by Nic Kelman
October 12, 2003
By Nic Kelman.
Little, Brown, $22.95.
The concept of young love takes on a sinister connotation in Nic Kelman's first novel, in which men who have reached a certain age and a certain level of wealth pursue women half their age -- or younger -- with a vampiric lust. Echoing ''Lolita,'' Kelman paints a disturbing composite portrait of men who approach sex with young women as a kind of rejuvenating sacrament. ''You want to possess them, yes,'' the reader is told in a knowingly man-to-man voice. ''But like a spirit, not an owner.'' And so, in a series of dreamlike vignettes, Kelman's men find themselves doing things like feigning injury while vacationing at a friend's house in order to stay at home with the friend's barely teenage daughter. Recklessly, men who have everything consume those who exemplify what they have long since lost: innocence, curiosity, openness, energy. But as Kelman's stories pile up, they have less to do with young women than with the madly insecure men who desire them. Kelman insightfully portrays male fear and desire -- though the annoyingly irrelevant quotations from Homer peppered throughout suggest a kind of insecurity on his part -- but the protagonists' uniformity undercuts any larger resonance. We see the men's expensive slacks, their ostrich-skin wallets, but their faces are blank. Nabokov's brilliance was to evoke, through one man's madness, a latent weakness in every man; by diluting male lust in a parade of identical fat cats, Kelman trades universality for a kinky stereotype.
October 12, 2003
When having it all doesn't mean anything
The craving for younger women explored in unsettling first novel
Reviewed by Kim Hedges
By Nic Kelman
LITTLE, BROWN; 224 PAGES; $22.95
In his new novel, "Girls," Nic Kelman presents us with a certain type of man: the affluent, ambitious but spiritually bereft middle-aged businessman for whom the kicks of champagne, private jets, motorcycles, expensive cigars, $1,200 pens, houses with 11 bathrooms, skydiving, video games, heroin, his career, his "wonderful, understanding wife," his girlfriend and pretty much his life in general have worn off. This type of man's life-affirmer of choice is much-younger women.
The theme of older men craving young women may call to mind another famous literary figure with a similar fixation: Humbert Humbert of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." But before such comparisons wander too far, it should be noted that "Girls" is not another "Lolita," nor are Kelman's men Humbert Humberts. Among their differences is the fact that, while Humbert Humbert's nymphet was practically otherworldly in her charm, the girls of Kelman's novel are all too human, and, thus, corruptible (at least in the eyes of the narrators), and it is precisely this capacity for corruption that is part of their appeal.
Structurally, "Girls" is a collection of vignettes ranging from one sentence to several pages long. Most of the vignettes involve the narrators' wistfully yet cynically relating experiences they have had with younger women, although interspersed throughout are also excerpts from "The Iliad" and interesting but bleak asides on the etymology of such words as "love" "work" and certain profanities for penis and vagina. It is not clear exactly how many narrators there are, but the majority of them are regrettably prone to some distracting stylistic quirks -- most notably, heavy use of the second person ("You are sitting outside your house . . . you are looking at the front door") and odd, sometimes unintentionally amusing speculative phrases ("And maybe as you eat you look over at a bar . . . and maybe when you are done eating you find yourself driving across the street"; "You might have had a dog once"). When the stylistic quirks aren't distracting, though, the snapshot-like vignettes are a provocatively effective format for presenting so many acute, stark pieces of evidence in what seems to be a mounting case against traditional love and marriage.
For the most part, Kelman's narrators come across as selfish and obnoxious, sometimes even mind-bogglingly so; some of their obnoxiousness lies in the very predictability of their remarks. Their favorite young lovers are the women they perceive to be the most unworldly and naive, and they regularly deny the possibility of their lovers possessing much intellect. One narrator goes so far as to compare the experience of "indulging" a young bedmate to that of setting a happy dog loose to frolic on a beach. Also noteworthy is the narrators' tendency to deflect responsibility for their actions or conditions. One man, speaking in his mind to his ex who had begun to ask him uncomfortably direct questions (e.g., "If I brought another girl home with me, would you sleep with her?," "How much do you love me?"), thinks: "Why did you ask me those questions if you didn't want to hear the answers? Why did you teach me to lie to you?" Other times, narrators justify their actions by referring to the competition-inducing existence of other men. In other words, the girlfriend may have made him do it, or other men may have made him do it, but you can't blame it on the guy himself.
But there's the rub: Can you blame it on the guy? Are Kelman's narrators despicable, or are they just being true to themselves? Are they inherently bad men, or are they simply not functioning well within society's artificial constructs? And what, anyway, is artificial and what is real?
More than one vignette suggests that it is not actually true love that is so improbable and artificial, but monogamy. One such vignette involves the narrator engaging in a rather successful threesome with his girlfriend and an old (male) friend of his. It's such a positive experience for him that you even begin to feel hope for the narrator and think that perhaps he will be able to establish an open relationship with his girlfriend and live happily ever after. But despite the positive experience, it still ends in deception: The girlfriend ends up having a one-on-one encounter with the friend that she urges the friend to keep secret from her boyfriend.
Despite the smattering of rapturous sexual encounters that it includes, "Girls" is a fairly grim book. There are no more than a handful of vignettes that contain any kind of hope -- hope for a successful, lasting relationship (monogamous or otherwise), hope for the status quo, hope for the prevalence of love or honesty.
Kelman presents us with situations we don't want to think about and raises questions that are, for various reasons, virtually impossible to answer, and in this way he has given us a work that will leave a lasting impression, however unsettling.
Kim Hedges is an Oakland writer.
A controversial American bestseller presents men as being obsessed with two things: power and sex with pubescent girls. Sean O'Hagan talks to Nic Kelman, author of this damning portrait
Sunday June 27, 2004
It is not often you come across a book that starts with an epigraph from Virgil followed by another from Sixties British beat group, the Zombies. Or, indeed, a work of fiction that merges passages from Homer with statistics on the porn industry and meditations on the etymology of the various slang words we employ to denote the female sexual organ. Then again, Girls by Nic Kelman is no ordinary first novel.
For a start, despite its title, Girls is a book about men. Girls feature in it, of course, and even one or two women, but it is emphatically - you might even say obsessively - about the male of the species. It does not present them in a flattering light. In fact, it is one of those unsettlingly provocative or, depending on where you stand, unsettlingly honest books that, like Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy , may well make women won der if all men are, to some degree, like the men between these pages: predatory, amoral, ruthless in their pursuit of power and the often illicit pleasures that wealth and privilege afford them.
'If I was being truthful, I'd have to say I wrote the book so as not to end up like one of the guys in it,' says Kelman, laughing. 'I felt I had to understand what I had to avoid. I've just gotten engaged, but I do feel that the propensity to be utterly cynical and do whatever it takes to succeed is inside every man to one degree or another. It has something to do with the male drive to success, and the things people do to themselves, as well as others, in order to succeed. Though everyone picks up on the sex stuff, the book is not really about sex at all; it's about power.'
Sex, though, looms large in the narrative and is a big part of why the book has garnered headlines and already become a bestseller in both America and Italy. Elle magazine described it as, 'preternaturally poised, vastly literate, and sticky with sex... Girls is one of those books that gets its hooks in you from the first sentence.'
Nearly all the sex in the novel - and there is a lot of sex in it, often graphically described - is between adult men and pubescent girls. Girls, as one of the many male voices in the book elaborates, who have 'flat bellies and unsupported breasts and bony ankles', girls who, as the title of a contemporary bestselling porn magazine boasts, are 'barely legal'.
