In Alice Munro’s latest collection, Dear Life, many of her characters are happy or find happiness but that happiness is never complete, never without complications or compromise. It’s interesting to consider Dear Life as the critically acclaimed television show 30 Rock, comes to an end…
#LitBeat: I’m A Very Sexy Baby
Last night Sheila Heti, Tamara Faith Berger, and Chris Kraus took the stage at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall. They were there to talk to us about sex. Margaux Williamson, who organized the panel as part of her artist’s residency introduced the event, called I’m a Very Sexy Baby, with this clip from 30 Rock. Williamson grinned at the audience, telling us “It was very exciting to see such intense feminist sexual politics on television. And it was exciting that they didn’t try to solve the second and third wave problems, that they just left them messy.”
The panel, moderated by the playwright Darren O’Donnell, nodded in agreement. After O’Donnell introduced the authors, they began to read. Each writer read from her own work, though the particular passages had been selected by another writer on the stage.
Berger read first, from her forthcoming novel Maidenhead. Heti had selected for her two scenes, one where the main character’s best friend wondered about sexual degradation, and another that involved an erotically charged bathroom episode, where a young woman is made to urinate in front of her lover while she felates a musical instrument. Heti and Kraus listened with rapt attention, hands under their chins. There was a taut energy in the room, the audience taken in by Berger’s slightly throaty voice, and the sexual and humiliating nature of the scene. Every twitching foot and exhalation was deeply felt in the crowd.
Kraus’s readings had been selected for her by Berger. The first reading involved the narrator of I Love Dick, Chris, begging the man she had been fixated on to allow her to be his lap dog. Kraus leaned towards the audience, her voice surprisingly spritely. There was a soft echo of giggling throughout her reading, the crowd mirroring Kraus’s own playful lilt. When she introduced her second reading, from an essay about the European art and sex magazine Suck, she described Germaine Greer's involvement with the magazine, and said that she loved it, because “they took nude pictures, they wrote about themselves.” Because Kraus's work has been linked to theoretical provocation and experimentation there was a palpable sense of relief that Berger had selected this reading for Kraus. When Kraus read that “Greer used her own body as a site of feminist polemics” and “Suck's editors favored essays in the first person” it felt as if we were getting a contextual clue for the radical work of the writers on stage, and also a brief history of non-confessional and shameless women's writing about the body.
So when it was Heti’s turn to read the selections that Kraus had made from How Should a Person Be? it felt as though we were ready for whatever she could throw out into the crowd. We’d been teased and sort of pleasantly tortured by Berger’s willfully degraded narrator, we’d giggled with Kraus and had been given by her a key to understanding whatever it was that we were witnessing. We were ready, and when Heti opened her book the light bounced off the page and onto her face. Heti read to us about being a great blow job artist. Again we were enthralled, and tittering reverberated through the auditorium. The second selection involved another submissive fantasy, wherein the main character is told to debase herself in public by a man; she acquiesces and begins to compose for him an exalting tract about the glory she feels in the presence of his cock. Both Berger and Kraus smiled the whole time.
After the readings, O’Donnell asked a few questions about feminism, about regrets, and about sex. When he asked abut degradation, submission, and the strange supplication the characters in these books enacted, Berger offered a quote from Kraus’s I Love Dick. “We are not degrading ourselves” she recalled, “we are exploring the conditions of debasement.”
O’Donnell then asked the panel: “And what are your findings?”
And here life imitated art, or at least imitated 30 Rock, because we were left with tangles, we were left without answers, we were left with a mess. But of course, kind of like sex, that’s what made it fun.