Elaine by Ben Arzate

Book: Elaine

Author: Ben Arzate

Type of Book: Fiction, novel

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I descended into the depths of a rabbit hole as I tried to puzzle out what this book meant.

Availability: Published in 2020 by Atlatl Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: On the surface, Elaine appears to be a relatively straight-forward read. It’s a fun little book, creepy and frustrating with forays into the incestuous and the priapic. Good times!

But say you’re a woman who has recently been thinking of immigrating to Finland* because you are certain the legislature, the governor, the climate and the slowly crumbling infrastructure in Texas are all teaming up in some god-forsaken superhero quad that will destroy the world in general and you in the specific. If you are such a woman, you might find yourself a bit… uneasy. In fact, I’d finished reading a book about the charming custom of kalsarikanni, translated as “pantsdrunk,” right before picking up Elaine. The Finns take relaxation and drunkenness very seriously, it seems, but mostly I mention this because it seems a bit weird that once I had finished a book about Finnish relaxation, I immediately picked up a book, written by an American, that was populated by Finnish-Americans, most of them named Elaine.

Synopsis: Chris is dating a woman named Agnes, who grew up in a town in Michigan called Elaine. Agnes’s mother just died and Chris is joining her in her hometown as funeral plans are finalized. The roads to Elaine are closed, and the only way he can get there is by train. Every woman he meets is named Elaine, and none of them seem aware that every other woman is named Elaine, too. Agnes functionally disappears for the duration of the novel, leaving Chris in the company of her father in a town that is isolated, empty and unnerving. Chris is disturbed by bizarre, sexual dreams that initially focus on his sister, growing to include Agnes and other women he encounters in Elaine. No one is where they should be, Chris cannot find Agnes, her father eventually disappears as well, the town seems like a ghost town and the train in and out of Elaine stops running. Terrible things happen to Chris at the hands of the Elaines in Elaine, he finds disturbing connections between Agnes and the Elaines that are increasingly menacing and sexually overwhelming, and all of this is punctuated by a creepy, incestuous TV preacher who encourages father on daughter incest. Later Chris finds photos of Agnes with an Elaine who behaved sexually provocatively around him, and it seems very likely that the overall atmosphere of sexual degeneracy in the town caused Chris’ dreams that began on the train into Elaine. Was Agnes a victim of the Elaines herself? Maybe – the ending makes me believe perhaps she was. But all of this doesn’t really help me answer the question of what the absolute hell was going on in Elaine?

It’s a quick and fun read, but my inability to answer the above question plagued me. I didn’t descend directly down into the fear, paranoiacally assuming that the book was cosmically trying to tell me that my desire to go to Finland was a bad idea, Ben peppering the text with clues that would convince me to stay put. But Elaine did raise a lot of questions that I cannot answer. Well, I can’t answer them yet. I finally asked Ben some very generic questions, just outright demanding to know if there was subtext. Ben said there is, that he intends to follow this up with a story that will answer some questions. He didn’t give me any specifics, thankfully, but that confirmation that my instincts are on the mark, that there is something going on and the text gives clues caused me to descend yet again into the rabbit hole and worry all kinds of names and details to see if I could connect the dots.  I haven’t connected them yet but give me time.

Some rabbit hole samples:

“Elaine” is a French form of the Greek name, “Helen.” Helen literally means “shaft of light” or “rays of sun.” That might lead one to believe that there is some greater truth in Elaine, a symbolic revelation that occurs when in Elaine, or a beacon that leads people to Elaine so they can experience some form of enlightenment.

But the link to Helen also makes me wonder if all those Elaines wandering around the city of Elaine were the mid-western equivalents of Helens of Troy, possessing such intoxicating beauty that men would engage in all kinds of heroics to possess them. Most of the Elaines were young and very sexually attractive, and seemed more akin to sirens than a beauty so profound wars were fought over her, but the point is certainly worth mulling over.

A young couple goes missing early on in the book. A cat finds their bodies and the cat’s owner isn’t the least bit alarmed when her cat comes back home covered in viscera – in fact, the cat’s first instinct was to eat the couple’s exposed organs, which is weird behavior for cats. I know we all hear the stories about a cat lady dying and her starving cats eating her body, but cats have to be pretty hungry to do such a thing, and the cat, named Prami, is a pet who is presumably fed by its owner. But the cat is its own rabbit hole. “Prami” is a Finnish name that means “the sea” and a variant of this name is “Pontus.” Pontus was a son of Gaia, ruling the oceans before replaced by the Olympian god Poseidon. We also see the name in “Pontius Pilate,” the man who ordered the death of Jesus Christ. There’s so much there but I have no idea how to pull it together, and it’s made all the more maddening that I am doing this with a cat’s name but what would you have me do? Not worry all these details?

