eve of what many hope is a new era of criticism in Canada, I was surprised to find that one of the three essays framing the CWILA discussion is one by Jan Zwicky entitled “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” which we can charitably call spooky and meretricious, but is probably deserving of a much less friendly repudiation.
Lista then goes on to show his readers what a negative review looks like, with stealthy name-calling and florid half-insults. "The good in bad reviews" is an excellent example of how negative reviews are sometimes more an exercise for the reviewer to flex and sharpen rather than really engage with the text.

In reponse to Zwicky's assertion that if we are assigned a book we dislike we "keep our mouths shut," Lista says:
What a miserable, low thing to tell another woman, another writer, another human.
How strange, to tell a woman what they should and should not be saying, in a response to a project that tackles women's under-representation in reviews.  If "[t]he purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it" then this piece, with its gleeful silencing of Zwicky and other possible voices, fails.  For if others have the slightest timidity, they are advised to "put your poems in a goddamn drawer."  I'd assume this advice is not limited to the "too many" poets, but to novelists and playwrights, other reviewers, writers all.   (And there are indeed lots of poets; Natalie Zed has a handy list of  poetry books by female writers right here.)  It is not unreasonable to think that at least some of the people who dedicate their lives to the solitary practice of writing might fear social approbation, yet may possess many talents.  Even George Eliot was protected from bad reviews by her lover.* (On this topic, Jennifer Weiner -- she of Not Serious Literature --  wrote an excellent blog post about not trashing other female writers in public.  It's worth a read.)   Having gone the long way around, it's now time to point out that Zwicky's point about not writing negative reviews isn't about sunshine and unicorns and everyone getting along.   (Lista's "Cue the violins" is a total misdirection; Zwicky's piece is actually fairly pragmatic.)  Rather, the limited space in publications is better used to highlight books deserving praise.  The cream, it's thought, rises.  Zwicky writes:
I don’t think reviewers should take it upon themselves to right such wrongs by slinging invective at Q’s work. Far more effective to use the column space to draw attention to the great stuff P has been producing. [...] Again, the reviewer who’s feeling truly spiteful could probably do much more damage by drawing the public’s attention to Moderately-Well-Known Author P and saying almost nothing about Famous Author Q, than by fuming about Q in public. 
"Call me old-fashioned," Lista says, "but I think the truth sounds beautiful, and there’s an intrinsic value in discovering what writers think of each other’s work. ." Okay, I will.  The idea that there is one objective truth about any given title smacks of the oldest, whitest, male-est pedagogical method.  Now, I'm all for negative reviews: I've written a few furious blog posts myself.  But I'm also fine with the editorial choice to have reviews that are for the most part informative.  I don't need to have my opinions spoon-fed to me. I want to understand something about the content of the work. I want to be given enough information to excite me about the literature.  That not weakness, and it's the most important kind of honesty, with all subjection and possible grudge set aside.**  I'm a fledging reviewer myself, and I'd hope that if I choose to be informational rather than emotional (so female!) in my professional (off-blog) writing, I might get noses into books they hadn't considered before.  And coincidentally, that is also what I do in conversation.

Update: Jan Zwicky responds in the National Post: "Where he and I part company is over the idea that a kick in the nuts is a good way to start a conversation."

*A.S. Byatt, in her introduction to The Mill on the Floss.  
**But this is a blog post, and I'm allowed to get a little snippy.
And instead of writing paid reviews, I wrote this. I'm sending an invoice for my time!

Mini Review: The Complete Lockpick Pornography

There's a moment where the narrator of "We All Got it Coming", Arthur, is being jerked off in a public bathroom by his boyfriend Clay.  Clay's recounting a story told to him by a woman he fucked the night before.  In the story Clay is tied up and forced into various sexual acts by other men.  Arthur comes before Clay is finished the story.  "Christ, he's hot."

"On the way out of the bathroom, I notice that under his uniform sweater, there's a T-shirt tag sticking out.  He's been walking around all day with his T-shirt on inside out.  And he's mine."

It's these small moments -- like Arthur ruminating on the sad moments in otherwise funny comic strips, or what your favourite Muppet says about you -- that make The Complete Lockpick Pornography what it is: smart, hot, and beautiful.  I preferred the second part, "We All Got it Coming to the titular "Lockpick Pornography" in which a gang of queer men and women devise schemes to fuck with the straights, not just the identifiable the bigots.  "Lockpick Pornography" is more thoughtful; it spends more time on the meaning of gender, and sexual identity, diversity, and flexibility. However, it's "We All Got it Coming" that stirred this reader's emotions.  "We All Got it Coming" is the section that speaks of love: filial, fraternal, and romantic. 

It was a good idea to combine these two pieces into one book, because it gives the reader a chance to see what Comeau is capable of, how he can grasp a wide range of human experience, how smart he is.  Comeau can find the sweet moments in a bathroom handjob, and it's truth. 


There's a scene from Sex and the City where Miranda chokes on some Chinese food in her (super huge) bachelorette pad.  This gives rise to her fear of living, and dying, alone.  Of course, everything turns out just fine for Miranda, arguably the most independent of all the gals.  And by "fine" I mean she gets a man and a baby and a house in Brooklyn so, yay, nuclear family ending!  There was always ambivalence about the whole situation in her character though, and I get that.  I live alone too, and I don't think about it much.  I'm still young enough to feel like being frail is a long way away.  I like my space, I don't want kids, etc etc. 

Going Solo seemed like one of those books I'd read to shore myself up, have someone preach to my choir.  The sunny sounding subtitle: "The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone" makes it sound like the kind of book where I'd find stories like mine, get some interesting statistics, learn about why people my age(ish) choose singledom.  That's all there, but it's in short supply.  Author Eric Klinenberg interviews the creator of Quirkyalone, talks to some divorcees, and is — thankfully — aware that the experience of, and the journey to, living alone can be very different depending on one's gender. There is also a thoughtful analysis of how and why the nuclear family structure common in the mid-20th century has changed (mothers got to work outside the house, and this move is treated as the radical change it was) and interesting thoughts about community planning for the future.  A lot of the singles in these sections are happy, having chosen to live alone. "Most people who live alone are financially secure, not poor, and those who purposely use their domestic space as an oasis from their busy, stressful work lives report that it is a regenerative, not an isolating experience."

