Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Paying for It

Paying for It is an autobiographical graphic novel by Canadian artist Chester Brown about his experience of being a john, visiting various prostitutes in the course of several years. Come to think of it, I think, only a Canadian could have written such a frank account, a book which has all the potential to be sleazy and pornographic, and also offensive, and which ultimately turns into a personal meditation on the nature of sex and love, and the whole business of prostitution.

The beauty of the book is not that it gives matter of fact commentary on sex, without being squeamish and scandalized, it also presents the girls Brown meets in the course of the book with rare individuality, yet protecting their identity.

For one thing, except for his former girlfriend, with whom he is not sleeping anymore, Brown refrains from drawing the faces of all the other girls he encounters.


The New York Times Book Review/

You don’t have to like comics to relish this book. Brown, whose previous work includes a comic-strip biography of the 19th-century Canadian revolutionary Louis Riel, begins his story in the summer of 1996, when his live-in girlfriend, Sook-Yin, confesses she has fallen for another guy. She also still wants to live with Chester. “I love living with you,” she says. Chester — feeling like his “normal, content, all-is-well-with-the-world self” — goes with the flow. (“You’re fine with this?” an astonished friend asks him. “I’m fine,” Chester replies.)

He and his girlfriend transition to being friends and housemates. A few months later, the new boyfriend moves in with them. Brown, still single, realizes he has come to a place in his life where he has “two competing desires — the desire to have sex, versus the desire NOT to have a girlfriend.” He seriously questions the idea of romantic love, and concludes it is a virtually impossible ideal. He decides to explore his options, which leads him to experiment with prostitutes. He finds some through brothel advertisements, and also online. “There are a whole bunch of these prostitute-review Web sites,” he tells a friend — johns writing for other johns, “like movie reviews or book reviews.”

Over the course of several years, Brown had numerous paid sexual encounters, and in “Paying for It” he has given each woman a chapter: Carla, Anne, Wendy, Yvette, back to Anne, Jolene, Larissa, Angelina, Kitty, Gwendolyn, Jenna, back to Angelina, Myra, etc. He also recounts conversations about his thoughts and motivations that he had with his close friends, some of whom disapprove (“There is NO way I’m paying for sex,” says one), others of whom are ambivalent (“I think it should be legal, but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s right”).

Chester Brown is not a john to pity. He has options. He is a reasonably handsome, lanky, talented artist, now 51 years old. Some women, and men, who read this memoir may develop a crush on this goodhearted bad boy. The cartoonist R. Crumb, who provides the introduction for the book, describes him as “a very advanced human.” Brown also seems to be a feeling, thoughtful, considerate man, honest with himself and others.

This graphic memoir is . . . sexually graphic. Chester’s penis is a leading character, and a charming one at that. Brown has made no obvious attempt to eroticize his drawings, and as a result his cartoons are totally sexy in the way real life and really good art are sexy. As he explores the logistics of being a john, he shares what he’s learned about hygiene, the etiquette of paying and tipping, and the necessary financial planning (“If I went every two weeks, that would be 26 times a year; 26 multiplied by $160 equals $4,160 a year — that’s quite a bit”). He also gratefully acknowledges the Canada Council for the Arts “for generously assisting me financially while I wrote and drew this work.” Can you imagine the National Endowment for the Arts financing any project remotely resembling this? O Canada!

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