The Chivalric Pornographer: Review of Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy

When I was younger I used to spend an inordinate amount of time hanging out with strippers. The circumstances behind this were more benign, or at least more complex, than you might guess. Fresh out of university I worked for several years as a factotum for an immigration lawyer, who for the sake of discretion we’ll call Mr. Greenberg. A hard-bitten, cigar-chomping former-Brooklynite with a face as spherical as a bowling ball, Mr. Greenberg had a daughter in her mid-20s named Cheryll (another pseudonym) who had a serious drug problem. Periodically she would crash at her widowed father’s place, beg him for money or, on occasion, steal from him. When she had an intermittent falling out with her dad or wanted to be more independent, the quickest way Cheryll had to make money was to work as an exotic dancer.

When Cheryll pulled her disappearing act, Mr. Greenberg would ask me to make sure she was safe, an easy enough task since she was a regular at a handful of clubs, whose dancers and clienteles I got to know well. I remember in particular one club frequented by a recently divorced engineering professor, bleary-eyed and middle-aged, who had a tendency to paternalistically dote on Cheryll and the other dancers, offering them advice on how they could improve themselves through education.

Looking back I’ve often wondered whether my motives were any more pure than those of the engineering prof, since there was no good reason why I, ostensibly a paralegal, should have spent so much time spelunking into strip clubs. At the time, I thought it was the decent thing to do, but if I were being honest, I’d have to confess that I enjoyed playing at being a hard-boiled detective, immersing myself in some fairly sleazy dives. Up until then, I had had an extremely sheltered suburban life, so this was my chance to indulge a voyeuristic slumming streak that I wasn’t even willing to acknowledge that I possessed.

Normally, I would not sully the august pages of Canadian Notes & Queries with such unseemly autobiographical reflections. But as it happens they are extremely pertinent to the novel the editors have sent my way, Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy, which deals with a college lecturer named Justin Harrison falling hard for a troubled young lady named Jenna Whibley, in the process becoming ensnared in her penumbric world of strip clubs and drug dealers.

HarperCollins, 2010

HarperCollins, 2010

Girl Crazy has had a mixed reception. Amid the mostly positive notices praising Smith for his compulsively addictive narrative and needle-sharp prose, there have been some harshly negative comments that demonstrate genteel bourgeois prissiness is alive and well in the Canadian literary world. Some reviewers have been hard put to believe that characters like Harrison and Whibley could actually exist, let alone be fit subjects for a work of art. “Is this how guys really are?” Chandler Levack asked on the Eye Weekly website. I hate to destroy any of the sweet illusions of youth, but, yeah, there are many guys, and indeed gals, who are quite as sex-obsessed as the characters in Smith’s book.

Verisimilitude isn’t the only criteria by which a novel can be judged, of course. If a writer is working on a fairytale, as Smith did with his novella The Princess and the Whiskheads, it might not even be relevant. Still, when Smith is composing fiction in his social observational mode, as he is in Girl Crazy, it is worth noting that he is an extremely accurate writer. The strip club milieu, not just the girls but also the clients and the larger netherworld that surrounds exotic dancing, is utterly convincing in this novel, described with great delicacy and attention to local texture. Girl Crazy, in short, is a terrific read and deals with aspects of contemporary life that have only rarely been touched on by Canadian writers, and almost never with Smith’s fidelity to observed reality. Given how accomplished it is, the novel should spur reflections on Smith’s literary stature.

Russell Smith is not Canada’s greatest writer. A formidable cohort of older authors, preeminently Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, will have to retire from competition before Smith has a shot at that title. But for more than a decade he has been, for me at least, Canada’s most fascinating writer, the author whose new books and stories I most eagerly anticipate, whose fiction I approach with a hopeful curiosity grounded in the fact that his early novels gave me a great deal of pleasure and each new volume, whether successful or not, shows a strenuous effort to expand his literary range.

