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.]