I like the way Tamara Faith Berger writes sex, although the sex she writes is always of the glowering, desperate type, with nothing of the playful dimension of the erotic. The Toronto-born writer has published three works of literary pornography, all of which explore sexual degradation in the manner of Georges Bataille, the French thinker and author of such works as The Story of the Eye and Erotism.
Berger’s Lie With Me, a novella depicting a woman’s anonymous sexual encounters told mainly from the standpoint of the various men she brings home, was published in 1999. Two years later, she published The Way of the Whore, about a Canadian Jewish girl who becomes a prostitute; it and her previous novel were reissued in a single, revised volume in 2013 under the title Little Cat. Her third novel, Maidenhead, was released in 2012. Widely and positively reviewed, Maidenhead found its way onto a number of books-of-the-year lists. Berger also co-wrote the screenplay for a film titled “Lie With Me,” though the connection to her novel of that name is very loose. The film is tedious despite the extraordinary performance of actress Lauren Lee Smith, pictured above.
In all three of her books, Berger describes her female character’s states of arousal with a daring attentiveness, capturing a range of physical sensations with odd, often unpredictable lyricism. “My vagina started to feel strange on the couch, like powder dissolving into the ground,” says the narrator in The Way of the Whore. “A thing unfolded and surged up inside me, as if a kite flying was exploding into flames,” she says in Maidenhead. And in Lie With Me:
I felt like I was going to implode from this touching, fall through the walls, melt down through the floor. I just kept going inside myself faster. I didn’t know why I was moaning so much, my body inside me tight as a rope—I thought I was going to suffocate. Then, though, god, my chest started soaring. I was turning inside something mammoth—oh, how can I tell you? It was an endless dark route folding in on itself.
The three novels have essentially the same protagonist, named Mira in The Way of the Whore and Myra in Maidenhead and left nameless in Lie With Me. This is unfortunate, because this character can be stiflingly one-dimensional, even by teenage standards in the case of the sixteen year old Myra.
It is an advantage of Lie With Me that we aren’t tied soley to the protagonist’s perspective and consciousness, but instead see her from the viewpoint of the various men she encounters. She is driven by a gnawing hunger that she can neither ignore nor satisfy, and so she becomes threatening, monstrous, metamorphosing from chapter to chapter through the riveted gaze of her men.
That howling need, more psychological than physical, is at the core of Mira/Myra in the other two novels as well, but we are also given, to some extent, a social and a psychological context for it—although Berger neglects this context in order to focus on the erotic revelations experienced by her heroine.
Both The Way of the Whore and Maidenhead feature a main character who is a middle-class Jewish girl with a sense of parental abandonent, especially with regard to her father. She cannot integrate her sense of her own sexual self with her middle-class environment or the network of family relationships in which she is enmeshed.
Rather than focusing directly on such realities, however, Berger treats the protagonist’s sexuality as a kind of gnostic truth, separate from and unrelated to the world around her. Mira/Myra certainly thinks this is the case. Berger the novelist seems to go along with her character’s conviction.
In Maidenhead, the sixteen year old Myra meets Elijah, an older black man, and carries on a sexual relationship with him, ultimately performing in pornographic videos filmed by Elijah’s girlfriend Gayl. This takes place while Myra’s parents are in the process of getting divorced, her mother having left the family to teach English in Korea, and her father retreating into his man-cave in the basement.
Myra cannot see it, but Elijah and Gayl are her parent-substitutes. She tries to constitute an alternative nuclear family that, in her mind, will be authentic and not tainted by the hypocrisies of bourgeois manners and white privilege. The climax of the novel is—or should be, though Berger does not present it as such—Myra’s descent into her father’s basement refuge with Elijah, who shows her all the porn on her father’s computer. Myra’s later willingness to be filmed having sex can be seen as a search for her father’s attention and love, and a protest against her father’s missing strength and integrity.
Yet the novel is more concerned with the sex between Myra and Elijah, with Myra’s drug-using and fashionably radical white friends, with her attempt to write a high school essay about sex and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (which is as cringingly misconceived as one would expect from a not especially bright sixteen year old). Though Myra would surely disagree, all this is incidental to the actual psychic motor of the story, the story of a daughter and her parents. Berger lets her teenager walk away with what might have been a compelling novel and exchange it for something more sexually explicit but less humanly interesting.
The Way of the Whore is in many ways the same story—girl rebels against middle-class existence through sexual extremism. As with Maidenhead, the protagonist associates the beginning of her sexual consciousness with an absence: her father’s passivity and seeming refusal to protect and value her.
Yet here Berger not only makes her protagonist’s Jewishness explicit, she also makes the lover and father-substitute a Jew, a Russian Israeli pimp. Gio Mogilevich is “the king of the forest, the beast who had the right to lord over his bitch.” He is, to her fascination, and in contrast to her pallid father, “an amoral Jew.”
Again, though, Berger’s focus isn’t on psychological or social reality, but rather on Mira’s quest for brutal truth and authenticity through sexual abandon. Berger is trying to write transgressive French literary pornography, a Story of the Eye, with Jews. While the attempt makes The Way of the Whore Berger’s most interesting book, it’s a dead end.
Part of this is just execution. The notions—or at least Mira’s notions—of Jews and Judaism in The Way of the Whore are of the thin Sunday school variety. It’s impossible to create a compelling contest between Judaism and abjection (to use a Bataillean term for the limit experiences of degradation), or to find the abjection in Judaism, if the Judaism presented is not much more than a once-a-year Yom Kippur service.
But it’s also a dead end because the French sex writers Berger admires wrote out of a tradition of Catholic eroticism, running from Sade through the Decadents to Bataille. Abjection, degradation, sexual depravity and ecstasy all have theological resonance in those cases, or gain transgressive power by violating this resonance.
Berger tries to find Jewish correlates. Gio lectures Mira on the biblical prophet Hosea and his marriage to the adulterous Gomer. But the novel’s climactic scene leans heavily on Christianity, and devolves into incoherence. It is an attempt to enact, or parody, a prophetic atonement for sin and uncleanness as the menstruating Mira, immersed in a cold pond, asks Gio to marry her. Despite the sprinkling of Jewish references in what Mira herself thinks of as a “sequence in this freezing creek in front of Jewish Jesus,” the episode does not arrive anywhere or reveal anything. Mira isn’t a Mary or an anti-Mary, isn’t a Gomer or an anti-Gomer. She’s just a Jewish girl in a pond.