Smith’s first two novels, How Insensitive (1992) and Noise (1998) brought to contemporary Canadian fiction a polished metropolitan wit, much influenced by the tradition of the British social novel best exemplified by Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. These novels made a splash because they described a frenzied Toronto of fashion-crazed clubsters and on-the-make journalists that, at the time, was a novelty in Canadian fiction, although in their wake the urban novel has become a robust genre in our literature. More valuably, Smith’s freshness of language has made his earliest fiction permanently valuable: I’ve returned to both novels over the years with renewed pleasure. Where once they offered news about hip Toronto, now they serve as an evocative time capsule of a long-gone milieu, just as Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930) offers the last word on 1920s London high society.

In a generally glowing review of Noise that ran in the Toronto Star on May 9, 1998, Philip Marchand complained that this novel, like its predecessor, suffered from “a certain narrative slackness.” According to Marchand, Smith’s “greatest weakness as a novelist may be his reluctance to consider the importance of story in shaping his material.”

Marchand’s review is a rare example of literary criticism that actually had a demonstrable practical effect. Smith has admitted that Marchand’s critique stung him and inspired him to take greater care in plotting. Perhaps because he needed to work on a smaller scale in order to change his approach to fiction, Smith’s newfound attention to plotting first became evident not in full-blown novels but in two curious short experimental works, The Princess and the Whiskheads (a 2002 novella that used fairytale conventions to comment on the relation between art and society) and Diana: A Diary in the Second Person (a compact 2003 porn novel). As in science, literary experiments aren’t always successful: I found The Princess and the Whiskheads a real chore to read given that Smith submerged all his native talents as a social observer of contemporary life in order to craft an elaborate allegory. But there is no denying that The Princess and the Whiskheads is a very well structured fable, indeed the finesse of plot is all the book has going for it.

Diana was a more successful experiment (or “exercise” as Smith called it). Sex had played an important but implied role in earlier books but it was only with Diana that Smith tackled the difficult job of writing about sex explicitly. The experience of writing the book opened him up as a novelist, and not just in his sex scenes. His earlier novels were marked by a degree of emotional reticence: his characters were motivated by strong desires and compulsions which they couldn’t name or confess to. Since the publication of Diana, the emotional lives of Smith’s characters are much more on display.

Perhaps because it was marketed explicitly as a stroke book, Diana hasn’t received the literary analysis it merits. In the first few chapters, Diana seems like typically episodic smut, one scene after another of foreplay in unusual places leading to the interlocking of two or more torsos. But half-way through the book these episodes start to cohere into an unexpected pattern: among other things the book turns out to be a reflection on 17th century Jansenist theology, a worldview which saw death as the necessary flipside of pleasure. Diana ends ambiguously since we’re not sure if our heroine is embracing her wild lover or a well-coifed incarnation of the grim reaper.

The ultimate outcome of Smith’s experiments are most evident in his two most recent novels: Muriella Pent (2004) and Girl Crazy. Both these novels are saturated with sex and very carefully structured. With its multiple points of view, Muriella Pent particularly deserves to be singled out as Smith’s most ambitious work to date, the one where his skills as a satirist are most successfully channeled into a wide-ranging and complex narrative that allows him to sympathetically portray an impressive range of characters.

More than any other writer of his generation, I’d argue, Smith is building up an oeuvre, a body of work that is both varied but held together by a certain consistent set of concerns. As such, Smith’s books can be read not just as discrete units (which is how book reviewers approach them) but also synoptically, the way Biblical scholars read the Gospels, with an eye towards recurring character-types, thematic obsessions, and narrative patterns. A synoptic reading of Girl Crazy, one that places the book in a larger and still unfolding Smithian canon, helps us see that in this novel he is re-writing, with a much greater concern for narrative propulsion, storylines found in his two earliest novels, How Insensitive and Noise.

