Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: Tool. by Peter Sotos

This is not going to be an easy book to review. At least part of that is because of who the author is. Peter Sotos was the first US citizen to be convicted of possession of child pornography. That alone will be enough to get most people to write this off. I'm not going to try convince you otherwise if you feel that way. If there's one thing Sotos makes it obvious he hates in Tool., it's apologists.

Tool. was first published by Jim Goad in the compilation Total Abuse in 1995, which collected this novella as well as the zines Sotos published Pure and Parasite. It was again published in another compilation called Proxy: Peter Sotos Pornography 1991-2000 in 2005, which collected five of the books Sotos had published up until then. Just this year, Nine Banded Books published Tool. as a standalone volume.

While Tool. is billed as a novella, it's tempting to see it as more of a short story collection, because the chapters stand by themselves as narratives. Though they are connected by theme.

The first chapter relates the kidnapping and abuse of a ten-year-old girl from the perspective of the abuser.
You're such a pretty girl. You shouldn't cry. Such a dear. Those tears aren't pretty, are they?
Needless to say, it's a very unpleasant read. Between this and his conviction (which is recounted in chapter five of the book), it's easy to think Sotos is simply a violent pedophile. I don't think he is. Sotos seems far more interested in the suffering and loss of the parents of the victimized children than the actual act of abusing children. Much of the first chapter is spent ruminating on the pain the girl's parents will feel from finding that she's been raped and murdered.
Your parents are going to miss you for the rest of their ridiculous lives. They're going to be hurt and be miserable human wastes from this day forward. They are going to grow to hate the very thought of you.
This is even more obvious in chapters four and eight, which are written as letters to the parents of children who have been murdered. Chapter four is a letter from a man who murdered a woman's son. He recounts to the mother how her son was a drug addict and a prostitute and tells the mother that she needs to admit this to herself. As cruel as this is, it shows a deep concern for the humanity of the victim.
Well, I know I've taken up too much of your time, and if I might be so bold, one last time, I suspect your time with Danny was always a mite strained and difficult for you. Hopefully, next time you talk to the press or the parole board, you might mention less about what a great kid gone awry he was and more about how he was pretty much dead before I even got near him.
I think that would be the honest thing to do and more in keeping with a real love for Danny. No use in tarnishing your personal photo book even more than it already is.
Sotos refuses to canonize the young man as a saint because he was a victim of a murder. He demands that the young man's flaws not be swept under the rug simply because of the crime inflicted on them.

Chapter eight is probably the most fascinating, because compared with the previous chapters, it is far less angry and violent and explicit. Yet it is by far the bleakest. It's written as a letter from a stranger to a woman whose child was the victim of a high profile kidnapping, rape, and murder. The letter begins sympathetically enough, but soon he begins to pry into uncomfortable details.
Are your thoughts entirely controlled by this heinous crime and terrific loss? Are even the most menial, knee-jerk tasks now subject to uncontrollable recollections of Lisa? Are all your memories harsh and painful and ugly?
He ends this letter by essentially telling this woman that the best way to cope with her loss is to give up all belief in hope, love, and empathy.
Those things you thought were real before are now too cumbersome and ungainly. Those feelings have to be changed. The lines in your face, the stretch marks on your belly, and the grey in your hair all must attest to something new. Something unplanned and unprepared for. Something that reflects how life truly is.
It seems like in this book of raped children, crack whores, AIDS victims, and gloryhole vistors, you could have no other ending. It also brings us full circle with Chip Smith's statement in the preface of the book that Sotos is best viewed with (in Thomas Ligotti's words) the idea that "the Universe is malignantly useless" as a starting point.

I can't pretend I completely "understand" this book, nor that I read it for reasons beyond a fascination with the subject matter. I don't think Sotos completely understands why he writes what he writes either. He makes this clear in the essay that ends this book called "Mine/Kept".
I need to explain myself and, I swear, I already have.
Though one could argue that there's really nothing to "understand".
I don't think art is a conversation between the reader and the creator. It's an intensely selfish obsession and a personal, internal dialogue. Just exactly like experience.
This is a very difficult book to recommend. Sotos is a powerful writer with a lot of talent, but reading him makes one feel like you've had someone take a shit on your soul. Here is a sample chapter. If you believe it has worth, then you should certainly pick up Tool. If it simply disgusts you and you see no value in it, then skip it.

Buy Tool. by Peter Sotos here. 


Unknown said...

I remember stumbling across this book in an indie bookstore in the 90s! It was in those innocent days before I discovered the Internet, so at the time I was incredibly shocked and appalled. While I can't relate to this material in any way but morbid fascination, I can see how people who are severely emotionally damaged or have somehow been deeply fucked up by life might find catharsis in the abyssal pain within these stories. Writing and/or reading this stuff seems akin to a literary form of cutting, or at least similarly motivated. Great review -- I enjoyed reading it. Or "enjoyed."

Ben Arzate said...

Thanks Edward.

I see what you mean about writers like Sotos being the literary equivalent of self-mutilation.

Anita said...

It's very interesting to see what you zeroed in on as you read this book. I didn't catch the part wherein the speaker in the letter to the crime victim's mother wherein the speaker refused to canonize the murdered hustler. That completely did not register to me because I read the letter through a filter of abuse and taunting and not an absence of sentimentality.

I find it very interesting that we both found Part 8 to be the best part of the book. Great discussion, Ben. I think you make a great case for your interpretation of TOOL.