aka "But I Can Love"
aka "He Fucks Them Twice"
Paying For It (2011), by Chester Brown. Drawn & Quarterly.
Well, today I read the book everyone's talking about. In the bookstore on my lunch break. Chester Brown's "comic-strip memoir about being a john" is a little pricey, but not prohibitively so; I read it in a hurry with people walking by in every direction rather than taking it home and kicking back with it because I'd already made the decision that I wasn't going to contribute to whatever financial success it might meet with. Frankly, I think this comic's existence as a commercial object is pretty gross. In case you've been out of touch with comics lately (or only read superhero kind, ha ha), Paying For It is a catalog-in-comics of the experiences Chester Brown has had with prostitutes over the last decade and change. Brown is a committed john, not the kind who patronizes the sex industry between romantic relationships or as a secret infidelity to a partner. He hasn't had sex without paying the woman for it since the mid-'90s. His book's story arc kicks off with his decision to begin seeing prostitutes, and its action tracks his development through various encounters with them.
I think making art in any way, about anything, is one of the very greatest possible things a human being can do. Creating art is one of the relatively few actions that separates us from the animals, that makes being human a rarefied and wonderful thing. I don't think any topic should be off limits to the arts, no matter how potentially offensive it might be. The idea of prostitution, though, isn't even something that offends me. I've had two friends who worked as prostitutes, one who'd quit by the time I met her and one who was doing it when I met her and continues to do it now, as far as I know. I've dated a woman who used to work in the sex industry. None of them enjoyed these jobs. But it's not a big deal to me. And I've certainly enjoyed books about people doing way worse things than than paying for sex, some of them true stories, some of those autobiographical. (Sanyika Shakur's true-crime memoir Monster remains one of my favorite works of American literature.) My biggest problems with Paying For It are the utter callousness with which it treats its secondary subjects, the prostitutes Brown sees, and its direction of a financial reward toward one of the men who has taken advantage of their economic need to sell sex.
The easy mitigating point is that Brown is exploiting his own experience as one of society's marginal figures as well. But is putting oneself on display willingly ever exploitation? I'm not sure, and even if it is it isn't really comparable to Brown's exhibiting of the women he's paid for sex -- most of them without ever knowing their bodies and the positions they were put in years ago would one day become graphic novel fodder. Not to mention the fact that Brown didn't choose to enter the world of commercialized sex because of necessity, let alone because he was forced to.
Though I can't really think of a good reason not to, I won't issue a blanket condemnation of johns -- well, I suppose there are men with physiological conditions that more or less completely preclude their access to free sex, but Brown isn't one of those -- what really bothers me is the ones who exploit women's necessity to offer sexual services for money, and then exploit them again by making a self-centered book about engaging in that first exploitation. Would you buy your copy of this book (that is, if you were to do such a thing at all) from someone you knew had stolen it from another person? The biggest, surface-level point of interest with Paying For It, the reason people who haven't got all their Yummy Fur back issues yet will look at it, isn't Brown himself, and neither is it any experience that's specific to him. It's the chance to vicariously experience the act of seeing a prostitute -- something a vast majority of the population will never do, but something I'd also imagine a similar majority has wondered about the specifics of, if only in a completely abstract way. In purveying this thrill to his readers, complete with the assurance that it all really happened just as it looks on the page, Brown is little better than a pimp. He is the medium between customer and prostitution, and the price one pays to own his book is money paid for very real transactions between prostitutes and their customers. The fact that readers of Paying For It don't get their own dicks wet is neither here nor there: real prostitutes really got fucked in the making of it, and if paying for that isn't enough, the book's price tag asks you to pay the man who did it for the privilege of hearing about it.
That's galling -- but I wouldn't deny Brown the right to try and make money from his story, no matter how off-putting I find it or repugnant the implications may be. What's been absolutely infuriating is seeing the wave of praise that's washed over Brown and his book from the tributaries of the comics internet over the past little while. Yes, the critic's job is to evaluate craft and examine the impact of its narrative and aesthetics, but if ever there was a comic that demands a humanistic reaction take precedence, this is it. I've chased down reviews of Paying For It looking for a single one that takes issue with Brown's willingness to profit from his experiences as the demand side of a deeply troubling sector of the black market economy: nothing. People seem all too happy to bypass that aspect of the work and get to the kind of discussion with which they also greet books about mystical gardens or reinterpretations of Pinocchio. It's not the same thing, you guys, in fact it's really really different, whether or not you got your copy for free. There's art sprung from the imagination and the hands alone, and then there's art sprung directly from something I personally would never want to ever be a part of.
