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Portrait of a Chameleon: Brushes and The Painted Doll by M. Christian


Prolific erotica writer M. Christian has been described more than once as a literary chameleon, and with good reason. Although he is straight and male, Christian has published single-author collections of both gay (Filthy: Outrageous Gay Erotica ) and lesbian (Speaking Parts: Provocative Lesbian Erotica) erotica. His books include a scifi erotica story collection (The Bachelor Machine), gay vampire thrillers (Running on Empty and The Very Bloody Marys) and the peculiar ME2: A Novel of Horror, which has been praised as insightful social criticism and panned as a poor-taste publicity stunt.

I was flattered when he wrote me asking if I’d give him press quotes for not one, but two books that he had coming out soon. Flattered, and jealous, given my own glacial rate of publication. Sure, I told him, but I’ve got to read the books first. Within half an hour, I received digital Advanced Reader Copies of Brushes and Painted Doll: An Erotist’s Tale.

BrushesIf I didn’t know that these two books had been written by the same author, it would be difficult to tell. Brushes is a fascinating literary exercise, a novella in which each chapter presents the perspective of a different character. The various narrators are linked by their connections, casual or intimate, with Escobar, a fabulously popular painter hailed as an artistic genius. Escobar is hardly a person for these characters. He is a mirror, a distorted reflection highlighting their failings, magnifying their inadequacies. His sexual charisma, his incandescent talent, his elusive insight into the souls of his subjects, all are legendary. Everyone craves his attention. Everyone envies his success.

Each chapter is a meditation, often bitter or at least bittersweet, on how Escobar’s brilliance has eclipsed or damaged the life of the narrator. Escobar’s wife, his brother, his agent, the model whose portrait made him famous, the young Russian forger who copied his style, all tell us their stories, stories about Escobar that really reveal only the narrators themselves. The final chapter, masterfully, is told from the perspective of Escobar himself, who turns out to be a surprisingly simple man, faithful to his wife despite the rumors, bewildered by his own talent and his notoriety.

Brushes does not have much plot. The movement is within the characters, not in the external world. The style is leisurely, literary, a bit old fashioned, almost reminiscent of Edith Wharton (though not nearly as precise, and with far more sexual content). The disparate characters paint portraits of themselves as they express their obsessions with Escobar. The book is more a gallery of sketches than a novel, but it has an integrity of structure and a complexity of emotion that I enjoyed greatly.

Painted DollPainted Doll could hardly be more different. The novel is a cyberpunk lesbian thriller set in a future Shanghai. Claire Monroe, a refugee from the disintegrating United States, uses her mathematical aptitude to support herself and her young lover Flower in the wired, crumbling heart of Asia. When someone steals from her powerful, shadowy employer Taka, she is blamed. The equally shadowy figure of Many saves her by constructing an entire new psychological and biological identity for her as the “erotist” Domino. Meanwhile, Flower is sent to a New Age colony on the other side of the world.

M. Christian knows how to write cyberpunk. We have the traditional electronically-enhanced urban environment, alternatively luxurious and trash-choked; the ubiquitous surveillance and the masks used to defeat it; the reality of everything for sale, including the human soul. If you enjoy the genre (as I do), you will feel quite at home in M.Christian’s future metropolis.

The most original aspect of The Painted Doll is the concept of the erotist. Like a high-priced call girl, Domino meets her clients in an anonymous room for encounters charged with erotic intensity. However, Domino does not have sex with the men who engage her services. Rather, she uses a set of neurochemical stimulants absorbed through the skin, plus her own voice and imagination, to guide her clients through a physiological and emotional exploration of their sexual fantasies and personal secrets. She paints a streak of carefully mixed chemical on the forehead, around the nipple, across the kidneys, and her subject reacts with fear, self-disgust, arousal or joy. Domino is as much an artist as Escobar. The sessions in which she strips her clients bare with her paints and her voice are among the most compelling scenes in the book.

Neither Brushes nor The Painted Doll fits neatly into the erotica genre. In both books, sexual desire and fulfillment are powerful motivators, but neither book is primarily about sex. I realized after the fact that The Painted Doll contains no actual sex scenes in the present, only recollections and fantasies recounted in the electronic correspondence between Claire and Flower. That fact does not in the least diminish the book’s intensity. The relationship between these two women, initially portrayed as animal attraction, turns out to be complex and nuanced, tied into the question of who they really are. As Claire fights to maintain her mask as Domino, the Painted Doll, in order to survive, Flower starts to fall in love with the cold, controlled, untouchable personna of the erotist.

Both books at times arouse, though it is clear that the author’s ambition goes far beyond mere titillation. I think that, fundamentally, M.Christian gets a kick out of playing with ideas and mashing up genres. His work reads more like personal exploration than deliberate craft, though it is better written than that of many more genre-bound colleagues.

No book is without its faults. I could take M.Christian to task for his tendency to overuse repetition and parallelism. I could chide him for the typographical errors in the ARCs, which I hope were corrected in the final volumes. These minor complaints pale next to the brilliant creativity of someone who can pen two such different books, and have them both succeed in engaging at least this reader’s mind and heart.

  • Brushes by M. Christian
    (Phaze Books; July 1, 2008; ISBN 1594266875)
    Available atAmazon.com / Amazon UK
  • Painted Doll by M. Christian
    (Lethe Press; July 21, 2008; ISBN 1590211251)
    Available atAmazon.com / Amazon UK

© 2008 Lisabet Sarai. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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