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.
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.
Are attitudes changing? Are opinions of what makes “legitimate” literature shifting? Looks like “sexy” themes, usually relegated to chick lit or Harlequin Romance, are becoming fashionable and being taken more seriously as literature in the world of CanLit.
This spring saw the release of Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, published by Coach House, one of the “most anticipated books of 2012” by the National Post. The novel is as literary as it is steamy, with Berger’s teenaged protagonist bursting with lusty thoughts and having one sex-fuelled fantasy (or experience) after another. This has long been regarded as a difficult feat to pull off. Anaïs Nin did it; Henry Miller did it. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written in the twenties, famously combined the two. In Canada, however, it seems that although sex is written about, there’s still a streak of rebelliousness in the act of writing it. Other recent sexually charged novels include: Tightrope Books’ Mount Royal by Basil Papademos (launching this spring), Stacey May Fowles’s Be Good (which has already been optioned for a film), and Danila Botha’s Got No Secrets.
Beyond the erotic terrain of CanLit, booksellers are gushing over the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey by American author E.L. James, the first in a trilogy centering on a BDSM relationship. The book’s been a wholesale audience success, if not a critical sensation. Think Twilight for a new generation of horny and curious women, mixed in with a little old-fashioned Jacqueline Susann.
Poet friends confide in me, “Oh, I have a sexy poem in my third collection, well just one, but I never read it in public. I’d just be too embarrassed.” Others hide their sexiness in their nature poetry, with a bee poking in the sticky stamen of a flower. There’s been a reluctance, shall we say, to consider sex in literature to be a valid choice or a substantive theme. Let’s hope the erotic zeitgeist continues to heat up and flourish as we plow through this summer reading season.
Myna Wallin is a Toronto author and editor whose book Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar has been called “an act of bravery” by the Globe and Mail. She is teaching a course in erotic writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, beginning May 3, 2012.