‘Too notorious to breathe’

Sex, violence, and terrible taste collide in a celebrity picaresque

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure,” Pauline Kael wrote in her January 1972 review of A Clockwork Orange in The New Yorker. Her piece was a cast-iron pan to the head of Stanley Kubrick’s widely acclaimed adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, a thunderously disparaging review that helped to establish the terms of the debate around a modern classic. Kael was surely not averse to stylized renditions of violence; two of her most influential, and generous, reviews were of Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, both of which concluded with orgiastic, virtuoso shoot-outs. Their directors, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, had a shared tactic of humanizing their outlaw protagonists and then having them torn apart by bullets, which offered a modern gloss on the visual language and ethos of ancient one-reelers like The Great Train Robbery, indicating in the bluntest possible terms that crime doesn’t pay. For all her carping about the “moralism” of middle-brow Hollywood movies, Kael had a not-so-submerged conservative streak. In the wake of such elegiac gestures, Malcolm McDowell’s sociopathic antihero, Alex DeLarge, grinning at the camera in vampire drag at the close of Kubrick’s film must have struck her as reveling in a juvenile form of gloating: “I was cured, all right,” he smirks, lost in a blood-red daydream.

The sticking point was Kubrick’s humour, which, as always, defined his art. An ironist whose gradual personal hermeticism never quite bled away the streetwise Brooklyn sensibility he’d cultivated in his teenage years as a photojournalist, Kubrick strip-mined Burgess’s book for its sensational elements—its Future Shock setting; its grim vision of government-mandated experiments; its omnipresent brutality—while turning away from its ultimate theme of maturity and redemption. (The story goes that Kubrick never read the original ending, which was omitted in American editions; the film finds Alex grown up and “cured” of his youthful tendencies not by psychotropic drugs but the passage of time.) Kael’s read of A Clockwork Orange as a show-off auteur’s bad-faith atrocity exhibition has not been fully repudiated by the film’s fans. As brilliantly designed and directed—and aesthetically influential—as A Clockwork Orange is, its legacy is one of provocation more than profundity; it has endured the test of time without really improving along the way.

This description also applies to Parnell Wilde, the main character of Lynn Crosbie’s new novel Chicken, a 67-year old actor best known for appearing in a Clockwork Orange-style art horror movie. As the book opens, he’s withering in the shadow of his repulsive, seductive, youthful onscreen alter-ego. “When Ultraviolence, directed by the legendary Lamont Kray, was released in 1976, I awoke and found myself famous,” he recalls. “I was too notorious to breathe, and often found myself pressed against walls, thinking, like an abused animal, I don’t feel safe.” The semiotic gamesmanship is apparent: “Ultraviolence” alludes to Clockwork; Parnell Wilde is a Malcolm McDowell manqué whose surname evokes the physical and moral desiccation of Dorian Gray; “Lamont Kray” hybridizes Kubrick’s mystique with the surname of London’s most famously abusive fraternal gangsters, and so on. Crosbie’s game is not simply substitution, however. Ultraviolence sits in counterpoint to A Clockwork Orange, an “aesthetic sequel,” as Wilde describes it. To hear him tell it with a mixture of guilt, pride, and shell-shocked disbelief, his long-ago star vehicle went further in every way than its predecessor, rewriting the modern history of cinema in blood and forging a generation of ecstatically desensitized acolytes. (What would Pauline Kael have thought?)

This mapping of authentic pop-culture reference points over top of a richly textured, fully fabricated narrative landscape increasingly seems to be Crosbie’s MO. Her excellent 2015 novel Where Did You Sleep Last Night charted the amour fou between a “Wal-Mart Goth” and a stringy mental patient she thinks is the reincarnation of Kurt Cobain; as their affair intensifies, she starts styling herself as the new Courtney Love. Besides reaching out to Nirvana fans with in-jokes and lyrical citations, Where Did You Sleep Last Night burrowed deep inside celebrity skin, tapping deep veins of angst and anger in its wannabe-turned-actual rock star characters; the flowing, overwrought prose, meanwhile, was perfectly tied to the teenage dreams of the main character, while also working well as poeticism for its own sake.

