Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Books: P, by Andrew Lewis Conn

As sometimes happens, I'm not certain how P got onto my reading list, but there it was, and the New York Public Library finally provided. According the the flaps and some nonsense on the internet, the book is a Joycean (oops, haven't read Ulysses yet) Lolita, sans pedophilia but with plenty of other smut to make up for it: a tale of a thirty-something pornographer and his unexpected friendship with a precocious ten-year-old runaway girl.

This is all well and good, but it is also Conn's first novel, and it reads painstakingly so. It's rare that, when reading, I feel the author's nervous effort, his fretting, his anxiousness to just get something—anything!—on the page. Here, Conn over-experiments. It's not the Joycean wordplay that bogs down his book, but the attempt to postmodernize the form. In the middle of the book, he switches from narrative prose to screenplay. As a denouement, he shoehorns in a lengthy stream of consciousness from a character tangential to the tale.

Benji, Conn's shabby protagonist, is an aging pornographer (filmmaker and often the star of his own movies) who can't get his life back together now that the industry has moved to LA and his wife—the only love of his life—has moved there with it, leaving him behind in New York. Conn attentively draws Benji with the care of a Renaissance draughtsman; this is a fully-realized, beautifully detailed character, whom we understand through by his actions (for example, we understand the depth of his love for Penelope when he sucks the blood out of her used tampon; and if reading that horrifies you, don't read the book). Finn, the runaway girl who, at ten, is reading Nietzsche in Washington Square Park while smoking a marijuana joint, is a little less well-realized (I suppose Conn had more trouble getting in touch with his inner tween than his inner porn star). To be honest, her presence in the novel doesn't do much to illuminate Benji (our real concern), except to provide a way from him to end his three year dry spell by sleeping with her mother once he has rescued her and brought her home.

What Conn needs is a tyrannical editor, who will beat the lazy bug out of him (the screenplay section reads as if Conn originally was writing a screenplay, and then decided to write a novel instead, but got too tired of converting all the dialogue into straight prose, so instead just pasted it right into the middle) and rub out the less-important characters. The author is too sentimental, too attached to his creations, to do this on his own. P reads like a great manuscript, awaiting a fascist armed with a fistful of red pens. It's not, though, in the league of Joyce or even Safran-Foer, whom his publishers name-check as his contemporary. I don't know if it ever could be.

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