Jesus, what have I got myself into? There was an immediate salacious thrill, sure, proposing to take on Tamara Faith Berger’s first two erotic novels, Lie With Me and The Way Of The Whore, recently coupled and reissued as Little Cat. But here in the put up or shut up, a dissonant panic pries the gap between want and fulfillment, want and the frank admission that if anyone wrote a better book in 2012 than Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead I didn’t read it, want and the recognition that as scare-quote-reviewer I’m perpetually primed and flushed to shed light on a given object – though to objectify Little Cat, to suggest I’ve somehow gotten to the bottom of Lie With Me and The Way Of The Whore, to assume I’ve (if I may paraphrase Chris Kraus) solved the riddle by digging up the buried child, would be to announce that I haven’t understood a fucking thing.
Except – see – that’s all just posturing. Bullshit, really. Not the part about Maidenhead being great (it is), but from the opening pages, Little Cat co-opts the reader into a captive dynamic – voyeur to the act – and with assigned roles come assigned responses. As spectator you can recoil, you can empathize, you can even sit back and enjoy the show – but don’t even think about touching the goods.
Or, if you do kick out of your seat and handle Little Cat? Whether you react to the lizard brain base appeal or front for the voices who’ve predetermined how to tread divisive sexual narratives (keywords: female, young, prodigious), you inevitably prove one thesis or another. How does it feel to have no personal agency? How do you like being trapped in a minefield of mixed messages?
That’s a clever bit to chew on, but Berger’s fiction goes well beyond standard role reversals. As her narrators dare you to treat them as objects and dare you not to, Berger exposes the common ground at either extreme. With any automatic response, something essential is ignored.
“I want you to hear this,” says the nameless narrator of Lie With Me. “I am telling you this from my innermost parts. Listen.”
“when you put your face in my ass and i pump the other cock cos you are
banging my ass nobody has hair you look kind of mechanical when you slap
my ass i’m a good person because i am myself no matter what goes in me”
–Ariana Reines, Mercury
Tamara Faith Berger writes extensively about patterns of dominance and submission, about the intersection of the sacred and the profane, and about manifestations of love that defy convention but hold no less true; still, throughout Little Cat and Maidenhead, the most consistent refrain is that no matter what her characters do, no matter how they do it and who they do it with, they are never less than who they are.
“Shame,” wrote Chris Kraus in the seminal I Love Dick, “is what you feel after letting someone take you someplace past control – then feeling torn up three days later between desire, paranoia, etiquette wondering if they’ll call.”
Chancing the place past control – that essential breaking point – is also a way to discover what something’s made of. You come to understand function by identifying where function terminates. You get in over your head and learn by getting back out. You learn where to push and where to pull, where not to go and where you’ll probably go right back, despite all your loudest instincts. You learn that for the knottiest questions there may be no more satisfying answers than it depends or sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Answers that come from lived experience.
The entanglement of female sexuality and shame ties self-discovery – the acquisition of lived experience – to a rehearsed gauntlet of diminishments, both through common slurs and the pattern of people who look and sound an awful lot like this reviewer seizing the discourse and offering correctives like: “here’s what you really meant when you said that thing you said” or “here’s why you’re really saying and doing all the things you’re saying and doing.”
Originally published in 2003, Lie With Me provokes and challenges these reductions by following an unnamed woman through a series of graphic, carnal episodes. Epigraphs from Ovid loosely unify the novella, alluding to a mighty argument between Juno and Jupiter – wife husband sister brother – over whether women or men take greater pleasure from sex. To settle the debate, the gods call forth the gender-upended Tiresias, and Berger in turn adopts a she said/he said structure, beginning from the POV of “the kind of girl who’d walk down the street and practically call out fuck me fuck me fuck me to strangers.” She does fuck strangers. After a panting pawing anonymous alley screw and a blinded and brutal encounter with a man she was dead certain she loved, the narrative voice shifts from the woman’s perspective to that of her faceless one night stands (“Man No. 1,” “Man No. 2,” and so on and so on).