When I first got into transgressive literature and art I would always shake my head in disdain when I read condemnations of work by men like the Marquis de Sade or Krystian Bala, work that had roots in its creators' direct participation in human suffering but was undeniably art. Couldn't people understand, I would ask myself, that art is beyond the specifics of its creation, that it stands apart from its birthplace? Well, maybe now I'm one of those reactionary readers who lacks the detachment necessary to evaluate a work and not its author. And hey, Chester Brown didn't even kill anyone! But I think art like de Sade's and Brown's needs the barrier of time between it and its audience before it can be considered for its artistic merit alone. I can read de Sade without batting an eye because the lives of the maids and prostitutes whose torture inspired his lacerations-in-prose would have long since passed anyway regardless, dust in history's wind. But they were realer things to the audience of their day -- and the outrage the books that threw the mask of art over them inspired may have been part stifling moralism, but was certainly also part rational indignance at seeing the transgressions of their creator offered up for sale to an eager public. Only the long viewpoint of art history can reduce the quality of actual human lives to secondary considerations -- that or a readership with a stunted viewpoint lacking in understanding or compassion or both. Good thing, then, that Brown makes comics.
So yeah, I've been infuriated by the run-up to my reading of Paying For It, and went in fully expecting to be infuriated by the book itself. I wasn't. It's not really infuriating; it probably isn't even capable of inspiring that vehement a reaction. It's just ugly (not in the good Jon Vermilyea way), and it's just sad (not in the good Chris Ware way, either). For me at least, there's no setting the book's point of origin aside, but even a look at its craft and construction is irksome in the extreme -- objectionable, even. Positives first, I guess: Chester Brown can flat out draw. His style is as tight and controlled as any of the great masters of cartooning, up there with Schulz or Tezuka, its forms perfectly regularized and animated with a supremely assured sense of motion that never for a panel gives up its self-consistency. The lines, sculpting tiny figures in tiny panels, are so precise they look like they've been laid down with razorblades. From start to finish the book is the kind of dazzling display of pure skill that seems almost designed to make every cartoonist it can lay down their rapidograph in an admission that they'll never get this good.
Where the drawings falter is the composition. Nearly every panel presents full figures, shot at three-quarter views from above, as if by a camera mounted on a low ceiling. It puts the reader in the position of a surveillance camera, or maybe God, never able to access anything but the tiny bodies' movement through space. It's emotionless drawing -- quite literally, it does not emote, it merely presents. Brown's face remains drawn and taciturn behind blank-rimmed eyeglasses for most of the story. When an ex-girlfriend's face is drawn about three quarters of an inch high at one point, it feels almost explosively revealing; when on the next page a thin, scalpeled trail of ink cuts her brow with a frown, it's the most effusively drawn display of feeling we'll see between the book's covers. From the beginning of the book forward, Brown denounces romantic love as irrational, so perhaps it's not surprising that we aren't treated to the wild emotional transports-in-panels of, say, John Romita romance comics -- still, none of Brown's feelings make it out of the panels alive, and that's the wrong way to go about making the case for deeper understanding. We know from the front cover that Brown has visited prostitutes, and plenty of us know the reason why from the advertising ("I want to have sex, but I don't want to have a girlfriend" on the comic-shop promo postcards, they really ain't for children anymore, folks -- unless they are again, if you see my point). Brown's drawings are adept at communication the specifics of that same information, but they offer nothing as to the inner processes a "normal" man goes through in becoming a john.
But what about the purely physical enjoyment of sex that pulls Brown out of celibacy after a year or two and pushes him into interaction with the sex industry? There's nothing there either -- without exception, the sexual encounters are portrayed from afar, with the camera actually pulling back at times to show the same completely sterile view of a Polly Pocket sized Brown, back to the viewer, in various positions of contact with similarly tiny prostitutes, their faces obscured by hair, word balloons, their client's body. Tellingly, the closest we get to any kind of drawn sexual feeling is a close-up of Brown's dick as he blows his load jerking off to get ready for one of his first visits.
The rooms Brown's real body shared with those of real prostitutes, real friends, real ex-girlfriends, are reduced to dioramas, and rather than being given any intuitive, emotional understanding of Brown's actions we're forced to squint and read the tiny letters that spell out carefully designed arguments for why patronizing prostitutes is not only a justifiable choice, but the only rational one. Putting it mildly, most readers will find this line of thought difficult to accept, and that's why Brown's artistic approach is such a crippling blow to his overall agenda: if we can't gain any deeper, transformative understanding of why he himself chose to do what he does, how can we be persuaded? It may be the rational choice for him, but it isn't for most of us, or else we'd all be doing it. Brown's book reads like it's set up to convince its audience of something, but such a frozen piece of workmanship feels like the least credible argument for whoring ever.
