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PUBLIC BOOKS: David Henkin reviews Four New Novels and Memoirs about Sex as Marketable Good

13 February 2012

SEE THIS ARTICLE ON THE PUBLIC BOOKS SITE HERE.

Appearing now on our intimate Public Books preview stage, it’s David Henkin’s captivating take on two highly anticipated novels and a pair of unconventional memoirs—and be sure to check back for the full-launch version this May.

Dollars and Sex

House of Holes: A Book of Raunch
by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 2011

Lightning Rods: A Novel
by Helen DeWitt
New Directions, 2011

The Last of the Live Nude Girls: A Memoir
by Sheila McClear
Soft Skull Press, 2011

Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John
by Chester Brown
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011

House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s celebrated return to dirty fiction, conjures an alternate sexual universe, where a broad range of heterosexual men and women (and one detached male body part) find deep, gushing satisfaction with one another, largely unconstrained by the anxieties, frustrations, and misunderstandings that bedevil modern sexuality. Slipping out of their unfulfilling lives through overlooked circular openings in their immediate surroundings, Baker’s characters find a world where good will abounds, no sexual predilection is disparaged, jealous resentments recede, and everyone goes home happy.

The House of Holes is a spa of sorts, governed by all kinds of comically magical rules but almost entirely unregulated by the social or physical constraints of the spa-goers’ native universe. One odd thing, though: while women use the spa’s facilities free of charge, men must pay handsome sums to participate. Financial aid packages are of course available, some involving sexual work-study assignments, as are special fellowships and the occasional discount for the unusually attractive. And yet, one way or another, entrance fees must be paid. Among all the inconvenient facts of life that are dispensed with in Baker’s utopia, this single, intractable real-world asymmetry survives. Although men and women both pursue sexual satisfaction, the spa is financed by some calculable difference in how men and women desire it.

The question of how sexual commerce reflects, manages, or conceals gender differences in the twenty-first century gnaws at the edges of Baker’s novel, which is more centrally concerned with the relationship between reading and sexual fantasy. But three other recent literary reflections on sex, one novel and two memoirs, tease out in idiosyncratic and provocative ways what the quiet economic premise of House of Holes might mean for modern heterosexual desires.

Like Baker’s spa-goers, the characters in Helen DeWitt’s new novel have intercourse with multiple partners through holes that open unexpectedly in their ordinary environments. But Lightning Rods is decidedly not a utopian tale. Joe, the novel’s salesman protagonist who designs an elaborate system of glory holes in the handicapped restrooms of large corporate workplaces, lives by the realist mantra that you deal with human beings as they are, not as you’d like them to be. For the most part, what Joe has in mind is the fact that heterosexual men have prodigious, unrequited sexual desires, while women (heterosexual or not) are mostly burdened by men’s desires. Over the course of DeWitt’s very funny corporate satire, Joe succeeds in monetizing this asymmetry, but in a most remarkable way. He slowly persuades corporate America that the financial cost of satisfying predatory male desires is actually assumed not by the men who crave sex, but by their employers—in the form of harassment lawsuit awards. Rather than settling suits, firing the most likely offenders (a group that Joe and his customers believe to include most companies’ top producers), or expecting human nature to change, Joe argues, companies should make hired women—called “lightning rods”—available for faceless, anonymous sex in the workplace.

The particular set-up that Joe proposes for enabling this anonymous sex originates in his own erotic fantasies. When we meet him, Joe is an out-of-work salesman living in a trailer, masturbating to scenarios of women being penetrated from behind across opaque partitions of his own careful design. Joe is aroused by the image of a woman divided in two, by the disparity between her below-the-waist engagement in a sex act and her evident disengagement from the waist up. The novel itself goes on to supply plenty of these spectacles, but by the time Joe starts pitching his idea to company executives, we lose any real sense of this as an erotic fixation. He is obsessed, instead, with overcoming the endless mechanical, logistical, political, financial, and bureaucratic obstacles to his plan, which becomes comically entangled with another of Joe’s big workplace ideas: making bathroom facilities more handicapped-accessible. Joe begins, in other words, as the kind of character we might expect to meet in a Nicholson Baker novel: likable, imaginative, obsessive, meticulous in his attention to mechanical detail, and a curator of complex self-reflexive fantasies. But early on in the story, this Joe is obscured by Joe the parodic entrepreneur, and the novel’s playful interest in dividing women becomes a detail in an even more outlandish plot involving the phenomenal success of the lightning rod and its ultimate adoption by law-enforcement agencies.

