Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Pornographer by John McGahern

Anyone looking for page after page of pornography will be disappointed, though there are certainly a few sex scenes in John McGahern’s The Pornographer. The story is about a young man who writes the traveling sexual escapades of Mavis and the Colonel in Ireland, but the thrust of the story is the relationship between him and a thirty-eight year old woman he gets pregnant. She wants to keep the baby, and he wants nothing to do with it and soon wants very little to do with her.

From a traditional moral standpoint (whatever that means) the title character has very little redeeming quality. Not only does he make his living by writing about wanton sex, but he seems to have no interest in new life; what’s around him already is all he needs. But this book is filled with opposites. He shows devotion and tenderness to his aunt Josephine, who is dying. He cares about his uncle, who runs a mill and buys farm land. Josephine’s husband Cyril, whom the lead doesn’t particularly like, has become a drunk and wants nothing to do with his wife, but she leaves everything to him. The pornographer brings a bottle of brandy to his aunt each time he visits her in the hospital, because it’s the only thing that she thinks is helping her.

As tender as he is with Josephine, he is as subtle as a hand job in his relationship with the woman he impregnates. Though she was thirty-eight, she had almost no sexual experience until she meets the pornographer in a dance club. Though initially reluctant, she acquiesces to his advances, but she doesn’t allow him to use condoms, explaining that she’s as regular as clockwork. When she becomes pregnant, he initially tells her that he’ll marry her, but his intention is to leave her once she’s had the child. He tells her he doesn’t love her and likely won’t love her. But she expects that once he sees the child, once he recognizes this change in his life, he’ll marry her.

I can’t say I particularly liked either of the main characters. No matter how many times the pregnant woman said he and she were “good people,” I was left unconvinced. She wanted to change a man who was not ready for change, he was a selfish pig. But neither can be said to have “no redeeming qualities.” She is capable of much love, despite her inexperience. She truly seems to love this man; he truly doesn’t deserve her. And the character a reader might best relate to is the pornographic publisher; he is the one who says the writer deserves to get his ass kicked – which eventually happens. He’s getting through this unsavory situation too easily. But even the publisher has his eccentricities, such as a dream of a baby stroller decked out as a coffin.

In the end, the pornographer has buried his aunt. And, having had another affair with one of his aunt’s nurses, he begins to change his opinion of his future. His uncles are moving forward with their lives. The new mother has overhauled her life due to him. And as the story closes, the pornographer begins to see new possibilities.

It’s the first book I’ve read by McGahern, who died this past March, and I don’t recall reading any of his short stories, though he’s highly regarded in that form. It’s a special talent to create characters that are both despicable and believable. I expect I’ll read him again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Aside from some pronoun problems that you have, it's an interesting review. Write more of them.