Ever since the 23-year-old Marie Calloway seduced a prominent, middle-aged journalist (the pseudonymous Adrien Brody) and published a fictionalized account on the MuuMuu House website, the literary starlet of what Esquire’s Stephen Marche branded “Asperger’s style” has been the subject of a tug-o’-war between fans who see her a trailblazing provocateur for women’s sexual liberty and detractors as hostile to her methods as to her craft. The subject of Calloway’s publishing success, and what some perceive as her unmoored sexual antics, has generated boundless blather about her merits as a literary writer, a social critic, a potential feminist icon, a potentially anti-feminist dunce, a clueless victim, a skilled manipulator of both men and the media, and a human being. Marche, for instance, wrote that, “Personally, I find it hard to see how having your face come on by an older man constitutes an act of female empowerment . . . ” Or as one Amazon reviewer lamented of the content: “The demoralizing acts (which included [Calloway] being forced to consume her own vomit) played an integral role in my reading only a portion of the book before putting it in the trash. It served to make me very sad and sick for anyone who could have possible [sic] encountered this type of treatment.” In contrast, serious literary examination of her tell-all-and-then-some memoir, what purpose did i serve in your life?, has proven all too rare. While Calloway, who Slate bills as “online lit’s enfant terrible,” has garnered relentless media attention, her prose itself has received short shrift.
I prefer to start with the premise that there must be something worthwhile (or at least alluring) about Calloway’s writing. After all, I purchased her book—and not for the photos. (In any event, the Internet, I have been told, is replete with far more risqué images and degrading descriptions of human sexuality in all of its guises.) Rather than asking whether Calloway’s work is worthwhile or worthless, or grappling with her body as something to be fought over, even if she encourages a reader to confound her persona with her fiction, I believe intellectual energy is far better spent figuring out precisely what, if anything, makes her work so distinctive. As a traditional writer with limited exposure to the alternative literature scene from which Calloway emerged—who had never even heard of MuuMuu House or provocateur publisher Tao Lin prior to reading what purpose did i serve in your life?—I would like to venture an outsider’s perspective that might elude those steeped in debates about the merits of the alt.lit movement or, for that matter, the canons of Third Wave feminism.
The stories in what purpose did i serve in your life? may have social and political implications, but they are, at their core, comedies of manners. When one delves past the lurid details of sex work and the twists afforded by modern technology, it becomes clear that Calloway draws from the same well as Henry Fielding and Jane Austen. As distressing as some may find this claim, the fact remains that the architecture of “Adrien Brody” is not far removed from that of Sense and Sensibility: girl admires boy from afar, girl seeks romance with boy, girl dallies with boy, obstacles arise, girl learns lesson and seeks romance elsewhere. The most striking difference is that Marianne Dashwood is not real person, and nor does she follow the dalliance with an exposé in which she describes ejaculate dripping from her face or licking up her own vomit. But we shouldn’t let that difference distract us from the core similarity between Calloway and Austen: Both write of young women seeking love, the capricious power of the men whose affections they seek, and the odd social rules and conventions that govern their interactions. I suspect that Calloway may feel, after her interlude with Adrien Brody, a bit like Dorothea Brooke following her first night with Edward Casaubon—although whether Miss Calloway recognizes this connection is an entirely different matter. Of the many attacks that have been and will be leveled at Calloway, if there is one broadside that her fiction and community most merit, it’s that they act as though they are writing in a vacuum, rather than in a tradition.
Or, rather—and this is what does make Calloway’s work so distinctive—she is aggressively writing against a tradition, knowingly or not. The conceit underlying the comedy of manners, and of Western romance for the past several centuries, is that certain subjects may be discussed only obliquely during social discourse. Georgian mores did not permit Elizabeth Bennett to walk up to Mr. Darcy and say, “I think you’re hot. Let’s make out.” Needless to say, that would have rendered Miss Austen a much less prolific novelist. Our classics from The Scarlett Letter to The Foresyte Saga derive their tension from what cannot be expressed, from the secret passions and yearnings that may only be hinted at, incrementally, until a match is either established or irreparably thwarted. Who can forget the moment in Anna Karenina when the intellectual Sergey Ivanovitch Koznyshev takes the innocent Varenka mushroom picking and almost proposes—but does not—“their” moment evaporating forever into the Russian countryside? The characters who do express romantic desires directly in canonical fiction—Aleksei Vronsky, Alec d’Urberville, Rhett Butler—do so outside the bounds of drawing room acceptability. What is essential to emphasize is that these characters reflected the “polite” yet highly choreographed and often confining standards of a 19th and 20th century milieu, which their authors inhabited and implicitly rejected.
In contrast, Calloway’s romantic and sexual interactions are virtually devoid of hidden yearnings and lurking subtexts. Characters express their desires without any code of so-called respectability to contain them. When Calloway initiates her affair with Adrien Brody, she does so by writing him an email message that holds nothing back: “hello I will go to Brooklyn may 26—june 1 I would love to sleep w/ you probably you’re not into that sort of thing but thought I would say anyway zz via nothing to lose.” In another story, “the irish photographer,” the title character asks Calloway, within an hour of meeting her, “Are we going to take pictures and have sex or are we going to go to a pub or are we going to do all three?” He might as easily have been ordering a slice of pizza. This is not an Expressionistic distortion of reality in the vein of Berthold Brecht, designed to convey truth through falsehood. Far from it. This is an effort to capture the lived experience of Calloway’s generation.
Calloway appears to be advancing the argument that the forbidden hopes and fears of the lovers of yore no longer remain forbidden—for certain among a small coterie of Millennial generation Internet intellectuals, and probably in the broader culture. As the character Jeremy Lin replies, when Calloway mentions having a crush on a man, “I don’t get crushes anymore.” How can one have crushes in a world where one simply asks for romance, or sex, and receives it like a receipt from a parking meter? In Calloway’s world, the line between public and private has eroded—and she does her part to effectuate that erosion. She asks friends and lovers if she may read their personal emails without censor; shockingly, they agree. Some of these messages prove quite revealing, even damning, such as one from Jeremy Lin to a friend that reads: “I like Marie in person, but I’m not attracted to her.” While I suppose one can admire this forthrightness, there was a time—not too long ago—when such candor was better known as cruelty.
Yet it is not even clear that Calloway perceived this comment as cruel, any more than that Lin intended it to be so. In the middle of a story titled “BDSM,” Calloway writes: “I don’t feel degraded or aroused. I don’t feel anything right now.” What makes her prose distinctive is that she has captured a radical shift in the culture toward permanent desensitization and, even more shocking, a complete deterioration of interior life. She is not an advocate or critic, as far as I can discern, but merely a mirror. That she has participated in these endeavors offers a titillating distraction, though not a particularly relevant one—not so different from George Plimpton sparring with light heavyweight Archie Moore. What matters is that she has absorbed and distilled a new and unnerving way of being, a culture in which one only recognizes one’s own feelings and urges after one posts them as a status update on Facebook. If it is on the Internet, after all, it must be true. So how seriously should we be taking Marie Calloway? Unfortunately, the answer is very.
Jacob Appel is the author of two novels, a forthcoming short story collection, and criticism that has recently appeared in the Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Boston Book Review, and elsewhere. Find out more at jacobmappel.com.
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