These numbered men are consistently sure they’ve lined up an easy score, only to then find themselves in way over their heads; correspondingly, Lie With Me allows the initial perception that Berger is slumming, gilding Penthouse fantasies with a few strokes of philosophy and classical allusion. Rather than immersing the reader in boundary-pushing erotica, however, it appears that Berger has challenged herself with a fascinating, constraint-based experiment. Using little more than the basic tools of porn – a sleazy apartment setting, big tits and tiny skirts, interchangeable dudes, shuddering money shots – Berger sets out to make literary art that’s “good” no matter what goes into it.
Sticking to those blunt elements, through a sequence of one night stands Berger traces a sort of sexual bildungsro(wo)man, progressing through stages where the woman learns where to push, where to pull, and how to master the sex-play so that she takes what she wants without suffering what she doesn’t. This is no Rochelle, Rochelle, however, so rather than fulfill a traditional (male fantasy) narrative, the POV reverts to the woman’s as she chooses a return that defies easy explanation but rings no less true.
Oh, and that great Olympian debate?
“His cock was burning the walls of my ass. I was stuffed like that to the end of all ends. My teeth on the floor. Him scraping my hole, slow in and out, my muscles were ripping, he kept pumping and pumping. I tried to move out. I was suspended like that. A rabbit stuck in a wolf’s mouth. I was hanging and I kept wanting him to fuck me, but I knew he had to stop.”
Women men men women the assorted couplings in Lie With Me have all the jouissance of a hyena feed and the gods die laughing. In place of answers Berger offers complications of the original question – as close to an epiphany as anything in her writing comes midway through the acclaimed Maidenhead, during an exchange where an older, cooler, more experienced girl validates the 16-year-old narrator’s tindered mix of feelings and fantasies, no small matter since that developing girl (Myra) has fallen in love with a thirtysomething Tanzanian stud who plucked her off a beach packed with Spring Breakers and literally pissed on her.
“What I thought was shame,” Myra says, “She was saying, was not shame at all.”
“Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement?”
–Chris Kraus, I Love Dick
Little Cat’s second – and dare I say better – half, The Way Of The Whore, also centers on a teen narrator named Mira, to be or not to be confused with the Myra of Maidenhead. A purposeful diminutive of the author’s first name? Go there at your own peril.
Whether Berger is universalizing the personal or personalizing the universal, the only biographical guesswork I’ll venture is that the Canadian author likely has a more than passing affection for Kraus’s I Love Dick, echoed in the Simone Weill references, the interrogations of shame and lived experience, and the love for partners who return so little outward affection that the very idea of love becomes isolated for examination.
While Kraus found a hybrid form that freed her to write with every bit of her own wit, experience, and intelligence, Berger tackles the nifty trick of inhabiting narrators who could not pen the novels the author has written. That rhythmic voice grabs hold from the opening paragraph of Maidenhead – a fluid first-person that is, all apologies, innate – so there’s no shock in cracking page one of The Way Of The Whore and seeing Berger flash style, raunch, and turmoil to burn.
First published in 2005, The Way Of The Whore weaves non-linear fragments to track the course of three defining relationships in Mira’s life: cousin Ezrah, with whom a childhood curiosity begets queasy teen fondling begets a hot YA mess; John, the shy sly adult predator who seduces Mira as a teen virgin and initiates her into the groping sadness of amateur porn; Gio, the imposing Eastern European sex-trader who looms large and mysterious in the strip club where Mira lands at nineteen, so large and so mysterious Mira falls madly in love with the man.
Along with the alluring rhythm of her sentences, Berger’s prose is intensely sensual: through her attention to detail she captures everything from the stale eggy smell that develops over time in an unkempt room to the unique tint of differing bodies of water to the rough touch of a coarse shave. At a visceral level, Berger also articulates the rapid, tidal vacillations of emotional decision-making. Unlike the pragmatic certainty of Marguerite Duras’s sexualized teen in The Lover, Berger’s adolescent narrators exist in a roiling state of flux, capable of changing their minds from no to yes and back within a single gesture:
“I heard the zipper of John’s pants. My fingers were pushing under the elastic of my skirt. I wanted to do it and I didn’t. I was wiggling around. My underwear slid off at the same time as my skirt. I knew I should call home.”