Intertwining seven narratives, not including the author's own ruminations on Homer, who, it seems, laid down the ground rules of sexual attraction in The Odyssey, Girls is a veritable torrent of illicit male desire. A merchant banker visiting Korea has wild, untrammelled sex with a pubescent call girl. He tries to feel bad about himself afterwards, but instead feels 'fucking fantastic. Reborn'. Another man and his girlfriend are guests of his best friend in a plush villa in St Barts. He repays his host's hospitality by bedding their teenage daughter. Again and again.
'It's really about men who give in,' says Kelman, who seems far too young and well-adjusted to have written such a gleefully misanthropic book. He was born, as his press release mysteriously puts it, in the early Seventies and looks like a well-groomed pop star rather than a serious literary author.
He may well have written one of those zeitgeist-defining books that homes in on some of the more disturbing aspects of our current cultural obsession with youth, materialism, and how adolescent sexuality is now almost exclusively defined by the unreal standards of MTV and Hollywood. Given the subject matter, and the current moral hysteria surrounding real and perceived paedophilia, the book may well court controversy when published in Britain next month.
'I hope not,' says Kelman, looking slightly worried, 'because it is so obviously not a book about paedophiles. That's a whole different issue. It's not about underage sex, or even sex at all. Technically, all the girls in the book are legal. They are young women, they are not children. Many of them are precociously sexual and some of them are predatory, too. No one comes out of the book that well.'
Kelman initially wrote Girls as his college thesis while studying creative writing at Brown University. His CV, which is on display at his website - www.girlsbook.com - also includes a degree in brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Chomsky teaches. His father is a documentary director and Kelman worked in independent film before turning to novel writing. His mother is English and, as a child, he spent every summer in Dorset, before the family moved from New York to Rye in east Sussex, when he was 12. 'I attended boarding school there,' he says. 'It's where I get my ingrained pessimism.'
The book is indeed pessimistic, but it has the cold, hard ring of truth about it. Its overlapping narratives construct a composite of a certain kind of identifiable male psyche, which, he says, arose out of close observation of his more materially driven contemporaries.
'I had a close friend who was involved in the technology boom and made an absolute fortune almost overnight,' he elaborates. 'Every time I saw him, he seemed to have a new girlfriend on his arm, and each girl was always younger than the one before. It was just interesting to see how his relationship with women had changed because all of a sudden he was wealthy.'
In the book, this friend is captured in a telling vignette. 'I saw him at this new year's party,' continues Kelman, 'and he was with this girl who was about 10 years his junior. Here's this really cynical guy, and he's wearing a ring that said, "Dream More". I was like, "What?". I just went home and wrote the encounter down as a couple of sentences, and then I started seeing it everywhere and I just kept writing.'
That initial fragment of observation now nestles amid a welter of narratives that makes Girls a risky book formally as well as in terms of its subject matter. In places, it could be accused of parading the kind of 'look at me' cleverness that afflicts many postgrad novels - Adam Thirlwell's Politics springs to mind - not least in its many nods to Homer and Virgil. Whole tracts of The Odyssey and The Iliad are quoted, alongside Kelman's many meditations on the words we men use to describe - and deride - women. They make for provocative reading in their own right, but do tend to interrupt the pace of the other fictional narratives.
'Oh, I had to use Homer,' he says defiantly. 'I mean, I was going to bring in Shakespeare and Anglo-Saxon poetry, and various other literary works that dealt with the subject of sex and power, but it's really all there in Homer. The first Western narrative and it's about two men fighting over a girl. It's not even about Helen at all; it's about the rage of Achilles. And what is he angry about? He's mad because he's had his 14-year-old girlfriend stolen. I mean, how could I leave that out?'
More provocatively still, Kelman has one of his male narrators take a pop at Nabokov, whose great and disturbing masterpiece, Lolita , looms large here. At one point, a mocking male voice asks: 'Ah, Nabokov, why did Quilty have to pay? It wasn't a movie of the week, you didn't have to worry about the advertisers pulling out. And you must have known the Quiltys of the world never pay. So why did you do that, you coward, you pussy, you?'
I wondered if Kelman had second-guessed how the book would be constantly compared to Lolita and taken steps to counter that in the narrative.
'In a way, maybe, but it was more a philosophical question,' says Kelman. 'I kept thinking about Lolita after I started writing, and these questions kept cropping up. Nabokov makes sure Lolita is pubescent and not prepubescent, when she loses her virginity, and he makes Quilty pay for what he has done. I kept wondering whether that just some kind of lingering Victorian moralism on Nabokov's behalf, because, in the real world, that's not what happens. People do get away with it. Then again, the book is a masterpiece and you can only be so far ahead of your time.'
In Kelman's book, the men do tend to get away with it. Protected by wealth and power, they indulge their desires and seldom question the consequences. Except that the price they pay is evident in their very tone of voice, in their self-imposed detachment from the ideals of duty, loyalty and tenderness that underpin successful human relationships, in the sense that they have surrendered some irretrievable part of themselves without knowing quite how or why.
For all its delineating of transgression, Girls is a remarkably thought-provoking, even a political, book, and moves with unerring subtlety through the moral timebombs it ignites. It links this male compulsion to transgress with very young girls to the dynamics of the corporate market place, and also links a certain kind of misogynist thinking to the mindset of a certain kind of male power. As Kelman insists, it is not a book about sex at all, but one about power.
'I'm really interested in the age-old question of how power changes people, makes them harder, more cynical,' he says. 'It's about that conflict between youthful idealism and the cynicism that often attends adulthood, about getting caught up in doing whatever it takes to succeed. These are not evil guys doing evil things, they are ordinary guys who sacrifice a part of themselves, or their beliefs, in order to stay afloat in a combative male world. But as soon as they ditch their youthful ideals, something else happens to them; they lose their way in every way when they give in to their appetites.'
Intriguingly, the book begins with the question: 'How did they get so young?' and ends with the question: 'How did we get so ugly?'
Which, of course, is essentially the same question. 'You got it,' smiles Kelman, 'and, more importantly, it's a question I don't really answer. There are no answers in the book, only an exploration of those kind of questions. Essentially, I'm trying to explore the hypocrisy of so-called civilised behaviour. It's not about an us and them, they are all us. It doesn't spare anyone - not men, not women, not me, nor you.'
Serpent's Tail, 224pp,
Tom Horan reviews Girls by Nic Kelman
If a book can be brave and craven at the same time, then Girls manages it. Already a bestseller and succès de scandale in America, this first novel by the young American writer Nic Kelman tackles in unflinching detail the desires of older men for teenage girls.
It is let down by some tedious cod-academic intermissions, but its best passages ring so true on so many aspects of modern manhood that I would challenge any male reader not to feel the prickle of recognition. A woman picking up a copy is likely to feel depressed at times, if not irate, but never bored.
Kelman's loosely interconnected stories take place in a world of extreme male achievement: "You're out with an old friend of yours. He started his own company a few years ago. He's only 35 and he's worth a few hundred million." The mostly nameless characters drift through the milieu of American East Coast high finance - pockets full, hearts empty: "In the earning of things you have lost the ability to enjoy them."
