Emanata: Chester Brown Pays for Sex

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Chester Brown’s comics memoir Paying For It came out last week, and–as it was designed to do–it’s already been raising some eyebrows. Brown’s a superb cartoonist whose earlier books include the biography Louis Riel, the autobiographical I Never Liked You and The Playboy (the latter revolving around an issue of Playboy he discovered as a kid), and the id-explosion Ed the Happy Clown. Paying For It has been in the works for many years; in an afterword, Brown notes that he’s not crazy about its title’s connotations of a psychological toll, and he mentioned in a recent interview that a better, if less marketable, title might have been “I Pay for Sex.”

Paying For It is a provocation on a bunch of related levels: as art, as an argument (not just for the legalization of prostitution but for men paying women for sex as a wholly sensible arrangement that would make more people happier if it were more common), as a springboard for discussions of the morality of Brown’s actions as a john. Brown bends over backward to portray himself as not just a participant in his story but a rational actor, and there are ways in which he’s fair beyond the call of duty: he invited most of the people he’s close to who appear in the book to respond to his portrayal of them, in the book’s twenty-third appendix. (One of them, the artist Seth, took him up on it; “the truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people,” Seth notes. At least Brown knows it: he gently mocks himself for telling the first prostitute he hired “I’d like to have vaginal intercourse with you.”)

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And then there are ways in which Brown’s rhetorical and artistic strategy is completely Martian. To protect the identities of the prostitutes he’s seen, he draws them all from behind, framed pretty much the same way, altering identifying features or covering their faces with word balloons. That would make sense if he were, say, photographing them–but he’s drawing them, and it’d be easy enough for him to represent their faces in ways that wouldn’t identify them. (It’s a basic fact of cartooning that if you can see a character’s face, that makes him or her more “real”; avoiding drawing the prostitutes’ faces dehumanizes them in effect.) Brown isn’t obligated to tell these women’s stories–he’s speaking for himself and not for them, and it’s rarer to hear a john’s point of view than a sex worker’s, anyhow. But turning them into faceless bodies is a peculiar way of demonstrating his concern for them.

For that matter, shortly before the end of the book’s comics narrative (but before its 72 pages’ worth of notes and appendices), Brown drops a bombshell. (This is a bit of a spoiler, but it seems to have caught other people up short about the way Brown tells the story, too.) He started seeing a prostitute he calls “Denise” in early 2003; since a year or so later, he’s been seeing her exclusively. They are now a monogamous couple, he says he loves her, and he still pays her for sex. That’s a story–maybe even a book–right there, more intriguing than anything else in Paying For It. He shows “Denise” telling him that she wants to be in the book as little as possible, which she is; fair enough. It’s still burying the lede, as they say in journalism.

So yes, eyebrows will be raised by Paying For It, but it’s enormously frustrating as art. Brown’s a masterful artist, and his drawings communicate a lot about the participants in his story whose images he’s willing to reveal. (His self-portrait is as hilarious as Robert Crumb’s; he draws himself as if he just happens to have a rudimentary sort of body by accident–as if there could be no chance of anyone experiencing desire for him.)

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This, though, is the first book he’s published whose visual dimension has almost no sense of joy or inventiveness to it: eight tiny panels on each page, showing characters mostly from a distance, flatly going through the same actions again and again. That’s particularly bothersome in the interminable middle section of the book, in which he documents, one by one, all the prostitutes he called, met, had sex with and occasionally reviewed–dispassionately sizing up their physical features, their sexual skills, whether he feels they offered good value for his money.

The point he’s trying to make is that money-for-sex is no big deal, and that it did him no good to spend years being frustrated about sex when a quick, pleasant transaction could have solved his problems. But if this story were about, say, Brown’s experiences eating at restaurants or taking taxicabs, there would be very little reason to read it. Sex is different; sex is charged. Brown knows that: painful or awkward erotic drives were a huge theme in his early comics. And, of course, that’s the selling point of this book.

That contradiction ends up undermining Paying For It. As art, it’s flat (in a very deliberate, controlled way, but still flat); as polemic, it’s glassy-eyed and unconvincing; as memoir, it lays out the prurient details of sexual and economic mechanics in an affectless way, but shows only enough of the really juicy emotional side to make it clear that it’s playing coy with it. In a story that’s entirely driven by his desires, Brown treats those desires as too dull or too simple to interrogate. His book acknowledges in its form and premise that sex is messy and emotionally fraught and intrinsically complicated, and that commerce complicates it even more, but it refuses to admit that in its content.

This is the final “Emanata” column that will appear on Techland. Thanks to everyone for reading; something similar may well turn up elsewhere before long.