I worry about superlatives. The cover of Kevin Killian's short story collection Impossible Princess claims that the author is “the greatest unsung genius in contemporary American literature”. Susie Bright calls the book “impossibly captivating” and “an endless inspiration”. Another blurb gushes that each story is “a little outburst of brilliance”.
I worry that there must be something wrong with me when I don't agree with the general consensus. Impossible Princess is definitely not ordinary. It's bizarre, obscene, violent, and, I suppose, original. However, with the exception of one gem of a story, I would not call it erotic, although it oozes sex (and I believe that ooze is the appropriate term, evoking as it does the primordial depths where primitive, sightless creatures squirm and wallow). Yes, this book is soaked with semen, sweat, piss and blood, but most of the time I found the sex empty, mere physical contortions unleavened by the emotional experience of lust, which I consider to be the sine qua non of erotica.
I am not even sure that some of the pieces in this volume deserve the title of short story—memoir might be more appropriate. Mr. Killian is the central character in many of his tales, which reminisce about his past antics and excesses. In some stories, this works. “Hot Lights” vividly recounts the author's experience acting in low budget gay porn during his wild late teens. Other tales, such as “Dietmar Lutz Mon Amour”, struck me as self-indulgent rambles without any point.
Then I begin to feel embarrassed. Maybe the point is there, but I just don't get it. I am after all a white, well-educated product of the middle class with little experience on the edge Mr. Killian walks: drugs, drunkenness, vagrancy, rough and anonymous sex with guys who are disgusting but still turn you on. I've never liked stories that deliberately go out of their way to shock. Perhaps I am the problem, not the book.
I can appreciate the fact that Killian's writing sparks with flashes of genius, interspersed with malapropisms, lazy fragments and run-on sentences. Consider the following passage from “Spurt” (one of my least favorite stories in the book):
Something magical about really flogging your car, and the clear stretch of highway ahead; and feeling the motor and its complex accoutrements shudder under your heavy foot. And dipping an elbow out into the hot summer night and watching towns go by like reflections in shop windows—whole towns and neighborhoods, gone, gone, gone. You lose touch with the world—a car is an island all its own, another world from which, perhaps, you might never return. The radio, staticky and shrill, burst out with bass-heavy Motown, then the abrupt, insinuating guitars of the Eagles. A low-slung, dark car passed me on the right, gleaming like a streak of phosphorescence under a Jamaican sea. Sucker must be doing a hundred easy. Lotus. Then the driver seemed to slack in speed and I was passing him. I saw his face—couldn’t help it, he was staring right at me.
One hand rested on top of the wheel, lazily, as though he could drive without looking ahead. I sped up, and he sped up too. Cruise control. I caught him looking at me, again and again, and he flicked on the driver's seat light, a plastic dome that filled his car—for a brief moment—with a thin plastic light, like cheap statuary of the Church. I guess he knew how hot he was. His lips parted. I could see him starting to speak, or signal. Eighty miles an hour and his mouth was saying, “Wanna fuck?” I nodded, he nodded, I got hard, I shifted the bottle, the Eagles wailed, over and over, about how dangerous life was in California.
This passage will give you a feeling for Killian's style, which doesn't vary much from story to story. Sometimes he erupts with incredible images that make you catch your breath. Sometimes he meanders along, the same sort of breathless stringing together of words that might or might not make sense, the same kind of blissful disregard for grammar and punctuation.
Okay, I'm being tight-assed here. I'm a writer myself—I know that once you've mastered the rules, you can break them. Killian doesn't care about rules and I suppose that's not really a problem. Neither did James Joyce. The problem is, perhaps, my expectations.
Despite my reservations, Impossible Princess is worth reading for the one tale that I did find erotic, despite its darkness. “Zoo Story” is a brief, first person account from a man with a cat fetish. What makes it unusual in this collection is the fact that Killian places the reader convincingly in the head of the narrator. He makes the insanity believable and even beautiful despite its brutality.
