Sex Traffickers on Interstate 5 

Berkeley writer brings prostitution into the domain of hard-boiled crime fiction — and feminism.

Anya may be a noir protagonist, but she has little in common with the Philip Marlowes and Sam Spades who inhabited traditional pulp fiction. She's 23 years old; Russian-born but stuck in the United States (first in Atlanta, then Los Angeles, and finally, Oakland); flinty on the outside but soft and pliant within. She's a sex worker who slaves for a Russian pimp and becomes an accomplice in her own exploitation. As a moral center, she's dubious. But as a noir character, she's a feminist — albeit one whose actions stem entirely from her will to survive. At any rate, Anya is a departure from the gumshoe investigators and blood-sucking widows who predate her.

Berkeley author Summer Brenner created Anya to star in her new novel I-5 — which comes out this week as part of PM Press' new Switchblade noir series — about a journey along the interstate highway that culminates with a showdown. Known for the political thrust of her writing, Brenner has published several books of poetry and one previous crime novel, Presque Nulle Part, which came out on the French Gallimard imprint. Brenner penned a first draft of I-5 in 2003, amid news reports about the bombing of Baghdad. World affairs had put Brenner in a rather macabre frame of mind, and inspired her to write about sheer exploitation. Sex trafficking was the most blatant form she could think of. "I think the subject matter called for the style," she said. "It's a noir novel because the subject is so dark."

Indeed, the story of a girl being plucked from her war-ravaged village and coerced into prostitution lends itself to the noir form. It opens in a dank Los Angeles brothel that serves as a kind of purgatory for Anya: The windows are painted black; sirens constantly blare on the street outside; there's a steady stream of drugs — uppers, downers, sleeping pills — to narcotize all her emotions. But it really gets going when Anya's manager packs her into a van to drive from LA to Oakland. Interstate 5 is a central metaphor for the novel, serving as an interstice for several types of black markets — including an organ transplant business that harvests body parts from dead prisoners. Brenner chose that particular highway because of its dryness and desolation: "The feedlots, the proliferation of prisons, the perceived emptiness, the agricultural elements, and the absolute artificiality of the road itself ... it's not like a path by a river that became a road, it's totally man-made," she said. Her prose style is a mirror reflection of the interstate: parched, fast, and tense, with an emotional timbre that matches the velocity of the plot. The sentences, like the book's characters, are constantly in motion.

Yet Brenner also takes liberties with the genre. Traditionally, noir fiction was the purview of dime-store novels with lurid, glossy covers, and hard-boiled plots that allowed readers into the mind of a psychopathic killer or a victim. Many noir authors cashed in on cheap thrills, generally churning them out fast and hoping to get a quick paper return. In contrast, I-5 is a calculated book that traffics in political messages rather than salacious pleasures. The cover is a bit of a put-on: There's a voluptuous woman in a negligee and a man's silhouette in the corner, the bed is rumpled, his tie is askew, and the book's title tears across what looks like a hotel lampshade. But the book itself — which purports to be about sex and transport — is all transport and no sex. There's one prison rape scene and a semi love scene when Anya falls for a highway trucker and sits on his lap while they drive. Brenner also includes some grotesque descriptions of the Russian prostitute's work, which forces her to contend with sadists and fetishists. But she abstains from present-tense sex scenes, deeming them "too pornographic" for the subject matter.

Thus, I-5 is a social commentary and morality tale folded into the trappings of noir fiction. Brenner said she was inspired partly by the Iraq war, since war creates the kind of opportunity vacuum that allows for human trafficking. (All of the prostitutes in the book are from war-ravaged, economically starved regions of Eastern Europe; Anya's grandmother died from falling in a hole caused by a military plane that crashed into their small farm.) She also was inspired by Berkeley's own famous sex-trafficking case — of Pasand Restaurant owner Lakireddy Bali Reddy, who was indicted for the death of a sixteen-year-old girl said to be his slave.

Yet prostitution is only one piece in a constellation of issues Brenner tackles, from immigration, to prisoner exploitation (the harvesting of inmates' body parts mirrors the commodification of prostitutes' bodies), to race relations — Anya's would-be love interest is caught "driving while black." Not to mention the prostitution ring is structured like a corporation, run by a Bernie Madoff-type Russian impresario named Kupkin, who keeps a "veneer of respectability." (He reads The Wall Street Journal and plays tennis several times a week at the Claremont Hotel.) It's even disguised as a nonprofit organization, ironically titled Woman Vs. AIDS.

The veracity of certain details — i.e., a brothel that's structured like a fiefdom, or an enterprise built on prisoner body parts — may be questionable, but Brenner said what's important is that everything fits within the internal logic of the story. It's mostly a story about how women react to — and even turn the tables on — brute subjugation. Anya is a striver who survives by sheer force of will and by exploiting people below her. Her friend, Cerise, learns to be complacent. Another girl, Tuzla, chooses death over servitude. "These girls are all being treated as investments," said Brenner. "Which of these girls is the smart girl? ... Anya, she has some agency. She's counting the minutes and she's counting the dollars and she's counting what she's getting out of it as something that's more positive than anything she'd be getting out of her life at home." To Brenner, the real epigrammatic line in the book comes after Anya figures out how to exploit her situation: "Would she rather be fucking a dog in Atlanta? Or living like a dog in Romania? For Anya, this was not a theoretical question but a real choice."

Behind this passage lies a whole slew of philosophical quandaries that crop up throughout I-5 — i.e., what does freedom mean? And is it really possible to turn a situation of bondage into something enabling? Thorny questions, for sure, are atypical of the hard-boiled crime novel. Brenner said that's what separates her from the pack. "I don't want to aggrandize it," she said, "but I also don't want the exploration that I was trying to do to be overshadowed by this veneer of the genre."

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