Two phrases are not commonly joined. 1) It’s a good read. 2) It’s literary. With P, Andrew Lewis Conn manages to supply the often missing and. P ruminates on lost love, a Disneyfied Times Square and pornography’s effect–or lack thereof–on the consuming public. Several assessments are offered about porn (which, among other names, is referred to as pinot). These assessments culminate with the main character’s rant: “Pornography’s an industry like any other. It’s about money! It’s a waste of your time!”
Inspired by Ulysses, the novel wanders through one day of Benjamin Seymour’s life in New York. Benji is a Cornell graduate and a filmmaker who began as “talent” for porn films (acting with his beloved Penelope Pigeon) but now serves as president and creative impetus behind Commercial Urban Models, a company producing porn and accompanying ephemera.
Conn supplies many facts about Benji early in the novel. Benji is slovenly. Benji is aged beyond his thirty-three biological years. Benji perpetrates credit card fraud. Benji is celibate, not having had sex in three years. Benji masturbates fervently. But most touchingly, Benji is lonely.
Benji’s college sweetheart, Penelope, had run off with their mutual mentor in the porn business, Milton Minegold. A member of that class of “yeshiva bruchas,” Minegold had introduced himself to Benji and Penelope after seeing their student film at Cornell. Minegold appears in the novel as a pleasant collage of stock characterizations: a wise Old Jew, a dirty old man, a sexually dispirited husband, a Chinese-food devotee and a great devilish tempter. Mid-novel, the narrative morphs into a dreamy screenplay and Milton takes the stage to ruminate on the nature of his art: “Film steals fire from the gods twenty-four frames per second. Just think: you and Penny fucking! That moment preserved, frozen forever through all space and time!”
Milton is an Elijah-style prophet of the commercial importance of the VCR; an Abraham-esque father whose has sacrificed his son’s mental health to his career; a David-type who turns, murderously, against those with whom he had been friends. Mostly, Milton is what Benji could become if he continues his trajectory: an old man for whom nothing is sacred, not sex, not love, not even profit. Benji’s world will become one of dissolute, if neatly-stored “permanent file” memories. Time, as Milton claims, will only yield more disorder, more entropy.
Benjamin’s entropy pauses when he intersects with a nine year-old girl and, in the pattern of the great coincidental string of this novel, her mother when he visits the forty-year old attorney’s office. Finn has been playing hookey from school, has been buying weed in Washington Square Park and begging on the streets. She is impossibly precious as a literary character, reading Nietzsche and writing lit papers with titles such as Hamlet: Insufferable Momma’s Boy. Finn is a charmer, however, and after she and Benji travel through the pot haze of the screenplay, she assumes her most realistic pose in the entire novel: falling asleep and being carried to her mother in Benji’s arms. From the beginning, it is clear that Finn is one of the most intelligent, free-associating, adventurous literary adolescents ever created. But as with Scout Finch or the youthful hobo of the great American classic, workshop-style complaints about the unrealistically mature character should be dismissed with the understanding that Finn, like the other characters, is a literary creation in a novel that does not set for itself rules about strict realism. Finn is a sprite and a muse, a budding philosopher and, like most adolescents, shows herself to be frighteningly adept at lying. P is also ambitious with social commentary, an appropriate tribute to the man whom Conn acknowledges as “St. James.” Some of the most caustic and accurate commentary occurs in the scene featuring a fictionalized version of Andrea Dworkin, prominent feminist critic. Corrine Dwarkfin is pitted against Winnow Screenlad, female pornographer, in a debate on a Jerry Springer-esque trash television talk show:
…a lumbering three hundred pound pentadactyl monster, a frowning, sexless woman dressed in blue overalls and flats, topped with a seventies-style fro, her angry, unhappy mouth lending her the expression of a person condemned to carry a small turd beneath her nose for eternity.
“Now that’s my idea of a fucking bull dyke,” Troy marveled.
Hats off to the novelist who does not bow to the nicey-nice police and is not afraid to offend someone or, in this book’s case, maybe nearly everyone. Conn’s prose is effective and his adult characters have realistic viewpoints and prejudices.
The novel is not without slow moments. Conn’s (albeit Joycean) penchant for wordplay starts to sound like Letterman’s Top Ten on speed: long strings of punningly titled take-off porn films (Lawrence of A Labia being a featured example) test a reader’s patience after the fifth or sixth appearance. Similarly, while the center section of the novel, written in screenplay form is clever with its inclusion of famous personalities, the extended porno riffs on Disney characters, super models and the Academy Awards start to become predictable. Between laughs, any audience needs a chance to breathe.
Descriptions of the porn universe are incomplete. Conn is careful (via Milton and Benji) never to include mention of kiddie porn or traffic in the “barely-legal” genre. Mention of gang bangs, bestiality, scatology and S&M; films are tossed off as without reservation but that slippery slide into underage actors is neatly sidestepped as though “legitimate” pornographers such as Benji and Milton would never sully their hands (or risk incarceration) in such a dubious format. Perhaps Conn believes he navigates this hurdle with stressing how carefully Milton and Benji check actors’ ages. Or perhaps Conn is rightfully cautious about the stupefying idiocy of “child-advocates” who would not only work to enforce laws against use of minor actors but also seek to suppress mention or representation of childhood sex, however devoid of actual minors, in any medium.
Aside from any reviewer’s nitpicking, Conn has created a fine tribute to Ulysses, even cleverly mindful of Joyce’s Socratic expositional series and the Molly Bloom ending. P does not set out to trump the classic, but rather to augment it with compassion and hopefulness P is ultimately heartening because the characters decide to share their sadness, hoping to obviate another’s.