Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sensitive alien discusses romance and prostitution: on Chester Brown’s Paying for It

My friend Ajitha – fearsome Harper Collins editor, scourge of established and aspiring writers everywhere, grammar pedant who, even during drunken conversations, grabs at faulty sentences as they issue from your mouth, rips them asunder and watches their innards drift to the carpet – gifted me Chester Brown’s graphic memoir Paying for It a few months ago. It has been one of my favourite reads of the past year and I have wanted to write about it for a while, but it is a difficult book to articulate one’s feelings about (plus the thought of having to write a grammatically flawless post was too much jittery-giving and imbroglio-making, as a Srishti author would put it before Ajitha manicured his typing fingers with red-hot pliers).

Still, here goes. Paying for It is Brown’s no-holds-barred, warts-and-all account of his years as a “john” – a man who regularly visits prostitutes. This phase of his life began in 1999, a couple of years after his girlfriend Sook-Yin ended their romantic relationship and shifted her new boyfriend into their flat, a situation that, to Chester’s own surprise, didn’t make him feel jealous or negative at all (it even improved his relationship with Sook-Yin in some ways, causing him to wonder why people idealise romantic love over other forms of love). But he had his sexual needs to think of too. Initial diffidence, nervousness about risks and dangers, and uncertainty about how to even contact sex-workers were soon overcome, and such trysts became a regular part of his life. What follows is a dispassionate, almost anthropological record of his encounters with all the women he paid for sex over the next few years.

Given its subject matter, this book can easily cause indignation or offence. There is no skating around the objectification of women, for instance – that’s what a john does when he scans advertisements and decides whether he wants someone with big or small breasts on this particular day, a brunette or a blonde, an 18-year-old or someone more experienced. Or when he gets online and reads “reviews” of prostitutes written by other johns. In most of the panels that show Chester’s first meeting with a woman, his thoughts are along the lines “Not as beautiful as Gwendolyn but still attractive, and what a body – she is stacked!” or “A bit on the chubby side – bad teeth – not ugly but not really good-looking either.” Some of this will be unpalatable if you think there’s something inherently wrong with paid sex or that it is synonymous with exploitation, but none of it means that Chester treats the women as rubber dolls rather than as human beings with feelings. (On one occasion, when he comes close to doing this, he is told off and is quick to acknowledge his insensitivity.) They talk at length, he develops an emotional connect of sorts with the women who are warm and friendly to him; there is a clear reciprocity in the relationships. And over the course of this book he repeatedly makes the point that most johns are regular guys, not the violent or psychotic caricatures you see in films (or at least no more violent or psychotic than most guys in conventional relationships are capable of being).

The drawings themselves are minimalist, always in compact rectangular panels, and usually little more than “pictures of people talking” (to use a phrase that often describes formally unambitious films or graphic novels). This has mixed results. At a practical level it allows Chester to preserve the anonymity of the prostitutes by not showing their features in vivid detail. And it encourages the viewer to focus on the text – Chester’s constant introspecting, his discussions with the women (which add up to a wide-ranging view of the prostitute-john relationship) or with his puzzled friends (including fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth: the conversations between these three make up some of the drollest bits). But the style is sometimes almost
too low-key. I get that this wasn’t intended to be an erotic book, but on occasion there is a disconnect between images and text, as when Chester tells us a particular encounter was amazingly good yet the pictures are silent, faraway views of seemingly impersonal coitus, and the page as a whole has all the soberness of a Pinter play. “She is adorable! This is going to be great!” he thinks to himself when he meets an attractive prostitute; another panel has him sitting on a bed, thinking “I feel all giddy and excited.” Yet in these drawings and elsewhere his face is a straight line, there is no more expression on it than on Dilbert’s face during a boardroom meeting.

Much of this probably has to do with Brown’s unusual personal traits, his apparent ability to have a good time (however he defines it) while simultaneously dissecting his own feelings and reactions: even right in the middle of sexual intercourse, a part of him appears to be observing, analysing, filing things away. (In one particularly funny scene, Chester, sitting alone at his table, feels a “tiny twinge of happiness” and later sifts through his recent memories to try to understand what caused that little twinge.)
Perhaps this quality is also what allows him to matter-of-factly make revelations that may gross out some readers; at one point he gets the impression that he is hurting a woman during sex and mulls that this is a slight turn-on for him (but then decides to get it over with as fast as possible). Such passages can be discomfiting but they are truthful too, more truthful about people’s dark impulses – and about the relationship between fantasy and reality – than many writers would care to be, especially in an autobiographical work.

But then, as Robert Crumb writes in his Introduction to this book, “Chester Brown is not of this planet. He is probably the result of one of those alien abductions where they stick a needle in a human woman’s abdomen and impregnate her.” The photo of Brown at the back of the book shows someone who might be well cast as Mr Spock’s much smarter big brother in Star Trek. It is a face that suggests unfathomable reserves of wisdom as well as emotional impassivity. The head is oval, the features smooth and effete (you may be reminded of REM’s Michael Stipe or the actor John Malkovich), the thin lips are curved in a way that could mean he is amused or profoundly sad or both at the same time.

A further observation, from Chester’s friend Seth:

I often jokingly refer to Chet as “the robot”. In posing a question to him I might quip “Perhaps I should ask a person who has actual human emotions instead.” The truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him. He’s definitely an oddball.
(At which point I began wondering why Ajitha had so pointedly given me this book. But I’ll let that pass.)

