A Review of: The Pornographer’s Poem by Michael Turner
The Pornographer’s Poem, the story of a boy who becomes early conversant in the unspeakable, is, by design, anything but poetic: it’s laid out in scuffed, unsmoothed blocks of first-person retrospection. And the narrator, whose name we never learn, doesn’t become the titular pornographer (he makes his first film at age sixteen) until slightly beyond the midpoint of the novel. The book is billed by its publisher as “push[ing] the boundaries not only of the novel form, but of sexuality itself,” and the departures from routine narration consist of occasionally scrambling the chronology in the early portions of the book, rendering some scenes as extracts from screenplays, inserting letters and journal entries, and frequently interrupting the narrator’s recollections by subjecting him to terse probing by a panel of unidentified inquisitors. As for its treatment of sexuality, the book is very earnest in its mission to shock the reader. Being sexually abused at the hands of an adult is treated as practically a rite of passage, kiddie pornography makes its queasy appearance, we witness the imperfectly concealed depravity of seemingly respectable citizens, and much is made of the dehumanizing effects of pornography on its makers, its subjects, and its consumers. It was shrewd of Turner to set the story in the 1970s, long before gross-out literature (one thinks of Dennis Cooper’s virtuosically obscene Guide) went mainstream and before tableaux of stupefying perversity, such as the flesh-pyramid photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison, were splashed into the news hole of the dailies and weeklies. In the upper-middle-class precincts of Vancouver, where the narrator is coming of age, sexual derangement is still baffling and life-alteringly monstrous.
The narrator grows up steeped in apertural imagery:his mother has chronicled her fracturing family with exhaustive shutterbuggery, and in the seventh grade he is schooled in the rudiments of filmmaking by an obsessive émigré who gets cashiered for her classroom ardors. Small wonder, then, that when the narrator gazes out his window one sulky afternoon a few years later and enjoys a voyeuristic boon (the doper couple next door, taking the air on their balcony, are carnally engaged with their Great Dane), he reaches for his Super-8 movie camera and starts zooming. The sprockety result—a short subject of uncertain focus entitled The Family Dog—achieves cult notoriety among the local dilettantes. The narrator endures a Warholesque makeover, he and his reels make the rounds of the home theaters and salons and underground clubs of greater Vancouver, and he gets swept into the scuzzy world of slapdash, low-budget porn, while still managing to put in his hours at school, remain an attentive, chore- welcoming son, and, for a trifle longer, hold down a job two nights a week at a fish-and-chips dispensary.
The molten core of the novel, though, is its vividly unromantic and unironic depiction of the dreamy tediums and heedlessnesses and intensely passionless gropery of teenagers. No crevice goes unplumbed (Turner gets off some masterly chiaroscuro of the female and male asshole; he’s something of a connoisseur of the body’s fusty bouquets), and no adolescent grandiosity and portentousness goes unfondly recorded, as if being beheld and suffered for the very first time. Much of the charm of the book resides in how seductively Turner escorts the reader back to the stage in life when the invention of a Bullshit Detector who have not watched Severina’s tape, not because they couldn’t (as I’ve already explained, that category includes only those on the margins of society) but because they wouldn’t.
There are only a few of us in this state, we happy few, who can sit in any company and say: No, I didn’t watch Severina’s film, nor do I intend to.
One of my friends tried to make out as if he’d never watched Severina, but he soon tripped himself up by bragging that his next-door neighbor, who is a plumber, literally shoved the tape through his window. Of course, the fact that I didn’t watch the film gives me some sense of superiority: there are fewer and fewer women out there who would dare say something like that. It’s only me and the odd female mayor.
Some women have watched because they wanted to make sure their boyfriend/husband didn’t get too carried away in this paradise, some out of a sense of duty, because how were they meant to hold down a conversation if they’ve not seen a single scene from this fleshy drama? These days, even the most abstract conversations, like the ones between artists and philosophers, quickly get derailed into some sort of discussion about Severina. Even politicians have stuck their oars in, those from the leading party and those from the opposition (at whose rally Severina once sang) and the minister of culture has launched into a staunch defense of the singer’s right to privacy.
“Well, who said we took that right?” ask Croats. “It’s not as if we taped ourselves having sex and then spread it all over the Internet.” After all, this harsh nation thinks that Severina got what she deserved: she made a recording and now it’s being broadcast. Today even a distinguished literary critic quoted Borges to explain it—he said something about a knife that Borges writes about which will sooner or later wound somebody—the same is the case with Severina’s recording.When she made it she should have known that one day we’d all get to see it.
I know already that soon I’ll become like the early Christians, and in the catacombs under the city I’ll meet those like me who’ve not watched Severina. Our code sign will be a crossed-out letter S on the inside of our palms.We just have to invent a cryptic greeting.
The Pornographer’s Poem (a quartet of open-ended questions) really does seem like a profound breakthrough in the understanding of human nature; when the discovery that a single event (the firing of a teacher, say) can be recounted in Rashomonically different versions is startling; and when the contents of one’s dreams seem earthshaking (dreams “have consequences,” the narrator insists, getting things of course beautifully backward). Especially acute and feelingful is Turner’s portrayal of the budding but cardiacally infirm feminist aesthete Nettie, the narrator’s partner for investigatory pokes and tenderer grabbling. She’s a walking, talking bullshit detector: she calls the narrator on his obtuseness and pretensions. The pair’s deepening but emotionally cautious friendship—an on-again, off-again alliance that never officially becomes a romance—is alertly and achingly realized on the page: it’s the book’s triumph. But Turner also works wonders with the narrator’s arrogant pride in his gift for lying. It slowly dawns on the reader that the narrator’s interrogators, who seem privy to a recording angel’s tally of his every fib and evasion and seminal driplet, may well be figures of his own appointing in a kind of mental theater, an internalized kangaroo court in which he is grilled, pinned down, called to account for his moral slide. Their pointed, stichomythic exchanges tauten the novel’s sometimes slackening story line.
The book, in fact, seems oddly proportioned, even lopsided. The publisher’s description promises, excitingly, that the narrator will co-opt pornography to “right” the world’s “wrongs,” but Turner barely begins to unspool that thread of the story. (Yet earlier, perplexingly, we get pages and pages about the background of his seventh-grade teacher.) The final third of the novel feels rushed and scanted: the characterization thins out, the plot points get racked up a little too strenuously, and the ending is just short of just plain silly. On balance, though, The Pornographer’s Poem is undeniably moving, unfrivolous, and brave.Turner has described it to the press as “The Catcher in the Rye with a strap-on.” The reader can’t help wondering what amazements Turner might be capable of once he sets the appliances aside.