Book Review: Paying For It – Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly – 2013)

The subtitle for Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s graphic novel is ‘a comic-strip memoir about being a john’, which it is.  But it is also much more than this.  It’s a psychological study of attitudes towards sex-workers and people who pay for sex.  It’s a deeply contemplative argument for decriminalising prostitution , a call to reassess the value of ‘possessive monogamy’ in traditional relationships and an insight into the lives of prostitutes.  It is also very funny in places.

Chester Brown shows how his relationship came to an end when his girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else.  The new boyfriend eventually moves in and Brown seem remarkably unperturbed by this turn of events.  It is this attitude of non-possessiveness that sets Brown apart, an attitude he wishes more people would cultivate.

Brown takes the decision to pay for sex and we follow his experiences in very graphic detail.  The is one of the most revealing and honest autobiographical books I have read.  Sometimes it is painfully honest and I think it is incredibly courageous for Chester Brown to share this with the world.  Most of us could not be this honest, even with ourselves.

Throughout the book we see Chester’s discussions and conversations with his ex-girlfriend, his brother and his fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth (looking suspiciously like Clark Kent in his trademark vintage clothing and hat).  As you would imagine, Chester meets a variety of responses including disapproval, concern and mockery.  We see Chester justifying his actions and arguing in a Socratic way, which often undermines prejudices and persuades his friends to alter their views.

The artwork is quite minimalistic and static.  One thing that struck me was how little expression is given to the faces of the people depicted.  We have to determine what they are feeling by their words alone.  For the most part Chester’s face is a mask.

Most pages have small equal-sized frames in 2 columns by 4 rows. For me, they were a little small and I wondered if the may have been bigger in the hardback (my copy is the paperback edition).

Almost the last quarter of the book is taken up with handwritten appendices and notes, which are very interesting in themselves.  In the appendices, Chester largely reviews the prejudices and arguments against prostitution together with his own thoughts, opinion and rebuttals of commonly held views.  It’s thought-provoking and well argued.

Whilst reading the book, I did think about the impact on marriage and children.  Chester deals with both of these subjects briefly in appendix 18, but not satisfactorily to my mind.  He views marriage as an ‘evil institution’ and suggests that if the institution of marriage did not exist then ‘new social and legal structures will arise.’  He posits a ‘child-raising contract’ as a substitute for marriage that parents may be willing to enter.  In some ways, this made me think of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ where sexual relationships are constantly changing (and the drugs are free!).

Chester is realistic enough to see that his views on marriage, child-rearing and possessive monogamy are only likely to change at a speed commensurate with continental drift, but I think even that may be wishful thinking in the case of marriage and family life.  However, Chester has thought about this subject in more depth than I ever have and so may have further arguments that could sway my opinion.

This is a serious, revealing, funny and profound book.  Strongly recommended.

Book Review:  Patient by Ben Watt (Penguin -1997)

Many of you will know Ben Watt as a musician, DJ and one half of the band Everything But The Girl.  However, this  is not a typical pop/rock star autobiography.  Sub-titled ‘the true story of a rare illness’, it is Ben Watt’s story of suffering a debilitating, life-threatening illness, which initially seemed to defy an accurate diagnosis and his subsequent road to recovery.  

Despite being about a very distressing period in his life, Ben Watt’s prose is lyrical, engaging and often funny.  You are drawn into his experience and can empathise with what he is going through.  He captures, very vividly, the sensations of experiencing crippling pain and the fear and bewilderment it brings.  

Most of us will not have experienced a long stay in hospital but Ben Watt captures the highs and lows brilliantly.  You feel the dislocation and alienation of being in an environment where you are no longer in control of your life and where your everyday experiences can largely be determined by whoever is providing care at that particular time.  Ben’s family visit and stay with him regularly, providing him with some much needed comfort and familiarity in the drifting seas of NHS care but you feel their helplessness and need for answers too.

At one stage in his stay, Ben’s can only signal what he wants by signalling whilst his family point to letters on a board.  Trying to anticipate his meaning in this necessarily long-winded process, his partner Tracey Thorn misinterprets in quite humorous ways.  Ben’s father struggles to get to grips with the situation and obviously feels very uncomfortable in being in the hospital.   It is difficult to criticize his father, instead we feel some sympathy that his inability to fix the situation and his discomfort at being inside a hospital is making him feel helpless.

This book is so well-written and engrossing that I would recommend it strongly to anyone.  

As an aside, Tracey Thorn’s own book ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’, about her life in the music industry is also an excellent read.  I am not a particular fan of Everything But The Girl but they write good books.