Review by Marc Lowe
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Published by Dalkey Archive Press
The fourth (short) novel of Belgian-born American author Alain Arias-Misson, Theater of Incest, is anything but a comfortable read. For some, the taboo subject matter may immediately bring to mind work by Georges Bataille (e.g. Ma Mère), Nabokov's Lolita, and/or the film Spanking the Monkey. What most distinguishes this work from those examples, apart from its structure - which I will discuss in a moment - is the narrator's voice. Unlike with the manipulative "criminal" Humbert Humbert of Nabokov's novel, for instance, the reader of this work can never be quite sure whether the narrator is in fact aware that what he is doing is in any moral sense "wrong," or, if he is, that he considers it to be such. In fact, the entire exercise seems, more than anything else, a wholehearted celebration of incest, rather than a condemnation of it (and, by extension, a celebration of sex/sexuality in general). And this is what makes it such an intriguing, as well as unsettling, read.
The novel - which is really more of a novella in terms of its length (but let us not nitpick about labels here…) - is broken into three sections. The first deals with the narrator's sexual experiences with his own mother; the second with his daughter; and the third with his sister. Each of the three sections is further broken into mini-chapters with headings: in the first, we view the boy's, and later the man's, sexual acts through various "windows"; in the second, we watch them through various "doors"; and in the third, we finally have the Oedipal "Theater of Incest," opening with the section "Onstage" and closing with the section "Sacrifice of the Goddess." Incest here is made theatrical, is transformed into a play, as well as into "play" itself, a sort of spectator's game (spectator = reader/audience, but also the teller of the tale as he recalls his sexual adventures). Is this, though, a tragedy we are watching unfold? Or is it, rather, a sort of black comedy, one that the reader is supposed to laugh at? There is no poking out of eyes here, no bemoaning one's terrible, if inevitable, fate (though it's not all fun and games either: the mother sometimes becomes jealous of the narrator's relationship with his promiscuous daughter, and Thanatos and Eros - the night before the narrator's mother is buried he sleeps with a prostitute, for example - are evoked at times). While it would be both irresponsible and misleading to suggest that the book is "funny," there does seem to be a lightness to it that is lacking in, say, the work of the aforementioned Bataille, or of a transgressive writer such as Alexander Trocchi. (Italo Calvino would approve, I think, though he might also be somewhat shocked by the content.)
A Freudian analyst could certainly go to town on this short, but dense, series of vignettes - which, taken together, form a sort of aberrant or grotesque sexual diary (beginning with the narrator's first glimpse of his mother naked when he was a child) - but this writer will not attempt such a complex and daunting analysis here. What he will point out, however, is that the narrator frequently attempts to analyze himself and his own actions, and that he is always self-conscious, aware of the artifice of (re)telling. In the end he concludes that
these family relationships constituted an obsessive theater - one that inheres in the very nature of such relationships. Whether with Mother or Daughter or Sister, such love is obsessive and requires histrionic representation. That is, by nature it is so dramatic and peculiar that it can only be theatrical - seen against the backdrop of everyday life. (Theater 122)
That is to say that, along with the narrator, we, the readers, are placed in the position of observers of this "Theater of Incest," without any indication as to whether we should accept or condemn the actions not only of the man telling the tales, but also of his mother, daughter, and sister, all of whom have been - it is not-so-subtly implied - willing participants in the play. We, of course, never get to hear their respective stories from their own mouths (the mother, at the time of the [re]telling, is already dead, for one thing), so ultimately it is impossible to say how reliable or forthright the narrator here is being, even if he doesn't play textual cat-and-mouse games the way a Humbert Humbert does. But isn't this generally so of many first-person (and some third-person) narrators? Aren't narrators always unreliable to an extent (i.e. because subjective)?
One final reading I'll suggest for the novel - though it's not necessarily more definitive than any other - is as a condemnation of prudery and a celebration of life. The narrator, after all, is never cruel or manipulative, even when engaged in S&M-style activities. His sexual experiences are described in prose that is bursting with love and passion for his subjects; his joie de vivre is apparent in practically every sentence. Who are we to judge?
All in all, Theater of Incest is a satisfying read that, while not exactly the kind of book one would wish to imbibe at the beach or listen to as an audiobook while taking a family road trip, has its merits as a philosophical treatise on such things as sexuality, incest, theater (viz. artificiality, artifice), and self identity/discovery. It will most likely remain a neglected work in the Americas, if not in Europe, because of its delicate, even shocking, subject matter, though the novel is anything but gratuitous or "pornographic," in this writer's opinion. That being said, he does not recommend it to those who aren't keen to read graphic descriptions of sex between family members, or who are offended by such depictions of sex in general. As for those hoping for titillation, best stick with the Internet and Romance novels.
Marc Lowe's book reviews have or will appear in American Book Review, Mad Hatters' Review, Neon Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook A Tour of Beaujardin and the e-book "Sui Generis" and Other Fictions, both from ISMs Press. Visit him at www.malo23.com.