When considering how to review this book, I immediately thought of the competition in writing about porn. Aside from Jenna Jameson’s utterly forgettabWhen considering how to review this book, I immediately thought of the competition in writing about porn. Aside from Jenna Jameson’s utterly forgettable and careening memoir, there just isn’t really much to compare it to. (The exception here is David Foster Wallace’s essay from Consider the Lobster on the Adult Video Network Awards--“Big Red Son”--which is a brilliant and hilarious encapsulation of the porn industry). Like sports narratives, such writing tends to be, “I did this. I did that. This happened to me. I thought something... eventually. Then something else happened.” There’s no point of view, per se, just a narrative sock puppet that fitfully tries to spritz meaning onto a sequence of events.
Considering that narratives about porn are inevitably female ones (in line with the industry, where the emphasis is clearly on anything but the effaced and usually embarrassing male performer), this book becomes even more of a rare artifact.
Zak Smith is clearly a very smart person, and a pretty decent stylist. The scenes are often lushly detailed, with startling metaphors, and the action is selectively edited, for its suggestive (and I mean that in the literary sense) power. Sometimes, the blanks and the chronological leaps feel a bit frustrating, but the leaps from chapter to chapter and from commentary to commentary prevent the book from lapsing into mere sequence, which, aside from simple boringness, is the primary danger of memoir.
Like the aforementioned Mr. Wallace, his agenda is sociological. Indeed, one of the central theses of the book is that the trauma and the absurdity of the alt porn industry (not much differentiated from the mainstream porn industry in the book) is consonant not only with the dystopian desires of America in general, but the maddening qualities of the past decade. For much of the Oughts, public life mutated into a bizarre, straight-faced recurrence of the 80’s, unmitigated by the 80’s ridiculous music, clothing, and movies. I thought the invention of irony in the 90’s would have inoculated us somewhat against that, but it didn’t, and I am grateful to Smith for resurrecting the slack-jawed outrage that many of us felt after 2001. I suppose that alt porn is a perfect position to stand outside the culture and take a good, long look at it, as someone in that position has no choice about whether or not to pass, as it were.
Granted, as the punk aesthetic that underlies the book makes clear, Zak Smith places himself in this position--disbelieving, bitter, sardonic--because that’s where he wants to be. Because it fits with his emotional tenor. One of the regrettable weaknesses of the book is that he sometimes substitutes literary deadpan for emotional insight.
Why he chose to enter porn, especially when he already had a successful art career (previously, he had work exhibited at the Whitney) is mostly obscured. He implies that porn is somewhat of an antidote to the hypocrisy of art industry, though in truth the book is rife with indictments of hypocrisy in the culture at large. Whatever specific desire he had to have sex professionally is subsumed in an explication of basic primal urges, which, I think, is sleight of hand. From the onset of the book, he describes being near or involved in disquieting, depressing, and bewildering interactions in porn, which very naturally makes the reader wonder why it’s worth it. This question is essentially side-stepped, and the reader is left to infer this crucial piece of information.
Another big silence in the book is Zak’s background. He doesn’t really seem to exist prior to the opening scene of the book, and the book is shot through with such reticence when it comes to personal details about himself, which would be unsurprising in a memoir about porn, but a little startling when he is so frank about the details of the lives of the other, only lightly pseudonymous characters.
That being said, he does do a spectacular job of excavating his unease with the industry and the personalities that power it, and, as another reviewer has noted, the last portion of the book where he falls in love with Mandy Morbid is quite charming. I also found the drawings included throughout the book to be compelling and lovely (not to mention insanely meticulous), and a rare instance where a writer is able to simultaneously establish his bona fides in another medium. Aside from the art, the touchstone of the book is Zak’s compassion for the performers, which is deep and authentic, and helps to ground some of the cultural criticism....more