by KJ Moore
Transgressive fiction has existed for many more years than some would like to think, though it is only within the last few decades that it has come into the limelight as popular, effectively mainstream reading such as in the work of Chuck Palahniuk, J.D. Ballard, and William Burroughs. Their books are transgressive not in only in style – where the texture of language and the visceral power of grotesque imagery are explored to extremes – but in content, where there is a merciless dissection and challenging of social morals and values.
Going back to Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), infamy was achieved through both the story of a paedophile and a young girl, but also through the insidious style that immersed us in Humbert Humbert’s guilty and monstrous mind. If there is anything left that can put a society into an outraged frenzy, it’s the sexual abuse of a child. Bestiality and necrophilia have been reduced in severity to jokes, and BDSM has become so mainstream that it’s entering fashion and Ann Summers. Paedophilia is arguably the last great taboo, in part because we as a society have assigned innocence and vulnerability to children, perceiving a sexual attack on a child as an attack on innocence itself. For over a decade of their lives, we are to see children as carnally sexless and entirely ignorant of desire, arousal and provocation. Lolita caused such uproar in part because Lolita was aware of her own sexual power.
"Bonbon House" is a short story (from #Horrible) that seeks to confront and challenge our knee-jerk reaction to paedophilia through the aping of it in a brothel where dwarf women dress and act like children.
This story does not thrust the taboo into the reader’s face, but rather flirts with it whilst keeping it genuinely absent from the text. It is in the excess of the room’s décor and the completeness of the fantasy that is troubling. Indeed, much of transgression resides in excess: be that fantasy, freedom, or sexual appetite.
I wanted "BonBon House" to stand out from the many stories that touch upon or focus directly on sexuality around children and paedophilia, as child abuse in both autobiographical accounts and fiction has saturated the market. Despite this abundance, paedophilia in literature is still regarded as taboo, largely because it is feared that reading such material could affect a reader’s moral personality and behaviour in disturbing ways. Of course, this is simply not the case. Lolita is no more a paedophile’s handbook than American Psycho (Ellis, 1991) is a guide to murder in metropolitan cities. There is also the fear that representing ‘forbidden’ viewpoints and encouraging empathy with such people serves to condone the acts taking place, but ‘to imaginatively participate in the experience is not to adopt the work’s perspective as one’s own. Imagining and adopting are not the same thing’ (Harold, 2008)
I am a great believer in the idea that ‘the moral rewards of exploring in imagination a defective moral perspective are great: the understanding gained is moral understanding, and a richer moral understanding of the world is itself morally valuable’ (Harold, 2008). Transgressive literature is valuable as it does not seek to destroy boundaries by exceeding them. Rather, it serves to highlight those moral and social lines so that we may probe for where exactly our fears and repulsions lie and to reaffirm them. At no point in "Bonbon House" does sex with a child take place. It is only emulated by consenting adults, but even this parody is enough to make us squirm. Perhaps it is simply the thought of a man physically dominating and entering a smaller creature, who is perceived to be vulnerable, that is at the core of our feelings alongside the question of consent. Or does the symbol of innocence and vulnerability, exemplified by a child, carry over into the image of an adult dressing and acting like a child?
Bonbon House is contained to less than eight thousand words, long enough to push and explore the taboo across the characters but not enough time for a reader to get comfortable. A reader has the chance to become complacent during a novel because by its very nature a novel is written to be a steady hike rather than a sprint. A short story collection of the same volume has the potential to confront and question far more issues across a range of taboos, as well as to be experimental in style and presentation.
In the short story form, caustic language and sharp shocks can be used without losing their effectiveness, which suits bizarre and transgressive literature that is designed to challenge, shock and appal. To gain a potent and memorable reaction, a tight and concise form is the most advantageous whilst also delivering originality. Whilst Fight Club (Palahniuk, 1996) and American Psycho are powerful pieces that generated a stir upon their release, they are still written to accommodate the reader in quieter slumps before rearing up again for another attack.
We must also note that in reading there is no ‘safe word’ as there is in the fetish community. A closed book and an unresolved story will haunt until completed. In pieces designed to push and evoke, a close and certain end point is as important as the endurance run within the story itself. This brings me to "Tasteless" (from #horrible), the intent of which does not lie in the characters or the story, but in confronting our common desire to look away. It opens with the statement that it will not stop or relent until the story is concluded, and continues to consciously address our self-preserving and denying flinches, demanding the reader’s attention. This juxtaposition between narrative commentary and direct address is a maintained fluctuating dynamic throughout the piece.
Ellis, B.E. American Psycho (NY: Vintage Books, 1991)
Harold, J. “Immoralism and the Valence Constraint” (2008) British Journal of Aesthetics. Vol 48. No 1. January 2008.
Nabokov, V. Lolita (Great Britain: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1959)
Palahniuk, C. Fight Club (Great Britain: Vintage Books, 1997)