If I had to sum up Russell Smith in a phrase I’d say he is a chivalric pornographer. His main male characters are repeatedly shown as being torn by two overlapping but conflicting imperatives: the chivalric fantasy of rescuing women in distress and the pornographic desire to enjoy consequence-free, uninhibited raunchy sex. While chivalric and pornographic narrative traditions both arguably have roots in patriarchy, they also exist in natural tension with each other, a tension which fuels the erratic behavior of Smith’s male characters.

The pornographic side of Smith’s work is easy enough to discern since the novelist has talked about it quite often, but the chivalric dimension of his fiction is worth highlighting. There is a recurring scene in Smith’s fiction where the hero encounters a teary-eyed woman, who draws him into her orbit and leads to both sex and emotional turmoil. The ur-text here is How Insensitive, where the hero Ted Owen is defined by his susceptibility to female weeping: sobbing leads him to be entangled with two very different young women, the slinky model Georgina and the chubby slacker Darlene “Go Go” Ryan. By the end of the novel Owen meets another woman and we can anticipate what happens by the novel’s last sentence: “She was crying.”

In How Insensitive, Owen’s ill-conceived hook-up with Ryan, a quickie that she takes more seriously than he does, leads to the novel’s main dramatic incident. Ryan disappears briefly and Owen and a friend have to go scouring through the grungier parts of Toronto to find her. In Noise, the magazine writer James Rainer Willing has a fling with scorchingly beautiful but troubled photographer Nicola Lickson, a black-clad “Ebola babe” who weeps prior to their first intimacy. Willing and Lickson team up to do a magazine article but when her photos are due she mysteriously stops returning her lover’s phone calls. Working with a friend, Willing has to cycle around downtown Toronto to find her. In Girl Crazy, Justin Harrison’s entanglement with Jenna Whibley starts when he comes across her at an open air phone booth, crying and calling an ambulance. After he helps her through a medical crisis, Harrison and Whibley briefly become lovers. When Whibley drops out of Harrison’s life he, like Owen and Willing before him, has to journey into the skuzzier and hairier sections of Toronto to find her.

A critic of archetypes like Northrop Frye would say that all three of these novels echo the myth of Orpheus, the hero who descends into the underworld in a failed attempt to rescue his love. But in these three novels, Smith’s hero can also be described as an unsuccessful knight, an adherent to a courtly ideal in a world where it no longer makes sense. On his first date with Nicola, James Willing formed a futile plan “to hail a taxi and accompany Nicola to her apartment, where he would in a gentlemanly fashion ascertain her safe entrance and nobly flee.” In Girl Crazy, Jenna Whibley describes Justin Harrison as “a really nice guy. A real gentleman.”

These nods towards the gentlemanly ideal are deeply ironic because in Smith’s Darwinian social world there are really only two types of men: dweebs (who let others push them around) and douchebags (the guys who do the pushing). Variations of the word douchebag (douchy, douche) recur frequently in Girl Crazy, a novel that can be described briefly as the story of a dweeb who learns to be a douchebag. Some of the negative reaction to Girl Crazy comes from the fact that Justin Harrison is such an unlikable character, a single-minded lech. But the desire for novels only featuring uplifting or edifying action betrays a childish literary taste; certainly there have been many great novels about characters who are much worse than Justin Harrison.

Like men, women tend to come in two types in these novels: mildly neurotic but sensible ninnies (the off-stage girlfriend Janet in How Insensitive, Allison in Noise, Genevieve in Girl Crazy) or psychotic sex-babes (Georgina in How Insensitive, Nicola Lickson in Noise, Jenna Whibley in Girl Crazy.) The title Girl Crazy has a double meaning, referring not only to a man who is obsessed with a girl (Justin Harrison) but also a girl who is crazy (Jenna Whibley). Again, it is hard not to see parallels with Smith’s earlier fiction. In How Insensitive, Ted Owen says about Darlene Ryan “she’s so crazy.” In Noise, James Harrison sees someone who reminds him of Nicola Lickson and remarks, “another beautiful mad girl.”

