American Masturbation

Alan Coren

  • Thy Neighbour’s Wife by Gay Talese
    Collins, 568 pp, £7.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 00 216307 1

Like most people with a Polish grandfather. I used to hang around a lot waiting for him to say something wise. Born in 1885, surviving until 1978, he looked, certainly during his last decade, like the repository of all the aggregated arcana of Central Europe: squat, neckless, ice-eyed and almost entirely silent, he spent his latter days sitting in a burgundy moquette fauteuil, gazing out at the Manor House traffic-lights, while who knew what flickered and crackled across his ancient synapses. Give or take the odd skin-tone, he might have been a displaced lama waiting for the Chinese to get out of Tibet, so that he could go back home and live forever. Unfortunately, he was very dumb. He passed nothing on to his heirs, or to their heirs, because he didn’t know anything. It was perhaps the most interesting thing about him: I have never met anyone who was simultaneously so old and so ignorant. Yet for all that, there was one occasion on which he actually came across with the goods: an authentic axiom, a shimmering aperçu, a musical saw.

It was the night before I went to live in America. He was 76; I was 23. I was unmarried; he had just married again. This may be significant. I said goodbye, and he enclosed my forearm with a huge hand of undiminished grip. Without looking at me, he said: ‘Wenn der Putz steht, liegt der Seichel indrehd!’ In other words, which you may possibly need: ‘When the cock stands up, the brain falls down!’ And, as a review, it says just about all there is to say about Gay Talese’s appalling new book. And its author.

Of course, the old man was clearly attempting, in his dim yet not unwinningly direct fashion, to warn me about America. I have little doubt that he knew even less about America than he knew about anything else, yet he somehow seemed to sense that there might be women there who could divert a man from life’s proper purposes, which were to buy a freehold and, above all, keep two sets of books – grails which could be placed in terminal jeopardy whenever something stirred inside your underwear. Fortunately (since it would have destroyed the only credo he held), he did not live to learn that total preoccupation with not only one’s own willie but everyone else’s too can net you four and a half million dollars, not counting residuals.

Thy Neighbour’s Wife is about cocks and money and the inextricable involvement of the two which is the granite foundation upon which the great American masturbation industry is based. It thinks, mind, that it’s about many other things, or perhaps it’s simply that it wants its readers to think that it’s about many other things, but it is not. It is not about changing ethical structures, it is not about artistic freedom, it is not about the new marital interface, it is not about post-lapsarian America and the death of God, it is not about Vietnam, Watergate, Kent State, or Nixon’s stacking of the Supreme Court. It is not even about thy neighbour’s wife. It is about the Great American Wet Dream and how the obsessional inadequates who dream it can be turned to dollar-fodder.

It is also a self-fulfilling prophecy to the power of roughly n, in that Gay Talese is going to make more money out of writing about pornography than any poor buck-a-fuck hack ever made out of writing pornography itself. Thus, in its distastefully complete self-containment, Thy Neighbour’s Wife is the ultimate wank. Until, that is, the film comes out. Because what Hollywood has bought, for all that preposterous lettuce, is hardly more than the title of a best-seller, since the tacky material within is hardly copyright as far as filmic subject-matter is concerned; just as with All You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, just as with Sex and the Single Girl, neither of which movies bore any but the scantest resemblance to their founding books, the bankable value of Thy Neighbour’s Wife is the title that evokes the image of a successful operation. It is the image, not the actuality, that is being sold; and that, of course, is the depressing leitmotiv of the book itself.

It also reads, somewhat embarrassingly, like an apologia pro vita sua, something which always goes down well with the Inland Revenue, who will doubtless accept Mr Talese’s massage-parlour expenses as legitimate deductibles. In the by now accredited fictumentary fashion, the book tracks the careers and aspirations of a number of dotty wankers as they strain their way through the acceleratingly concupiscent Fifties and Sixties, joined in the Seventies by Talese himself, who spent nine years, between 1971 and 1980, in taking down their particulars and examining their testimonials, before getting into the sack for the final few unintentionally hilarious pages. Throughout, he refers to himself in the third person, rather as Norman Mailer and my small children do; though my kids, of course, do it only when they know they’ve been naughty and wish to neutralise rage with bogus charm.

Gay Talese did all this dreary work – nearly a decade of listening to socially disorganised wankers rabbiting on about their hang-ups and, indeed, -downs, plus months and months of forking out folding money for a disinterested stroke and a paper towel – in order to write ‘a work which would reflect the social and sexual trends of the entire nation’. In the event he merely locks in on a handful of businessmen, like Hugh Hefner of Playboy and Larry Flynt of Hustler and Al Goldstein of Screw, who dignify their rubbishy trade with night-school psycho-moral platitudes, and a handful of loonies who try to practise what the businessmen preach; the two groups welded together by nothing more compatible than the nature of the handful in question. And through all this farrago, Talese is able to use these stalking-horses to propound his monstrous suggestions and justify his frequent frenetic trips to knocking-shop and suburban poke-in.

