Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Book Review: “Sex For America: Politically Inspired Erotica”

I would have liked to put in my own review of Rachel Kramer Bussel's "Spanked!", like everyone else is doing, but unfortunately, I don't have a copy handy (and really, Jiz's favorable and sexy review should be enough to convince you to buy it). So I may not have "Spanked!", but I would like to put in a review of a book I do have, Stephen Elliot's "Sex For America: Politically Inspired Erotica", especially given how appropriate politics are at this time.

It's rather intriguing, I think, that Elliot also has out another book, under the title of "Even More Politically Inspired Fiction". Oddly enough, though, there is no prequel or original to this, except for "Sex For America", which bills itself not as fiction, but as erotica. This in itself might be a warning clue to what you'll find inside. Elliot, after all, is not primarily an erotica writer- though he has one erotic collection ("My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up"), his background is more mainstream fare. And while I want everyone to be able to break free of their molds and try out dirty writing (dirty editing?), perhaps it really ought be left to the professionals.

Most of the stories here don't register much heat- I would only go to a few as masturbatory aids. Others aren't much to write home about, and some are fabulous, but not really in the "political erotica" category. I still have high hopes for political erotica, and part of me wonders where all the expected stories might be. Were the authors so eager to go outside the box? Did Stephen Elliot pick and choose out of a bigger pool? I'm just at a loss.

But, nonetheless, here is a break-down of the book after the jump. I honestly think you can find a lot of good stories here, maybe not for your bedside drawer, but at the very least for your literary shelves.

Jerry Stahl’s “Li’l Dickens” gets points for sheer gravitas: writing erotica about Dick Cheney has got to be the most daunting task in the world. And yet . . . he nails it, perfectly. Mind you, it’s not the kind of story where you really want to be visualizing the action, but the characterization of a smirky, kinky, powerful Dick, the selection of details, and the clever, tongue-in-cheek twist on the Harry Whittington scandal all make this a true winner . . . and oddly sexy. It’s no surprise the story had previously been published- it has everything going for it. Great opener.

Michelle Tea’s “Music From Earth” is ultimately a little bit of a let-down. The premise- a San Francisco-dwelling lesbian returns home to hurricane Erica-ravaged Florida and ends up sleeping with a male friend about to ship off to war- is a good one, but in execution, it seems to lose something. I’ve felt this way before about Michelle Tea’s fiction; it’s hard to connect with the narrator, feel sympathy for the characters, and, at least here, to find much eroticism in the quick and passionless sex. The story tries- it has the sex, the politics, and a good idea- but just doesn’t push through. At the very least, I imagine it could have much more success in a different anthology, one not classified as “erotica”.

Mistress Morgana’s “An Open Letter To The Bush Administration” is probably the most brilliant piece of writing in the entire book- a letter from a professional dominatrix to the Bush administration, detailing how their S&M-esque tactics have outshone her and made it impossible for her small business to stay financially afloat. Short and well-written, smart and ironic rather than angry, it’s a gem. While not erotica per se, it deals enough with sexuality that I think it fits in quite well.

Avital Gad-Cykman’s “Tamar’s Prayers” doesn’t really make sense to me. The entire time I was reading it, I kept trying to place it in terms of locale and time and situation, and still couldn’t pinpoint it. Is this a wartime tale in a foreign country? A science fiction tale set in the future? An allegorical depiction of the U.S. as a fairytale-ish myth? Either way, I couldn’t tell, and the sadness of the tale undercut the sex, at least for me. Is it so much to ask that an erotic story actually show someone enjoying themselves?

Anthony Swofford’s “Escape and Evasion” initially gave me hope for something seriously sexy, from its opening line: “When the recruiter asked the queer questions I had a hard-on”. Unfortunately, it falls apart after that, turning into an [admittedly riveting] look into the “Ether Bandit”, a rapist who uses ether to violate men in the Army. Like many of the other stories here, it’s quite good- it was honestly a page-turner, and the ending was perfectly ironic and cinched it for me. But erotic? Not even remotely. The sex here is outright, pre-meditated rape in a way that will leave most readers cold- again, as in “My Most Memorable Encounter”, the rape is not eroticized for forced sex fantasies, and the vivid details of the bloody physical damage are disturbing, to say the least. And the political here is limited to the setting being war- beyond that, there is no discussion of it. It seems to be a trend in this book- good stories that belong somewhere else.

