Censorship and Sensibility


When correctly viewed
Everything is lewd:
I could tell you things about Peter Pan
Or the Wizard of Oz—there's a dirty old man...

The End of Alice is a disgusting book. In fact, I can say without qualification or hesitation that it is most disgusting book I have ever read. Occasionally, in a cinema, I find myself shutting my eyes because I find a given scene too unpleasant. I have never before consciously skipped paragraphs of novel in order to avoid retching.

As a fairly typical example, consider this description of an incident in the prison where the narrator is incarcerated:

'On turning fifty in this criminal hothouse, as the institution's gift, the cook baked a dozen of my beloved cuppy cakes—the finished product was leaden like Civil War ammunition, coated with a heavy brown frosting that had less flavour, less firmness, than shit.'

This paragraph disgusts us at several levels. Of course, the comparison of food with excrement is repulsive at a fairly basic, hygienic level. But what, I think, un-nerves us is that this literate voice in its measured, slightly over-written way is expressing something we have not heard spoken since our last infant school-dinner (and even there, not while grown-ups were listening.) It's not the comparison which shocks us, but the fact that it comes from the mouth of an adult. It is therefore more precise ('less firmness') than any child's could be. There is also an unpleasant suggestion that the writer knows how much taste shit might be expected to have.

But in its context in the novel the metaphor is not merely puerile, but obscene. Half a page before, we have seen our hero semi-willingly sodomised by his cell mate, and the imagery is unpleasantly related:

'I feel my cavity fill with his fluid and know that for hours it will slowly run out of me; it will mix with shit and leak out a milky brown, soft suede.'

The connection between cupcakes, excrement and homosexuality might be seen as emblematic of the book as a whole. One would think that prison consisted of nothing but buggery, anal examinations and suppositories. Sex, excretion and eating are continuously being compared and mismatched. In one sustained metaphor, sex is imagined, not merely as eating, but as a sort of gourmet cannibalism. A girl of nineteen is watching a group of thirteen year old boys, with a view to seducing one of them:

'They were at the point where, if someone were to take such a child, to roast or to bake him, he would be most flavourful...She thought that perhaps, once or twice a year, as part of some great festival, one of each, boy and girl should be prepared and the residents given a skewerful accompanied by lovely roasted onions, carrots, cherry tomatoes, peppers, the stuff of shish kebabs....while this massive public tasting was probably not in order, the denial of it encouraged, even begged for, a little nibbling at home.'

We recoil, of course, from the image of cannibalism. We recoil from a piece of meat being referred to as 'he'. But the clever thing is the way that the passage does not centre on the flesh; but on the vegetables. When we hear the descriptions of the 'lovely' onions and carrots and peppers, we can hardly avoid picturing a wholesome meal: we lose track of what is really being talked about; we have to resist becoming accomplices to the speaker's fantasy. This might also be seen as an emblem for the book as a whole. Again, there is a very unpleasant twist. When the girl does manage to get into the boy's bedroom what happens is almost literally cannibalistic. The boy, like the author of the book, loves to disgust people, or, as he would say, 'to gross them out':

' "I pick my scabs and save them. Dried out, they're crispy, kind of chewy. The flavour changes depending on what generation it is..." '

As a favour, he lets the girl pick one of his scabs. This becomes a quasi-sexual encounter, described with the obsessive, tender attention to detail of a piece of high-class erotica. For this reason, I found it (despite stiff competition) to be much the most disgusting passage in the book:

'It comes away slowly, painfully, leaving a pink well that quickly fills with blood. She presses her tongue to the coming blood and draws it away. The well refills and then overflows the wound, running down his leg.'

We are told in passing that one of the narrator's fellow inmates is 'the abortionist with the habit of snacking on the foetuses he scraped.'

I dislike this sort of thing. I dislike those scenes you get in perfectly respectable films–in ice-cream ads, these days–where the hero licks chocolate moose off the heroine's breast. I disliked custard-looks-like-poo jokes when I was six years old and was meant to enjoy them. But my physical repulsion does not amount to moral condemnation. If it did, then eating shell-fish would be a sin. 'Disgust' describes an aesthetic, not an ethical, judgement. Some people think that anal sex is morally wicked (I believe it is still a criminal offence under English law) but no-one, to my knowledge, thinks that scab-picking is a sin. A description of a bad stomach upset could be made more disgusting than either. The distaste I feel for these passage in the book is not that different from my distaste for Wayne and Garth's endless jokes about vomiting.

It could, I suppose, be argued that the writer in publishing material which she knows people will find unpleasant is acting in a reprehensible fashion: committing some sort of mental cruelty. But this gets us into serious hot water. Some people like being disgusted, or horrified, or shocked. Sometimes, shock and disgust are legitimate artistic tactics. Half the literature in the world involves the breaking of taboos at some point or other.

Strangely, no-one is referring to The End of Alice as 'the scab-picking novel' or 'the coprophilia novel' or the 'anal sex novel'. Nevertheless, there have been calls to ban it. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has condemned it; the monolithic W.H Smiths have refused to stock it. The End of Alice goes a taboo too far. It deals with sex between adults and children.

Now, among all the icky stuff about bodily fluids, the description of a nineteen year old woman frolicking in the shower with an athletic child did not particularly appal or shock me. And that seems to be the problem. The paedophilia in the book is disgusting because it is not disgusting enough. The book crime is that it portrays children as willing participants in sexual encounters with adults; it portrays at least some of those relationships as fairly normal, loving events: forbidden love, rather than exploitation.

In reality, the novel is a good deal more complicated than that. It is not a particularly wonderful book: questions of taste apart, it is rather fussily written, repetitive, and prone to labour points. However what it seems to be trying to do strikes me as fairly clever.

