Lauri Crumley Coates
Permanent Obscurity: Or a Cautionary Tale of Two Girls and
Their Misadventures with Drugs, Pornography and Death
Author: Richard Perez
Published by Ludlow Press
It's tough to decide where to start with this novel. I loved it, I couldn't put it down. The characters and situations invaded my thoughts even when I wasn't reading it. At the same time, it's a bit disturbing, bizzare and odd. Of course, I mean those words in the most complimentary way possible.
Taking place predominately in the East Village, circa 2006, this is the tale of two best friends, Dolores Santana and Serena Moon. Both the bohemian "artsy" types, by most standards they lead very eccentric and random lives. Serena is a performer, she's been a singer in any number of bands, none lasting too long. She does whatever comes along to scratch out the financial means needed to fund her lifestyle. Most of the money she uses comes from Sebastian, aka Baby, a man who serves as a submissive or slave to Mistress Serena's dominating and dominatrix personality. Dolores is an artist, mainly in photo media, and supports her art work and lifestyle with a never ending string of temporary jobs, mind-numbing and soul-stealing jobs, but a necessary evil nonetheless. Raymond is her significant other, an older lawyer who always tries to get Dolores to think more seriously and professionally about her art.
Serena and Dolores are larger than life, two alienated non-conformists, sharing a strange and unusually intense relationship in every sense of the word. In Perez's novel, the girls embark on a mindbending orgy of drugs, petty crime, porn and more, leading to an ending nothing short of inspired and genius.
Using the fetish film subculture that was born in the 60's, mixing in petty and escalatingly more serious crime, recreational drug use and various forms of betrayal, Richard Perez has written an oddly breathtaking view of the directions life can take once you lose control. The characters, even fairly minor ones, are drawn in many dimensions. The novel illustrates profoundly the unusual and sometimes ugly roads we chose to take. While not always easy reading, it's a wholly gratifying story and the characters stay with the reader long after the book is finished. A warning note: more tame souls might be tempted to skip past a paragraph or description here and there, and may think the language is too salty for them. If you can put these feelings aside, you'll be glad you did. I can't wait to read other works by this very promising author. In fact, I am ordering his first novel today, as soon as I complete publication of this review.
Permanent Obscurity, fascinated me from the beginning. I didn't know anything about it really, but when I read a quote from Richard Perez that said the novel needed some explanation, I was sold. That usually means that it's raw and uncensored. Here's what he wrote:
"It's specifically an exploitation novel, written in that vernacular, which some might regard as "low brow" or vulgar. And it delves into BDSM territory with these two young ladies taking the dominatrix (exploitation) route."
But I'm not sure that any of that really matters. Or rather the question is not so much an issue of "low" or "high brow" but of pornography. How does one write a novel about pornography (at least in part), in this instance one female character taking on the role of female dominatrix?1 It is inherently a tightrope act and Perez' balance is struck by couching the entire novel as a confession. The novel's subtitle is "A Cautionary Tale." So the "vulgar" parts are actually Dolores Santana's (the confessor) retelling of a story written by someone else (the script, for example, of a femdom movie Dolores and Serena, her best friend, make) through Perez' supposed recording. I like this. It's pleasantly convoluted and allows Perez to be honest with the material, which means that it is not a novel for squeamish readers. But I was forewarned about the subject -- not that it would have made any difference to me.
Juxtaposed with the story within a story point of view, is the tone of the story. It is written largely in dialog: quick, simple conversations that keep the story moving (a plot that the characters seem unable to escape, like fate). The prose between the dialog keeps that conversational patter (it is a confession after all), which gives an ironic lightness to the rather dark subject matter (drugs, sex, violence -- the exploitation of both sexes). It's fitting, though, to think about the off-handed way people often commit crimes and about the way that exploitation movies and literature and tabloids themselves are written. Sensational acts are often a result of habitual mundane activities. There are always reasons behind them and this is a story about that.
The characters pull the book through and keep it from becoming a farce or worse, pornography itself. It is about self-identification. It is about a fall from grace and redemption, in that Catholic sense of confession. It is about understanding the dark side of human nature through experience and coming away wiser through self-realization, which is the only way to improve ourselves. Raymond, Dolores' boyfriend, tells her, "You gotta let people be who they wanna be." That may be true to an extent, but there are boundaries and Dolores learns that the hard way. Life is difficult and unjust and filled with "truly perverse, heinous stuff" and self-doubt (even at the very end, she looks for guidance: "You tell me."). And while she may have learned something about herself and those around her, it comes at a cost. We never finish paying it.
M. D. Jordan
This is a wild trip to the dark side of contemporary life, particularly life in an underground fringe culture of aspiring performance artists who might also work as doms or fetish photographers on the side. Call it Fetish Noir or an erotic satire, either way it's highly entertaining, a fast and enjoyable book, funny and raunchy. It has a realistic street-wise quality, lots of hip slang, and an edgy pulp-fiction vibe.
