Maidenhead, part two: she said

August 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

In the second of part of a two-part discussion of Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Maidenhead, author and academic Myna Wallin offers her thoughts on the book. (Part one of this discussion can be read here.)

Gore Vidal’s seminal work on female sexuality, Myra Breckinridge, begins with the line, “I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man will ever possess …” Tamara Faith Berger calls her protagonist Myra, who ironically enough wants very badly to be possessed, but not by Aaron, who “worships” her, kissing her and telling her “there’s this space in me, kind of opening up … to love you.” Love isn’t what Myra is after. She wants to be pissed on and she wants to be slapped.

Reading Maidenhead, a volatile, punch-you-in-the-gut version of a coming of age story, I am reminded of Marya Hormbacher’s memoir, Wasted, about the life of an anorexic young woman. In Berger’s provocative novel, Myra becomes embroiled in a ménage à trois, where self-delusion, sex, and a dialectic philosophy of the master/slave paradigm become so entangled in her mind that her submission, her willing participation, starts to make as much sense as starving oneself does to the central character in Wasted.

It’s no coincidence that Myra’s sexcapades begin on a family vacation in Key West during spring break. Myra envies the teenagers who are just two years older than her, like her sister Jody. They can do what they want, drink until late, and have sex away from the watchful eyes of their parents. Myra becomes the target for a hot, black “god” of a man, Elijah, a Tanzanian “genius musician” twenty years her senior. He has skin that smells like “caramel” and calls Myra his “angel” and alternately, his “little bitch.” Elijah and his violent cohort Gayl follow Myra all the way from the beaches of Key West to Toronto. Myra’s mother abandons her three children soon after, leaving them in the hands of her hapless husband and a couple of sneering, gossipy girlfriends. Without her mother’s guidance, Myra’s slightly older friend Lee must remind her that she is real, that her life is really happening.

Lee, however, has her own secrets and knows that the road to losing one’s virginity is a rocky one, both physically and mentally. Lee sees the pitfalls in both the language used to describe the experience of sex and the unreliability of the self, of one’s bodily urges, and of the massive confusion of being a young woman. Still, Lee gives Myra permission to explore her darker desires: “It’s okay you want it dirty with this guy. It’s okay you want that picture in your head to be true.”

The sixteen-year-old Myra as first-person narrator is an unreliable witness to her own story, so it is a relief when Gayl and Lee step in as a postmodern Greek chorus, offering bickering philosophical commentary throughout and a useful reprieve, a moment to pause and reflect between Myra’s exploits (or periods of being exploited, depending upon your perspective).

A series of binary oppositions runs throughout Berger’s novel: real/dreamlike; master/slave; privileged/oppressed; dominant/submissive; romantic/carnal. All of these Western constructs are as ripe to be dismantled as Myra’s virginity. So our protagonist – a precocious and prodigious intellect blooming along with her teenage hormones – writes a paper she calls “The Pornography Liberation Narrative and Sex Slaves: A Synthesis.” Berger sets up a series of questions for the reader: Is Myra’s experience inauthentic because of her own inexperience? Is she a victim or a willing participant? Or both? Do any of the philosophers she is so fond of quoting (Hegel, Bataille, Weil) provide a usable framework for her experience? Is there such a thing as Absolute Knowledge?

Berger has a welcome sense of humour that makes the violence and gut-wrenching power of her book bearable. Maidenhead is a thoroughly riveting read, questioning all kinds of assumptions and raising fascinating questions about female sexuality, family dynamics, motherhood, pornography, and more. Reader beware.

Myna Wallin is a Toronto author and editor, and author of the book Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar.

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