The following review was first published on the now-defunct blog The Panelists on 22nd June 2011. I’ve transplanted it here with minor edits. The book in question is an important and frustrating one, hence my eagerness to make sure the review stays in circulation. In hindsight, I believe the review may be too generous, but of course I welcome other views. Discuss!
Paying for It: a comic-strip memoir about being a john. By Chester Brown. Drawn & Quarterly, May 2011. 292 pages. $24.95.
A graph of my emotions while reading Chester Brown’s new book, Paying for It, would be jagged. I frankly resisted its topic and its mindset overall, but often laughed with appreciation; I wanted to argue with it many times, to shout and push back, but just as often stopped in wonder.
A memoir-cum-treatise about being a john (a prostitute’s client), Paying for It is a genuinely confounding text, or set of texts rather, comprised of a book-length comics narrative, a large set of argumentative appendices in both prose and comics, and detailed textual notes in prose. The book’s surface topics, paying for sex and getting to know prostitutes, serve an underlying agenda: a broadside against the evils of so-called romantic love—or “possessive monogamy,” as Brown eventually decides to call it. These concerns link up throughout. As with Brown’s biographical project Louis Riel, in which he counters the comic’s dramatizations and distortions of history with extensive back matter, so too here Brown lets bemusing conflicts and contradictions between his several texts stand, the better to register the strong feelings that the subject of prostitution stirs up. The result is a compelling irresolution—and a provocation.
Don’t think that Brown arrives at no conclusions. He has a definite argument to stake, which is twofold: that monogamous romance, because it involves jealousy and anxiety, requires concessions and bargains that are less honest and more damaging than the clear, straightforward monetary exchange that prostitution entails; and that prostitution should be decriminalized—though not regulated—and even celebrated as an alternative to romance’s emotional entanglements. Underlying this argument is Brown’s libertarianism, which inclines him to view relationships as knowing exchanges of value, each party in the relationship ideally being a rational actor who trades x for y. This dispassionate schema, for Brown, is the way out of the demands of monogamy and onto more level moral and psychological footing, one in which desires and requirements are set forth with the clarity of cash on the barrelhead.
I don’t buy this argument.
Nor do I buy Brown’s argument that monogamy is simply an ideological construct into which we’ve been lured collectively—that the idealization of romantic love is, in essence, a socially constituted illusion. I’m familiar with such radically anti-essentialist arguments from Cultural Studies, indeed as a teacher I’ve posed many such myself, but I don’t buy this one because it makes the desire for sustained closeness and exclusivity, which I see as a gut-level (though I would not say universal) desire, into a matter of social pressure only, and, Brown insists, a moral evil. The logic of the argument bemuses me: it makes no sense to reject romance as a mere social construction while also faulting it for stoking strong, atavistic feelings such as jealousy. In any case, the alternative Brown proposes strikes me as blanched and inhumane: relationships based on bluntly negotiated terms, founded on an aseptic rationalism and on the supposed fairness of explicit economic exchange, as opposed to the kind of emotional complications that Brown temperamentally dislikes—founded, in sum, on the supposed primacy of laissez-faire capitalism. When Paying for It pushes these arguments, most explicitly in its back matter but also in its main narrative, it approaches the kind of radical hectoring that Brown first tried in his polemical anti-psychiatry strip, “My Mom Was a Schizophrenic” (Underwater #4, 1995).
Fortunately, Paying for It, the comic, tends to undo or at least complicate Brown’s argument, showing the awkward, occasionally touching, and often funny humanness of the experiences that presumably led him to write the book in the first place. The narrative shows Brown’s anxiety and embarrassment, his testy discussions of prostitution with friends, for example here,
and his touching solicitousness toward many of the prostitutes themselves. It humanizes the prostitute-client relationship simply by acknowledging the undeniable humanity of sex workers—too often elided or smothered by stereotype—and by registering the quirks and complexities of the whole experience, from worrying about the cops and figuring out when and how to make payment, through routine discomforts during sex, to chatting with the workers about their careers or how they spend their time between johns. Chester’s fumbling hesitancy, his see-sawing between diffidence and eagerness (or sensitivity and callousness), and his constant combative talks with his fellow cartoonists Seth and Joe—all these lend Paying for It a rich human texture that belies the drastically pared-down, minimalist severity of its images.
