what purpose did i serve in your life
Fiction, 200 pp., pbk.
Tyrant Books, June 2013
Reviewed by Carina Finn
When I was in my first year of graduate school, quarantined in the infernal winter of the Midwest, people on the internet started talking a lot about Marie Calloway. I read Jeremy Lin when it was on Muumuu House and it was not my favorite piece of writing in the world but I was interested. That summer I moved to New York on a fellowship and met a lot of writers, most of them older, and had some fun with a few of them. The next winter Marie released a series of Google Docs. I read about them on HTMLGiant, which I read every day because I was desperate to be connected to a literary community outside the scope of the nine other poets with whom I went to school. I read the Google Docs and I loved them because they were sincere and transparent and they hurt in the same way that the best kinds of cereal, like Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, hurt the roof of your mouth. I sent them around to my friends and some of them thought they were stupid and “not writing” and others thought they were excellent examples of contemporary multimedia performance art. I had just made a YouTube video in which I ate an entire pound of white sugar on camera and I felt like I could relate to the sensation of overdosing on a pleasure-inducing substance for the express purpose of causing visible (thought perhaps not tangible) pain.
Just before Marie’s book, what purpose did I serve in your life came out, she moved into the apartment where my two best friends, poets Seth Oelbaum and Stephanie Berger, also live. The night she came to see the apartment the three of us assembled ourselves on the chaise lounge and got stoned waiting for her to come over. She entered quietly and chainsmoked on the other couch, then went downstairs for beer. She came back upstairs and we all chainsmoked in the living room and drank beer for a few hours and it seemed like things were going to work.
When her book did come out she gave a copy to Stephanie, which I promptly borrowed and did not give back for several weeks. My own first book had also just come out, I was having a bunch of drama with my various lovers, and I was feeling solitary and depressed and generally disenchanted with both Literature and The World. I started reading the book on Stephanie’s bed while she flipped through Michael Earl Craig’s Fence oeuvre.
“Is it any good?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s completely absorbing. Like a literary romance beach-read,” I said.
Of course, not everyone shares my opinion of Marie’s book. She is constantly criticized for being auto-misogynistic, slutty, childish, over-privileged, unattractive, and a writer of decidedly boring prose. Personally, I don’t find any of these qualities to be particularly problematic, regardless of whether or not they are accurate. Marie has written the book we all want to read in this era of internet stalking and reality TV. She paints a self-portrait of The Artist As A Young Nymphette, emphasis on the young, blatantly asking the objects of her affection how her youth affects them.
As a young female writer (I’m two years older than Marie) who’s taken a lot of flak for being simply for being young and been told by many an older poet that my writing process is “symptomatic of some psychological issue” or that I “must not know how to edit,” I can understand why she is so insistent on making her age a) known and b) an issue in and of itself. By highlighting the fact that she, a mere girl, has captured the physical and emotional attention of these men, Marie situates herself in an overt position of power. Much in the same way that the girl on her knees getting facefucked is running the entire show, Marie applies the rules of BDSM to the author-reader relationship in what purpose did I serve in your life. You can call her a whore, sure, but that’s exactly what she wanted you to do.
The book is sort of blog-y in format, moving through a series of discrete essays and screenshot mash-ups, much in the style of the original Google Docs, perfectly suited for the contemporary attention span. There is no real arc or moment of growth or revelation at the end. We find the Marie in “Thank You For Touching Me” to be much like the girl who loses her virginity in Portland, Oregon in 2008. She has had experiences, she has grown and changed and achieved a level of what is throughout the book referred to as “microfame,” but the reader is given no indication that these experiences mean anything to the author other than a concept of “just another MMF on a random day.”
And I think that is great. As a sex-positive twenty-four year old bisexual writer who is, let’s be honest, pretty slutty sometimes, I got an immeasurable amount of enjoyment from reading a first-person account of activities that were not foreign or overly-ridiculous seeming to me, from a perspective that was devoid of any sense of self-judgment or loathing. The heavier ideas addressed in the book – Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, or the relationship between being a survivor of physical abuse and a submissive in a BDSM scene – are dealt with almost offhandedly, and that’s pitch-perfect. By incorporating these experiences into the everyday life of the author, we see that these are not only relatively common, shared experiences, but that they can contribute to a sense of normalcy that is unique to the person in question, as all notions of “normalcy” ought to be. Rather than coming across as irreparably damaged or sociopathic, Marie presents herself as just-a-girl. This girl happens to sometimes have intense emotional reactions to the physically brutal sex she desires, in the same way that some girls are lactose intolerant and feel sick after eating the ice cream they desire.
I don’t think Marie Calloway is the new Joyce or the new Didion and I don’t think she wants to be. I don’t swoon over her sentence structure or subtle insertion of lyricism. I am neither surprised nor impressed by the book’s structure, layout, or design. I wouldn’t give this book to a prose writer who was just starting out and asked me for recommendations of stylistic standard-bearers: I would give them Joyce, or Didion. But I will give what purpose did I serve in your life to my younger sisters, to female artists of all genres and ages, men who are feminist-oriented and men who have no idea where the clitoris is actually located. I’ll give it to people who like a good dirty joke. I’ll give it to my aunt, with whom I have an unofficial “let’s read memoirs by people with messed up lives” book club. Because at the end of the day, the purpose Marie Calloway serves in the lives of her readers is to stand naked in front of them and say, “so? what’s next?”
Carina Finn is the author of Lemonworld & Other Poems (Co.Im.Press, 2013), My Life is a Movie (Birds of Lace: A Feminist Press, 2012), and I Heart Marlon Brando (Wheelchair Party Press, 2010). She lives in the East Village, where she curates The Bratty Poets Series and is a member of the all-girl electrofolk trio, The London Skül of Economics.