However, more of the book talks about the elderly, and the challenges they face as they age.  Most of those profiled are widowed, so they are alone not by choice. Several are poor, or finding it difficult to get by, while not wanting to go into a nursing home where care is often substandard (and getting worse, as corporations increasingly look to the bottom line and nothing else). Klinenberg also talks to the indigent, mostly men, who populate New York's Single Room Occupancy buildings.  The main thrust of the book is more that
[t]he extraordinary rise of living alone is not in itself a social problem.  But it is a dramatic social change that's already exacerbating serious problems for which there are no easy solutions: Social isolation for the elderly and frail. Reclusiveness for the poor and vulnerable.  Self-doubt for those who worry that going solo will leave them childless, or unhappy, or alone.
There's not a lot of feel-good going on here. And what was worse for me, the only person in the book who resembles me shows up only as a corpse.  "Mary Ann" dies at 79 without any family, and Klinenberg accompanies the state worker who is charged with trying to find someone to lay claim to Mary Ann's meagre estate.  There's some weird language used about the older people in Going Solo: for example, an older woman who bemoans her lack of companionship is described as being sad that she had no one to complain to.  That felt pretty unfair.  Another profiled senior is noted as making racist jokes, though this has nothing to do with the topic at hand (unless the implication is that his racist jokes made him an outcast?).  Klinenberg also talks about his grandmother, who lost her second husband as Parkinson's Disease began to take hold of her.  Fortunately, she had children who would chip in for the very best of care.  This is not to say the experience in an assisted living home is perfect, but she's lucky she had help. Perhaps "lucky" is the wrong word, since most of the elderly alones in the book have some sort of family support system.  (The same can't be said for the men of the SROs though.)

I often read motherhood narratives because they reinforce my choice to be child-free.  Perhaps parents will want to read this book and be glad they had those kids.  I will never have children, I will not marry* and I have no siblings.  When it goes wrong for me, in my old — or possibly not so old — age, it's going to go very, very wrong.  The old joke about dying and being eaten by one's cats before anyone notices?  This guy.  Before I read Going Solo I honestly didn't mind my lack of family too much, but thanks to this dreary and scary book, I'm terrified.
*"I will live my life as I, will undoubtedly die: alone."

The Deen Crush and Kink Obfuscation

Graphic sexual content ahoy.  If you're not cool with that, read no further!
In my early 20s I watched porn. As a young adult I was still testing boundaries and learning how the world worked.  As weird as it sounds, porn had value.  I learned that the human body is a funny thing. Budgets are so much smaller for porn, and it's shot much more quickly, and as a result the "flaws" on a body are all present and accounted for.  Even the "perfect" porn bodies had zits and marks and wrinkles and blemishes.  Porn was the most honest expression of the human body in media.  And it was funny, at least to me.  I'd watch it with friends or lovers, making a Mystery Science Theater out of it, deducting points for bad form or lube wastage. I even wrote a paper for a Women's Studies class about how Pornogothic was a better and less offensive movie than John Carpenter's Vampires.  But I never watched it alone, and it never turned me on. Until this year; until James Deen.

I've always enjoyed written smut, but the visuals never did anything for me.  I accepted this, because porn is not marketed to women.  Erotica is, but I don't really go in for soft-focus and love-in-a-field.   Then, this year, a friend told me about James Deen. "He's amazing," she said. "He really likes to make women come."  That sounded a bit soft-focus to me, so I sort of brushed it off.  Then I saw him in a video suggested to me by another friend, and I suddenly Got It.  She didn't mean he was "making love," she meant he was really, really good at his job.  I've seen him make a professional porn star (I'm assuming she has a level of detachment that can enable her to perform as directed) lose herself in the act so completely, she screamed "I love you!"  He laughed, and It. Was. Gorgeous. 

Months later, I read the Good article "What Women Want: Porn and the Frontier of Female Sexuality." It focuses on Deen, and his seemingly incongruous teenaged female fan-base.

Deen is not supposed to be the star of his scenes—his sex partners are. But on Tumblr, a network of teenage bloggers*has emerged to turn the focus on him. The young women trade Deen videos, post candid photographs, and pluck out all the minute details that turn them on: the way he looks at a woman, touches her, stares into her eyes, whispers in her ear. “There was just something about the way he moved,” Emily says of her first exposure to Deen. He seemed to be “speaking to the girl, but not with his mouth, with his hand over the girl’s throat, and with his eyes.”
Deen’s young fans gush over the sight of him thrusting into a woman while holding her hand. They sigh over a private photo of a clothed Deen commuting by plane. They create animated GIFs of Deen’s greatest moves so they can watch him execute them again and again and again without rewinding. They pepper their Deen fantasies with Harry Potter jokes and circulate them to other girls. Several propose marriage.
Via 100 Interviews
Cue the moral panic: teenage girls are not supposed to be sexual, they're not supposed to enter the clubhouse where the boys are.  ABC's Nightline did a feature on Deen, with all the hand-wringing expected when young women decide they're into sex.  But, as usual, the people who are most concerned are the ones who aren't hearing anything the young women are saying.  When interviewed, the young women report that they like how "normal" Deen is, how his scenes border on romantic. Tumblr swoons when he kisses a girl.  All the innocence that the Concerned Adults are worried about stays firmly in place, even after viewing all that porn.  Make no mistake, there are a lot of naked-bit .gifs, but they're often accompanied by expressions of longing for the person, not the act, and when he does something that makes the girls uncomfortable they're vocal about it.  One wrote that the money shot, the one thing you can count on in porn, isn't something she'd want to do in real life.  Given how internet savvy most young people are, it's likely they'd have found an interview which he says he respects his partners' limits.  "[For example] there’s no reason to choke somebody if they don’t like getting choked," he says. "Then you’re basically being an asshole." Much is made about Deen's boy-next-door looks, but he's not superstar handsome. The important part is that he's a part of a sexual context for teenaged girls in a way that the Biebers of the world aren't. The Deen Crush validates their human nature, that being a teenager is a hormone filled hornball experience, while letting them squee about those big blue eyes.  Sex, as it turns out, doesn't ruin a damn thing.**

I'm as obsessed as the teens, for ostensibly different reasons.  The connection is that as women we can't stop watching because it's all hard to believe. Something for us? Really!? It wasn't meant that way, it wasn't pitched that way, it's not even produced that way, but that's how it ended up. I think it speaks to an idea that men and women are not very different after all. It turns out that women also like to watch.  However, unlike how porn is traditionally experienced by men, the women who are into James Deen are talking — a lot. There's ownership of interest. It's not shameful and private, it's shared and memed.

My introduction to Deen was through an S&M scene, and it's the only context I've seen him in.  So while the teenagers are watching the vanilla stuff, there's a whole other side that is almost never acknowledged in the media.  Maybe they're afraid the teenaged girls will find the kink? (Though as above, the girls who aren't into it feel they have enough agency to say so.)  The Nightline video — which you should only watch if you want to kill your ladyboner, and fast — pulls clips mostly from  TV show parody porn, probably because they want you to think the porn industry is targeting children by making cartoon spoofs.  (Who knows, but Deen in yellow paint as a porn-Moe Syzlak is not hot.) The first mention I've seen of his work in S&M was in the New York Observer's piece "The Boyfriend Experience."
“I’ve been into rough sex pretty much my whole sexual life and so I’m not, like, bad at it,” Mr. Deen told me by phone last month, on his 26th birthday. “I don’t know how to say it without being a hideous prick, but I’m pretty good at having rough sex. It got to the point where a lot of girls who aren’t into that type of sex were afraid to work with me because they thought I was going to slap them in the face or something.  But I only do that if the girl is into it."
"James Deen is gonna get me kicked out of feminism."

