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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zarina Zabrisky We, Monsters. Numina Press, San Rafael California, 2013 (300 pages)

Zarina Zabrisky's first novel We, Monsters is a complex and unique narrative, told from the point of view of a woman we only get to know as Mistress Rose, her working name. She is a dedicated 38 year-old wife to Luke and is the mother of three kids- Nick, Olga and Roxanne. To gather material to complete a novel about her sister, Rose takes on a job as a dominatrix in San Francisco.

Rose’s interest in the boudoir is initially purely for research purposes. She takes on the job with the understanding that there will be a bit of “bondage, spanking, that kind of stuff” but “no actual sex.” She is told that her job is not to cure her clients but to “keep ‘em coming back for more.” As Zoe, a fellow worker explains to Rose early on, “We’re their fantasy, and we tell them whatever they want to hear.”

As a young woman in the Soviet Union, Zabrisky was approached by a KGB official "to become a hard currency prostitute and spy" which she apparently declined. This scam, as Zabrisky discovered years later "was widely used to control foreigners and their activities in the Soviet Union." Zabrisky uses this incident within the novel, in particular, in the chapter 'Sinking Boats' in which she reveals to Mike the Motherfucker "the darkest secret of her life," to develop Rose's backstory.

Zabrisky wants to make it absolutely clear that her novel is a work of fiction: "I have a lot of readers imagining that my novel is a memoir. It's not- I never lived in Odessa, people described have never existed, the novel is pure fiction...The circumstances under which I have been offered a spying/ sex job were completely different. Yet I've done a lot of research and spoke to enough people to know that the scene in the novel could have happened in reality."

In the boudoir's dungeon, Madame Rose learns to satisfy the aberrant sexual fetishes of her clients. The dungeon's owner "Mommy", who is rumoured to have a Ph.D in psychology, has been in the business for over thirty-five years. She keeps a file system of cards which records each of her client's sexual preferences.  

Elf Paul thinks he is nine inches tall & likes to jerk off when Rose talks to him about how her boyfriend is going to piss into his mouth. The 70 year-old Gene imagines he is a foreign spy who enjoys being kicked and tortured by beautiful girls “in a KGB way.” Other colourful characters, although we never meet them directly, include Carl the Shit-Eater, Carolyn, a transvestite, who prefers menopausal women & Leo the Fish who is into drinking used tampons as tea bags. The main focus of the novel is not on these odd characters but rather on Rose coming to terms with the dark days of her past.

In regard to the creation of her character Rose, Zabrisky's confides, "She is ambiguous. Her childhood sexual abuse and traumas leave her split and distorted, distant and emotionally numb. I have seen these conditions in many women, especially with Eastern European background, and I feel compassionate. I wanted to bring to the world this bleak, rejected and broken underworld as it is a part of being human, to me.Whether I succeeded, is for the reader to decide. Everyone has a world inside."

The novel consists of dozens of short anecdotal chapters. The structure of the narrative alternates between Rose’s job in the dungeon, her normal family life and flashbacks to her childhood in Odessa in the Ukraine. 

We learn in Dr Michael H. Strong’s first footnote in the opening chapter 'I Will Become A Dominatrix' that Rose’s unpublished manuscript was delivered to him shortly after she disappeared from the Bay Bridge: "I have every reason to believe that Mistress Rose is indeed dead. I had never met her or heard about her until the black envelope appeared at my office desk with a note : Institute of Human Sexuality. To Dr. Strong from Mistress Rose. Publish my writing, Mike." Dr Strong decides to publish her novel because it will further his lifelong effort to propagate “the freedom of sexual expression.” 

The fictitious Dr Strong is a devote adherent of Freud and he meticulously footnotes Rose’s narrative several dozens of times through his narrow Freudian prism. By way of example, in ‘A Spy Fantasy’ the client Gene fantasies he is a Cold War spy and gets off at the girls kicking him in the back of his legs until he collapses which enable them to “look for money that he’s hidden." 

This quote is followed by a footnote which reads: “The money is the equivalent of feces, and Gene’s deviation is rooted in a possible arrest at the stage of toilet training. Sex is purchased, similar to the bargain of his early childhood: “You go to potty and Mommy will love you. You don’t go potty, Mommy won’t love you!” Feces are the first “gifts” or “savings,” the first creative expression of oneself, the first power act that a child can give or withhold.”

The footnotes were edited by Zabrisky’s life-long friend, the psychoanalyst Dr Katherine Zubritsky, who also wrote the Introduction to the novel which can be found on the Amazon link below. It is significant that Zubritsky infers that Dr Strong is a “half mad Doctor”, as a satirical caricature of a modern Freudian. So in commenting on Rose's Dissociative Identity Disorder and various other mental and deviant ailments is she sending herself up or simply bringing to our attention the flaws and limitations of Freudian theory?

The footnotes certainly add to our understanding the various characters’ motivations but only from a limited perspective. The notes, for the most part, are intrusive and often overly rationalise human behaviour in an inflexible, predetermined & sometimes laughable way. If Dr Strong is essentially a figure of fun why belabour the point so seriously?

Overall, none of the quirky behaviour as described in the novel horrifies, disgusts, arouses or surprises a mature, informed reader. Yet as the climax of the narrative accelerates towards us, the walls to Rose's wavering identity come tumbling down. Through the flurry of footnotes which accompany the accretion of plot details- including the recount of Rose's lucid nightmares & the readers' broadening knowledge of her unresolved childhood issues in her discussions with Mike- the veil to the underlying 'truth' is lifted- & we get to better understand who Rose actually is, & vicariously, also ourselves. We are left numb but paradoxically exhilarated. 

Internet Resources:

Read the Introduction, Dr Strong’s Afterword and the first 14 pages of the novel on Amazon:

Check out Zabrisky's website for information on her books and readings:

Follow more of Zabrisky’s writings in the Red Room here:

Read a review at Curbside Splendor: