A Sexual Portrait Of Exquisite Loathing
Sex, Blood and Rock and Roll by Kimberly Warner-Cohen is an erotic novel of genuine metaphoric depth and consequence. Its sleazy parodistic title reveals how the book takes hold of a moment in time -- The East Village in the 90s -- to tweak its icons and symbols. The results lay open a hidden, infectious core. It is a novel about eroticism, and the author is in no way detached from that even if the central character sometimes appears to be. Sex is artfully applied like fetid icing so that it drools, drips, bleeds, exudes, extrudes, sweats, reeks, and soaks the indelicate fabric of this work. That is so much the case that -- what at first seems to be ironic and perhaps slightly comic – grimly transmutes into the humdrum daily toil of accelerating, sadistic serial murders.
Warner-Cohen, who is herself a professional dominatrix in NYC, does not so much embrace the ambiguity of sex; she enters into it. We constantly feel her vibrant, erotic presence in the attitudes, reactions and thoughts of the protagonist, Carrie Chambers. That is not to say this book is in any way a tell-all neurasthenic confessional. At times it verges on satire in the sense that Warner-Cohen assumes a moral high ground in regard to her characters and a clear intellectual superiority to Cassie. That is not to say these murders are not serious erotic business. They are snuff films without the camera.
Nor are these murders the operatic doings of Sweeney Todd. They are hardcore slaughter set in the Meat Packing District of Manhattan’s West Village. What Warner-Cohen does so very well is to emotionally engage with the S&M moments of her novel so that they are incredibly vivid and sexually immediate even as Carrie’s blade penetrates the anus of a lovely young man. Other aspects of this first novel are not equally strong, but it holds up extremely well in style, narrative interest, thematic depth and a high degree of poetic insight.
Sex, Blood and Rock and Roll presents us with Cassie Chambers, a brutal, sexually riven protagonist. Though intellectually lazy, she is both calculating and deliberate in living her life and especially in dispatching her victims. She is the perfect, sexy, carefully scruffy beauty to work the fashionably skuzzy East Village of the early 90s. It is a place of sham that already sported decadence by the metered hour and a dull bourgeois future. Cassie is youth from the sticks in search of opportunity in the Big City. She is not doing this along the lines of Horatio Alger, or perhaps in the modern truth of capitalism, she is.
Cassie adorns this shabby world with her own pretty-girl mask of decadence. She is a clothes horse of the bizarre and a rock club addict. She has carefully cultivated her persona as a weapon and a defense. Her laborious childhood reads like a third-rate therapist’s file filled with vacant sex, grubby drugs, even a dollop of veiled child abuse, and the general mind-grinding tedium of suburban America. Yes, yes, we know it’s dull out there, but why not try reading?
More interesting is that her name is short for Cassandra, the captive Trojan concubine/princess of Agamemnon. Cassandra can see into the doomed future, but no one will believe her. Cassie clearly feels a voiceless impotence because the very prettiness that gets her wrapped attention also voids her ability to be heard and taken seriously. If this seems like a PC cliché, it is; but the point is that it’s a cliché in which Cassie believes.
Without revealing too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Warner-Cohen is aware of this Homeric allusion and it fits her Cassie well. When Cassie’s frustration peaks, she takes up a career as a dominatrix in a salon de vice Anglais, which is most notable for its steady drone of advertisement. The hardened proprietress, Evelyn, exhibits an almost Dickensian obsession with punctuality over concerns of style. To her one ass is as good as another. They are all commodities whether being flashed in leather thongs at the customers or being beaten bloody. Business is business and pussies are interchangeable. She perfunctorily gives Cassie the domme stage name, Averna (the Roman Goddess of the Dead).
We soon learn the name fits. Cassie likes her work. Despite the refinements of her own superego, she signs, signifies and semaphores quite ferociously that she is one angry babe. What is more, that reek of feral appetite is the basis of her deeply hypnotic, and literally overpowering attraction to her clients and lovers, both male and female. By the end of the book the Lizard Id has taken over, and she is not so much a bitch on wheels, as a Cunt on a Hummer Half-track. She is a very scary lady in this role, and one wonders if at times Warner-Cohen is flirting with writing a cautionary tale.
She largely succeeds in presenting Cassie as murderous id and absolutely nothing more. She is not crazy. She is not an evil genius. She is mortally angry and has sexual power that she uses to get what she wants which is generalized revenge on humanity. Cassie is like a horse or cow in a pasture who walks around the fence restlessly arriving back where she started which is at herself. She is no thinker, and her mind never reaches far beyond the end of her nose even at that.
If she were a hair dumber and more self-possessed, she would be a comic weakling like many of her client/victims who are literally asking for it. If she were somewhat brighter, she would turn into the ever-adorable Hannibal Lecter with his cultivated palette and creative cookery. As is, she is that kinky, luscious, leggy monster with a cute ass you can see any day of the week on the East Side Manhattan Local No. 6 Train. She is the girl every guy knows he will never get, and what a relief that is.
