Peggy Munson’s Origami Striptease is a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Project: QueerLit contest-winning novel.
The narrator says she was semi-famous once for her sex columns in several underground magazines. She’d take boys home (don’t get hung up on pronouns and gender - in this story people are their mental genders, not their physical ones. Cocks are detachable.), fuck them, and then write about it for her articles. She laughs off warnings that one day she’ll be forced to eat her words, to eat crow. Then she meets The Sludge, singer in a punk band who gets her down on her knees in an alleyway, breaks off the tips of pens, and makes her suck down the ink.
The poison from the ink destroys her body. She is fragile and chronically exhausted. She still desires her boys, but can’t get out to meet them, and is left trapped with herself. On a rare day when she feels good enough to venture out, she goes to a store that sells unclaimed airline baggage. “I had a sense that everything I owned was lost. I had an impulse – spawned from feverish delusion – that my life could be restored if I just found my bag and reconstructed what was in it, even though there never was a bag,” she says.
In the store, she meets Jack, a cautious boy who won’t share his secrets. They buy a bag together and split the contents. He gives her a pen they find in it, one of those old fluid-filled ones where a girl strips when it’s tilted down. A week later, Jack calls her and says he needs to see the pen. It’s the beginning of a frustrating affair. Jack holds back everything – the truth about his illness, his past, his cock. They can share delirium dreams brought on by their respective illnesses, fantasies, sex, and the frailties of their bodies, but Jack is elusive and finally slips away.
The Sludge comes back into her life. Repentant about what the ink did to her, he tries to make amends. He moves in and cares for her. They are joined by her illness, she the victim; he the villain. But it isn’t an easy truce. The Sludge wants her to be grateful. He resents her, and resents that she still loves Jack. When she tries to leave the Sludge, he slams a frying pan into her skull and flees.
When she returns from several weeks in the hospital, The Sludge is gone. He’s taken everything but the bed and the frying pan. She’s left alone in the empty house. Then she receives a letter from Jack. He’s coming to see her.
Jack finally tells her about his illness. He had a bad heart, but got a transplant while he was away. He takes her to the cemetery and puts a gun to his head. She’s furious that he’d throw away his recovery. He just wants it all to end. She takes the gun from him and he begs her to shoot him.
“Why am I here?” Jack asked.
“You are my bodyguard,” I said. “You need to let me out and hold me in.” I thought that it was something he could handle, just the canopy of one small duty keeping out the rest.
“That’s something, isn’t it?” asked Jack. “I have a use?”
She convinces him that he does. They leave the cemetery, reunited, but the gun is still there, and it’s not a happily ever after ending.
I met Greg Wharton, the publisher of Suspect Thoughts Press, at the Saints and Sinners Literary festival. I’d just finished reading Origami Striptease, and we talked about it. He told me that Peggy had lost the ability to write and had to relearn it. I don’t know what she lost, but it’s evident what she’s gained – an incredible mastery of words. This book reads like poetry and left me stunned with writer’s envy.
Beyond the incredible language, this story has so much going for it. The genderqueer characters finally liberate the reader from attachment to pronouns. It reclaims sexuality for the non-ableist population that society deems asexual and neutered. It’s about love and hate and jealousy, and need and want and sex and life, and it will speak to anyone, queer or not. I highly recommend it.