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The Scent of Your Breath
Melissa P.

David Bowden
posted
18 July 2006

‘Or 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 debut One 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.

 

 
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