Paying For It by Chester Brown

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Paying For It
By Chester Brown
Drawn & Quarterly

Paying-for-it-Chester-Brown-CoverThere is, of course, painful truth in all great autobiography—even the manner that walks that thin tightrope separating itself from fantasy. So, naturally we were all thrilled to death at the prospect of a new Chester Brown book chronicling the cartoonist’s long-term relationship with the sex industry—oddly enough, I can even remember where I was when I’d first heard about the project: in some strange hotel room in Bethesda, Maryland, Drawn & Quarterly’s Tom Devlin teasing the 500-page prostitute-laced memoir from a champion of painful biography. I Never Liked You was something of a masterpiece of awkward truths, and the idea that Brown might be able to channel some of that pulsating adolescent awkwardness into a tome about less youthful indiscretions is the stuff of limitless potential.

But those hoping for a work of deep emotional resonance will no doubt get the picture pretty early on—this is not that kind of book, and Chester Brown is not that kind of artist or person, judging by the available evidence. Paying For It is, in fact, bookended by testaments to the artist’s relatively limited emotion range by two rather esteemed delegates of the art form.

Robert Crumb makes a point of drawing attention to the expressionless lines with which Brown draws his face, comparing him to the offspring of some hapless woman impregnated by the seed of space aliens. The accompanying book jacket photo is also used as evidence of this claim. Seth also devotes a portion of his footnote-based rebuttal of Brown’s ethical stance to this discussion, pointing to his ongoing reference to his close personal friend as “the robot.” “The truth is,” Seth writes, “Chester seems to have a limited emotional range compared to most people.”

It’s through this range, not surprisingly, that Paying For It is framed—the work, one gathers, of some half-alien robot sent to our world to catalog its inhabitants. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that Paying For It is a work devoid of introspection. Brown spends a good deal of time in his own head, particularly as he comes to grips with the end a long-term relationship—one of a very small number in his life—a pivotal moment that ultimately spurs his maiden bike ride into the city in an attempt to find his first prostitute on a street corner.

Brown, thankfully, become a bit more savvy in his pursuit of his adopted lifestyle, quickly settling on escort services as the preferred method of discovery. But as his change in approach changes, introspection wanes, and Paying For It soon shifts more something of a catalog of his encounters, a clinical compiling of his sessions. And while Crumb’s description of Brown’s expressionless face is certainly apt, the cartoonist largely forgoes even that limited detail, opting to make the prostitutes in his story largely faceless, instead focusing on the general attractiveness of their bodies and their approach to the act.

It’s easy to imagine the cartoonist filling out a checklist in some notebook in some deleted panel, cataloging characteristics like a naturalist out on safari. And when he calls out a woman for staring at a television set, mid-coitus, it’s hard not to call Brown out for a similar sense of detachment. For him, the act of sex seems no more enjoyable than it does for the women he pays to have it with him.

But Paying For It is more than just a collection of Brown’s exploits as a john—it’s also an attempt to justify his lifestyle in the face of judgment and general disapproval. Some of this plays out in his in-story conversations with best friends Seth and Joe Matt. Most of it, however, unfolds in Brown’s customarily epic post-script, which comprises around 50 of the book’s 280 pages. Paying For It’s notes, appendixes, and afterwords, are practically a book in their own right. In fact, one suspects that the artist flirted with the possibility of releasing his treatise as a collection of essays, rather than a comic.

Of course comics are what Brown does best, and Paying For It certainly possesses its own peculiar charm. The book does display the unflinchingly painful truth that defines great auto-bio, but Brown’s own truths are seemingly largely devoid of emotional resonance, not due to some lack of storytelling ability on the author’s part so much as his own approach to the situation. Injected melodrama into these pages would be a falsification on his part. And any lingering sense that Brown might possess some remorse for his controversial decisions is put to bed by both the book’s reasonably happy ending and the pages of notes that follow.

Ultimately, those notes detract from the story itself, turning the book from a naked confessional to a defensive justification of Brown’s decisions—as if an anticipation for the inevitable backlash this book would incite on its release. Brown was right on that front, of course, given both the understandably sensitive nature of the subject matter and the internal critiques that define in the independent comics scene, self-generated controversy or no.

It’s this defensiveness, combined with Brown’s own nature that seem to hamper the work’s emotional resonance, and in a certain way, Paying For It’s biggest crime is that, in a certain the sense, the book actually doesn’t go far enough.

Brian Heater

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