The tension in that book lay between the heroine’s deferential passion for her immortal grunge beloved and her desire to grow as an artist in her own right, and it gave that book much of its power. A similar dynamic plays out in Chicken. Parnell is the story’s narrator and mediating consciousness, but the driving force is one Annabel Wrath, a fashion-model-slash-experimental filmmaker (a twenty-first century Maya Deren, maybe) who gloms on to the aged star and turns him into the subject of a series of viral shorts as well as her lover. The question of whether Annabel is exploiting a sad old man in post-modernist fashion or is in a kind of helpless hypnotic thrall to a long-ago celluloid image is very much open, and Parnell’s confusion about precisely what’s happening, and why, is plangent and funny, although it’s a mordant sort of comedy: stylistically Crosbie seems infatuated here with fleshy excess and decay.

She’s also fixated on violence as sensual pleasure, and on weaponized sex: Chicken is awash in intimations, recreations, and recollections of rape as well as incest, pedophilia, and other forms of abuse. Crosbie doesn’t treat these things lightly, but she’s doesn’t moralize about them either. She has a Kubrickian—or is it Kray-ish?—knack for blending form and content so that it’s either impossible or essential to take offence; there’s no separating what the book is about from how it’s about it, which may drive some readers a little crazy. There’s also a sense in which her work (like A Clockwork Orange and Ultraviolence) feels intended primarily as a provocation, a shot across the bow not only of narrative convention (which it parodies and defamiliarizes through its breathless episodic pacing) but also of good taste. In some ways, Chicken’s increasingly picaresque story is in very bad taste. But Crosbie’s palette is exquisite, a mix of rich textures and bleak, unadorned realism. “Her face is a Turner of purple storms cut with black ships, with a sluice of red dawn,” Parnell muses ecstatically of his lover.

Parnell and Annabel’s variably white-hot and bruised sex life provides Chicken with one major strand of connective tissue; the other is its satire of a contemporary mediascape in which wretched excess is not merely in ascendance but has settled on top, with nothing to dislodge it. Murder, extortion, and public scandal figure in the plot, which only really kicks into gear with the return of Kray, a great, obscene villain who isn’t really all that much like Stanley Kubrick in the end. (He’s less an icy, ironic intellectual than a sociopathic monster.) Whether or not it’s actually believable that Parnell, who as the book opens is reduced to doing commercials in a bird costume (the literal source of Crosbie’s double-entendre title) would become a megastar by revisiting his signature role, his comeback gets at something very true about how celebrity can seem even more incandescent when it’s faded.

The aging sex god in decline is a base cliché redeemed, and elevated, by how far Crosbie plunges down the rabbit hole of Parnell’s cravings, fetishes, and insecurities—once again, without judgment, although her protagonist’s self-loathing can seem pro forma, especially when there’s so much of it. Redundancy is perhaps an issue here.

Chicken is hardly the first novel to suggest that fame is a monster or that popular culture can (and perhaps must) reshape individual and collective fantasies in its image; nor is it the first depiction of damaged souls clinging to each other until death do them part. It certainly won’t be the last. As much as I enjoyed Where Did You Sleep Last Night as a heightening and reclaiming of the young adult/slash-fiction form, its intensity eventually grew wearying, and I’d say that Chicken gets tired even more quickly. (This diehard Kubrick fan also wasn’t convinced that Annabel’s analysis of A Clockwork Orange, revealed in excerpts from her unpublished manuscript, was totally on point.) But the novel also keeps rallying through the sheer force of its author’s desire to turn on and unnerve, sometimes in the space of a single phrase. Crosbie writes as though she has a fever. By the end of Chicken, she may not be cured, all right, but she’s definitely sweated something out.