Only the company of young women can lift them, be they students met in a bar, prostitutes, lapdancers, or the schoolgirl daughters of unwitting friends: "When you get back into bed you wish you felt worse about this. Instead you feel… fantastic. Reborn. Your head is clear…"
Kelman does not avoid graphic depictions of sex, and can lapse at times into the formulae of porn-mag prose. But his observations are acute: "Sometimes, when you are in the best of moods… a girl will walk past… you watch her until she disappears… and then realise you haven't been breathing." He paints a hollow environment, in which the most profound moment of sexual transport is a point at which "your mind was blank, you thought nothing. You simply existed, or, perhaps, ceased to exist."
In its clinical description of the appetites of burnt-out men whose lives have been consumed by work, Girls recalls the territory of Bret Easton Ellis, and in particular American Pyscho. For as the book weaves its way from New York S&M bars to encounters with callgirls in the industrial ports of Korea, its scope expands beyond the primal hunger for nubiles to an even stronger desire - the lust for power, and a life in which money buys anything.
Kelman is clearly a precocious talent. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wrote Girls as his college thesis while studying creative writing at Brown University. If anything betrays his youthfulness, it's a loss of nerve. The contemporary strands that make up most of the book are peppered with quotes from Homer. He inserts these presumably to demonstrate that men have for thousands of years been driven to define themselves through the pursuit of young women. But the clunky translations feel forced, as if he is trying to put a veneer of academic respectability on the unpalatable material he is handling.
Yet Girls is alive with challenging ideas about a society in which teenage girlhood bombards all of us, whether as an unattainable ideal for women or a promised prize for male achievement. Like the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, Kelman is not afraid to risk opprobrium to ask what it says about relations between men and women that every town in the West now seems to contain a lapdancing club. His discursive style lacks the taut structure and propulsive force of Atomised or Platform. But it is still gripping to see a light shone so unsparingly into the mind of that beleagured, frightened figure – the 21st-century male.
Illusioni perdute di uno sporcaccione,
Voi che pensereste di un uomo così? Di uno che ha più di quarant'anni ma non ancora 50, possiede una macchina di gran lusso e un portafoglio gonfio, e gli affari gli vanno a meraviglia, e può andare nei migliori alberghi e nei ristoranti dove il vino da solo costa un occhio della testa; di uno che se vede passare un nugolo di fanciulle giovani e fra loro ce n’è una con una gonna incredibilmente corta e gambe incredibilmente lunghe resta a guardarla inebetito, e solo quando è sparita si accorge che aveva smesso perfino di respirare. Voi che ne pensereste di uno così, ossia del protagonista di Girls, romanzo del debuttante americano Nic Kelman che la casa editrice romana Fazi sta per mandare in libreria a pochi mesi di distanza dalla sua prima edizione americana?
Immagino che molte donne risponderanno che quello è un gran porco; e che molti uomini risponderanno, macchina di lusso e portafoglio gonfio a parte, che quell’uomo cui manca il fiato quando vede passare una ragazza giovane e spudorata è un loro fratello. Esattamente così è andata in America, dove il libro è uscito a ottobre e dove le associazioni femministe sono insorte contro un romanzo che dalla prima pagina all’ultima tesse lo struggente elogio delle fanciulle giovani e attiranti, e quanto più sfacciate e disponibili sono meglio è, e dove invece sono stati in tanti a dire che questo "porco" scrive talmente bene che una volta che hai preso in mano Girls lo molli solo all’ultima pagina. Per non dire che il poco più che trentenne Kelman è uno che predica esattamente così come razzola. Non è solo nella pagina di carta che le lolite lo infiammano da morire. Nell’appartamento di Manhattan dove vive gli tiene difatti compagnia una "girlfriend" che di anni ne ha 13.
Ci troviamo di fronte l’ennesimo yuppie che smania dei valori i più superficiali della vita, uno che vuole tutto e subito, cinico e senza ideali, e quel che conta nella sua giornata è soltanto fare l’amore, e farlo bene? Nemmeno un po’. Kelman è uno stracolto, che ha fatto studi eccellenti e che in questi studi s’è sempre classificato ai posti di assoluto onore, per esempio quando è stato allievo di Noam Chomsky al Massachusetts institute of tecnology. E’ uno tutto fuorché cinico e dedito a ciò che è solo di superficie. E’ uno che la sa lunga, un trentenne le cui antenne sono già sofisticate e adusate, tanto che le amenità del politically correct non le beve neppure a colazione. Uno che il mal di vivere del moderno lo conosce bene.
Che il suo protagonista sia uno cui gli affari vanno benissimo, e che può permettersi le auto più costose e i vini più prelibati, non è l’essenziale. L’essenziale è che la vita non gli offre più stimoli, nulla di cui infiammarsi, nulla che valga la pena di tentare e osare. Di matrimoni ne ha provati due, sono andati male. Di donne mature ne incontra, ma sono quanto di più prevedibile, e quando dicono sì e quando dicono no. Gli amici ci sono, ma soltanto come complici di cerimonie del consumo, non certo come sodali di una possibile avventura dello spirito, e comunque lui non li rispetta al punto da negarsi dall’attentare alla verginità della loro figlia. Nulla esiste più di valido e consistente per questo americano medio che vive lussuosamente in una grande città, se non il desiderio sessuale. Solo in quei momenti, in cui il desiderio è assoluto e assolutamente realizzato, vale la pena di vivere: "Perché alla fine della fiera, cos’altro ci rimane? Dopo le ribellioni, e le lotte, e gli sforzi politici, dopo esserci guardati le spalle dalla mattina alla sera, proteggendole non solo dagli altri ma da qualsiasi cosa, cos’altro ci rimane veramente? […] Cos’altro ci rimane veramente? Cos’altro riesce a farci sentire davvero vivi, anche solo per un’ora o due? C’è qualcos’altro, tra tutto quello che abbiamo, per il quale possiamo effettivamente dire che vale la pena di vivere?". Chi di voi ha una risposta che non sia risibile o patetica la pronunci.
Avido e disperato, Geof Martinson quella risposta non ce l’ha. O non ce l’ha più. Solo valgono per lui i momenti in cui si realizza il suo desiderio della donna giovane e bella. La notte che passa con Cassandra, quella che gli si è proposta come "una puttanella adolescente" e che in realtà è la figlia del suo migliore amico. O il momento in cui una ragazza che sta debuttando nella "private dance", la danza in cui la ballerina si offre e si sfrega nuda contro il cliente che la sta guardando, gli spiega perché ha deciso di fare quel mestiere, e lui già assapora di averla addosso.
Per quei sentieri del desiderio e dell’immaginazione c’era già passato Vladimir Nabokov, e il suo Lolita, oltre che essere uno dei più grandi romanzi del Novecento, è di quelli che hanno cambiato il nostro linguaggio. Ma da Lolita è come se fossero passati due secoli. Quello era un momento dov’era fuori ordine che a un più che quarantenne piacesse a tal punto un’adolescente. Oggi è divenuto la moneta corrente. La moneta corrente che segnala la nostra solitudine e la nostra disperazione.
December 31, 2003 - January 6, 2004
By Nic Kelman (Little, Brown, $22.95)
Cyberporn, hookers, upscale strip clubs, underage baby-sitters, wives' best friends, friends' teen daughters, college girls, jailbait . . . is there any female body or representation thereof that doesn't give men a reckless, self-destructive hard-on in this slim debut screed? The book doesn't really have chapters, characters, or plot; it's subtitled "a paean" to the supposedly prime motivator of all male behavior: women. But it's certainly no celebration of that behavior in itself, however luridly cataloged. Male sexuality is depicted both in terms of disgust and fascination by brainiac Kelman, adapting his MFA thesis from Brown. Before that, he studied cognitive science at MIT, so don't be fooled by all the salacious episodes in Girls that might've been culled from the letters section of Penthouse. Yes, there are pliant call girls and sweaty threesomes, but Kelman's references extend past Hooters and Jenna Jameson—all the way back to classical Greece.