Jami Attenberg’s “Victory Garden” is another one of the set-in-the-future tales, but where the others portray the future as a crazy, gone-wild, topsy-turvy world, this one is refreshingly realistic and somehow subtle in the way that only great, thoughtful writing can provide. The setting is a world where the president has started four wars, and oil is now essentially gone. But life soldiers on, not in dystopian, Mad Max-style hell, but in a surprisingly old-fashioned-feeling rural kind of America. Cars are gone, both as modes of transportation and as places for sex. (And I might add that other little details- condoms being unable to be made without oil, for example, really make the story). Unfortunately, what seems to be missing from this story is an erotic encounter between the two characters. It’s like the author lost the last page he meant to submit . . . it could have been beautiful. I’m in mourning for the sex scene that never was.

Lydia Millet’s “Desert Shield” was a bit above and beyond my political knowledge. To be quite honest, I gave up on this story, which managed to be full of names I should probably know, but was also strange enough to leave me mostly unimpressed.

Daphne Gottlieb’s “Undone” hits the mark on being political with its gay marriage debate focus- definitely a hot topic right now, and still a controversial one for straights and queers alike. And while I love that it sheds some light on the emotional component of folks who never expected the offer of marriage rights, and questions the taken-for-granted belief that all GLBTQ partners would jump at marriage if only they could, I once again ask- where’s the heat? For that matter, where’s the sex? This is an erotica collection, right?

Jonathan Ames’ “Womb Shelter” tries to be provocative, but ends up stretching the word play of “womb shelter” (instead of “bomb shelter”) far too thin. Some of the writing is quite clever (the Jewish bit is great), but there isn’t much of a real story and little eroticism, particularly in his recollection of his nervous and decidedly unsexy tryst with a prostitute.

Eric Orner’s short, animated strip “Fear and Loathing In Chelsea” (I hesitate to call it ‘cartoon’ or ‘comic’) caught me off-guard, actually, and impressed me a quite a bit. I wouldn’t classify it as erotic, really, although sex plays a minor part in it. And it’s not really “political” in the traditional sense of Senators and Capitol Hill. And yet this short piece manages to hit the nail on the head perfectly, criticizing both narcissistic gay male culture and the whole “Politically Correct” movement.

Alison Tyler’s “Measure A, B, or Me?” manages to score a huge goal, as Alison Tyler always seems to do. The story is neither too long nor too short, has an explicit sexual focus, and incorporates politics quite nicely. Bonus perk: even though both protagonists are on the Left, the story doesn’t fall into a Bush-bashing or Right-vilifying mood. The story is a real winner- cute, clever, and hot. An actual erotic story, meant to turn you on, and the characters even know one another and love each other! Props, Alison, props.

James Frey’s “The Candidate’s Wife” is a tantalizing idea- a Democratic worker on the Hill sleeping with the wife of the Republican candidate. And it’s still rather sexy, but while reading it, I had to inject some of my own images, imagination, and fantasy to get “there”, mostly because the writing seems to explicitly keep away from the characters, presumably to add the naughtiness of the casual encounter, and to keep the mystery . . . but it ends up frustrating instead. It’s still good- I just wish the people weren’t held at an arm’s distance.

Charlie Ander’s “Transfixed, Helpless, and Out Of Control: Election Night 2004”, wherein someone gets topped and worked over while being told of the horrors to come in the Bush administration, isn’t a new plot (in fact, it’s essentially the same that appears in “Social Contract”), but the execution here is impeccable. Ander’s writing style feels a little like Pat Califia (the highest compliment I can give) and the story is just much more delicate and emotional than the editor’s own piece, not to mention much sexier and more erotic. Five stars for arousing both my mind and my genitals.

Nick Flynn’s “A Crystal Formed Entirely Of Holes” is a pretty damn cool story, mixing futuristic technology with popular “alt” youth culture to paint a portrait of some rather extreme new body modification. Unfortunately, the story mostly misses the mark on the political aspect, and the erotic aspects, which have so much potential, are only briefly skirted, in tantalizing little teases that never fully evolve into an actual sex scene. Don’t get me wrong- I really do adore this piece and find it smart and fantastically creative and well-written . . . but it would fit much better in a different anthology, or else by incorporating more eroticism (again, something I think could be done very easily).

Rick Moody’s “Notes Of Redevelopment” is by far the queerest, kinkiest, and naughtiest story of the bunch, even though it manages to not classify as erotica, really. Set far in a future U.S. where a lot of significant changes have taken place (part of the country has seceded, slavery exists, China and other countries are the most powerful nations, and conservatism has run rampant, including the G-Rated Only Family Film Act Of 2012), an anonymous transwoman gives some advice to the country’s leaders, mostly by the way of revitalizing the sex and porn industries in very kinky, futuristic ways. The story is just a lot of fun to read- political, but not quite erotica. Still, it gets thumbs up from me.

