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Sunday, 16 March 2008

Nonbelieving Literati: Not the End of the World

'I don't like affectation. That doesn't mean I try and make everyone look like they just got up in the morning -- that would be a form of affectation too. I like to try and get behind the screens folks put up, get an image of the person they are when they think no-one's looking. Far easier said than done, right enough. Soon as you point a camera at somebody, they perform. Some do it more subtly than others, but they all play a part.'

'Dave made your pictures sound like, I don't know, psychological X-rays.'

'Nah. Nothing quite so wanky and sophisticated. But you can usually tell what I think of the subject without much in the way of in-depth analysis.'

Steff got back to his plate, oddly relieved to have headed off the discussion.

Many of his pictures were psychological X-rays. Fortunately, most people didn't recognise who of.

Thus do we hear the photographer Steff Kennedy's view of his own art in Not the End of the World. I can't help but wonder if author Christopher Brookmyre's view of his own writing is similar: self-conscious, with a hint of self-congratulation for the self-deprecation he allows himself in thinking of this work, coupled with an insecure, and justified, fear of wankiness.

The book is very quotable in places, witty and sometimes even profound for brief moments that don't quite string together properly. I was touched by Larry Freeman's thought that there are orphans, and there are widows, but there's no word for a parent who loses a child. Quite why Larry Freeman has to have lost a child is less obvious. It's irrelevant to the story, and it's not an aspect of his character that actually develops; it seems to be a bauble that figuratively hangs around his character's neck, something to make him seem more interesting, I don't know.

Indeed, Christopher Brookmyre's ability to develop or even convincingly describe character is -- I can put this no more simply -- terrible. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his stereotyped view of fundamentalist Christians, who conveniently justify Steff Kennedy's oh-so-hip contempt for them in every way possible. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that final scene where evil preacher ("Lex") Luther St John isn't willing to die for what he says he believes in. One of the scary things about fundamentalists is that many of them would just love to be persecuted and die for what they believe, and, whatever else you can say about Luther's character, he is portrayed as a true believer, and a terribly messed up true believer at that. You're telling me he wouldn't play to a martyr's script if you strung him up on a cross? Don't be silly.

Ah, but the fundamentalists are nothing compared with Madeleine. So let me just warn you, I'm about to get frank about some of my views on sex -- and, ahem, somewhat impolite about our author's apparent opinions thereof.

Madeleine, Madeleine, Madeleine. Maddy. Magdalene. Where to start? Our dear Maddy used to be a porn actress. She's one of the good guys, naturally, not like those evil fundamentalists who oppose pornography for prurient reasons, or those odd Dworkinites who think pornography demeans women in some way. Indeed, Maddy watched some pornography for a psychology class at university and understood immediately what the ramifications were and were not:

As she had quickly come to learn, there is no such thing as an 'experiment' in academic psychology, because that would suggest the prof was in some doubt as to what the results would be. He knew all along that sustained exposure to this material would make the depicted behaviour seem more natural, commonplace and perfectly ordinary; the effect was 'demystification' rather than desensitization. So a blow-job neither elevated the recipient male to a position of dominance and supremacy any more than it made the woman a debased slattern deserving of all contempt: it was just a blow-job. A pussy wasn't any kind of mystic portal to the sexual dimension: it was a pussy. The men were neither perverts nor superstuds for doing what they were doing; the women neither whores nor goddesses. They were all just people fucking. And it was no big deal.

Alas! I am not in a position to comment directly on this. However, the wonderful Greta Christina, who is resolutely pro-porn and does know what she is talking about, has written this about people assuming that the stuff that happens in porn is normal sex (when in fact most of the time the details are dictated by what looks good, not by what feels good). She has also written this about the complexities involved in supporting porn:

I also think that pro-porn advocates -- myself included -- need to stop pretending that there isn't a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn -- or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn -- is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

Christopher Brookmyre is having Maddy say a load of rubbish here. Pornography is fine. Fine! Nothing wrong with it at all! No possible objections! Any fool can see that!

So why, oh please, why was our dear former porn actress only doing it because her Daddy abused her when she was little? How does that fit into Brookmyre's script? Sure, porn is fine -- but nice girls only do it because they were abused as children. Madeleine is a nice girl, you know. Not one of those -- sluts!

You think it couldn't get worse, don't you? It gets worse. Having created this slimy contradiction in values, Brookmyre can think of nothing better to do than to have sex with it in the form of his Mary Sue, Steff Kennedy. Steff Kennedy is interestingly tall and blond. Steff Kennedy takes no bullshit and commits heresy on a regular basis (coool . . .). Steff Kennedy has watched one of Madeleine's porn videos, but it is only when he sees the real her that he becomes suddenly transported to the daft world of the desperately in love, where he feels cutely awkward and humbly oblivious to the obvious fact that -- of course -- she likes him too.

His stomach was churning. His bloody stomach was churning. He hadn't felt like this since he was about fifteen, and the worst of it was that it was for all the same reasons as back then. Thinking about what she looked like, what she smelt like, her smile, the sound of her voice. Excited by the very thought of seeing her, worried by the thought that she wouldn't show, nervousness multiplied with every unfeasibly long minute that passed.