While Lightning Rods loses interest in the erotic appeal of Joe’s original fantasy, it continues to vindicate Joe’s faith in the proposition that there are untapped profits to be made off fundamental differences between men and women. Joe capitalizes upon that banal idea, but he is hardly the only one. His corporate customers reap profits as well, as do the predatory high performers whose criminal excesses they are insuring against. So too do the lightning rods themselves, who emerge as the novel’s real heroes. Most of the women Joe interviews don’t opt to become clerical staff with secret sexual responsibilities, and many of those he hires turn out not to have what it takes to thrive in the business, but the three examples we meet clearly do. Lucille, Renée, and Elaine are talented, skilled young women, but what they really share is a lucrative capacity to ignore sex and focus on long-term financial goals. Lucille uses her enhanced salary to attend Harvard Law School (a career move inspired by a bogus story in Joe’s initial employment pitch) and proceeds to become a high-paid litigator. Renée, an African American, does even better. Following Lucille’s cue, she parlays her secretarial skills (120 words per minute without errors) and her obsessive-compulsive disorder into a Harvard education, and then a seat on the US Supreme Court. She also takes advantage of those working hours when only her lower half is occupied to teach herself French and read all of Proust (with both hands on the book). Elaine’s path is better trodden. She marries the most testosterone-driven top producer at the company, whose aggressive business instincts, no longer misdirected toward sexual harassment, make him a billionaire—and whose gratified appetites appear to make him better marriage material. It is hard to know what if anything to take seriously in this story, but the absurd career trajectories of these three title characters seem to confirm both Joe’s pragmatic credo and his provocative ideas about sex and money.

Interestingly, men don’t actually pay women for sex in either House of Holes or Lightning Rods. In Baker’s novel, the women (who also desire lots of activity with many partners) go uncompensated and men pay the house, while in DeWitt’s the men get to enjoy lightning rods as an office perk. Cash exchanges might seem profane, even quaint, in the magical economy of Baker’s sex spa, where a character can literally trade his right arm for a larger penis. The border between lightning rods and more traditional sex work is of course harder to draw, and Joe spends considerable energy demarcating it. Elaine, Lucille, and Renée do their own part, whittling away at the difference between their own labor as temps with benefits and other kinds of jobs, such as personal assistant or Associate Justice. It is the cordon sanitaire dividing the sex trade from other modern occupations (rather than other kinds of sex or other commercial exchanges) that comes in for especially withering satire in Lightning Rods.

The relationship between sex work and other work makes for a persistent theme in Sheila McClear’s new memoir, The Last of the Live Nude Girls, where the exchange of sexual services for money appears without much mystification or intermediation. McClear grew up in Michigan, moved to New York City in 2006 as a recent college graduate, and worked as a stripper for close to two years, first in an unlicensed lap-dance club and then in a series of other venues—but mostly in Times Square peep shows, separated from her customers by a glass window. McClear’s crisp, episodic account of her peep show career reminds us that comparisons between stripping and other ways of making a living are important because that is the crucial context in which most sex workers choose their line of work. Sex work in modern capitalist societies is framed less directly and dramatically by the gap between male and female desires for unencumbered sex than by the gap between what a woman (or a man) can earn in sex work and what she (or he) can earn in other occupations.