The sexual adventures of an aging, unnamed Wall Street Everyman—generally rendered in a composite, accusatory second-person "you" mode—are oddly interspersed with passages from Virgil and Homer. It's kind of like Bond Traders Gone Wild crossed with Robert Graves. What's Kelman's point? What links the businessman boffing the teenager to the wrath of Odysseus confronting Penelope's suitors? It's that same lusting for the life force between the legs; the drive to replenish oneself—and simultaneously pollute—the eternal feminine well. Kelman writes: "[T]he fact that the thing is used up in the process, the idea that no one can ever have exactly what you had, is tremendously exciting. It is precisely the same feeling you have had whenever you and you alone have consumed a unique bottle of precious wine."
Kelman argues, in a fashion, that the unfettered male sex drive—fueled by infinite funds, Gulfstream jets, vacation homes, and God knows what kinds of pharmaceuticals—leads inexorably and organically to the youngest and most vulnerable of women. For the nerdy academic author, this kind of indictment of gilded-age CEO misogyny seems both reductive and weirdly envious—the outsider looking in, imagining the worst.
He could've made the same point by quoting Pat Benatar (truly, love is a battlefield), and he doesn't serve his cause with a bogus Gatsby-on-the-end-of-the-pier coda. The book feels too scolding, serious, and censorious, not satiric. Carnal desire may not have changed over the millennia, but we might reasonably expect better descriptions of it. BRIAN MILLER
friday, november 13, 2003 | vol. 4, issue 21
thank heaven for nic kelman's girls
By Dan Poulson
"girls" (Little, Brown), out earlier this month, is a delightful, devilishly
misanthropic debut novel with an appropriately bleak view on human sexuality.
And at 200 pages, it’s also one of the fastest reads you’ll find all year. In
spare, elliptical prose, Kelman casts a withering eye on the commerce of sexual
fulfillment, which often finds affluent older men attracting young women through
the allure of flashy sports cars, thousand-dollar suits and cavernous uptown
The book’s fractured narrative, such as it is, revolves around the lurid sexual encounters of a clan of Daddy Warbucks-type businessmen obsessed with young women. They sleep with underage Korean prostitutes, daughters of good friends or nubile coeds they pick up at college bars. Sometimes they’re in love with these women, at other times they only appear to be. And sometimes, from a distance, they get a chance to quietly observe what’s become of these beautiful creatures after they’ve been abandoned and left to create their own places in the world.
Interspersed with passages from “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” the book becomes a rather ponderous meditation on the ways in which men and young women have been preying on each other for centuries. Kelman, an MFA graduate from Brown’s Creative Writing department, spoke to Post- about his writing process and the diverse reactions his work has been getting.
I was actually pretty curious about how you chose your subject matter – I mean, why were you attracted to writing a probing psychological examination of a bunch of assholes? What intrigued you with that subject?
Well, it’s funny you should put it that way. A lot of people ask me that, and actually it wasn’t really much of a conscious decision…I had this friend, a friend of mine for a long time. A few years ago he started an Internet startup and overnight became worth about a hundred million dollars. And it was pretty interesting to see…this guy was pretty cynical to begin with, but the whole thing only made him more cynical, because it changed his relationships with women completely. Not so much on his side, because there wasn’t enough time for that to develop, but when he went to parties, he’d be surrounded by girls, all much younger than him. It was a weird situation.
I didn’t see him for six months or a year, but I saw him at a party and he was wearing a ring—if you read the book, you’ll recognize this—he was wearing a ring that said, "Dream More." I looked at it and I looked at him, and I was like, "Why are you wearing that? It’s so not you." And he said, "Oh, my girlfriend gave it to me." At the time, he had been dating this girl who was about ten years younger than him, and the whole thing just clicked, that explained the whole thing.
The next morning I wrote down a couple of different lines that are in the book, actually. And I started thinking about it, all these things started blossoming and all these fictional situations came blooming out of that one thing… When I was working on it, I was re-reading passages in Homer that were so strikingly similar in so many ways. That just really struck me too: this relationship has been going on for thousands of years. And why is that? What’s the cause of this mutual attraction —because it is mutual—where is it coming from?
When I was reading "girls," I thought it was a critique of the ways in which masculinity has been defined as the things you own, how you dress.
Oh, absolutely, sure, sure. But I didn’t want to reduce it to a criticism of masculinity necessarily. Because in a lot of ways, it’s not a criticism of men, it’s a criticism of the way men and women interact. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of girls out there who do respond to these things, and there are men who want to possess them. I’m sorry to say this – there are a lot of women out there who are into guys who own a Porsche. So it is a critique of materialism, but it’s not just
necessarily just masculine materialism. Everyone’s guilty of it.
You’ve been getting a lot of positive coverage from wildly different audiences. Is that frustrating or rewarding for you, given that you think fiction has value as being obscene or provocative?
Well, to be honest, the one thing I tried very hard not to do when I was writing the book was care about what anyone was going to think about it. And when I was done, I was kind of like, "Well, I imagine this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea." And I don’t think it is. But what’s interesting is how it seemed to have appeal in all these demographics, but you have to bear in mind that most of these people find the book disturbing. That’s the comment I get most often, that it’s disturbing. I met this girl who was in her early twenties, who picked up the book and was halfway through it, and went over to her boyfriend’s place. Her boyfriend was fifteen years older, was apparently very wealthy and he saw the book, and thought it was really disturbing and was like, "I wonder if you’re thinking these things," but before she could respond, he broke up with her—for exactly the sort of reason that one of the guys in the book would.
Sort of a case of life imitating art.
Yeah, something like that. The point is that all different kinds of people are getting it, but they’re all being disturbed by it.
So in a sense, your goal has been accomplished.
I think so, yeah. When somebody comes up to me and says, "This is really disturbing," I’m not apologetic, I’m like, "I’m glad. I hope it was disturbing." And to be honest, a couple of guys have come up to me who have read the book and been like, “All right! This book was great.” And I’ve been like, "O h my God, you’re grossing me out." And that’s been the most unpleasant thing. It’s one thing to get readers who misunderstand it in the opposite direction – who read it and think you’re condoning [misogyny] and they’re disgusted with me and the book—that’s fine; they didn’t get it, whatever. But then when you get people who think you’re condoning it, and appreciate it, that makes my skin crawl.
issue 43 - August 2004
girls by Nic Kelman: Serpent’s Tail, U.K., July 2004
What middle-aged man does not lust over pubescent girls? According to the narrative voice in Nic Kelman’s girls: none. That’s just the way it is. "Because at the end of the day, what else do we have? After the rebellions, and the struggles, and the political endeavors, after watching our backs day in and day out, guarding them not just from others but from everything, what do we really have? . . . What else can really make us feel alive, even if it is only for an hour or two? Is there anything else out of all we have, that we can actually say is worth living for?"
And what middle-aged man is not somewhat (or perhaps totally) sexually repulsed by women in their late twenties or older? Again, none. "She was still in great shape, her skin was still smooth for the most part, you really only thought about her age when you saw her hand around your cock." But that did it: "when you fucked it was no good."
