Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.

Lost Girls, Vols. 1-3 - Alan Moore, Melinda Gebbie Pornography, according to John Soltenberg, tells lies about women but the truth about men. But is that because the genre's inherently flawed, or just because everyone who makes it is so mediocre?

Lost Girls is certainly an effort to say something truthful about women – as well as about men, adolescence, fantasy, freedom and common sense – but it takes you a fair while to get over the sheer chutzpah of using porn to do it. Is it brave? Is it justified?

Is it…is it sexy?

The premise is an interesting, almost Stoppardian, one. Three girls from classic children's stories – Wendy from Peter Pan, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Alice, of Wonderland fame – meet by chance as grown women, in a Vienna hotel in 1914. As they tell each other their stories, their childhood adventures are re-imagined as sexual coming-of-age tales, which all three of them find they still have to come to terms with in some way.

Uncharitably, you could say this is a relatively flimsy excuse for three volumes of hardcore sex. Or you could find yourself wanting to cheer about the fact that someone's taking pornography and trying to do something interesting with it. And if this does have artistic merit (which it does by the way – in spades), does that make it somehow not-porn? Moore and Gebbie seem to have tried to stop anyone thinking of this as anything less: this can't be classified reassuringly as ‘erotica’. They aren't just dipping their toes in here, playing with some of the conventions. This is out-and-out porn. It's like they've rolled their sleeves up, and taken on every stereotype they could think of.

We have boy-girl sex, boy-boy sex, girl-girl(-girl-girl-girl!) sex; sex with children, sex with parents and siblings, sex with animals; consensual sex and rape; sex oral, anal and vaginal; sex with toys. Sex in vast, pullulating groups. Sex alone.

How much any of this turns you on will depend on where your tastes lie, but anyway turning you on isn't necessarily a high priority of Lost Girls. Working out what the priority is exactly is one of the many pleasures to be had here. The systematic way all of these set-ups are worked through in the book makes it seem almost parodic at times; but some serious effort is also being made to work out what artistic effect can be drawn out of a famously un-artistic genre.

Visually, it looks stunning. Gebbie has gone to town in the most incredible way with the period, creating sexy Matisse take-offs, Victorian erotica imitations, parodies of Schiele and Beardsley, and erotic references to the original illustrations associated with these characters. All of this works well with Moore's approach to the material, which is to reinterpret the fairy tales as parables for adolescent sexuality. So the Lost Boys from Peter Pan represent a rich girl's view of the unbridled lust of the working classes; the wonderful wizard of Oz (who of course turned out to be a foolish old man) here becomes an examination of how a daughter outgrows her psychological attraction to her father.

The wish to make all this fucking somehow more meaningful sometimes leads to some fairly ridiculous prose. Here's Alice describing an encounter during the famous first night of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring:

I lanced my tongue in Mrs. Potter's anus, up and fast between the tropic lips into her beast-peach hole. Crowned hot with bronze, American girl heat rubbed shameless as a cat against my thigh. The smash of wet cymbals inside me as the maid surrendered to the sacrifice. I'm weeping.

It's like a letter to Penthouse written by Sir Walter Scott. And the sex itself, however beautifully drawn, can get a bit fatiguing after three volumes of it.

But that aside, you have to give Lost Girls full marks for ambition. Time and again it deliberately throws up challenges to you as a reader, prompting you to question every response you have to the material. Wendy, for instance, worries about the incest which characterises a book they're reading: isn't it wrong to be turned on by stuff which is legally and morally reprehensible?

‘It's an…unngh…exciting story, but the children, doing things with…ungh…with their own Mother! I mean, I have…unngh…a son myself, and I'd never dream…unngh…never dream of—’

‘But of course you would not, dear Madam,’ interrupts the hotelier. ‘Your child is real.’ This book is in part a defence of sexual fantasy, in whatever forms it comes. Perhaps some people might find that disingenuous, but I thought for the most part it was a rare blast of common sense.

Moore also makes the most of the historical context. As well as Stravinsky, we have references to Freud (whose ideas are important to the book), and the imminent war is also significant. At the end of volume three, Moore shows us the trenches, and the stupidity of vilifying sex as compared to violence is left hanging with devastating effect.

Particularly notable is the absence, or at any rate the dismissal, of the guilt which is such a conspicuous aspect of American treatments of sexuality these days. Wendy's story is particularly satisfying from this point of view. She has guilty fantasies about being kidnapped and raped by a strange claw-handed man who preys on local children (the ‘Captain Hook’ figure). When he finally confronts her in reality, she's initially terrified. But the downfall of Hook in the original story is here transformed into a kind of triumphant moment of self-acceptance on the part of his intended victim, as she stops running and turns on him:

‘There was a moment when I suddenly saw everything, myself, the whole terrible situation, with perfect clarity. I could think about what I liked. That didn't mean I wanted it to really happen to me. That didn't mean that anyone could force it on me.’

The worries, the excitement, the moral questioning, the confrontation with guilt: all of these things are experienced as much by you when you read Lost Girls as by the characters you're reading about. The Soltenberg quote I opened with has the following subtext: if you find porn sexy you ought to be ashamed of yourself. This is also the subtext of everything else anyone ever says about it. Isn't it nice for a change to read something whose message is ‘fuck guilt’?

And if the subject matter bothers you, just remember: it's only a story. ‘Fact and fiction,’ reflects M. Rougeur, as he's being acrobatically fellated: ‘only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them.’

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