According to the Observer, one third of his output (hurr hurr) is in the realm of kink.  But unless you're watching it, you probably wouldn't know it exists. (I've watched it. A++.  Would porn again.)  Maybe it should be that way; kink is only kink because it's not so common.  But why the erasure?  Especially in the age of this awful Fifty Shades of Grey thing.  Is S&M only okay if it's in print? If it's so badly written as to be completely implausible and thus, safe?  I've read part of Fifty Shades, and as my friends know, I spent a good deal of time rolling my eyes and yelling "That's not a thing!"  Anastasia Steele is a reluctant virgin, which is probably an oft used porn setup in itself.  Christian Grey is into bondage because he's got a very damaged psyche.  From what I can figure, Fifty Shades of Grey is getting a cultural pass because their foray into BDSM is a phase, and what they really want is to hold hands and make love in a field or something.  (And we're back to the teenaged girls.) It's a new cultural conception, this the boy-next-door porn-star, and the world isn't quite ready for him to be into suspension,spreader bars, and fisting.  What's amazing is that we have this boy at all.  Small victories.

*They might be teenagers, but that link is absolutely NSFW.  
** Through all this, I totally acknowledge that there are teenaged girls who aren't into that at all. How could I not?  

Further reading:
 James Deen: The Tom Cruise [whaaaa? Brits are weird] of Porn 
Porn That Women Like: Why Does It Make Men So Uncomfortable?  

"I'm gonna sing the Doom song now!"

Full disclosure*: Natalie Zina Walschots is a very good friend of mine. I actually made a sort-of rule never to write about my friends' books, and at this point in my life, I know a lot of people with books. I consider it a real privilege to know them, and I will always buy your book, I will always come to your launch (if I'm not in Paris, sorry Dani!!). But to write about your book, when I know you? Too hard. Too responsible. Too nit-picky. But this started as a Goodreads review that got away from me. So here, friends, is what I think of Doom: Love Poems for Supervillains.  

Doom is a loving taxonomy, geography, and pathology of villainy. The way Natalie places her words creates texture and sensation, and twice I lost my breath reading ("Beef" and "Purgatory"). The language of Doom is sexual and scientific both. Tricky territories each; often writers who delve into them veer to shock value in the first and wild error in the second. Natalie does neither. Rather, she communicates to the recipient of each love poem (and to the reader) that beauty is only skin deep. These opponents to all that is Good are often violently marked, superficially ugly ("forget naked", "a face only a geneticist could love" - "Doombot"). The parts, then, become the sum: dendrites and keloids, loving like “gamete and spore” “longing for polyploidy lethal multiplicity” (“Fusion”).

In "Beef," a poem written not to a character, but a disease, the host swoons into
a           mind         full   of   prion   ic    ho   le      s
It takes a lot of balls to write a love poem to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.  The poems in Doom must, as their inspirations demand, disturb. The back-stories of super-villains are rarely cute. "Clayface" is just that, something having gone wrong in an operating room: "their graft left you semipermiable / wet membrane." That is a sticky image that hurts my cheeks. In "Mr. Freeze" "my core hoards warmth/ for romantic debridement". Any time I hear or read that word, "debridement" (warning, the picture on that link is really gory, and kind of speaks to my terror), I have an instant horror scenario play out in my head. So it's stunning to me someone could conjoin it with "romantic." And yet, there are deeply sensual poems, like “Green Goblin”
my tongue to Lycra
                your ear fricative
                as liquid latex

                your every cleft a stretch
                my every thrust
a rubber gumball
or the poem spoken by the personified "Stryker's Island":
my fault lines oozing magama
you ease my tectonic plates apart

you finger each steaming caldera
kiss each metamorphic plane
And "General Zod" is everything you'd expect a poem about a mean guy in black leather to be.

I was trepidatious about reading Doom, as it is necessarily inter-textual; the characters all exist in previous works. My frame of reference is totally lacking and so I thought my understanding would be impaired. Now I realise that not knowing who these mythical and comic/graphic-novel baddies are might be a really interesting way to approach them. If all you have is Natalie's word on the subject, you're going to believe her; the poems in Doom are just that confident.  


you branded my amygdala 
laser inscribed on my hippocampus 

your drunken boxing 
     batters my limbic system 
     a vicious chemical imbalance 

you shake and secrete 
my chemically ravaged decoy 

mawkish flayer 
my jointless scare-all 
my trigger 

-Doom, (36)

*Fuller disclosure: This is also the first time I've been in an acknowledgement section, and if anyone had walked by my office when I saw that, they would have seen a teary sniffly person! 
**I've tried to recreate the spacing that is so integral to poetry, but it's sometimes a bit tough to do in HTML, and "compose" boxes. I suggest you go buy the book for the full effect. I also tend to fuck up transcription so any spelling errors are solely my own.

Biography Showdown Pt 2: Wendy Wasserstein

Right after I finished Mad World the strike ended, and my hold for Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein came in. One of the reasons it took me forever to read Mad World was that I always think I have to be in a certain mood for biography. But here was another one, and I take these things as they come.