The voice is not one man, but rather a composite of like-sounding males, all wealthy and powerful, who presume to speak for all men. Desire for pubescent girls is the one thing they have in common. Speaking of international travels: "In all these places a pair of teenage girls has walked past wearing less than they should be. In all of these places you have turned your head to follow them. In all of these places you have looked from them and met the eyes of another man. And in all of these places you have smiled at each other with absolute understanding. In all of these places it has been this that you could share with other men."
There is no variation in theme, no apologies, no reaching for explanations. Girls is a relentless onslaught by this single-minded compound voice, relaying sexual encounters and praising the rejuvenating power of young, innocent girls. But, hold on, it works. There is a clever method to the delivery. The voices are broken up by quotes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, beginning with the mention of Achilles’ great anger, which, as we know, was fueled from having his prize (won by his spear), Briseis, the flower of young girls, taken from him, an act which almost cost the Achaians their ultimate victory. Young girls were always the prize booty in battle and the most precious offering in ransom. The whole epic battle was undertaken over no less than the young and lovely Helen. But it’s all about power as well, of course. As Agamemnon told Achilles, he took Briseis from him " . . . that you may learn well how much greater I am than you." An admirable heroic quality in these ongoing power struggles would be Odysseus’ deceitful nature, which, unlike the more forthright Achilles, saved him from an early death.
So have men always been so obsessed? And does cunning serve them well? Yes and yes. The book opens with a man, working for an investment bank, sent to Pusan to find out why a container ship is behind schedule. On the pretence of slackness, he fires a worker at random, destroying the man’s life, simply to serve as a warning to the others. And his prize? His boss introduces him to the pleasures of young-girl Korean prostitutes. Afterwards: "You wish you felt worse about this. You wish you felt terrible, in fact. But you don’t. Instead you feel fucking fantastic. Reborn. Your head is clear, you can actually feel the sheets touching your entire body."
Etymological info also serves to break up the narrative while lending force to the theme. Thus we have entertaining explanations—tenuous though they may be—of the origin of such words as "cunt," "cock," "love," etc. Sociological asides appear as well. One such digression concludes that men might well share more genes with gorillas than they do with women. Perhaps that’s so, but I couldn’t help think at this point that it was an insult to gorillas.
The sex scenarios revolve around young girls—who always revitalize, like blood to vampires: an analogy that’s not overlooked—and the thirtysomething or nearly thirtysomething wives/mistresses/girlfriends/ex’s—who always disappoint. To the man who has everything—and these men do—there is only one thing out of their reach, and that’s innocence. A sexual encounter with a very young girl can momentarily relieve that loss. But part of the joy in the encounter can be taking the young girl’s innocence. In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, a wealthy man goes to a high-class strip club and pays for two young girls, sisters, who are new at their job. In a private viewing, he asks them to have sex with each other, for one hour. They begin hesitantly, but slowly become aroused until they’re really into it. This juncture, where innocence dissipates and loss begins, is something the male voice often pinpoints in past relationships, as when a girlfriend asks for a dog. It is not always easy to predict just when it will arrive—perhaps the man will marry, perhaps have children—but inevitably it will come. In the case of the man in the strip club, he knows exactly when it will come, during that hour. Afterwards, he tips them extremely well and they say they hope he’ll come back— "which you won’t—not for them—they have nothing to offer you now."
As above, the narrator generally refers to himself in the second person, allowing for greater distance, and it works extremely well, adding an eerie tone to the whole. The structural composition of the book is masterful, in fact, swinging from Homeric quotes to raw scenes such as a man masturbating over a Polaroid, to the etymological and sociological insertions; and the juxtaposing of young, hot girls with (slightly) older women who have "nothing to offer."
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s principal theme concerned "emotional exhaustion," the using up of emotions until one burns out and cannot recapture earlier feelings. This is something common to the cynical and jaded voices here. It is the price a man must presumably pay for having attained his position of power. But whenever one of them hears a young girl say "pinky promise" or order a Shirley Temple, he lights up. "You can live your life through them even though you are dead." Or as another male puts it: "they have the energy we spent elsewhere."
Every reviewer, I’m sure, will home in on the book’s closing line: "How did we get so ugly?" That is left for the reader to ponder, to argue about, to discuss, or to reject. One thing the book will not do is leave you indifferent. From the opening line: "How did they get so young?" until the last, you’re hooked. It may well raise hackles, but that can be a good thing. Like American Psycho, girls shocks to make its point. The former captured the ugliness of the 1980’s; girls nails a certain type of male (think of almost any public figure in a high position of power) and depicts the emotional bankruptcy—with its ugly ramifications—that inevitably arises. The 80’s mercifully disappeared, but the unnerving thing about girls is that insistent note of continuity. Ellis drew heavily on pop cultural trends and black humor. Kelman draws on Homer and doesn’t go for laughs (though it does provide its share of diversion). Both are important novels, but the deeper, more disturbing vision lies in the latter. J.A.
issue 43 - August 2004
by Jill Adams
This summer Serpent’s Tail will release U.S. author Nic Kelman’s debut novel girls, narrated by a composite of middle-aged male voices - all wealthy and powerful - who have one thing in common: a desire for pubescent girls. In fact, young girls are about the only thing worth living for. To the emotionally bankrupt men who lust after them, young girls provide a sense of rejuvenation: "You can live through them even though you are dead."
It’s an unsettling book, all the more disturbing because Kelman uses quotes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as etymological and sociological inserts, to back up his argument, which is summarized in the book’s closing line: "How did we get so ugly?" You may not like the book's premise that men of power throughout time have lusted after young girls, but you cannot deny that it is persuasive.
Kelman wrote girls while attending Brown University on a full scholarship for his MFA in Creative Writing; it was awarded the James Assatly Prize for graduate fiction and published by Little, Brown & Co. in the U.S. in 2003. Previously he studied Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, followed by some years working in independent film. He now writes and teaches in New York City.
TBR: You say you wrote girls so as not to end up like one of the guys in it, that you felt you had to understand what you had to avoid. What did you learn about the male psyche in writing the book?
NK: Well, that’s what I think now, looking back on the experience which is now a couple of years old. It was not a conscious decision of some kind. But I think what I learned about my own psyche at least was that there exists a propensity to get very caught up in two things: what other people think of you (especially other men) and the fear of not having control over your life. Since you asked, if I had to guess, I would say these are probably very, very strong motivational forces for most, if not all, men, and girls in many ways is about what happens if you give these two instincts the free rein they are constantly demanding.
TBR: In the world of girls there are men of power and pubescent girls, their ‘prize.’ Older women are negligible. It made me wonder about the woman who holds the same power as men and where she stands in the overall scheme of things. You mention one such woman in the book, but despite her flings with young boys she’s portrayed, when alone, as sitting in her empty dining room, forcing herself not to cry; whereas the men, even if they are spiritually bereft, are truly rejuvenated from their contact with young girls (her male counterpart is content to be alone watching a DVD). Is the power woman doomed? Are all women of a certain age doomed?
NK: I don’t know that they’re truly rejuvenated. They certainly think they are – or perhaps, want to be – but whether they are or not is one of the questions the book asks. Many people have read that scene and actually thought the man was the much more tragic of the two because he isn’t even emotionally aware enough to realize that something is missing, that he’s sacrificed something. The point is not that the woman is more doomed than the man, or vice-versa, but that the attitude of the main characters in the book leads people to the same place, men or women. The distinction lies in how we experience that place. Which, of course, means, no, not all women of a certain age are doomed by any means. For women and for men I think it just depends on the choices we make with our lives, on what we choose to value and to pursue.