The narrator (unnamed) is a convicted paedophile. He corresponds with a 19 year old girl (also unnamed) who is engaged in stalking, seducing, scab-picking and sex with a 13 year old, Matthew. Parallel scenes describe her relationship with Matthew, the narrator's homosexual encounters in prison; flashbacks to the narrator's childhood, and, eventually, to the sexual encounter with a child named Alice (there is a quote from Lewis Carol at the front of the book, in case we miss the point) which put him in prison. It transpires that he did not simply molest Alice, but brutally murdered her.

The girl's letters are printed verbatim in italics, brief and sometimes evasive. Her encounters with Matthew are described exhaustively, and at length, in normal typescript. This means that we do not know whether the picture which we see–of an encounter which is, in a funny way, innocent, and in which Matthew is, in some sense, a willing participant–is what really happened, or merely the narrator's picture of what should have happened. By the time we get to hear about the narrator's assault and murder of little Alice, it is absolutely clear that we are in the realm of fantasy. At one point, she asks him to expose himself to her:

' "I have to go. But before I leave, I have a favour to ask." She looks at me and waits.
"Let me see it again." I know what she is referring to, and instantly blush.
"Oh, don't be a dolt. Show me. I just need to see it." '

A bit later he warns her not to tell anyone about their relationship:

' "Darling, sweetheart, dainty dumpling..."
"Get to the point."
"Our arrangement is best kept between us"....
"You mean, you don't really love me."
"Oh, but I do." I pause. "But my age. I'm so much older than you."
She cut me off. "How old?"
"Halfway through thirty-one."
"That's nothing," she says. And that's the end of it.'

This is not a conversation between an adult and a twelve year old: not even a precocious twelve year old with a crush on an older man. I don't think that it is an adult and a child play-acting. The narrator is putting into the girl's mouth the sort of lines that would be said by the heroine of a romantic/soft-porn story. He is recasting his affair so that she seduced him. Or else we are in a surreal, magical-realist fantasy in which the world is exactly like that of a paedophile's imagination–populated by little boys who happily form liaisons with older women, and children who seduce older men.

In a key (as in 'monumentally unsubtle') passage, the narrator explains to us what he/she is doing. It's one of those author-addresses-reader passages which Salman Rushdie does much better.

'Direct address: I'm talking to you, Herr Reader, realising that it's not the usual thing [...] I am fully aware of what you've been doing while you've been reading this...Your arousal, the woody in your woods, tickle in your twitty-twat, the fact that as you've read my mental monologue, you fished out the familiar friend, rubbed it raw, stroked, yourself [...] Some might believe that I blither just to shock, but what is shock if not some ancient identification, meaning that I have touched a sore spot, hit a nerve...'

So: the author narrator is engaged in a little mind game, a play with our feelings of titillation and disgust. The narrator expects us to have become sexually aroused by his fantasies and thus to have tacitly accepted that 'normal' people have them too. Having established that, he leads you into his paedophile world, presenting his view of events (I am the victim, she was asking for it, she seduced me) as the literal truth. He then admits to the brutal murder which he actually committed.

Except that it doesn't quite work. I mean...look, we're all friends here, aren't we, I can speak freely: I didn't feel remotely aroused or titillated at any point in the book. Sick, yes: turned on, no. But then, maybe that is the point. The fictional narrator expects us to be aroused, but the real author does not. The author lets us hear the narrator's assertion that we found the book sexy precisely in order to make the point that we didn't. She is trying to show in what way our mind differs from that of the paedophile. In order to make the point further, shows us the world from his point of view, the world of sexually predatory children. If the world were like this (which it isn't) then what would follow? Would we blame the narrator less if Alice really had been like that? Can we at any rate see that he is not evil in his own eyes–has his crime become more explicable? Or has it been made worse: is he in fact a monster living in a delusional world?

I don't say that these questions are all that new, or all that profound. But the idea that merely asking them is going to encourage more cruelty to real Alices is quite clearly mad.

Regrettably, where children are concerned, we find it very difficult to maintain any semblance of sanity.

There was a poster campaign a couple of years ago which told us that one in five children had been abused. The corollary of this is that one in five parents are child-abusers. Did these people believe that 20% of children had been raped or molested? Of course not. They had arrived at their figure by including hitting and neglect and mental cruelty under the umbrella of 'abuse.' But if we extend the word 'child abuse' this far then we have created a situation where virtually everybody has been abused and virtually everyone is an abuser. And—since we all agree that child abuse is the Very Worst Thing There Is, this is the ideal circumstance for a witch hunt. Fanatics of all kinds love witch hunts, because it gives them absolute power. If I can define spanking, or religious indoctrination, or smoking, or not having enough books, or walking around the house undressed, or, in short, any behaviour that I happen to disapprove of as 'child abuse' then I can bring the full force of the secular arm to bear on you. It is a political strategy, a means to give myself power over society. I can use the real and legitimate fear of 'child abuse' as an excuse to make people do things my way. If I say 'This is a nasty, sick, disgusting and rather badly written book', you will say 'Well, you have a right to your opinion; I daresay you are quite right.' But if I say 'This book will encourage child-abuse', I have voted myself the right to say that it cannot be published. If I say 'Reading it makes you complicit in the abuse', then I have voted myself the right to stop you from reading it. If I say 'Thinking about the subjects raised by this book amounts to condoning child abuse' then I have voted myself the right to decide what you think. In the new, compassionate, caring, Britain, a book can be found guilty of incitement to thought-crime.

I think that that is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard.

The End of Alice by A.M Homes is published in the U.K by Anchor Fiction, and by someone else in America. It is available in Waterstones, but not in Smiths. Of course, Smiths own Waterstones, making boycotts rather complicated...