"I had a patient, an obese woman ... who liked to take the head of the teenaged female prostitute decapitated by her boyfriend from the freezer where it was kept to apply fresh lipstick to the lips ... so that her boyfriend could then masturbate with it, his fingers stuffed into the hot-pink dead mouth," muses a psychologist in Susanna Moore's novel The Big Girls (Knopf, $24). Is that all? "She committed suicide," the shrink adds. Ah. Okay. Attracted to a man with puke on his shoes "holding in his arms a skinny teenager whose head had just exploded," this shrink "forced Rafael to marry me and I made him give me a baby, and then I didn't want either of them." Elsewhere in the book, a prisoner has a root canal the day he is executed, a boy infuses coffee with feces, five women rape a girl with a squeegee pole, a woman acquires a tube of shampoo and plans to "shove it up till it hurts," another bites off a man's ear, and another describes running through a house while killing her kids, "screaming my head off and vomiting."
It's not a horror novel, yet it is. Joyce Carol Oates has compared Moore to Hawthorne. The Los Angeles Times compares her to Frida Kahlo. The Big Girls is about a women's prison, but does that matter? Literary darlings are churning out soul-sick, horrid characters who slosh through snot and nuclear hells, from DBC Pierre's mother-loathing Vernon God Little (Harvest, $13) "my movie's the one where I puke on my legs," Vernon says to Chuck Palahniuk's Buster Casey in Rant (Doubleday, $24.95), disseminating rabies as "America's walking, talking Biological Weapon of Mass Destruction." Flaws equal realism, yes. But these new characters are all flaw, their settings all effluent, authors thrusting them at you as a dare, jeering Can you take it as boys do on playgrounds wielding bees writhing on sticks. Duck or they don't respect you.
Are they just trying to get our attention?
In Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island (Vintage, $14.95), a cloned comedian who is nauseated by laughter performs "a screamingly funny playlet entitled The Palestinians Are Ridiculous" and portrays Christians as "Crabs from the Cunt of Mary." In Chuck Barris' The Big Question (Simon & Schuster, $24), "a pathetic old cripple" corners an avaricious, violent TV producer: "Yellowish spittle gathered in the corners of his mouth and saliva drippings covered his chin" as the old man persuades the producer to launch a new reality show whose booby prize is public execution. Later in the book, a bank-robbing imam kills his hideous probation officer, whose "eyes bulged out of their sockets. Drool dribbled out of his mouth" until the imam "was absolutely certain Bodkin the Turd was dead." Moving to Miami, the imam "became a zillionaire."
It's the high, clear sneer of postdespair. One lurching step beyond recognizable real-world reactions lie these scorched landscapes where, as in The Big Girls, women laugh after being raped, and wed their rapists. Houellebecq's comedian greets his son's suicide by eating breakfast: "a tomato omelette ... I had never loved that child: he was as stupid as his mother, and as nasty as his father." The narrator of Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque (Knopf, $24) greets her mother's suicide by ... eating breakfast: "I live by soiling the memories of the corpses of the past." Her sister confides: "For a nymphomaniac like myself ... no matter how violent a man might be ... I cannot help but love him. ... I'm like a vagina incarnate."
Sister 1 calls Sister 2 a monster. But both are. Everyone is. Modern lit swells with sociopaths, casual sadists, the lethally cynical, death-obsessed, dazed, and blank. Many are doomed. Moore's favorite murderer finally kills herself alongside a wall on which someone has scrawled "LICK MY TATERED CUNT." Barris develops characters throughout The Big Question only to kill them at the end. Kirino's nymphomaniac and Palahniuk's Buster Casey whose nickname is "Rant" because that syllable evokes the sound of puking end up dead, dead, dead. Feeling betrayed, you can hear the authors hiss: Haaa ha.
Moore's psychologist falsifies test results to help thieves, killers, and terrorists evade harsh sentences. In one of the stories comprising Ryan Boudinot's collection The Littlest Hitler (Counterpoint, $22), the narrator and his pals "weren't the kinds of terrorists interested in killing lots of people. We sought to destroy property" and, sure enough, their fertilizer-packed U-Haul "reduced the Federal Court House to rubble. Unfortunately a procession of limousines ferrying teenagers to a formal dance happened to be driving past the U-Haul as the timer detonated the charge. And we had forgotten to factor in the convent, chock-full of nuns, across the street from our target. It, too, fell with the blast. Then there was the Humane Society and Homeless Shelter on the other side of the building that had escaped our notice. Oh well."
Whether these books are well-written is beside the point. (Barris' isn't. By and large, the others are.) By crafting loathsome characters and exactingly authentic gristle in The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf, $24), Nathan Englander likens a nose job to eating lobster, the crack and scrape what do these authors aim to gain? Awards? Grotesque won Japan's Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature. Vernon God Little won the Booker. But according to a Teletext survey reported by the BBC, only 35 percent of those who bought it actually read the whole thing. Readers shun the company of monsters just as we shut our eyes against jets of pus. Publishers and writers have not yet realized this, still prancing in the tight closed circle of critical acclaim as they compete to see who among them can alienate you the fastest and most, who can gross you out of whatever reasons you ever started reading fiction in the first place. Moore's prison administrators josh about "egg fuck young" and "Ku Klux Klitties." Houellebecq's comedian muses that suicide bombers "make mashed Jew." The sculpted nose in Englander's novel dissolves into bloody cartilage: gone. "Bless his bones smashed and stuffed through the ligaments of his puking fucked eyes," Vernon God Little exults, "bless his mouth to suck me off, take my bile so it kills him dead to a place where he stays conscious and fucken broken and cold, shivering fucken worms and slime from organs that pop and fucken waste as I laugh."
They've read their comic books. They've watched Creepshow. Soon they will have only themselves to talk to.
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