Thursday, October 13, 2011

Underneath the grime and glamor

I was very entertained while reading this book, primarily because the very premise of Snuff was the ultimate parody of the dehumanization and commercialization of sex that I've always wanted. I've been waiting for someone of Palahniuk's caliber and sense of humor to write something about sex and I was pleased Palahniuk's focus was on the pornography industry. He takes us into a very intimate look on how porn goddesses are made and coveted, and the men who lose themselves in the fantasies and fetishes provided by the audio-visual art form that is pornography.

But this book was appropriately entitled Snuff, because the story centers around Cassie Wright, a retiring porn star who planned to end her career by fornicating with six hundred men on camera. There's an implied death wish to this proclivity indeed, and I just know while reading that Cassie might not make it out alive. The plot was actually loosely based on the real-life story of porn actress Annabel Chong, who set the record for engaging in 251 sex acts with around 70 men in 10 hours.

The story is told in the alternating points of view of Mr. 600, Mr.. 72, and Mr. 137, men who are a part of Cassie's world-breaking goal. While waiting for their turn, each of these men begin to share their true reasons and motives for coming, and what follows then are hilarious, upsetting and touching accounts about their need for relevance, affirmation and family. Their narratives also included how Cassie Wright came into their lives and left a huge impact; something they now try desperately to re-capture through sexual congress, and a chance to speak to her before she leaves the profession forever.

Snuff's dark humor is sharp and, just like most Palaniuk books, his storytelling will make you laugh and feel sad all at once, and sometimes in an uncomfortable and mildly exciting way. Palhaniuk's attention to detail is astounding as always. The descriptions of the setting where these six hundred men are gathered are cringe-worthy; snacks and condoms are in bowls that are placed beside each other, creating an unsanitary and negligent picture about how these people treat sex merely as a soulless, menial task. Clearly, there is nothing erotic about the way Palahniuk told this story, and he wants you to know that. He also wants you to feel sorry for these characters as they step into the brief but harsh spotlight.

* A delicate but absurd tale on the the complications and subtleties of sex and intimacy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Everybody belongs to Everybody"

I’ve read Aldous Huxley’s marvelous science fiction because it was my father’s favorite book in his high school years. At first reading, the prose immediately had a sharpness to it that I can feel its sting in my chest once every in a while. The richness of the text has provoked a lot of sensitive imagery which I’m unwilling to entertain at first, yet my mind goes there anyway. They’re disturbing visuals but it only shows the masterful prowess of the writer. It’s a cautionary tale about pure, mad science taking over until it starts to eradicate intimacies in human relationships (including and especially family and monogamy). Not surprising for a controversial piece during its time. Something keeps reeling me in as I peruse the pages. I am propelled to move forward by each turn.

I find the hedonism of this novel quite uncomfortable; I suppose absolute lack of inhibition has its dangers. The people of this so-called brave new world are living the Eden paradise ideal; they feel no shame about their bodies and indulge on its needs and desires. It’s called “recreational sex” which has already become an integral part of their society. According to the World State that is the governing power over the masses, sex is a social activity, rather than a means of reproduction. But there’s something very clinical about it too; even injecting drugs into their system to derive pleasure is ironically practical for them. Sexual relations are held to the most extreme level. Everyone belongs to everyone, as they say. But the book also depicts caste systems where embryos are ‘harvested’ in capsules and labeled from Alpha to Gamma. The very concept of family is cast aside because biological dependence is perceived as a hindrance to evolution. Intimacy is reduced into mere polygamous associations and that is the most terrifying theme of this book as far as I’m concerned, as well as how they don’t encourage individuality at all. In Brave New World, human societies reached ‘utopia’ by discarding the self completely and stressing the importance of systems and communities. The characters view any kind of emotional vulnerability as a glitch in their systems and must therefore be purged out.

However, there are still societies who were untouched by this project and they live in an area called a Savage Reservation. The way this place was portrayed is the same as our world (with families living together) which the New World finds disgusting and barbaric. We are introduced to the character John and his mother Linda and their tale follows the liberation and hardships of being considered ‘uncivilized’. John falls in love with Lenina, who was Beta-born, and she shares the attraction; but theirs is a thwarted love affair because they have different values and cultural perceptions. My favorite part of this book is the really poignant moment in the novel when Lenina offers herself for sex because it feels natural for her to do because that’s how they do things in the New World but John rejects her because he still holds obsolete traditional values of courtship and marriage. They feel love differently because of their respective social conditioning and the glaring differences in their humanity made them unable to emotionally connect.