It was Edward Albee who observed, in Zoo Story, that when Americans are young they have dirty pictures as a substitute for the real thing, and when they grow up they have the real thing as a substitute for the dirty pictures. This piece of pith is central to Talese’s thesis. The trouble is only that Talese’s source of sadness is not the truth adumbrated in Albee’s comment, but the fact that it’s always been so damned hard to get enough dirty pictures. Try to make people happy by sending them pictures of ladies fellating horses (page 380), and right away some interfering Grundy tries to interfere with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Yes, fine, but should we not examine the social side-effects of selling pictures that show such engaging relationships, which (to take the author’s own argument) may well result in a lot of ladies getting kicked in the head?

According to Mr Talese’s opening chapters, the American culture is one in which young males are pubescently imprinted with two-dimensional images grafted into their brains from Playboy and Penthouse and Hustler and Knave and all the rest, which are initially self-sufficient, adding fun to potty-time, but which thereafter interpose themselves into fleshier (I hesitate to say ‘real-life’) relationships, until the point is reached where the average nuptial mattress, while ostensibly bearing two overweight and generally unfetching average Americans, actually carries up to thirty fantasised superimpositions, depending on what the man, or in some cases woman, has just been reading in the bog. You simply select that evening’s fantasy – Barbi Benton, Raquel Welch, Ryan O’Neal, Teddy Kennedy – hold it firmly in your head, and leap aboard your spouse. Not easy with the light on.

All the subjects of what Talese calls his ‘Odyssey’, doubtless leading the more academic reader to expect him to come home after nine years and screw the dog, eagerly talked about their early years of masturbation, and made it poignantly clear that their subsequent relationships with three-dimensional partners were doomed to repeated dissatisfactions and repeatedly renewed searches for the fountain – or in this case well – of youth; less poignantly in Hugh Hefner’s case, since his inexorable pursuit involved the manufacture of thousands of playmates to fuel a generation’s imagination – this he not only personally consumer-researched but also turned, as a fortuitous spin-off, into several million dollars. Yet still he pursues, searching for the ultimate playmate – a sort of Screwing Dutchman doomed forever to stalk the globe, metaphorically lashed to his little mast, seeking Henry James’s ‘not impossible she’. Well, perhaps not Henry James’s exactly. Hefner, of course, prefers (like most Americans) to compare himself to Gatsby; learning that, I made a brief mental note to re-examine ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ for new resonances. The conjured picture, I have to say, was not entirely felicitous.

Fitzgerald makes an effective bridge. For the discussion of American masturbation must inevitably become the discussion of American money. Money glows greenly through this book, not just the money made by the fantasy factories, but in the very yearnings themselves. Perhaps, in that over-told exchange, when Fitzgerald moaned that ‘the rich are different from you and me,’ Hemingway should have replied: ‘Yes, they have more women.’ Did you know that for some years Jacqueline Kennedy was the masturbator’s chart-topper – ‘never before in history had so many men privately craved a president’s wife.’ Apart from being somewhat unfair on Eleanor Roosevelt, this statement is part of the laborious explanation that in an achievement-oriented, success-motivated, dollar-daft society, the top bananas get the top figs. Much of Jackie’s appeal emanated from the male ego-ideal who was actually bedding her (and, as we now know, myriad others), a rich, famous, young, handsome, powerful, unsurpassably successful stud.

This is probably the most unsettling of this unpleasant book’s themes. Set up a log-cabin-to-White-House society, promise everyone equality on the understanding that they all have to get as rich as everyone else to earn it, and pretty soon the place is full of huddled masses yearning to get laid. On an ascending line from the key to the executive washroom, through the first Cadillac and the first powerboat, stands woman as the ultimate prize: if money cannot buy happiness, at least it can buy the best meat.

I make, have made, no secret, I think, of my distaste for Gay Talese’s heroes. I do not believe pornographers become martyrs simply because they fight Supreme Court decisions; heroism depends not on the battle but the battlefield. Far from believing that mass erotic media-pulp liberates men and women, I would argue that it shackles them to unrealisable fantasies and unredeemable promises that ultimately destroy their attempts at genuine relationships. You need only to trace the sexual and marital careers of Talese’s exemplars, which contain lessons that nine years of research seem only to have concealed from him. Pornography is merely another form of advertising; it differs from the rest only by virtue, or more accurately by vice, of the fact that there is, in the end, no way of buying what it is selling.