This might seem an incongruous thing for me to say, having written a book in which a predatory high school teacher plays a prominent role, but I feel quite bad for the guys who get trapped on To Catch a Predator (which I’ve been watching online for the last fifteen minutes, prompting this post). As Judith Levine wrote in Harmful to Minors, the notion that all sex between someone above the age of 16 (or 17, or 18, depending on state law) and someone below that age is criminal, abusive, exploitative, or traumatic is totally irrational. Some of the guys on the MSNBC show clearly are predators, but others are probably just sad, lonely people. They are lonely and online and someone pretending to be interested in them sends a message (it is legal for the decoys to approach the “predators” rather than wait for an approach, I believe; if I am wrong about this, someone correct me). Also, the notion that they are all pedophiles seems wrong to me. A pedophile is someone who is aroused by preadolescents. At 13, 14, 15, and up, most people are biologically mature. It is certainly socially and cultural innapropriate to feel sexual desire for them, but not biologically “unnatural.” Was Edgar Allan Poe a pedophile? I feel like there are many other examples–extraordinary people in history whose carnal lives I could have used in that sentence rather than Edgar Allan Poe. I think the show ruins lives unnecessarily, although I don’t deny that it may have prevented some future crimes as well.
It’s not available online, but the latest NYRoB has a fantastic essay on the underrated writer Frederick Prokosch. I’ve praised Prokosch before on these pages and expressed sorrow that everything he’s written is out of print, but it was nice to learn that The Asiatics is being reissued early next year. The Asiatics, if you haven’t read it, serves as a gloomier-than-usual take on the American expatriate traveling through exotic land formula. The difference is that Prokosch’s fantastic descriptions, to say nothing of his riffs on consciousness and identity, transform it into a kind of honed, yet primitive poetry that’s sui generis.
Gore Vidal once pointed out that novelist Frederic Prokosch was roundly criticized for delving too much into environment, and not nearly enough into human character. Hardpan’s lyrical presence within The Seven Who Fled is nothing less than scintillating, but for anyone concerned with the niceties of behavior (including me), it was a bit frustrating to see Prokosch juxtapose highly stereotypical characters against conditions of starvation, hungry lust, and the kind of banal palaver that Stephen King has since injected too frequently within his Dark Tower series.
But what better way to understand condition than through environment? Environment, lest we forget, was one of Balzac’s predominant concerns. In it, Balzac suggested, we could see the complete depiction of personality. Today, with Western environment tainted by post-reality teevee tripe, and as the very worst of post-pomo has forced us to suffer through trite pop culture references, crude drawings and laundry lists placed smack dab in the center of a major story arc, Prokosch, years later, an almost forgotten writer quite out of print, comes across as a more daring prioritizer. Is it environment that determines character, or vice versa?
What’s interesting about Prokosch’s memoir, Voices, is that it’s just as subtextual as his novels. Prokosch reveals almost nothing about himself. He’s the son of a linguist professor, he’s declared a master philologist at a young age (but questions this sui generis status), he likes tennis and squash, he shuttles across the world, sometimes stopping for months or years at a place he grows fond of, and he collects butterflies. But, above all, Prokosch cannot stop expressing wonder at the tropical environments. Interestingly, Prokosch defers most of the book to the literary voices he listens to. And in this world, Prokosch is a quiet questioner rather than a participant. The voices around him speak in pure academese, almost never faltering in their conversational cadences or thinking (save Somerset Maugham stuttering simple words and a particularly bitter Sinclair Lewis, seen with friend Hal Smith encouraging him in the worst of ways). Peggy Guggenheim shows up twice and we begin to ponder how the art world has made her the eccentric and strangely fascinating person she is. Prokosch reminds us not once, but three times, within his memoir that what he’s setting down is accurate and to the letter. But is this truth in process getting closer to a lie that only Prokosch is aware of? Has he been corrupted by the literary community?
Literary circles are depicted in dialogues that also repeat themes. There are the usual dichotomies: one uttered early on by a chopsticks-deficient Thomas Wolfe about the big man trapped within the little man, and vice versa; the other seen by a plastered, quite naked Dylan Thomas about the man trapped within the woman, and the woman trapped within the man. There are endless hierarchies and book ranking, competitive dismissals of other writers, desperate pining for awards. It’s an environment that Prokosch later renounces. He seems to prefer the natural state of a recluse, watching the dappled clouds or the sun rising above a hillock. (Indeed, the last section of the book is titled “The World of Nature.”) I came away from the book wondering if Prokosch’s near-total abdication to environment was a blessing or a curse. In his work, Prokosch possessed effrontery in finding an almost austere style. But in his memoir, we’re still left with the troubling question of whether surrendering completely to a romantic vista inures us in some way towards the human condition.