Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book 16 - Paying For It

a comic strip memoir about being a john

By Chester Brown

In order to wash away the terrible taste of mainstream chick-lit that was Something Borrowed from my mouth, I contemplated going back to a Parker novel. But around that time, Olman had also impulsively picked up the latest Chester Brown and even finished it that very evening (though he has yet to read the copious notes). I then realized that Paying For It would be THE perfect antidote to a woman’s delusional fantasies about romantic love.

I had only started reading the comics of Chester Brown and Joe Matt from living with Olman, and only quite sporadically at that. I’m not really a fan yet on occasion I appreciate their talent and sense of humour. When you read the semi-autobiographical details of CB’s whoring and JM’s porno addiction and then look at Something Borrowed, you wonder how it’s even possible for the opposite sexes to co-exist, let alone have an intimate relationship with one another. Although CB and JM may be weirder than your average male, they nevertheless think a lot like men, while someone like Emily Giffin represents the kind of mainstream gal who typically has a strong - if not extremely reactionary - stance against such hot button topics as prostitution and pornography.

Chester Brown does not seem to be an anti-social loser, closet misogynist or sleaze ball. But he does hold rather unconventional views about sexual relationships and is rather cynical towards romantic love in general. He believes that romantic love is an idealistic concept that was invented in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t very long ago that people in the Western world began marrying for love, yet a long time before that, marriage was basically a financial contract between two families. He makes many comparisons between the institution of marriage and the obligations of a sexual relationship with that of the arrangement between a prostitute and a john.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Though there is definitely a fair bit of pro-prostitution proselytizing on CB's part, he also presents a compelling personal story. The comic begins in Toronto during the late 1990’s where CB and his live-in girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee are at the tail-end of their relationship (she wants to start seeing someone else). Rather than be upset about it, Brown sees this as an opportunity to enjoy his new status as a single guy. He is also genuinely psyched that he can maintain a close friendship with his ex now that they’re just roommates. In fact, he realizes their relationship is even better than ever before since it’s no longer burdened with the emotional baggage that comes with romantic relationships (possessiveness, jealousy, unrealistic expectations, role-playing, etc.). At some point, he even lets Sook-Yin’s new boyfriend move in with them, and soon derives some satisfaction in observing their relationship degenerate into the usual petty arguments that afflicts most long-term couples. This of course, reaffirms his jaded views towards romantic relationships.

Even though CB is enjoying his bachelorhood, he has been celibate a little too long for his liking. So he discusses the idea of seeing a prostitute with his friends Seth and JM, who are initially rather shocked by his proposal. Thus, we get a fairly interesting insider view as CB embarks upon the trials and tribulations of being a newbie john. I found the whole account quite fascinating, and even enjoyed reading the copious notes at the end where CB basically presents his treatise on prostitution. And it's not that he's pro-prostitution because he's a regular customer, but he really argues it with a sympathetic viewpoint of a sex worker as well. As someone who has some left-leaning attitudes, I tend to agree with most of CB’s arguments, ie. that prostitution should be decriminalized rather than legalized, that the sexual obligations inherent in a marriage or relationship are really not all that different from that of a prostitute and client.

The only things I didn’t entirely agree with were CB’s extremely cynical views towards relationships. He really does believe that happy couples are the rare exception to the rule – that it is simply not possible for two people to be happy and fulfilled in such a relationship. Yet I'm not entirely convinced whether a satisfying love life can be achieved by only seeing prostitutes either. Perhaps this kind of lifestyle suits someone like CB, who has been unsuccessful in finding happiness within the confines of a conventional heterosexual relationship, but again, all CB is arguing for is societal acceptance. If he hasn’t already, Chester Brown should read Julian Barnes’ eye-opening treatise on romantic love, “Parenthesis”. And Barnes is the kind of writer who can be as cynical as the rest of ‘em (he's known for saying things like “Love is just a system for getting someone to call you darling after sex”).

But what I appreciated most from CB was his honesty, or at least his constant striving for honesty, in Paying For It. I appreciated how the author explains some of his artistic interventions in the notes, ie. how certain conversations that took place in one sitting in the comic were actually condensed over a period of time, or how he wasn’t really that articulate in that conversation. Most of all, I appreciated CB’s skillful artwork and how he portrays himself (and his scrawny body) with some measure of honesty as well. For instance, when he finds himself in a "monogamous relationship" with a prostitute named "Denise" with whom he has some emotional attachment to, he admits in his notes that if he were to stop paying her, she would probably stop seeing him.

If there is one thing I learned in Women's Studies 101, every human relationship is based on the balance of power, in some form or another. If you look at it from this perspective, in some ways, it seems that the relationship between a prostitute and client is probably more honest than the sanctioned or conventional varieties.

This was a very, VERY refreshing and, if you can believe, heartening change from the piece of trash I read before.

1 comment:

dsgran said...

Interesting review! I keep seeing this book mentioned on many of the blogs I follow, although on first look it seemed pretty uninteresting to me- but now I think I'll need to have a read!