There's more like that. A whole lot more. Remembering the patronising way the author had endowed the object of this stereotypical worship with a pity-inducing excuse for being a porn star, I wanted to spew. But I'd have settled for the author taking his hand off his you-know-what for long enough to write something that didn't reek of sugar and semen.

Instead, I had to watch as the evil fundamentalist Christians tried to use Maddy as a pawn, a tool to promote their ideology by forcing her to repent. Luckily, Steff comes up with the idea that saves the day! Then he head-butts her evil, abusing father so hard that the father is thrown to the wall, all while making cute sarcastic remarks with his hard-to-fathom (but very coool) sense of humour. It was nice to see Maddy take the stage and turn the tables on the moralising pundits who believed her dead, but I wished I could have seen her turn the tables on her author. He, too, is using her to promote his ideology, and he, too, does not respect her.

I know it can be hard for the best of liberals to entirely shake off the complex, powerful memes that surround sex for long enough to perceive the best way for people to enjoy their lives. Heck, I, for one, have had to concede with regard to my own feelings that sexual repression is not just a weird disease they had in the fifties. Finding the best way to view a sexual issue can take time and thought, and even then you won't always be sure you're right. I'd be more inclined to cut Christopher Brookmyre some slack if he wasn't so obviously wanking to the messed-up ideas that he blithely subscribes to.

7 comments:

Lifeguard said...

"I can't help but wonder if author Christopher Brookmyre's view of his own writing is similar: self-conscious, with a hint of self-congratulation for the self-deprecation he allows himself in thinking of this work, coupled with an insecure, and justified, fear of wankiness."

Lynet, you could have stopped right there, but you kept going and it only got better and better. Seriously, I think this was the best post on the book I've read.

the chaplain said...

Outstanding post. I also was bothered by Brookmyre's portrayals of sexuality. Thanks for stating so eloquently some of the things that he got wrong. This really is a great post.

The Exterminator said...

Very astute observations here. The story is all cobbled together from a few stereotyped ideas that Brookmyre must have had. Here are his original notes the way I see them:

1. Millennium -- End of the World!
2. Nuclear bomb in wrong hands. Whose?
3. Religious nut. (American? Saudi? Indian? Euro Catholic?)
4. Porn actress (How to fit her into plot?)
5. Me (wisecracking Scottish photographer)
6. Cop (NYPD? LAPD? Las Vegas? DC?) (Note to Self: Read a few police procedurals. How should he act? talk?)
7. New York = Wall Street; Los Angeles = Movies; Las Vegas = Gambling; DC = government (Which?)
8. A submarine! (Where? Why?)(Las Vegas no good? Check map.)
9. BLACK cop. (Interesting!) WHITE wife. (Interesting!) Dead child (Why?) Pregnant (Interesting!)
10. Porn actress daughter of President. (Too unbelievable? Vice President?)

As a nonrelated sidenote: I wish we Americans could use "wank" and its variants without sounding quaint.

John Evo said...

Great, great post Lynet. As Lifey said, the best of all of them.

You wrote:

I was touched by Larry Freeman's thought that there are orphans, and there are widows, but there's no word for a parent who loses a child. Quite why Larry Freeman has to have lost a child is less obvious. It's irrelevant to the story, and it's not an aspect of his character that actually develops; it seems to be a bauble that figuratively hangs around his character's neck, something to make him seem more interesting, I don't know.

I too was intrigued by this thought of there being no word for a parent who has lost a child. I think Exterminator should give us one. I tried, but I'm not particularly good at that.

And I think there WAS a point to him being a father who lost a child. It was to show the strength of his atheism, that even in this ultimate moment of despair he didn't look to the empty heavens for assistance - and thus his inner revelation that he really WAS an atheist.

But I defend a small part of a book that I didn't care for any more than you did. Still, as I said to Ridger, there are always things we can take from the books we read and you certainly proved it here. I think we all proved it to various degrees.

The Exterminator said...

I too was intrigued by this thought of there being no word for a parent who has lost a child. I think Exterminator should give us one.

Not me. I try to coin clever, facetious, or whimsical words. Serious words are not my thing.

I think there's a reason why there's no word, at least in English, for a bereaved parent. Both "widow" (and the later "widower") and "orphan" are legal and cultural necessities, describing public situations. They're words that can be used as shorthand to describe a person's societal position. An "orphan" is a child ("orphan" is rarely applied to an adult) for whom a guardian must be found. A "widow," in previous sexist eras, was a woman whose sole source of support was suddenly removed. A "widower" may have legal claims to his wife's possessions, or legal responsibilities to her relatives.

But a bereaved parent is left to mourn privately. There's no societal position automatically attached to him or her. We've never needed a special word for that, just as we have no special word for an adult whose parent has died or a person whose best friend has died.

That's my theory.

Ordinary Girl said...

Nice post, Lynet.

I was wondering why there was so much thought to Steff's photography in the beginning and then it's suddenly gone. The roll that was saved from the explosion never came up again. His thoughts about his photography never surfaced again. In a sense he became a different character after he met Maddy.

And I didn't draw the correlation between Maddy and Magdalene. I should have, but I missed it.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Well done, Lynet. What a different perspective you have from the female POV, compared to my unabashedly male one. ;)