Brushes, by M. Christian is a loosely woven series of idylls about the sexual union between the artist and his model, all artists here being male. We are given to understand that somehow painters must penetrate their models spiritually in order to render them on canvas. As one may expect, that leads to a good deal of penetrating on other levels -- except in those rare and poignant (if murky) moments when it does not. Leastwise, without the literal penetration, we wouldn’t have much of a book here, and I am not sure we do anyway.
Brushes owes something to Laurence Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet for its organization and its tone of breathless ennui. Mr. Christian’s characters all seem on the verge of exhaustion created by existential confusion and perhaps an excess of paint fumes in small Paris flats. All of the stories are loosely hinged to a Hemingwayesque painter named Escobar, who is forever overshadowing the lives of the others as an artist and a lover. He is mostly an illusion, however, in that his power lies in his painting, which the author never really elucidates.
Moreover, we are at a loss to understand this general malaise as everyone in this novel seems to have – unlike real artists – the means to subsist if not thrive, and they have plenty of free time to contemplate what they are doing, when they are not screwing. Some seem even to have time for it in mid-fuck. One young woman is so distracted by her existential state that she mistakenly fucks the caterer at a high fashion event. He seems agreeable enough when he is not talking about a wine as an “impudent little vintage,” and he is quite skilled in bed, but he is a real come down for her from fucking a designer. I suppose finding a straight male fashion designer in Paris or New York might be tricky, but why be such a snob?
In sum, the relationships in the book are much like French establishment cinema. You seem the same actors playing the same characters in a vague state of discontent that leads them to no particular solution. So like much of recent modern fiction, this book deals with people who have time to decide they have a problem and then to start worrying about it.
The style of the novel is engaging when grinding away at a sex scene. Much of the rest of it though, runs to self-indulgence as through sentence fragments and a kind of sheered off prose. Here is an example:
A wry smile on his ghostly self-portrait. ‘Better art by accident,’ he thought at his reflection. The gallery was closed for the evening, small incidental lights dully lighting the rest of the works hanging on its walls. Only one high-intensity beam shone, singling out the bright colors and mad streaks of that one painting. From the side, from a niche filled with a glass-topped desk, a man walked out. Dim in the closed gallery lighting, details were lost, but Philip could see he was big, not exactly heavy. Thinning gray hair. The posture, the age, of an owner -- not an employee. A small clipboard in one hand, short fingers curling around the edge. Philip couldn't see where the man was looking, but his shoulders and posture broadcast dismissal as he turned and walked out of Philip's sight.
Sucking his teeth in disgust, Philip went back to the Escobar. The gallery was a little out of his way, a stroll from the off-site Sorbonne classroom -- where he'd been substituting for a vacationing professor -- down the Rue Christine, and eventually to his little plaster box apartment in Montparnasse. Normally he wouldn't have turned that one corner, walked down that one avenue, to take himself past the pure white geometry of the gallery -- called, in supreme arrogance, ‘L' Art’ -- to look in the window.
Such prose is to some extent a matter of taste, but Brushes also does a lot of laborious thrashing around on the subject of painting mostly emulating the arduous style of ArtNews, mixed with the sort of agglomerated modifiers one hears in ART APPRECIATION 101. Thus we have this sort of thing when a character confronts Escobar’s painting for the first time:
It didn't have the passion of Picasso, the spectrum of Manet, the delicacy of Monet, the composition of Mondrian, the whimsy of Kandinsky, the elegance of Sargent, the tranquility of Hopper, the precision of daVinci, the strength of Michelangelo, the madness of Van Gogh, or the music of Cezanne. It was ineffective, clumsy, inelegant -- or maybe just ugly.
Even worse, for a novel about the Paris art world and its great collections, Mr. Christian does not seem to know much about them. At one point he confuses the water lilies of Monet, which fill the main floor of the recently reopened Musée de l’Orangerie, with some hitherto unknown ones by Manet. Canvasses by Auguste Renoir are said to be hanging in the Louvre, which is most unlikely as the Louvre is limited to works completed no later than 1848 at which point Renoir would have been seven years old.
The same applies to Mr. Christian’s understanding of Paris itself. He refers to an “arab quarter” in the city of which there is none. There are sections of the city and its suburbs where there is a substantial Moslem population who are of course not all Arabs, but he is conjuring some sort of closed Arab enclave. What is more, anyone who has followed Parisian social unrest in the last couple of years would know that.