I'd never heard of Wasserstein before, but I read an engaging review, and I'm always in the mood for a good New York story. Wendy Wasserstein, with her emigrates-and-makes-good Jewish family and career in the theatre, is about as New York as it gets. As well as the usual historical context that is involved in most biography, Julie Salamon gives the reader a good crash-course in Off-Broadway history, especially the creation of Playwrights Horizons, now in its 42nd year. This is where Wendy would get her start in the New York theatre scene. What makes Wendy and the Lost Boys wonderful to read is that amidst all the privilege of upbringing and glamour of the stage, Wendy Wasserstein is always shown as very down-to-earth, without fawning or over-critique. Wendy was never perfect, but she was tremendously funny and smart, with a stunning work ethic learned through being a child of immigrant parents (and shared by her siblings: both Wendy and her sister Sandy worked almost until the moment of their deaths.) Wendy always felt like the low-achiever in a family of super A-types, and even after she won the Pulitzer and the Tony for The Heidi Chronicles; her mother was disappointed Wendy hadn't won a Nobel. Salamon supposes what Wasserstein must have felt in her formative years:
Wendy would be such a good student, if only her work were neater, less convoluted, better.
Wendy would be such a pretty girl, if only she would lose weight.
Wendy would be perfect, if only she were someone else.
The plays Wendy wrote expressed this vulnerability, in ways she couldn't to her friends and family.
She expressed the often-unspoken, conflicted desires of her peers. Many women like Wendy rebelled against social constraints but were driven toward conventional notions of success. They wanted power and respect — and had begun filling newsrooms, law schools, management-training programs, and medical schools in significant numbers. But they still measured themselves by how much they weighed, what they saw in the mirror, and whether or not they were married.
Wendy dated, but her closest and longest-lasting relationships were with the gay men she worked with. She often crushed on the unattainable, and didn't much enjoy the relationships she had.  Graduating from all-female Mount Holyoke College in 1971, she was of a generation directly influenced by the burgeoning women's movement in the United States. Yet that feminism left a certain privileged set of women floundering: without the clear instructions of the past, how would they go about defining roles for themselves? Unlike her J.M. Barrie namesake, Wendy was the one who wouldn't conform to what society saw as "grown up" While she worked hard, she never got married, and had a baby very late in life after  IVF treatments that went on for years, starting in her early 40s.
Wendy recognized the inherent tension for women who wanted professional achievement and a family. She resented feeling forced to make choices men hadn't been obliged to make, because they had wives to take care of their children. The characters in Uncommon Women keep postponing the age by which they will be "pretty fucking amazing," because the goal seems both impossible to define and unattainable.
The story of Wendy's life comes from pieces archival and nebulous. Wasserstein had many friends, but was intensely private, often giving out made-up or exaggerated details of events.  (No one ever knew who the father of her child, Lucy, was.)  Both Wendy and her mother indulged in story-telling where the truth was something that might get in the way of a better punchline, or more impressive ending. This is the skill that served Wendy all her life.

Biography Showdown Pt 1: Evelyn Waugh

My biography reading can be divided into categories of "Never heard of 'em, should be interesting" and "I like them, and I want to know more." The former describes my extremely enjoyable foray into the world of the Mitford sisters years ago. Through the Mitfords I became more interested in Evelyn Waugh, whom I've heard of, of course, but had never read. So I picked up a copy of Brideshead the next time I saw it, and it was easily the best thing I read that year. A year or so ago, I picked up Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead from the wonderfully anglophilic Nicolas Hoare. It languished rather long on my To be Read pile until the Toronto Public Library strike forced my hand.  

Mad World sets out to do a couple things differently than previous Waugh biographies. First, author Paula Byrne proposes to look not just at Waugh, but closely at the family that inspired Brideshead (and so much other writing), the Lygons. The title, Mad World, is a description of the way of life at Madresfield, a home left entirely to the young-adult children during the furiously fun 1920s. Waugh first came to know Hugh Lygon (the inspiration for Brideshead's Sebastian Flyte) while at Oxford. Waugh's first two terms were rather quiet, but soon after he fell into a group of friends from a rather different social circle: pedigreed boys from Eton, going to Oxford on expectation rather than want. Membership to the Hypocrites' Club (an informal group, bonded more through drinking than anything else) was predicated on wit, beauty, connections, or a combination thereof. Waugh had charm to spare, and was welcomed into the fold. His life would thereafter move in hard-partying, aristocratic circles. Hugh Lygon, unlike Sebastian Flyte to Waugh's Brideshead alter Charles Ryder, would be less of an influence and friend to Waugh than his sisters, most notably the youngest, Coote*. The lives of the Lygon family are followed in close detail, from school-days to death, mirroring the story told of Evelyn Waugh (though the writer remains the main focus).

Paula Byrne also ensures that formerly too-salacious details are left in, in order to create a complete portrait of Waugh, his friends and contemporaries, and the times they lived in. Colin Firth's stuttering King George gives no hint of the womanizing, drug-taking, and homosexual liaisons he was apparently known for.
Prince George, known to his friends as Babe, was bisexual. In 1923 he began a nineteen-year affair with Noel Coward. The threat of scandal was ever present. On one occasion, the royal household had to pay a substantial sum of blackmail money to a Parisian boy to whom Babe had written compromising letters.
It's suggested that Lygon patriarch Lord Beauchamp's exile was in part facilitated by the Royal family's worry that Babe and Beauchamp would be connected. "If the stories of the earl and his footmen reached the press, in however veiled a form, the consequences could be catastrophic. One imagines the King's advisers having nightmares about newspaper headlines along the lines of: 'Royal Princes in Immoral Country House Parties.'" Lord Beauchamp (fictionalised as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead) is forced to leave England in disrepute when his jealous brother-in-law outs him, and recounts Beauchamp's serial exploits with male members of his staff to Beauchamp's wife and law enforcement officials. Despite theses sorts of  very real consequences of being found out, the homosocial/sexual  bonds of a certain set of English young men are presented as expected, normal, and somewhat fashionable for the time. (There's quite a lot about this in Sexual Anarchy as well.)
Homosexuality was considered by many to be a passing phase, which young men would grow out of once they had left Oxford and began to meet young women. In those days it was chic to be ‘queer’ in the same way that it was chic to have a taste for atonal music and Cubist painting. Even old Arthur Waugh acknowledged as much: ‘Alec called on me the other day with a new friend of his, a sodomite, but Alec tella me it is the coming thing.
Of course, this depended a lot on the sorts of circles one moved in.  I suspect the middle and working-classes didn't see it the same way.  The Hypocrites Club at Oxford was "the epicentre of what would now be called the university's gay scene."  What struck me about this aspect of the book, was the ease of (certain) men in their bisexuality.**   Moreover, these affairs aren't simply sexual experimentation; Byrne notes that "there were real love affairs" at Oxford, and that Evelyn later teased a friend for "not having a homosexual phase, saying he had missed out on something special." The difference is striking in that expected and accepted bisexuality is simply not an option today; for men you're either gay or straight, and there's little room in the middle of the spectrum. This led me to a discussion in which it was proposed (by my more learned friend) that homosexuality in general has moved from "a behaviour to an identity." This is not to say that the book examines only, or mostly, this aspect of Waugh's circle, but it was what was most notable to me as a societal comparison.

It is odd, given the examination of Waugh's relationships, sexual and otherwise, that little mention is made of his second wife and mother of all his children, Laura. She's described in teasing — almost unflattering — terms in Waugh's letters before they are married
'She is thin and silent, long nose, no literary ambitions, temperate but not very industrious. I think she will suit me ok and I am very keen on her.'
and then rarely afterwards. Even his first short and ill-advised marriage to "she-Evelyn" gets more time and attention. Byrne is a fine researcher and talented story teller, and the lack of Laura in the narrative leads me to believe that Byrne simply had little to go on. By the time Waugh marries (again), his interest is possibly elsewhere, and as in the above letter, Laura will simply be enough for a wife.  Waugh's loyalty and thoughts — not for nothing — were with the Lygons. Laura is mentioned after marriage almost always in the context of having children (she would have seven), usually while Waugh is away somewhere writing. Raising these children mostly on her own through WWII, Laura perhaps proved to be industrious after all.  When Brideshead was published, "the response of the Lygon girls was what he most wanted and feared," not just because the book contained composite characters of them (and other society ladies), but because it was their opinion that mattered most to him.