TBR: It’s very effective the way you use quotes from The Iliad and The Odyssey. The quest for power and young girls has always been a male preoccupation and they’ll do anything to get it. Men have always been such bastards then?
NK: Thank you. As for the bastards part, that’s a tricky one. Again, one of the issues I hope girls explores is the question of what, precisely, makes anyone a bastard. And the Homer is, as you suggest, central to that. But for me it’s more about integrity than about action. One of the most interesting contrasts in The Iliad to me is between Odysseus and Achilles. Achilles is very open about his motivations and his desires; whatever you think of his actions, he is clear about what he is doing and why. Odysseus, on the other hand, is not. And I wonder about that contrast a great deal – I think as men we’d all like to be Achilles, but we end up having to be Odysseus whether we like it or not. And yes, of course, a murderer is still a murderer whether he is up front about it or not, but that’s a very straightforward moral question. The boundaries explored in girls are less obvious, both between what makes something right or wrong and where or when integrity dissolves.
TBR: It’s also effective (and entertaining) the way you interweave etymological and sociological information into the text. Was this, along with the Homeric quotes, something you planned from the beginning or did it evolve as you began writing?
NK: Almost everything in girls simply evolved. I did almost no planning, as things would come up, I thought – oh, that’s interesting and relevant, somehow it needs to go in. And once I had one etymology or sociological section, it made sense to make them threads and include more.
TBR: Are men really more mentally alert just after orgasm? What about women?
NK: All I know is, the study I did as an undergraduate suggested that men perform better on intelligence tests after orgasm. It was a relatively small sample size though, I’d love to see someone do a bigger study on this. It is clear that your hormone levels change radically after orgasm, so it makes sense this would effect cognition. But I actually don’t know about women, I haven’t seen any studies on it – it would be interesting to know though!
TBR: I enjoyed your tracking of the origin of the word "cunt." I’d never seen that exact history of the word. I do know it’s a hard one to trace.
NK: It was – and there’s definitely enough speculation in my history of it to give the average etymologist a heart attack. But it just seemed to fit so incredibly well, I had to put it down on paper. And I do think there’s a really good chance that might be the history of the word – it would make a great deal of sense.
TBR: Did you receive much adverse reaction to the book when it appeared in the U.S. last year? Do you expect it to be received any differently in the U.K.?
NK: You know, it’s funny. Everyone (and I mean everyone, men, women, young, old) who reads this book has the same reaction: "Well, I really get it – it’s all true – but I think everyone else is going to find it offensive." Which has been really interesting to me because it suggests, I think, that there are things in the book that everyone thinks but never says. So I guess, no, I don’t expect it to be received differently in the U.K. – but we’ll see!
TBR: I see Carole Maso listed in your acknowledgements. Did you study with her at Brown?
NK: She was my thesis advisor and consequently encouraged me to keep going and going on the earliest draft of girls.
TBR: What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?
NK: Trust yourself. That was the one thing my MFA program taught me. Every time I thought something was bad, everyone else did too. Every time I liked something, everyone else did too. You can’t get away with anything. Just follow that little voice in your head that tells you whether you should be pleased with what you’ve done or not. And never, ever ask if you should or shouldn’t do something. If it moves you, put it on paper. That’s the only way it will ever move other people.
TBR: Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
NK: Sorry, no – I am working on another book, but I don’t like to discuss it – part of the pleasure is discovering it for myself and if I talk about it too much, that process of working it out comes out in conversation instead of on the page where it should be.
Off the cuff . . .
- living icons
Geez – all my favorite writers are dead, I think. Sorry.
- England vs the U.S.
A HUGE topic, but very quickly: England has a better sense for history and thus for what really matters in life; the U.S. is more willing to try new things just for the sake of trying them.
- ideal night out
Hmmm – there’re are too many possibilities. Last Saturday I was out until 5 a.m. with a bunch of friends at a Korean karaoke bar. This Friday I think I’m going to a drag party. I guess my ideal night out always involves some new and intense experience, whatever that might be.
- musical preferences
Everything. And I mean everything. My iPod confuses the hell out of people.
- film: Lolita the original vs Lolita the remake
VERY interesting question, I wrote an essay about this once. I think the original – but it’s interesting as a study in adaptation. The original, written by the man himself, is really a "highlights" version of the book, whereas the remake is almost a page for page adaptation. The result, I think, is that the first one gets into great depth where it can whereas the second covers everything but only superficially, resulting in nothing being covered well.
- three favorite literary classics
Moby Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, Of Human Bondage
Bush vs Kerry
Do you really need to ask? I’m insulted that you did. Kerry, of course. Or rather: anyone but Bush.
- three things of the non-writing variety that you hope to do
Hmmm – that’s an interesting one – all my goals are either writing oriented or incredibly superficial. Can we leave it at that before I embarrass myself?
You were in Pusan.
When you flew in, the port was hidden by cloud. You couldn't see the city at all, only the tops of mountains. The man to the right of you, a Korean, said, "Ha! That's smog. Smog! Not so pretty now, huh? Smog! Ha-ha! Ha-ha! Smog!" He went on laughing to himself as he picked up his paper again and read some more. You were still working for that investment bank, were there to find out why a container ship was behind schedule. You had been told it would probably be necessary to make an example of someone, that you should determine who.
And when you landed, it was drizzling, grey. The whole city was grey. Built of concrete and iron, built for budding. You couldn't see very far down the streets in that rain that was almost a mist. Through the haze the odd red or green punched – neons, traffic lights, trash-can fires. But that was all. On the way from the airport to the hotel and the next morning from the hotel to the office, you became completely disoriented. You tried to follow your route on the map your girlfriend had given you but it was useless. You didn't know where you were.
At the office you spent a day going over the numbers, over the tonnage of materials brought in, over the daily costs of delay, over the percentage of the ship complete. The day after that you visited the ship itself. The fog had not cleared and when you stood near the command tower, you could not see the end of that unfinished deck. About halfway down it dissolved into a skeleton of girders which then itself dissolved into the mist. As if the mist were acid, as if the mist had halted construction.
And when you took the man off the job he yelled in Korean. In front of everyone he yelled at you in Korean. His face turned red, he was stocky, his stomach bulged against his belt, he threw back his shoulders, pointed his finger.
And you grew furious at him because he did not understand. This had nothing to do with him. Did he think he was playing a game here, that some conception of fairness applied? You picked up a phone to call security but he stormed out of the room. As you opened your mouth to say something to the others in the room, something about not caring, he opened the door again, yelled one last thing, and was gone. You remember thinking how puffy he looked as he stuck his torso through that gap, how the arms of his glasses splayed outwards as they ran back to his ears, remember wondering if it was the salty Korean diet that made him that way. It was only natural. You hadn't understood a word he had said.
But when you left the building, when you got in that black car that somehow ferried you from the office to the hotel in Haeundae Beach, you noticed you were shaking.
And as you shaved before dinner, looked in the mirror, you grew angry at him again, angry at him for making you feel that way, for making you feel ashamed that you did not feel ashamed. "I mean, what the fuck does he think?" you said, waving your wet razor at your own face, half-hidden in lather. "He can have the benefits without the liability?" "Screw him," you said.