By the time you’re halfway through Paying for It, you’ll gather that Chester is capable of examining very complex issues with a robotic objectivity that doesn’t come easily to most of us (and in the process perhaps he oversimplifies some of those issues too, not fully accounting for how tangled and messy human emotions can get when it comes to such subjects as love and sex). In a series of end-notes and appendices, he lists and addresses the arguments against prostitution, makes the case that it should be decriminalised but not legalised (the latter would make the profession subject to regulation and lead to the uncontrollable growth of the black market, with the result that some prostitutes won’t have legal recourse if they are abused or exploited) and discusses related problems such as human trafficking and sex slavery. In a particularly provocative appendix that may have you alternately agreeing and disagreeing with him as you read each new sentence, he argues with the definitions of “choice”, “consent” and “violence” presented in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution. And he often draws on the libertarian view of property rights and personal freedoms.

What allows him, ultimately, to be clear-sighted about these things (whether or not you agree with everything he says) is his view of romantic love as something that is not in itself an ideal to aspire to, and his disapproval of the institution of marriage. Consider this exchange – which I think is one of the most central in the book – with a prostitute who calls herself “Edith”:

Chester: Love is about sharing, caring and giving. Romantic love is about owning, hoarding and jealousy. I think it’s the exclusionary nature of romantic love that makes it different from other kinds of love […] I think it encourages a certain type of thinking: the desire to own another person.

“Edith”: But there ARE some couples who are right for each other.

Chester: Yes, but people change over time. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago, and I’m VERY different from the person I was 20 years ago. So, yeah, there are romantic couples who are absolutely right for each other at this moment in time, but those two people are going to change, and it’s tremendously unlikely that they are going to change in exactly the same ways. It’s much more likely that they’ll change into people who are unsuited to each other … no matter how compatible they were at the beginning of their relationship.

“Edith”: Yes, but you can TRY to continue to understand your partner. And if you love him or her, you’d be willing to make that effort.

Chester: Yeah, effort. Romantic love is work. Call me lazy, but I don’t want to do the work.

“Edith”: If I met the right guy, I’d be happy to do the work. It takes work to get anything worthwhile in life.
It may be notable that Brown gives “Edith” the closing word in that exchange. He comes across as rigid at times, but if you look closely he is constantly revising or reassessing his own views over the course of this book: for example, he goes from proclaiming that “the romantic love ideal is evil” to discovering that he isn’t against romantic love in itself, he has a problem when it leads to what he calls possessive monogamy. And the theme that people change over time, and that those changes must be acknowledged, surfaces in other contexts too. Take this conversation between Chester and Seth:
Seth: If you could have looked into the future [as a teenager] and seen that you would become a whoremonger, wouldn’t you have been horrified?

Chester: Oh yeah, definitely. So?

Seth: Well, don’t you owe it to the person you were then to live the life he would have wanted you to lead?

Chester: I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was a kid. Do I owe it to my younger self to drop my career as a cartoonist and go to university to study paleontology?
Extending that thought, perhaps he will feel differently about these issues in a few years from now, and write another book that contradicts this one. Even if you conclude that Chester Brown is an extraterrestrial, the signs are that he is a sensitive, thoughtful extraterrestrial with a larger capacity for self-examination than many so-called humans have. That in itself makes Paying for It well worth reading, and reading again.


[Some earlier posts about graphic novels: Alan Moore's Watchmen, the Pao Collective anthology, Jotiba Phule the Gardener in the Wasteland, the Obliterary Journal, Ambedkar in Gond art, Tezuka's Buddha series, Craig Thompson's Blankets, Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries, Kashmir Pending, and a story about the Indian comics industry


  1. This is the kind of honesty that seems to come naturally to the graphic novel, as in Harvey Pekar, as in Crumb. Looking forward to experiencing Chester Brown. Thanks for the tip!

  2. suggest some philosophical, thought provoking book that'll make me recover from a breakup. #needhelpthroughbooks

    1. The Srishti publications Plz..Kiss me or Kill Me (If You are in Love, You Need Medicine) and That Kiss in the Rain...Love is the Weather of Life. They will help you recover from romance permanently. And possibly from the need to ever read again.

    2. Lol, your response is hilarious. "They will help you recover from romance permanently. And possibly from the need to ever read again" More lol

  3. Jai: Thanks for writing about graphic novels; it's a genre I don't always enjoy, but I read everything you recommend and you write splendidly on them!

    I just thought I should also say that in my (admittedly limited) experience of working with Ajitha, I would never have thought of her as a "grammar pedant" (Ajitha, I hope you are reading this!).

    That being said, this was a lovely piece of writing:

    "... fearsome Harper Collins editor, scourge of established and aspiring writers everywhere, grammar pedant who, even during drunken conversations, grabs at faulty sentences as they issue from your mouth, rips them asunder and watches their innards drift to the carpet ..."

    1. Sharan: oh yes, everything about Ajitha here was completely tongue-in-cheek. The pliers aren't always red-hot, just hot enough to make it uncomfortable after a few minutes. Also she can be really nasty after a few drinks, which is often.

  4. Wow! I just read parts of this post and this seems to be the kind of book I have never read. Could you please recommend other books which are on the same lines of saying things which we want to but we can't thanks to culture and etc. (I know you don't like recommending, but still)

    1. You'll have to be a bit more specific than that. Who is "we" and what things do we want to say? And what genres, subjects etc?

    2. I should not have said "we", I should have said "I". I would like to read books on sex, politics and religion, which would write in a humorous way. For instance, in one of the photos above, he talks about three situations about sex, where the behaviour would be labelled as immoral by a number of people. However, he says there is no moral difference between those three situations.