"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
You’re already familiar with the Poor Little Rich Girl archetype. Well, we’re far enough into the age of confessional, first-person writing that it’s time to introduce another: the loveless little sex columnist. As I — and, I’m confident, many of my colleagues — can tell you, thinking and talking and writing about sex doesn’t make getting it any easier. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t make getting sex with the partner you want easier.
If some men make an extravagant fuss over any pretty young woman who can open her mouth for something besides fellatio, they’re also likely to respond with intimidation and disgust should that same woman choose to write about the men she may or may not have fellated. And if the nubile wunderkind in question is young and giddily flexing the biceps of her still-evolving sexuality, she might not yet understand the consequences of her revelations — from the men who won’t know what to make of her to the possibility that she may lose faith in the nonsexual aspects of herself.
I write two regular columns on sex and dating and have recently retired from a third. I know firsthand that any columnist who hopes to maximize tranquility in her relationships had better understand that her life takes precedence over the needs of her column. In her debut novel, “Run Catch Kiss,” Amy Sohn — a self-described scribe of “smut” for the New York Press — has ably and wittily depicted what happens when a writer instead permits her column to dictate how she lives her life.
Every once in a while somebody will ask me if I know Sohn personally. To date, I haven’t made her acquaintance. But I can see why they might assume we’ve crossed paths. From her column, “Female Trouble,” I know that we have much in common: We are approximately the same age, Jewish and Ivy-League-educated. We’re both strangers to shyness and feel constantly stymied by the cultural disapproval leveled on women who behave like men. We’ve both logged time on the therapist’s couch.
Most conspicuously, we have both exploited our youth, our relative comeliness and our willingness to publicize, for personal and professional gain, that which is normally private. (Not that comely young women are the only writers with a knack and taste for self-exploitation, but if you can find me a successful, first-person sex columnist who is 1) fat; 2) elderly or 3) a straight male who’s not automatically branded a misogynist for excoriating past lovers with the license that women are routinely granted, let me know.)
I do not, however, write about my personal life the way Sohn does. “Female Trouble” has always made me cringe, which is impressive, since no one has ever accused me of being squeamish. Sohn renders her printed sexcapades — which, even when she’s between beaux, seem as numerous and outrageous as mine are sporadic and comparatively vanilla — in minute, nearly pornographic detail (whereas just graphic might have sufficed) and in the crudest possible terms. (Lest anyone accuse me of envying Sohn’s accomplishment, let me promise here that praise for her savvy novel, which is well-earned, will come later.)
This is a woman who has described, among other things, an instance of swallowing on the second date; bantering sexually with a boyfriend’s father; and even the exact appearance of her own excrement. She has also penned frightful accounts of her pathetic attempts to win the affection of near-strangers who clearly view Sohn as nothing more than a receptacle.
I won’t deny that I read these vignettes with fascination, but I’ve had some trouble relating to them. This is because I — like the majority of single women I know — am someone whose orifices, are, alas, not being ploughed with such enviable frequency (though potential suitors with Madonna-whore complexes have trouble believing this) and such unenviable disdain.
The explicit bawdiness of Sohn’s column wouldn’t offend me if it felt like it amounted to more than a self-conscious attempt to shock — if it signified something bigger than a provocateur’s bratty tricks masquerading as sexual honesty. Such trash-talking pyrotechnics aren’t truly honest: Nobody — not even the extremely randy and gutter-mouthed troupe I’m proud to call my friends — says things like, “[He] flipped me onto my stomach and ground my beef,” or “He was such a terrific muff muncher that it only took [a short time] to make the kitty purr,” and certainly not “[N]othing makes me grin like the sweet fresh taste of seed” (not even those for whom this sentiment is accurate!). Sohn has also alluded to her own pudendum as her “Lincoln Tunnel” and her “gleaming manhole” (although sometimes she suffices with a simple “hole”).
The aggressive showiness and utter retardation of these bon mots, coupled with Sohn’s no-details-spared narration, suggest her hell-bent determination that people know her name at whatever cost to her personal life. This is a writer’s right, of course, and I don’t object to it on moral grounds — but even as a fellow byline-loving gal, I just can’t empathize. Say what you will about a columnist’s responsibility to lay herself completely bare: I have never felt an obligation to mine every last thought, fantasy, person and tryst (replete with positions and orgasmic utterances). I don’t tell all; I tell as much as I and the people I care about most can tolerate (which is still a lot more than is the case with the average Jill).