Next time you see kittens batting a catnip toy around, think of me on the cold concrete floor of the cage, pushed around, my neck snapping, their paws wet and warm on my chest, my legs, their claws retreating and contracting as they contrived to spread my thighs open to their hot rotten breaths.
I want to mention one other story: “Rochester,” a collaboration with a younger author named Tony Leuzzi. Tony narrates, explaining how he met veteran gay author Kevin Killian in a dirty chat room and decided to make a pilgrimage to Rochester, New York, where the aging writer lives in degradation, exiled from the glittering metropoli (New York City, San Francisco) of his wild youth. In the back room of Killian's filthy house, Tony discovers a human-sized chimp who spends the day typing, generating the raw material for Killian's stories and predicting the future.
I liked this story for its wry humor and self-deprecating honesty. I'm just an ape, the author seems to be saying, churning out nonsense that includes occasional insights and flashes of brilliance.
Is Impossible Princess really a consummate work of art? Am I simply too conventional to see the truth that's obvious to erotica luminaries like Susie Bright? Every reviewer brings his or her prejudices and preferences to the task, and I'm no exception.
You'll have to read the book and judge for yourself.
[Editor's note: Impossible Princess is the winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Erotica.]
Many years ago, I recall once being engaged in a discussion of literature with my sister-in-law. At the time she was a huge Catherine Cookson fan (well, she’d read three Catherine Cookson books and she was very fat, so I suppose that qualifies her as a huge Catherine Cookson fan).
“I thought I’d read all the Mallen books,” she confided miserably. “But it appears that I haven’t.”
I expressed interest. Well, I didn’t tell her to shut up, which amounted to the same thing.
“I’ve read The Mallen Litter,” she began, between mouthfuls of pie. “And I’ve read The Mallen Streak and The Mallen Girl. But now they’ve brought out a new title. I’m going to have to buy that one too.”
“Really,” I said, feigning interest. “What’s the new title called?”
She consulted the catalogue she was perusing and frowned over the unfamiliar word I was expecting her to pronounce. Taking a deep breath she said, “This new one is called The Mallen Try-Logie.”
I glanced at the catalogue and said: “It’s pronounced ‘trilogy’.”
I mention this, because whenever I encounter any trilogy, I always think of it as a ‘try-logie’ and then smirk at the memory of my sister-in-law’s disappointed face when she realised she had spent valuable pie money on a collection of the only three books that she’d previously read.
Personal Demons is the last of Jay Lygon’s trilogy (try-logie – can’t shake that habit) which began with Chaos Magic and continued with Love Runes. In this novel Sam, the God of Sex, and his master Hector, God of Love, bring their relationship to a climax. I’m picking my words carefully here because I don’t want to include any spoilers for those who’ve been following the story so far.
Readers who are familiar with the work of Jay Lygon will have come to expect a high quality of writing, combined with well-structured stories, deeply layered characters and explicit, arousing sex scenes. Better than that, the dialogue is rich, credible and has the authenticity of natural speech. Consider the following excerpt:
I tried on the damn gray suit. I even modeled two of the shirts, but the next time I came out of the dressing room, I was in my street clothes. “I’m done,” I said.
“You’re not done, Boy, until I say you are.”
The clerk and the tailor exchanged a glance. Backing away, they muttered excuses to leave us alone.
Hector’s brand on my butt cheek seared. I swore I could feel the exact outline of the capital H. That was more warning than I usually got, so I should have backed down. No, I should have crawled across the floor to his feet and begged forgiveness. Instead, my lips twitched a little into a sneer and then my chin lifted. The next thing I knew, Hector was out of that chair with his hand on my upper arm.
“Sam and I are going to have a little chat,” he told the clerk through gritted teeth. “I’ll be out to pay for all that in a moment.”
They rushed to collect the clothes I’d tried on. Hector dragged me back into a dressing room and slammed the door shut. He sat on the cushioned bench and yanked me over his lap. “Bare that ass, Boy.”
Previously on these pages I’ve criticised books for containing dialogue that is nothing more than artless words on the page pretending to be speech. The example above shows that it’s possible to put black print on a white page and structure it in a way that makes the characters whisper their words into your ear.