The main narrative threads through thirty-three chapters that vary in length from just three panels up to forty-odd pages. Each starts with a calendar date, and blank panels bearing dates often punctuate the telling. With three exceptions—the first chapter, the last, and a middle chapter about Chester’s move to a new home—all chapters bear the name of a prostitute, from Chester’s first, “Carla,” to a great many others. Says Brown in his foreword,
In this book I record every time I paid for sex up to the end of 2003 and every prostitute I’ve had sex with since then. (vii)
Some prostitutes Chester sees repeatedly and strikes up lasting relationships with; for instance, five chapters carry the title “Back to Anne.” And the foreword is being coy when it refers to “every” prostitute he’s been with since 2003, since it appears that there’s only been one, Denise, hence the story’s last chapter, “Back to Monogamy.” The events depicted are dated between June 1996—Chapter 1, which recounts the end of Chester’s romance with his so-called last girlfriend—and summer 2010—the final chapter, which rather abruptly leapfrogs over a six-year span. The overwhelming bulk of the story, though, happens between March 1999 (Carla) and December 2003. In short, the greater part of the book deals precisely with what the book’s subtitle promises, “being a john.”
Naturally, there are lots of panels here depicting intercourse, but almost always from a distance, like so:
These are the most heightened images in the book, though it’s telling that the figures are so small and so contained as to be overborne by their context. They lack individuality. In general, the style of Brown’s images works against his story’s humaneness: for instance, the prostitutes are depicted so as to hide any distinguishing features, i.e., distantly, or with their faces averted or barred from view by word balloons. Positively, this tactic maintains discretion and discourages ogling; on the down side, though, it prevents any lingering appreciation of the women as individuals with distinct faces. The images—of everyone, including Chester—are consistently well drawn in a coolly schematized way that trumps even the austerity of Louis Riel; the very style denies sensuality. The pictures are small. So, the story gains authority from Brown’s writing and panel rhythms, not, for the most part, from expressively detailed drawings.
The pages consist of tiny oblong panels stacked regularly in an eight-panel (4×2) grid and swathed in white space. This has the effect of distancing the story, on the one hand sidestepping any hint of ingratiating, self-serving sentiment, but, on the other, undermining, perhaps intentionally, the humanizing claims of the project. It seems that Brown’s story is bent on stressing the agency and autonomy of sex workers, but his drawings are so invested in understatement as to disallow the vibrant pulse of sexuality in all its attendant messiness. The result is aesthetically powerful insofar as Brown’s formalism works against any glib and easy emotional return (I call this the Ware Effect), but also a bit suffocating. I miss the elastic adaptability of Brown’s layouts and drawings in his earlier memoirs; more to the point, I miss the intensity that Brown has traded away in favor of a measured distance.
In this sense Paying for It is sequel to Louis Riel, and bears out a pattern of, not diminishment exactly, but determined retreat from extremes. Said pattern has characterized Brown’s work since he began changing his mind about Underwater (1994-1997) while that series, which he has never finished, was still ongoing. Riel, when first announced, sounded as if it might be give license to Brown’s interests in religious and mystical experience—after all, Riel styled himself a prophet of the New World—but as finally delivered it was a work of deliberate reserve, the formal antithesis of both Yummy Fur and the early issues of Underwater. Paying for It is in that mode too. If it returns to the confessional first-person of Brown’s The Playboy and I Never Liked You—and the three books together do give a dauntingly clear view of Brown’s personality—it lacks the emotive kick of either, partly because its motives are as polemical as they are personal, partly because Brown’s post-Riel method is so decidedly bloodless and unemotional. I fear diminishing returns in future.
Brown’s work has always been a tug o’war between repression and explosion. His best and most startling work—his real advances, like Yummy Fur #4 (Vortex series), the unfinished Gospel of Matthew adaptation, “The Little Man,” or I Never Liked You—have tugged back and forth fiercely between the two. As a result, Brown can lay claim to being one of the funniest and most frightening cartoonists of the past twenty-five-plus years (which is why I wrote a chapter in my PhD thesis about his work, circa 1998-2000). Riel knowingly retreated from some of his past excesses, and from intense drama, period, its Harold Gray-like austerity enabling Brown to take perspective on a divisive figure in Canadian cultural history—a move that seemed gutsy at the time precisely because its surface qualities were so calm. Paying for It adopts the same sort of starched formalism in order to handle safely the kinds of questions Brown mapped in his previous memoirs: the psychosexually and socially repressed. Maybe Brown is simply seeking a style that is plainspoken and free of obvious distortion—or maybe his style is beholden to his libertarianism, which, it occurs to me, is not only a political stance but also, in its emphasis on economic rights and fair-minded, rational exchange, a retreat from unpleasant emotional complication.
