There's nothing like political disaster to turn soft porn into art. What would Hiroshima, Mon Amour be without Hiroshima? A film about a one-night-stand between a sullen actress and a slightly obsessive businessman. What would The Night Porter be without Nazi death camps as a backdrop? An S&M movie suitable for late-night video outlets. And what would Claire Tristram's new novel After be without September 11?
Touted as an "international sensation" and soon to appear in Italy, France, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Australia and England, the book tells the tale of an illicit affair--an affair with sadomasochistic overtones, an affair in a California motel. It resembles, in both its virtues and vices, the stories Tristram has been publishing for many years in Best American Erotica as well as on the Internet. There is her spare and suggestive prose style as well as her obsession with all things repulsive; there is acute attention to detail as well as an abundance of menstrual blood; there are "slack-jawed" lovers, sour endings, ritual cleansings and--always--a mismatched couple. What is different is that Tristram's first novel invokes the greatest political trauma of America's recent history, and weaves it self-consciously into its plot. It is this that lends her mildly titillating fiction the veneer of importance. It is the appropriation of national tragedy that has thrust this slender pornographic exercise between the covers of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Opportunism has knocked--and Claire Tristram has answered.
She has answered with a story we recognize--that of the widow of Daniel Pearl, murdered by Islamic extremists because he was a Jew--and she has improvised upon it. The heroine of After is American, not French (as is Pearl's wife); she is also sexually ravenous. "Day by day," we learn,
her grief had subtly changed its shape, until what was left was not quite grief at all, but something she could only describe as desire. She ate with her fingers. She slept naked. Grocery boys aroused her.
It is the staccato narration of such gritty detail that is Tristram's forte, and the reason we move through the first chapter with interest. It is only as the heroine announces her intention to take a Muslim lover and the novel starts to spiral into gratuitous sensationalism and pseudo-profound banality that we lose heart.
If we learn little of our heroine's reasons for seeking to bed a Muslim (forgiveness, revenge, curiosity, perversity?), we learn no more about how she perceives him once he is in her arms. "I didn't expect that you would be circumcised," she says in one of her more meditative moments. He enlightens her on that account--but on few others. Indeed, it is she who instructs him of his identity: "You are my first...Muslim," she declares. When he objects that he is secular, not even Arab but Persian, and asks that they treat one another as individuals rather than members of a "particular category," she rebukes him in terms as harsh as they are pietistic:
When those men asked my husband if he was a Jew, he said, "Yes I am a Jew." He didn't say "No, I'm an individual."... Individuals are all the same, you know. Cut off from what they are. They are nothing at all.... My husband...gave up everything to acknowledge who he was. You are a Muslim. I am the widow of a Jew. That is who I am.... I wonder, could you do that? Give up everything, your family, your life, just for once to be completely what you are?
It is hard not to think that Tristram actually believes this inanity; she gives it all the authority of a widow's pain, all the axiomatic eloquence of a sage. Later in the novel she has the widow's lover docilely repeat "I am a Muslim," as though finally admitting his deepest identity. All of this essentialism might be disturbing were Tristram not simply passing the time between sex scenes.