*Previous to his close relationship with the Lygon girls, Waugh had a very close — though not romantic — relationship with Diana Guinness, née Mitford (later Mosley). He even lived with her and her husband in London during an indigent period early in his career.  
**And of course it's just not that way for women, who are expected to perform bisexuality, regardless of their actual sexual orientation, for the viewing pleasure of men. Among other issues, this erases any real sexual agency of women who love women.

The Dependent

There’s a story many women tell, about that time they dated a musician.  Sometimes he’s an artist or a poet, but usually it’s a musician in this story.  Our heroine is responsible and hard-working (if only in comparison), while he’s aimless, entitled, or lazy.   It falls on the shoulders of the girl, likely for the only time in her life, to support this man entirely.  In “Wings,” Lorrie Moore supposes that the relationship lasts almost to a girl’s 40s, when she’s not so girlish anymore.   “She'd been given something perfect youth! and done imperfect things with it.”

In the landmark 200th issue of The Paris Review, Bret Easton Ellis says Lorrie Moore is "maybe the best short-story writer of my generation."* “Wings” is in that same issue, and  is illustrative of this pronouncement. It is the story of KC and Dench, lovers and bandmates. They've come to a significant roadblock in their lives, unable to make a living from music, unable to do much of anything else. They've come to a small town to sublet a house from a friend in a neighbourhood better than they're used to; here they try to regroup. One morning, on her usual walk with the dog (to get Dench's coffee), KC meets the resident of a large house she admires. Reluctantly, KC is drawn into old-man-Milt's lonely world of microwaved store-bought muffins, and unheated rooms. As time goes on she helps him with his doctor's appointments and errands, like a dutiful daughter or younger wife.

Part of Moore's skill is being able to economically write a novel's worth of backstory into many fewer pages. We learn how KC and Dench met, how their parents died, how Milt married for the fist time at 60.   The character of Dench emerges as one of those men that will always have a woman around to pick up his life (or coffee) for him. Early on, KC wonders:
How did Dench pay his bills?
"It's one big magic trick," he said.
Dench, probably unconsciously, preys on the soft spot women seem to have for the mysterious bad boy (though he's also smart and funny; there is much to love in Dench but he's difficult to live with because he's essentially lazy and unbothered by that).  KC is the driver behind most decisions in the relationship.  By the time they arrive in the sublet town, the pattern is completely entrenched.
She loved Dench. She was helpless before the whole emotional project of him. ... Romantic hope: From where did women get it? Certainly not from men, who were walking caveat emptors. No, women got it from other women, because in the end women would rather be rid of one another than have to endure themselves on a daily basis. So they urged each other into relationships. "He loves you! You can see it in his eyes!" they lied.
However, her relationship with Milt begins to make Dench’s inability to fend for himself more clear, and more annoying.  Dench whines that he had to spend all day alone with their dog, while KC was out all day with Milt.  Further, Dench asks KC to get as close to Milt as possible, in order to be put into his will.  It's the only time the drive to not work seems conscious and planned.  He suggests to KC that if she was nice to the old man "then the end result might be, well.. .we'd all be a little happier." "He's probably loaded. And gonna keel soon. And..." It’s enough to make KC want turn her back on Milt, though (initially) not Dench.

It’s worth nothing that Milt, too, is something of a Dench.  The big house he lives in was his wife’s originally, and he was a bachelor for many, many years before.  "Wings" begins with an epigraph by Henry James from The Wings of the Dove: “Should he find he couldn't work it there would still be time enough.”  Time, in this case, to find another woman to pick up the pieces. It’s as if he too moved from woman to woman and the last left standing – in this case KC – would be the one to get the reward: namely, the house.  KC is later accused of being a gold-digger by one of Milt's stepdaughters. This hits particularly hard, as Milt has just changed his will to leave KC the house. But the truth is that it's really the men in "Wings" who need the women to prop them up.

The day KC met Dench, he auditioned for her band.
But she remembered she had wondered whether it would be good to love him, and then she had gone broodingly to the window to look out at the street while he was singing and she had seen a very young woman waiting for him in his beat-up car. ... The young woman had clearly driven him there--would she be tossed away? bequeathed?
It's the question KC has to turn on herself, but she realises that it doesn't matter if she sticks around to be replaced, or if she cuts lose.  Dench, like Milt, will always have "time."  KC chooses a more solitary path.  

In “Wings,” KC winds up without the man, but still in the position of helping others.  She turns the house into a hostel for the families of sick children being treated in a nearby hospital.  She is tethered by the house and the narrative that her position in life is to be relied upon.  We assume Dench has flown to yet another sturdy female who could fix him.

*Though he also goes on to say that "The Corrections and Freedom are the two best novels that came out of my generation, so man up and deal with it, guys." So, perhaps his opinion is slightly suspect.

The Social Determinants of Crank

In 2005, Newsweek printed an article called, “America’s Most Dangerous Drug.” Newsweek's coverage followed an Oregonian series called "Unnecessary Epidemic." Media outlets across the United States began reporting on the spread of what the United Nations drug control agency declared "the most abused hard drug on earth": methamphetamine. Early 2005 also saw Nick Reding begin to investigate the effects of meth on small-town America. Four years of interviews and investigation produced Methland:The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

Reding begins with a good overview of what meth is chemically and historically: first synthesized in Japan in 1898, desomethamphetamine made its way to the US in the 1930s. There, in the last year of that decade, it began to be marketed as Benzedrine.
Methamphetamine in 1939 was prescribed as a treatment for thirty-three illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, the common cold, hyperactivity, impotence, fatigue, and alcoholism. In a world in which the winners were defined by the speed with which they could industrialize. meth suppressed the need for sleep, food, and hydration, all the while keeping workers "peppy."
The Nazis used meth to keep their soldiers marching through a Russian winter. Into the 1980s, meth was still being prescribed as a diet aid in the US. And above all this, it made users feel better than they had before taking the drug.
In biochemical terms, methamphetamine is what is called an indirect catecholamine agonist, meaning that it blocks the reuptake of neurotransmiters.
Essentially, meth makes you feel very good, and keeps you feeling good, until it wears off. The problem, of course, is the side-effects (several of which meth was supposed to cure): paranoia, sleeplessness, psychosis, anxiety, memory loss, and rather quickly, total addiction. The drug hijacks the brain's usual neurotransmitter cycle and very soon "the only thing that does feel good is more meth."

"In truth, all drug epidemics are only in part about the drugs. Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. The rise of the meth epidemic was built largely on economic policies, political decision, and the recent development of American cultural history. Meth's basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade. Along the way, meth charts the fears that people have and the vulnerabilities they feel, both as individual and as communities. The truly singular aspect of meth's attractiveness is that since its first wide-scale abuse — among soldiers during World War II — meth has been associated with hard work. For seventy years, the drug more commonly referred to as crank had been the choice of the American working class."