The couple who went missing in Elaine were young, and Elaine is an easy town to disappear into, as Chris will himself experience a bit later. Elaine appears to be a ghost town almost, but there are always people around the corner, in a store, scurrying around unseen until they enact some form of violence or create confusion for Chris. The town also has issues with power supply and cellular phone connectivity so one cannot seek help very easily. The couple who disappeared immediately rang a bell for me. In 2005, a young couple became lost in the Nebraska winter. They were on meth, and became so hopelessly turned around in the snow at night that they could not give accurate information to 911 operators, and their cell phone pinged from one tower to the next, making it impossible to narrow down where they were. The couple eventually left their car and died of hypothermia, but this case has some interesting traction because, much like the Elisa Lam case, many have a hard time believing that psychosis is a thing that happens, be it via mental illness or drug consumption. The couple reported seeing people in the trees, dressed in robes, convinced that they were being stalked and were about to be murdered. Some believe the couple were indeed being stalked by a cult of some sort, and were specifically driven out of their car into the snow in an attempt to kill the couple via hypothermia, based on the female’s account of blacks and Mexicans in cult garb moving cars around to confuse them. There is something very dark and cult-like in Elaine, something that obviously killed the young people whose innards ended up as cat snacks. And cell phones wouldn’t have saved the dead couple in Elaine either.

Does this mean anything? Probably not. But maybe?

Last point I niggled around with was Pastor Toivo, the repulsive televangelist whose giddiness describing biblical incest was unnerving. Later the pastor revealed he himself had been having sex with his daughter, named Elaine of course, and had sired children with her. Agnes’s father doesn’t have much of a reaction to any of this and says that he knows Pastor Toivo and that he can introduce Chris to him. Agnes’ father, Karl, says Toivo isn’t that much of a kook once you get to know him. If Ben revealed Toivo’s last name, I missed it, but “Toivo” means “hope” in Finnish. Pastor Toivo was the final nail in the coffin for me, so to speak, where Elaine was concerned. A lot of what is happening in Elaine can be explained away as just a young man experiencing sexual dreams under stress, a sad daughter acting strangely after her mother’s death, a small town that seems strange to outsiders, an overzealous police force with a Barney Fife level of incompetence combined with a demented blood lust. But Pastor Toivo? What father is okay with a man who uses the Bible to justify raping his daughter and having children with her? Who can look at such behavior and call it kooky? There’s something very wrong in Elaine and even the common folk there don’t seem to recognize it.

There’s more in this book to analyze, from the sexual behavior of the Elaines to a cloying figurine with an upsetting spiritual message. But you can also ignore all of my digging around and just enjoy the strangeness and upsetting nature of the book, which is often softened a bit by some of the ridiculous things that happen to Chris. Ben’s style is one I enjoy – he paints a picture without excruciating scene setting. He uses caricatures of specific behavior to paint ambiguous looks at surprisingly complex characters. It’s an enjoyable book that doesn’t require the sort of poking I do to enjoy it. But, if like me, you have a love of Finland combined with a lot of knowledge about weird stuff that resonates with you as you read, this book may become a bit more than a story of a young man in love being swallowed up by a weird town full of malignant people.

I recommend this book and really need for Ben to explain what Elaine is. I’m very likely on the wrong path, not seeing what Ben is hoping to convey in Elaine, but even if I am completely lost, it was still an enjoyable trip. This is a book that invokes a sort of creepy, insular pagan behavior that causes outsiders to call out for a cleansing fire, though who should burn isn’t entirely clear. Have a read and let me know how you feel at the end.

 

*Invariably, when I mention my desire to live somewhere in Scandinavia, people helpfully mention that it is cold there. It’s evidently very hard for people to believe a native Texan would want to go to some place so cold, and I guess they figure I must not know that Finland is a bit nippy at times and want to save me from making a terrible mistake. To me, the weather in Finland seems delightful because the only time they really seem like they are sweltering is when they specifically recreate in their saunas the conditions I find on my back porch nine months out of the year. Though as I type this I am sort of remembering how awful the February snow storm was, but I suspect Finland doesn’t have the same grid issues we have in Texas and I would have access to heat when the snow begins to fall in Helsinki.

