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Parody is a tricky art form. It is a true art form, unlike satire, which is a style. The subtle parodist must walk an all but invisible line between the deadly serious and the utterly absurd, and only when she’s ready tip the audience from the safety of one side into the abyss of the other.
Fermentation has all the earmarks of the exquisite parody, but it never steps over the line. Also, in a world where people in wheelchairs charge for tickets to their dance performances and sleazy admen send themselves up by posing as sleazy admen, there is certainly a place for an erotic novel, as the slightly fastidious subtitle calls it, about a woman who, pregnant with her French fire-eater lover Serge’s baby, develops not only a small taste for submission but a limitless appetite for cheese.
It’s all there, the grad-school symbolism (she craves cheese as she herself ripens), the earache metaphors (“river weed like huge hairballs from a sick cat’s stomach”), and the sexual dabblings that combine impeccably the leaden, filigreed tone of classy women’s erotica (“Jan who liked to bind my hands with cord”) with boundary-pushing nonsense. The cover is evil geniusthe scripted, lowercase title, the Yellow Silk photo of a woman sensuously pushing cheese into her mouth from the cracker held in the other hand, and the author’s pseudonym coyly trailing mystery. Inside, the copyright is attributed to Angelica Jacob, but no matter, the author’s blurb tells us she “works for a large London publisher.”
Which makes Fermentation even more likely parody, since the English think the very word “cheese” is funny. It’s funny everywherefromage, ha habut really funny in England, where Monty Python and Wallace and Gromit and the Two Ronnies have all based flights of humorous fancy on the stuff. Like pretentious books of the recent past and sendups of pretentious books of the present, Fermentation begins with two quotations, and the section before the novel begins is called “Prelude.” J. has divided her slender book into sections, beginning with Brie and taking us through rough terrain (Processed Cheese, poor dear) and sublimity (Parmigiano Reggiano) all the way toprepare yourselfHomemade Cheese. What was that about not buying the cow if you can have the milk for free?
The eroticism is a screamthe book begins with a dream about being humiliated while milking a cow, and ascends from there, climaxing, if you will, with an Annunciation scene never envisioned by Tintoretto. Along the way she drops hints of the elaborate joke she has concoctedthey’re not funny enough to push Fermentation firmly into the land of the sendup, just ridiculous enough to arrest the eye. Oh, brother, is the only possible response to such passages as the one in which she recounts how she learned to rub herself up against things as a small child: “…my particular favorite was the oval-shaped lid of the silver urn in which my mother kept my father’s ashes.” Fabulous.
Elsewhere, J. nicks bits of classic erotica, with the O of her narrator’s name (Odissa, on her sexual odyssey) and the book’s setting of Paris (during a heat wave!), cradle of dirty literature. There’s a punished girl called Justine, a scene involving a raw egg that recalls Tampopo, and later a passage at “the water gardens of the Third Empress,” where she witnesses a sideshow that seems to be loosely based on Robert Aikman’s terrifying, beautiful “The Sword.” And the dialogue between Odissa and her philosophical circus man (and everyone else) owes much to the shrugging French prose of second-rate existentialists and the elliptical, solipsistic nonconversations of Brat Pack novelists. When J. needs to further her scanty plot, pas de problèmeSerge just reports that “Stephane has a job in Geneva. They need a fire-eater and I said I’d go.”
Odissa’s fantasies/dreams/visionsall pregnant women glow with a bit of Mary’s ecstatic lightgrow more violent until she imagines women’s erotic deaths and finally sees a corpse dragged from the Seine. No judgments cloud O’s numb, post-literate pose; sex and blood and death and birth shade into each other and back, revealing their equal validity in the minds of the modern, detached observer. The cheeses grow stronger, too, alienating her loved ones and giving her more wrenching and highly colored dreams.
There is a small possibility that, whoever Angelica Jacob is, he or she imagines Fermentation to be a work of great depth and sensual resonance. He or she may not be aware that Poppy Z. Brite, for example, exists, quite seriously rocketing a type of fiction that could unkindly be called fag-hag Goth into the stratosphere with vampire-Dennis Cooper experiments such as Exquisite Corpse (whose least memorable scene involves the line, “I fucked the head”), which envies gay men their sexuality while proposing that they’re serial killers of unparalleled repulsiveness. Fermentation isn’t as heated; it’s far too smooth and French for that, so that its humor is muted as well. But it must be a jokeno one could possibly be this clichéd, this naive, this clever-clever. No one who was in earnest would allow a passage to be printed on the back of his or her new novel with such faux-profound silliness as “‘Its veins will run through you,’ the boy said, giving me a small piece to taste.” No, here is incontrovertible proof: While it might be fun to play a parlor game of guessing this novel’s last line, the real one is too good to keep secret: “In the morning I fed its body to the lizard.” Case closed.CP