Upon her arrival in New York, McClear works briefly in the profession (theatrical costume design) for which she was trained, and throughout her time in Times Square she works a few other straight jobs. But none pays the rent, whereas an average shift at Gotham City Video or the Playpen nets her $200 and a good shift yields twice that. McClear doesn’t reconstruct her deliberations about potential wages, but the dollar amounts (apartment rents, cab fares, generous tips, dismal paydays, lottery payouts) accumulate meaningfully in her story, carrying explanatory power like stats in a sports memoir. As much as anything else, The Last of the Live Nude Girls is a book about money. Money helps the narrator track her story and account for her daily choices. It becomes the focus of her misgivings and fears as well. At one point, McClear decides to avoid handling the money passed through the slot of her booth, lest she contract a disease. Before picking them up at the end of a shift, she sprays all the bills she received that night with disinfectant.

McClear’s interest in comparing jobs is not merely financial, though. She repeatedly blurs the lines between stripping and more respectable forms of labor, commerce, and socializing. Early on, she likens her work to that of casual day laborers, while by the end she emphasizes the resemblance between her job and that of her male acupuncturist. Her powerful identification with Kevin the acupuncturist is more than professional, though, and she recognizes in her feelings for him some reflections of her customers’ desires. McClear is most convincing and most moving, in fact, on the complex relationship between the sex trade and her own frustrated sex life. The memoir refreshingly defies stereotypes about strippers hailing from broken families, trailing histories of abuse or precocious sexuality. Instead, McClear is a self-described “late bloomer” whose shyness prolonged her virginity well past the point of being an embarrassing burden. Stripping, she implies in several places, may have been an attempt to overcome or exorcise that shyness and make possible a new relationship to sex. But if that’s the project, it begins inauspiciously. Her first lap dance is “shockingly intimate” and recalls her inaugural experience of sexual intercourse: it is both “unremarkable and only vaguely uncomfortable.”

The development of McClear’s erotic and romantic life during her years at the peep shows plays as a backing track to her main narrative, supplying some of the book’s most haunting notes. Boyfriends and dates obtrude occasionally onto a memoir that is dominated by work but punctuated by a few charged moments of calming pleasure or numbing frustration. A one-time gig as a nude model for a photographer on the Lower East Side releases a huge reservoir of loneliness and collapses momentarily (and therapeutically, for McClear) the divide between her work persona and her sexual self. It also provides the book’s most erotically powerful scene.

The lines between work and romance are porous in this book, not because McClear dates her customers (something that happens in just one case, early on) nor because she makes theoretical pronouncements on that subject, but because, at her best, McClear the author can skillfully turn the tables on her main character and expose the untidiness of her inner life. In the book’s most gripping chapter, McClear briefly shares an apartment in Brooklyn with a tall, evidently attractive photographer named Jesse, whose regimented life she observes as if through some sort of transparent barrier of her own making. On those Sunday nights when Jesse doesn’t have a date, he closes himself in the room, the sound from a pornographic video audible through the wall that separated them:

I listened to his breathing get faster and faster, sharp and high and ragged, until it broke and released, and he exhaled, and the TV went silent. I listened to his breaths become slow and relaxed, and it lulled me into drowsiness, until we both drifted into sleep.

One month passed like this, then another, then several.

In this remarkable depiction of Craigslist apartment sharing in hipster Brooklyn, it becomes painfully evident that McClear’s work has followed her home, though it is less clear which role she is playing.

Stripping does not poison McClear’s feelings about men. Nor does working in an industry that seems to presuppose male demands to see women naked lead her to speak of stark differences between the genders. Not all peep shows feature exclusively female performers or cater exclusively to male spectators, of course. When McClear visits San Francisco on a working vacation she finds herself at the Lusty Lady, a club owned by the women who work there. She sits herself down at the window and begins dropping quarters into the slot. Torn between a desire to join the women on stage and the fantasy that the strippers exist exclusively for her viewing pleasure, McClear finally discovers the appeal of the service she has been selling for more than a year. The Last of the Live Nude Girls does not romanticize stripping or downplay the stultifying impact of the peep shows on its workers, but McClear avoids simple oppositions between the people who occupy opposite sides of the glass partition.