The book is narrated by Dolores, a young woman with some problems, but none like those of the true love and loss of her life, Serena Moon. In the beginning, both young ladies have borderline boyfriends or what might be called hetero relationships, but it soon becomes clear, while not admitting it to each other, that the central relationship is between the two.
As things go along, they get into more and more trouble together. Dolores and Serena have major substance abuse problems and relationship problems and career problems. This book's central narrative is about a desperate downward spiral, a slippery slope to oblivion.
All the characters are well drawn and interesting, though most of the men are portrayed as inconsequential and pathetic, providing a kind of comic relief or acting as foils for the two main female leads. And much of the book deals with this subculture of S/M, or more specifically D/s ... Dominas and submissives. If that kind of thing bothers you, stay clear of this book. There's a lot of it here.
Overall, this is a fun satire of American excess and tabloid youth culture. The key word here is dark and the book has a lot of profanity. For me, being a fan of Naked Lunch by William Burroughs and books by Bukowski, the dark satiric quality made the book funny and more entertaining, but it's not for everyone.
Mary E. Young
I was a bit skeptical whether or not I would enjoy this book. However, its conversational tones and writing style won the day. I was instantly intrigued with the story and the characters and found myself having a hard time putting the book down.
This book is about Dolores and Serena, best friends who live in New York City. Dolores is an aspiring photographer, and devoutly loyal to Serena. Serena, is a stunning woman, one willing to do almost anything to feed her cocaine habit. A series of events leads the two women into the world of pornography, where they attempt to make their own bdsm film.
If you are squeamish about drugs and sex, this isn't the book for you. But for all others, I recommend this book for its intriguing writing style and the spiraling out-of-control story line.
Like a naughty child who only a mother can love, Permanent Obscurity is literature's naughty child; a mass-market delinquent considered either too experimental by commercial publishers or too commercial by experimental publishers. Is it Chick Lit? Romantic Comedy? Publishers don't like anything they can't slap a label on and neatly package, and that makes Permanent Obscurity label-less and unloved. PO author Richard Perez is to be commended for resisting genres and labels. His noir exploitation novel easily could have been outfitted with a predictable, mass-market formula and accessorized with cliched characters to suit the corporate suits. But that's not Perez's deal. He obviously wanted to portray life in New York AS IT IS sans the glam and happy endings that Sex and the City gave it on television. Perez's first book, The Losers Club: Complete Restored Edition!, was hailed for revealing the reality of NYC's eclectic cast of characters. But instead of cashing in on his success, Perez "kept it real" with PO, penning what he lives and breathes in the barrio. In a way, Richard Perez is the Larry Clark of literature. I would not be surprised if filmmaker Larry Clark (of Kids fame) were to someday turn Permanent Obscurity into a cult movie, because PO has screenplay written all over it. The rapid-fire dialogue, comically brutal scenarios and down-tuned ending seem like the author might have initially intended for PO to be a treatment rather than a novel. I can see it now: Lindsay Lohan as Serena and Rosario Dawson as Dolores. The Hollywood brass would kick and scream at their inter-racial love affair! Serena (the attractive one) and Dolores the "Nuyorican" are two tough, Lower East Side grrrls struggling to get by on the lousy hand that life dealt them. They are NOT loveable - they have admittedly rancid breath, treat men like dirt and steal from third-world grocers when hungry. Aside from their filthy habits and fondness for narcotics, S&D really could be any Middle American female: "After watching some cop show on TV and picking the lint out of my belly button, I got up to go to the bathroom, then fell out." Our twenty-something heroines are ambitionless ("smoke, procreate, drink, puke, give birth, die") and in a perpetual state of periods and panic. They constantly spat with each other, hurling profanities that would make Sarah Silverman blush, and have lost all faith in America's corporate culture and its wage-slave working class ("pod people, not quite dead but not alive either"). Desperate for money to pay off their drug debts, the two bisexual babes decide to make a bondage film. Reality segues into hilarity and the book really takes off. Exchanging their panties for a script, stealing a video camera from the mafia, and hustling narcotics from is all part of an ill-conceived master plan to make a movie. Enter a depressingly funny cameo by the author himself as a writer-turned-masochist, though it doesn't end well for him nor his manuscript. An over-dose, car chase and homicide round out the entertaining story arc. Permanent Obscurity is not for everyone, and I'm sure Perez intended it that way. The New York street slang will be a challenge to decipher for anyone who doesn't use urbandictionary.com ("A'ight," "Mad Sexy," "Five-O") and the stream-of-conscious dialogue is written in brief single sentences like Twitter on crack:
"This was wrong.
This was bad.
We were wrong.
We were bad."
As an aside, the publisher might want to reconsider their choice of book covers for the second edition of PO; in an ill-conceived Dolores-esque move, they brazenly chose to use a vintage photo of two half-naked women. Ironically, even during the girls' pornoshoot-gone-bad, there is really nothing obscene about Permanent Obscurity. If we must give it a label, call it exploitation-light. To conclude, Permanent Obscurity is an absolutely, positively, completely, thoroughly, back-to-front, front-to-back, up and down, backwards and forwards, then and now, as well as in the future, good read. I look forward to seeing it on the silver screen.