Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Erotomania by Francis Levy

Originally posted on Goodreads:

This novel is in many ways a dark comedy based upon the themes of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. The story is a first-person narrative told by James, a theatrical set designer who becomes obsessed with a woman (who is likewise obsessed with him) after he has an anonymous sexual encounter with her. He knows her first through her body, long before he learns her name or identity, or even has a clear image of her face. But know her personally he eventually does, and the arc of the novel traces the evolution of their relationship, which can only be described as a mutually-enabled sex addiction taken to the very extremes of human physical tolerance and beyond. 

What is noteworthy about the novel is that, despite the gargantuan amount of screwing that occurs in it, none of it feels gratuitous or exploitative. This would be because Levy’s narrative is not about the sex itself, but rather the inconveniences of sex in a world that requires us to be civilized. What happens when two people find more meaning in sex than anything else in their lives? Are they ill, or does society make them ill by condemning their affliction? The reader’s attention is not directed to linger over the salacious details of physical communion but upon what happens, or fails to happen, as a result. When the first person narrator does go into detail about, for instance, the remarkable traits of his lover's genitalia, it is done to evoke the lightless, sensory world he inhabits, not to tantalize the reader. 

This short but very compelling novel echoes with a sense of the mythological, as well as a more modern existentialist nausea. Ultimately, and ironically (as intended) it is not the couple’s compulsive, epic lovemaking that evokes a certain terror, but rather the consequences of mitigating sexual desires in the mundane and familiar world of consumer society. Levy’s novel works magic because he wants to show the reader that this conundrum is both funny and tragic, and that love, as well as repression and conformity, lies behind the rules and limitations we seem unable to escape. Along the way, he is able to mock the phoniness of our many social conceits while to some extent vindicating their intent.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Suits (Meditations on a Uniform)


The business suit is a uniform which indicates that one's purposes are mainstream, lawful, and subject to a higher principle of organization. Its ubiquity is even more astonishing than its homogeneity. It has existed in its current form, with certain modifications to accommodate the entry of women into the corporate workforce, for nearly a century. It is even more astonishing to realize that within every single business suit is an individual who awakens each morning, purges their body and mind of the exuberant formlessness of borne from the wilderness of sleep, dons the suit and, before allowing themselves to be seen by anyone other than their families or lovers, examines themselves carefully in the mirror – some with a sense of pride, and some with a vague feeling of dread which must, like the tableaux of images and longings still lingering from sleep, be excreted, buried, submerged, drowned before that individual is ready to earn the day's living.

The suit is not Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or atheistic, even though persons belonging to all such belief systems and more commonly wear them. What is its purpose, in all societies? Its purpose is to establish trust. And yet, trust by itself is not enough. It is the particular kind of trust we wish to establish with someone who will, in some way, prepare for, or safeguard, or recover our wealth. Which is to say, a depersonalized trust. The suit is there for when we wish to trust someone with whom any form of personal emotional attachment is absolutely forbidden. We must not allow ourselves any significant amount of repulsion or attraction to their personalities and their form – indeed, both personality and physique must be attractive only in a generic sense, sufficiently mild and malleable so that no possibility exists of imagining the wearer's true passions and personal inclinations. Even among the most beautiful, the excitement of viewing the contours of their bodies must be kept carefully in check.

Normally, the colors of an outfit are supposed to distinguish one from nature, or from the crowd. But the wearer of the business suit means to identify himself with the crowd, the mob, the profession, by assigning to himself the absence of: color, the flush of life, the threat of passion and mortality. When, years ago, I worked as a cashier in a chain bookstore, the employee handbook instructed me that I was to dress as though I was “an extension of the store itself.” It became clear that by “the store itself,” the manual meant the building, the shelves, the carpeting, and the wallpaper. Not the books.

There is a phenomenon called depersonalization disorder, which occurs in the following circumstances: a child abandoned or abused by their parents, a person subjected to or forced to witness a violent event, a soldier exposed to the frequent stresses and horrors of war. It has several symptoms in common with schizophrenia. The individual may experience the sensation that their limbs are growing to abnormal lengths, or that they are physically detached from their body altogether. The events of the waking world pass by them as if on a movie screen, a fixed recording played out in a fixed order by mechanical means. They may hear babbling voices as they drift off to sleep, and witness gray, humanoid shapes creeping at the corners of their vision.

Another component often associated with the condition is something known as “visual snow,” in which one's field of vision is constantly filled with a kind of noise resembling television static, a randomized wash of pinks, greens, and blues that in the aggregate form a grayish haze. These visual artifacts do not in any way interfere with or block one's ability to see the details of the outside world – they merely fill its blank spaces with a dance of tiny, pointillist watercolors. In the darkness they boil over completely, billowing like clouds of smoke and tumbling like spiderwebs on a breeze, or jellyfish in the ocean.

One's trauma is therefore mitigated with a kind of primal cinema, in which ghostly actors weave a veil of safety between the lost individual and the outside world, with its aggressive colors, its hardness. These bottomless anti-colors and anti-forms are, in essence, a sense memory of the womb, that most senseless and timeless of places. The humanoid figures in the corner of the depersonalized field of vision are formed from this restless blackness, and the figure in the suit mimics these figures. The suit is the color of unconsciousness, of isolation. It is the comforting un-color of absolute helplessness and removal from the outside world.

In a world without suits people would be forced to wear uniforms of a different meaning, or, perhaps more likely, to abandon the use of uniforms altogether. It would become impossible to pretend that the person claiming to take responsibility for your wealth – to whatever extent you have any – was not an individual human being with passions and flaws and labyrinth of dreams their own. In other words, it would be more difficult for them to win your trust. Trust, then, would have to be won entirely by deeds – there would be no generic "business" phenotype in the common currency.

Imagine a world where every office space is filled with people, not in uniform, but wearing their own true selves, where workplaces are not clean and crisp like mirrors or glass voids, but are filled with the objects of the home, with plants and pets and crockery, with the odors of sweet decay. Imagine office spaces that look lived in, where in fact the homeless or outcasts could live at night if they needed to.

Corporate culture has ruled the world for centuries -- but that is how things will look when this era finally meets its end.  It will be a world in which business is conducted without pretense, in full view of reality.