Once again, my good friend Tom Powers, co-author of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, is helping me out with a review. This time around, the book is titled Theatre of Incest. Hmm...
Alain Arias-Mission’s short novel Theatre of Incest (Dalkey Archive Press, 2007) presents a man who indulges in a lifetime of incest with his closet female relatives. As an apprentice being introduced to the dark art of incest, the narrator learns the ropes of control and submission from his mother – a delineation chronicled in the first part of the novel. In the subsequent part, we witness how the narrator takes on his own incestuous apprentice – his daughter – and initiates her into a world of unbridled, graphic sexual acts. The final part then shows our sexually intrepid narrator find a strong counterbalance, both mentally and physically, in the form of his sister, whom he deems his “sweet witch.”
The term “witch” appropriately channels the tone of the novel, whose back cover copy calls a “primeval fairy tale” that “burns with icy passion.” To be honest, Theatre of Incest is a read best suited for lovers of poetic language, and, more importantly, for readers who honesty possess open minds. Arias-Mission’s words dance on the page as his narrator shares his life with us – sans dialogue or multiple perspectives. This approach could lead some readers to wonder if the narrator is indeed an unreliable one – but the author’s words are so seductive and the twisted, erotic world he crafts so beautiful and shocking, that the reader will often be caught up in the flow of events instead of wasting too much time judging the man.
Since Arias-Mission’s approach to his subject matter does not pretend to pass a moral verdict upon his narrator, or hint that the man’s actions are in any way mitigated by mental illness, one may seek to understand why he wrote this book. Perhaps the author is inverting Freud’s tired-and-true “Oedipus Complex” in a working metaphor applicable to our contemporary, complex family relations. Instead of repressing sexuality, a la Freud, in an emotional mishmash with his mother, daughter, and sister, the narrator, then, freely transgresses these boundaries in his attempt to understand these women better. However, in the absence of sexual repression, jealousies still arise, and the eternal power struggle between men and women is continued on a sexual stage Arias-Mission at one point literally presents as exhibitionist theatre. Likewise, he may be telling us that the various roles we may hold in our life as children, siblings, and parents will always confuse and delight us in manner that is more intimate than our most intense sexual relations.
Just as Arias-Mission does not offer easy answers concerning his character’s actions, it is probably fitting that this reviewer refrain from further trying to theoretically troubleshoot this sexually and emotionally daring novel.
Review by Tom Powers