Maidenhead, part one: he said
Earlier this summer, I was speaking with academic and author Myna Wallin about the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that began as repurposed Twilight fan fiction and has since gone on to become an international bestseller. (According to the Guardian, it is now the bestselling book in U.K. history.) Wallin and I are united in our astonishment that such an ill-written, poorly conceived work could catch on to such an extent, particularly given that there is another, similar book available – a novel at once darker, smarter, and sexier than its pallid contemporary. In an attempt to bring some attention to a novel that we think could provide readers with a better alternative to the so-called “erotic fiction” of Fifty Shades, TSR is featuring a two-part discussion of Maidenhead by Toronto author Tamara Faith Berger. My review appears today, followed by Wallin’s take tomorrow.
Maidenhead. Tamara Faith Berger; $18.95 paper 978-1-55245-259-2, 176 pp., Coach House Books
“In the very fist place eroticism differs from animal sexuality in that human sexuality is limited by taboos and the domain of eroticism is that of the transgression of those taboos. Desire in eroticism is the desire that triumphs over the taboo.” – Georges Bataille
“Bataille’s for boys.” – Maidenhead
To say that Tamara Faith Berger’s third – and by far her most mature and fully realized – novel is about the sexual awakening of a sixteen-year-old girl is like saying Moby-Dick is the story of a man and a whale. On the surface, the statement is perfectly accurate, but it is so reductive as to be positively laughable.
The girl in question is Myra, whom we first encounter on vacation with her family in Key West, “the last blot of American land before the slaves thrived or sank in the sea.” It’s spring break, and Myra is surrounded by sex: college girls with “bums curved up like fruits” and “guys and girls dancing out there and drinking beers when it was two in the afternoon.” This is merely the first instance of sex and slavery being linked in the novel; indeed, the notion of slavery and victimization becomes a defining theme in a book that is all about shifting planes of power and control. (Unsurprisingly, Hegel provides a large measure of the book’s philosophical underpinning.)
Myra is desperate to lose her virginity, engaging in fantasies of encounters with the college boys she sees on the beach: “I had to keep imagining that I was losing my virginity so one day it would really happen.” On her second day in Key West, Myra breaks away from her indifferent family and meets a black man on the beach. Elijah is a Tanzanian musician possessed of a walking stick and an ocarina. The first time Myra encounters him, he lets her play the ocarina. The second time Myra encounters him, he takes her back to his room, where he urinates on her while masturbating.
All of this occurs in the first twenty pages of the novel. Myra and her family return home to Toronto, where her parents announce they are divorcing. Soon enough, Elijah and his girlfriend, Gayl, appear in the city and begin to lead Myra on a journey of discovery and abjection, a sexual odyssey that becomes increasingly dark and extreme as the novel progresses.
It would be tempting to call Maidenhead a transgressive work, but this label is fraught with implication. According to its dictionary definition, the word “transgress” means to “contravene or go beyond the bounds or limits set by (a commandment, law, etc.).” It is difficult not to employ this word in the context of a system of patriarchal (not to say Puritan) sexual morality; Myra’s experience is only transgressive if one applies a strict set of normative standards to the idea of sexual congress. The notion that female sexuality is complex, and that there may exist instances in which a woman in full control of her faculties might desire abjection or abasement in a sexual context, makes many people with a vested interest in preserving the current political and social power structure (read: men) uncomfortable. (Emily Prager refers to “the conundrum of rape”: the idea that what is horrific and deplorable in reality can, in a fantasy context, be sexually stimulating.)
Elijah and Gayl initiate Myra into a world of behaviour that passes beyond societally sanctioned norms of vanilla sexuality – humiliation, bondage, and sadism are all aspects of their evolving relationship – but Myra’s abiding intelligence ensures that she remains a volitional participant, even in scenarios that involve her ritual debasement. She invites her role as Elijah and Gayl’s slave even as she attempts to iron out ideas of master-slave dynamics in power relationships. She comes to see her own progression as a kind of sexual liberation narrative, once again emphasizing the relationship between sexual slavery and that other kind of slavery.
Abjection, Myra comes to suppose, is a way for a slave to retain power and self-determination. It is no accident that Elijah and Gayl are black: their own histories are riddled with power struggles in which they were the oppressed victims. “You need to grow up,” Gayl says to Myra during a key scene of violence late in the novel. “You took a vacation on the backs of slaves. You and your family having fun like that.” And elsewhere, when Myra attempts to downplay her privilege and power, Gayl sneers at her, “Did you have your own bedroom growing up? … I slept on the floor with four brothers … Head to foot and foot to head.” This is tricky territory, and Berger is unafraid to confront it head on.
Lest the above make it sound like the novel is a dry, philosophical treatise, it should also be pointed out that Maidenhead is a terrifically dirty book, in the tradition of Anaïs Nin and Pauline Réage. It’s a smart, serious, sexy work that asks questions most novels studiously avoid. The interpolated sections featuring Gayl and Myra’s friend Lee deconstructing aspects of the narrative are unnecessary and distracting, but are not sufficient to disrupt a reading experience that, on points, remains potent and raw.