The four stories contained in The Great Misogynist are so infused with perversion and violence that I marvel at Kenneth Harvey's stamina. He must have swallowed anti-nausea pills at an alarming rate to keep himself from retching while he wrote.
The first critic who read this book for this magazine sent it back to the editor, saying he was so revolted by its contents that he doubted his ability to provide an objective opinion. I must have a stronger stomach, but I was inspired to muse about the point where pornography might become art.
Perhaps it is where there is some higher purpose involved. There is such a purpose in this book, but whether it is achieved is another question.
The first story, "Nuba", opens with an altogether bizarre wedding ceremony between a Canadian man and a Mougalanese woman, in which he has sex with her in front of her "tribe". He brings her back to Canada, revelling as much in his control of her as in her astonishment at Canada's bright lights and big cities. There are some lovely bits of writing here.
"From behind the window of her passenger seat, she searched for the flash of a river. And I was thinking, When we arrive home, I will show her the tap and faucet, the narrow but mighty watercourse that gushes from silver.
"When she searches for fire, I will flick switches to theatrically display the white light that we have trapped, purified, distilled from yellow lampfire and sunlight to white and contained within the most fragile gourd-shaped glass.
"When I see that she is seeking outside places of gathering, I will take her to the baseball fields and the playgrounds and beaches of North Cross.
"If she craves the presence of animals, I will yank open the refrigerator door and reveal the impeccably shredded marvels chilled within."
Later in the story, the narrator arranges for his wife's clitorectomy and for her labia to be sewn up. He has sex with her, ripping her, that same night. It's hard to read, especially since the writing is vivid and seductive. But beneath the rich description, Harvey layers the archaic rationale for abusing women: "Biology's steadfast determination, divine and unarguable. One long adoring look at her face and then acceptance only as I leap screaming into her clutch. Rooted in the natural order of the past."
The second story, "Chan", relates the step-by-step rationalizations employed by the son of a Canadian diplomat to excuse purchasing, punching, and raping a pubescent Singapore girl. His relationship with the girl echoes the rationale of most imperialists: whatever he does to her is preferable to what would happen to her if he left her alone.
The third story, "Suhad", is a series of letters from a freelance writer working in Teheran. Ditched by his Canadian lover, increasingly desperate and isolated, he is gradually seduced by the philosophies of extremist Islam and ends up marrying a woman who will likely martyr herself. By merging this fellow's criticism of Canadian culture into criticism of his former girlfriend, Harvey deftly shows how the craving for certainty and the willingness to judge that inspire misogyny are equally manifest in fundamentalist religious dogma.
And finally, there is "Ana Maria", where a lesbian is as subject to the violence of sexual culture as any misogynist man. It is terrifically interesting to see how Harvey eroticizes the imagery of torture.... but oh, what a gruesome, sickening read it is. I frequently had to restrain myself from hurling this book across the room.
Considering that so much of contemporary fiction seeks to soothe or tranquillize, Harvey is to be congratulated for writing such a disturbing book. His rich prose situates the reader firmly in the minds of his perverse narrators, seducing us with eroticism and logic. It's not a pleasant mirror to look into.
But while his language is vivid and his intentions intrepid, Harvey occasionally allows himself to judge his narrators. Lured into identifying with his characters, I felt ambushed and insulted by Harvey's finger-wagging. Both his characters and readers deserve more understanding and generosity than Harvey confers.
And finally, there is nothing really new here. No profound insights into human nature and only basic understanding of the roots of misogyny. In the end, there's no difference between Harvey's book and the popular paperbacks that draw readers into the minds of creeps and criminals, except Harvey's judgement. Misogynists are nasty, but that is hardly news to most of us.
So, by virtue of good writing and admirable purpose, The Great Misogynist cannot be labelled pornography. But it isn't good literature, either.
Nora Abercrombie is the publisher and editor of Tarnation.