The germ for Girl Crazy can be seen in chapter 18 of Noise, where James Harrison, while searching for Nicola Lickson, briefly assists a crying girl. It’s instructive to compare this chapter of Noise with the first chapter of Girl Crazy.

From Noise:

He crossed the street and waited at the phone. The swinging doors were missing from the booth. There was a girl on the phone, a teenager. She wore baggy jeans and had a bare midriff. She kept poking her head out the booth and looking around the street, and James saw that she was crying, sobbing even, and that her eye makeup had run on her cheeks. She was saying, ‘I don’t have another quarter, so can you promise it’s on its way?’ Her voice was whiny and hiccupping.
James backed off a bit and looked at his watch.
‘Sir? Sir’ She was talking to him. ‘Can you do me a favour?’
‘I don’t have any money.’ . . .
When he came out, she was sitting on the curb, doubled over. People were passing by. He sat next to her. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘there’s cream and sugar in that, you should drink it, and that’s plain water.”
‘I’m hemorrhaging,’ she said, flatly, as if saying, ‘I’m tired.’

In Girl Crazy, Justin Harrison is trying to call his former girlfriend Genevieve when he first notices a striking girl at the phone booth:

The girl was kicking a running shoe against the post that supported the phone. As he stood beside her and picked up the receiver on the next phone he heard her say, “I’ve been here fifteen fucking minutes. I’ve called twice already.”
He glanced over and smiled. She jerked her head towards him and he saw her face, her violently blue eyes. She had full lips, some pale freckle over her nose. And her eye makeup was smudged, as if she had been crying. She did not smile at him. She turned her head away.
He glanced at her breasts as he dialed. They were quite full, and the nipples were clearly visible under the stretchy stuff. And there was a silver stud in her belly button, and maybe another tattoo poking up from her groin.
Genevieve’s phone rang and rang and then her perky message came on. And he hung up.
“I don’t have another quarter,” said the girl. Can you please promise me it’s on its way?” Then she slammed her receiver down and put her face in her hands. She turned away from Justin and leaned against the plastic awning of the phone . . . .
Justin leaned his bike against the telephone and walked over to her. He bent down. “Excuse me. Are you all right?”
She looked up at him. She had definitely been crying. Her forehead was turning pink in the sun. She said, “Could you do me a favour?”
Justin stood up. If she was going to ask him for money, he would walk away.
“Could you just look down the street and see if there’s an ambulance coming?”
“Sure.” He stepped out into the road and looked east. The traffic was immobile for as far as he could see. The air over it shimmered. “Not right now, no. Did you call one?”
She put her head down on her knees again.
“Listen,” said James, “You’re really pale. You should get out of the heat. Can I get you some water?”
“I’m hemorrhaging,” she said flatly, as if saying, I’m tired.

In juxtaposing these two similar passages, I should be clear that my goal is not to play gotcha literary criticism. Quite the reverse: what is interesting about these two passages is that even though there is a strong overlap in narrative content (the classic literary critics called it “the matter”) they read very differently. While Smith might be revisiting some of his earlier narrative obsessions in the new book, stylistically it is a very different animal from How Insensitive and Noise.

Possibly under the influence of Elmore Leonard and Michael Winter, Smith has become a much brisker, more fast-paced novelist. Gone are the elaborate, tarted-up chatty sentences that characterized his earlier books, replaced by punchy paragraphs that always keep the action moving forward. Aside from literature, cinema is an obvious influence and Girl Crazy pulls the reader along at a fast clip like a good thriller by Alfred Hitchcock or Roman Polanski. Rare for a literary novel, Girl Crazy is so successfully tense that it makes your stomach tighten up as you read it.