Tsaurah Litzky’s “Purple Tulip” is a mess. On one hand, I see quite clearly the flash of brilliance in what is otherwise the muck- the interesting concept of an angry, contemptuous Amsterdam man fucking out his aggression towards the U.S. with an American woman (with the cultures so clearly and starkly diametrical). But the rest of the pieces dangle like unfinished strings- the inexplicable addition of the one-armed hooker who is the title’s namesake, the drugs, and the fact that the main sex scene turns painful, panicked, and is essentially rape renders all of the initial eroticism null and void. It’s so jumbled and pointless that I almost wonder if it was at least semi-autobiographical for the author.

Michelle Richmond’s “Milk” actually made me gasp out loud- not something most fiction can do. The beginning had me scratching my head- another confusing tale with apparently no discernable setting and no explanation. But halfway through, everything is revealed, and the twist is SO unexpected, yet makes so much sense . . . it truly is a well-crafted story. The politics of the horrific act of sacrifice work wonderfully for the political aspect, though the erotic just isn’t really there. It, too, doesn’t really belong in an erotic collection, but I’m too in love with it to complain much.

Stephen Elliot’s “Social Contract” feels like a weaker heterosexual version of “Transfixed, Helpless, and Out Of Control: Election Night 2004” fast-forwarded past the election night. There’s great BDSM action, but without delving into any real emotion or giving us deep characterization, I can’t feel much connection with the story, and unlike Ander’s, there is no description of the feelings aroused by the physical torture/pleasuring or the mindfuck . . . it reads like a laundry list of what the dominatrix does, with no reaction, no orgasm, no pleasure. The editor’s sole piece just doesn’t measure up in my opinion.
Keith Knight’s comic strips War-gy and Energy Policy aren’t anything to write home about- essentially, they’re just dirtier versions of your average political cartoons, with lots of literal fucking as a play on words of the way the Bush administration has fucked us over. To be quite honest, while it fits in the book’s theme, it feels old and clichéd, and most certainly wouldn’t qualify as “erotic comics”. They aren’t nearly as impressive as Eric Orner’s piece.

Vanessa Norton’s “Dirty Heaven” combines an intriguing kleptomaniac narrator who gets paired up with a cute boy as she goes about making her door-to-door political spiels. The story starts out strong; the initial attraction and shy interaction was subtle enough to get me wet with anticipation of what was to come next, and I was sold by the time serious groping and kissing was going on. And then . . . it all falls apart. They go to the laundry room but there is no more sex- the narrator tries drugs for the first time, vomits, and that’s about it. Why, Vanessa Norton, why? The story had so much potential to be erotic, and ends up letting readers down tremendously.

Liz Henry’s “Capitol Punishment” isn’t a stand-out tale, but it fulfills all requirements: lots of sex, explicit political focus. The characters are a little detached and cynical in a way that makes them unappealing, although they have do have little endearing moments occasionally. And the BDSM sex can be a little sexy, although the emotional detachment, the lack of real investment in the sex, seems to rob it of some of its heat. I guess I’d just caution that it’s not an amazing story, but neither is it a poor piece of writing. It’s just so-so, but at least it fits in the parameters of the anthology, something a lot of stories here can’t claim.

Pete Orner’s “The Last Socialist” is short and pointless- a page and a half of dry intellectual dialogue exchanged between lovers, and a paragraph of two-minute sex that the narrator describes as like “two wet seals thumping” and leaves the woman [obviously] unfulfilled. Not sexy. Not that political (or at least not straightforward about it). Not worth your time.

Susan O’Doherty’s “My Most Memorable Encounter” is a shockingly good piece of fiction, and a shockingly poor piece of erotica. The story of a young, self-conscious girl thrust into an adult political party and taken advantage of rings true on every level; you feel like you’re in the story. Unfortunately, the rape and abuse at the end is not sexy or even attempting to be sexy. This is not eroticized non-consent or reluctance that a reader with a rape fantasy can enjoy. It’s a sad, bittersweet, heart-wrenching tale, but erotica- not by a long shot.

Steve Almond’s “The True Republic” is another wacky set-in-the-future piece that actually shadows a lot of the details of “Notes Of Redevelopment”, oddly enough (for example, the secession of part of the U.S.). I feel like this story is just trying too hard to push the envelope and be wild and crazy, with an ending that’s supposed to be ironic. It just feels . . . forced. It’s political, alright, and sexual (I wouldn’t go so far to call the odd synthetic virgin orgies erotic, even if I found synthetic virgin orgies erotic . . . there’s not enough description at all), but it never quite gets to the place it wants to go.

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