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.
These adventures are offered not just as stories, but as elements of legend. Palac not only likes porn, but discovers that sexual submission and S&M - everything anti-porn feminists condemn as "degrading" - are what really get her hot. Going for what she wants, telling the truth about her desires and rejecting political correctness in favor of sexual freedom are what make her heroic.
Well. There is a fascinating book to be written about the contradictions of desire, about the way the images that compel our groins often horrify our rational minds. But this isn't it. For starters, anyone who came of age around the same time as Palac will roar at the idea that she should be considered a sexual trailblazer because she's a woman who admitted her erotic longings. In 1973, when Palac was 10, Erica Jong's "zipless fuck" fantasy was in every bookstore; by 1981, even that journal of radical thought, Mademoiselle, had featured a cover story on vibrators. And whatever Palac's sense of feminist persecution for her embrace of pornography - in an introduction to the book, Susie Bright describes the On Our Backs staff as feeling "as if we were on trial at Salem" - anti-porn feminists never represented more than one wing of a much larger, more diverse movement.
In addition, for all of Palac's talk about female honesty (and despite the fact that many who buy this book will do so in the hope of finding smut), she is astonishingly opaque about her own sex life. We never learn how she discovered her submissive tendencies, how far they go, what she actually does with her lovers. It's unclear as well why she sees being free to explore transgressive sex as so important. The week she first met Bright, Palac reports, she had her labia pierced, an experience that "pushed me into womanhood in a way that losing my virginity never did." Readers are left to their own guesses about what the hell she means by that.
Finally, there is a dismaying juicelessness to this book, supposedly all about the pleasures of sex. A great deal of the problem is Palac's breathtaking shallowness - apparently all her knowledge of life has been gleaned from the most banal elements of popular culture. She complains that as a teen she never discovered masturbation because "there was no episode of The Brady Bunch where Marcia finds her clit and comes." Later, after a shrink helps her realize that she's attracted to S&M because Catholicism taught her to eroticize suffering, and that her psychological task is to get rid of "the despair caused by this fucked-up doctrine without losing the hot sexual fantasies it inspired," she decides to confront her childhood conditioning. How? She buys a Jesus Christ Superstar CD. At this point, it's easy to see why Palac is a good submissive: Even the most pacifist reader has the overwhelming impulse to slap her silly face.
The Story of Mary MacLane was a young woman's angry attempt to assert female reality against cultural images. And yes, revealing her carnal side was part of that; a woman deprived of the full range of her sexuality is a crippled being. But to claim the converse, that sex is all it takes to set you free - which is Palac's argument, such as it is - ignores the fact that fucking is only part of what we do with our lives. Becoming fully human demands that we also consider real-world issues like politics, power, economics. It demands having a mind.
MacLane understood that, and by all evidence, to the end of her short life, she remained a true rebel, subversive to her core. Palac's journey, on the other hand, ultimately takes her from the edge of the bed to the garden of the Santa Barbara courthouse, where, dressed in "a 1940s ivory silk and tulle dress with a five-foot train and a short veil," she marries the lover a friend dubs "The Marlboro Man." She weeps during the ceremony, "awestruck by the power of this ritual," and later, when she starts receiving mail from her mother addressed to "Mrs. Andrew Rice," reports that she finds it "cute."
"As I turn this thing called sex around in my hand like a prism and watch the light reflect in unexpected directions," she muses, "my final conclusion is this: I have evolved. And America has evolved as a culture, a group."
Ah, Lisa, Lisa. Guess again.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.