A mathematical equation proving whether a book is pornography might be based on the difference in the rate at which one reads the passages between saucy bits and the saucy bits themselves. Is it, in other words, literature when we find ourselves speculating about the pizza guy’s life before he made that fateful delivery? Was the job a consequence of failing to finish his degree or did he recognize his true calling and succumb to the lure of the open, pepperoni-infused road?
The debate being one for the ages, and a dreary one at that, I’ll suggest instead that sex is to Tamara Faith Berger’s novels what chemistry is to Primo Levi’s: the basis of a former profession (she used, as her biography states, to “write porn stories for a living”) but also an abiding interest that inevitably worms its way into her/his narratives. Berger’s writing in Maidenhead is sufficiently strange and interesting, her sex scenes sufficiently strange and uncomfortable, that one’s default reading pace ends up being a pretty even one. And hell, if cultural theory is what toasts your bagel you can even skim the sexy bits to get to the Bataille, Weil and Agamben references. Of course, it’s exactly this heady intermingling of physical and linguistic tumescence that prompted the reviewer for the Montreal Gazette to essentially accuse publisher Coach House of bait and switch by parading smut in first-year-cultural-studies’ clothing. More damningly still, the review implies that in adding Berger to its roster (her previous two books, Lie with Me and The Way of the Whore were published by the now-defunct Gutter Press) Coach House may even have succumbed to the profit motive (a crass pursuit that, as well we all know, is best left to the big boys like Oxford Press, which publishes the Marquis de Sade, or Random House, which publishes Phillip Roth).
The premise for Maidenhead, to be sure, wouldn’t be out of place in “Penthouse Forum”: Sixteen-year-old Myra goes on vacation with her parents and two siblings where they stay at a low-rent Florida motel only to discover they’ve inadvertently timed their trip with that hot tub of concupiscence known as American spring break. Myra’s main preoccupation being the loss of her virginity, she fails to see this oversight in the same disastrous terms as her parents (watching how he ogles the waitresses, she gets the sense that her father may not be as devastated either). And being surrounded by college girls just a few years older, “their bums curved up like fruits,” for whom virginity is already as quaint and distant a notion as, say, steam trains or cloth handkerchiefs, only adds urgency to her mission. The pizza guy’s finger, in other words, is poised above the doorbell.
On the beach Myra meets Elijah, a dreadlocked musician from Tanzania twenty years her senior. Elijah is a drifter and hustler; the Platonic ideal of the kind of man parents try to protect their daughters from. But Myra finds the danger and the man equally attractive. She follows him back to his own, far seedier, motel where, after some awkward inducements, he pees on her head. She makes a break for it, knowing she’ll go back as soon as she’s out the door, the epithets hurled in her wake taking on Pavlovian weight—Myra now knows what she wants, and that’s to be Elijah’s “little bitch.”
On the return flight to Toronto, Myra realizes something in her has shifted: “I felt monstrous and violent. I could not be mothered at all anymore.” Once home, she goes to parties and experiments with pot. Listening to her friends Jen and Charlene’s “tallied-up, shallow conquests” seems hopelessly banal compared to her richly imagined life as Elijah’s sex slave. The only person Myra confides in is her newest friend Lee, an older, sexually experienced black girl who acts as a kind of guardian angel to Myra, dutifully fetching plastic bags when Myra gets drunk and pukes and diplomatically probing the power dynamic between her and Elijah—“I was molested when I was a kid. That’s why I’m so virulent about things,” Lee explains.
Myra having shown her willingness to go the whole nine yards (or inches, depending), Elijah hitchhikes north and sets up camp at the notoriously unwholesome Filmore’s Hotel. To Myra’s surprise, he brings along his girlfriend Gayl, a black woman from Kentucky and a self-proclaimed “artist.” (Although Lee and Gayl never meet in the narrative, they appear together in testy good cop/bad cop conversational asides that pepper the novel like the director’s commentary on a DVD.) Even when it becomes clear that Elijah and Gayl are running an Internet pornography ring specializing in videos of white girls being deflowered then beaten, Myra isn’t phased, seeing in the situation, rather, the perfect opportunity to realize her goals of becoming a sex slave and porn star all at once. Myra tries to intellectualize her obsession by writing an essay for school in which she conceptualizes slavery as liberation using a Frankensteinian amalgam of the cultural theory her boyfriend Aaron feeds her and the internet porn she now watches everyday: “I believed that everyone now, not just pornographic actresses or the Muselmanner, but everyone, according to Hegelian dialectic, was on the continuum of being a slave.”
Berger pushes the master/slave theme everywhere in the novel. On the first page an older Myra, narrating a kind of retrospective introduction, likens the drowning death of two hundred African slaves on the beaches of Key West to the drowning of blond college girls “after drunk sex that didn’t feel right.” In the motel, Myra’s mother reads a book about Korean sex slaves—the so-called “comfort women” of the Second World War —and shortly afterward abandons her marriage and kids to go live in a “love hotel” in Korea. The family attends an exhibit about the last of America’s slave ships in Key West that disturbs Myra so much she goes to masturbate in the boat-shaped stalls of the museum’s washroom.
By the book’s end it’s clear that no poorly argued essay, white guilt or porn star dreams will ever make Myra anything more than an imagined, “psychic slave,” however. And although the book ends with Myra holding forth to her friends about how the now jail-bound Gayl made art porn that undermined the oppressor through an “inspired allegory about masters and slaves,” the older Myra of the book’s opening pages sees the situation in a different light: “I met two slaves when I was sixteen years old,” she says. “I met them and they taught me that I had to change my life; I had to make it worth worth. I had to learn how to make my value instinctive because an instinct for value was all that slaves have.”
Berger’s cavalier, slaphappy style has a dissonant musicality to it that sounds good but doesn’t always sustain second readings—the last line of the previous quote being a case in point. While it stands to reason that Elijah and Gayl are, symbolically at least, the story’s real “slaves”—Elijah is directly from Africa but Gayl is from Kentucky and thus likely the descendant of slaves—saying “an instinct for value was all that slaves have” is not only grammatically incorrect and philosophically flip, it is, essentially, tripe.
Elsewhere, admittedly, grammatical dubiousness works to Berger’s advantage, the very awkwardness of her turns of phrase making them strangely effective. “I’m not a herd mentality,” Myra contemptuously whines in reaction to her family’s desire to stay in the motel and watch hospital dramas. In the same scene, she observes her mother on a chair reading “with her headphones of folk.” Her descriptions can be equally disarming, especially when it comes to sex. Walking on the beach at night, Myra initially hears the “slurping and sucking” sounds of oral sex as a “clicking sound, like magnets that you keep sticking together” while in an erotic dream, Myra imagines a man’s mouth “tight like a trampoline.” There’s often a strong bent toward the olfactory. When Myra first meets Elijah, for instance, she notices he “smells like toast right before it gets burnt” (the breath of the security guard at the slave ship exhibition, on the other hand, smells merely “like bread”). Gayl smells “like coins and smoke and blood.”
While Berger’s novel isn’t ostensibly aimed at teens it will most assuredly end up in their hands. Maidenhead isn’t strong on humour—Judy Blume’s Forever at least had the hilarity of Frank the penis to offset the novel’s copious titillation—but nor, when you come to think of it, are teenagers generally either. What Berger ultimately gets right is the dark, ungraceful alchemy of adolescence, its narcissistic, hormone-induced myopia. When you’re a screwdriver everything looks, as they say, like a screw.
—Emily Donaldson (from the Winter 2012 issue)