Of course, the bulkiest part of Brown's case for overturning the current thinking on the sex industry isn't the comic itself, but the novella-length section of handwritten appendices Brown provides after the comic finishes in order to further explicate his stance on prostitution. I'd already decided I wouldn't read these when I first read the comic -- the part with drawings is what I'm interested in, not a Chester Brown's view on the socio-political and economic ramifications of decriminalizing prostitution. In practice, I lacked the time to do so. And after reading the arguments Brown lays out in the comic, I certainly lack the inclination. The one part I did read was the notes on the story provided by Brown's friend and contemporary Seth, who appears in it as a character, providing many of the arguments that Brown's irresistible logic slices through. This page-and-a-bit is largely taken up with Seth's explanation/apologia on Brown's mental state, which basically concludes that the book's author is a very nice person with something missing from his emotional makeup. I don't doubt it. As I said, Paying For It struck me as being tremendously sad, and that was because Brown seems completely unable to understand love.
"People need to be in romantic relationships because they're insecure," Brown explains early in the book. "The guy who has self-respect is the guy who doesn't need to be in a romantic love relationship." Brown views love as an offshoot of the urge to possess something, as a need for validation. And to be sure, what some people call love is. But true love is so much more than that, something simultaneous and without ownership, a mutual admiration that fuses into a single feeling, a bond as close as that of blood, seasoned with something beautiful and strange that makes one forget need or want altogether. Love is the jettisoning of desire, not the ultimate stage of it. It is fulfillment, not with what one has but with what one is.
Later, toward the end, Brown says "the romantic love ideal is evil... romantic love causes more misery than happiness. Think of all the single people who long for love and are miserable because they can't find it.... (When they find love) they're happy for a little while... until reality hits and then they're miserable." It's the rhetoric of the discarded lover, the heart so full of pain and regret that it can hardly bear to feel anymore. But just as no one in love considers the socioeconomic aspects of it that Brown is so intent upon decrying, once love hits it doesn't matter what's to come. It's worth it to feel it, even for a single shining moment. That's the way life works, and this is a book about a man who denies it.
The effects of that denial are disturbing -- or heartbreaking, depending on the amount of "sympathy for the devil" one's willing to extend to Brown. After an unsatisfactory encounter with a prostitute a few years into the narrative, Brown walks home thinking "at least I can write a bad review of her" on an escort-rating website he frequents. Prostitution is hardly the only industry which offers a way for its clients to give referendums on its workers. When I worked on the floor of a major retail chain, every customer I rang out at the register got a survey card to rate how good I sold the v-necks on. But it never feels good -- in fact it's one of the horrors of working in the modern world. After being rated on the brightness of my smile and the trendiness of my outfits, I can only imagine the degradation of being rated on my good looks or my sexual performance and willingness. But more than that, prostitution encourages this kind of emotionless, meat-market approach to human interaction. Will Chester Brown go online to rate the stockboy the next time he stops in for a pair of jeans at "The Gap"? I highly doubt it. But we see him reducing the women he has sex with to sets of stats again and again in Paying For It, and it's because -- though he tries to make it seem like any other transaction -- there's something about the commercialization of sexuality that strips away human feeling much more than buying anything else. A few pages after that, when Brown doesn't stop even though he's clearly hurting the woman he's fucking, it's easy to conclude that his years of trafficking in the most private aspects of human lives has inured him to others' pain. He did pay her, after all.
But the most devastating touch is the book's final pages, in which Brown admits that he's probably in love with the prostitute he's been in a monogamous relationship with for the past six years. He has sex with her alone, she has paid sex with him alone (it's unclear whether she has noncommercial relationships with anyone else) and he cares about her emotionally, would be sad to lose her. What isn't acknowledged -- what is perhaps too difficult to acknowledge -- is that while he is there for her regardless, the second the money goes away, so too does she. In the end Brown finds himself paying not so much for sex as for the very thing he took to being a john in hopes of avoiding: love, the love he could perhaps have found for free had he not so insistently denied its existence.
As a piece of comics-making and a think-piece in general, Paying For It is very good. Given its creator's status as one of the medium's masters and its unprecedented-in-comics subject matter, it seems fairly likely to go down as a classic of the medium. People will read it, and as with all else, contemporary reactions to what it is will fade, to be replaced by history's reactions to what it does, and how it does it. It's inevitable. But I would hope that righteous, human indignation at Brown's exploitation of a pre-existing problem will flare up and remain as long as it can, and that people will remember that this book is the product of a few women's unenviable way of life just as much as a child born into fatherless poverty is. You can read it. Maybe I'll even say you should read it.
But if you pay for it there's no way in hell that I'll respect you.