Another character I adored is Bernard, an Alpha-bred who was too short in height for his DNA so he becomes quite a misfit among his other chromosome-sufficient brothers and sisters, and his journey to individual uniqueness is quite touching take on the importance of being original. I also like his best friend Helmholtz Watson. He is an ‘emotional engineer’; a starving artist whose creativity is trying to break out of its cage, eager to express art that defies his conditioned state. All these characters consider themselves free to make their own choices because the New World has shattered all conventions and taboos and yet its version of humanity loses that beautiful spark that make us strive and thrive for love and acceptance, and has become rather a copycat, cloned versions of everyone else.

As much as there is a comedic approach to this, the underlying sadness seeps through anyway. It brilliantly evoked primitive fears and they certainly haunted me for days. Christian Bale’s movie Equilibrium was also loosely based on this book.

Huxley has written an incredibly horrific novel with poignant sensibility. He captured what human beings fear and desire the most—and how they could be the same things all along.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On becomming whole

I was drawn to this book for the most personal reason: I'm a very sexual creature. That's not to say I sleep around or I display deviant carnal behaviors, or that I'm horny all the time. Erotic experiences to me can be considered another form of intellectual stimulation, something that I always single-handedly seek in my life (which is probably why I enjoyed Lost Girls by Alan Moore so much, particularly his characterization of Alice Fairchild), and I never had any fear or restraint about exploring my sexuality growing up (though physical applications only happened in college but I was already self-taught on the theories as early as ten years old).

Now I've read Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides first, which I liked so I was eager to read him again and it was really lucky that Middlesex is a story about a hermaphrodite character in his/her quest to figure out identity and sexuality. I've always been interested in subjects such as that after all, considering I have firsthand experiences of my own I could contextualize Middlesex with. As I read through the course of the novel, I find myself really appreciating Eugenides' prose style as he delved into the fragile psyche of Callie, a teenage girl who knew that she was not quite like other girls. Her physiological ambiguity affected her tremendously as she dealt with other stages of change in any adolescent, and yet she was ten times more conflicted, vulnerable and helplessly alone than the average teen in puberty. Her body was completely foreign to her and her growing attraction with a female friend is starting to leave her unhinged. Callie didn't choose to be raised as a girl but that's exactly what her parents did, and it's only unfortunate that it turns out to be the wrong gender for Callie. And so begins Callie's journey to find freedom to decide for herself whether she wants to stay a woman or become a man.

Middlesex was not just a story about sexual identity. It also discussed racial and ethnic relations, and Euguenides employed some Greek mythology allusions while we join Callie in discovering who she is in all aspects of her individuality. By the end of the novel, she did choose to become a man and proceeded to live her life as Cal Stephanides, but it wasn't an easy process to integrate himself in because Cal knew that he was still biologically androgynous, and people will not always be accepting and understanding about his existence because it is so frighteningly unique and abnormal, and could even be a testament against every norm human beings are accustomed to. But in the grand scheme of things, Cal realized that his victory did not lie whether or not people and society itself would perceive him positively, but with the secure knowledge that at least he owns his life and he has every right to live it in whatever way it pleases him. The pressures of complying and conforming to what civilizations have agreed to be "the natural state of things" for a long time are not only Cal's problem but also our own at point in our lives when we want to aspire for greater lengths but everybody seems to clip our wings.

With that in mind, I could say that Middlesex is an inspirational tale that reassures us in some way that despite the world's seemingly atrocious mission to turn us like everybody else, we can rise above that and forge our own paths even if it means we need to walk them alone to gain better perspectives and appreciation for what makes us original. By the end of the day, Cal is able to look at himself in the mirror and love the reflection that stares back at him and we should all hope to have that kind of serenity and peace within ourselves.

Other themes such as rebirth and nature-versus-nurture were also highlights of the novel. Callie making a conscious choice of becoming Cal was quite heartbreaking in the most beautiful sense and as a reader, we should consider it a great opportunity to travel his lonely road and accompany him as he undergoes transcendence from his tragic circumstances. Perhaps in seeing his story unfold the way it had, we may find that we could also possess the same kind of courage that will allow us take more control of our choices. It certainly made me a braver person after finishing the book.

* It was a slow build-up at first, sometimes muddled with lots of labyrinth passages, but once the pacing found a more comfortable voice, Callie/Cal's story became an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.