The Pornographer's Poem
Published by Doubleday Canada
320 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Elegy to Innocence
Reviewed by Jay Currie
Michael Turner has written an exquisite and startlingly obscene novel. Most obscene books owe this quality to the author's desire to titillate his or her readers. Turner's objective in The Pornographer's Poem is exactly the opposite. He tells us what it is like to have too much reality rush up at an utterly unprepared child. The power of the book lies in Turner's description of the total lack of effect a series of fully rendered grotesques have on the pornographer and his friends.
Turner is a draftsman. His prose is made up of carefully observed instants in a child's life. For the description of a central absence, a total lack of engagement, Turner relies on a perfectly written set of details. He encloses these details by surrounding the child's life in a screenplay dialogue in which a very well informed interrogator asks the pornographer -- who is never named -- questions about his life.
At its first level, the novel is about a kid growing up in a well drawn version of an upper middle class neighborhood. This child has his first shock of disappointment when a well loved grade seven teacher is fired for allegedly fondling his students. Disappointment is replaced with a disconcerting but useful experience when the replacement teacher -- filled with the inspired weirdness of a 60s hangover -- arrives to teach the whole of grade seven as an extended film course. Watch films, write films, pitch films, make films: the sheer loopiness of the idea resonates with the true strangeness of people who thought Deschooling Society and Teaching as a Subversive Activity were serious guides to teaching.
The pornographer's best friend, Nettie, has a heart condition and a very limited life expectancy. Between the two of them they begin to learn adult secrets. The most important secrets of all are that adults have tawdry, embarrassing, sad lives and really odd sexual habits. The realization that adults are confused and unhappy is a huge responsibility and one which neither child is very able to handle. They set about putting some serious distance between what they know might be their adult fate and the day-to-day of their lives. In the 1970s there was nothing more distancing than a Super 8 camera and a bit of film. Imprisoning the light cast by the adult world gives the kids a chance to avoid that world's implications. Drugs and numbed down sexual adventuring, with each other and a host of willing bodies, also help keep reality at bay.
If the book stopped there it would be nothing more than a prequel to Turner's Hard Core Logo with a dollop of his American Whiskey Bar thrown in for style. But Turner is not through with his reader. The pornographer is looking out of his mum's bedroom window onto the back deck of his neighbor's house. There the beautiful blonde woman has bent her husband over the deck rail and is taking him with a strap-on brought by their Great Dane who, duty done, mounts her. The pornographer gets it all on Super 8. His first loop. The scene is so bizarre and set in such a nice neighborhood it is hailed as an odd sort of art. The pornographer is hailed in avant garde circles and is quickly taken under wing by a gay impresario drug dealer. He travels to the Italian design -- so hip in 1976 -- cluttered spaces of people who want to elevate doggy-style to the realm of sublime experience. (Turner's stint as the art critic for a high-end lifestyle city magazine gives these scenes a jagged reality.) All that and the money is great.
The pornographer's work attracts the attention of a wonderfully described lowlife entrepreneur. Another typically late 70s type, this guy would be a biker were he not just a bit too incompetent. He has the pornographer start to make commercial porn loops. Nettie is pressed into service in the utterly redundant position of scriptwriter and junkies are recruited to play loathsome parts. Roll camera and a lot of human trash is shot in nasty little five minute chunks. Here Turner's drawing is accurate right to the last personality pimple. Casual sex turns into straight trade and the strung-out hookers and three time loser types have very little left to bargain with.
The obscenity of The Pornographer's Poem lies in its sheer brutality. The people in the pornographer's loops are completely disposable. Pay them in junk and they will do whatever you think some sick bastard in East Podunk will pay to see. The vileness of the loops, their shoddiness and the lack of any sense that the actors are people rather than garbage permeates the book.
Which is where the real story Turner is telling begins. Alongside the antics of the teenage pornographer, there is another narrative. Here an older -- we are not told how old -- pornographer is being examined, interrogated. The interrogator knows all. He is merely completing a record. A dossier on the life and times of the kid pornographer. The interrogator has read all the letters from Nettie and even her diary. He knows just who has done what to whom. Most of all, the interrogator has a very real sense of the honesty of the answers he receives from the pornographer.
The pornographer's record -- his life -- turns out to have been more brutal and dehumanizing than anything he managed to catch on film. His ability to feel anything at all has been compromised. If you ask why the interrogator is conducting the examination, one reason might be the attempt to figure out where the loss actually occurred. Was it the loss of Nettie, or the realization adults wanted to watch and live perversely, or the instant, back in grade six, when the pornographer realized adults did not behave fairly even to each other? The Pornographer's Poem does not give an answer to this question; instead, the interrogation rolls through the novel and begins again at the end.
As the interrogation intertwines with the story, Turner shows us how the ice at the center of the pornographer's heart has been built, layer-on-layer. The Pornographer's Poem is a blow-by-blow account of the destruction of a child and the attempt of the man that child becomes to understand the wreckage.
Turner knows and is willing to write about the way each of us comes to understand our past and the damage done. We are our own interrogators and we have nearly perfect information. We go over and over incidents trying to make sense of their effects on the rest of our lives. Just when we begin to think we understand ourselves, the cycle of self-examination starts again with the same questions.
Turner's pornographer has been profoundly damaged by the discovery, too soon, of the adult world. His poem is a bittersweet re-examination of his shame and his sadness. Turner's elegy to innocence is by far the best novel I have read this year. | November 1999
Read the January Magazine interview with Michael Turner.