Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dorothy Johnston's "Eight Pieces on Prostitution"

Dorothy Johnston, an Australian writer who reads my blog and has sometimes commented on it, recently sent me an email about her new collection of short stories entitled Eight Pieces on Prostitution. Dorothy self-published the collection on Smashwords, and it is available for download from Amazon for $9.99. 

On her website, Dorothy says that the stories were written over her writing life, including her first published story, “The Man Who Liked to Come with the News.” She says the subject of prostitution has always interested her, that her first novel Tunnel Vision is set in a massage parlor. Although she does not say why the subject of prostitution has always interested her, she does note that many of her stories are set in Canberra, where she lived for thirty years, and where after the city gained self-government, it pioneered the de-criminalisation of prostitution, which, she says, “remains an interesting prism through which to view our national capital.” - See more at:

I like the stories because they are so well-written and because they deal with the difficult to treat subject of sexuality in a delicate and restrained way.  If you are expecting sweaty realism and explicit sexual descriptions, these may not be the stories for you, but if you might be intrigued with the emotional engagement of prostitutes with their profession, evoked in a poetic and somewhat idealized manner, these stories are worth your attention. Dorothy Johnston is not reluctant to use explicit language and graphic description in these stories, but salaciousness is not her goal.

 I prefer the seven short stories to the one short novel, “Where the Ladders Start.”  In this long story about a client who dies during sex, the issue is whether his death by strangulation is an accident brought on by his own sexual desires, or whether he was murdered by the prostitute who served him. Moving of the body by colleagues complicates the criminal aspect of the story, as does blackmail by a neighboring shop owner who says he saw the body being moved. The major interest in the story is plot—i.e. what happened and why, and how it will all end—not what the story means. The short stories, on the other hand, focus on more subtle matters concerning the meaning of the motivation and desires of the women who provide sex for their clients.

Johnston uses various means to distance the narrative from the gritty physical and economical aspects of prostitution.  Professional women are referred to as” colleagues.” Men who visit them are called” clients.”  Their place of business is called a “studio.” The sex act is not usually described.  One prostitute is a university student who studies between clients; one is a mature woman just trying to make a living.

In “The Studio,” the client brings his paintings to show to Eve, the central character. She tells him there is no love in his paintings, that he should paint at least one with love in it. Their sex is described as a meeting of bone and muscle, a “certainty of where she ends and another living being begins.”  When he brings her a painting of herself as Eve in the Garden of Eden, she sees it is her eyes and her naked body, but the painted feelings are those of someone else  When she goes to a gallery exhibition of his paintings and comes up to speak to him, he denies that he knows her. It is as though in the gallery she has momentarily forgotten that she is a prostitute and he is a client. The story ends with an effective ambiguous metaphoric conclusion.

In “The Man Who Liked to Come With the News,” the central character provides services for a man who is referred to only as “the man who liked to come with the news.” This is a very short story that lightly links politics with sex and the normal with a momentary break with the normal.  The story ends emblematically with a radio announcer telling of the collapse of the government and listeners stopping their regular activity momentarily before everything continues again as is “perfectly normal.”

“Mrs. B” opens with a cue reference to a coffee shop/cafĂ© significantly called the Scheherazade, priming us for storytelling as a thematic activity. She works in a message parlor and refers to sex “decorously as ‘the extra’ or ‘the finish.’” She lays out the prices, the necessity of showering, and the use of condoms to clients as if “a hostess before a dinner party.”

The tone of the story elevates Mrs. B above the physicality of what she does in sentences like this:
“And strange it was, but men who came to the shabby house in Acland Street warmed toward Mrs. B.  In spite of, or perhaps because she’d found a way to sing, her body never lost its ambiguous receptiveness.”
The story ends in an ironic poetic image after Mrs. B. and her colleague Denise serve fifteen clients between them without a break. The exhausted Mrs. B. has a vision of herself serving tea with jam: 

She felt her smile slide along the surface of an internal river that was flowing so fast now there was no hope of stopping it…she stood up and danced out of the kitchen, singing loudly and taking charge at last, negotiating the corridors in a series of intricate and dainty steps, out into the traffic at the wrong end of Acland Street.

“The Cod-piece and the Diary Entry” introduces Harry who visits the message parlor/brothel dressed in sixteenth garb, complete with an “authentic Shakespearean cod-piece, preserved for centuries in a mixture of camphor and methylated spirits.” He has sex with Maria, “whose daily experience was that of being inhabited by the body of another.”  After sex with Henry, she thinks of the principle of disorder in the universe, feeling that “someone, somewhere out there, was preparing for them—for herself and Harry, a disjointed, disorderly end.”

The story is built on the extended metaphor of the sexual encounter as a play. When her landlord raises the rent and forces her to move to another place, she misses Harry and his costumes. “Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’d been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company that understanding had been no more than a breath away.”

And what she seems on the verge of understanding she writes in the story’s last sentence in a child’s school exercise book she uses as a diary: “That we must continually take off our costumes and replace them means no more to us than it did to Harry. It means no more than an acknowledgement of love.” 

Although Dorothy Johnston is perhaps best known as a writer of mystery novels, these stories, with the exception of the short novel Where the Ladders Start, which seems primarily a character –based, plot-dependent, genre mystery fiction, are literary stories that depend on short story techniques of lyrical language, metaphoric resolutions, and universal thematic significance. I recommend them to my readers, for the pleasure of their prose and the complexity of their meaning.


Dorothy Johnston said...

Thank you Charles. I'm immensely grateful for your post on my collection. In this world of almost anything goes, I treasure the comments and judgments of people who know what they are talking about.

Howard said...

This is cool!