No Sympathy for the Incel

Last summer Ann Sterzinger asked me to participate in a podcast with alt.right writer Andy Nowicki in which we discussed incels.  “Incel” is a portmanteau that combines the words “involuntary celibacy.”  Incels, mostly young, alienated men, had (and have) been in the news due to several deadly rampages committed by young men with links to or assumed to be part of incel culture. This conversation took place shortly after the Santa Fe high school shooting, wherein a young man shot and killed ten people.  Sometimes the media got it right – Alek Minassian, the man who ran a van into a crowd in Toronto, was undeniably part of incel culture. The affiliation was far less clear with Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the young man who shot up the high school in Santa Fe, Texas, even though one of his victims was a girl who had refused to be his girlfriend. Either way, both attacks were presented as incel rampages in the press and suddenly all across the Internet people were talking about incels, as each month seemed to bring a new attack committed in the name of incel-ery.

The discussion with Andy dealt more with the macro of incel-ery, the big picture of how it is we’ve ended up with a group of unhappy and often unstable young men who loathe women, successful men, feminism, and the modern world.  I tend to focus on the micro, the individuals who make up movements, so I’m unsure how much I added to the conversation.  I wish I had been more on the ball because Andy Nowicki asked a very good, very humane question that this article is going to attempt to answer.

Andy wanted to know why it is that people find it so easy to mock and deride incels when they share what for them is very real, very tangible pain regarding their role in the modern world.  We laugh at these young men in a way we would not laugh at women who share their own pain.  Though there are a lot of ideas that “incel” covers, the primary issue often boils down to men who are angry or sad that they cannot have the sorts of sexual relationships they prefer with the sorts of women they prefer.

However, when you look at the whole of what fuels this sort of discontent, you see a group of human beings who feel like the modern world has stripped them of all dignity, decent employment prospects, and possible family life.  Plenty focus their anger on the lack of sex that named the subculture but they also speak in depth about humiliations they experienced or perceived when just trying to talk to a woman, apply for a job, speak in class, go to a gym, pay for cigarettes and on and on.

It’s a litany of human misery and it’s interesting that among leftists who decry “toxic masculinity,” those very people find it easy to mock men who report crying when being rejected or rebuffed, who reveal vulnerability when they report their inability to reach basic cultural milestones. It’s a question worth asking – why do we mock these particular men who reveal their weaknesses?

There are several answers to this question.  Among them: chivalry isn’t dead yet and we live in a culture in the West wherein we punish emotional response in men while rewarding it in women.  But it’s curious that many still mock incels even after seeing the harm these disenfranchised young men can do.

Initially, when people see the entitled whining some incels engage in online, people mock them because if you aren’t experiencing youthful angst yourself, reading it wears thin and can seem ridiculous.  But we continue to mock them after seeing incel mass murders because there’s something inherently ridiculous in the idea that anyone would consider sex such a natural human right that they could justify murder in the name of libido.

This is a very long article, tl;dr on a grand scale.  The rest is under the cut.

Perversity Think Tank by Supervert

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Perversity Think Tank

Author: Supervert

Type of Book: Non-fiction, human sexuality, pornography, psychology, philosophy

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This tiny book’s arrangement is in itself odd, with a scholarly discussion running across the top of the pages, a more personal narration running across the bottom, and large, black squares over all the pictures. Then there’s the content…

Availability: Published by Supervert in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I have a pretty serious book crush on Supervert. Every now and then you come across an author who seems very much like he or she is on your wavelength, whose words seem like they could have come out of your own brain. Supervert is one of those authors for me. I felt a great amount of kinship reading a few of the stories in Necrophilia Variations (and yeah, when you say that, when you admit a book with this particular title spoke to you directly, you are making a certain statement about yourself and now that I am officially a harmless, middle-aged woman, I feel I am safe making any sort of admission I want). I found myself nodding a lot when reading Perversity Think Tank as the book tried to answer the question of “What is Perversity?”

If I didn’t know this before reading the book, I now understand that defining perversity can be very much akin to holding mercury but Supervert manages to nail down some interesting perspectives on the topic. Mostly, I walked away knowing what perversity isn’t, while marveling that there is another human being on the planet who had thought about the complete narcissism that is involved in reproductive incest, which I will discuss in a moment.

Supervert has a unique insight into perversion. He ran the site PervScan, wherein he scoured news for anything with a hint of sexual deviance to it. While this book was inspired by the musings that the PervScan articles inspired, this is not a compilation of the site’s “greatest hits” though a couple of cases are referenced in the book. Rather, the book uses a couple of cases to ponder what comprises perversion and what does not. Interestingly, compiling all those stories of strange acts showed Supervert that most of the acts he cataloged were not true perversion.

