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Pulp Friction

Thomas Roche, Editor
Rhinoceros, 1997. 465pp
ISBN: 1 56333 584 0

review by Chris Lott

In his introduction to Pulp Friction, Thomas Roche makes two different points about what this volume is and is not and, in both cases he is and is not convincing. First, he makes clear, the work in this book is not part of the erotic "genre", an appelation he appears to disdain as being placed in opposition to "the sort of thing taught in academic English courses ... wistful autobiographical coming-of-age novels about an author's boyhood in New England. I'm with his desire to abolish arbitrary and belittling categories-- that's one of the reasons I founded this magazine! But in the same breath, turning around and mischaracterizing an entire world of art, even to make a rhetorical point, undermines his own position.

Second, he writes convincingly and correctly that:

Life is pretty formulaic lately. The highly stylized language of noir strikes me as less a dated kind of formula than an eternal, almost epiphanic representation of the real world, seen through the kind of shades that cut the glare of heartbreak and let you see things as they really are ... when sexuality enters into that mix, with all the assumptions and contradictions it provides, with its penchant for drama and tragedy, with its passions and dangers and pleasures and pains, its insistence on making everything of the moment-- then the facades ... begin to fall. For sexuality, like crime, is a force that will not be conquered.

But he does so in the context of placing the work he has selected for this volume as different from that which is studied in the English lit course he slept through as a college junior. One has to wonder if the editor perhaps protests too much: does work that is as vital, real and alive as he claims this work to be need this kind of backhanded justification?

I don't think it does. The work in this volume is, at times, all he claims it to be. In-your-face, clever, funny and provocative stories can be found here for the reader willing to be brave and dive in. A few of the stories push at the boundaries of being correctly called "crime stories" and a few of them portray rape in ways that are sure to invoke the wrath of any feminist that encounters the volume, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Two stories deserve mention. "Kyushu's Disguise" by Charles Ardai is one that should appeal to just about anyone. Ardai is a top-class writer whose work has appeared in many magazines and "Best" anthologies, and this particular story is clearly the best in the collection even though it gives only a passing nod to the erotic elements. "Nearly Roadkill: an Infobahn Romantic Adventure" by Caitlin Sullivan and Kate Bornstein is the ohly one that deals with what is perhaps the newest frontier of eroticism and sexuality: the online world. Composed entirely of email messages and excerpts from online chat sessions (replete with the unclear sex of the participants and online mannerisms-- "::pressing my lips to your white shirt, softly...::"-- but thankfully free of emoticons), the story successfully captures some of the ambiguity and strangeness which characterizes such online interactions. The story may be less than successful as a story, but what can one expect from a foray into such *ahem* virgin territory? I would be interested to see not just more along the same lines from these two authors, but maybe even an anthology devoted to the subject. After all, if we ignore the explicit sexuality in the real world when we write, as Thomas Roche contends, certainly we do it even more when writing about the online one.

A wholly different book than, say, The Olympia Reader, a classic selection of erotica by such luminaries as Terry Southern, William Burroughs, Henry Miller and others, Pulp Friction is an entertaining collection in its own right that is enjoyable without the need for the introductory justification full of rhetorical overstatement. If you can find it, pick it up-- you might be surprised at what you find.

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