By Irvine Welsh (W.W. Norton & Company, 484 pages)
Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power
By Elisabeth Eaves (Knopf, 304 pages)
Whenever you catch writers whacking off at a peep show, they'll tell you one of two things. Either what they're watching is an ironically detached performance or it's a form of self-validation. "Porno," Irvine Welsh's fictional foray into the world of hardcore porn, belongs in the first category. "Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power" by stripper/journalist Elisabeth Eaves fits neatly into the second.
In "Porno," the old gang from Welsh's 1993 novel "Trainspotting" find themselves together once again in Leith, Scotland. It's the same old plot: They scam other people, they scam each other, and finally one of them scams everybody, and scrams. And it's the same old crew: Simon (aka Sick Boy), the lead scammer; Spud, the sweet scammer; Renton, the somewhat upwardly mobile scammer; and Begbie, the violent psychopath.
The twist is, now that they're 10 years older, their sights have shifted from heroin to hardcore porn. Simon manages to pick up a few local birds and gets them to perform on camera with some of his cohorts from Leith's underbelly. This gives Simon the chance to do his thing -- snorting, shagging, stealing from credit accounts ÃÃ?all while he directs the soon-to-be-epic porn film "Seven Rides for Seven Brothers." There's more than a bit of "Boogie Nights" in Welsh's vision, most notably in the character of Curtis, the shy and gawky but well-endowed porn prince.
The mates in "Porno" may be getting a little bigger around the waistline, but they're about the same below the belt. The lasses are forever young. As Simon says, never trust a girl over 30. So we have two under-30 female characters: Nikki Fuller-Smith, who's new to the story, and Dianne who was a teen-aged schoolgirl in "Trainspotting." Both are grad students with feminist leanings, but it's Nikki who has her sights on porn stardom.
In the meantime, she's working on a degree in media studies, giving blow jobs to her prof, giving hand jobs in a massage parlor and, finally, giving Simon almost everything he asks for on film or elsewhere. Their private life is going swimmingly, but their professional partnership has a few kinks. Simon, as a director, is looking for his actresses to display a little more "elasticity" in the hindquarters. And while Nikki is happy to go a long way on camera, that's where she draws the line. Welsh devotes a tiresome amount of time and space to analyzing that particular dilemma.
Nikki's friend Dianne is cast from the same mold. She's also at the university doing research for her master's in psychology on workers in the sex industry: prostitutes, lap dancers, strippers, call-center operators, massage-parlor workers, escort girls. Her aspirations for life after college are still in their formative stages, but she expresses interest in following up on the subject of her research: "Cocks! Big cocks, small cocks, thick cocks, thin cocks. ... When I hand that dissertation in it'll be a new dawn and heralded by COCK-A-DOODLE-DO!"
This would be the time for a brief rant about flat female characters in male-oriented fiction. But first of all, these characters aren't flat. And second, there are women who think like Dianne and Nikki. One of them is Elisabeth Eaves.
You'll find her book "Bare" in the "Women's Studies" section of your bookstore. Leave it where you found it. Here are the basics: Like Nikki, Eaves has a graduate degree and has read her French intellectuals. She has taken up nude dancing as a part-time job because, as she explains, it is self-validating from a feminist perspective. Why it was validating is a little tough to say, and some important questions are left unanswered. For instance, Eaves says that when she began her career at Seattle's Lusty Lady, "At least my sense of entrapment was falling away." Is that what happens when you spend several hours a day in Plexiglas booths waiting for guys to tell you what to do next?
Eaves writes like a bad stripper, and although I've never seen her, I would guess that she stripped like a bad writer. Neither activity seems to inspire her to great heights. She writes about her glory days in an oddly prudish tone that makes them sound like her junior year abroad. As for her self-described career as a journalist "on the fast track," well, I'll wave to her the next time I see her flying by.
Philosophically, there are echoes of Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil" here. "Stripping put me in a world with new conventions," she says. "Having ditched the moral framework of the outside world, I was now ethically adrift where nudity and sexuality were concerned."
More significant perhaps is that, having reached the mountaintop, Eaves manages to construct an new ethical framework out of the ruins of the old: "I could only go on a gut feeling of what felt right and wrong. ... In general, I didn't put my fingers inside myself, even when they asked me to."
Yes, Eaves and Welsh make strange bedfellows. But there is common ground. Eaves could be in Welsh's novel, spouting Georges Bataille between takes. And Welsh could be beating his meat in the Lusty Lady strip club. But they're both playing with fire. Porn is a dangerous subject for literati or cognoscenti because it responds to a basic need, hits a dead end, and then begins all over again the next time the need arises. Welsh, more than Eaves, manages to squeeze something out of that dynamic. But 484 pages is a bit much for even his most loyal consumers to swallow.