Review: Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger

>>Published: April 2012

>>Finally got around to it: June 2012

I hated my mother and my father. I was bored with Jen. I wanted to watch porn. I’d found this website for free, it was a service or something that delivered these video clips to your inbox. They were a minute, sometimes more, of these girls getting fucked, like what I saw in Key West but even more extreme, with headings like: asschick, teenwhore, slutgettingcock. Jeff had bawled at the door when the taxi arrived for my mom. Jody gave my mom a massive hug. My father hid out in the basement alone. I let my mom kiss my forehead. Her lips were lukewarm. I watched her struggle into the taxi, that backpack was half of her height. I got a new porno teaser delivered every day.

***

Two things became abundantly clear while reading Tamara Faith Berger’s latest novel, Maidenhead: truly, regardless of medium, smut sells—and in some cases, masks severe literary shortcomings; and I have led a very sheltered life.

Myra, sixteen years old and still a virgin, is on vacation in Key West with her on-the-rocks family—detached, quick-to-anger father, a flights-of-fancy mother, and Jeff and Jody, two siblings that barely register as anything more than background noise. Myra takes an immediate shine to Elijah, a Tanzanian musician with Rastafarian sensibilities and a passion for marking his territory. Elijah is much older, mysterious and predatory in his ways. When Myra returns to Canada, Elijah and his “partner” Gayl follow, sensing in Myra a willing participant for their very physical (and abusive) sexual games. What follows is an economically written exploration of teenage lust and sexuality paired beneath the twin conceits of slavery and revolution, omnisciently commented on by the disembodied Statler and Waldorf-like stylings of Myra’s friend, Lee, and Gayl.

The good: Berger’s a strong writer with an excellent sense of pacing. Maidenhead barrels along at a quick clip; the focus never veers too far from Myra’s increasingly raging sexual obsession and the impact it has on those around her. The single greatest achievement of Maidenhead is Berger’s ability to sell the spiral Myra seems so eager to travel to the bottom of without it feeling forced or overtly melodramatic.

The bad: There’s no point to any of it. Myra, at the end, is little more the child she was in the beginning. She’s learned no lessons, embraces no change or outside-herself perspective. When in the end she states, ‘It was this totally backwards and inspired allegory about masters and slaves,’ one gets the sense she’s reciting it as a high school student would a book report for a title they were forced to read, hands bound, decision already made for them. She’s a construct for discussion, and not by any stretch a fully fleshed-out character. No one in Maidenhead, as a matter of fact, qualifies as anything more than an idea used to sell a thesis that sadly never comes together.

Smut sells. This is an absolute, a fact of our society. The more prevalent it is, the greater access there is to it, the sharper the addiction, the obsession, and the confusion—especially in a less-than-mature mind. Unfortunately, Berger’s exploration of this master-slave dichotomy through Myra’s sexual “awakening” and her embracing of pornography falls short of its intended impact, being less literary and more needlessly gratuitous. All shock, little substance.

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