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A Moral Pornographer?

Idaho Dance Theatre photo from BoiseState.edu

Can pornographic literature impart a lesson in morality? Author Tamara Faith Berger believes it can.


A Woman Alone at Night

Publisher: Soft Skull
ISBN: 1933368535
Author: Tamara Faith Berger
Price: $13.95
Length: 176
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-01-26
Amazon

Lie With Me

Publisher: Gutter
Length: 122
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 1896356338
Author: Tamara Faith Berger
US publication date: 2001-04
Amazon

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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