[14 May 2007]
Canadian author Tamara Faith Berger has called herself a ‘moral pornographer’, a title that conjures up images of middle-aged men in dark suits passing out Bibles with a Playboy tucked inside to ease the nettling itch of married men’s souls. This is a strategically provocative label for Berger, since the words ‘morality’ and ‘pornography’ seem mutually exclusive.
What Berger actually refers to is the reader’s potential engagement with her work. In an essay published in Fireweed magazine and originally delivered at California’s World Pornography Conference in 1998, Berger noted that “in porn fiction, the reader projects desire into the text, as opposed to the conventional narrative form of most fiction where only the writer/narrator articulates desire”.
With her newly released book A Woman Alone at Night, published in the US by renowned indie press Soft Skull, Berger’s troubled prose does not allow for such projection. The book’s flat characterizations and unconvincing dialogue, though true to classic porno style, prove a disagreeable distraction. And the lack of sumptuous description likewise fails to engage the reader’s senses in any vicarious way.
Because A Woman Alone at Night is told in the first person, it might be argued that Berger is approximating the voice of a young, vulnerable character, whose education and emotional development is still incomplete when she begins the story. With fragments like: “Fast up and down. There was thunder behind me. I felt my own body shoot out of my body,” it is unclear whether we are encountering the author’s deficient articulation of the character’s experience or a calculated attempt to replicate a girl’s stunted attempt at self-expression. However, this awkwardness extends beyond the character’s version of events. The narrative is often meandering and sometimes seems driven by inspirational happenstance.
These weaknesses stand in direct opposition to Berger’s first novel, Lie with Me, published by Gutter Press in 2001. Berger shook the foundations of Canadian literature (a.k.a ‘Canlit’) with her daring (not to mention graphic) presentation of female promiscuity. The book’s editor, Russell Smith, a Globe & Mail columnist, who later published his own pornographic novel with Gutter Press under a female pseudonym, proclaimed Berger’s first novel to be an immediate turn-on. Berger’s text, the first literary porn in Canada, challenged the country’s more traditional, sexually-hesitant literary culture.
While part of Lie with Me‘s success is due to its confessional nature, its raw language, and exploratory tripartite narrative structure, it should also be noted that some of the book’s controversial impact came from its packaging. Published in 5” x 5” format with a cover featuring drawings made by Berger when she was eight years old, the book has the outward appearance of kiddy literature. The charming but crudely drawn face on the cover juxtaposed with the title Lie with Me suggests a child’s plaintive request for someone to stay with them after dark. And yet the title, as a Biblical phrase for sexual intercourse, has obvious implications that are readily confirmed when the book is flipped over to reveal the full image: the childish rendering on the front is just a detail of a more sexually explicit female figure appearing on the back cover
By comparison, the packaging of A Woman Alone at Night, which Berger first published exclusively in Canada with Gutter Press under the title The Way of the Whore, detonates no such visual or conceptual bombs. Soft Skull’s version of the front cover clearly indicates the adult nature of the book’s contents. The featured image could be taken as a mildly artistic depiction of a Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’: a nude female places her left hand, captured in mid-wander, on her hip, while her right hand is placed over her mons pubis, with the fingers landing in some undisclosed location. She does not attempt to demurely mask her genitalia, but instead draws the viewer’s attention to it.
All appearances and narrative disparagement aside, something that does work in A Woman Alone at Night, even approaching a kind of moral contemplation, is the protagonist’s ambivalence towards her own sexuality and actions. Berger paints Mira, the principal character, as someone driven by feelings over which she has little control and against which she occasionally rebels. This complexity allows Mira’s character to take on a kind of three-dimensionality, however shallow it appears. And by presenting this personal turmoil, it seems that Berger is further exploring her first novel’s premise, which presented offensive social attitudes towards women who enjoy sex too much.
Berger picks up this theme once more in the taunting Mira endures from her male cousin, her older lovers, and other men she meets along the way. In every instance, the cutting remarks made about her unusually rapacious sexuality are a weapon drawn to keep her under another man’s emotional control—a conceptual filament that simultaneously illuminates the entire story and leads me to my final beef.
In the essay cited earlier, Berger’s “Aural Language of Pornographic Stories, or The Moral Pornographer”, delivered at The World Pornography Conference in 1998, Berger cites author Angela Carter’s view of the pornographer as a “terrorist of the imagination”, who has the ability to “overturn society’s most basic notions of sex relations”. Pornography, Berger explains, has enormous potential for “the thrills of gender vengeance”, and she notes that she does not write for the male audience alone. While I agree with her theory—that pornography can allow for the shifting of the male-female power roles and, over time, pornography can reshape sexual mores—I disagree with Berger’s application.
There is very little in A Woman Alone at Night to suggest that Berger is an equal opportunity pornographer. Although there may be a derisive matter-of-factness to some of Mira’s descriptions of the many nameless, faceless sexual partners (descriptions to which women can potentially relate), there is often an uncomfortable and obligatory submission required by each of Mira’s encounters. She manifests a painful, unspoken vulnerability and a kind of soul erosion that may have too much emotional exposure for female readers to find any pleasure in. Very rarely does Mira achieve a sense of empowerment or a positive sense of self other than that which can be found in her physical endowments. But even her beauty offers only precarious and transitory solace. As soon as she accepts a male invitation, she cedes much of her authority.
While for many female readers Mira’s story might offer a kind of train-wreck-worthy fascination, I suspect that few women will find Mira’s seemingly unselfconscious, no-strings attached sexual vigor or unqualified willingness as absorbing as men will. Mira is a literary incarnation of an archetypal male fantasy. Berger seems well aware of this, as the book visits this subject repeatedly, in various ways. Ultimately, there is little emotional sustenance or sexual strength for female readers in A Woman Alone at Night. Almost nothing is done to overturn conventional sexual customs.
Photo of Tamara Faith Berger and life partner, filmmaker Clement Virgo. Photo by Debra Friedman, from NowToronto.com
If what Berger says is true—that readers project desire into pornographic fiction—I might be considered a cold fish for finding no excitement in the recurring sex scenes of her latest work. However, anyone who has read Anaïs Nin or even Xaviera Hollander, in all her confessional outpouring, knows that literary porn can be exquisite. But also genuinely moral? Possibly.
Berger has not yet proven that constructive (and, therefore, instructive) morality can really be communicated through page after page of rampant sexual congress. While she certainly offers a sex-heavy cautionary tale, A Woman Alone at Night explores no new conceptions about womanhood and, in the end, presents no larger issues for consideration.