by Benjamin Gottlieb
Seven Days in Rio
Seven Days in Rio
(Two Dollar Radio, 2011)
Before Francis Levy launches into the narrative proper of Seven Days in Rio, a hundred-odd-page bromide-heavy sexual fantasia, an author’s note appeals its case to the reader in a rare, self-conscious nod to the work’s guilelessly inflammatory inclinations; its tack is less conciliatory than defensive, with the vague hint of a threat:
None of the characters in this novel are real, nor are the places or psychoanalytic movements, even though the name Rio may conjure the real city of Rio de Janeiro. Lacanian analysis as described in the novel bears no resemblance to the branch of psychoanalytic practice initiated by the French analyst Jacques Lacan. Even the duration of time in the title bears little resemblance to what is commonly known as seven days. So don’t start writing irate letters to my blog correcting this or that or asking for refunds.
But there is nothing terribly beyond the pale in this demand: Novels regularly traffic in half-truths and untruths, and the expectation is that the reader will be willing to cede a certain amount of his or her worldly allegiances in order to better engage with those of the author. A novel is something of an apologia for its author’s experiences and expectations of the woolly mess of life, distilled or exaggerated as he or she sees fit; more often than not, the reader gives more than the novelist in this exchange: The reader must submit to the author’s will and sentiments, and most authors are more than willing to take advantage of this arrangement. Herein lies the stuff of the ethics of artistic license. But Levy’s author’s note is almost endearingly naïve—as if he weren’t aware that fiction writers are generally very much in the habit of writing fiction, that this is more or less the least that is expected of them.
Any cause for concern, then, is derived not from the demands of the note itself, but rather from the explicit existence of the note: Say you are about to enter a zoo in which you expect there to be lions; only upon coming across a sign that reads, “Warning: There are lions in this zoo,” would you have reason to give pause? It is Levy’s worry alone that is worrisome: Does he know what he’s doing here? Have the lions been let out of their cages?
Nonetheless, should one prove able to dispense with the comfort of what is commonly known as seven days, and should one be willing to forgo acquaintance with that one particular strand of Lacanian analysis that happened to be created by Lacan, one may find that the author’s note is less a plea for artistic license than a confession of the book’s fantastical and prurient leanings.
These find their release in narrator Kenny Cantor, an accountant whose prostitution fixation leads him to Rio, a place where, one prostitute tells him, “Prostitution is totally legal and in fact encouraged, since sex tourism is such a vital part of our economy.” Levy’s acknowledgment that “the name Rio may conjure the real city of Rio de Janeiro” is a disingenuous concession—references are made to the Copacabana, to the Amazon, to Portuguese, to Brazil’s real, which gives Levy opportunity to rely heavily on a truly awful pun of which he never tires, and which currency he apparently believes sounds exactly like the English “real.” But there is no doubting that, Brazil-specific references notwithstanding, this takes place very much within a fantasied Rio de Janeiro, just as there should be no confusing Levy’s world with the world that any thinking, emoting person has lived ever in: His is one in which the tired and tiresome tropes of pornography and psychoanalysis are the very natural facts of life.
This is perhaps intended to be satirical—if pornography and psychoanalysis were capable of being fruitfully applied to this world, the novel suggests, then we would be living in a deeply dumb and easy world: Sex and prostitution are free of all social, ethical, and moral complications (every event, exchange, and potential problem is resolved quickly and eagerly with a woman pressing herself upon the narrator, in accordance with a distinctly male set of sexual priorities—as in pornography, the emphasis is on the spatial and visual, which is to say almost squarely on the genital, and the narrative is headstrong and uncomplicatedly linear. By having a woman initiate this decidedly male fantasy of sex, Levy relieves himself of having to worry much about the abjection of his female characters—they’re the ones who want to do this!). Similarly, in Levy’s world, the terminology of psychoanalysis is acutely primed to resolve any deep psychological problems (although, it may now be clear, deep problems—psychological, ethical, moral—do not exist in this novel; the better, then, that Levy doesn’t have to deal with them. If pornography can be defined in part by an absence of tension, then Levy’s world is thoroughly pornographic). Needless to say, this is wholly irreconcilable with a world in which actual women are unwillingly forced into prostitution and in which actual people with true psychological problems will never find an easy cure. Levy has chosen very ugly topics to beatify—or, rather, whose ugliness he has chosen to ignore.
It should come as little surprise that this can be frustrating and upsetting to read. Levy’s prose is inconsistently artless—that is, it is always poor, but it is whimsically poor. Kenny, the narrator, styles himself a man of great erudition, and, in the world of the novel, he apparently is—but it is not an erudition that extends into a world in which there are actually truly intelligent people, and leads to ham-fisted musings and literary references. Perhaps these references are attempts to momentarily tether this fantasied world to our own; but similarly groan-inducing attempts at wit (“I employ the same attitude toward prostitutes that I do toward baked goods—get ‘em while they’re hot”; or, while engaged in a violently arousing act, “I previously enjoyed being smothered because it reminded me of my relationship to Mommy”) suggest that, for a novel so preoccupied with virility and sex, Levy’s provocations are curiously impotent. If this novel is offensive, it is because its offenses are so tepid and familiar.
As with the author’s note, the novel reads, at best, like an unnecessary explication of what most take for granted—namely, that pornography does not reflect the world as it is experienced by most, and that psychoanalysis can only be so effective in helping those who are truly in need of psychical help and attention.
To return to the reader-author exchange, and the ethics thereof: With enough effort, the reader can make anything worthwhile; this is why the reader bears the brunt of the critical responsibility in this exchange, and why many authors are content to simply put their work out there with the expectation that others will make something meaningful of it. I was tempted to offer Seven Days in Rio more than it deserves, in large part because it was published by Two Dollar Radio, which has released some of the finest works of contemporary fiction in the past few years—foremost among them Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Scott Bradfield’s The People Who Watched Her Pass By, and Rudolph Wurlitzer’s The Drop Edge of Yonder, as well as reissues of Wurlitzer’s Nog and Flats/Quake. But readers’ efforts can only go so far, and Seven Days in Rio does not offer enough substance to work with. The book has already been endowed with a cult status by its supporters. And as any cult novel subsists on the criticisms against which it can bolster its support, I am happy to oblige with my dissent.