The whole ethos behind Personal Demons is supremely clever. The supernatural abilities of the central characters are only occasionally exploited as a convenient device – allowing Sam and Hector to fuck over their relationship the way we mere mortals invariably fuck over our own relationships. Indeed, the presence of the central characters’ omniscience is a constant reminder that Sam and Hector are voluntarily putting themselves through the ordeal of a ‘normal’ relationship which, in itself, says volumes about the level of construction that supports each character. And, if any one of us had the opportunity to become a God, where better to reside than in the heartland of Hollywood’s glitterati?
I could go on: I could mention the fun and excitement of reading about Ophir, Alberto and Deal, or Lygon’s elegant, eloquent description. But instead, I’ll just say that Personal Demons is an excellent book on its own: but it’s a better experience if you read the whole trilogy (try-logie).
According to the author's introduction, this novel is loosely based on a book she read at a formative age:
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention William Bayer, author of the great psychosexual thriller Punish Me with Kisses. I read that book in eighth grade, out loud, to my new classmates at Payette Junior High, in Payette, Idaho. The kids loved my little dime store novel, so much so that Mr. Nelson, our generally laid-back English teacher, had me and the book removed from class . . Ever since I read Punish in the early '80s, I dreamed of a lesbian revisioning--and thankfully I got the chance here, with Punishment with Kisses. There is very little in common with the original but inspiration, born from my hormone-fueled adolescent fantasies and Bayer's warped words.
A hellish-red sketch of a babe in a black bikini graces the front cover of this paperback, while a glamorous photo of the author (in red lipstick and red dress with cleavage) graces the back. Before reading the book, I expected it to be beach fare: a mildly entertaining, disposable read.
I was surprised to find myself caring about the characters and caught up in the murder mystery while enjoying the sex scenes and the good-natured satire. There are a few stock elements here that stretch a reader's willingness to believe: the rich, dysfunctional family on an isolated estate (in the wilds of Oregon), the two sets of diaries (one censored, one "real") and the remarkable number of attractive lesbians in a small cast of characters. But then, the story is clearly defined as a romance and a lesbian fantasy, so the implication that every woman is at least potentially a woman-lover and a magnet for other women is predictable.
Despite the genesis of the novel as something close to fanfic (a revisioning of someone else's characters), there is a certain core of authenticity here, and a witty sprinkling of references to contemporary lesbian culture. The author is clearly familiar with “The L-Word,” the first lesbian soap opera to appear on prime-time television; at least one character from that series (set in the lesbian community of Los Angeles) seems to have traveled north up the Pacific coast to serve as a suspect and general object of lust in this novel. (Who, you ask? Shane, of course, the ultimate biker-dyke.)
A realistically complicated relationship between two sisters is at the heart of the story. In the opening chapter, Megan Caulfield has just graduated from university in New Orleans with a vague intention of becoming a writer. She has little work experience, but she can't claim her inheritance until she turns 23, which is several months away. She returns to the family manor, where her older sister Ashley seems to be deliberately provoking their conservative father to shut down her endless pool-party with other good-time girls. Megan resents living in Ashley's shadow. She also resents Tabitha, the young woman her father married after the death of the sisters' mother when Megan was entering high school. The apparent closeness between Tabitha and Ash (suggesting the results of a fire), as she likes to be called, seems like the last straw to Megan.
Alone in her room, Megan watches her sister and reads fiction by contemporary lesbians: Michelle Tea, Jewelle Gomez and Dorothy Allison, all known for their autobiographical work. They are Megan’s idols. She thinks her life-experience has been inadequate:
That summer I came home, I wasn't a virgin, but I certainly wasn't the woman around town my sister Ash was. I'd spent most of college with my nose in a book, save for those few nights with Terra Moscowitz, which began innocently enough with us in her dorm room dry humping each other after a Take Back the Night rally that devolved into so much more. I'm not sure what it was about anti-rape rallies, but they certainly seemed to make Terra horny. Sadly, her girlfriend was around half the time, which meant I got leftover, hand-me-down sex--but I was happy to have it.