The condition Reding found most salient in the rise of meth abuse in central small-town America was the loss of good-paying agricultural jobs, as farms and processing plants were swallowed up by huge corporations. Companies like Tyson and Cargill busted unions and drastically reduced both pay and staff. People now how to work twice or three times as long to make the same wage as before, if they can find a job that is. Many residents of small towns were left in poverty and misery. Moreover, they felt usurped from the few jobs available by illegal immigrants, usually Mexicans, who will work for even less pay, in more unsafe conditions. (Illegal immigrants are the perfect workforce for a profit-first company, because they have absolutely no recourse when treated unfairly.)
But there's also a more subtle connection between meth, immigration, and the food industry. That relationship is driven by the conceit that drugs, like viruses, attack weak hosts. Or, to put it another way, narcotics and poverty — along with the loss of hope and place[...] — mutually reinforce one another.

Meth isn't simply a kitchen-sink, home-made issue. When the Combat Meth Act went into effect in 2006, there was a measurable decrease in small time makers and dealers (calculated by the number of meth labs busted by police). However, this just let Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) take over production and distribution, and they now supply "95-100 percent of the meth now consumed in the United States." Unlike cocaine and heroin, the DTOs can control every step of the meth supply chain.
Unfortunately, the same American immigration policy that provides a low-wage workforce ideal for the food industry is what keeps the DTOs in business. [...] [T]he interests of the DTOs are aligned with those of the likes of Cargill and ADM.

It's not just big agribusiness that's helping meth take over. Both pharmaceutical and retail giants have a hand in keeping a main ingredient in meth, pseudoephedrine (usually found in cold pills like Sudafed), easy to get. Neither want stricter controls; change forced from the outside generally means expenditure. Reding also notes that systems put in place to track who is buying cold pills are extremely easy to circumvent: since the bigger retail chains like Target and CVS don't pay their employees much, it's pretty easy to bribe them to look the other way while cold pills disappear from the shelves.

Methland's narrative unfolds through limited biography. Most of those profiled are residents of Oelwein, Iowa, including its mayor, police chief, and a second-generation doctor. A good portion of the book shows the steps residents take in trying to fight the decline of Oelwein, of which meth is only a symptom. However, I couldn't get the story of one of the addicts out of my head. Roland Jarvis, high on his own supply, sets his mother's house on fire while making meth. He goes in and out of the house, feeling no pain high on crank and adrenaline, trying to save possessions, and put the fire out with buckets of water.
Following one of his trips outside, Jarvis looked down and saw what he thought was egg white on his bare arms. It was not egg white; it was the viscous state of his skin now that the water had boiled out of it. Jarvis flung it off himself, and then he saw that where the egg white had been he could now see roasting muscle. He looked as hid legs and hid abdomen. His skin was dripping off his body in sheets. [...] He'd have pulled the melting skeins of skin from himself in bigger, more efficient sections, but for the fact that his fingers had burned off his hands.
Reding meets Jarvis five years later, and notes how he is able to light foils of meth with the stumps of his fingers.

America prefers to see drug addiction as "a psychological rather than a sociological" problem. In keeping with the American bootstrap mythology, meth addiction is an individual's problem, even though that same drug enabled people to work longer and harder in decades past. (This approach is also seen in shows like Intervention which put the onus of addiction solely on the individual, or the family, rather than the wider societal conditions.)
[M]uch of meth's danger lies in the drug's long history of usefulness to the sociocultural and socioeconomic concepts American society holds dear, many of which stem from the pursuit of wealth through hard work.
Having read Methland I'd say that the pursuit of wealth at all costs also contributes to meth addiction; not by the wealthy, of course, but those the corporate overlords have crushed along the way.

Phil Price, a state investigator working in Georgia, puts the meth problem succinctly: "[N]one of this is about a drug. It's about a system of government and an economy." Reding illuminates the many causes behind the popularity of meth for a certain subset of Americans, by showing how corporate lobbies and drug cartels control the conditions of people so many thousands of miles away. Methland is an important book, not just about drug addiction and manufacture, but about how the decisions made for people, far away from them, can tear individual lives and whole communities apart. The collateral damage of greed lines the streets of places like Oelwein.

No Love

It's not a good idea to judge a book by its cover (Geek Love's confusing 80s neon and computer font edition is a good example of why not [the book is about circus freaks]), but the fashion anachronism on the cover of The House I Loved might have been a clue about the quality of the writing inside*. (The backless evening dress, entirely lacking in crinoline, is a clearly modern image.)

I was drawn to this novel by the subject matter: the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussman** to create a more modern city, destroying most of the medieval buildings. I didn't know anything about this period, though it explained a lot about why I found Paris to be an "urban Disneyland." According to Luc Sante in his review of two books on the same subject, "Paris had been killed by what passed for progress and would henceforth only exist as a simulacrum of itself." Perhaps I'd have had better luck with a non-fiction account of the time.

The House I Loved is written as a letter from a 60-year-old woman to her dead husband. The writing, though, is pretty terrible and the epistolary style does nothing to create a narrative. In fact, the conceit of letter writing is often taken too literally, and it harms this novel with too many "Oh my dear"s and "I miss you"s. It's annoying how often the letter recounts events that the husband wouldn't need to be reminded of (though it's hinted that he dies of Alzheimer's, a disease that didn't have name until the early 20th century; while it's possible people died of it in the 1860s, it seemed a ploy to relate to the modern reader.) Rose often begins a portion of a letter with "Remember when..." and writing several sentences that end in question marks. It's repetitive and totally unnecessary. A letter from her brother has similar flaws:
You recall, no doubt, our miserable childhood, the threadbare affection our mother (bless her soul) bestowed upon us.[...] Whilst I grew up, with you, in place Gozlin, I already cherished the fact that one day I was going to leave.
It's doubly frustrating to read this section because Rose has outlined these very facts already, to her dead husband, who probably already knew about them. Ad nauseum...

Rose also writes things like "Since no one will see these lines," intimating that salacious details will follow, yet nothing of the sort happens. Nothing really happens; it's a frustrating book full of filler. For example, Rose writes about the encroaching demolition, then in the next line says "I still have the same eyes. The ones you loved. Blue or green, depending on the weather." Random details that add nothing to characterization, narrative, or setting abound and what's worse, they never form a whole picture.

Writing to one's closest companion, even one dead of dementia, would (one supposes) create a document with less frivolity, and more meaning, but that never happens here. One big edit could have helped this novel along quite easily: have Rose write the letter to her daughter, Violette. If Rose was to write the story of her early years, her love with her husband, and their life together in the soon-to-be-demolished house to someone who wasn't there for most of it and was too young to understand other events, there would have been some sense and flow. Then passages like this could have been avoided:
She knows you were tall and well built, with chestnut hair, and dark eyes, and powerful hands.
That's just nonsense. He would have known what he looked like. Obviously Rose is writing for herself, but if you're addressing that letter to someone it strains belief that even without them ever seeing the letter you'd write it it in such a way.

