Book: Permanent Obscurity: Or a Cautionary Tale of Two Girls & Their Misadventures with Drugs, Pornography and Death
Author: Richard Perez
Type of Book: Fiction, transgressive (sort of)
Why Do I Consider This Book: The content is outre at times.
Availability: Published by Ludlow Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I’m in a slump. I don’t mind admitting it. I find myself reading mainstream fiction and sewing cat toys (if you want some, send me an e-mail). I look at the stack of odd books I need to discuss and I decide it’s time to clean the toilet or watch another barely coherent horror movie, and since Mr. Oddbooks got one of those Apple TV things, I have plenty. Lots and lots of really cheesy, really stupid horror movies. And every one of them seems more appealing than discussing books.
Is it a phase? Is my slump due to the fact that the drought caused the back of my house to sink an inch into the dried clay? Is it because I wake up every morning with a primitive need to pray to Tlaloc, begging him to just let it rain already? I’m not to the point that I’ll consider human sacrifice but I can see how it might come to that if this fucking summer will not end. Perhaps I will feel more kindly disposed toward my stack of oddness once the weather finally breaks and I can go outside without needing to go to the hospital after five minutes or so. Perhaps…
So I’m totally forcing myself to discuss books when I really want to be figuring out how to make my catnip fabric fortune cookies more realistic. And you should bear in mind this shitty mood of mine as you read any book discussion that occurs before Central Texas gets five inches of rain and goes two weeks without hitting 100 degrees.
Okay, Permanent Obscurity is not a bad book but it is not a good book either. The protagonist, in addition to lacking self-awareness, is one of the most tiresome, irritating, foolhardy, aggressive heroines you will ever read. She is best friends with a sociopathic, self-absorbed sadist. Together, the two of them, in the bowels of New York, decide to escape from the terrible financial situation they find themselves in by making a porno. Oh yeah, they owe a ton of money to a drug dealer. That should have gone without saying. The porno goes terribly wrong, as you knew it would, ending in a high speed chase and jail time.
The author tries to justify creating characters that irritate and annoy by saying, through the mouth of Dolores:
You better recognize this fact: People are complicated.
People are indeed complicated. Dolores, the heroine, and her friend Serena, are not that complicated, however. There is really only one complicated character in this book, a man called Baby who is in thrall, in a very controlled manner, to Serena. Everyone one else shows clearly how being completely fucked-up often passes for being complicated.
As I read this book, I imagined Dolores, our pregnant and drug abusing heroine, to be what would happen if you crossed the actresses Rosie Perez and Michelle Rodriguez with a fierce, constantly yapping Jack Russell terrier. I imagined Serena, the best friend who is hardly a friend and governed by a psychopathic self-interest, to be what would happen if you crossed Lindsay Lohan and any random porn actress with a Siamese cat.
And as you read these descriptions, you may be thinking this is nothing anyone would want to read or you might be thinking this combination sounds like the best thing ever. I’m not sure that either is correct or that either is incorrect. I do know Perez may lipfart at my attempts to discuss his book, evidenced from this passage, as Dolores discusses reading the reviews for Serena’s band online:
Then, from top to bottom, her product page looked like a hate-blog, with all the “reviewers” posting anonymously.
And who were these busters? Only your typical swarm of Internet critics: raging wanks and wannabes exerting their democratic right to be complete morons.
But then again, it’s hard to tell because the reviews Dolores reads, once one gets to know Serena, sound completely on the mark. Perez may be far more self-aware than his creation, Dolores.
Oh Dolores. She is the sort of woman who misses work at her temp job because she is on a drug bender yet is furious at her employer when she gets fired. She finds out her much-older boyfriend, Raymond, cheated on her and is understandably angry. However, Raymond, quite in love with our yapping heroine, is willing to do almost anything to win her back, and in the absence of winning her over, offers her a large, LARGE sum of money because he is genuinely concerned about her well-being. Given that Dolores and Serena are on the run from drug dealers who will kill them if they don’t come up with the money, Dolores’ “I AM A FIERCELY INDEPENDENT WOMAN AND WILL TAKE NO HELP FROM MY BABY DADDY EVEN THOUGH I STILL LOVE HIM AND AM BEING STALKED BY PEOPLE WHO WILL BEAT MY ASS FOR THEIR MONEY!” stance makes perfect sense, does it not? He even sends her a damn check she refuses to cash.
