Chester Brown’s “Paying For It” is, ostensibly, a memoir about Chester’s experiences with escorts and his rejection of a typical monogamous lifestyle. However, it may actually be a plea for the decriminalization of prostitution and a minor screed against the concept of Romantic Love.
Chester is the talent behind several noteworthy comics and graphic novels including the award-winning “Ed the Happy Clown” and “Louis Riel”. Over the years, Chester’s material has varied from black comedy, to personal biography, to history and religion, to outright confessional. On the surface “Paying For It” falls into the latter category, but the book seems to have a specific political agenda, which is missing, or is at least much less obvious, than in his earlier work.
|Chester's more recent work is a|
long way from the twisted black
comedy of his Yummy Fur days.
While comics from the autobiographical school aren’t always my cup of tea, I have enjoyed work by Chester and his indie comic cohorts Seth, Joe Matt and others. But ultimately, if I have my way I am usually going to choose straight-up fiction. That said I believe “Paying For It” is an important book and well worth reading, though I do have some reservations about its overall success.
I doubt Chester Brown would categorize himself as a brave man, but he certainly is by my reckoning. Outing one’s self as an unrepentant “whoremonger”, (as Joe Matt refers to him in the book), in a culture as deeply conflicted about sexuality as ours, is a singular act of courage.
Chester begins by chronicling the demise of his last so called “normal” relationship and walks us through the thought processes that lead him to hire a prostitute rather than seek another girlfriend. His motivation boils down to this: Romantic relationships draw out people’s pettiness, possessiveness and jealousy, and the good things about monogamy, like companionship and regular sex, are outweighed by the negative.
That’s the nutshell version, of course, and it’s quite fascinating to read the book and get the full story. We follow Chester’s almost Spock-like logic stream as he concludes that paid sex is the way to go. I found the scene where he hauls out a calculator and sensibly works out his hooker budget for the year particularly hilarious.
When I was in my late 20’s I occasionally paid for sex, but for very different reasons than Chester. For me it was sheer hormonal overload. I was without a regular sex partner, horny as a three-peckered toad, and knew beyond any doubt that masturbating for the one-hundredth time that week simply wasn’t gong to cut it. And, on one or two occasions I chose the pay-for-play route because I was feeling depressed and craved an ego boost. As I aged and my libido began to wane a little, I became much less interested in paying for sex.
For Chester it all seems to be about avoiding the drama and satisfying his sexual urges with minimum aggravation. Or, at least that is what he tells us in the book, and it’s hard to believe he’s being anything but truthful about the matter.
|Between a rock and a hard place.|
The sex in “Paying For It” is presented in a very frank and graphic manner which will undoubtedly shock some, but which I found refreshing. His encounters with the various prostitutes are sometimes compelling, and vary from erotic, to humorous, to disappointing. It’s also enlightening to learn more about this rarely discussed subculture. As Chester gradually discovers the subtleties of interpreting ads, and the hidden etiquette of contacting, meeting and paying prostitutes, we learn along with him. (During my own foray into paid sex, I ended up in the realm of the rub ’n’ tug, which is occasionally mentioned but never depicted in “Paying For It”.)
During his erotic encounters with these ladies of the evening, Chester reveals himself in a blunt “warts and all fashion”, which often casts him in a negative light. He depicts his thin body in positively cadaverous terms, and has no trouble pointing up the personality shortcomings of himself, his friends or his hired lovers. The work is unflaggingly straightforward, and while Chester is always courteous and financially generous with the women he hires, he is also very judgmental about their appearance and performance.
One might make the case that this is reasonable when purchasing a service. Before hiring, say, a landscaper, I might well go online and see what previous clients had to say about his work and professionalism, as Chester does with some of the prostitutes. And, if that landscaper did a lousy job and overcharged me, I certainly wouldn’t feel bad about never hiring him again. However, in light of the fact that this is sex, not landscaping, it does come off a bit cold-hearted.
Though that may just be my own repressive cultural conditioning talking.
Between his encounters with the hookers, Chester debates the topics of prostitution, Romantic Love and monogamy with his friends and family. For the most part they take up a negative view toward Chester’s whoring ways, or at least a pro monogamy stance. Via these conversations the pros and cons of prostitution are explored, and while some feel quite natural, several descend into speech making. Having only met Chester a few times, I can’t say for certain he doesn’t talk this way, but certain conversations seemed overly didactic. His conversations with the hookers are generally more believable.
