The National Post | Chris Randle | May 5, 2011
National Post reviews CHESTER BROWN’s PAYING FOR IT
If you want an image of the Canadian zeitgeist, thumb through the back pages of your local alternative weekly. Last September, long before the very public travails of Stephen Harper's besotted ex-advisor Bruce Carson, Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel struck down the laws criminalizing prostitution in that province. Though stayed pending an appeal, Himel's decision was controversial. In this newspaper, whose editorial board supported the ruling, Barbara Kay managed to find common ground with misogynistic pimps: "The danger to prostitutes will continue, because the kind of men who frequent prostitutes and the kind of men who control them don't have a lot of respect for them on the whole. Nor should they." But Canadian sex workers have experienced advocates arguing otherwise, people like the dogged Ontarian litigant Valerie Scott. What about their clients, rather less sympathetic figures whose media strategy entails avoiding it?
Chester Brown's graphic novel Paying For It is that rare thing, a john testifying outside of the courtroom. It opens in 1996 as the cartoonist's long-term relationship with CBC host Sook-Yin Lee is disintegrating - their intimate relationship, anyway, because they continued living together for years and remain dear friends. The duo prove to get along much better that way, which inspires Brown to swear off "romantic love" altogether: "I've got two competing desires - the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend." After a lengthy period of celibacy, he decides to reconcile them by seeking professional help.
That forthright subtitle belies its exhaustiveness: Brown depicts literally every woman he's hired for sex since 1999, 23 in all. The meticulous detachment will be familiar to readers of his most recent and most successful work, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, but Paying For It treads different formal territory otherwise. While Louis Riel paid an extended stylistic tribute to Annie creator Harold Gray, the new book fills small panels with smaller figures, divided into a pair of rigid columns on each page and limned so carefully it makes one's eyes water.
Brown's many assignations in tidy condos have a comical side. The cartoonist draws himself with an impassive, fine-boned mask even when he's thrusting away; his partners' faces are never fully shown at all (to protect them from being identified). It's as sexy as an economics textbook, albeit much funnier, and intentionally so. The early scenes' neurotic fumblings are only slightly more awkward than your average first date, but this sense of distance gives the dialogue a deadpan ring: "Uh, I'd ... like to have vaginal intercourse with you." Or, after Brown offers the American history tome he's reading: "Does Johnson think the Civil War was started by tariffs or slavery?"
This unexpected humour extends to Brown's hooking-related discussions with his friends and exes, which form the memoir's philosophical heart. The debates with his fellow cartoonists - dapper, sardonic Seth and tight-fisted porn enthusiast Joe Matt - are both amusing and revealing. Matt's conflicted lament that "this is disgusting, but it's also good gossip" might be the best line here. And Seth, who sometimes teases the shy, introverted author for being a "robot," nonetheless recognizes the central irony of Paying For It in his prose response: "Out of all the men I know [Chester's] quite possibly the one I think would make the most considerate boyfriend or husband for a woman ... and yet he is the one who picked the whoring. It's a funny world."
Seth's notes are included in a hefty sheaf of appendices and annotations. It's only there that Brown outlines the full extent of his utopian vision: a society where paid sex becomes routine, dabbled in by friends and strangers alike, scandalous as spotting a pal 20 bucks. His basic arguments for decriminalizing prostitution - that it would make the trade safer, that a sex worker "selling her body" is no more immoral than a construction worker selling theirs - are well-researched and compelling. But it may be prudent to read this book next to a sturdy wall in anticipation of the section where Brown claims that physical drug addiction doesn't exist. The artist's hardcore property-rights libertarianism blinds him to the fact that removing puritanical restrictions on prostitution won't make all its dangers and inequities disappear - exploitation exists in state-approved industries, too. His analysis barely acknowledges class. It's disappointing because Brown's illustrated self is so curious and so courteous on dates, asking the women about their lives and careers, scrupulously paying even when he loses interest upon opening the door. Most pertinently, his avatar experiences doubt.
Indeed, the book's ending hinges on one hell of a self-questioned assumption, to the point of complicating everything that came before it. Spoiling the precise nature of that revelation would be churlish, so let's just say that Brown is moved to replace "romantic love" with "possessive monogamy" in his personal demonology. He ends up agreeing with his (happily married) brother Gordon, who argues: "It's the intensity of the emotion and how they express it to each other that defines [a] romantic couple - not whether they have sex with other people or whether they promise to be together forever." After 200 pages of fearless iconoclasm, Brown's conclusion seems all the more challenging in its equanimity: "Paying for sex isn't an empty feeling if you're paying the right person for sex." The Pet Shop Boys put it another way, with a touch of added poetic irony: "Words mean so little, and money less / When you're lying next to me."