Even in retrospect, in the reflective space where justifications and rationalizations routinely slot complicated experience into tidy black and white narratives, Berger leaves situations unresolved:
“I liked when Ezra touched me, but I just didn’t always want it to get started. I think maybe the difference between all those times is lost in a pile in my head.”
For the men in The Way Of The Whore, their attempt to love Mira can immediately be read as the failure to love Mira (just as, for the critic, the attempt to understand certain literary forms can be taken as the failure to understand those forms). But Berger forces past those surface reads, prodding the ambiguities of standard victimization scenarios. The fragmented narrative implicates the storylines with Ezrah and John as underlying factors in Mira’s path from middle-class normalcy to prostitution, but Berger constantly explores Mira’s agency in the face of coercion and pushes exploitative dynamics toward the messier edges of it depends and sometimes yes, sometimes no.
As Berger explores the fluid transfer of dominance between Mira and her suitors/abusers/customers, she doesn’t spare her narrator the contradictions of her place in the sex trade. Mira recognizes “a revolting line of inequality” between herself and those girls who don’t have the same choices: no other shelter or family or education or skill set to fall back on. But having more options isn’t the equivalent of freedom. Though Mira’s serial volatility differs from the hindsight cool of the narrator in The Lover, as Mira evades her largely unseen parents she shares the same adolescent motivation observed by Duras: “It’s not that you have to achieve anything, it’s that you have to get away from where you are.”
To freely test the boundaries. To find out what something is by finding where it breaks.
“Is Life perhaps
just another thing
that men own,
like the world
so not having
a greedy antenna
my legs I don’t
know how to
–Eileen Myles, “Basic August”
Regardless of gender, race, or antennal girth, there are ways to insert yourself powerfully in another’s path. Some result in a head-on collision; some locate the other’s energy and redirect it.
Lie With Me takes the more brazenly confrontational approach, but as the relentless narrative pattern of anonymous men and bottomless sexual hunger mirrors the drives of the main character, much like in Francis Levy’s Erotomania, the depiction of that incessant behavior has a desensitizing effect. Defying the headier conceptual foundations, the prose becomes what it’s doing rather than what it aspires to be: pounding cocks over artful insight.
Far more elastic – and powerful – The Way Of The Whore stretches beyond provocative representation and toward the blazing artistic vision of Maidenhead. If you bypass reflex responses and listen to those narratives, you can appreciate the sincere storytelling of a true blue romantic. Both Mira and Myra are unsure girls, leaning toward the wallflower fringes before being plucked from the crowd by sharp-eyed men. Creepy men, true, but sharp-eyed nonetheless, men who see through the ordinary in Mira and Myra and recognize their special makings. Cinderella, meet your dark Prince.
In The Way Of The Whore, as Mira’s relationship with Gio accelerates out of control, Berger blows past fantasy archetypes and gets downright biblical, letting Gio ramble on in the sort of stylized, Old Testament monologues common to Tarantino hoods, a holy blue streak with riffs on the prophet Hosea and repetitions of the phrase “all the great whores become pure.” Mira, on the other hand, embodies the opposite view, believing that “everyone’s path is from pure to disgusting.” In Mira’s eyes – and Berger’s romantic vision – life is less the process of becoming than the embrace of what was there all along.
“Each second we were fucking, a voice in my head breathed: I want you, I see you, I know who you are.
I felt that the very first time we fucked. Gio was someone I already loved. So what is love but already loving?”
The Way Of The Whore questions basic definitions of love, the answers so murky and obscure (or crystal clear and obvious) that Mira’s solution is to sully and debase herself to the point where whoever offers unconditional love in the aftermath – not in spite of her experiences but because she is good no matter what goes in her – will represent love in its truest measure.
“Love comes from disgust,” Mira says. “Trusting disgust.”
On a literary level, Berger may be following the identical romantic method, exploiting taboos and testing readers’ limits to weed out the false-hearted in favor of those whose appreciation rates pure and true. Though Little Cat means exactly what you think it means, out of the uneasy needy wide spread sex you have the chance to walk away thinking about love, power, history, poetry, God, inevitability, and the nature of art. Mira. Listen.