The Painful Pleasure Principle
“It has, moreover, been proven that horror, nastiness, and the en that horror, nastiness, and the frightful are what give pleasure when one fornicates. Beauty is a simple thing; ugliness is the exceptional thing. And fiery imaginations, no doubt, always prefer the extraordinary thing to the simple thing.”
—The Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom
Readers and critics alike should be wary of terms like “postfeminist.” These terms carry with them a wide variety of loaded meanings, and for that reason can be interpreted in as many variations. Historians of women’s movements point out that there are many versions of feminism, some with specific categorical titles, and others with more loosely defined identities. They often have divergent agendas, and their aims and goals can often wind up in complete opposition. By tacking the prefix “post-” to “feminist,” the possibilities for confusion are multiplied. “Post-” adds a certain time signature to a term, which becomes the ground for extremely heated debate (similar to the question of the existence of postmodernism). Without perhaps intending to say as much, “postfeminism” tends to indicate a paradigm beyond feminism, one that either rejects the tenets of feminism or has incorporated them into the everyday to the point that the new aims and goals transcend those already seemingly attained.
While many feminists and women’s historians are celebratory of the battles won in claiming a space for women in contemporary (American) culture, be it separate-but-equal or integrated, plenty of others will say that the work of feminism has only just begun. Elimination of beauty myths, equality of gender roles, fair representation in media and cultural product, equal protection for women under the law these are all battles that continue to be fought in the war against oppression. Feminism, seen in this light, is far from over.
The publisher of In the Box Called Pleasure, Fiction Collective 2, describes Kim Addonizio’s work as “postfeminist.” This excellent publishing group is well-known for its commitment to new literary voices and experimental forms. Fiction Collective 2 has proven to be unafraid of using terms like “postmodern” and “postfeminist” in the past, although they have done little to offer explanations for what they mean by these words. If we are to take the examples of texts so-labeled as offerings of an explanation, then FC2’s anthology series, Chick Lit, which includes a story by Addonizio, is probably the place to try and understand what the publisher means by “postfeminist.”
Between the female authors in Chick Lit and Kim Addonizio’s stories from In the Box Called Pleasure, (see also the PopMatters interview with FC2 author Lily James for another perspective on the term ) postfeminism seems to be about a feminine psyche that develops inwardly rather than being at the whim of the social forces of the outside world. This can mean many things, once again, but central to the theme is the idea that women are as varied, lustful, dependent, intelligent, bizarre, wonderful, and complicated as anyone, based solely on their own natures. Postfeminism from this standpoint is about the courage to admit that women can be as whole or as fucked-up as possible, without fearing the repercussions of possibly casting women in a bad light and being labeled misogynistic. It’s about women expressing themselves honestly and openly without the need to put up a front of purposeful solidarity. And, of course, this is all made possible by a generation of young women writing about womanhood.
Kim Addonizio’s writing falls solidly in this camp with a no-holds-barred bravery that is both titillating and frightening. Her female (and occasional male) characters are deeply personal for their very neuroses, touching deep, and often dark, areas of the feminine soul that are often avoided by other writers. Wild women, alcoholics, sluts, masochists, the lustful and the ravaged populate these stories with a vengeance—not necessarily a political one, but a human one that demands that these realities be exposed and explored.
For the most part, the characters and voices that narrate these stories are linked by the common theme of desire. Desire in all its guises, from the sublimated to the overly indulged, pulls these characters through their lives in a way that makes the reader aware of their own desires and how they motivate our actions. At its most poignant, In the Box Called Pleasure explores the chasm between desires and their fulfillment and reveals neurosis and psychosis being generated in this space of need. It doesn’t matter if the story is first-person or third-person, the reader is wrapped in a field of intimacy by the very nature of these explorations. Addonizio’s gift lies in telling these stories plainly, not cloaked in allusion and innuendo, but simply conveying them with honesty and force, and an unabashed grip on the power of “dirty” language.
