Saturday, September 10, 2011

Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John by Chester Brown

I've read memoirs written by call girls and rent boys, and feminist theory both for and against prostitution, but this is the first time I've encountered the activity from the viewpoint of a thoughtful john. Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown tackles this deeply personal topic with a frankness bordering on clinical detachment. In among the (many!) pages of appendices and notes at the end, Brown's good friend Seth contributes these comments: "I often jokingly refer to Chet as 'the robot.' [...] He's definitely an oddball. That said, he is also the kindest, gentlest and most deeply thoughtful oddball I know."

Seth's praise rings true. Brown's attitude towards the women that he saw was considerate and even gallant. The book opens in Toronto in June 1996 with the chapter "My Last Girlfriend." Brown maintained a platonic relationship with his ex-girlfriend and they continued to live together even when Sook-Yin's new boyfriend moved in. (Brown's lack of jealousy when his girlfriend was with another guy was of particular interest to me, since I too was born without the jealousy gene.) Afterwards, chapters are titled with the (fake) names of the prostitutes he saw, ending with "Back to Monogamy" in 2010.

In addition to his sexual encounters, Brown portrays the many discussions he had with his friends about prostitution. I like that Brown isn't afraid to challenge cultural attitudes about morality. He further refutes the usual arguments surrounding the issue in the appendices. Philosophy and ideas about marriage, sex and monogamy permeate the text. Did you know there may be a connection between the twelfth century Cathars and French court troubadours, and the development of the concept of romantic love?

Brown's careful black on white ink work is nicely balanced between subtlety and strength. I was reminded of Seth's Wimbledon Green, but Brown's work is more realistic. The book has a lot of nudity - as you would expect from the subject matter. Where Brown shows himself lying naked after sex and talking with the woman, I find the scenes quite touching in their vulnerability.

I think this memoir will appeal to a lot of different readers. As Robert Crumb states in his introduction, "this is a very enlightening book, as well as being entertaining." Readalike: Funny Misshapen Body by Jeffrey Brown.

One last comment: in the notes, Brown identifies the restaurant on Queen Street where he and Seth held a particular conversation - it's called Terroni. I was in that same restaurant last year! I remember that a woman who joined our group set her giant Starbucks drink on the table and sipped it throughout our meal. Hmm... that would make a good cartoon strip, wouldn't it?

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