God bless Soft Skull Press, which is always keen to push the envelope. The small New York publisher is probably most famous for re-releasing two controversial non-fiction books — a bio on George W. Bush called Fortunate Son and Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America, the latter of which is reviewed elsewhere on this Web site. Now, in the same year Janet Jackson causes an international kafuffle by having her breast revealed on national TV for a split-second, Soft Skull proudly reissues a five-year-old Canadian novel dealing in, well, child pornography, bestiality, bisexuality and voyeurism.
Originally published by Doubleday Canada in 1999, The Pornographer’s Poem has a lot to do with porn and surprisingly little to do with poetry, unless you view poetry and “high art” as interchangeable, and see the main narrator’s story as one long, cut-and-paste narrative. This is a hard novel to write about as a reviewer, and not because of its incredibly risqué subject matter or its stylistic flourishes. This is the kind of book that readers should just read while knowing as little as possible about it. (I recommend would-be readers don’t even look at anything about the book. You may thank me later.)
You see, The Pornographer’s Poem is compulsively addictive book. I even dare you not to finish it in less than a weekend, as I did. But what makes a seemingly seedy novel so appealing? Well, a lot of things.
The book is a memoir from the perspective of an unnamed teenaged boy, an oddly unsentimental look at growing up in 1970s Vancouver, Canada,-as he puzzles out the very complex relationships he has with his next-door neighbor, Nettie, and an extremely progressive elementary school teacher, Penny. These relationships are mediated through book, as the title would suggest, but to find out how or why, you’ll just have to read it. And if you’re expecting drippy, dewy-eyed Spielbergian schmaltz, or a wistfully nostalgic look back into the bygone days of lost youth, you best look elsewhere. One character fires off personal letters to the main protagonist addressed to Hey Asshole, which is the closest thing to a name our “hero” gets.
Turner — whose work also includes the excellent faux “punkumentary” Hard Core Logo (1993), which, in turn, was made into an excellent, cult classic Canadian film — wrote the novel as short fragments of first person narrative, and bits and pieces of the protagonist’s life written as though it were part of a film script. Turner also intersperses interrogations between the narrator and a similarly unnamed tribunal, which questions the boy on various events throughout his adolescence and teen years.
Like the early films of Robert Altman, Turner deftly navigates between experimental narrative and conventional storytelling without skipping a beat, creating a vortex so powerful that the book literally sucks you into it, as though it were the world’s most messed-up detective novel.
At the same time, Turner deftly addresses those aforementioned red flag topics, like kiddie porn. Much of the sex in this book is either entirely repugnant and over-the-top in its absurdity — the boy, during one scene of anal sex, notes how his partner’s rectum looked as though it’d been wiped in newspaper — or completely touching and meaningful that it’s impossible to be truly offended at what transpires. This might partly explain why nobody has tried to ban the book to my knowledge in Canada, despite its graphic and frank depictions of minors and — in one case, a dog and adult humans — engaging in sex acts.
The Pornographer’s Poem is not smut, and one can make all sorts of connections to the literary works of Nabokov if you want, particularly Lolita. However, Turner even seems to pay homage to the ending of Invitation To A Beheading in this book’s final pages. This is a work that almost reaches to be canonized with high literature solely by playing with convention, though it doesn’t lose any sort of readability along the way, either.
Some might fault the book for too closely paralleling the story arc in the film Boogie Nights (1997), even though this book and that movie are two very separate beasts. There’s also a plot point about a Bullshit Detector that hasn’t been all that well thought out, but by the time you reach the baffling and brilliant ending, you won’t care. Turner spares no punches: You will be enthralled for hours about the fate of an unnamed character, maybe because you see bits and pieces of yourself in him. That kind of emotional attachment exacts a certain price at the end, which just makes The Pornographer’s Poem such an essential read. May I be damned for saying this, but The Pornographer’s Poem is simply a staggering work of heartbreaking genius.
Turner has yet to properly follow this book up with anything else, though a new edition of his 1997 book American Whiskey Bar has just been re-released by Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver. But, in a way, Turner could quit here, as far as I’m concerned. With The Pornographer’s Poem, he turned in such a masterpiece that any follow-up is bound to disappoint. But it’ll be interesting to see what America thinks of this book upon its official US release some five years after the fact. After all, if superstars can now be forced into hiding their boobs in public, what will people think about a marvelous, unrelenting, devastating book about teenagers and porn films from such an unknown quantity? I shudder to think. That’s why I thank God for Soft Skull. At least, someone is willing to take risks in this Puritan environment.