Lila Says , by Chimo. Scribner, 128 pages, $20.
Last year, a British publisher commissioned a series of erotic novellas by women writers. The best and brightest were invited to contribute. The series did not go ahead; the delivered work was “not erotic enough.”
Not erotic enough for what, one wonders? To stir the loins of the (mostly male) marketing department, or the (mostly female) editorial department? Probably neither: It is difficult to write effective erotica in a politically and emotionally correct climate, when women must be on top and in charge of their own sexuality, or at least perceived to be. Since, in general, male sadism and female masochism seems to be what works in erotic terms for women (just as female sadism and male masochism works for men), women writers will be struggling against the grain of their own desires.
But in France, of course, it’s different: nothing correct, just sexual uproar. Lila Says , by Chimo (the most sensational foreign novel in recent years, according to its U.S. publishers, “raw, sensual and devastating”), becomes a wild best seller. This brief book, set in a Parisian ghetto, tells the story of Chimo’s growing love for Lila. Chimo, who is alleged to have scribbled down the story in ball-point pen, filling two notebooks, and left it on the publisher’s doorstep like a baby, presents himself as a 19-year-old Arab boy. Lila is 16, a Catholic, and looks like an angel. Lila, however, talks dirty to Chimo, using the most graceful and eloquent language, and shows him her most private parts, waxing lyrical upon the detail of their appearance.
As it happens, the gender dilemma is just about solved by having a non-human ravish Lila–the devil himself, he of the foul breath and hairy member. Once on this fabulous plane, the reconditioned, right-thinking man can safely identify, yet not identify; and the conscientiously correct woman can share Lila’s pleasure-pain without too much guilt. Good Lord, who could control the devil! Besides, it all turns out to be just a good-humored tale, told by naughty Lila to give her chaste and elderly aunt a thrill.
So far so erotic, and on the safe side of pornographic–if I am to take the American Heritage definition, in which the latter is the former plus overtones of power and violence. Lila Says might well have been one of those rejected English novellas searching for a new home overseas. But then powerful and violent things happen, and in its final chapter the book becomes shocking and repulsive, a good deal more so to my mind than, say, American Psycho . (At least Bret Easton Ellis stood up to be counted. Both the writer of Lila Says and its translator remain anonymous, which must incidentally be very annoying for the latter, this being a translation to be proud of.) Just when we have come to know and like Lila in her absurdities, she is bloodily raped by Chimo’s friends and tumbles out of a window and is killed. A snuff novel. I make no apology for giving away the end–if publishers can concoct such a tale, normal fair reviewing play does not apply. It is true that real life does sometimes turn into a snuff movie, but literature should be making sense of distress, not gratuitously adding to it.
The publishers claim that the success of Lila Says has set off an intense debate in France–hoax or not hoax? Naïve or faux-naïve? Faux-naïve, say I, hoax. For one thing I have found Chimo out. On page 102, he has this to say: “Definitely it was Lila who got me to write in the end, although I don’t know who I’d show it all to, never been in a bookstore, could be what she says is disgusting and no one could read it” and on page 92 he says, of exorcisms, “None of us’ve ever heard that word, I had to go find it in a dictionary in a bookstore to write it down.” There! Hoax exposed. (How I hate it when readers do this kind of thing to me: Jung observed that the greatest vice of the 20th century is literalism. But then I don’t go round pretending to be someone I’m not, or worse still, no one.)
My own view is that Lila Says was written by three writers; the first an English lady writer of exquisite sensibility. She’s the one responsible for passages such as these: “Her aunt makes up poems about Lila’s pussy all day long. About how a little jewel of ruffledy silk like that, with its hidden bud and swollen leaves stuck on tight, it’ll never get crumpled … about how it’s so blond it could be a lantern when you’ve lost your way in life.”
The second is a gay Parisian male in his middle years, of considerable literary sophistication, who knows what life in the ghetto is like if only because he’s been told. The story reads like something well researched and well appreciated, but not exactly lived through. Here’s how to bring in a little cash, for example: “Sell blood at the clinic, once a month no more, I already said that, but blood brings in almost nothing. Help clean up graves in the cemetery just before All Saints, an idea that came from Marseilles but it’s strictly seasonal. Convince girls short hair is in, so they cut theirs and you sell it for wigs.” This fellow has some interesting things to say about the craft of writing: “Here the locals, girls and guys, white or not, they’re happy with their piss-poor language … me naturally I sweat myself silly trying not to write like they talk, then I rewrite it all here but I’m not sure I know what I’m doing. The same words aren’t given out to everybody everywhere. You always feel you’re sailing right by a green island you can’t get close to, better guarded than the Bank of France, an island stuffed with wonderful fruits.”
Well, as you do.
And the third writer is the calculating hack who knows about 16-year-old convent girls being a turn-on, and how pornography depends on cold passionless detail, and can’t think of a way to end this novella better than having Lila raped and dropped out the window to die. These three writers may I suppose reside in one body but if so I’d rather not sit next to him at dinner. (It probably is a “him”: Henry Miller rather than Anaïs Nin.)
The publishers claim Lila Says is “in the tradition of” Pauline Réage’s The Story of O and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover . These actually came out of two very different traditions, the first underground and only later (and still doubtfully) attributed to Pauline Réage, the second published mainstream–but never mind. Lila Says attempts to get the best of both worlds: to have the lure of the forbidden, and yet be accepted in polite society.
And why not? As Chimo himself remarks, “all sorts of trash gets published now, since people can’t go dipping their dicks here and there on account of the virus.” At least Lila Says is far from trash. And if literature wants to survive, it had better make itself useful. If we’re to believe the scientists who tell us that masturbation is not after all a distasteful and pathetic perversion, but rather nature’s way of getting rid of men’s old and worn-out sperm in preparation for congress with the female; and in women to keep the orgasmic muscles, so helpful to that lively sperm, in good fettle, why then pornography can be useful indeed. Pornography is good for the coming generation! Hooray for its publishers! Debasement is in the eye of the beholder! I can’t think why the pornographers don’t use these arguments more often.