Gripped, early draft of a novel by Jason Donnelly. Forthcoming, Perfect Edge Books.
Is there a genre for masturbation stories? I’m not sure. I think of a handful of novels with masturbation scenes – Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, in which the prison narrator likes to think of a certain character whose name sounds like derriere (which is perhaps more masturbatory than masturbation) or the famous scene in Joyce’s Ulysses. There are others (I feel like Naked Lunch must have some bizarre murder/masturbation scene, but maybe I’m projecting). I have to admit, I once started a story with a masturbation scene but edited it out at the advice of others (but then put it back in when it was collected in Naming the Animals, my first fiction collection.) But even though Donnelly’s novel begins with the main character masturbating, the novel isn’t nearly as dark or, strangely enough, dirty as one might think. Okay, maybe it’s that dark, but in not so obvious a way. (He also follows it with a hilarious pop culture joke I won’t spoil, but it made me laugh out loud, which I rarely do when reading.) Donnelly is lampooning American consumerist culture, a culture that is, in itself, a kind of masturbation, so it makes sense that the main character, Marky McCarren, is a masturbation addict. He’s also a slacker, and fairly soon into the novel, unemployed. A mysterious infomercial addresses him personally, and soon he’s enmeshed in a strange new program that promises to change his life for the better by pretty much completely disassembling it. Which doesn’t seem like it would be such a loss.
Here’s how the program works: he receives a bunch of Blueray discs (delivered by a man in a suit in the middle of the night…). He’s to watch one each week and do everything it says. If he fails or shirks the assignments or talks about the program to anyone, he’s out. And the implications are that being “out” might be more ominous that it sounds. The assignments become increasingly difficult and specific. The first week’s assignment is to read the newspaper and talk to people about it, among other things, for example. As he works the program, he meets a girl, makes friends, gets a new job, loses weight, and generally seems to be moving towards a much better life. But there is some weirdness. His girlfriend seems to be keeping secrets from him about her comings and goings. Some people seem to have dropped out of the program and met with some pretty bad ends. And the people in the program seem to be frighteningly powerful, since they catch Mark every time he slips, even when he wasn’t necessarily aware he was slipping. They also suggest all sorts of products he should use (such as which papers to subscribe to in the beginning) and then, when he goes to, say, subscribe to the paper, they’ve already started his subscription, have his credit card number, etc.
But Mark isn’t really that concerned, because he spent much of his time, previously, masturbating. And now he’s got a great job as a DJ (so what if he has to spend much of his time advertising products on air) a beautiful girlfriend (who may be a spy for the program) and he’s happier than he’s ever been (and also kind of afraid the program people might kill him). He’s also addicted to sleeping pills and is pretty sure his cat is talking to him. Gradually, the story shifts into something like horror as Mark becomes consumed with the program – his every thought of it, reminiscent of the ever-present nature of advertising in Delillo’s White Noise, or the gradual break from reality in Ellis’ American Psycho.
Donnelly is certainly displaying some chops as a writer. Donnelly’s prose is spare and clear. He avoids heavy-handedness with his message by lacing the novel with humor and verve. But his message is certainly clear. And did I mention that he made me laugh on the first page? How often does that happen? Even though I read an early draft (honestly, I couldn't tell) this is clearly going to be a damned fine book.
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