What the Fuck: The Avant-Porn Anthology by Michael Hemmingson

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By Susan Glen

Erectile-dysfunctional Pissing Contests and Other Matters of the Pseudo-Avant

With all due respect to the politically correct, sensitivity-trained intellectual do-gooders out there, and with humble reverence to Bob Dole and his “erectile dysfunction is not shameful” campaign, there’s something vaguely pathetic about a grown man who can’t control his own penis. And it becomes even more pitiful when that same man thinks his (inevitably self-proclaimed) huge cock can save the world. Add to this unfortunate mess the tragically misguided idea that such obvious and childish man-on-man penis envy is artistic, and possibly even revolutionary, and you’ve got yourself the apparent organizing principle of What the Fuck: The Avant-Porn Anthology. While the precise meaning of “avant-porn” is still unclear to me, what is clear to me, having read this collection, is that men everywhere will be reaching for rulers and organizing circle jerks after reading this book. It’s an empty football field just yearning for shoulder pads, grunts, and homoerotic ass-slapping. And just like the NFL, What the Fuck leaves little room for women who aren’t relegated to the sidelines.

The problem isn’t that the contributors to What the Fuck aren’t strong writers, or even that they don’t have insights and imaginations worth sharing. In fact, some of the best pieces in this collection are those that stretch to the outer limits of sexual philosophy. m. i. blue, for example, contributes not only “JFK2,” in which the brain of assassinated president John Kennedy has its very own hard-on and makes its way into the grave of Marilyn Monroe, but also “San Pedro 1994,” a story about showing one’s deepest respects for dead poets of note by fucking their corpses through the nose. It’s a peculiar form of homage, to be sure, and is treated with careful attention to wordplay and erotic-intellectual possibility. Elsewhere, Kim Addonizio shares the hysterical “A Brief History of Condoms” as well as the stark and ripe “Emergency Room,” and Nikki Dillon’s “Scratch,” about writing the biography of, sleeping with, and being punished by Satan, is a fascinating and all too realistic story of desperation begetting more desperation. It’s not as though this book is without its merits.

But for every blue, Addonizio, and Dillon, and for every Jasmine Sailing (whose “Without Pain, Without Death” is a compelling and creepy examination of the blurry lines between life, death, pain, pleasure, fire and purity), there is, unfortunately, a handful of silly, pretentious, often openly misogynist pieces of unimaginative drivel. For whatever reason, the book seems to be front-loaded with these disappointing and predictable pieces. The opening essay, Don Webb’s “Sex: American Style” plays with a promising concept — incestuous tranny sex — but in the end, it’s the guy’s patriotic sperm (it’s red, white, and blue) that literally saves the intellectual world. Nothing novel or “avant” about it; it’s the all-too-familiar “my cock is the life-force of the planet” type of crap you can find everywhere from the pages of Penthouse Forum to, well, the supposedly “avant.” All hail the all-powerful prick. Whatever. As if that wasn’t enough, “Sex: American Style” is followed up by “Our Hero Awakens,” Robert Coover’s attempt to cover all the prescribed bases and please the Everyman reader; the “hero” awakens to a bed full of women who want nothing more than to cook his breakfast and then put on a sexual show for his spectatorial pleasure. Once the hero has had his fill from his harem, he takes a limo ride gone bad, during which the sometimes inanimate driver plows into pedestrians on the sidewalk. This story isn’t about sex, but that other seemingly uncontrollable male desire: machismo power. It’s not even smart, let alone hot.

Call me a traditionalist, but I expect that stories gathered under the rubric of “porn” are going to be about sex. Look, I’m not a prude, and I recognize that erotics take an inexhaustible number of forms. And porn isn’t about being politically correct, nor is it about packaging up desires in neat and tidy boxes. Still, What the Fuck seems to be taking a few too many liberties for me, liberties that may have more to do with the naming of the book than the content of the stories. Many of these pieces have a lot less to do with sex and a lot more to do with the psychological negotiations intrinsic in recognizing “deviant” desires. And while negotiations like these are breathtakingly complex and absolute in their necessity, they are rarely hot and almost never considered pornographic — unless you’re Ed Meese. What the Fuck seems to have an identity crisis of sorts, not uncommon when collecting sexual(ized) writing but certainly disturbing nonetheless. Maybe this is why the collection is considered “Avant” porn: with a few exceptions (most notably Alan Mills’ “Blur,” a beautifully written story of a male porn star hosting a fag orgy) it’s not really porn at all. Sexualized fiction does not necessarily pornography make, something of which editor Michael Hemmingson seems blissfully unaware.

Ultimately, the bulk of this collection is too busy congratulating itself for being smart for it to ever be hot. It’s not that porn can’t be both smart and hot — one need look no further than Pat(rick) Califia’s work for evidence of this truth — but What the Fuck is too concerned with being artsy and obscure to truly be what it envisions itself as: the Johnny Depp film of literary porn. By claiming himself to be “avant,” Hemmingson (who shamelessly rips off J. G. Ballard’s Crash in his story “Flight 1266”) seems to be reaching for some sort of artistic license or intellectual latitude. But most of this collection is really just another testosterone-driven pissing contest, the equivalent of a pseudo-intellectual penis pump. Unfortunately, its own self-induced and narcissistic boner is every bit as artificially and transparently constructed. Size does matter, Tiger, and the primordial muscle-fucking in What the Fuck is enough to make even naughty girls grab their hooker heels in skepticism and pity.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/what-the-fuck/