This passage looks like a parody of an earnest lesbian-awakening scene as well as a literal illustration of the 1970s slogan, “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” Terra even suggests Joan Rivers’ fictional character Heidi Abramowitz, a spoiled slut who arouses other women’s envy and resentment.
Megan feels terribly alone. She would like to feel close to Ash, as she did in their youth, but Ash seems unbearably patronizing to her “kid sister.” As Megan and the reader both learn too late, appearances are deceptive.
Banished to the “pool house” away from the rest of the family, Ash is murdered one night. Seeing her sister covered in blood, Megan is overwhelmed with grief, regret and determination to find out who, how and why.
Megan realizes that she must leave the family home to rejoin civilization (the city of Portland), find a job, begin functioning as an adult, and learn as much as she can about her sister’s life in order to bring her killer to justice. Megan has already ventured out to a lesbian bar in the city where the irresistible Shane was waiting for her. However, Megan must wade much deeper into sexual variety and her own sexual nature in order to understand her sister’s life and death.
Luckily, Ash was more literary than Megan ever guessed, and she left voluminous journals behind. One set of diaries is meant to be found – and the information in it is shocking enough. Another diary, which contains the burning secret at the heart of the mystery, is hidden in a place that Megan remembers from her childhood adventures with Ash.
In her quest for truth, Megan matures and learns to defy her father’s authority, which has always been backed up by the threat of financial deprivation. She finds work as a journalist, and discovers her writing voice while her sister’s diaries lead her into a world of sex clubs, BDSM and porn films.
Meanwhile, Shane weaves in and out of Megan’s life in a way that is crazy-making for the reader as well as for Megan. Was Shane involved in Ash’s murder? Why does Shane work so hard to win Megan over, then cool off so fast? Shane’s role in Ash’s life and Megan’s feelings about her become clearer as Megan finds more pieces of the puzzle.
In due course, the murder mystery is resolved, and Megan emerges as a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. Her sexual odyssey seems to be a temporary phase that she outgrows, yet it also seems like a necessary part of her coming-of-age process. The significance of BDSM as self-chosen punishment, as revenge, as a means of keeping lust and joie de vivre alive, as enlightenment or dangerous quicksand is never clear enough – or perhaps the author finds the subject too diverse to show from only one angle.
Although the sexual value system underlying the plot is as murky as the atmosphere of a dimly-lit club, the plot itself is fast-paced and well thought-out. This is a book I plan to keep.
[Editor’s note: Punishment With Kisses is a 2009 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in Lesbian Erotica.]
In her introduction to Sometime She Lets Me: Best Butch/Femme Erotica, editor Tristan Taormino states:
Butch/femme is a perfect centerpiece for erotica since it is recognizable and meaningful to many people. It’s also incredibly multilayered – creating opportunities for characters to play with gender in a sexual context, do unexpected things, challenge conventional wisdom and assumptions, and explore taboo desires.
A theme that comes up often in this anthology is that Butches are supposed to be stone, meaning that they don’t accept reciprocal sex, and that to do so is shameful. Alison L. Smith’s “Sometimes She Lets Me” explores this with such precision of craft that she’s able to deliver a deeply touching portrait in only two pages. When an anthology opens with a story that fine, expectations move up a notch.
If you fear that your fantasies make you a freak, reading about them in erotica can be comforting and liberating. In her story “Anonymous,” I felt as if Amie M. Evans peeked into my storehouse of frustrated desires. While I’m long beyond caring if I’m freak, it’s still good to know that other women long for, “No exchange of numbers or first-date sex; but rough, hard, no-name sex: the stuff of gay boy novels and urban myths.” Her femme narrator boldly sashays into a bar in search of just that, but not before a ‘laugh-out-loud and nod your head in recognition’ observation of how difficult it is for women to break past the real and imagined barriers to NSA (no strings attached) sex. Once the narrator shoves all that aside, she finds a butch with the same fantasy. From there on, things get hot and dirty, the way every good sexual fantasy should.