I thought about We Need to Talk About Kevin, reading this book, and how Shriver absolutely mastered the letter-as-novel. Eva, the main character, writes about all the things her husband never knew, and never saw. This approach makes far more sense, however, it might have cut down the length of The House I Loved, and it's obvious that Tatiana de Rosnay was struggling to create a novel from what could reasonably have been a short story. Rose doesn't have much going on internally, so she has to recount, repeat, and detail.
I learned to live without you, little by little. I had to. Is it not what widows do? It was another existence. I tried to be brave. I believe I was.
This kind of super-redundant writing makes me think of nothing but a poor high-school kid, trying to fill up their word count the night before their assignment is due.

Rose's big trauma, hinted at through the book, comes with 20 pages left, and I wonder how many readers would actually get that far. It's the first real action of the novel, and seems superfluously violent. Then again, it's the only time Rose tells her husband anything he wouldn't already know. There are narrative possibilities in this event, but it comes far too late to save the story. The outcome is predictable.

It actually occurs to me, just now, that the worst sin of The House I Loved is that it almost never says anything about the house itself, or the kind of architecture that was destroyed during Huassman's campaigns. The reader knows why Rose loved her family and friends (and various outfits), but the house as titular character gets very little attention. The House I Loved is a total mess.

*I realise the author doesn't have much control over the cover most times, but there's a lot of editorial attention missing inside the book, and perhaps the cover is just another symptom of that.
**Random: the hotel I stayed in, in Paris, was on the Boulevard Haussman.

Teenage Girls

Spoiler alert: If you're my Dad, this is definitely one of those posts that will horrify you. Avert your eyes

"Well, here at least is the cage, and here is this young woman in the cage. All we have to do now is listen to her." - Jean Paulhan, "Happiness in Slavery"

When I was 14, I bought Exit to Eden*. I'm not even sure why. I'd never read Anne Rice before, but I'm sure I'd heard of her. They were already putting her name on that book, then; it was no longer pseudonymous. I must have read the jacket copy, it must have intrigued me. Even though my parents were well aware I'd read the first three in the Earth's Children series — with all the rape and "nodules" a couple years before, sharing the sexy parts with my grade six pals and giggling with titillated embarrassment — I knew enough to hide this book from them. This was something more: Exit to Eden was dirty. I was a virgin at the time, and while I'd received decent sex education in school, the mechanics of some of the racier scenes took a couple reads (and one scene took a couple years) to grasp. Exit to Eden tapped into something that I'd only vaguely recognized before. I was a kid that got a funny feeling in my stomach when girls were tied to the railway tracks; I'd created and replayed elaborate scenarios in my head for years, and they often revolved around coercion, violence, and gender-bending. I shared that book with pals then too, telling them how amazing it was. My friends, however, would pass the book back to me without much comment. They didn't like it, they didn't get it, it frightened or repulsed them. I was different, maybe only in admitting that Exit to Eden did something to me. After that, because it had been mentioned**, I bought Story of O. Lisa, one of the main characters, remembers reading it at a young age, and feeling a validation that she wasn't alone. There were others out there who got a thrill from the same things she did. That was me. I was that kid. Story of O was even more engaging and puzzling. The first read was purely visceral, but on every re-read I got more from it. More of the mindfuck became apparent. It remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever encountered.

Fact is, some teenaged girls are total perverts. I watched a CBC documentary the other day, called Sext Up Kids, that took the usual tack of showing girls as victims to porn culture. Society's daughters are innocents corrupted by a pervasive adult culture of hardcore sex. Near the end of the doc there was mention made of the validity of female desire and sexual agency, but the overwhelming idea was that girls just don't want sex, and if they do, they certainly don't want to do anything "dirty." In Maidenhead Tamara Faith Berger throws all that shit out the window.

16-year-old Myra, the main character, has a chance encounter on a Florida beach. She's one of three siblings on vacation with parents who are frictioning apart. She thinks about sex: she thinks about the sex her older sister must be having, the sex the girls on spring break are offering in their bathing suits, asses turned to the sun. When she's approached by a man she takes him up on his unspoken offer. They return to his motel room, but she runs away before she can make contact with his penis (though he does pee on her, as she cowers on the carpet). She returns to her family: "My mother's lips were stuck together." Her mother has closed herself, out of necessity, as a counter-point to Myra's unfolding. The vacation, the marriage, the life, isn't working, and Myra's mother is sealing herself off. In speech, yes, but in the context of a book like this we must consider this an allusion, also, to her sensuality. As Myra takes the beginning steps in coming into her sexuality on that vacation, her mother moves in the opposite direction. "My mother was frustrated. Maybe all mothers are frustrated, as if they shit out their hopes with each kid."

She goes back to that room before her family leaves, and here's why:
Come back, you little bitch. That was what that guy had said when I was running out of his room. [...] I felt something drip in my underwear. That guy's low voice, hunched over, his poking-out cock. Little bitch. Come back, little bicth.
She masturbates to orgasm for the first time, thinking about him calling her a bitch. When she goes back to Elijah's motel room, his girlfriend Gayl is there. Gayl is anger and punishment. Gayl slaps Myra, marking her; Myra's skin refuses to heal up, even after she returns home to Canada. The precedent of humiliation, submission, and violence is set. She likes it, and her fear is not of being harmed, but of not being enough.

I want to acknowledge that to dwell on the sexual part of this book is the easy way, and it misses a lot. Myra's journey of self-discovery is intellectual, spiritual, and emotional as well. The book really is about the development of a full being, but it happens through sexual experience. I, however, can't help but identify with Myra, and remember myself at that age. I was that same girl and like her I felt burdened by virginity. Like anti-Hester Prynnes, some girls feel marked by it. To remove that stain is to start your life. Our cultural narrative — despite the sexualized images of young girls (remember how long Britney claimed to be holding out?) — insists that girls will always shy away from sex, need to be convinced and coerced and when they do it, it must be "romantic," it must be with a boy you love. Agency is taken away from young women, no one wants to believe that some girls are just as horny as the boys. Tamara Faith Berger goes even further, showing that some girls know very early on what they want.

As the novel moves forward, and Myra gains practical knowledge about her own sexuality — with Elijah and Gayl but also through a more conventional relationship — and she subsequently becomes more intellectually curious and daring. Berger knows that discovery of the physical often translates into a mental journey; all the things you'd never considered now seem possible. Maidenhead plays out like a dream, a female-driven fantasy, focusing on the erotic potential of being discovered intact and summarily dismantled. There's a good chance that my 14-year-old self would have imagined something similar.