If there is something that puts Addonizio’s writing in group that is perhaps more progressive than some of her feminist forebears, it is the relationship of her female characters to sex. While much of feminism tried to place sex on a precariously thin balance-beam between liberating and celebrating female sexuality and condemning the reliance of women on men for sexual fulfillment as a by-product of male subjugation, Addonizio rips that Band-Aid away and exposes the open wound underneath. Sometimes erotic, at other times disturbing, and at still other times an uncomfortable combination of both, these stories approach a relatively unexplored horizon of female sexuality. For the most part, these are heterosexual women who accept themselves as sexual, seek sex, have sex, but are still overcome by the psychological damage of their relationships. What makes Addonizio’s a unique perspective is that this damage is often revealed to be a part of these women’s internal psyches and not the direct fault of men.
A technique that always works well in tying a common thread through a collection of short stories is to have a progressive or recurring story interspersed amongst the singular tales. Addonizio uses this technique to great advantage with the stories “Inside Out,” “Scores,” and “Angels.” Telling the painfully pathetic (in the pathos sense of the word) and endearing life of Fran, these stories seem to capture a lot of the flavor of In the Box Called Pleasure. Fran, the reader learns, is the victim of child molestation by her stepfather and then later a victim of rape. These horrible experiences at the hands of men have left her weak and unable to cope with her fear of the world. Her outlook is fragile, at once all-too-knowing and innocent, and intimately compelling. In the first story, Fran finds herself in a relationship with two different men, despite the fact that she can barely walk a city block alone. One lover overwhelms her with kindness and quiet, while the other dominates her sexually and is the one she truly lusts for. By the end of this story arc, Fran has left them both, regained some small ounce of her self-confidence, and found a man who helps her finally discover herself again in an intimate and sexual release.
At the center of this collection, the author speaks to us, to feminism, and to the erotic all in one rushed breath via the story “Reading Sontag.” Part confession, part porn story, and part critical theory, the story proceeds in a continual series of missteps and re-writes as the narrator conveys a story of an empty relationship while at the same time she shares her struggles to find her identity as a writer. Masterfully Addonizio incorporates Susan Sontag’s essay “The Pornographic Imagination” and uses it to create a dialogue with Sontag using the reader as interlocutor. In a sense, this is Addonizio’s own testimonial to why she writes the stories that she does, but at the same time the vehicle of the story helps to serve the idea of postfeminism by exposing the metanarrative of the woman as erotic or pornographic writer.
Where much of what gets labeled postfeminism has an edge of glam to it, however, with women wearing lipstick and Wonderbras yet being unfettered by naiveté and embracing themselves as sexual beings in a positive manner, Addonizio’s book reads almost as a collection of cautionary tales. There is no doubt that these are strong women who are drawn by desire and unafraid to admit it, but there is also a deliberate emphasis placed on the scars this can cause. It’s hard to say Addonizio promotes these lives, and it is equally doubtful that she is against them either. Rather, this portrayal of womanhood in the contemporary world simply seems to accept these experiences as fact that needs to accepted and analyzed. And by the end of the title story, placed at the end of the book, some real hope rescues the characters and the reader as a torn and broken woman remembers actual love once more. Of course, it’s not clear whether this is just a fantasy, or whether she really is reunited with love, but the (bittersweet or hopeful) memory is the most important element in the story’s final line, “I can’t stop remembering love.”
The brutal walks alongside the transcendent in nearly all of Addonizio’s stories, giving them a depth and range that is truly impressive, especially in their brevity. Most of these stories are roughly six or seven pages long, some no more than a few paragraphs, but they are instantly gripping. As a collection, they cross a wide field as well, and in stories like “The Gift” and “A Brief History of Condoms,” Addonizio uses her agility to bring wit and humor into the equation. Added together, these stories display a woman who is in full awareness and who maintains a tight control on her perceptions. It is impossible to read In the Box Called Pleasure and not admire Kim Addonizio.