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Whore

by Nelly Arcan, Bruce Benderson, trans.

In the late 1970s, just as fame was showing her the door, author Xaviera Hollander – AKA The Happy Hooker – made an unhappy observation: “Everybody wants to know where we bad girls come from, but not where we’re going.” In the case of Nelly Arcan’s prostitution memoir/novel Whore, the reader is told exactly, and often, where the author is coming from.

This very small book is almost entirely taken up with dreams, obsessions, and judgments, plus feverish monologues on incidents from her childhood. Written in a rambling, blog-like style, the book tries for a sort of melancholy lyricism, and only occasionally succeeds. Interestingly, there’s almost no sex, and precious few characters or settings.

The book starts with Cynthia – the narrator and Arcan stand-in – complaining about her childhood. Although she doesn’t seem to have been physically mistreated, everything about her ranting, Bible-thumping father and her repressed, bedridden mother inspires total loathing. As she grows up, the differences between girls and boys make her confused and angry, and the prospect of an ugly old age – the wrinkles, the flab – kills any chance for happiness.

Thinking about the injustice of it all – why do women have to be attractive, while men don’t? – literally makes her throw up. Cynthia also hates her Quebec hometown, a Catholic cul de sac that squeezes the juice out of people. It’s all hell – so, naturally, a pretty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl such as Cynthia has little choice but to go to college, work in a bar, and become a call girl. And not just any call girl, but a “very in-demand high class whore.” Cynthia really hates herself, but she also really loves herself.

So readers get tracts of depressed prom-queen sentiments: “I’d love to tell you about the splendour of landscapes and setting suns, the smell of lilacs and everything else … but I’m too busy dying.” Whore is 170 pages of cherished scars and wounds, displayed over and over again: Catholicism is a con thought up by men; Dad is a hypocritical idiot and secretly wants to sleep with his daughter; women are only as good as their looks.

Worse, Whore fails to deliver on the one issue that will bring many readers to the book in the first place: the man thing. Insights about men and retail sex are always interesting, but Arcan is determined not to put out. Her ho-hum views might have been cribbed from the pages of Reader’s Digest. Presumably even Arcan’s favourite targets – blinkered Quebec townies – know that men go to hookers when they and/or their wives have lost interest in each other; that lots of johns are foreign and/or marginalized in some way; and that sex workers almost never kiss.

Arcan comes up with a couple of memorable observations about her suit-and-briefcase clients – they’re “dogs pretending to be businessmen” – but on the whole the book adds little to the hooker canon.