Mr. Christian may regard these things as the right of authorial whimsy, but they are not. If you write a book focused entirely on painting with numerous references to the Impressionists of the late 19th century, you had better know that such works hang in the Musee d' Orsay, not the Lourve, with the exception of those that are in special collections (also not in the Louvre).
This sort of error about Paris is equal to a crime novel that might describe a car chase proceeding uptown on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It would be a short chase as everyone knows that Fifth Avenue goes only -- and very resolutely -- one-way, which is downtown. It spoils the book for the moderately sophisticated reader, and who else reads anything these days? That sort of blunder pervades Brushes.
Lethe Press very kindly directly sent me a copy of M. Christian’s Dirty Words, a collection of ruby red stories pulsing with extreme gay kink. I am hugely pleased that they did. The collection is a tour de force for Mr. Christian who says of his own book that, “It’s hard to write about a kink when it’s my own.” Surely he cannot possibly share all the exotic penchants of this collection. It would be far too exhausting for any single mortal. On the other hand, his emotional and intellectual presence surges up constantly as you read along. Dirty Words is an erotic celebration of Self – in this case Mr. Christian – and he totally gets away with it. “Casey, the Bat” even gives us an auto-erotic fuck-off in which Casey (of former baseball legend) fucks himself into oblivion aided by a chorus of human fuck toys at his every orifice.
Whether in the idiom of the surreal as with Casey, or that of the super-real in “The Harley” (a competitive fuck for a hog between two monster bikers), Christian gives us an oleaginous world of glorified decadence, physiological rot, and steaming piles of depravity laced with homicidal madness. Throughout, sex is the driving force behind the author’s boiling universe. Love then becomes the gag or screech as a behemoth, unwashed cock is jammed full force down a strangled throat or up an un-lubricated ass.
Despite the fact that the book is heavily laden with typos and editing oversights, the prose poetry is remarkable as you can see here in the opening lines of “The Harley:
If they’d thought of BO, Mammoth would have kicked it over and tore out of there no problem. Hands down, the fucker had the most righteous stench – one like a rap sheet (fucking bad and sticks to your ass for life): (sic) body reek, oil, farts, old blood, dog shit – the works. But they didn’t think of stink to settle the issue.
Just like the prose style, the book is densely packed with an overwhelming sense of unabashed homoerotic narcissism that makes each story a kind of figurative auto-performance given by the author. The book has an arrogant smirk to it rather in the spirit of Norman Mailer in his prime (Advertisements for Myself). Christian gives us gay lovers who are in fact sado-masochistic twins as in “Spike.” In “Matches” we find ourselves with the hero who encounters his ideal lover only when he sees himself as dead. The ardor of the coming together is celestial in feeling as we see here, “David’s asshole surged and sparked and twirled around his new cock like a particle accelerator.”
These doublings allow Christian to step in and visibly referee in his various bizarre, fictive contests of will. His muscular freaks battle over territory, motorcycles, lovers, power, and even it seems over who and how will do the fighting itself. The combatants are always worthy of their arena. Christian has captured for our time what Henry Miller captured for his, the corporeal metaphor of post-modern relationships, brutal sexuality laced with anarchistic self-interest. His Road Warrior is much more Agamemnon than Siegfried. In fact his heroes at best are anarchist psychopaths. From a rogue dwarf avenger to a vampire esthete, they are sub-political creatures feeding on social and economic weakness very often for the hell of it.
The murderer hero of “Blue Boy” speculates:
He thought about killing him: automatic and fully detailed. The cop would be slow, since he was an icon: easy to push him over his bike, simple to fumble his revolver out of his holster…. He supposed that the cop would soil his immaculate uniform with blue piss as he cried like a tortured baby. He knew, fucking knew, that his head would explode with the first round, his face blooming forward against the shock wave of the bullet passing through his head, confined by the helmet.
Like de Sade, Christian has captured a unique level of putrescent deformity in his characters. They are like monstrous fragments of the legendary Gilles de Rais who paddled through the entrails of his gutted murder victims for his sexual pleasure. They are avowed nihilists and yet still fascinating, despite that fact. They embody a truly new and scintillating foulness in literature.What separates them from the actual murderers, rapists, pederasts, and deviants that cruise along our streets is that, again -- like the old Marquis -- they are completely aware of what they are doing. They taunt and jibe at us, goading us to face what is in them to do. Do we have it in us as well? Who knows? Who cares? As each story gathers force, Mr. Christian shines through as the puppet master and he is clearly challenging us with a satyr’s leer to look away. We do not, caught as we are in his spell of the erotic unthinkable.