After the comic itself Chester includes a section of appendixes which functions essentially as a dissertation on the subject of prostitution and refutations of the arguments against its practice and decriminalization. I wish Chester had confined the speechifying to this supplemental section and minimized it in the narrative proper. No one likes being preached at, including Chester himself, as he makes abundantly clear in the book.
|Chester delved into the sexual|
motivations of his younger self
in The Playboy.
When I picked up “Paying For It” at The Beguiling, the first thing I noticed was how small it is. While this is understandable considering the financial limitations of an independent publisher like Drawn & Quarterly, I’m not sure it’s the best size to present the work. Chester sticks to an absolutely rigid eight-panel grid, and the pages include a lot of white space around the art and in the gutters. Each panel is less than 2 inches wide and this smallness is exacerbated by the open framing of the scenes, which are mostly what I would describe as medium to wide shots. The sex acts are generally depicted in high angle shots, which further removed me from the action. In the interest of preserving the anonymity of the women he hires, Chester never depicts their faces, which further limited my ability to relate to them as people.
|On the prowl for hookers.|
Chester also does a fair bit of talking about being jealous and arguing with girlfriends but we don’t actually see any of this. He seems deeply dispassionate in the narrative, and though his friends sometimes accuse him of repressing his emotions, there is little evidence in text or subtext that this is so. Perhaps including some of that girlfriend drama at the beginning would have helped us better appreciate his choice to reject traditional pair bonding.
Ultimately, all this distance and emotional detachment left me feeling somewhat disconnected from the story.
It’s entirely possible that visual and emotional distancing from the subject was completely intentional, as a way of avoiding a voyeuristic or prurient atmosphere. I can understand that Chester, espousing a non-exploitive position regarding prostitution, would want to avoid any appearance of titillation. However, by the end it really started to erode my interest in, and connection to, the events.
The choice to hide the faces of the call girls limits my ability to connect with them, and diminishes their individuality. They become, by virtue of this anonymity, somewhat interchangeable. Many would argue this amounts to objectification. If they are faceless and anonymous, doesn’t that prove that they are being perceived merely as receptacles for lust and less than human?
In this case I don’t think so. I believe it was Chester’s genuine desire to maintain the privacy of women in question. But, unfortunately, I can see such an argument being successfully made against the narrative as it stands. Chester works hard to make the prostitutes individuals by way of the dialogue, and in my second reading of the book, those differences certainly became clearer, but not in the visceral way that giving them a face would have individuated them.
Here is where a little creative fictionalization might have served the story better. If Chester had given these women any random faces, (that were not their own), they would have been more clearly perceived as individuals, with expressions, thoughts and individuality. In other words they would have been more complete persons. Not only would this have involved me more, it would have served to better humanize these women, and support Chester’s argument for the decriminalization of prostitution.
|Chester's more challenging work|
is worthwhile, but I sometimes
long for the weird humor of
his earlier creative period.
But, man, with a subject this packed with emotional, religious and political TNT, it’s difficult to fault any of Chester’s choices. I mean, this is a real snake pit of a subject, and even though I found it a bit emotionally remote, it is still compelling material. And if his readers can’t imagine Chester’s path as a viable alternative for their own life, it’s eminently clear it works well for him.
“Paying For It” is deeply honest and courageous. It’s poignant in places and amusing in others and it explores an interesting and unknown sub-culture with some sensitivity. It also broaches important ideas about how our culture perceives sexuality and Romantic Love that are worth considering and debating. I’d say that makes it a must-read, even though it failed to fully engage me on an emotional level and occasionally got a bit sanctimonious.
At least, that’s how I perceived the book through my own very liberal rose-coloured glasses. I am certain others are going to find the content shocking, distasteful and even blasphemous. And some will no doubt categorize Chester as the Devil himself, come to destroy marriage, Valentine’s Day and long, hand-holding, eye-gazing walks on the beach.
In our ever more polarized culture, that sort of knee-jerk activism seems to have replaced intelligent exploration, thoughtful consideration and civilized debate.