Many of the acts I covered on PervScan – like the three middle-aged brothers who sexually assaulted their bedridden mother while she lay suffering amid lice, roaches, and fecal matter – struck me less as perverse than as ignorant, heedless, cruel. There were days when I thought my compendium of deviant doings was nothing more than a catalogue of errors in judgement and lapses in common sense.

This was an incredibly important point to me because despite my own self-admitted sympathy for the devil as well as an abiding interest in the bizarre and perverted, even I find myself defining any deviation from the norm, up to and including the worst sexual crimes, as perversion when really what was at work was psychopathy or a sub-normal intellect.

Moreover, as Supervert read more and more examples of sexual oddity, that which had seemed somewhat perverted before now seemed somewhat tame.

After you’ve read about a guy who wants to eat his own penis, you feel like you’ve pretty much heard it all. How could mere exhibitionism seem perverted in comparison to a man who wants to fry his genitalia in a pan?

I know, this isn’t the most profound of statements, but it struck me that I don’t know another single person in real life who speculates on such things, who has, in fact, heard it all to the point that little shocks them and the outre seems positively normal and comforting. I often feel as if my interest in perversion is a perversion in and of itself. I wish I knew more people who know the ins and outs of the Armin Meiwes case or all the details about Sharon Lopatka because it would make me happy to know other suburbanites with gray hair and festive glasses and a love of kittens wouldn’t throw me out of their houses if they knew what goes into and on in my head.

Supervert discusses all the various meanings of perversion. He discusses one of the first philosophical interpretations of perversion, an easy conclusion that many have reached before – that sexual perversion is any act that thwarts reproduction. Easy enough but it means that a married couple who have sex after the wife has experienced menopause are therefore perverts and so that really doesn’t fit. Additionally, Supervert brings up Sade, who wrote in The 120 Days of Sodom about a libertine who wanted to masturbate and ejaculate on the crowning head of an infant as it was born. This perversion can only happen because of human reproduction so really, in a sense, this shows the complete creativity involved in true perversion and how useless most definitions of perversion can be. Freud defined perversity as any sex act that diverted the focus of sex from the sex organs. Sort of limiting and pretty much results in everyone who has ever done anything sexual with their hands or mouths in the bedroom in being labeled a pervert and the more the merrier, right? But sweeping generalizations like these do no one any good in understanding the true nature of perversion.

The book brings up all the usual suspects like Sade but then it also discusses those whose opinions on sex are suspect at best and therefore were hilarious to me. The sad, misogynistic, sexually inept Schopenhauer makes an appearance, to my delight. Evidently, he had a foot in a pre-Freud camp that indicated that perversion was anything not involving sex organs because it ensured that those who had bad genes that made them perverts could not reproduce and pass on their defects. Which makes my lack of children somewhat interesting but then again, as Supervert reminds us, Sade had three children. Oh lord, I hate Schopenhauer. His ideas of failsex can only inspire derision in me, his very name makes me groan, and mileage, of course, always varies, but I rather enjoyed the times in this book when I felt provoked.

It was during the discussion on incest that my book crush on Supervert was confirmed. The first part was obvious, but nothing that I had ever really considered. Supervert discusses the perversion in incest and comes to an interesting conclusion. The inbred yokel who has sex with his daughter is likely not doing it in order to violate the taboo of inter-familial sex. Rather, he is doing it because she is likely the only available girl. It is an act of availability that while repellent, is not all that perverse. It is a far different thing for a father to desire his daughter because she is his daughter, or a mother to desire her son because he is her son. A key part of perversion, as far as Supervert is concerned, is consideration for the act itself and not just the easy, sloppy depravity that makes a person simply have sex with whomever or whatever is closest.

But here’s the thing that surprised me anyone else had considered (and secretly thrilled me because when one entertains dark and perverted thoughts, one never thinks anyone else would even in a million years think the same thing): the narcissism present in deliberate incest.

A libertine doesn’t molest his daughter because she just happens to be there. A libertine molests his daughter because he consciously wants to create a being who is both his child and his grandchild – and still a future sex object itself. Then he molests that daughter/granddaughter hybrid to obtain another new being who is child, grandchild, great grandchild – and still sex object.

Once you get to a certain point in this process, the end result is an appalling creation that is more or less masturbation by proxy.

The incestuous libertine approaches ever closer to a reproductive act whose result is a child 100% himself, and yet that ultimate point is always deferred by increasingly small percentages. The libertine can never quite dispense with the shred of genetic material that belongs to the maternal line, and yet the fact remains that, by fucking the offspring of his own offspring, he is inevitably fucking more and more of himself.

