Johnny America


Re­view: An Orc in Antwerp


Philip Roth show­cas­es a ten­der side in an oblique but grimy ex­plo­ration of tough love in hu­man-pig­man relations.

Philip Roth’s An Orc in Antwerp de­tails, with re­mark­able del­i­ca­cy, three days in the life of Jaz­abaal, Antwer­p’s on­ly li­censed sex orc. In a clear homage to the struc­ture of Span­ish broth­el mys­ter­ies of the 1700s, each of her cus­tomers has their al­lot­ted two hours ten­der­ly but sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly chron­i­cled, as they come and go seem­ing­ly with­out im­pact on the warty, brutish body and psy­che of the pro­fes­sion­al. These face­less, up­stand­ing char­ac­ters pay hand­some­ly to be in­tro­duced to the sex­u­al habits of the orc, that mon­strous race which has evolved, side-by-aide with hu­mans, not ever so far from their ori­gins as wild pigs of the forest.

The clients for their part are sub­ject­ed to degra­da­tions more in­tense and de­praved than any­thing that could rea­son­ably be imag­ined from their fel­low man, re­veal­ing in Roth a pre­vi­ous­ly un­seen flair for the juici­er el­e­ments of fan­ta­sy. The im­pli­ca­tion here, ex­pressed in an ear­ly scene by a per­vert’s dis­ap­point­ing en­counter with a “frigid tapir,” is that bes­tial­i­ty is fine as long as you don’t mind your part­ner hav­ing lit­tle to no cre­ative in­put in­to your in­ter­course, but with the ar­rival of the orc in Eu­rope these char­ac­ters find an an­i­mal that can fuck them back in ways that ex­press not just the body but the red mind of the beast. From Jaz­abaal’s per­spec­tive, what she prac­tices on her cus­tomers is very dif­fer­ent from the dense­ly rit­u­al­is­tic ec­sta­sy of love­mak­ing with oth­er orcs, the ex­tend­ed scenes of which Roth fills with pat­terned, deeply felt vul­gar­i­ties and back­break­ing thir­ty minute or­gasms. As a pro­tag­o­nist, she’s a tough nut to crack, but it is these pas­sages that show her at her best, briefly es­cap­ing from a world in which we have ir­rev­o­ca­bly con­fused love and violence.

With her clients she pur­veys what she thinks of as a kind of sex­u­al butch­ery; an ar­ti­sanal but pas­sion­less treat­ment of meat. Johns and Janes, sum­moned to ap­point­ments by an in­sou­ciant phone call to the fam­i­ly house, come away hav­ing been par­tial­ly cooked, beat­en with a bag of Jaz­abaal’s own toe­nails (“heavy as wal­nuts and sharp as thorns”), choked in pus, ure­thral­ly gored and oc­ca­sion­al­ly miss­ing dig­its, if that’s what it takes. Roth por­trays it as a mark both of shame and of gen­tle­man­ly re­fine­ment to have your wife or hus­band be in­formed in this man­ner that you have been il­lic­it­ly vis­it­ing the sex orc, but the glimpses that he al­lows us in­to the pub­lic lives of the fam­i­lies are just enough to tan­ta­lize be­fore he re­turns to his pre­ferred sphere — the claus­tro­pho­bia of the boudoir. Pe­riph­er­al char­ac­ters will oc­ca­sion­al­ly com­ment on how the un­speak­able hor­ror of their sit­u­a­tion is in­evitably tem­pered by the pride that one’s spouse is a vir­ile, vi­tal, and phys­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful enough to take on this kind of ex­pe­ri­ence; an op­ti­mistic out­look that one sens­es on­ly Roth could pull off with a straight face. His pity in­stead lies with the rich men and women who, hav­ing been eject­ed from their homes, ap­pear in Jaz­abaal’s par­lor and break down in front of the orc who ru­ined their lives, un­able to break down in front of any­one else. But pity is ul­ti­mate­ly short lived and in short sup­ply in Roth’s Antwerp, and Jaz­abaal re­sponds in the on­ly way ap­pro­pri­ate: by kick­ing them in the head, re­triev­ing the jagged yet pli­able car­ti­lage dil­do from the vel­vet-lined case (swift­ly be­com­ing a fa­mil­iar trope for late-pe­ri­od Roth) and drag­ging them to the bed­room by whichev­er wretched body part first comes to hand. Of­ten ac­cused by his crit­ics of hav­ing no feel for women or orcs, Roth, like his tit­u­lar dom­i­na­trix, seems de­ter­mined to beat out these no­tions in the kind­est way possible.

Filed under Books on April 10th, 2015

Care to Share?

Consider posting a note of comment on this item:


Previous Post


Next Post


Join our Irregular Mailing List

For very occasional ramblings, word about new print ephemera, and of course exciting investment opportunities.