Highbrow Sleaze

Prestige pulp offers jaded readers cheap wine in fancy bottles


Laura Miller
August 19, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

when it comes to trash culture, some people like their guilty pleasures
straight, while others prefer a more watered-down cocktail. Various
intellectuals famously indulged their appetite for pulp years before the
appearance of Quentin Tarantino. Detective stories have long been their
favorite genre, although the Marxist critic Raymond Williams reportedly was
addicted to dime store gothics, those now-vanished paperbacks whose covers
always showed a nightgown-clad woman fleeing a sinister mansion during a
thunderstorm.

Recently, literary slumming has become fashionable, as long as (unlike
Williams) you do it in the proper, he-man style and tough it out with
haute-genre writers like James Ellroy ("American Tabloid") and Thomas
Harris ("The Silence of the Lambs"). These high IQ-scribes specialize in strong meat, tales
of spectacularly sadistic violence and explicit sex (often combined),
stylishly delivered with a noirish cool that congratulates itself for
having the stomach for "dark" themes.

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But these books are still fat mass-market paperbacks with their
titles stamped out in huge foil letters -- airplane reading. What about the
reader who wants a potion with the same kick but with a fancier label, and credit for knocking off one of the talked-about books of
the season? Fear not, for a handful of Manhattan's literati are on the case.

Last fall, Susanna Moore broke out of her accomplished midlist-novelist
shell with "In the Cut," the story of a Greenwich Village creative writing
teacher who has an affair with a homicide detective investigating a local
serial killer. This spring, A.M. Homes published "The End of Alice," the
fictional first-person musings of a jailed pedophile as he corresponds with
a 19-year-old co-ed hell-bent on seducing a pubescent neighbor boy. This
fall, look for Harper's magazine editor Colin Harrison's "Manhattan
Nocturne," the tale of a newspaper columnist's adulterous affair with a
beautiful blonde who harbors ulterior motives, an ugly past and kinky
proclivities.
Unlike most thrillers, these novels can command particular attention from
the literary media because their authors are among the elite -- not just a
bunch of squirrely guys hammering out scary trash in Virginia or Baltimore
for beach blanket delectation. These are writers with reputations and
access to the toniest magazines and book publishers, people a national
journalist might meet at a cocktail party. People whose personal
experiences or tastes -- as possibly revealed in these possibly
semi-autobiographical novels -- it would be especially amusing to speculate
about.
Of the three, Moore and Homes have delivered the more gruesome and sexually
graphic books, as is their prerogative as women. Although Homes took some heat for the "American Psycho" grotesquery of "The End of Alice,"
no one levied a boycott against her nasty
opus. The double standard lives on: What strikes the public as titillating self-revelation coming from a
very attractive female novelist -- Did Moore really get buggered on the
desk of an NYPD captain? Did Homes chase pre-teen boys in her dewy late
adolescence? Or, for that matter, do either of them just like to think
about it? -- is merely disgusting or a sign of potential deviance coming
from a man.
Fortunately for the author of "Manhattan Nocturne," he is married to
Kathryn Harrison, herself a very attractive female novelist, and no doubt
he will tickle many literary voyeurs by having his hero describe his wife
as a woman who "could screw me dead anytime she wants. Loves it from
behind. Why? The action goes in further, among other reasons. Loves it."
For good measure, Harrison has tossed in several dozen dropped names, from
media honchos to movie stars, along with a few thinly disguised, catty
portraits of love-to-hate-'em types like Rupert Murdoch and Jay McInerney.
All three of these books purport to engage with serious themes.
Homes' is perhaps the most patently ambitious and "literary," with her leaden homage
to Nabokov shackled to every sentence of "Alice." But the plots all follow
a generic movie thriller storyline as perfected by Hitchcock: apparently
innocent citizen gets lured into a seamy underworld via the repressed dark
side of his/her own personality. Cinematic thrillers have been
spinning this little purity-and-contamination yarn for years. "In the Cut" is a hybrid of "9 1/2 Weeks"
and "Sea of Love," and "Manhattan Nocturne" is a Michael Douglas movie,
pure and simple.
The message intended to justify all the tabloid-style sensationalism
crammed into these books (beheading is a popular theme) is that none of us
should be too sure of our own virtue; the potential for evil lurks within
everyone. So don't think you can dabble in adultery, sex with cops or
pedophilia and come out of it with clean hands, my friend, because you're
playing with fire. As insights go, this doesn't even rate a little cartoon
light bulb, but it serves its fig-leafy purpose.
To be fair, Moore is making an observation about how a treacherous feminine passivity can collaborate with male sadism. And Homes is harkening not
just to Nabokov, but to a vein in postmodern gay fiction, descended from
Genet and the novelist Dennis Cooper, in which "transgressive" themes are
championed for reasons that have never been particularly clear to me. But so
what? These writers are mostly just showing off, demonstrating that they
can dish it out -- a handcuffed rough sex scene, a nipple mutilation scene,
a prison rape scene and a bit of business with a BB gun that I don't even
want to get into -- with the big boys.
As for Harrison, his intentions are less clear. None of the ostensibly
shocking portions of "Manhattan Nocturne" (including a scene in which the
hero's paramour masturbates while he describes covering a story about a
dead baby) is anywhere near as loathsome as the main character himself, and
yet Harrison's portrayal is by all indications without irony. This is the sort
of man who enters a crowded room and notes the precise status value of
everyone present before collapsing on a couch and pretending to be above it
all. He's the kind of man who, when visiting his new lover's apartment,
always pauses to gloat at the doorman. "Love ya pal. Eat shit. I fucked her,
you didn't," he crows to himself. Worse yet, this is the kind of man who
believes that by merely admitting that "my heart is tight and small" he
somehow transcends that smallness. After cheating on his wife out of
weakness and vanity, this puffed-up, self-regarding nobody flatters himself
that he is "carrying on a secret dialogue with all that is evil in human
nature." Yeah, you and Dr. Mengele, pal. Dream on.
This inflated, romanticized notion of wickedness plagues all three novels, these self-styled holidays in Hell. For how many among us, after all, romance a serial killer or
fraternize with child molesters? The average middle-class reader's sins run
more to casual cruelty, indifference and cheap ego boosts, not cannibalism;
the true "dark" side is how petty our motives really are and how easily we could stop ourselves if we bothered
to try. These novels feed our
garden-variety mean spirits with morbidity, gossip, prurience and
trendiness -- all wrapped in a grandiose package. It's not so much the
flagrantly detailed sex and violence that offends, as the poor use it's put
to, the mundane moral it serves, the fact that it ultimately means so
little.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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