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Bondage and sado-masochism are not everyone's cup of tea. In the introduction to this collection author Stephen Elliott undermines any suspension of disbelief by declaring that these stories of punishment, violence and torture are part autobiography, part fiction. As with BDSM, the reader finds it hard to know where to draw the line. Elliott has already written a highly praised novel, Happy Baby, documenting life in juvenile detention centers. In Happy Baby the main character Theo recounts a life of beatings, rape, and drugs, a combination that melds eros and pain together. My girlfriend comes to the city and beats me up is a series of vignettes that further explores these experiences. It is a sharply observed collection of finely focused stories that spare little, but have considerable emotional depth.
The theme of this book is the eroticization of trauma. The male protagonist in each story reflects on experiences of violence, rape and abandonment. They are the same narrator, a blend of Elliott's real and fictional selves. We are given considerable detail of what I take to be Elliott's early life: beatings from his father, the death of his mother, and a succession of rapes and abuse in various group homes. The stories are linked, with recurring characters and recollections. The result is a series of individual pieces that lies somewhere between a collection of short stories and a short novel.
The first story is set in Amsterdam, and tells of a young man's first experience of BDSM. That might be Elliott's way of easing the more naïve reader gently into the dark world of erotically charged pain. What follows are stories of friendships, dangerous liaisons, love and fear. Near death from a heroin hotshot, near strangulation in a stall in the ladies room, various bindings, gaggings, cuttings and hittings all feature, and Elliott is fearless in recounting the ways in which BDSM people explore their sexuality. If this sounds gratuitous and sensational it is because, according to Elliott's introduction, BDSM practices are marginalized and silenced. He argues that this adds to the necessary danger of these practices, and urges readers to be open about sexual desire in all its manifestations. So there is an agenda to this book; an intent beyond its literary purpose, and that is to bring BDSM into the sphere of common discourse.
Whatever political points Elliott wishes to make he is firstly a writer. The prose is fittingly sparse, and there is an edgy, nervous quality to his work. The stories segue from memoir to fiction, but the transitions are skilfully crafted. In some cases the stories seem incomplete, as if Elliott has narrated a scenario, but, to make a metaphor from one of his favorite practices, has held back tying it up. There is a narrative unity to the collection, and even a romantic ending as the recurring main character falls in love with a woman called Eden who understands the role of pain in his emotional life, and seems able to meet that need. Eden seems to be Elliott's Eve. There are moments of wry humor. In the title story, a man whose girlfriend slaps his face finds her anger phoney. He considers leaving her, and when the next slap lands, making his ears ring, he adds “health concerns” to his list of reasons for leaving.
Some readers might be troubled by the response to trauma this book portrays, and the book certainly asks questions about the consensual practice of inflicting harm. But overall this is a good collection of stories, even if the subject matter means that it will not be to everyone's taste. That's a pity, because the book is worth reading for the well controlled writing, and the measured emotional tone that Elliott adopts in relating both his early abuse and trauma, and his later attempts to re-experience and eroticize it.
2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at The University of Auckland, New Zealand: firstname.lastname@example.org