The local office people took you to a vegetarian restaurant. "I don't really like vegetarian," you said but the meal was actually quite satisfying. Everything was fried and you had a lot of soju.
And when you got back to the hotel, the carpet outside your room was wet.
You had no way of knowing it was because he had been there. No way of knowing he had been too ashamed to go home to his wife and so had wandered in the rain for hours before finally sitting outside your door hoping to appeal to you. No way of knowing he had only just given up, only just decided that what he was doing was ridiculous, only just taken the stairs down as you took the elevator up. You fumbled with the card lock momentarily. As you closed the door behind you, the smell of the wet carpet was overpowering.
You are in Pusan.
You sit on the edge of your bed, drunk. You want to lie down but you can't, you feel sick when you do. Somehow your eyes find the clock. It is only 10 P.M., your girlfriend will just be getting in to work. She is a graphic designer. You pick up the phone, you call her on the company calling card.
"Hey babe!" she says, happy to hear from you. "So how is it? How's it going?"
You open your mouth but you don't know what to say. You think you may want absolution so you tell her what happened today, leaving out the part about the wet carpet, the part you don't know. But when she gives it to you, tells you you did what you had to do, you realize that wasn't it at all. You didn't want her to tell you you did the right thing, you didn't care if she thought you did the right thing or not because you already knew you did, you just wanted her to say, "I know what that's like."
But of course, she can't say that, will never say that. And if she ever could then you could no longer be with her. Then you would both be tired. Then she would be a better friend, but a worse lover.
You haven't been listening to what she's been saying. You have been thinking. But as you open your mouth to say, "Listen, do you think I should be doing something else? Something I enjoyed a little more?" you decipher the sounds she has been making.
She has been telling you how she finally used that spa certificate you gave her for her birthday, the one you could afford to buy because last year's bonus was so huge it paid off your college debt. She has been telling you how she went there for the full day and how they pampered her and how they rejuvenated her and how she felt so good afterwards, like a new woman afterwards.
There is a pause. She says, "Were you about to say something?"
"No," you say, trying to sound surprised.
"Oh,"' she says, "it sounded like you were about to say something." And you wonder how that could be because you're certain you didn't make any sound at all.
"Anyway, listen, babe," she continues, "I have to go – I have a meeting – but when you get back Mommy will make baby feel all better – she pwomises, OK?"
"OK," you say, chuckling. But you don't feel any better after you hang up. Just like you didn't need her to tell you you did the right thing, you also didn't need that. Mommies are for sick little boys. You aren't sick, you aren't a little boy, you don't need sympathy. There is nothing tender loving care could do for you right now, right now there is nothing even your real mother could do to make you feel better. She wouldn't, couldn't, understand what it was like any more than your girlfriend.
The headspin subsiding but not gone, you turn on the TV. There is a channel that shows only Go, twenty-four hours a day nothing but Go. This really is a different place. You change into a bathrobe, you flip through some channels. There is a channel that has some kind of beauty contest. You watch it for a few minutes and realize it's actually a talent competition. You try to masturbate a little but it's no good, you're not interested, it's not enough.
You turn out the lights. You get in bed. But you can't sleep. The Korean girls in the talent competition keep coming to mind, you can't get the Korean girls in the talent competition out of your head.
Then you remember the card. After he had told you he was sending you to Pusan, after he had told you it might be necessary to make an example of someone, your boss had looked around, had made sure there were no female employees nearby, and had said,". . . and if you get bored, they have the best fucking hookers in all of Korea there." Then he had taken out one of his business cards and written a name on the back, the name of the concierge at the hotel to ask for, the one who'd "take care of you." "Come on, Saswat," you'd said, "you know I have a girlfriend!" "Yeah," he said, "I know," and tucked the card in your breast pocket.
You turn on the light again. Naked, you find the suit and pull out the card. You sit on the edge of the bed turning it over and over with your fingertips. You study the printed name of your boss and the Korean name written on the other side, written with a $1,200 pen. So many things run through your head. It's not really any different than masturbating, is it? I wouldn't tell her I jerked off, would I? At last you decide you'll call down and see how much it costs. Just out of curiosity.
And you can't believe how cheap it is. The high end is less than a first-class dinner in Manhattan. Now you remind yourself you could send her away. You could just see what she looks like and if you change your mind, you could just send her away. You'd have to pay her, of course, but so what, you can afford it. The Korean girls in the talent competition flash through your mind again. You tell him to send up the best thing they have. You use that word, "best."
You turn the light off. You lie on the bed. You get up and turn another light on, a less intense one, one that you imagine provides a romantic glow. You put on a robe, take a breath mint. You look around the room and realize it's a mess. In a panic because she might arrive any second, you tidy up. You throw your socks in the closet, make the bed, straighten your papers and laptop on the desk. You want her to like you, to see that you're not one of those guys, that this is – will be – something special for her. Something unique. You don't want her to think you're an animal.
There is a knock at the door, a gentle little rap at the door.
When you open it, it's not what you were expecting at all. You were expecting a Penthouse Pet, a tall woman, young but not very young, heavily made up, fake eyelashes, hair thinned from treatments, fit and sexy but with a hard, worn look, with breasts that do not sag but that do hang down enough for there to be a thin line of shadow beneath them against her ribs, with long, shapely legs that are hard and have good muscle tone but the beginnings of which, from behind, can no longer be said to be clearly distinct, with a taut stomach furrowed by two lines of muscle down its center but that still bulges slightly outwards below the line of her hips, with her skin still tight over her neck and jaw but that seems more pulled that way than pushed and is still somehow loose enough to no longer be able to follow precisely the dips and rises of the tendons in her throat. In short, someone you would want to fuck.
Instead the girl before you is not very tall nor heavily made up. Her breasts are small and natural but still find the strength to resist against the ribbed tube top she wears. It doesn't seem like she has ever exercised yet her exposed stomach is completely flat, is lean, is smooth – above it the gentle inverse V of her rib cage disappears into her top leaving a tiny shadow where the material bridges; at its bottom corners, just before it is channeled into her low-slung skirt by her hips, the bones of her pelvis form two small bumps. The curves of her legs are newly formed, have only recently grown upon the bone, are not yet done growing, have not yet begun to die. Her black hair is fine and thick and lustrous and healthy. There is a white band of reflected light across it on one side. You had forgotten what healthy hair looked like. Around her large, Eurasian eyes and small mouth, on her brow, you can't see a single wrinkle. Not one. Her skin closely follows the line of her jaw and then suddenly angles down where it meets her throat, flows into three cords on either side of her neck, one reaching for her shoulder, one touching the middle of her collarbone, one touching its end, forming the hollow that her larynx grows up out of, back towards her jaw. And her smell, her smell utterly obliterates that of the still damp carpet. Her smell is the only smell in the world.
Her whole body still strives outwards, her lips, her breasts, her thighs, her whole body has not yet decided to stop, to petrify, to crumble. You have never seen anything so ripe in all your life. That is the word that comes to mind, "ripe."
You are surprised. This is not what you expected. You desire her more than what you expected, certainly, but before the blood begins pounding in your head, you crush your desire down, push it down and away in a little box. This girl can't be more than sixteen, this girl is illegal. Illegal, that's what makes you control your desire. Not "wrong," "illegal." Your eyes flicker over her collarbone, you find yourself thinking how the hollows above it would cup sweat.
But you find yourself saying, "I think there's been a mistake. Do you understand, 'mistake'? There's been a 'mistake'?"
