Drawn & Quarterly
Chester Brown has always been an artist who takes his own, rather unique route. His debut; “Yummy Fur” was one of my first introductions to a world of alternative comics, and I absolutely loved it for its surreality and invention.
A switch to the pure autobiography of “The Playboy” worked even better. Brown’s unashamedly no holds barred ability to look at his own life, warts and all, had an honesty that meant it was incredibly readable. And his simple yet beautifully constructed artwork combined with this readability makes anything he turns his hand to; Bible stories, autobiography, the crusading, polemical “Louis Riel” (a biographical retelling of the 19th Century Canadian politician and leader of the Métis people), absolutely essential reading.
And Paying For It is every bit the Chester Brown work. Essential certainly, intensely personal, unflinchingly honest but also somewhat difficult and flawed. Not in its execution, which is every bit as good as I expected from Brown, but because it’s determined to function as two things – autobiography and manifesto. And it’s a manifesto that a near evangelical Brown pushes just a little too far.
Paying For It, if you hadn’t already heard, details Chester Brown’s experiences with prostitution upon deciding he no longer wants all the emotional trouble of having relationships:
(No, that’s not what it means at all, and in Paying For It we’ll find out all about Brown’s way of working out these relationship problems. From Chester Brown’s Paying For It, published by Drawn & Quarterly)
Brown begins the book in a relationship that’s amicably, if rather unconventionally, fizzling out. And this ending serves as a trigger to something he’s obviously been thinking a lot about over the years. Like he points out above, relationships really aren’t the be all and end all for Brown, and his logic points him simply, clearly in the direction of prostitution.
So this rational, intelligent, logical man takes the next step. And finally gets around to Paying For It. Although, Brown would certainly point out that, in emotional and psychological terms, he’d been paying for it in different ways for years before this.
A note on that title though – Brown admits to disliking it in the notes section at the end of the book. He feels it’s laden with double meaning and is at pains to point out that the only meaning of the title he accepts is that yes, he’s paying for sex. But not paying for his use of prostitutes in any negative way at all, not emotionally or socially, he’s healthy, never been arrested and still in work – all of the things he feels may be associated with that title.
(“Uh, I’d…like to have vaginal intercourse with you”. “Yes, that’s what I really said,” he comments in the extensive “Notes” section at the back of Paying For It.)
And so it begins, in 1996, with Brown detailing every detail of his encounters with prostitutes, chapter by chapter, girl by girl. Never glamourising the events, the sex is absolutely functional, clinical and devoid of feeling. But that suits Brown, after all his entire argument here is about the dissociation of sex from emotions and ridding himself of the necessity of the latter in order to gain the former.
As the book goes on, Brown settles into comfortable and regular pattern, becoming increasingly confident in the details, yet finding each encounter slightly numbing, and almost finds himself distracted during the sex, analysing and comparing the girls, even going as far as contributing reviews to an online site.
And although he’s determinedly not looking for a relationship, he does have a tendancy to develop relationships of a kind with these women, especially those he revisits and becomes a regular for. Events later in the book will develop this even further, in a game changing end chapter that rather throws his entire ideas on prostitution into question. It’s not something I’ll go into here, as it would be a huge spoiler, but it does make me convinced that the story of what happened from 2004 to now, something he briefly, but shockingly reveals in the final chapter of Paying For It, is a book in itself that I’d really like to see Brown tackle next.
Above all else, Paying For It is brilliant Chester Brown autobiography, absolutely, completely honest. And in that honesty comes a great deal of humour. Brown is tentative, nervous and so completely socially inept that it’s actually funny.
Brown’s ability to portray himself so honestly brings to the fore all the ridiculousness, all the paranoia, all the surreality of the situation – this is a man who cycles to his prostitutes for heaven’s sake. There’s comedy for you.
All along his actions and his evangelical mission is chronicled and analysed by Brown using a series of conversations with friends including fellow cartoonists Seth and Joe Matt.
Their incredulity, distaste, disapproval and questioning allows Brown the soapbox he requires to shoehorn his viewpoint into his story. But Brown’s storytelling is so masterful that these talky bits in between the sex, where Brown is analysing and questioning his behaviour, either internally or at the prompting of others, are the real heart of the book. The actual sex is there to illustrate the point, to give details to Brown’s thinking.
Personally, I think Paying For It, faults and all, is a staggeringly good book in the autobiographical genre. But although this may be autobiographical, it’s also Brown presenting an idea. This is more than autobiography, this is manifesto autobiography.
And that manifesto is organised around the idea that not only is prostitution a valid alternative, it’s something that should be utilised by more people. Indeed he goes much further and develops an argument that prostitution is a far more satisfying and valid idea than emotional love – something he’s utterly convinced of, something he spends much of the book attempting to convince his readers of, at least the parts where he’s not giving us a no holds barred, near catalogue of every prostitute, every sexual encounter he conducts during the fourteen years this book covers.
The manifesto aspect is what creates the flaw in this otherwise brilliant book. Too often it feels like being bludgeoned by an idea, and although it’s always well argued and thought out it’s also too localised on Brown’s own experiences, and he lets these preclude any questioning voices.
In one way I have to concede this is perfectly reasonable, after all Brown makes no claims that this is a meticulously researched position paper on prostitution, it’s always presented as his views. This is Brown’s story and if he’s found that his experiences with prostitution are almost completely positive and fulfilling for himself and simple, safe and easy business for the women, then we have to believe him.
But like anyone with an evangelical crusade, Brown goes on a little too long, a little too much and a little too single-mindedly. Despite arguing his case exceptionally well, in both comic form and the (extensive) notes and appendices, there’s a feeling that he’s rather skirting around the problematic issues of sex slavery, drug addiction, pimps, exploitation, abuse and so much else in his desire to state his case.
He’s presenting his limited experiences, backed up with a notes and appendices section weighted heavily in support of his argument, as the truth rather than his truth.
And where he eventually takes his argument, that we’d all be a damn sight better off if we all gave up on the stupid notion of romantic love and instead followed his lead – that really does seem a stretch – the evangelist over stating his case.
So, as a work of autobiography, Paying For It is quite wonderful, a resounding success. As a manifesto though, it’s a flawed and one sided thing, too personal, too evangelical. But wasn’t that always going to be the issue here?
In the end your enjoyment of Paying For It will depend upon your willingness to trade the genius of his autobiographical execution with the flaws of his personal argument. I found myself torn between the two, but I’m coming down on the autobiographical enjoyment. It’s a brilliant, yet flawed book, one that you should read, but do bring along an open mind.