Her rejection of Raymond is all the more saddening because even though he cheated, he had a lot of faith in Dolores’ skill as a photographer and urged her to set up a website and develop a store. He wanted her to succeed at her chosen art. Serena, on the other hand, is only interested in exploiting Dolores’ skills and connections in order to pay off her drug dealer. Yet Dolores cannot say no to Serena as she repeatedly refuses Raymond. She also clearly still loves Raymond, evidenced by her taking care of him when he goes into a bad drunk spell, but she cannot act in her own best interests to save her life. You just feel your fists clench as you read this book because Dolores will make you despair even as you realize you care very little about her stupid plight.
Get used to the feeling of detached frustration because you will feel it often as you read this book. Dolores will test you as she goes about her day – hooked on drugs, using large amounts of drugs throughout her pregnancy, deciding to keep the baby, deciding she loves Raymond, deciding she loves Serena, deciding she hates Raymond, deciding she hates Serena, fucking up her jobs, running from drug dealers, deciding to make a porn movie but accidentally making a snuff film. She so relentlessly fucks up her life that I began mentally to shout at her, the way I will sometimes do when I get caught up in one of the aforementioned horror films, “No, you idiot! Don’t go down that alley! Stop sniffing that substance! Stop playing with Serena – you know she’s evil!”
Yet even as I wanted to put my foot up Dolores’ ass and spray Serena with Raid, I kept reading. I kept reading for a number of reasons. I guess it is backhanded praise to say that Perez has a gift for characterization because he managed to create such frustrating and despicable characters, but maybe it isn’t because perhaps he wanted me to react with frustration and revulsion. But characterization aside, there is a compelling, train-wreck feeling you have reading this book, a sort of rubbernecking as you watch these people completely mismanage their lives and drag others into the maelstrom of their dysfunction. Seriously, this book at times was amusingly over the top, continually upping the “Holy Crap, what can happen next to these dumb fucks!” factor.
That exaggerated extremity was, at times, entertaining. This book really isn’t a cautionary tale because the average person isn’t this addicted, this enthralled or this stupid. The average woman isn’t going to find herself in Dolores’ shoes. But it can still be interesting reading about her. I mean, I’ve already spoiled that something really bad happens as they shoot the porn film that they think will make so much money it will erase their drug debt (mostly Serena’s debt, but Dolores, loyal Dolores, takes on the burden of the debt as if it is her own), and it is, objectively horrible. But it is also subjectively absolutely hilarious. I won’t belabor that point much more because if you decide to read this book after reading my critique, the dreadful porn shoot is worth the price of admission.
But there are other scenes worth discussing, and Perez is a pretty good writer. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes, I realized Perez actually did a remarkable job of creating Dolores, a girl utterly torn apart as her ideas of the world and herself are violated. Perez at times hits upon a zeitgeist that could be a part of the cautionary part of this book. Here’s Dolores’ observations upon meeting up with a group of old friends:
All of us had attended college, were up to our asses in debt, and had shit jobs.
That was the extent of it.
And why was this? Why were we in this predicament?
Mostly because we all stubbornly clung to the ridiculous notion of someone working in the arts, of somehow making a name for ourselves in our own self-chosen artistic fields, of holding on to what we believed was our identity.
How impractical is that?
The idea was always to find the job of least hours and responsibility that would allow us maximum time to pursue our own creative interests and grow.
But somehow things never worked out as they should.
Somehow we all seemed to end up wasting more time, working more hours, feeling less significant (because we were working anonymously), and losing courage and spirit.
Poor Dolores is having to come to terms with the fact that she isn’t as special as she thought when she was younger and that without the spark of true genius of an artist, she will have to work at a day job to support her. She thinks she is facing the cold world that is not receptive to her work. Rather, she is undisciplined and lacks the drive to make her life what she wants it to be. Perhaps that is the real cautionary element of this book – that the youthful belief in one’s self to create pure art must be backed by hard work. Dolores is a photographer and evidently a good one, but she’s scattered, drugged and loves a grifter girl who cheapens her.
And Dolores has a good heart. Her instincts are to be kind, even as she stubbornly abuses herself, her body, and her emotions. Here she describes how she encourages Raymond to love his body, and again, at the end, she finds out that maybe she isn’t as special as she thought she was, and in this case, she is wrong. She was special but people are weak and it’s just another blow to her idea of herself, leaving her weakened prey for Serena:
A touch of vitiligo had left a portion of the skin albino white, so his cock had a mottled appearance.
“No one’s perfect, honey,” I told him. “And it’s okay to be different.”
I was going to restore his cracked self-image: make him strong.
I promised him that.