Dare I point out that said retreat is wholly consistent with the quasi-autistic social withdrawal depicted in Brown’s earlier memoirs? That Brown’s libertarianism seems to be as much an expression of his emotional reserve as an ideological position? At various points in Paying for It, friends accuse Chester of repressing his feelings, and, though I don’t presume to psychologize too deeply, the point seems to hold true for Brown’s recent aesthetic shifts if not his own life. Paying for It is, oddly enough, a book about human engagement based on a style founded in disengagement.
Of course, there’s enough funny and observant storytelling and sure-handed cartooning in the book to compensate for the leaching-out of strong feelings. In particular, the second chapter, “Carla,” which depicts Chester’s first time with a prostitute—more broadly, the events of March and April 1999—is a marvel of hesitancy, anxiety, and human clumsiness. Chester’s nagging concerns and fleeting thoughts, many about the most mundane aspects of transacting business with prostitutes, are very funny in context. A brief anthology of panels (with apologies for yanking them out of context) will show the prevailing spirit:
Most touching is the way Chester’s idealized vision of getting to know “Carla” runs aground on the klutzy inelegance of actual sex, as shown in his third meeting with her (click to get a larger view):
I’ve gotta love Brown for continually sticking pins in his own egotism this way. Paying for It gets a lot of mileage from wincing self-deprecation, which indeed underlies the book’s narrative power. As is so often the case for Brown, the book pokes at his own self-aggrandizement and makes him seem—well, antiheroic to say the least. I often felt for Chester as I read, though occasionally I laughed at him.
The truly confounding problem in the book emerges most clearly in the appendices and notes, which, while explaining certain of Brown’s narrative choices, also fence at length (50 pages) with arguments against prostitution and in favor of monogamous romance. Brown argues for the “normalization” of prostitution—a position I’m sympathetic with—but against the licensing and taxation of it. He also argues against the possessiveness of romantic love. At times these arguments are stimulating—I’m tempted to agree with Seth, who says here that debating these issues with Brown “has helped [him] think more critically” (257)—but ultimately Brown’s libertarianism seems incapable of parsing moral issues in any way other than by asserting the sovereignty of individual economic choice, a position that may offer the advantage of clarity but at the cost of aridity and oversimplification:
Your body is your property. Just as you own property like books and clothes, you own your body. […] If you respect the property rights of others and treat them with courtesy, you’re living a moral life. (234)
Property rights and economic “choice” are a mantra throughout the appendices, in right libertarian fashion. Yet Brown’s own textual notes and most especially his comics narrative muddy the waters considerably, particularly when his long-term and exclusive relationship with Denise leads him, inadvertently, “back to monogamy.” This complication isn’t just incidental to the story: since Brown presents his decision to see prostitutes as, in essence, a consequence of breaking up with his previous girlfriend, the issues of paid sex and monogamy become intertwined. He goes through contortions to justify his return to monogamous attachment, as seen in the comic’s last panel:
Chester: So paying for sex isn’t an empty experience if you’re paying the right person for sex. (227)
Brown seems stuck. The appendices offer up a cluster of naïve-seeming and incompatible arguments: that sex is a transaction, but “too intimate [and] too sacred” to be regulated and taxed; that prostitution “is just a form of dating” but also a profession; that human trafficking, sex-slavery, and pimping are only marginal, not definitive, aspects of prostitution (though elsewhere the book reveals concerns about the age and status of several of the prostitutes he had sex with); that he feels “committed” to Denise, whose relationship with him is a “firmly established” part of his life, yet does not see this as a formal monogamous commitment; and so on. What we have here is a remarkable instance of a staunch and principled mind wrestling with the basic messiness of situations in which human complexity outruns and overmasters principle. Taken all together, the comics, appendices, and notes that make up Paying for It don’t resolve anything.
It remains true that Paying for It is a major work by a major cartoonist. It is properly challenging and also, despite its willed dryness, often entertaining. I laughed; I winced; I scratched my head. Mostly I was just glad to be reading another new book by Chester Brown. Time will say whether the book turns out to be a blessing or an unwelcome turn. In light of its willful austerity, I fear Brown may be in retreat from things he used to do well.
As a cartoonist, Brown has his finger on the pulse of unreason, of human passion—but seems compelled to be as reasonable about these things as he can. That, at bottom, may turn out to be the funniest and the saddest thing about Paying for It.
—CH, 22 June 2011, revised and reposted 28 Feb. 2012
PS. Much has already been said online about Paying for It. I avoided reading any commentary until I had drafted the guts of my review. Particularly stimulating are Naomi Fry’s review at The Comics Journal and Jeet Heer’s column for The Globe and Mail (unfortunately that link is no longer available) and his follow-up reflection for TCJ.