By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
THE STORY OF MARY MacLANE & OTHER WRITINGS By MARY MacLANE Edited and introduced by Penelope Rosemont Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co. 217 pages$15 softcover
THE EDGE OF THE BED: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life By LISA PALAC Little, Brown and Co. 214 pages $23 hardcover
Every woman who has compared herself to culture's description of what she should be and felt like a freak draws strength from the rebels who came before, those outlaws who regarded the rules and responded with a cool, definitive "Fuck, no." Mary MacLane, a wild, brilliant teenager trapped by the deadening restrictions of turn-of-the-century America and the "sand and barrenness" of Butte, Montana, was one. At 19, after years "buried in an environment at utter variance with my natural instincts, where my inner life is never touched . . . [and] I never disclose my real desires or the texture of my soul," she wrote a "full and frank" portrayal of what it really was like to be her - an uncensored three-month account of all she thought, saw, felt. Everything was in it: the pure pleasure MacLane felt in eating an olive or staring at the "red, red Happiness of the sunset sky"; her ravenous longing for fame; her contempt for "the utter littleness, the paltriness, the contemptibleness, the degradation, of the woman who is tied down under a roof with a man who is really nothing to her"; her loneliness and yearning for a passion that would transform her, whether with a man "bad to his heart's core," the devil himself or "the anemone lady," a former teacher for whom she confesses feeling "a strange attraction of sex." It was a volume written less as literature than howl, a furious command to the bourgeois world: Pay attention!
It worked. The Story of Mary MacLane, published in 1902, was an immediate sensation. Horrified mainstream-press reviewers suggested institutionalizing the author (or perhaps just spanking her); a titillated populace bought 80,000 copies of the book in just four weeks. And the money MacLane earned in royalties got her out of Butte and into a new life in Greenwich Village. She published two more books, contributed feature articles to a number of newspapers and magazines, and wrote and starred in a film called Men Who Have Made Love to Me before turning her back on the literary world, moving to Chicago and fading from sight. She died in 1929 at 48, and until this reissue, her works were out of print and nearly impossible to find.
Almost a century later, meeting Mary MacLane is still an intense experience. Fantasies like ordering the devil to "hurt me, burn me, consume me with hot love" may not be shocking anymore, but the pages of her book still vibrate with life, passion and MacLane's rage toward the conventions that would diminish her. "Though I am . . . very feminine," she sneers, "yet I am not that quaint conceit, a girl." And her language, praised by H.L. Mencken for its "drunken exuberance," is extraordinary, lush and sensual, with the rhythmic drive and precise imagery of poetry: After a Montana storm, a "lurid light came from a ghastly moon between clouds"; MacLane describes her childhood self as "a little piece of untrained Nature" full of "infantile malice."
"The little wild creature wanted to be loved; she wanted something to put in her hungry little heart.
But no one had anything to put into a hungry little heart.
No one said "dear."
. . . And I am unable to judge which is the more savagely forlorn: the starved-hearted child, or the woman, young and all alone."
For all the pleasures of its parts, however, The Story of Mary MacLane is less than satisfying as a whole. Its author may have been extraordinary, but she was still 19, and while the all-or-nothingness of youth is what gives the book such fervor, more than 130 pages of MacLane longing for love and wandering in the wilderness are just too much.
Her later work, some of which is gathered here, suffers similar problems. It has plenty to offer: eccentric vision, political astuteness, cutting commentary. In one essay she pictures herself as someone's proper wife, "a strong pillar of the vast good nice world," then savagely dismisses that self as "a lying chattel, an inexpressibly damaged woman." Always, there is that gorgeous language: "I like caviar at luncheon. And I like venison at dinner, dark and bloody and rich." But MacLane seems never to have learned how to construct a narrative, and her pieces - neither traditional fiction nor nonfiction but slices of life and impressionistic snippets of observation and memory - never go anywhere. While it's fascinating to view the world through her singular eyes, literary snapshots alone don't sustain.
Whatever her limitations as a writer, Mary MacLane the person was larger than life. Lisa Palac would like to be that big. In The Edge of the Bed, she presents herself as the newest feminist Rebel Queen, a heroine of "the late-twentieth-century sex wars," a brave soldier helping set women free to speak honestly about our sexual desires. Instead, she comes off like a twit.
Palac's story: She was born in 1963, the youngest child of a sexually repressed couple. She went to Catholic school, where the repression continued; though she lost her virginity at 15, she says she never masturbated or came until she was a 20-year-old college student in Minnesota and found a vibrator left by a previous tenant in her rented apartment. But just as she discovered the Big O, she found feminism, which fucked her up sexually in a new way. Minneapolis in 1983 was the center of the anti-pornography movement, and while Palac tried to be a supporter, her own desires didn't follow the party line. "I liked to feel my lover come all over me," she admits. Finally, revelation: Palac rents a dirty movie, beats off, has an "intense" orgasm and becomes a porn aficionado. For a while, she publishes a sex zine under the name Lisa LaBia (in a rare moment of humor, she reports that some people thought she was Italian). Then, after "sexpert" Susie Bright publishes a piece of her erotic fiction, she flies to San Francisco, hits it off with Bright, and winds up with an editing job at Bright's politically incorrect lesbian-porn magazine On Our Backs. After that, she writes for a Penthouse Forum-type newsletter, produces an erotic CD called Cyborgasm and edits the magazine Future Sex, which has cover lines like "3-D Digital Orgasms" and gets her interviewed on Hard Copy.