Here I was to stay. Here to get that dill-zick all big and stiff, not to worry. And whenever he stressed about our age difference, which was the big anxiety, I told him to shut up about that, too.
Maybe I did too good a job building up his ego, in the end? Gave him too much confidence?
Maybe I should’ve made fun of his spotty cock, or called him a tired old man?
Part of me was mystified. How could Raymond even get it up with another girl?
Why would he get it up?
Wasn’t I the special one?
Wasn’t that my magic?
And this is all the more heartbreaking to read because in Dolores’ world, once she is emotionally violated she cannot go back. Yet she makes all kinds of allowances for Serena’s constant lies and manipulations as she adamantly refuses to admit that perhaps Raymond had been weak and stupid and really does love her despite cheating. Dolores really cannot tell a killer from a savior.
But as we get all of this depth about Dolores, the book frequently descends into slapstick and I wonder if that is why I find it hard to praise or condemn this book completely. The slapstick helped distract from the real emotional wreckage of Dolores’ life as she likely is deforming her fetus with lots of drugs and selling her soul to Serena, but the slapstick also diluted the purpose of the book. It made it hard to see what Perez wanted this novel to be: cautionary tale or amusing train wreck. It’s hard to be both. But the book shows a fabulous disaster that read funnier than it should have.
Take this scene, where Serena is encouraging Dolores to do what she has to do to get a locally-known filmmaker to lend her his equipment so they can film their porn movie (and Dolores’ antics to get the equipment was another of those scenes where I was mentally shouting at her to just not do it, please, for the love of god stop being so dumb, but alas…):
“We’re partners, Dolores. We’ll be splitting the take 50/50. Just talk to him, that’s all I’m saying. Make him a bunch of empty promises. We’re filmmakers now. We need to talk like filmmakers. You know the drill. Offer him percentages.”
“Offer him ‘points.'”
“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“‘The back end,’ I don’t now. Promise him something. Anything.”
“But no blowjobs.”
“Just tell him I owe him one. Owe him big time. Tell him I love him. Anything.”
“Whoa, you have gone Hollywood!”
Yep, they have no idea what they are doing but think they have gone Hollywood. And Dolores sacrifices what little artistic integrity she has left to fulfill Serena’s plan.
In addition to dialogue that paints them as the worst sort of amateurs, we have a body transport scene directly from a slapstick mob movie, degenerate men who show up at the worst moments, stalled vans, grand theft, a car chase, and quite a bit more high ridiculousness. At times it is a strangely funny book.
So I don’t know. You could do worse reading this book but you could also do better. It’s well-written enough in places but it employs a sort of dumb girl logic that wore thin after a while. Reading as Dolores defiantly and sassily ruined her life wore thin because any goddamned fool would have eventually wised up but not our pregnant, drug-addled, feisty heroine. Not Dolores. She’s a well-fleshed character, and in the land where women refuse to make good choices and love their best friends who use them, she makes perfect sense.
But for me she was ultimately so frustrating, what she was willing to do for a friend who let her down, who didn’t come close to deserving it. As a woman who knows self-destructive impulses intimately, she ultimately made so little sense to me.
Is it the Devil? Or some self-destructive impulse? […]
All I wanted to do from the beginning was to express myself, be myself, and maybe have a little fun.
Is that a crime?
You tell me.
And this is how it ends, save a couple of paragraphs. Dolores looks at the nightmare she helped create, a maelstrom of drug abuse, ill-advised sex, theft from the honest and dishonest alike, and accidental homicide, and she thinks, “Hey, I just wanted a little bit of fun as I engaged in some of the worst behavior imaginable because I can’t accept the fact my boyfriend cheated and my girlfriend is a sociopath. So I engaged in behavior that led to death, violence and betrayal. Is that so wrong?”
Of course Perez doesn’t label this a morality tale. He calls it a cautionary tale. But what caution should the reader engage in when the protagonist whose life is the caution itself does not get it? Dolores, so frustrating and tiresome at times, will learn nothing, which means that this book was just a wallow in terribleness and bad decisions. But while that is not my cup of tea in all regards, it’s a funny and at times moving wallow even as it is a nihilistic look at a heroine who just won’t learn any lessons.
So I don’t know if you want to read this book. I recommend it and I don’t recommend it. If you can stomach an annoying and tiresome heroine as you read through the relevant parts and the slapstick, go for it. I don’t see myself reading this book again, but Perez got enough right that I want to see what he writes next, and I guess that’s a good thing, to have done well enough to make me want else he’s capable of.