Noms des Affaires
Back a few years ago when I discovered the wonders of the Internet, like many others I fell almost immediately into online chat. It was a heady feeling, instant communication with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world at any given moment of the day. But what was even more attractive, seductive even, was the realization that if I so chose I could be anyone rich doctor, beat poet, fireman (for some reason, most women online seem to have a thing for firemen), Keith Richards, even a woman. Hell, Funk Queen Dominatrix from Saturn why not? Even as myself, in cyberspace as in all writing, including this essay I exist with an asterisk. This isn’t actually me but rather an idealized me who is never at a loss for words, never puts his foot into his mouth, and is always running at maximum possible eloquence because I can always edit or delete my mistakes. Unless you actually know me, what I let you see is what you get, and I reinvent myself every time I sit down at this keyboard. As I said, it’s attractive. Seductive even. Addictive.
Lauren Sanders explores the fluidity and malleability of identity in her first novel Kamikaze Lust, which has been nominated for a Lambda Award. Sanders presents us with the story of a Brooklyn journalist, Rachel Silver (nee Slivowitz), who has just turned thirty Jung’s milestone for the questioning of the self as she moves through a maze of identities true and false, living and dying, several of which are her own.
On the morning of Rachel’s birthday her world goes kablooey. She awakens to live TV coverage of the theatrically staged assisted-double-suicide of an elderly couple, and then, while on her way to interview the officiating doctor for her newspaper, learns that the reporters’ union has gone on strike. Sudden death, sudden unemployment, and the big Three-Oh, all in one morning, and on top of it all she finds herself with startling new feelings toward her best friend Shade. Hip, confident, black, and bisexual, Shade is everything Rachel is not except that on this chaotic day, Rachel’s not entirely sure who she is anymore. She is unfulfilled in relationships, sexually frigid with men. Not even Rachel’s family in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn can ground her. Dad is long dead, Mom has a new boyfriend, and of Rachel’s two brothers the cruel, shiftless one lives in Vegas and hasn’t been heard from in years, while the more-than-slightly-crazy one collects cans and breathes in his own vacuum. And Rachel’s most dependable relative, Aunt Lorraine, is dying of cancer. One by one, Rachel’s supports are knocked out from under her. She is a woman-child adrift in New York, Holly Golightly on the skids.
Desperate for work to tide her over through the strike, Rachel lands a gig ghostwriting the autobiography of Alexis Calyx, legendary porn star and now producer and director of “postfeminist” erotic films. As she enters Alexis’s world of pseudonymous actors and sexual illusions in one scene we watch as cast and crew struggle and squabble in order to get through an “effortless” penetration scene she begins to construct for herself a fantasy persona named Silver Ray, a porn star who is brash, confident, and libertine, able to please anyone, especially herself.
Silver becomes Rachel’s go-to girl for guts, spurring her to aggressively pursue Shade and allowing her to be pursued by Alexis’s ex-husband and former co-star Robbie Rod. The only problem is that nobody else seems to be getting with the program. Shade, long attracted to Rachel, is disturbed by the sudden change and pushes her away while Robbie, the veteran illusionist, is eager to take control of Rachel-as-Silver according to his own agenda. To top it off, the Silver persona has no dysfunctional family in Bay Ridge and no reporter job hanging in limbo, but they continue to haunt Rachel, initiating an internal tug-of-war between Silver’s bold imaginary life and Rachel’s depressing reality.
The internal clash of identities is the theme that gallops through this book. All of the objects of Rachel’s desires Shade, Alexis, Robbie, Silver are constructed personae with changed names, all of them glamorous yet fragile, tending to stumble or fall apart when too much reality is applied to them. Rachel’s porn-star fantasies cannot stave off the gnawing of Aunt Lorraine’s cancer or the rapid dwindling of her bank account, and the harder she tries to bolster her alter-ego, the more out-of-control her life becomes because ultimately it is an identity slapped together as a way out, not for any constructive purpose. Silver is a homunculus of ether, without substance, containing only those things Rachel is not.
To quote Joe Jackson, “You can’t get what you want ‘til you know what you want.” Forging identities is seductive, but in the end it’s a zero-sum game, unless one is willing to weld the new persona to the old circumstances, a point Lauren Sanders makes eloquently and insightfully in Kamikaze Lust. It’s why I quit chatting online I’m not Keith Richards or Funk Queen Dominatrix from Saturn and I don’t have the stamina required to be those people. All any of us can be is us. With an asterisk.