There are other reasons why, prior to reading “Run Catch Kiss,” I had determined that I probably wouldn’t like Sohn very much if I ever did wind up meeting her. For someone who kick-boxed “The Rules” (in an admittedly funny retort called “The Drools”), she sometimes seems awfully willing to scheme for a mate, even if the prospect in question is a prodigious loser. Then there is the recent New York Post article in which Sohn described Candace Bushnell, the glamorous creator of “Sex and the City,” as “the bane of my existence,” because Sohn’s column is always being compared to the one Bushnell wrote for the New York Observer. The way Sohn then pointed out the age difference between herself and Bushnell — ostensibly to differentiate their perspectives — seemed a nasty bit of intra-gender competition to me, especially since Sohn should consider the comparison a compliment.
And yet, while Sohn’s column ain’t my cup o’ whatever bodily fluid she’s writing about, I would be guilty of professional envy if I didn’t salute her kamikaze bravery. The extent to which she is willing to risk censure is almost mind-boggling. And as self-aggrandizing and self-destructive as she is, Sohn is also self-deprecatory and self-aware. (Still, just because somebody acknowledges her narcissism, as Sohn has, doesn’t mean that the trait becomes any more palatable.)
Imagine my surprise then to discover upon reading “Run Catch Kiss” that Sohn is a helluva comic writer! This touching, funny book operates on three levels. It’s a warped story about a young woman’s doomed endeavors to empower herself through a brazen, exhibitionistic sexuality. If we can believe Simon & Schuster’s press release, it’s also a roman ` clef about Sohn’s experiences as a sex columnist at the New York Press. And, last but not least, it just might be a confession that her most wince-worthy columns were utterly bogus. On all of these levels, it works.
“Run Catch Kiss” tracks the rise and fall of Brooklyn-bred Ariel Steiner, who is — like the author herself was three years ago — 22, fresh out of Brown, a temp and an aspiring actor when she becomes a weekly columnist at an alternative downtown paper. (The way Sohn skewers her own N.Y. Press employers and colleagues by limning the Press’ fictitious counterpart, City Week, is at once affectionate and impudent).
Ariel is intellectually but not emotionally sophisticated, and even prior to landing the writing gig, she displays a masochistic penchant for horrible men — for instance, a Rogaine-using, ex-junkie musician who sends her out to forage for food while he bathes and who won’t even kiss her as she masturbates him. She rewards these cretins with physical favors and far more chances than they deserve.
Her self-abasement is partially a counter-phobic response to insecurity about her attractiveness and sexual competence (caused by belated orgasmic capacity), but it’s also fueled by a competitive brand of egotism. Indeed, on some level, these unpleasant liaisons are failed power plays: As she explains, “I have always been a sucker for guys who think they’re hot shit because I want to be the one woman to turn them into the weak fucks they really are.” And Sohn is onto something here: How often do women willingly augment a slimy Don Juan’s rap sheet because they’re seduced by the ego trip, the ostensible coup, in the prospect of playing Annette Bening to his Warren Beatty? Suckers.
The opportunity to pen sex columns seems a logical answer to Ariel’s dual longings for fame and sexual power: “I was a hopeless romantic trapped in the body of a seething hussy,” she says. “I wanted passion and companionship and deep discussion … sidewalk embraces and hand holding and hair caressing … But I didn’t know how I was supposed to get it … If I couldn’t beat the boys, wasn’t it wisest to join them? And get paid for it in the process?”
So Ariel will have her rakes and eat them too. Deep down, she knows that playing the “pomo ho” (as she calls her anti-bimbo, lowbrow-by-choice, sex-kitten persona) will come between her and a relationship based on something real. But she doesn’t have faith that dropping the slut act will help her find the love she craves either, so she’ll settle for meaningless sex and notoriety for now. (I myself must confess that one of the most seductive perks of this job is the show-stopping effect that answering “What do you do?” has at dinner parties.)
Sohn’s facility with non-four-letter words is impressive. Perhaps it’s simply that she has more room here than in her column to humanize her protagonist — to buffer Ariel’s crudity, histrionic come-ons and ridiculous columns with lots of genuine feeling and sharp insights. An understanding of Ariel’s behavior doesn’t necessarily make her likeable, but it does make her intriguing.
For example, even as she rues the way men fuck and flee her, Ariel keeps presenting herself as interested in little more than fast, easy, uncomplicated, even predatory sex. Talking about her column persona in the third person, she says:
Ariel Steiner … wasn’t looking for any relationship deeper than her own vagina. She sought quick dick and nothing more, didn’t speak to her lays in the morning, and fucked to come, even though I couldn’t. Half of me despised her and the other half wanted to be her.
All too often, the second half wins out. Telling herself it’s good for the column, she calls up a man she hasn’t seen in years and leaves what’s essentially a phone-sex monologue on his machine. Later, she has two wholly unsatisfying assignations with him (one in a porno booth). While she can tell herself it’s for the column, Sohn reveals how Ariel’s need to hook up with this cad runs deeper:
Ariel Steiner … rubbed her face in the grimiest, most low-down centers of debauchery … then came up smiling … Ariel Steiner can fuck in a porno booth and come out feeling liberated, not gross. I wanted to be able to do it. I wanted not to be afraid.