Cassie despises her clients because they are old in her eyes and richer than she. Their bodies show their growing imperfection. Thus, unlike her, they can no longer get what they want and need sexually through guile, charm, pathological obsession and looks. However, the novel asks if perhaps the cost is less in simply paying for such things rather than the feckless give and take of false affect at which Cassie is so very good. Cassie’s clients are less deluded than she is in many ways.
Like Erica Jong’s vampire, Cassie offers a zipless fuck. She believes that as long as her cunt is strapped shut in vinyl or leather, that fact makes her superior not only to her clients, but to other whores and other people in general. It is how she holds herself together by being apart and above other people. She wants to believe she is not a whore because she is never entered, though she does a lot of entering herself, especially with large dildoes inserted in male anuses, the 90s gambit of choice it would seem.
What she thinks she sells is the denial of intimacy, the tease, the cranking up of yearning through suffering. But that is a lie, for what she sells is an illusion -- which, as Walt Disney knows, however affecting and deeply felt -- is still only a commodity. It’s not the sale that makes her a whore; it’s the self-delusion about the difference.
In fact she is a bundle of injured self-esteem without the education to have any perspective on the insignificance of that. She is also curiously Euripidean in her similarity to Medea. She uses and exploits love, passion, sex, and even her own fertility as an excuse to kill because it gratifies her ego to do so. That is what the Athenians found unacceptably ‘masculine’ and ‘perverse’ about Medea. In Cassie, it makes her the poster girl for the self-indulgent 90s that would usher in the present era of numbing lawless greed. Cassie horrifies us because we realize that she is consciously using her misfortunes and alienation as a springboard for her atavistic appetites.
In fact one of the novel’s two flaws is that Cassie/Averna has more axes to grind than Paul Bunyan, and she wields much nastier weapons. Much of this complaint is larded onto dialogue that seeks to explain her condition as though we thought that necessary. We don’t, and what’s more, the explanations given are hollow at best. Cassie is a murderous force of nature. Enough said. At base, every single instance where she cries foul as an adult is entirely and completely the product of her own doing. Her childhood was perverse and corrupt but we are given to believe, not much more than anyone else’s. Her boyfriend is a gorgeous twit who always wants to ‘talk” but has nothing to say. He’s pretty but dumb and dull, which hardly seems grounds for murdering a large swathe of the population.
Curiously the second flaw is the mechanics of the murders themselves. Cassie smokes, drinks, takes drugs, stays out all night, and eats nothing of the slightest nutritional benefit. She never goes to the gym and at best her idea of exercise consists of walking between administering floggings. She delivers about ten or twelve of those a week to various bottoms which seems a lot, but it really adds up to only and hour or two of stationary exercise. We are to suppose that in her mid 20s, the signs of neglect have not begun to show disrepair, which in itself is nonsense, but more importantly she has these bursts of implausible prolonged super human strength.
As anyone who has seen Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties” can tell you, dead bodies are a large, unwieldy problem. You can hack ‘em up, but they bleed all over the place and blood, even with bleach, does not wash up that well. It stains grout and wood. Bodies contain upwards of nine quarts of the stuff. Drop a quart of milk in your kitchen and you will see one quart is quite a mess. Cassie slices and dices her victims at a luxuriant pace which means she would be up to her stilettos in gore by the time she had gotten her jollies. It’s annoying that she seems to solve this with a few paper towels and some Clorox.
Dead bodies are heavy and awkward because they have no muscle tone. Warner-Cohen has Cassie stuff full-grown middle-aged male corpses into a shopping cart and blithely toss them off the old West Side piers into the Hudson. I buy the destination but not the trip. It just would not be possible, as the Mafia will tell you, to do anything of the sort without rearranging their joints with a sledge hammer. Even then, the weight would require two trips if only to keep the cart steady. So now you need a chain saw or at least an axe. It’s a big production and time-consuming too.
Worse still, Cassie is fond of slow strangulation. As any executioner will explain, the body, especially when strangled, opens its bowels and bladder releasing the contents en mass as part of the process of dying. That is why professional hangmen and electrocutionists always pack the rectums of their clients with batting so as not to offend the sensibilities of the audience at such state-sanctioned dispatchings. Why do these details matter? It’s simple.
This is a novel that rests on exquisite hyper-realism. If the characterization wobbles at times, the key events are written with a sensual precision that is truly to be admired. If sex is the novel’s vehicle, murder is its subject. We are brought time and again within the rank breathing space of the victims’ bloody, groaning, struggling, excruciating death. Thus it is a serious problem when the cleanup seems an exercise in amateurish speculation. Furthermore, murder is a messy business and, on one level or another, leaves you up to your elbows in shit. Warner-Cohen needs to do more research.
On the other hand, you are missing something if you do not read this novel. Sex, Blood and Rock and Roll is one of the few books to actually look at sex in America to see what we have done to it and with it. Warner-Cohen is a gifted writer and thinker who we hope will keep at it, whatever ‘it’ might be…within limits. If you like gruesome, this is your dish of blood.