JEFF VON WARD Reviews
WE, MONSTERS by Zarina Zabrisky
(Numina Press, 2013)
[First published in eleveneleven: A Journal of Literature and Art, Issue 17, 2014, Editor Hugh Behm-Steinberg]
There are two narratives in We, Monsters (Numina Press, 2013), SF Bay Area writer Zarina Zabrisky’s lubricious debut. First, we have the journal of Mistress Rose, the nom de guerre of a Ukrainian émigré housewife and mother, who finds work as a dominatrix in an S&M dungeon located inside a rat-infested Victorian. She doesn’t need the work. But she’s writing a novel, and desires the authenticity of firsthand experience with her subjects, even though, we soon learn, she is incapable of being authentic with herself.
The second narrative, equally audacious, comes courtesy of celebrity sexologist Dr. Michael Strong. A strict Freudian who has copiously footnoted Mistress Rose’s final journal entries, he decides, under the guise of benefiting the psychiatric community, to publish the book in order to secure whatever fame may have eluded her.
From the first footnote, we learn Mistress Rose is presumed dead, so the book is not a whodunit so much as a whydunit. Rose’s apparent demise casts a pall over everything. For readers, each character she humiliates during her apprenticeship in the dungeon might be the linchpin leading to her final undoing; once hooked, we gobble the prose like morphine.
In short chapters, we’re introduced to characters with names like Weird John, Elf Paul, Doctor Rob, and The Puppy, each with a Rolodex card enumerating his perversions. These cards are shorthand, guaranteeing each client leaves with a smile, and the only uniform rule seems to be for Rose to end each session with “You’re my favorite client.” She has a knack for customer service.
To the author’s credit, no one in the book ever appears as anything less than human. That goes for fellow dominatrices, Susanna, Greta, and Zoe, as well as their unsentimental operator, the madam they call Mommy. From the philosophy Mommy offers up, we readers become complicit in the book’s title:
Are you normal? Or me? Who’s normal? [Mommy] raised her knobby finger. “No one, honey. No such thing as bloody normal.” She coughed out a puff of smoke. “You know what bugs me? You turn on the bloody TV and hear people being judgmental. What do they know? They know nothing. I hear that fat lady a year ago talking about perverts. She says, ‘Monsters.’ And I think, Lady, whadda you know? You’re a monster, too...
Zabrisky’s novel is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, both knowing and observant. Most of the humor derives from Dr. Strong’s discursive footnotes, some so long they’d be at home in a David Foster Wallace novel, addressing a variety of erotic subjects through a foggy Freudian lens. Like Dr. Masters in the new Showtime series, Masters of Sex, Strong’s one of those guys who can talk about sex until it’s no longer sexy. What gets him hard is hard data, the ease with which he can rattle off statistics on paraphilia, while elucidating his readership on all the questionable casebook Freudian complexes. It’s impressive. Though some readers may wish for a little less of Dr. Strong, especially as the book progresses and we become more invested in Rose’s neuroses and her tragedy. Strong’s like the guy at the dinner party who’s constantly interrupting the hostess to assert his truth. But maybe that’s the ultimate joke: Rose is no longer in control of her own story.
In the world of monsters, we learn there are levels of perfidy. As soon as Rose meets a client called Mike the Motherfucker, a Lecter-like sociopath, her shell starts to dissipate:
Who was I?
I didn’t choose my name. I didn’t choose my body, my face, my life.
I was a Lemming, a cheerful and blind slave of circumstances, a mindless ant in the intestines of the Universe. The amethyst light twinkled at me, teasing me, mocking me, and there was no way out.
Soon she’s confronting a past life built on secrets she hasn’t admitted to Luke, her all-American husband. There’s something amiss in their relationship anyway, as he seems more interested in building a robot and eventually enters into a not altogether unexpected amorous relationship with one of the neighbors. Without giving too much away, there’s a big surprise at the end worthy of Chuck Palahniuk; and it may further divide reader’s loyalties, sending many back to the beginning to see how they could have possibly missed it.
The emotional center of the book is Zabrisky’s lapidary look in the rearview at Rose’s past life of penury in Odessa. The narrator continues to nurse a kind of elegiac nostalgia for times, however difficult, when her love of art and culture first took root: Tolstoy and Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. “Misty Lilac,” her phrase for it, this strong evocation of the past. And it’s better than anything she’s found in the new life she’s created abroad, even when she’s enacting fantasies in the dungeon. It’s a fascinating, sensory world Rose can enter into, almost at will:
That day replayed in my head in flashes of sunlight, steam, and marble: Grandma Rosa scrubbing us pink in a bath: steam and rosy patches of flesh; my hair being pulled tight, so tight my eyes teared up as Grandma braided it with her stiff, knobby fingers. All white ribbons and creamy lace, we marched into Odessa Opera Theater. I remembered a golden flash of sun, like a razor cut—a coin in the dark crevice of blue asphalt, next to a cigarette stub. It glistened at me with its ribbed edge, and I quickly fished it out of the hole, pretending I was fixing my white sock.
Such confident writing makes Zarina Zabrisky an author worth watching.
Jeff Von Ward is the author of Mormonia: Stories and the filmmaker of the award-winning documentary The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time. He has an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts.