Scent of Your Breath|
I could make a career out of feeling blue \ dress in black and read
Camus \ smoke Clove cigarettes and drink vermouth \ like I was seventeen
\ That would be a scream’
The above words, from The Magnetic Fields’ song ‘I Don’t
Want To Get Over You’, are ones that must resonate strongly with Melissa
Panarello, the precocious writer behind the Melissa P. persona. Her
Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed caused an international
stir with its frank and graphic descriptions of the sexual degradations
of an Italian schoolgirl, provoking an abstinence warning from a shocked
Pope before Panarello had even turned eighteen. The sort of people who
spend their lives in a permanent state of being aghast were aghast at
scenes of group sex, voyeurism and various other activities that the Sun likes to write in bold letters, told from the mouth of a 14-year-old
girl from a respectable Catholic home.
There is less of that sort of thing in the book’s sequel
and, thankfully, even less of its snigger-inducing euphemisms (‘his
lance’, ‘my fireplace’ etc.). We pick up where we left off with
Melissa, now a successful author living in Rome, dumping the hilariously
embittered Claudio – her redemptive true love of the last book – for
the secure loving arms of the older intellectual Thomas, only to throw
it all away in a fevered bout of jealousy.
Panarello is clearly a gifted young writer of considerable
skill, and she has perfected the narrative voice of a self-absorbed,
world-weary and ever-so-pretentious teenage girl. One moment she is
talking about the ‘fat arse’ of the Coliseum, the next she is
girlishly talking about her lover imprisoning ‘my breath in a glass
jar…which he sniffs every time he makes love with me.’ Like most
teenagers she is fascinated and disgusted by sex, confused by her own
desires but ruthlessly aware of adult hypocrisy.
The problem is that if One
Hundred Strokes was like losing your virginity – fumbled, furtive
but unspeakably exciting – then The
Scent of Your Breath is exactly like having sex for the second time:
it makes you wonder what all the initial fuss was about. After all,
thousands of teenage girls probably keep diaries that sound exactly like
this one, yet they do not turn into international bestsellers.
The simple fact is that there is nothing more boring than
someone else’s self-obsession, and it does not help that Panarello’s
style – short chapters depicting largely unconnected snapshots –
resembles a series of the hyper-artificial exercises they teach you on
creative writing courses. Melissa does not have sex with Thomas for
pleasure, she does it to ‘heal his wounds’; later on she imagines
her perceived rival as a talking dragonfly because, well, it’s a
metaphor for…something. She even squeezes in a brief chin-wag with the
tapeworm that just plopped out of her lower intestine. If this, as her
supporters would have us believe, is a ‘poetic’ style, then poetry
is in a lot worse state than we first thought.
The second major flaw is that, while the novel convincingly
conveys the sense of a lonely and damaged character intent on
self-destruction, it is not entirely clear why we are supposed to care.
The idea of obsessive desire as a substitute for a deeper spiritual or
emotional emptiness was already explored in One
Hundred Strokes and is scarcely developed further here: other than
to demonstrate that heaven knows she’s miserable now.
It is interesting - given that Melissa’s sexual encounters
are mostly grubby, cold, cruel and unsatisfying - that her first novel
was heralded as an ‘erotic masterpiece.’ The only explanation that I
can muster for this is that she is not writing to titillate the average
reader of, say, the Erotic Review,
or even Nuts. Her target
audience is instead paranoid parents who have no idea what their kids
are getting up to, and bored teenagers whose carnal knowledge is taken
mostly from late night repeats of Eurotrash.
It is a genre that has been going ever since the Marquis
de Sade, and through which the likes of Brett Easton Ellis have made
their fortune. Look at what the youth of today are getting up to! Sex!
Drugs! Smoking! Postmodern explorations into the relationship between
author and narrator! The horror!
The curious thing about this genre of fiction is that it
masquerades under the pretence of being edgy, controversial and
shocking. But in reality, underneath all the cunts and cocaine, there
beats a heart just as delicate and conservative as Mary Whitehouse’s.
The major difference is that whilst previously you could get away with
just about anything as long as it was clear that what you were
discussing was fictional, now the revelation that James Frey’s
‘autobiography’ was really fiction all along generates outrage.
The press release that accompanies the novel promises us an insight into ‘soul-destroying talent.’ That phrase alone is deeply worrying. Self-destruction is indeed an art, and one that often goes hand-in-hand with creativity. But talent itself can never be inherently destructive – that’s the nature of it. I can only hope that Panarello is young enough to realise this, and that the crushingly dull Melissa P. is not the thinly-veiled self-portrait that her publishers want us to believe in. If so, she might go on to discover whether she has a talent that could destroy her. If they are indeed the same person, then The Scent of Your Breath is a pretty dire suicide note.