Sex, death, subversion
Ann Donald reviews three new titles from High Risk, an imprint I promoting the cutting edge of inﬂammatory new ﬁction.
It’s a pretty safe bet that the retired champion of the nation’s morals. Mary Whitehouse was not among the hordes of readers who helped the American Higll Risk Anthology of Forbidden Writings achieve cult status back in 199]. A progressive collection that delved deep into the forbidden zones of sex and transgressive behaviour. it tackled a slew of themes including masochism (a man nails his penis to a piece of plywood) and coming-of—age (a suburban teenager learns about sex via a toothbrush and her best friend). Controversial. disquieting and at times cringe-evoking material. yet deﬁantly literary throughout. This month sees the publication of High Risk 2: Writings on Sex. Death and Subversion plus the launch ofa series of High Risk titles promoting the cutting edge ofthe best young American writers. The founder and vehement guardian of this literary counterculture is 31-year-old New Yorker. lra Silverberg. who with San Francisco's City Lights editor, Amy Scholder, was driven to set up the Serpent’s Tail imprint a few years ago in response to the repressive and increasingly censorial atmosphere triggered by the rise ofthe moral majority in America. ‘ln 1989 we saw writers holding back their more transgressive work in response to government censorship.‘ Silverberg explains. ‘Self—censorship became as much of a threat to challenging writing as
High Risk: ‘I hope we'll be seen as the dianond in the coal-bin that is publishing riult now}. any restrictions from the outside.‘
The antidote then was to provide a forum for these culturally disenfranchised writers who otherwise would be overlooked by the conservative corporate publishing houses. While the debate regarding censorship may have cooled somewhat now that there is a new administration in the White House, an emergent and central theme in High Risk 2 is the seemingly unshakeable bond between sex and death.
Whether it is because America is well into it’s second decade of AIDS or that we are approaching the end of the millenium. the shadow of doom seems to be firmly stuck above the treads of the young North and Latin American contributors. Sex and death are manacled together through urban violence. drugs. suicide and revenge in a spiral of loss. grief and, occasionally. rare poignant beauty.
‘This second anthology is less politically engaged or confrontational than the literature of 1991.‘ Pete Ayrton of Serpent's Tail observes. ‘but it is much more introspective and contemplative. Basically writers are having to come to terms with the issues of illness and death in light oftheir own friends and lovers dying.‘
While High Risk‘s wider roster of authors may share a common insurrectionary impulse. their work does vary considerably in terms of themes and styles. A prime exponent of the sex and death genre is Gary Indiana‘s new novella Rent Boy. Though not as elegaic as the accomplished Horse Crazy. Indiana's swirling and darkly comic prose is a slice of scrambled social commentary in the life of a rent boy/architecture student/waiter. From appendage- sucking to organ theft via champagne and cocaine. the cartoon. hedonistic life is increasingly unseated by a looming morbidity.
Pagan Kennedy’s Stripping and Other Stories is a pearl of a first collection. From maths nerds to Elvis- infactuated punks these understated stories of incidents in the lives of girls forever condemned to be square pegs in the round holes of American life. are totally beguiling. lfthis is a quintessential example from the High Risk stable then Mr Silverberg should have no fears in realising his dreams for the powerhouse of inﬂammatory literature: ‘1 hope we'll be seen as the diamond in the coal-bin that is publishing right now,’ he announces with panache. (Ann Donald)
High Risk 2: Writings On Sex, Death and Subversion edited by Amy Soho/der and Ira Silverberg (£8. 99). Rent Boy by Gary Indiana ([6. 99). Stripping and Other Stories (£7.99). All books are published by Serpents lid! on 28 April.
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The List 22 April—5 May I994 79