2011/12/04

Paying for It by Chester Brown

Paying For It
Chester Brown, 2011, 292p.
Subtitled A Comic-strip Memoir About Being a John, this graphic work explores both Brown's journey into paid intimacy, and both his comfort and discomfort with prostitution.

The story starts with Brown's break-up with girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee (yes, the famed broadcaster) and his characteristic deadpan reaction to it. Brown and Lee continue to live together through Lee's next relationship as it begins and then ends. The nature and ending of these relationships crystallizes his feelings about romantic love.

Brown is sensitive and thoughtful, but also austere and practical. It is hard for the reader not to come to the same conclusion that Brown does: Romantic love isn't really his thing. Brown clearly has close and meaningful platonic and brotherly relationships with his ex-girlfriends and with fellow comic artists Seth and Joe Matt and others. The intensity and risks (and compromise, perhaps) of romantic love seem incompatible with him. But Brown goes a step further than most readers will be willing to go, and he dismisses romantic love universally, not bitterly, but certainly with a coldness of incomprehension. Here Brown comes across as reductive and overly broad. He argues convincingly that he needs a combination of filial love combined with sexual release — then unconvincingly paints this as a rational universal position. He sells me that prostitution makes sense as an avenue for him to explore, and portrays his explorations with both sensitivity and honesty. But then he argues that romantic love is a universal evil, and further argues not only for legalization of prostitution, but rather unconvincingly for normalization.

"Normalization" for Brown means that it would be considered normal for ordinary people to exchange money for sex as a part of dating and even within romantic love. Much like sex before marriage was deeply stigmatized in the past but happened anyway, and is now broadly acceptable in most circles, he argues that transactional intimacy could be made acceptable in a similar way, though it would take both legalization and time.

Click to enlarge excerpt
It is easy to understand why Brown argues what he does, and unfortunately it is impossible for the reader not to subject Brown to some sort of analysis. While Brown seems comfortable with his choice in many ways, it is clear the stigma wears at him. Many of the women he transacts with have some level of shame, and Brown is responsive to this shame: he anonymizes the women, stripping their tattoos and obscuring their faces to make sure that no one would guess at their identities from their cartooned forms. He says he talked with many of them about their lives, but limits what he recounts in the book to their experiences with prostitution. Most notably, he has been seeing the same woman for many years, forming a long-term but paid sexual relationship with her; she explicitly requests that he doesn't discuss their relationship any more than he absolutely has to in the book, and he respects that. All of this shame and stigma eats away at the work. Naturally it limits his portrayal of the women in the story, and it makes their interactions even more one-sided then they likely are.

In Brown's expansive footnotes and appendices, he says that he disliked the publishers suggestion for the title "Paying For It" because he felt it suggested a double-meaning: he was paying for sex in the financial sense, but there was some additional cost of a personal, social or perhaps even karmic nature1. He doesn't feel that he has paid that cost, but a full third of this book reads as a defence of his activities. And he is clearly conscious that publishing this sort of work at this time requires an array of either defence or defiance. It seems that there are costs here: either he is open about his lifestyle, and therefore placed on the defence, or he must live this aspect of his life in some level of secrecy. I am conscious that, for some people, locating oneself on the defensive is an opportunity rather than a cost, and sometimes his defence (particularly in the appendices2) feels like a recreation rather than an imposition.

Click to enlarge excerpt
It is no coincidence that I haven't discussed the artwork in this graphic novel yet. Brown's composition and line is disciplined but stiff. He is skillful with dynamic angles and bold use of black, which add some energy to a work that largely lacks movement. Scene after scene takes place in coffee shops and bedrooms, where people simply don't move around much — thank goodness his angles occasionally shift, and he sets some conversations on the street, which allows for visual interest in the background. His figures have a heavy, rigid feel to them. His faces alternate between confused dread and bemused confusion, which in the self-portraits I think is likely pretty accurate.

While the personal aspects of this work are compelling, the prescriptive elements are out of place and unconvincing. Brown has no shortage of bravery when it comes to being open about his personal life; I wish he had been brave enough to let the personal aspect of this story open the reader's mind modestly. Instead he pries at the reader with a crow bar, trying to force open what could only reasonably be cracked ajar. Many readers will also be irked to find that so much of something labelled a "memoir" is given over to uneven libertarian polemic.

Overall, while this is a hard book to love for a variety of reasons, it obviously fascinated me and stuck with me. Though I don't find the artwork exciting or expressive, that can't really be a basis for criticism: With Brown, I don't think that is the point. The restrained artwork dovetails with the narrative to lay him bare for the reader3, and the visual along with narrative honesty here is where things are most successful. When things aren't successful, at least they are thought provoking — sometimes because of what Brown is saying, and sometimes because of what the book seems to say about him.

Notes:

  1. Brown apparently wanted to title this book I Pay for Sex, a title blunt and telegraphic to the point of comedy.
  2. There are no less than 23 appendices, hand-lettered and only sparsely illustrated. Some of this is the addition of disclaimers and detail to specific sections of the graphic story, other sections are handed over entirely to his arguments for decriminalization and normalization.
  3. Often literally; The New York Time's review aptly describes his self-representation as being like "a praying mantis with testicles".

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