"I speak English," she says without an accent, without being able to help rolling her eyes slightly.
"Oh," you say. "Well, I think there's been a mistake – I asked for something else."
She shrugs her shoulders. "Fine," she says. "They can send up someone else. No problem." Without another look at you, she turns and heads off down the corridor. You watch her go, notice how tiny her ass is, how even through her skirt the dimples on either side of it are visible, how the material seems to be draped over bobbing stone. As she walks towards the elevator she begins to play some game with the pattern on the rug, stepping on only certain colors, avoiding others, almost toppling herself
You are shaking. She is so close to being yours. This isn't some Catholic schoolgirl on a bus, this isn't some girl to look at and think, "Damn, if only that were legal," and shake your head and not give it a second thought because it is illegal and you don't want to take the risk and what would you, could you, do anyway – you are in public. This is a hooker. This time, in this case, you only need to say the word and she can be yours. You could have your hands on her body, your mouth on the back of her neck, on her nipples, your cock inside her as her inner thighs rubbed against your pelvis, as her hands pressed down on your chest, as her upper arms squeezed her firm little breasts together, as she tossed her hair to one side of her head and looked down into your eyes and said with that tiny, pert little mouth in her accentless English, "That's it. Fuck me." You look up and down the hall. It is empty. "Wait a minute," you call out. And without a pause, without a lost step, she turns and walks back to your room and walks through your door without even looking at you. You find yourself thinking, "This probably isn't even illegal here anyway – the age of consent here is probably fifteen or sixteen – she could even be seventeen or eighteen." And you close the door behind you.
You want to devour her. You can't get enough of her in your mouth – her neck, her arms, her belly. You could eat her pussy for hours. With your girlfriend you always did it out of fairness. She went down on you so you went down on her or you wanted her to go down on you so you went down on her. You don't mind it – you know some guys who don't like to do it but do it anyway for the same reason you do – no, you don't mind it, but it never turned you on like this. All you can think about is having her in your mouth. You make her lie back on the bed, spread her arms out on the bed, and just let you pull her pussy to your mouth. Beneath your hands, the skin on her thighs is so smooth it makes you think of fax paper. You can feel the calluses on your palms scraping it as you hold her legs. You hear your stubble scratch against her right leg. Worried you might hurt her, you push her legs farther open. The tendons on her inner thighs flex out like little steel cables and where they end, where they push out the farthest forming little cups of skin above and below, the mound of her pussy drops down towards her ass. She has shaved herself completely bare, you hope that's what she's done, and the slit between her legs is so delicate it looks like someone has cut her with a scalpel. Carefully, gently, you pull the slit open with your fingertips revealing the folds of tan flesh inside. You never noticed how clumsy your fingers were before, how enormous, how ugly. Like a gorilla's, you find yourself thinking. You look at her spread open like that for a second, like a sea creature, like an anemone in that moment it reaches out to swallow a fish, and then you glance up her body. She isn't moving, she stares at the ceiling, you can't see her face. Then you put your mouth on her. For a second you are relieved to feel the odd piece of stubble pricking your lips. For a second you wonder if your girlfriend would shave herself like this. And then you are lost.
Suddenly she taps you on the shoulder, taps you on the shoulder as if you were in a line for a bus and she needed information. You look up at her, one of your ape fingers still inside her. And she says, "If you want to fuck me you should do it now – you only have fifteen minutes left." You can't believe it. You can't believe you have been doing what you have been doing for forty-five minutes. You feel like you have only just begun. And you find yourself wondering how she has been keeping track of time.
You don't really want to stop what you've been doing but you feel that you should, that you didn't pay to make her feel good, that you should get what you actually paid for. You only have to make a slight motion towards flipping her over and she is immediately on her hands and knees, thrusting her shoulder blades and her ass in the air, keeping her belly low. As you go to put yourself inside her from behind, you follow the curved groove of her sunken spine with your eyes down to the small of her back where it ends in a tiny, flat V of skin rising up like an arrowhead, its sides carved out by the two hemispheres that began sloping up at her hips, its point the beginning of the cleft of her ass – small, round, taut as a balloon – and again you are overcome by the urge to put her in your mouth. Without realizing what you are doing you find yourself licking her ass-hole. Tomorrow, on the plane, as you think back over the experience, as you try to reconstruct every detail, you will suddenly remember your body did this, and you will wonder where you were when it happened. There and then, on the plane, as the stewardess asks you if you want beef or chicken, the thought of it will make you ill. But here and now, in your hotel room, this thing you would never do makes you want to cum. You push yourself inside her, grab her waist with your hands, your hands that almost encompass her waist in their grip, and thrust in and out of her. The tip of your cock pushes against the roof of her uterus and every time it does she lets out a little squeal. You can't tell if it's from pain or pleasure but you think it's probably both. You worry a little bit about breaking her, about crushing her rib cage as you squeeze her little breasts that feel as firm as oranges, about snapping her arm as you pull her back onto you, about suffocating her when – after just five or six strokes – you cum and collapse on top of her.
But she is fine. She lets you lie on top of her for a second, carefully pulls you out of her making sure the condom stays in place, wipes her hand on the sheets, and squirms out from under you. You cannot move. You watch her dress. She disappears into the bathroom for a minute to fix her hair and makeup but it doesn't take long and when she is done, when you still haven't moved, she says, "I have to go."
You pull yourself up from the bed, out from under the enormous weight crushing you to the bed, and, in a daze, give her her cash. It's less than a quarter of what you had in your wallet for just one day's expenses.
She takes it without ceremony and puts it in her purse. You are still naked. At the door, after she's opened it a crack, she turns and says, "I'm sorry I reminded you about time – they always do what you did and forget about time and then get mad when they find out time is gone.
"Oh don't worry about it!" you say congenially, you say wanting her to know you're not the same as the other men, that you'd never get mad. She just nods and says, "If you want me again, ask for Jin," and is gone.
When you get back in bed you wish you felt worse about this. You wish you felt terrible, in fact. But you don't. Instead you feel fucking fantastic. Reborn. Your head is clear, you can actually feel the sheets touching your entire body.
As you drift off to sleep you realize the concierge hadn't misunderstood, hadn't made a mistake at all. This must have been what Saswat was talking about. The best fucking hookers. The two older men simply knew what you needed better than you knew yourself.
The next day you buy your girlfriend a gift before you leave, an antique necklace. You were going to get her something anyway, you just spend a little more than you had originally planned.
You were in Pusan.
The example worked. The ship was finished on time. You saved 25 million dollars. You were a hero. The ship's cartel took you and your boss out to a restaurant that overlooked the entire city. At one point, as they served the nine dozen Wellfleet oysters, Saswat leaned over and said quietly in your ear, "Welcome to the club." You had been thinking about the man you fired, about whether he would ever eat in a restaurant like this, drink wine like this wine, but when Saswat said that, you stopped feeling guilty, alone. You at last felt like you had a companion, someone who understood.
It was a clear night. Afterwards they took you to a loud strip club, sent you to the Champagne Room with a girl named something-andy. The next morning you had a vague memory of her blowing you there, but you couldn't be certain, you were very drunk. And as you lay there that Saturday morning, your girlfriend's arm draped over your chest, the sunlight diffused over both of you by the curtains, as you lay there you thought about the last time you were that drunk, about Jin standing there outside your door, about how she looked standing there outside your door, about how she smelled standing there outside your door, how there was no other smell there, no other smell at all.