Jonathan Lethem: “The Porn Critic”

04/05/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 9, 2012.

Here’s a plot I’ve not read before (though thanks to Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, I’ve had my brush with lit-porn), and really, that makes all the difference. Lethem knows how to distort a neighborhood (just look at Chronic City), filtering it through comics or music (The Fortress of Solitude) so as to make it both unrecognizable and familiar, and it’s fun to see what he’s done with Kromer, a sexually inexperienced adult who, due to his job and his friends, has developed a reputation as a “saint of degeneracy” among his comparatively tame friends. And while this is novel enough, Lethem pushes himself to find the perfect descriptors, opening the story with this: “Kromer couldn’t operate hedonism but these days it operated him, in the way that a punctuated cylinder operates a piano player.” That’s the sort of line that makes you stop and think, and hey, it’s actually got something to do with the story, already serving up its main character as a wounded (i.e., punctured) man, as an amusement, a device, for others. And that’s the real reason Lethem’s subject matter goes over so smoothly; he doesn’t obsess over the descriptions of “chunky purple phalluses, vials of space-age lubricant, silver balls and beads for insertion, latex dolphins with oscillating beaks.” Or rather, he does, but it’s in the service of better describing Kromer in relation to his work; he’s a “wizard salesman” who pitches with “shame-dissolving forthrightness,” and we’re learning of this only because Kromer is contemplating the various reasons that the girl of his dreams, “Beautiful Renee,” might have to dismiss him.

Something else that’s nice about lit-porn, light as this is, is that it frees up the writer to get a little crazy. Kromer, with the help of his adventurous former schoolmate, Greta, who is determined to “die squalorously before she became wealthy,” manages to coax Renee and her buddy, Luna, back to his apartment for a nice big bag of communal weed, forgetting for a moment about the layout of his apartment. For you see, he’s not just the salesman at Sex Machines, he’s also the resident critic, and his apartment is “a maze of stacked porn. The volume was staggering. The disarranged piles melded into a wallpaper of ludicrous font and slashes of pink, brown, and yellow flesh; though the job was chiefly a matter of inventorying characteristics, tabulating spurts and lashings, Kromer couldn’t get through the tapes fast enough.” It hardly matters that this is all porn, not really; it’s the orderly disarray that speaks to his character. And because Lethem has a way with characters, he’s able to josh around, comparing the setting to being within “Guernica,” or perhaps a work from Francis Bacon or Bosch. And as things worsen for our man Kromer, Lethem grows more playful, providing a drug-fueled contrast to the discomfort the pure Renee is having:

“You could just brick up the windows,” Luna mused. “It’s like a gothic nightmare, what’s it called–‘The Prisoner of the Rue Morgue’?”
“By Edgar Allan Porn!” Greta shrieked.
Renee jolted from her chair a second time, now veering to the room’s shrinking center, avoiding the looming shelves. She pitched, bent double, attempting a vomity dash for Kromer’s bathroom.

I really hope I’m not the only person who finds this whole nightmarish situation to be hilarious.

In any case, Lethem isn’t exactly writing a comedy here, funny as it is, and once Renee’s run off, once Luna’s been outed as a lesbian who nonetheless goes ahead and shares a foggy three-way with Kromer (who, in this relationship, is once again the conduit — that punctuated cylinder), you have the man left alone with his good friend, Greta. She, in a horny daze (“I want a dick in me now”), begins to unbutton his pants, and as Kromer bargains with her — getting her all-hours man-servant to bring them breakfast from Barney Greengrass — he questions whether what he’s doing is a prostitution of sorts. (“I fucked for sturgeon,” he thinks.) No, concludes Lethem and Kromer: this is an “innocent” man, absent pleasure, absent real profit, absent a real soul. He is the man who watches porn; worse, he is the man who reviews porn. Even when he participates, he remains once removed, taking notes. And despite the unusual circumstances of this story, one realizes, this is something we’ve all probably had some experience with. And just like that, Lethem’s got you.

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