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.
Sex is the point of this tale–not philosophy or politics–and sex is what we get. “Extreme” sex, as in Tristram’s previous work: wire hangers used as handcuffs, anal penetration, full-body shaves, blindfolds, drawn blood, sex role reversals, the ever-smoldering threat of violence. But even in the wake of Abu Ghraib, the strenuous transgressiveness in this book seems oddly…idle. From moment to moment, the heroine does not know what she will do next–and neither, we sense, does the author. Should she make the Persian man phone his wife, or should she whip him with the coat hanger; should she slip out of the hotel room and abandon him, dress up in his pant suits, shave his body like an Islamic martyr, slit his throat or ask him to marry her? Tragically intense as she is intended to appear, the widow in fact resembles a bored channel surfer. Shall she turn on the bloody murder mystery, she wonders, or the quiz show; a Merce Cunningham ballet, that scene with the hijackers or My Big Fat Greek Wedding? In the end she just toys with the remote. And Tristram toys with us.
But if After says little about the world after September 11, less about being a Muslim or Jew, and nothing whatever of pressing policy issues, it just might suggest something about eros. Together with other nominally political erotica like Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (both of which it insistently echoes), as well as Bernhard Schlink’s recent novel The Reader and Bertolucci’s latest film The Dreamers–it suggests that we are viscerally drawn to our antagonist. None of these tales are about politics nearly so much as about our attraction to the Forbidden, the Other, the Unfamiliar, even the Adversary. In fact, it barely matters whether the lovers portrayed in these fictions are divided by politics, class, age or religion–whether they consist of a French girl and an enemy German soldier in Hiroshima, a shady American and a pampered Parisienne in Last Tango, a 15-year-old whiz kid and a 30-year-old tram conductor who turns out to be a Nazi in The Reader, or a Muslim and the victim of Muslims in After–what matters is that the lovers are divided; that they are remote from each other, prohibited to each other, alien.
We are accustomed to viewing this sort of attraction–the forbidden-fruit brand–as negative, shallow, feckless and even dangerous: It makes people have affairs with other folks’ husbands; it makes presidents succumb to interns, and students romance their professors. But perhaps there is another way to view it, especially in the context evoked by After, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and The Reader.
Perhaps we can view this attraction as nature, for once, overcoming the competitions and hatreds and fears foisted upon us by society, and bringing warring, pouting, fearing, or simply irreconcilably “diverse” persons together. Perhaps nature is more–rather than less–moral than culture in this instance. Culture drives us to pursue our self-interest, to befriend those people most like ourselves and best able to aid, echo and promote us; nature nudges us to embrace the impractical, the strange, indeed, sometimes the hostile. It urges us to reach across boundaries, to “sleep with the enemy.”
Half the reason, it is tempting to think, for the near-universal incest taboo is the fact that in love–unlike in friendship, work or regional politics–we dread someone like ourselves; we dread our “twin,” our “cousin.” We want the sister of the chieftain next door, not our own! It is the exotic, not the familiar, we crave. If, in sunlit social life, we choose co-workers, lunch guests, neighbors and even (as has often been remarked) house pets that resemble us, in the darkened corners of erotic fantasy, we very often choose the Other. Is this, then, such an ungenerous instinct?
Even the heroine of After, ill-developed as she is, feels closer to a sizable part of humanity after her encounter with the man she elects to view as Muslim. It is hard to think that a few illicit love affairs between Israelis and Palestinians, Iraqis and Americans, would not do more for the strained relations between these peoples than another speech by Ariel Sharon or President Bush. The point here is not: Make love not war. Or maybe it is–but in this case “make love” must be seized in its widest sense–not as the silly acrobatics performed by the characters in Tristram’s novel but as the engagement with difference, the fascination with opposition that we all feel and only need to cultivate and translate into wider languages. If reading Tristram’s book could prompt such impulses–and only then–it would be well worth the hype.