P by Andrew Lewis Conn
There was this guy I knew in college -- well-read, outspoken and crazy good at writing. The kind of guy who had the potential to be a Great Writer of Our Time, but for two fatal flaws: he couldn't stop ripping off his favorite writers, and he was one pretentious motherfucker, with no substance to his style. He should have gone to New York and spent his college years smoking in cafes and making little jokes about Sartre -- instead, he spent four years in Los Angeles, inflicting drug-frenzied performance art on his fellow students.
So when I started reading Andrew Lewis Conn's P, a great masturbatory ode to Joyce's Ulysses, I couldn't shake the nostalgic sense of watching a complete jackass chug a half-gallon of water in the name of art. Great writing, great intentions, but overall nothing but an experiment without purpose -- and thus, without merit.
Taken at face value, P has more than a touch of the absurd. Benji, a former porn star, now porn producer, is drifting through his New York existence, mired in memories of his dead ex-wife and former co-star. He encounters and befriends, over the course of his wanderings, a hyperintelligent ten-year-old girl who calls herself Finn, smokes pot, reads Nietzsche, and experiments with panhandling. After Finn goes missing and Benji helps to retrieve her, he and Finn's mother revive long-dormant passions with each other, culminating in a climax of words and emotions. Or something like that.
Like many pseudo-literate young people born during the late 20th century, Ulysses currently plays a major support role in the awkward architecture of my to-be-read pile, with a bookmark embedded at page 157. So I can't speak with complete authority on Conn's faithfulness to the original romp around Dublin (although I'm fairly certain there isn't an extended lecture in screenwriting on page 239), but the scent of remake, rather than inspiration, soaks every page.
Updated for the times with lengthy dissertations on the simple pleasures of the Pez dispenser, the colloquial English of modern America makes this a significantly easier read than Joyce's Irish vernacular. But little ventured, little gained -- the fun of Ulysses is finding today in yesterday, as perfectly rendered by Joyce's pen. After finishing P, the only enlightenment I've received is on the vagaries of the porn industry, and even these are crippled by my skepticism regarding Conn's depiction of Benji and his deceased wife as the Tracy and Hepburn of erotica, elevating the most crass of blue flicks with their obvious passion and love for each other.
And yet those passages were by far the most entertaining, perhaps because they were fresh, unique, unencumbered by the hubris of dead Irish writers. It is a shame that the characters couldn't reach this level. Benji and Finn stand apart from Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom; but the cause of their uniqueness is their complete unbelievability. After a lifetime in porn, I could perhaps buy that Benji would be bored by pornography -- but the slavish adoration marred by an extreme prudishness strains even my patience (and I liked The Matrix Reloaded). Finn, meanwhile, feels like a hallucination of a character, existing outside the confines of our reality, which normally insists that ten-year-olds not act like nihilistic twenty-nine-year-olds. (I could buy the pot-smoking, the Nietzsche, or the panhandling. I can't buy all three.)
There might actually be a good book within P, a tale of innocence lost and regained, with time spent developing the story, the characters and their relationships to each other, culminating in an ending with real emotional significance. But if it's there, it's buried under the hundreds of pages spent commemorating a book that lives on today, in to-be-read piles everywhere, and needs no memorial.
P by Andrew Lewis Conn
Soft Skull Press