What I’m Reading: Barry N. Malzberg – Everything Happens to Susan

Everything Happened to Susan is one of Malzberg’s non-Science Fiction titles, in fact it is not even genre, but a mainstream novel… although one should probably take “mainstream” with several grains of salt here. It is a novel about the porn industry, or more specifically a satire on artsy pretensions in porn movies during the late sixties / early seventies in the wake of films like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones when for a while it looked like porn might actually become a respectable genre (well as respectable as genres ever get).

Of course, Malzberg is having none of this (and, I have to add, rightly so – what could conceivably be more boring than respectable porn?) and he is in full-on sleaze mode throughout this novel, and very gleefully – you can just imagine him grinning and cackling to himself while he was hacking away on his typewriter. If you ever thought there was a lot of sex in his Science Fiction novels, then you might have to re-adjust your criteria after reading this one – while Everything Happened to Susan is not really an erotic novel (of which he also wrote several, I might even get around to reading one of them some day), as the sex is not described very graphically or as in any way titillating, there is sex on every single page, often more than once, and it’s not all missionary position either. This is Barry N. Malzberg, though, so there is more going on than just sexual gymnastics and jokes about supposedly serious acting in porn movies.

For one thing, there is a writer character (who happens to be working for Welfare, like quite a few of Malzberg’s protagonists, and like he himself used to) struggling with his novel that apparently is a genre novel that strives to be art, in clear analogy to porn movies trying to go beyond mere smut – it seems like Malzberg is making an implied commentary ( and a not very kind one) on his own writing here, on his attempts to make something more of the Science Fiction genre. There are also several Malzbergian motifs (or should one call them obsessions?) to be found scattered throughout the novel,  most notably at the ending which culminates in a porn movie reconstruction of the assassination of John F. Kennedy – it is almost as if Malzberg was parodying his own The Destruction of the Temple there (or prefiguring it, I’m not at all sure about chronology here).

More important for Everything Happened to Susan in particular, though, is that, while the novel starts out as a satire on the porn industry, it gradually widens its scope, taking a look at the function of sexuality in capitalism and going from there to a trenchant examination of the role of women in contemporary society. And, again this being Malzberg, things turn out to be very bleak indeed. It is, I think, quite interesting to note that Malzberg’s novels on astronauts have masculinity as one of their main themes and that he here, in an almost complementary fashion, deals with the subject of feminity in the framework of a novel on the porn industry. Which would imply, or so it seems to me, that in contemporary society it is still the male gaze that defines women and that the title of the novel should be read with emphasis on the second word rather than the first: Everything Happened to Susan, as in, things are done to her but she has no agency herself. She certainly does try, mostly by attempting to use her sexuality as a bargaining chip, but fails utterly. Sexual liberation, it turns out, was liberation for males only, and effectively ended up in just more ways to not only exploit women but to also have them be complicit in their own exploitation. Each attempt by Susan to take her destiny into her own hands causes her to slide deeper into dependency from males, and (even that much agency is denied to her) through no fault of her own – there is no way out for her, and the ending is probably as unavoidable as it is foreseeable.

Like The Falling Astronauts which I read a few weeks ago, Everything Happened to Susan is one of Malzberg’s more conventional novels and told in a straightforward realistic manner. It has unexpected depths to it, though – I was expecting (likely misguided by the cover) something much more pulpy, not exactly the sharp and unrelenting satire on porn  movies and gender relations that the novel actually is, and while it might not be among Malzberg’s very best, it certainly is very much recommended.

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