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Genre School: Transgressive Fiction

by Megan Dutriou / 25.01.2011

Transgressive fiction used to mean something. You’d have to squirm more than a little and cup your balls just to get through a chapter of George Bataille’s Story of the Eye; Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn has enough transvestite hookers, gang rape and poverty to shock the hostess of a Benzedrine party; and the much-censored Naked Lunch is not only obscene but also stylistically nausea-inducing (both requirements of any potential David Cronenberg film). Somehow by the turn of the 1990s, this evolved into the shit-on-the-wall for shit-on-the-wall’s sake literature being produced by the much-worshipped Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis, and Chuck Palahniuk – authors still pulling the same ol’ shock-horror (*gasp* a SPLIT PERSONALITY!) tropes that their forebears had, decades before. How many people would even know about these authors if it wasn’t for the blockbuster films made of each of their novels? Pardon my French, but fucking bâiller. How did we get here?

trans·gress, v. Infringe or go beyond the bounds of (a moral principle or other established standard of behavior.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

Transgressive literature used to be about breaking all the rules. The taboo subject matter of Transgressive lit is meant to bring you face to face with the very ugly, very violent, diseased and debauched members of our society. The first piece of transgressive literature is probably the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, a tale of the sexual exploitation and slaughter of teenagers, written from his cell in the Bastille in 1785. Sure, now you can download just about any perversion of nature worth watching, but de Sade’s book detailed coprophagia (think 2 Girls one Cup – Google it… OMG), incest, sacrilege and sodomy long before any of these things became famous on the internet. Likewise, when Bataille writes about a teenage girl inserting a human eye into her anus – in 1928 – you’d better believe people were shocked. Bataille and de Sade’s books were banned – de Sade’s more than once, Bataille’s by the French themselves.

Georges Bataille

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover D. H. Lawrence has an upper class woman screw a working class man in ways the nobility had never imagined, or were too ashamed to mention. The book was considered so raunchy it was not officially released in the UK until 1960. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is the semi-autobiographical story of Miller’s time in Paris, during which he shacks up with more than a few prostitutes. Miller uses transgressive sex, both the doing and the writing, as an exploration of artistic purity. Both Lawrence and Miller’s novels were published before WWII. Both were the subject of obscenity trials.

In the late 1940s and 50s, Beat writers – themselves living largely outside of the bounds of normal society – realized the power of controversial subject matter. William Burroughs’s hallucinatory Naked Lunch satirized the emptiness of mainstream American culture and celebrates counterculture with no less than a talking anus, one who demands rights. Ruminating on the life of the junkie (who is now a common subject of fiction), Burroughs goes further than just describing the gross mechanics of drug use. He delves imaginatively into the twisted psyche of the addict: “I had been occluded from space-time like an eel’s ass occludes when he stops eating on the way to Sargasso”. The occlusion of an eel’s ass as a metaphor for withdrawal is an image few 21st century writers have been able to match.

It’s possible that real transgressive literature was last seen alive in the arms of Anthony Burgess. Burgess got it. Alex, the protagonist in A Clockwork Orange, doesn’t do bad things because he is schizophrenic, or enjoying a crack-high. He does them because he wants to and because, even more frighteningly, he can. The whole point of transgressive fiction is to hold our faces up to the mirror of this ostensible lunatic in the text and make us see ourselves. It makes us realize that the real madness is elective and that it is really only our choice that keeps us, from being exactly the depraved and unwashed masses we think we aren’t. That’s not to say Alex is just ordinary. He’s far from it. He rapes some underage girls, kills an old woman and is subjected to an equally (psychologically) violent punishment. He’s twisted, uninhibited, amoral and everything that, in a very honest moment, you may find yourself to be.

A Clockwork Orange

What kind of violence could surpass the “ultraviolence” of A Clockwork Orange? What kind of stylistic genius could out-do Nadsat as a disarming narrative technique? Apparently none, because all the 1970s and ’80s have to show for themselves is Crash, by the dystopian J.G. Ballard and Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby Jr’s ode to the addicted. What do those novels have in common? They’re all about people with problems, addictions, fixations. But problems do not amount to transgressions, and the writers of this decade seem to rehash the concerns of the beat generation. Sex, drugs and violent humanity, all continue to be prominent themes, with the addition of the (now familiar) foe, consumerism.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, normal became frightening. Douglas Coupland fixated on Gen-Xers as they rebelled against suburbia, with its icky ennui and conveniently located strip-malls. In this era, anyone with an even marginally alternative experience of life – from Welsh’s Scottish junkies, to Easton Ellis and Palahniuk’s mentally deranged victims of consumerism – became the subject of transgression. In the LGBT corner, Dennis Cooper produces Frisk, the epistolary love/sex/death story of two young gay men, one of whom becomes a serial killer whose murder scenes are described as a “melange of blood and slippery internal organs”. However, the novel’s images of sex and violence, however gruesome, only echo those Yukio Mishima had produced, years before.

But how transgressive is rebellion when it’s conveniently blamed on your psychotic other half? “It wasn’t me, officer, it was Brad Pitt. I was here just making soap the whole time!”

Fight Club

Maybe nothing surprises us anymore. Maybe we just started listening to too much grunge music, and we watched too many Wes Craven movies. If reading Chuck ‘One Trick Pony’ Palahniuk’s other novels isn’t enough proof of the lack of transgression in transgressive lit, Anne H. Soukhanov described the transgressive fiction of the 90s as a genre with the distinguishing characteristic of “funky cover designs”. I think she was trying to be nice. But there is no context in which the word ‘funky’ is transgressive, and even fewer in which transgressive = nice.

The 2000s, it seems, were more of the same disappointing attempts at commentary on bourgeoisie materialism. More suburban numbness, more existential boredom. A.M. Homes’s Music for Torching dealt with familial dysfunction and adultery, and after knocking off some virgins in the 90s, Geoffrey Eugenides returned with Middlesex, in which a gender-bending Greek man becomes a burlesque dancer. Formerly the realm of violent orgies and rifts in the time-space continuum, Transgressive is gone. Time of death: 2010.

Our only hope for its zombie-like reanimation is cross contamination with the new transgressive genres. Let us hope that the new shock-fiction genres, like Splatterpunk and Bizarro, fancy the old Transgressive enough to dry hump it a little, and maybe some real weirdness will rub off. With deliberately offensive content and titles such as Baby Jesus Butt Plug (Carlton Mellick III) a new breed of Transgressive lit may be ambling toward you, deranged and undead, in the contemporary fiction isle of your local bookstore.

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