McClear’s experience in the business also unsettles some of her prior assumptions about men. Before her foray into the trade, she maintains, she “would never have slept with someone who admitted to having paid for sex.” A year into her work, when a new boyfriend tells of once patronizing a legal prostitute in Amsterdam, her response is blasé. “Now, I assumed that everyone had, given the opportunity.” What we don’t learn is what experiences or perspective emboldened the new boyfriend to disclose this fact. In general, McClear presumes little insight into the demand side of the sex trade. For that, readers might turn to Chester Brown’s elegant and ingenuous comic-strip memoir, Paying for It. Brown is a Canadian graphic novelist with deep roots in independent comics and a penchant for autobiographical cartoons in the broad tradition of Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb. Paying for It methodically documents, in understated but evocative cartoon frames, every sex worker he patronized between 1999 and 2010. It also presents an emphatic argument for decriminalizing prostitution, both in the narrative and in an appended essay that uses many more words than the rest of the book.

Brown’s graphic memoir bounces between his visits (quite nervous at first, more relaxed thereafter) to in-call female prostitutes and his extended conversations with friends about the legitimacy of his actions and the significance of the relationships he is forming with sex workers. Brown’s character is guileless, which reads as honest and kind in his encounters with the women he sleeps with but somewhat polemical and single-minded in other scenes. In sparse black and white frames, the bald-pated Brown looks a bit spectral, resembling a space-alien version of Hunter S. Thompson (some readers might think of Dale on King of the Hill). We get little sense of how he lives in the world and learn few of his thoughts that don’t have to do with his libertarian views and erotic preferences respecting the sex trade. All of this has the remarkable effect of making his participation in the quite common act of paying someone for sex seem like a feature of his introverted and idiosyncratic personality.

Brown’s turn to paying for sex results from a pair of insights—one hard-earned, the other more of an epiphany. The first, roughly speaking, is that romantic relationships inevitably sour and that he’d be more likely to stay friends with someone if he didn’t depend on her for sex. The second is that the biggest obstacle to visiting a prostitute is not his fear of disease or social disapproval, but the risk that prospective girlfriends might, like McClear prior to her initiation in the peep shows, hold it against him. Once he gives up on romantic relationships, he is free to do what he wants. His male friends greet his new lifestyle critically and grudgingly, his female friends (who are portrayed as far more likable) prove more sympathetic, and the judgments of some larger social world remain utterly invisible. But none of this really makes a difference to Brown, who has replaced one form of dating with another—and feels happier, if a bit depleted financially.

Strikingly, neither his narrative nor his appended essay dwells on gender differences as either the social or the economic basis for prostitution. Most of Brown’s explanations for the appeal of the sex trade apply to customers of either gender, and his vision of what he calls “the normalization of prostitution,” where buying and selling sex becomes simply another form of dating seems notably, perhaps defiantly, gender-neutral. In some ways what is most odd and refreshing about Paying for It is its refusal to be a book about masculinity. Brown quietly renounces both the male shame and the male bravado that one might expect from “a comic-strip memoir about being a john,” exposing himself (in multiple senses, and with a special starkness particular to the graphic novel genre) without seeming to acknowledge the exposure.

Twenty-first-century feminism both stalks and animates the four books under discussion here, though Brown’s is the only one of them to express its positions in explicitly feminist terms. In the two novels, which are both about language more than they are about sex, women master and reappropriate abject speech codes (pornography, corporate workspeak) that men have used to control them, though in Baker’s this move is more earnestly utopian, while in DeWitt’s its lessons are harder to read. The two memoirs avoid conventional gender stigmas in their descriptions of the sex trade, though in McClear’s there is still plenty of gender-specific degradation and frustration.

As explicit, best-selling discussions of sexuality, though, what these books share is something a bit older, though perhaps not nearly as old as one might imagine. The commercialization of sexuality in the modern West over the last two centuries (a fairly specific process, notwithstanding the canard about the world’s oldest profession) has entailed a proliferation of sexual information and discussion as a marketable good. Despite differences in genre, perspective, and erotic engagement, all four of these books of course participate in that market. They also describe well, though differently, the process by which modern men and women reckon the commensurability between the cash in their pockets and the sex in their hearts.

David M. Henkin is Professor of History at University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches and writes about nineteenth-century America. He is the author of City Reading (1998) and The Postal Age (2006).

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