Who Needs Love Like That?
Given the events of the last year surrounding the work of James Frey and J.T. LeRoy (chronicled in a PopMatters special feature), it’s difficult to not be skeptical, cynical even, regarding the whole realm of sensational memoirs. That autobiography may be embellished is unsurprising, but when said memoirs have been exposed as lies and half-truths, it’s impossible not to be suspicious of the whole enterprise. All outraged Oprahs aside, no one wants to feel duped after being led to believe that a real truth exists at the core of the material. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me again, why did I buy this crap in the first place?
On the other hand, it’s not like memoir faking has proven to be the kiss of death. To the contrary, Frey’s A Million Little Pieces in particular shot back to the top of the bestseller lists, his ability to write well and lie convincingly was grudgingly admitted, and sales of his follow-up novel have been strong. Any career can be lifted by a daring bit of notoriety carefully applied. Of course, this only serves to heighten the cynicism, making the so-called memoir a manipulative springboard, with our sympathies and our money the means to a lasting fame.
Enter Suzanne Portnoy. This (justifiably, yet still suspiciously) enigmatic author’s supposedly tell-all-confessional memoir, The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker, enters the fray (no pun intended) with its own lurid, attention-seeking tale of an assumed real-life-lived. Instead of the gritty grime of substance abuse, however, Portnoy titillates with that other social vice: sex. The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker is billed as a real woman’s sexual reawakening and immersion in the musky world of London’s swinging single life. The lure hints at graphic revelations and erotic trysts, a pornographic life realized. In other words, a sure-fire bestseller for voyeuristic readers everywhere.
Given the nature of the story, it’s even less likely that the truth can be winnowed out of Portnoy’s shadowy past than it was for Frey or even LeRoy. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, of course, and when a lover has thrown caution to the wind and aired out their private life in public, personal discretion becomes doubly important. It’s doubtful that individuals in this tale will come forward to challenge its veracity, and unless Portnoy’s real life includes a long-time husband waiting to jump around a corner and explain that the whole thing was a lark, portions of this tale must remain taken at face value. Regardless of the actual accuracy, author investigation is beyond the scope of this space, so we’ll have to simply accept the memoir angle as fact (with a few grains of salt) and deal with the book, and Suzanne Portnoy, as they present themselves.
As recounted, Suzanne Portnoy is a Jewish native of New York City who went to school in London and adopted the city as her home. In her telling, she was a party girl of the punk era, stumbling through boyfriends and casual encounters until finally meeting the man who would become her husband: David. She pays particular attention to the fact that she liked sex, and had it often, racking up a sizable list of partners before marrying. Fast forward a decade, and Portnoy found herself a domestic woman with two children, a distant husband who rarely touched her, a number of dress sizes larger, a career, and an abiding sense of dissatisfaction. First finding sexual relief through Internet porn, one fateful day she stumbled into the world of online personals, crafting a half-serious ad of her own that slowly developed into an online affair with a New Yorker named Frank.
Portnoy spends the most time on details here, explaining how the online flirtation developed into a flight back home to New York to meet her lover for the first time, how the sex unlocked a dormant part of her, and how she became romantically attached to this married man. The affair is also the basis for her divorce, and while for a time that issue is covered over by her ongoing affair with Frank, eventually that too begins to fail and Portnoy finally strikes out on her own. While juggling career and children, Portnoy begins to take full advantage of her freedom by scouring both online and paper personals and the clubs and London nightlife for potential lovers, which quickly amass over time. As things progress, Portnoy delves into swinger clubs, bondage parlors, and covert “naturalist” clubs with discrete sex chambers, eventually culminating in explorations of the world of tantric sex.
Throughout the story, Portnoy also moves through a series of shaky and unstable relationships with different men. Some are recurrent fuck buddies, while others are more traditional boyfriends, but each relationship ends poorly and Portnoy finds herself seeking out the comforts of casual sex again each time. Contrasting the constantly re-asserted stance that sex was merely a fun distraction and pastime, Portnoy finds herself pulled repeatedly to the idea of a normal relationship with one man, including the attendant celibacy. But, when those relationships dissolve for various reasons—other girlfriends, the lure of ex-wives, even disease leading to death—Portnoy flippantly claims to have had a busy sex life to fall back on.
