I have a confession to make, dear reader (hello?); it is bloody hard to review Chester Brown's new book, Paying For It, 'a comic-strip memoir about being a john'.
I forked out £16.99 in Foyles to buy Paying For It at the beginning of June and I read the book on that same afternoon thinking that I would be able to begin working on this review straight away. I even allowed myself to feel a bit smug for being so incredibly efficient and ahead of my schedule. Then, obviously, three weeks went by, while I kept picking the book up, closely perusing its pages, discussing it with friends, and re-reading all those lovely 'Praise For' quotes that appear on the back of it (the crème de la crème of academia! Robert Crumb! Neil Gaiman!). And in three weeks, I did not manage to put pen to paper. Somehow, my thoughts about Paying For It seem to suddenly become all muddy and incoherent whenever I try to write about it. And I have a reason to suspect that this might well have been Chester Brown's ultimate purpose when putting out his latest autobiographic graphic novel. Talented bastard.
Paying For It, says Brown in the extensive notes that follow the illustrated section of the book, is 'a difficult book to market'. It isn't exactly hard to understand why: Paying For It is a 280 pages long, excruciatingly true-to-life account of Brown's experiences as a prostitute's customer. In his signature minimalist style, Brown sets out to recount fourteen years of sexual encounters with about thirty prostitutes, in eight-a-page illustrations that are characterized by an abundance of details and very little glamour. I dare anyone to feel titillated watching pigeon-chested Chester endlessly fucking a series of faceless women, his eyes hidden behind his John Lennon glasses and his mouth a straight line that shows no emotions. That is not all; Paying For It also comes complete with more than fifty pages of a pretty intense hand-written appendix where Brown theorizes on the subject of sex trade and the implications of its legalization. On the whole, not an easy book to stomach. Particularly as Brown is everything but a repenting 'john'; Paying For It is a passionate argument against romantic love-making and in favour of paying for sex.
Do I agree with Chester Brown's statement that 'prostitution is just a form of dating' and partake in his hopes that 'we are moving towards a time when giving and receiving money will be part of the normal give-and-take of sexual activity'? Hell no, the thought of it makes my middle-class moisturised skin cringe. Then why do I find it so hard to slag this book off and write six-hundred words of smart-ass harsh critique before my deadline looms and my supervisor gets understandably annoyed? Because Paying For It is, um, thought provoking. And a terribly solid piece of work. The drawings are disturbing and humorous in equal parts, the theory behind them well-researched and cogently argued. Chester Brown manages to side-step all the usual moralistic criticism against prostitution by producing a piece which works as an intelligent combination of autobiographical frankness and exceptional philosophical skills. And so I am speechless, as I flick through the pages again, both angry and in awe.