Lynne Jamneck’s “Voodoo and Tattoos” hit a few of my buttons – voyeurism, and two hot butches. The narrator works the bar at a conference as a favor for a friend. A power femme hits on her, but the scene that follows isn’t exactly what she expects. This story got me worked up in all the right ways.
In “Look But Don’t Touch” by Sparky, a boi watches a peep show. If the girls dancing for him know he’s passing, they either don’t care or like showing off for him. The glass that separates the girls from the boi works on a metaphorical level for the bittersweet envy of gender diaspora. Hot, and well crafted.
Elaine Miller’s “Fee Fie Foe Femme” hits the right balance between a great BDSM teasing scene and sexual frustration. The femme doesn’t want to kiss because their lipstick colors clash. You know at some point that glittery raspberry pink is going to get smeared, but like the femme in this story, you have to wait for it.
While it might seem that gruff butches have the power, femmes aren’t sitting around waiting for rescue, or sex. They’re boldly going after what they want. In “Gravity Sucks” by Skian McGuire, a butch is trapped under a car she’s working on as someone – she hopes it’s her lover - yanks down her pants and uses them as a budget bondage device to good effect. The power dynamics are turned, or maybe that’s the truth behind this relationship.
Toni Amato’s words are so powerful that it’s difficult to discuss “Grand Jete” without quoting long passages from it. On the surface, it seems so simple. A genderqueer narrator is talking about his lover. But there’s nothing simple about this story. The vulnerability of Toni’s character is breathtaking, and the longing palpable.
There are many other wonderful stories in this anthology. Peggy Munson, S. Bear Bergman, Kristin Porter, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, D. Alexandria, Joy Parks, Samiya A. Bashir, Rosalind Christine Lloyd, Anna Watson, Shannon Cummings, A. Lizabeth Babcock, Isa Coffey, Jera Star, Sandra Lee Golvin, and Sinclair Sexsmith contribute to one of the most consistently strong anthologies I’ve had the pleasure to read in a long time. Two thumbs way up.
In the movie, “Noise”, a girl tells the hero that she wants him to make her come by making her do things she doesn’t want to do. It’s a very sexy moment because on the one hand, she really wants to come, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want (sort of) to do the things that will get her there. She wants him to take her some place new that involves the feel, at least, of risk. In other words, the film industry can make a major feature film that contains non-consensual sex scenes. That is because people want to have sex at times in a way that they might otherwise not have the nerve to try. It’s sexual surrender carried to the limit, which is why it’s so erotic.
We, in erotica, are stuck with weird socio-babble jargon like “sex positive,” which could mean that we are positive about sex…sex is a positive thing…we are positive that it is sex…or we are positive that we want it to be about sex, or sexy, whatever it is. That really means that in order to get along with the sexual hysteria of the Clinton Administration in the 90s, we have made a practical deal with the devil to be on the Internet. The trouble is we have also sold out the possible maturation of erotica as a literary genre that really discusses the human experience, which includes all kinds of sex.
Which brings us to The Low Road by James Lear, a novel in which the turning point of the action is the young hero’s abduction by privateers who proceed to humiliate, beat, strip, strap, fuck and piss on him in about four pages. There is nothing consensual about any of this sex, but how many pirates do you know who ask you if you want to be fucked in the ass? It’s just not a pirate thing to do. Mr. Lear is clearly unruffled about that probably thinking that we all have to learn to do things we don’t like as part of growing up like being gang raped. Hmmmm…. life is such a mystery, isn’t it?
It has to be said that the hero, a Scots nobleman, doesn’t mind any of this intimate abuse at all, except that such behavior is hitherto unfamiliar to him. In fact he is fairly kinky that way throughout the book. Then again, bathing is also not a big part of his life until he is on shipboard, and considering his tastes and habits, one does go “Ieeeeewwwwww” from time to time. Mr. Lear is having fun, I conjecture, with accelerated hyperbole in his pirate scene. And why not? What is grimmer than politically correct sex? And the answer is of course, sex positive erotica.
