Jonathan Lethem: “The Porn Critic” from The New Yorker

New Yorker illustration by Martin Ansin

New Yorker illustration by Martin Ansin

The permanent mystery was how much you seemed to know before you knew anything at all. Or maybe the permanent mystery was how stupid you could be and yet how you clung to evidence that your stupidity knew things you didn’t.

I’m always confusing Jonathan Lethem with Joshua Ferris, in the same way I mix up my 6’s and 8’s or right and left – I just have to think about it for a second. Right, Lethem wrote As She Crawled Across The Table which I thoroughly enjoyed. I enjoyed this story, as well. It’s a bit disorienting since it’s set in the 90s, and while that shouldn’t make that much of a difference, it does seem quaint, now, to read about LPs and phonograph needles and video tapes.

I think it’d make a terrific sitcom episode. That’s not a slam; it’s a very visual story – the shelves, the facial expressions – with the kind of scene that I’d love to see in action rather than on the page. You can read it for yourself and see what I mean, it’s available online.

Kromer is looked at as “a saint of degeneracy” by his small cluster of friends, because of his job in a sex-toys shop. “A wizard salesman, Kromer switched on and demonstrated the range of speeds on any number of devices with a shame-dissolving forthrightness.” He also reviews porn for the shop newsletter, and right there, every MFA candidate for miles around is going to hone in on this story like a heat-seeking missile. He really doesn’t get why his friends view him as some kind of satyr; it’s just a job, like any other. He doesn’t like porn, he just analyzes and describes it for others, who might have certain, you know, requirements.

Greta, Invisible Luna, and Beautiful Renee visit his apartment, lured by the promise of pot, and he hopes to convince them he isn’t toxic, get rid of his troublesome reputation. Greta’s pretty much on board already (he’s been partying with her and her transsexual friends), and the other two, well, they seem to feel there’s safety in numbers. But he should’ve thought twice before inviting them in:

His apartment was a maze of stacked porn. The volume was staggering. The disarranged piles melded into a wallpaper of ludicrous font and slashes of pink, brown, and yellow flesh; though the job was chiefly a matter of inventorying characteristics, tabulating spurts and lashings, Kromer couldn’t get through the tapes fast enough. As invisible to him as familiar bookshelves would be to another, the accumulation tended to make a powerful impression on visitors.

What’s evident in this paragraph gets repeated throughout the story: Lethem does a terrific job of talking about porn without sounding pornographic about it. And this is what Kromer has been saying all along: it’s just a job.

Kromer was just dropping the needle onto a Cowboy Junkies LP when Renee screeched, “I feel like I’m sitting inside a copy of ‘Guernica’!”
“Sorry?” Kromer said.
“I can’t let my eyes rest anywhere,” Renee said. “It’s like a meat shop – carnage everywhere.”
Greta’s eyes widened, which put them at half mast. “More like Francis Bacon,” she murmured. Greta had been an art-history major at college. “Really, if you squint, it’s like we’re in a Bosch painting.”
“‘The Garden of Earthly Delights,'” Kromer said. It seemed a calming phrase to utter, akin to saying the words. “The Peaceble Kingdom” or “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” or like the narcotic tone of the LP, which presently purred, “Heavenly wine and roses seem to whisper to me when you smile…”

“If these walls could talk, they’d moan,” Greta said.
“I think they might be screaming at me, ” Renee said.

Someone’s got to find a way to work this into Portlandia.

Called upon to defend himself as a critic, he explains some of the fine points of different videos thrown at him. For example, “Bare Miss Apprehension” and sequels like “Bare Miss Adventure”:

…are “really just star vehicles for Jocelyn Jeethers. A picaresque structure, but charming. People like them, I mean. There’s a good focus on female autonomy -” Kromer stumbled on the proximity of this word to “anatomy”…

He goes on to credit the makers of “Social Hormones” as being known for “commitment to establishing character arcs and narrative causality.” On the other hand, “Anal Requiem 4: The Assmaid’s Tale” is “junk.” And, let me note here, in his Book Bench interview, Lethem acknowledges: “It has occurred to me that I’ll have to look Margaret Atwood in the eye again, in this world or the next.” I hope he’ll find an amused gleam there.

It struck him, too late, that he was attempting to demonstrate that he wasn’t a man from the moon by detailing the moon’s topology, cataloguing its hollows.

Poor Kromer, he just digs himself in deeper. Eventually, Beautiful Renee can’t take it any more, and she runs into the bathroom, sick:

Kromer’s special literacy was, it now seemed, something worse than a complete dead loss on the human scoreboard. It was positively toxic, able to compel vomit from gorgeous women.

There is a scene at the end that makes sense of all this (not to mention adds “I fucked for sturgeon” to the list of things I want to say someday, at the right time and in the right place), and it’s quite interesting how on second read it’s less a hilarious romp and more about Kromer’s keen psychological observations. We see what we want to see. And we have ways of protecting ourselves.

A fun story. And, if you wish, an interesting one.

And an aside: While prepping this post and the art. I almost went with the aforementioned Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights” instead of the New Yorker illustration. But I received my semi-weekly copy of Shelf-Awareness which included some mention of Lethem’s library as captured in Leah Price’s Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, ((slide 4)), of which he says: “My books are always organized, arranged, and always being rearranged, too-a constant process. I tend to oscillate between alphabetical absolutism and imperatives of genre, subject, size, color, publisher-I don’t, for instance, ever like to see pocket-sized paperbacks with anything larger, and certain publishers have created spines so irresistibly lovely together that I’ve devoted sections to them, even when it busts authors I’ve got shelved elsewhere out of their alphabetical jail.” So, in a shelvish frame of mind, I went with the New Yorker art. If you like, you can visit the Amazon listing and Take a Look Inside to see additional Lethem shelving technique. But I didn’t see “Bare Miss Adventure” anywhere.

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2 responses to “Jonathan Lethem: “The Porn Critic” from The New Yorker

  1. Delighted that you like Portlandia as well.

    I was curious what you thought of this story, and I’m glad to read you liked it as well. “Like a sitcom” (not a criticism) is a very valid descriptor. Especially for very visual stories.

    • Hi Paul – Yes, shortly after we talked about Portlandia, there was a brief “marathon” of episodes so I managed to see several – the only one I remember clearly is the long-line-for-brunch (there’s a place like that here in this Portland as well). The blank blandness of it all, and the skewering of the oh-so-cool set, appealed to me. It was a like a spoof of Unitarians. IIRC, they’ll be re-running them all this summer so I’ll get to catch up.

      Thanks for inspiring me to actually watch – it’s one of those things I’ve been hearing about but things just converged at that point.

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