It is this awareness of the act and the results that is quite important when considering perversion:

And that, as Sade recognized, is one of the most striking characteristics of perversity: it is deliberate, self-conscious, pellucid. Its hallmark is… its intentionality… The libertine is able to reflect on his unwholesome activities. Self-awareness makes his pleasures all the greater.

Though Supervert discusses much, much more than these conclusions in the book, I think this is quite important and possibly the greatest revelation in this book for me. Too often people with dire sexual compulsions are labeled perverts, people with little control over their acts or those governed by a need that is innate and defies any sort of consciousness. Perversion, as a philosophical approach to depravity, requires far more than a compulsive need or a thoughtless action.

The only part of this book that I found the least bit disagreeable was Supervert’s passage about how rape could possibly be a part of the evolutionary process.

Evolutionary biologists have pointed out that natural selection provides an obvious impetus for it, insofar as rape improves the rapist’s chances for reproductive success. That my friend was raped in Central Park was symbolic: in the greatest swath of grass and trees in New York, she was subject to the Darwinism of her attackers.

Back when I first heard this particular line of thinking many years ago in an anthropology class in college, I was skeptical. Even 100,000 years ago, didn’t women understand the causality between sex and pregnancy even if they did not understand the exact mechanism? Raped women often don’t look kindly on the offspring of rape. If they couldn’t abort, those children were likely abandoned or exposed, or were raised less kindly. The men in societies where their spouses were subject to rape would also have reacted poorly. The rapists were likely subject to physical violence that made them rethink any impulse for rape, if they survived the violence. Or they would get kicked out of the tribe they lived in and would have had a far harder time at surviving at all. If there was ever a genetic code for rape to ensure one’s genetic material lived on, it likely got killed off when the offspring of such unions were subject to abortion, abandonment or resentful care and the men themselves violently neutralized before they could spread very much seed at all. Even if women only became aware of how pregnancy happened during recorded history, I would think that societal reactions to rape would still be enough to wipe out any gene that causes rape within a dozen or so generations. Or that was my knee jerk reaction. It seems there are some who know quite a bit of evolutionary psychology who agree. But regardless of which side is correct, is interesting to me, analyzing what about our sexual natures, dark and not-so-dark, can be seen as innate or learned, or just the result of a bad brain.

Supervert’s book is full of enlightened explanations of the philosophy and reasoning behind some sex acts even I can look at and call bizarre, or perverted, and at times, the best parts of the book were his discourses on the blacked-out images. These images were varied and covered a lot of ground. Like men who like to ejaculate into a woman’s eye. Like a pornographer who wanted to make a skin flick out of a woman giving birth. Like an almost touching picture of a couple on a bed, the man smoking, the woman lying on her side, staring at the man. Like the solipsistic nature of POV porn. Like his reaction to a simple painting and how this painting shows clearly how alone the pervert is in his or her own mind. Like a piece of art that provokes thoughts as to whether or not autoerotic asphyxiation is a perveme (he discusses pervemes in the book – perversion memes). Like a bestiality film clip that proved there is indeed a noise that can inspire disgust. Yeah, I think I most enjoyed Supervert’s reactions to the art he deliberately blocks out of the book.

This book isn’t for everyone but if you are a fellow traveler on certain roads, you will want to get this book. If you do read it or have already read it, I’d love to know how you read it. I read the “top half” from beginning to end, then read the “bottom half.” I paused during the bottom half to read the descriptions that accompanied the blacked-out pictures. I read the book in this manner twice, then looked up the pictures (or as many as were available online) and reread the descriptions. For a small, straightforward book, it requires a lot of attention. While definitely salacious enough to inspire prurient thoughts in those who are simply in this for the titillation, the book is not technically pornography, because the goal is to inspire interaction and thought rather than sexual arousal. In fact, the way the book is set up demands interaction and close attention and is a book I will probably reread again soon. And though I am unsure if the book available on Amazon has the same brown dust jacket as the copy I have, even without it this book is quite lovely. Books as small works of art are rare these days.

(And in the name of all that is sane, of course I don’t advocate incest, pedophilia, bestiality or any non-consensual sex act. It horrifies me that in the course of merely reviewing a philosophical discussion of perversity I have to make this point clear, but perverse thoughts do not equal advocacy nor do they indicate an unsound mind. Any comment along the line of OMG GROCE or a juvenile assertion that exploring these issues is a de facto advocacy of harmful acts will not get deleted because I will be forced to mock such comments because I am weary, oh lord am I weary. )