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  • Girls, Sex, and Theory
  • Elisabeth Sheffield (bio)
Maidenhead. Tamara Faith Berger. Coach House Books. 176 pages; paper, $18.95, ePub eBook $12.95, PDF eBook $12.95.

When I was a girl, still freshly deflowered, I liked to read books like this. Books like this being books by writers such as the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille—writers whose intellectual as well as erotic influence smuts the pages of Tamara Berger's Maidenhead (2012; a finalist for this year's Ontario Trillium Book Award). When I was a girl, I read such books not simply for titillation, but with a sense of imaginative sovereign power. All those pages of fucking, sucking, urinating, flogging, flaying, bound in the same sedate gloss that covered my paperback editions of Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger, not to mention Irigaray and Cixous—I read and exulted in my mind's ability to go anywhere, to "do" anything, no matter how shameful or shaming.

To say that my body followed suit, or that I sought such abject adventures off the page would be a lie. At the same time, I did seek actual carnal knowledge of the kind you don't write home to mother (hungry, like Hannah, the "smart girl" lead in the contemporary hit tv show, Girls, for kinkier fruit, even if it left me with a bad taste in my mouth and an "off" feeling in my head.) And books like Bataille's Story of the Eye (1928) and Erotism (1962) helped with its digestion. That scary loss of self that comes with arousal, for instance: well, "Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognized and stable individuality." But finally, theory was theory and praxis was simply sex, sometimes good, and sometimes not.

Myra, the 16-year-old narrator of Maidenhead (who turns 17 over the course of her story), attempts to create a continuum between erotic theory and praxis. She claims to be writing an essay, one that draws on Bataille, Hegel, and Giorgio Agamben to demonstrate how "pornography links up the internal, the external and the fantastical ways that we are not yet in the world with the ways that we might very well be." And all the theorizing while, she wants the dirty "picture in [her] head to be true"; she wants (she claims) not just to conceptualize, but also "to enact all [her] porn."

White, Canadian Myra finds guidance in her sexo-sophical quest in Elijah, a "black, flawless, shining," thirty-ish Tanzanian musician she meets on the beach while vacationing in Key West with her family, and in his African-American girlfriend Gayl, a maker of pornographic films. Although her name recalls Gore Vidal's Myra Beckinridge, "whom no man will ever possess," Myra decides she wants to be Elijah's and Gayl's "slave." Apparently, what qualifies these two characters to take on the task of Myra's subjugation is their own: "I met two slaves when I was sixteen years old. I met them and they taught me I had to change my life."

By indenturing herself to Elijah and Gayl, Myra seeks not simply to actualize her fantasies, but to be "shocked…out of [her] dream, [her] old way of thinking." She wants to be "slapped and punched into being by a slapped and punched being." She claims that she "need[s] to be cracked," to lose "the protection [she] was born with." "Protection" means, of course, "the family pen," or the privilege of her white, comfortably middle-class upbringing. "Protection" also seems to signify the unquestioning self-certainty of "girlishness," the virginal impenetrability that is "epitomized" by her former high school friends, Jen and Charlene (whom she dumps after taking up with Elijah and Gayl).

As Myra narrates the story of her education in Elijah and Gayl's school of hard porn, a chorus of sorts provides commentary. The chorus is comprised of Gayl and another black woman, Lee, an anarchist pot dealer whom Myra meets in the process of breaking with Jen and Charlene. Their voices both critique and support Myra's narrative, as if...


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