Of Photography and Fetishism

Eliza Clark – Boy Parts (Influx Press, 2020)

We live under the shadow of faith. The great truths of Christianity are no longer recognised, while in countries like Britain the Church has been reduced to a minor religion, with no greater religion set to take its place. We are left to ponder: where is a world without guidance to find its meaning?

I am not normally a reader of these kinds of novels, but on being asked to review Eliza Clark’s new, rather risqué novel, Boy Parts, I feel that I have come to a better awareness of contemporary life and contemporary living; especially among the young.

The book is not religious, but it can teach us much about the spirit.

It is a first person narrative, like most novels are these days. We are no longer curious about God, and what an omniscient perspective may look like. Instead, we are always told the story from one perspective. In this case, a very warped perspective indeed: that of “fetish artist” Irena Sturges.

Sturges’ art consists of videos and photography depicting young, average looking, and often vulnerable young men, social outcasts, in erotic situations. She gains sexual pleasure from these photo shoots, and the resulting images are purchased online by a small but ardent group of (mostly homosexual) admirers.

Already we have a number of questions raised. What is art when there is no transcendent principle guiding it? What is sex when the sublimating institutions of marriage and childbearing are rejected?

In both cases we see an ever-growing, increasingly desperate hunger; a desire that can never be fulfilled, leaping always onward, onward to the next target. Sex grows progressively more violent and art grows progressively more sexual.

The collection of erotic images achieves what Freud might have labelled a “death drive”. The need to construct an oeuvre of work that might stand in for us once we pass on; a collection that we will never permit ourselves to complete, but instead will only add to, feeling it forever “nearly there but not quite”. We always want just one more.

Sturges reaches some very low moments in pursuit of her desires. There are a lot of drugs, and sex, some of it paedophilic, and violence which – like that other great purgative work American Psycho – is never quite certain or uncertain in its existence. It is never truly resolved.

Yet, in contrast to her peers, we see how Sturges’ artistic journey (or at least the Fine Art gloss that she puts on to her activities), lends her a stability and purpose that all those around her are lacking.

The narrative is framed by a forthcoming show at a fancy London gallery. Sturges curates her own life, narrating it through memories captured in photographs. Intentions pursued, captured, and left behind. Although – sadly – not a positive one, there is at least a journey here.

Her friends Flo and Frankie are instead shown to be wallowing in their own narcissism. Time passes and they follow popular trends, attending new parties and getting new hangovers, but with very little to show for it other than their brief pride in being “woke”.

The new woke movement, it goes without saying, is the natural endpoint of the reformation. A religion that is all duty and no reward; a Puritanism all the more ardent for having supplanted even God in its purity.

These characters, it also goes without saying, are all proven to be hypocrites.

Against a backdrop of atheists sadly wallowing in the more animalistic activities of human nature, Sturges’ artistic practice appears to be a vaguely defined attempt to create some kind of transcendent value. Her pictures, she tells herself, have meaning.

If anything, they are at least better than other artists’, most of whom are trying to do the same thing.

Yet, being only made through desire, Sturges’ art remains uncertain. Whether it is any good, worth devoting time to, whether it is even art at all, are all questions that linger and, slowly but surely, chip away at our confidence as readers, and her confidence as a character.

Now, a spoiler, although many of you will no doubt already know where all this is leading: in the end, Sturges finds that she cannot be sure of her own existence at all.

It is the same uncertainty that we find at all places and at all times. Although now, without the Church, many of our fellows are plunged into the darkness of a pre-Christian era. They are presented with no alternative to the rudderless wanderings of their own individual imaginations.

I believe that Eliza Clark has presented us with an excellent learning tool in Boy Parts. It is a work of consummate professionalism, excellent plotting and pacing, with utterly believable dialogue. Her characters can be monstrous, but their lives could quite easily be our lives. The book is a corrective.

But it is more than a corrective. It is a mirror. Life can be seen there in its most naked form. May the Lord in His Mercy clothe them.

– Demetrios Kanapka

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