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Sex in the Age of Irony 

Whip-smart women in a call girl’s Belle de Jour and Shelley Jackson’s Half Life

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006

A friend of mine has been working as a dominatrix in a high-end dungeon, and we’d been kicking around the idea of writing a book about it. Our spin on the sexy tell-all was going to be the sense of humor, the wry asides, our surprisingly light treatment of the triple X. Unfortunately for us, the lovely Ms. Anonymous, a.k.a. “Belle,” a London call girl, has beaten us to the punch with her memoir Belle de Jour. In her list of “favorite things” (no “cream-colored ponies” or “schnitzel with noodles” here), Belle mentions — alongside rim jobs and glass beads — imitating characters from The Simpsons: “I’m pretty good at it — especially Milhouse and Comic Book Guy. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet a man with a Patty-and-Selma fetish, and then my ship will have truly come in.” Ah, sex in the age of irony.

Belle de Jour, which originated as a wildly popular British blog, tracks the observations and minor adventures of a young woman happily employed in the world’s oldest profession. Belle muses on everything from the hardcore (fisting herself), to the odd (the etiquette of dealing with abnormal penises — one client’s foreskin opens halfway down the side of his member), to the simply mundane (defrosting her freezer). She’s particularly adept at the unexpected juxtaposition, as in a client’s discussions of Martin Amis: “Time’s Arrow was pretty tricksy. A glistening drop of pre-come lolled on the tip of his glans.” (It’s her descriptions of moments like these that led the notorious former madame Cynthia Payne to cast doubt on the veracity of Belle’s memoir in The Guardian.) There’s also plenty of gossip, shopping, failed dates and romantic yearning — in many respects, the book is simply chick lit with ass sex.

It’s definitely Belle’s humor that sets her apart from her literary predecessors — Catherine Millet, Pauline Réage, Toni Bentley, etc. Those women wrote with the fever of the true connoisseur, whereas Belle maintains her comedian’s arched eyebrow, even as she’s being double-penetrated. Eventually, the joke starts to get a bit old. After all, the punch line is almost always the same: I’m a whore, isn’t that wacky? But there’s also real joy to be found here, particularly in Belle’s lack of inhibition, her ­willingness to help people negotiate their sexual fantasies, and her determination to live out her own.

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The author also understands that part of the pleasure of a scandalous sex life is how it resonates with the quotidian. Some of the book’s finest moments are thoroughly asexual. In Rome on vacation, Belle makes friends with some English tourists, and they have a delightful time at a gelateria with “every flavor imaginable . . . Nutella, Ferrero Rocher. Peanut butter. Fruits I’d never heard of.” The underlying subtext of this innocent encounter: meeting strangers and indulging in new sensory experiences can be lots of fun. In the book’s most short-storyish chapter, Belle’s father, an affable do-gooder, takes Belle to meet an ex-junkie single mother whom he has been supporting financially. Belle assumes the worst about them: “In her depressing kitchen she regaled us with the story of a septic infection in her thumbnail . . . Her two sons were as I imagined . . . the younger could not be shifted from the telly.” But then Belle is alone in the room with the boy, and he shows her a baby bird that he has raised himself and taught to fly. Belle is stunned, speechless. The author briskly moves on to the next chapter, but the scene is a reminder of the simple yet poignant sentiment: Perhaps one should hold off on judging someone until the facts are in — someone who pays for sex, for example, or someone who sells it.

The book is mostly titillating fluff, but such moments give it literary sparkle. However, if Belle thinks she’s breaking ground (she probably has no such pretensions), she’s got another thing coming. Her “anal sex is the new black” line is a poor cousin to a zine quip I read years ago: “Anal fisting is the new second base.” And if you think the eroticism of the Simpsons is innovative, just Google “Simpsons porn.” I dare you.

Shelley Jackson, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about charges of being derivative in regard to Half Life, her first “conventional” novel (she’s widely admired for her hypertextual novel Patchwork Girl). Set in a parallel-reality present, Jackson’s book imagines a world populated by a Siamese-twin minority group. These “twofers” have separate heads and personalities, but share bodies, organs, genitalia, etc. Jackson takes this freakish concept and uses it as an instrument with which to riff on linguistics, religion, sexual identity, mysticism, fetishes (“When S is M: Sadomasochism Between Conjoined Twins”), nuclear war, fairy tales, queer politics, critical theory, childhood trauma, intolerance, revisionist history (her argument that Shakespeare was secretly a Siamese twin is particularly inspired), fashion, ghost towns . . . the list goes on. The novel owes a clear debt to Alice in Wonderland, and, like Lewis Carroll’s, Jackson’s polymath interests pop up in myriad forms: limericks, absurd poems, bad puns, gleeful trivia, mad characters and surrealist genius.

Despite its dizzying cornucopia of interests and ideas, the novel remains grounded in the tangible. As Flannery O’Connor says in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” a good metaphor needs to exist as a real object before it can begin to accrue larger meaning, and Jackson’s Siamese-twin narrator Nora/Blanche is first and foremost a tangible and fully fleshed-out character. We fall into the reality of the situation as Nora (or is it Blanche?) travels to London to find an underground organization known as the Unity Foundation, which has promised to surgically remove her second head. As in the best science fiction, Half Life comes alive in the fusion of our reality and another — one that is simultaneously exotic and intimate, conceptual and corporeal.

Like a queerer Don DeLillo, or a sassier Pynchon, Jackson fills her novel with enough interlacing themes, cultural critique and paranoid schemes to have students puzzling over it for years (you will find this book on syllabuses in five years, tops). Half Life also carries the drawbacks of DeLillo’s and Pynchon’s fiction: The book can occasionally seem overwrought and cumbersome, its narrative a bit gimpy. However, on the line-by-line level, it is nearly always a marvel. Nora, who works as a phone-sex operator, describes her erotic chatter in twisting simile: “My dream girls fluttered up like shapes scissored out of old magazines, smelling of ink and oxidized paper . . . Like maps, they cracked in the used places . . . The consequences unfolded like the simplification of a mathematical equation, with solemn logic, and then x and y slipped out of their clothes and took their familiar poses by the equals sign.” A Gila monster is described as a “beaded purse with teeth.” Streetlights are held up “by cones of laboring insects.”

This is writing that will turn you on.

BELLE DE JOUR | By ANONYMOUS | Warner Books | 304 pages | $25 hardcover

HALF LIFE | By SHELLEY JACKSON | Harper Collins | 448 pages | $25 hardcover

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