Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Everything Happened to Susan by Barry Malzberg

She has had a full day in New York. She has participated in the making of a pornographic film, she has had intercourse with the agent of the film’s producers, she has been offered a leading role in a forthcoming production by the same company, she has come to terms with herself in, perhaps, ways that she was not accustomed.
You may recall how much I enjoyed Barry Malzberg's mainstream novel about gangsters, suicide and the racetrack, Underlay. Funnier, more polished, and easier to grok than much of his SF work, I actually thought it might be his best writing.  (I'm not the only one--in 1979 Malzberg told Charles Platt, "Of my novels, Underlay is my favorite.")

Last week, Joachim Boaz's review of Malzberg's erotic novel Screen got me interested in Malzberg's non-SF output again. Hunting up cheap (but legal!) ways to read more of Malzberg's mainstream work, I discovered that if you sign up for kindle on your iPhone you get "Kindle Unlimited" for free for a week, and that some of Malzberg's novels fell under the Kindle Unlimited umbrella. I thought if I applied myself, I could read two or three of sad sack ("I think my career in science fiction to have been a mistake at best, a tragedy most likely") Barry's non-science fiction novels in a week.  First up, 1972's Everything Happened to Susan!

Everything Happened to Susan is currently being published in an e-book edition by Prologue Books.  The teaser blurb tells us that "She came East to become a big star on Broadway, but settled for shacking up with a violent, unpublished writer—and performing in sex movies in a huge, dingy loft on West 26th Street." I like all those down and out jerk off writer stories by people like Henry Miller (The Rosy Crucifixion), Charles Bukowski (Post Office), George Orwell (Keep the Aspidistras Flying), Knut Hamsun (Hunger) and so on, and I love reading about New York City, so Everything Happened to Susan appealed to me.

"Good News, Cheapo!"
(I couldn't find a sharp image of the original cover of Everything Happened to Susan online to include here.  But the picture at this blog about vintage sleaze books called Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books will give you an idea.  This blog actually is pretty interesting, with quite a few posts about Malzberg and Robert Silverberg's non-SF work of a salacious character.)

As we expect from our man Barry, Everything Happened to Susan is written largely in the present tense, and is made up of a multitude of very short chapters.  College graduate Susan has come from Ohio to New York City to pursue an acting career.  We witness her first acting job, participating in a one-day shoot of a porno that climaxes with her being mounted by a dog.  And her second acting job, performing in an "epic" pornographic documentary of seven or eight hours length, based on world history and with a message: "that sexuality is the driving force of mankind and that all of the disasters and cataclysms of modern day America can be seen as the outcome of sexual frustrations."  (Malzberg fans will not be surprised to learn that the final scene of this epic is a nude reenactment of the JFK assassination.) There are also flashbacks to Susan's early sexual experiences at college; these couplings were apparently numerous, but none was based on any sincere affection or deep desire.  We are even told that "...in the past she had gone to bed with men like Frank simply because it was less trouble than to do otherwise."  None of her many encounters, over the course of the entire book, lead to Susan achieving an orgasm. 

During the first half of the novel Susan is living with Timothy West, a persistent (he has submitted his novel to ten publishers and seventeen magazines) but unpublished writer who works by day at New York City's welfare agency.  Timothy is presumably based on the author himself, Malzberg worked for the New York welfare department for a while.  I, too, collected a paycheck at a government agency while based in Manhattan (though in academia, probably an even more corrupt and parasitic sector than the social services divisions) and I was nodding along to Timothy's assessment of his job:
"You have no idea how doomed the welfare system in this country is," Timothy has told her, "but you can make a very good living at it, and you can hardly call it work."   
Susan tries to leave Timothy, and tries to leave the porn movie business, but neither will let her go without a fight.  Timothy shows up at the porno set to drag Susan away, and Malzberg hints that the pornographers actually murder him!  The pornographers do badger Susan into finishing the "epic," but then she does manage to make it back to Ohio, though not before enduring a second humiliating short-term relationship with another mentally unstable "artist," Frank the porn actor, a thirty-four-year-old who lives with his nagging mother.

Though I assume the ostensible appeal of this book to readers was that it was full of sex, the sex in the book is neither titillating nor romantic; frankly, it is depressing and at times even disgusting.  The real entertainment value of the book lies in the fact that it is very funny.  Of course, some will find the sources of much of its humor offensive or sickening; for example, when Susan expresses reluctance to have sex on film with a German Shepherd, we get this gag:
The boy with whom she has been copulating giggles and tells Susan that there is nothing to worry about; he is rather experienced in this business and says he recognizes this dog and he has always behaved like a professional.
I laughed at that line, and laughed at length at excerpts of Timothy's novel, which is apparently about a case worker at a NYC welfare agency who has sex with his female clients and endures histrionic revolutionary tirades ("'My wife and children are starving for lack of bread...The world is burning...the fire is coming upon all of us'") and revolutionary violence ("when Morales revealed his knife...") from male clients.  Timothy also gives a funny class analysis of pornography: the lower classes are too crushed psychologically to have the imagination to appreciate porn (!), while the bourgeoisie, fooled into believing in the possibility of choice and change, can take porn seriously, though "most middle class people go crazy by the time they're forty" anyway.      

So, Everything Happened to Susan is entertaining and amusing, and I certainly recommend it to people looking for a laugh who won't find the material I have described offensive.  But is there something more to it, some message, some theme about human life or society?  Well, through Timothy, Malzberg does air criticisms of the welfare state and complaints about the world of publishing.

But this book isn't called Timothy's Crummy Career; it's called Everything Happened to Susan and is mostly about Susan's unfulfilling (to say the least) sex life.  However much hilarity he may provide, Timothy is just a side topic.  Allow me to suggest that this novel is an expression of skepticism about the sexual revolution.  Susan's sexual history argues that promiscuity, and perhaps a casual attitude about sex in general, on a societal level, can threaten the joy and satisfaction people can derive from sexual relationships that are based on some kind of deep feeling or commitment.  The first porno in which Susan performs, the one with the dog in its finale, explicitly pushes this very idea: "The director repeats that the whole point of the film is to show the brutality and degradation of the character as she falls into fucking at random."  I suspect this is Malzberg spelling out his thinking for us in an ironic, sarcastic fashion, putting the warning about the dangers of degradation in the mouth of one of the very people who degrades and exploits poor Susan.  

The message of the second porno, the historical epic in which Susan portrays Madame Curie, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, and other famous women (in the act of having sex), is that greater sexual openness will solve society's problems.  I believe this was a commonly held belief in the 1960s and '70s, and one promulgated by major SF writers like Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, with whose work Malzberg was undoubtedly closely familiar.  Could the second director (a pretentious artiste) and his script (an absurdity Susan and the other actors have trouble making sense of) be a satire of such people as Ted Sturgeon and their extravagant hopes in the promise of sexual liberation?  Could the way Susan, an educated woman who has participated in the sexual revolution but found neither love nor happiness (not even an orgasm!), but instead exploitation and abuse at the hands of a long series of men, be Malzberg's way of arguing that the sexual revolution has not necessarily been to the benefit of many women, but simply exposed them to greater exploitation by men out to satisfy their lust and greed?  

I highly doubt that anybody will find Everything Happened to Susan sexually arousing, but it is certainly entertaining, and may just provide us some kind of insight into Malzberg's thinking about changes in American attitudes about sex in the middle of the 20th century.

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