Consider again the sentence quoted earlier from Noise describing James Willing’s chivalric intention. The sentence in full reads: “Having successfully righted her/him, James’s jacket coming into contact with quantities of beige pancake makeup, they continued toward a brightly lit corner, with a vague plan forming in James’s mind to hail a taxi and accompany Nicola to her apartment, where he would in a gentlemanly fashion ascertain her safe entrance and nobly flee.” To enjoy this sentence, you have to linger over the details: the mock bureaucratic precision of her/him, the detail about the “beige pancake make up” and the juxtaposition of this awkward scene with James’s intent to act “in a gentlemanly fashion . . . and nobly flee.” (The oxymoron of a noble flight itself is chortle-worthy.) This is exactly the sort of sentence that Smith avoids writing in Girl Crazy: instead we have smaller, more tightly focused sentences that keep pushing the narrative forward.

There’s been both a gain and a loss in Smith’s evolution as a writer. Girl Crazy is much more intensely harrowing and involving than anything he’s written before. Just as Justin finds himself irresistibly drawn into Jenna’s world, the reader also has a hard time escaping the tug of the story. Once begun, this is a very hard book to set aside. Especially effective are the powerfully written sex scenes in the novel, notable not just for their explicitness but also for the way sex is convincingly shown to be integral to the emotional lives of the main characters.

On the negative side, I have to say part of me misses the discursive intellectual play of Smith’s earlier novels, even though I know such lofty digressions would slow down the hurtling story. In all of Smith’s previous books, the main characters experienced an aesthetic awakening or reawaking: the ups and downs of their personal lives were tied to their relationship with art. Girl Crazy is a much harsher and darker novel than Smith’s earlier works in part because no such aesthetic awareness is available. We’re told that long ago Justin Harrison had writerly aspirations but they aren’t evident in his actions: his single-minded, almost addictive, hunger for sex (and the social power that goes with sex) defines the limits of his sensibility.

In fact, one could go further and say that Harrison isn’t so much interested in sex as he is in underwear. Thongs in particular are a major fixation. One of the first things Harrison notes about Jenna Whibley is the thongs she has on, and from that point on there are countless thong-references in the novel. To be sure, Smith’s interest in this tiny bit of female apparel dates back a long way. In How Insensitive, Ted Owen makes note of Georgina’s “thong-back underwear” and Diana contains an unsettlingly blunt description of what makes thongs so sexy. But not until Girl Crazy have we had a Smith novel where female undergarments are so frequently and prominently discussed that they need to be considered part of the subtext of the work.

In a review for the National Post, Richard Greene complained that Girl Crazy was “lazily written.” Greene cited two sentences that failed to obey the old-fashion rule about the need for elegant variation: “The apartment was smoky with fish oil and smoke.” And: “There was a woman on the stage under purple light, writhing around in a not unusual manner, and the usual scattered guys close to the stage.” These sentences are best understood though by remembering that, as in How Insensitive and Noise, Smith has fashioned a narrative voice that mimics the main protagonist. Ted Owen was an aspiring writer and James Willing an ambitious journalist: not surprisingly their stories were told in a richer diction than the one Smith has crafted to describe the world of an erstwhile writer who has abandoned his vocation.

Quibbles aside, Girl Crazy deserves to be hailed as a worthy addition to Smith’s growing backlist. Like all serious writers, Smith has a collection of obsessions and themes that he keeps returning to. One mark of his quality is that upon each return to his personal mine, he digs deeper than before and manages to bring up something fresh and unexpected. As long as he continues to write books like this, he’ll remain Canada’s most interesting writer.

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2 Responses to The Chivalric Pornographer: Review of Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy

  1. The Walrus says:

    [...] For a more literary take on the subject of strippers, readers might enjoy my review of Russell Smith’s recent novel Girl Crazy, which also deals with this [...]

  2. Lachlan Murray says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful overview of Smith’s body of work. I found the insights, and connections you make, interesting. I’m about one-third of the way through Girl Crazy, and what you say about pace in comparison to Smith’s earlier books is certainly palpable. I wonder if Smith, with subject matter, style, pacing, and so on, was hoping for a literary novel that was also a popular success. Does that happen anymore? I’m not sure what the current status of the film version is, but it will be interesting to see if a film focuses significant attention back on the book.

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