As such, The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker might seem like it would be a steamy hardcore romp with distant cousins like Emmanuelle and The Happy Hooker, but the truth is simultaneously more dull and disquieting than stimulating. For one, throughout the book Portnoy displays such a cold, affectless approach to the people in her life—husband, friends, lovers, and children included—that it’s hard to have much in the way of sympathy for her. At times completely self-absorbed, one can only hope that it is the analytical side of autobiography that leads Portnoy to portray herself with such a fuck-all attitude (double-meaning intended, this time), but it pops up even in her unguarded moments. Despite her justifications, it’s genuinely disturbing when her emotion is forced out in the death of a boyfriend, only to find her turning to a quick screw from a stranger for comfort. Though it is challenged a few times in the text, the book reads like the therapy diary of a sex addict, giving it more in common with Choke than it does with The Story of O.
Secondly, Portnoy is superficial to a fault. In addition to being little concerned with emotion, she is almost entirely preoccupied with appearance. Scenes include bizarre brand name details and descriptions of designer clothes with little context or reason, giving things a Bret Easton Ellis quality minus the irony. The details of one date might spend a paragraph describing what she wore, and a sentence mentioning that the couple fucked. And for an indiscriminate slut on one level, Portnoy continually evaluates the men in the book in the most clinically superficial means, continually commenting on the rare men that don’t live up to her standards with excuses about how they made up for their supposed inadequacies. In one instance, a potential lover is given a chance because he drives a fancy car. He eventually becomes one of the exclusive boyfriends.
Finally, the book is rarely even erotic. True, Portnoy is more than forthcoming about her willingness to experiment with sex, the pleasure she takes in oral sex, and her self-awareness as a “size queen”, but it’s not written to be sensual, but merely to state a fact. If you’re looking for pornographic descriptions of sexual pleasure, this isn’t the book for you. Perhaps this isn’t really the realm of memoir anyway; such description would be less about autobiography and more about pornography. But in a book that seems to want to argue for the liberation of sexual activity, there’s little that’s remotely tantalizing about any of the contents. On one or two occasions, Portnoy will describe an encounter in such as way as to at least make it seem pleasurable, but for the most part the sex is recounted as bare fact, which is almost as off-putting as the lack of emotion Portnoy portrays.
What, then, are we supposed to take away from The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker? What’s the point of telling Suzanne Portnoy’s story? Sadly, it’s hard to tell. Certainly, the book works as prude bait, enticing a bit of notoriety that could translate into sales, but for those of us who aren’t prudes and won’t be shocked by it, all that we’re left with is an image of a woman who’s sad and cold and has found out through frequent trial and error that sex solves nothing in her life. As the book nears its close, Portnoy finally admits that she’s no longer able to even get off on sex itself, having to rely on hardcore fantasies while in the act. This precipitates her exploration of tantric sex, to get back in touch with her sensual and pleasurable self, but just when you think that this may be the lesson of the story, that rug is pulled out from under the reader, and another failed relationship carries the book to its final pages.
So, is the moral of the story that the kind of sex life hinted at in porn fantasy will ultimately lead nowhere? Or are we supposed to care about a suspected sex addict and the strain that her addiction puts on her life? Whatever the case, it doesn’t work. There’s no resolution or redemption, and Portnoy seems to have learned little from her experiences or the telling of them. Sex is merely left as a disaffecting end in itself, and you don’t really care much for where Portnoy’s future might take her.
Taking it back to the question of whether or not The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker is “true” or not, you kind of hope it isn’t, and sadly suspect that it is. Might some facts be embellished? Probably. It’s hard to imagine that anyone remembers the exact outfit they wore on a casual date ten years prior, but can’t remember the name of the guy they slept with that night. But in the end you might prefer that the story be fiction after all, if only to hold off the though that Portnoy’s underlying and pervasive dissatisfaction might become your own.