Cynthia Davidson reviews Sex for the Millennium by Harold Jaffe
With these "extreme tales," Harold Jaffe has produced, through narrative, dialectic, slapstick, collage, and tabloid virtuosity, the thing that couldn't be: a definitive satire of the world culture of the 1990's. At least that's one possible view of a book that shifts perceivably under scrutiny. Reading this book was an event not unlike discovering a new stage of particle-wave theory; having mastered the concept that one can either view the wave or a particle, but not both simultaneously, you look down and see that the little suckers have begun to do a can-can and now you have no recourse but to view both simultaneously. It's cartoon realism and social cannibalism, guerrilla comedy bedroom farce, absolutely outrageously yet uncannily accurate dialogue, dialectic shaped by a collective consciousness formed by decades of reading Plato for the sexy parts and watching Jerry Springer for the truth - all activities executed in the pursuit of finding a way to relinquish control and/or punish the sinful while achieving the most possible pleasure, depending, as someone offers at the conclusion of the title tract and the book, "on the viewer-consumer's net income, high-tech savvy and devotion to the program, right?" By asking that question, though, it's clear that someone has missed the point.
Typical characters in a Jaffe tale are desperately seeking a radical redefinition through means readily available in the surrounding consumer culture, the material of which is usually insulating them from the dangerous forces which attract them - the stuff dreams and tabloid TV are made of. Serial killers in particular have been raised to a mythic, almost heroic status, as has cockatoo-loving dress-wearing Dennis Rodman (the cover model) and a cancer-ridden victim-turned-avenger acting on his every fantasy, including the "ethical murder" of a disagreeable corporate frontman.
The serial killer is the Jaffe cultural icon par excellence. Those who remember Geraldo's infamous "man-to-man" talk with Charles Manson (evoked in this book) will appreciate the symbiosis between these holocaustic media stars and the public which vainly attempts to read meaning into their actions. The only way of finding it is to merge with the killers as victim, but there are no passive victims here (passivity being itself a role or pretense), just a range of screwed-up courtship dances that would confuse and confront the identities of all concerned. Most of these, like any TV-movie-of-the-week worth two stars, are based in some vestige of the "real world" as framed by contemporary media - such as the jail pen-pal romances of mass murderers or the seemingly spontaneous explosion of sexual deviancy in an innocuous suburban family.
Other scenarios include a coffee-guzzling yuppie who revises his meeting with a dominatrix into a sale of a thigh-and-butt suppressor, a vampire who's learning to serve the needs of humanity, a Howard Sternish shockjock who's fooled by extreme tales of sex in Madison Square Garden, a Barbara Walterish interview of a boy who kills his mom after sex and cuts her into little pieces (and then is sorry, sort of), a horny new-age Buddhist at his first S amp; M orgy, and so on. There are also transsexual cowboys, magenta anal plugs, Brazilian snuff films produced by Disney Plus, and much, much more. As Goldie Hawn says to Dudley Moore in Foul Play, "I never knew there was so much diversity." Jaffe is clearly playing with not only every convention of hard-core pornography, tabloid journalism, and Internet usenet-groups/relay chat, but the academic conventions of post-modern jargon as well. The result is more stunning (and at times numbing) than merely humorous. Reading "A Modest Proposal" in 1720 must have been like this.
"Her son was her sun," offers an analytical inquirer about one character who is caught in an affair with her teenage child, an observation that makes more sense than most in Sex For The Millennium. In all these fictions, characters are seeking the sun, but as the inquisition points out, according to some media sources, "The sun used to be nourishing. Now it is poisonous." Reliance on a sophistic rhetoric unrelated to one's own experiences will simply limit experience - narrow it to this symbiotic fascination with those who suck poison out of the sun, the apparent survivors of an invisible holocaust that creates an elite of serial killers while consigning the preterite to popping Viagra and espresso as they view Jenny Jones. Reading Sex For The Millennium is not a soothing experience, but don't take my word for it. The only point you'll get out of this book is the one you stick in yourself.