Michael Turner’s debut novel, The Pornographer’s Poem, is neither pornographic, nor a poem, but there are passages in the book that achieve the poetic and the pornographic. It’s one of those narratives where if someone saw you reading it and asked what it was about, a simple recounting of the plot would be meaningless. You could possibly say that it’s the coming of age story about a teenage boy, nameless but slightly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, who starts making amateur porn films after spying on his neighbors and their Great Dane, but then gets sucked into the dangerous world of drugs, gangsters, and commercial porn. Has a best friend, Nettie. But their relationship is tumultuous at best with fights often culminating in sex. Then there’s the drug-dealer/porn king, Flynn who forces the narrator into the world of commercial porn. And then there’s the great soundtrack – Turner drops all the right music and musicians’ names into the mix which further sets the sinister mood. And then it’s also about the act of creation and creating and the role of the artist in society. The “and then” clauses could go on forever – this novel is like an onion and the reader just keeps peeling away layer after layer.
But it’s about so many more things than that and moving the plot from beginning to denouement to conclusion is simply not one of them. The Pornographer’s Poem is a dreamlike, startling, brooding, and multivalent metafictive exploration of the awakening of childhood/adolescent sexuality versus the façade of upper-middle class suburban life in the 1970s. It is also about the crossroads of art, pornography, and commerce, the implications of the camera’s or eyes’ gaze, and the subjective nature of the past and the truth, and the attempt to reconstruct both. That is, can we ever, like a camera, retell an event as it really was; and if we can’t tell it or show it, did it ever really happen? And is there a difference between telling and showing? Is something more truthful because we’ve recorded it and can show it or is the truth nothing more than how we remember something?
The Pornographer’s Poem is an impressive piece of thought-provoking prose that will unfortunately be marginalized into the transgressive fiction ghetto, if it gets noticed at all. This series of labyrinthine recollections from a narrator who admits to being a liar is far too complex for smut seekers, but will probably alienate those looking for a gentle read. Our nameless narrator raises all the “big” questions, especially concerning the nature of art and artifice conflated with the roles of observer and participant and what this all means in terms of the role of the artist. If you’re participating, how can you be recording the action; and if you’re recording the action, how can you participate in it. And once the action is recorded, is it removed from the actual experience? To push the envelope even farther, Turner plays with our sensibilities by delving, with relish, into many of our arbitrarily constructed taboos, causing the intelligent reader to question why we even have these taboos. The novel’s conclusion? An apocalyptic stewing of violent sexual imagery that climaxes in what the narrator calls “white on white.” And in a Finnegans Wake-like turn, the last question of the narrative simply loops the reader right back to page one (and this narrative does invite second, third, and fourth readings). Circle? Ouroboros? Moebius strip? Ohm? Yes.
The Pornographer’s Poem was a best-seller in Canada, but has garnered very little acclaim in the U.S. I cannot stop singing this novel’s praises – it is an original, a work of incredible imagination and courage that dares to probe the darkest underpinnings of the psyche while displaying a mastery of language and literary form. Can I compare it to anything? Maybe David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. Highly and enthusiastically recommended, but not for the easily offended.