In the course of the hero’s sexually arduous, not-to-mention harrowing, sojourn at sea, all this degradation actually serves to—one might say—make a man out of him. One would have to have one’s tongue in one’s cheek given that the characters’ tongues have been there as well as every other conceivable location on the male body, but he does enough to yearn for cozy domesticity by the novel’s end. That’s good, because the ancestral keep is in need of redecorating by then.
The Low Road is a reasonably entertaining send up of Robert Lewis Stephenson’s, Kidnapped (sort of). That means we have a twenty-first century parody of a nineteenth century novel on a subject from the middle of the eighteenth century. To wit, the Jacobite failed attempt to re-establish the Stuart Monarchy in England in the corporeal form of James II (also James VII of Scotland). Okay, so are you still with me here? Hang on. This gets better because instead of a picaresque venture during which the hero gains maturity and enlightenment—the 18th century serio-comic novel best recognized in works like Fieldings’ Tom Jones—The Low Road is a non-stop gay romp from rump to rump where the evolution has as much to do with vamping skills as gaining a mature perspective. Oh well, it’s fun.
It is the first novel by James Lear that I have read, but I think I understand his popularity. His work sails right into being pornographic with piratical gusto from the start. It’s sort of “Yo ho ho and a gay boy’s bum! Fifteen men on queen’s hard cock!” The Low Road is a scrupulously detailed catalogue of cock sucking, butt fucking, swash buckling and some plot here and there as an extender. Hygiene is frequently absent and there is rather too much hardy laughter at ponderous innuendo.
To some extent we are invited to take The Low Road as a parody or satire of Kidnapped when in fact, by intent or default, it is a burlesque of the 18th century picaresque novel. Lear is making fun of the picaresque idea rather than Stephenson’s novel. The hero, Charles Gordon, is bold, delightfully naïve, and deliciously amiable to all—and we do mean all—males in his vicinity. What’s more, Scotland seems to be almost entirely populated by gay men in this novel. There are hets who do not “lack the imagination,” as the author says, to have sex with other men when it suits the occasion. One wonders at times how Scotland has managed to continue if every man in that society is a devotee of such pleasures. However, one is even more inclined to say to oneself, “Tut tut, that’s not the point. See, he’s bent over with his pants down again. Here we go!” And indeed the hero once has two cocks up his ass at the same time. Remarkable perhaps, but you do learn new things from living with pirates.
Interspersed with all this is a certain amount of plot that, from a literary point of view, has its ups and downs. A largely irrelevant subplot is included allowing for a lot more cock sucking and butt fucking in dank places. We do understand that Gordon has this profound loyalty to the cause of the Stuart monarchy in exile, but why is less clear. In fact his political concerns seem more born out of some murky resentment of the English like the people of the American South who cannot abide Yankees for reasons they have forgotten. Gordon is still fighting the Battle of Culloden—at which his father apparently fell—long after it was done and the Jacobite cause was lost to the Scots. However, he seems hardly to have known this father.
What we have here is a picaresque journey to a particular sort of gay manhood. It is given weight and force by his tendency to learn the skills of the supposed gay subculture of the 18th Century. That’s a tricky notion given that Lear depicts this as a cultural constant through all levels of Scottish and British society. I suspect such practices were freely undertaken only among the very rich and the very rural, and even then only in secret. That is not to say that there were not gay people having relationships, but roving bands of gay men indulging in gangbangs of young nobility seems a bit far fetched for the time.
If you have the sort of credulity that is easily elasticized, The Low Road is an enjoyable work that conjures the notion of an operetta in drag with arias to rimming and synchronized ass-fucking. It is certainly that more than an adventure novel, as Kidnapped was intended. What it does very well is show that we have to get over our anal retentive fetishes about what sort of sex is appropriate for erotic fiction. More importantly we have to realize that sex is sex and it can be transformative in all sorts of ways, regardless of who is doing what to whom and what either gets out of it. That is a reasonable basis for fiction, which Mr. Lear has achieved here.
[Editor's note: The Low Road is a Finalist for the 2009 Lambda Literary Award in Gay Erotica.]