Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Autumn/E&T 2006

Animal Rights and Pornography
Stories by J. Eric Miller

Soft Skull Press

Brooklyn, New York

100 pp.
(Review by Steve Finbow)

  I think it was T.C. Boyle who wrote something along the lines of “it takes a lot of hard work to be mediocre” and you can feel the hard work that has gone into the sentence craft of Animal Rights and Pornography; the problem is the stories themselves. Sometimes, it felt like hard work just getting through the pages and many of these stories are very short. The book does just what it says on the cover – the stories are mostly about cruelty, sex, or an admixture of both. Most read like re-written urban myths. Some, such as ‘Broken Harder’ veer clumsily into pastiche; others, ‘Two Joggers’ and ‘You Marry A Stripper’, wear their influences rather too snugly – I am thinking Tobias Wolfe and William T. Vollmann. One of the difficulties I had with J. Eric Miller’s first short-story collection is that his literary (and filmic) heroes are all too obvious, peeping out between the pages like voyeurs at a stripshow – apart from the two authors already mentioned, I spotted the inky paw-prints of Raymond Carver, Dennis Cooper, Denis Johnson, Charles Bukowski, Brian Evenson (who provided a back-jacket positive puff), and–skulking over the entire text like a flasher in the park–Georges Bataille.

In places, the writing is tight and poetic and Miller takes us into some unfamiliar territory: I particularly liked ‘Mercy Killer II’ with its horrific inexpungible super-pigeon– what happened to ‘Mercy Killer I’ I would like to know? ‘Hunger’, the final story, is a disturbing and contemporary tale of body fascism and fetishism but I did not understand the need to base the story around anal sex – vaginal sex would have worked just as well, or no sex at all for that matter. The pornography seemed to be there merely to shock and, somewhat like sex (well, at least for me), once I’d read a few stories, I was satiated and slightly nauseous and in need of a drink.

 There are a few awkward and clumsy sentences: “I lunged when I saw that was about to react with the full force of her body” and “He took two now and was sound asleep before he had to endure her wailing and the shaking of her massive body for long.” The stories scream out for the hands and eyes of a strong editor. Apart from the title of the collection, which had people raising their eyebrows when I was reading it on the train, the story titles are weak and unmemorable: ‘Fish’, ‘Ceremony’, and ‘Worms’. ‘Rophynol’ is the title of a story about a man drugged and raped by three women. Although I can find the word spelled like that on Google, it surely should be ‘Rohypnol’, unless there is an ironic reason behind the misspelling that I just do not get. 

Shock as an author’s literary metier can work but is a little outdated – we have read de Sade, Celine, Bataille, Burroughs, and Cooper. Stories such as ‘John School’ and ‘Rophynol’ are little more than adolescent fantasies made text. Others, such as ‘Fur Bearer’ and ‘Food Chain’ are weak because of the skewed moral stance and their shock-for-shock’s-sake subject matter. ‘The Space Between Us’ is an old joke fictionalised.  But there are stories in the collection that made me look again at the title and start believing that Mr Miller has something to say – I was impressed by the textual interaction of the Lynchean Eraserhead-like ‘No Angel’ followed by ‘Exploiter’.

 His writing, mostly, is clear and crisp but occasionally suffers from the prurient insistency of his subject matter – pornography is no longer shocking, it has become quotidian. I would rather be disturbed than shocked – see the short stories of T.C. Boyle and J.G. Ballard. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a puritanical and prurient moralism lurking behind these stories, I enjoyed reading Animal Rights and Pornography and recommend it despite its faults. The over-dependence on sex and violence to maintain the reader’s interest was somewhat tiresome and unnecessary. Maybe I am missing something; maybe reading these stories is like watching a porn film repeatedly – it slowly numbs one to the desired effect. But in saying that, I believe Mr. Miller has more to say for himself and I hope he can shrug off the burden of influence and allow his writing to develop its own voice and style. I look forward to reading his next collection.