Thursday, June 25, 2020

What purpose did I serve in your life? is a head-scratcher of a book

Well. I just finished Marie Calloway's book what purpose did I serve in your life?, and I know I'm supposed to have a reaction - no other book I've read is quite so transparently designed to elicit a reaction - but I'm still not sure what that reaction is.
Did I enjoy it? No, I'm pretty sure of that. But I'm also pretty sure I wasn't supposed to. Was it illuminating, then? Kind of, although I'm not sure I really wanted to be illuminated about such things. Thought-provoking, then? Sure, let's go with thought-provoking. Or maybe just provoking.
I bought the book because I had seen reviews about it being "controversial", "shocking" and "profoundly contemporary", but also "a great work of courage and art". It's an example - probably THE example - of so-called "alt-lit", a contemporary literary movement strongly influenced by the internet, social media and online self-publishing. It is not given to flowery descriptive flows or deep insightful characterization. Indeed, it is debatable whether it is literary at all in the commonly-understood meaning of the word.
In Marie Calloway's case, she writes about her own sordid, and often extreme, sexual experiences as a teen and a young twenty-something in great and merciless detail. This is not transcendent, beautiful sex; this is gritty coupling and thrashing, often involving violence, masochism, degradation, humiliation and debauchery. She wants to experience the depths of physicality, wants to be dominated and humiliated, and she seems able to find plenty of men willing to oblige her. Much of it just reads like a sub-par submission to Penthouse or Hustler magazine; some of it may make you a bit queasy. It is more autobiography than fiction, and her intactions with well-known figures are only barely disguised by pseudonyms.
She intersperses these bouts of carnal excess with some deep but inconclusive instrospection, about her own fragility, self-loathing and submissiveness, about feminism, about pornography, and about life in general. All of it is written in the flat, deliberately unliterary, alt-lit style, much of it in the form of prosaic conversations and bland "I did this then I did that" narration. Whole sections are in the form of screenshots or transcriptions of social media posts.
It is a self-consciously unedifying book and hard to like, but I guess it gives us a glimpse into a world that most of us know little about. Although Ms. Calloway has something of a cult following, largely among like-minded young people, she leads a life that is totally alien and incomprehensible to me (and probably also to most of her Gen Z contemporaries). what purpose did I serve in your life? is not "a great work" as advertised, and it is not going to set the literary world on fire. But then that doesn't seem to be the point of it, as far as I understand it.
It didn't take long to read, and I don't regret reading it. But I am not going to rush to my computer and seek out the back catalogue of Muumuu House and HTMLgiant any time soon. Indeed, I am still not sure what purpose the book served in my life.

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