"Fucking is dirty. You want to not have it all romantic and drippy. It's okay that you want it dirty with this guy. It's okay that you want that picture in your head to be true." What I thought was shame, she was saying, was not shame at all. - Tamara Faith Berger, Maidenhead

"Actually, what if the role of the erotic (or of dangerous books, if you prefer) was to inform and instruct us? To reassure us on the subject[.]" - Jean Paulhan, "Happiness in Slavery"

For more on Myra's intellectual journey, and that time I asked a stupid question of Chris Kraus in public, see Emily Keeler's super smart "A fuge of cock" in the Toronto Standard

*I really need to tell you, if you didn't know already, the book has basically zero to do with the movie. *shudder*
**I loaned my copy of Exit to Eden to a friend a couple years back, and it was never returned, so I'm unable to quote it directly.
Though it's to Berger's credit that she also lets Myra's mother find her own path as well. She moves to Korea to teach English, and winds up living in a love hotel instead of a teacher dorm.
And in my opinion it's this bullshit narrative that leads to a lot of girls losing their virginity even if they've maintained a "no," because boys are taught that a girl won't give up her virginity (like it's a possession) unless it's forced from her, somehow. Consent is paramount, always.

Forever Damned

The amazing thing about J.-K. Huysmans' Là-Bas (1891) is how completely undated it feels. The small details of life in the late 19th century are there, of course, but so much of it feels if not contemporary, than at least modern or recent. I was also inspired to re-read Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, which deals mostly with British and American literature, but holds a lot of cultural resonance for my reading Huysmans.

Seeking something other than his staid writerly life, where the most exciting occurrence is the un-scheduleable trial of his concierge brutally "cleaning" his apartment, Durtal is attracted to the life of a medieval serial killer and the currents of contemporary Satanism in fin de siècle Paris. As Durtal digs deeper into the story of Gilles de Rais, in order to write a definitive biography, his own life creeps nearer and nearer to real-life seductive dark mysteries. Ostensibly, Durtal is trying to understand how a man like de Rais could be drawn into medieval Satanic rites, a possible cause of the madness which enabled de Rais to slaughter hundreds of children.
And, let's be honest, the Marquis de Sade was no more than a timid bourgeois, a wretched little fantasist, in comparison with Gilles.
The tortures visited upon these children are written about explicitly, and it's no surprise that Là-Bas was censored and banned. The details are the stuff of Thomas Harris novels, or the movie Se7en. Durtal's research has him inquiring about the methods of modern Satanism, and other occult theories, and leads him, eventually, into witnessing a Black Mass.

From the very first page, Durtal is complaining about the current state of literature.
Try reading any of the latest novels a second time. What do you find? Trivial anecdotes, tidbits culled from the newspapers, nothing but scandal and demoralization[.]
There are passages in Là-Bas that could have been ripped from current CanLitCrit. Durtal complains that "the only people who buy books are society women, who can thus make or break an author." This is very much the sentiment of the anti-populist critics, who hate the sales increases of Giller award-winners, CBC Canada Reads finalists. There are tirades against schools of writing (Decadents, Naturalists) and worries that writing, and society, is too influenced by the Americans.

One of the American influences — briefly mentioned in the text of Là-Bas — is the Spiritualist movement, credited as beginning in New York with the Fox sisters and their famous rappings. Spiritualism quickly moved across the Atlantic, and while most popular in England, France could not help but be involved in a more general feeling at the end of the century that “saw civilization as being in a crisis that required a massive and total solution.” (Wikipedia) I turn to Elaine Showalter for a good synopsis of this feeling:
The ends of centuries seem not to only suggest but to intensify crises, as the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution and the astonishing events in Eastern Europe reminded us. History warns that after the revolution comes the terror and decadence. [...] The crises of the fin de siècle, then, are more intensely experienced, more emotionally fraught, more weighted with symbolic and historical meaning, because we invest them with the metaphors of death and rebirth that we project onto the final decades and years of a century.
Through Là-Bas we can see how certain topics do return to Western culture every hundred years or so. As Durtal's close friend, des Hermies, says:
But it's always been like that. The tail-ends of centuries all resemble each other. They are always periods of vacillation and unrest. Magic flourishes when materialism is rife. This phenomenon appears every hundred years.
and he is quite right. If we think to the1980s and 90s, there was most obviously the Satanism scare (talked about briefly in Sybil Exposed), with sensible adults convinced that everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Twisted Sister was a gateway for their children to join in with the devil.

This is also the time that the goth aesthetic reached its highest point, with dark clothing, pale skin, and religious symbolism used as heretical fashion. While the 60s had its share of dabbling in the “New Age” arts of crystals and astrology, in the 90s things took a heavier turn, with neo-pagans believing they really could affect the world around them through spell-casting. And there's always The Craft...

When I was talking about Là-Bas with a friend of mine, who is an actual professorial smart person, he said that the novel is ultimately about the dangers of getting what exactly what you want.
[N]o sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another... Just so in reading. The attempt to peer into the very core of a text, to possess once and for all its meaning, is vain--it is only ourselves that we find there, not the work itself. (Showalter, 166. Quoting Morris Zapp)
Durtal, while claiming to be "he who, when the stable-door of his sick senses opened, was happy to drive the stinking herd clamouring to get in towards the abattoir where their sinful heads might be split open by the butcher girls of love", and protesting that “the only kind of love that matters, one which is entirely intangible, a love made up of past sorrows and present regrets” is really very easily swayed into an affair with a married woman. Similarly, he is too easily titillated, very much wanting to see for himself what exactly goes on in Satanic Mass.
When reading descriptions of Satanism in Là-Bas, both contemporary to the novel and historical, I couldn't help thinking about the “real” Satanists of our time, most of whom turned out to be (and I wrote this in my annotations) malformed dorks. In a fin de siècle context, being “dark” will get you laid. Turns out, a lot of these black magicians, those who practiced the entirely laughable “sex magick” were just... kind of horny nerds. Which is fine, but it's also a let down for people who genuinely feel the pull of darkness. Durtal feels that pull, but when he sees an actual Black Mass, he's completely disgusted, and let down. Funnily enough, Cadrinal Docre, the leader of this Satanic sect, is described as not very physically attractive (though Durtal's ego has likely something to do with this description). Des Hermies, again and ever the smartest and most logical voice, agrees with my assessment of Satanism, when he remarks “I am convinced that for them the invocation of Beelzebub is only a preliminary to the carnal act.” Neither Durtal's affair, that began with letters and mysteries, nor actual Satansim can live up to what his imagination can conjure. “How right I was when I wrote that the only women you can go on loving are the ones you haven't had.” This is a human condition, of course, evidenced every time one is chased only to be quickly released after catch. We can make things as good or brutal as we need them to be in our minds, yet real life is simply a lot less exciting, and if I may, that's why we have literature.