Children of the Porn

In Michael Turner's noble and elaborately filthy novel, kiddie smut is best used by kids

Buried deep in the soiled pages of Canadian writer Michael Turner's The Pornographer's Poem—amid the telltale beer sausages and jars of Vaseline, the furtive encounters with pedophilia and petophilia, the Super-8 movies with titles like Toe Fuck and Rich Kid Gang Bang—are some thoughtful notes, distilled from a lecture by writer Angela Carter, on the social value of pornography: "Sexual relations between men and women always render explicit the nature of social relations in the society in which they take place and, if described explicitly, will form a critique of those relations, even if that is not and never has been the intention of the pornographer."

Turner's intentions, in this noble and elaborately filthy book, are clear, even if his attitudes toward hardcore porn aren't always. Like Carter, who stared down the Marquis de Sade in her astringent 1979 polemic The Sadeian Woman, he attempts to come to terms with pornography as a knotted nexus of power and pleasure, or at the very least, to free it from the dead end of moral judgment. But Turner's project is altogether more delicate and dangerous than the recuperative efforts of sex-positive feminism: Slithering through land-mined terrain, he endeavors to trace an anatomy of pubescent desire. Pornography is here both learning tool and forbidden fruit, a rite of passage as emboldening as it is unavoidably corrupting.

This tumescent bildungsroman is of course set in the surpassingly porny 1970s, when the victories of the sexual revolution were still fresh and seemed to herald more. A tender but unsentimental portrait of growing up bored, stoned, and horny as hell in an affluent, lily-white pocket of idyllic Vancouver, The Pornographer's Poem crystallizes the impossible tedium and irrational hopefulness unique to teenage existence—it radiates a paradoxically intense detachment. (Turner, who admits an element of autobiography, describes it as "The Catcher in the Rye with a strap-on.") Opening with an answer to its concluding question, the story eventually reveals itself as a giant X-rated loop, heightening the overall sensation of purgatory.

Turner: Catcher in the Rye with a strap-on
photo: Geoffrey Farmer
Turner: Catcher in the Rye with a strap-on

Details

The Pornographer's Poem
By Michael Turner
Soft Skull, 296 pp.
$14.95

The nameless narrator's obsession with image making begins at a young age, handed down from a mother who documented their increasingly unhappy domestic life (the title of one poignantly stalled home movie: The Story of This Family—So Far), and from seventh-grade substitute teacher Ms. Singleton (doubly exotic for being black and English), who improbably schools her mystified 12-year-olds in Soviet montage, dramatic irony, and the art of the pitch. (The hero's first film, Joe and Barbie, is a spasm of Mattel-flouting anarchy, an antisocial 'tween version of Todd Haynes's Superstar.)

It's no wonder the narrator processes his life in cinematographic terms. The Pornographer's Poem intercuts first-person passages and screenplay visualizations (complete with camera angles), with letters and journal entries strewn throughout. Every few pages, an anonymous interrogator interrupts the suspiciously detailed retrospection ("We ate the popcorn one piece at a time. Almost every kernel popped") to question the narrator, whose testimonial proves amusingly rife with embellishment and contradiction. "Your descriptions could do with a touch more lyricism," the grand inquisitor snipes. Indeed, title notwithstanding, Turner's prose revels in a clinical affectlessness—though only the truly prudish would deny the torrid poetry of occasional sparks such as "his cock the size of an August zucchini" and "her asshole. How it puckered. The colors of licorice, nutmeg, cinnamon."

Turner is achingly aware of the seismic potential and infinite pliability of youthful experience—how everything looks and feels different after your first whatever-it-is. In the book's most mind-blowing moment, the narrator's best friend, Nettie, brainy aesthete to his savant-ish accidental artist, introduces him to pedoporn. Turner's boldest passage—a boy and a girl curiously inspecting a representation of explicit boy-girl action—contains the kernel of a radical idea: age-appropriate pornography. Advancing the inflammatory, if temptingly sensible, notion that kiddie porn is best used by kiddies, Turner dares to envisage a progressive-Marxist sexual utopia. He positions his underage characters as porn consumers and manufacturers, transferring the means of production to the traditionally exploited. Again, the implicit argument is irresistible. Who better to make porn than teenagers in the first flush of erotic and artistic discovery, hungry and experimental and entirely open to what Susan Sontag termed the pornographic imagination?

The narrator's first porn loop is a bit of found art, surreptitiously captured as he spies on his neighbors and their Great Dane. Climaxing, per its script, with a "ZOOM IN ON DOG'S TESTICLES," The Family Dog becomes a hit in Vancouver art circles, but The Pornographer's Poem is, by design, a narrative of failure and disillusionment. The final third is marked by sad, irreversible transitions—amateur to pro, art to commerce, childhood to adulthood, the '70s to the '80s. The clichéd and inevitably tragic introduction of drug-dealing, porn-peddling lowlife allows Turner to back down from his more provocative stances and emphasize a more cautionary view of pornography (here ascribed to Carter)—that despite its latent promise of liberation, it more often reinforces "the prevailing system of values and ideas in a given society." In other words, it takes a more enlightened world than the one we have before our children can safely become pornographers.

 
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