Unfortunately, Ariel is always afraid — of loneliness, of rejection, of anonymity — which is why it’s so hard for her to turn the persona off, even when she’s not writing. When one of her editors first meets her and compliments her firm handshake, she retorts, “It’s from all those hand jobs.” Ariel substitutes effrontery for charm, just as she’ll take notoriety as a consolation prize for the greater fame that eludes her, and just as she’ll settle for soulless sex — it ain’t love, but hey, it’s better than celibacy.
Ariel eventually does find love. And throughout her protagonist’s painful journey, Sohn makes trenchant observations about the ways that sex and love can disappoint. Ariel’s frustration with her partners’ dishonesty and emotional cowardice is summed up concisely: “Usually when guys stroke my hair while I’m giving head it makes me want to stop, because it feels so disingenuous. I know they’re not feeling tender and it makes me angry that they’re pretending to.” I also admired this sadly wry riff on whether her boyfriend’s inability to verbalize his love truly means anything:
I was taking the word issue too seriously anyway. Because I love you never means I love you anyway. Usually, it means, I want to hear that you love me. It’s a cue and nothing more. Sometimes it means, The sex we’re having right now is feeling incredibly animalistic and nonemotional and I’d like for it to feel warm and romantic instead. And sometimes it just means, I really want to get off the phone.
Sohn has also wisely given Ariel many opportunities to check in with her parents and brother — who are ultimately, albeit nervously, supportive of her choices. Ariel’s brother is only weirded out by the way the column’s steamiest passages get him excited (this is, after all, his sister). Her parents are torn between pride at seeing their daughter’s byline and horror at the antics described under it. One week, Ariel runs a column sans sex, and while her editors aren’t happy, her father gives it a rave review: “If my dad was happy with what I was writing,” Ariel laments, “it meant I had to find myself some action, soon.”
Due to unconsummated seductions, a man who threatens to stop dating her if he’s turned into column fodder, or something she doesn’t want to confess to her readership (like her orgasmic difficulties), Ariel spends a lot of time fretting over how to fill up her column. This pressure, largely self-inflicted, leads her to engage in acts that leave her feeling horrible and it leads her to fabricate others.
Her smaller transgressions include embellishing the porno-booth incident (as if it needed help) and taking credit for aborting a liaison that was actually ended by the man. But she also makes up, wholesale, a lesbian affair (to satiate her readers and to avoid writing about a manic-depressive boyfriend) as well as a heterosexual one. (This last is to make another boyfriend — a sweet commitment-phobe — believe that she’s cheating on him. Don’t ask.) Eventually, Ariel’s employers discover her fabrications, and she is fired amid threats of a Stephen Glass-like uproar — replete, absurdly enough, with the specter of a grim fact-checking investigation into yarns with titles like “Smutlife,” “Stench of a Woman” and “Dyke Hands.”
What are we to make of the fact that Sohn refers to and appropriates some of her own past columns and presents them as Ariel’s experiences and writings, both real and made up? After all, Sohn could easily have concocted brand new columns to serve as her fictional alter egos. For example, Ariel alludes to a few columns she’s written about a female bedmate she calls “Beat Writer,” and tells us that her trysts with the woman are a fabrication. Well, a long time ago, Sohn wrote about a lesbian affair she had with a woman she called “Beat Writer.” So does this mean that Sohn didn’t have a lesbian affair, either, or is she just trying to distance herself from true confessions she regrets having made in the past? Are Sohn’s own columns sometimes fabricated or aren’t they? And if some of her Press columns are bogus, is their incorporation into her novel a safe way for Sohn to confess to her journalistic crimes — or is she merely making excuses for the shoddy, crass writing contained therein? And even if some of her tales aren’t true, does that negate the bravery I lauded earlier — i.e., that of publishing material that is sure to wreak havoc on her social life, in the name of baring her soul? (It’s not as if Ariel’s fabrications make her appear to be a kinder or mentally healthier person: just the opposite.)
Whatever the answers, this fusion of fact and fiction is as clever as it is transparent. Now Sohn can assure her parents and future partners that her most daunting and poorly-written columns were just fiction; yet by writing “Run Catch Kiss” as a novel instead of a memoir, she can tell her editors that Ariel’s fabrication is what’s fictional. Pomo ho, indeed!
Such ingenuity bodes well for Sohn’s future as a novelist, and I understand that she has also written a screenplay for a movie. Sohn has already acknowledged in print that she doesn’t want to write “Female Trouble” forever. I think that she can resist being typecast as a sex writer if she chooses. With “Run Catch Kiss,” Sohn is beginning to write her way out of a box: her own.
Jennifer Kornreich is a freelance features reporter, a sex-
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)