Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown reads from his new book Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible on Saturday, April 16th at 7 pm at the Hugo House. Both of the Seattle Review of Books co-founders, Paul Constant and Martin McClellan, read the book, and it left them with a lot of conflicted feelings. The following is a conversation they had on a Google Doc as they tried to determine what it was about Mary that left them feeling so strangely dissatisfied.
PAUL: One of the worst questions a book reviewer can ask is “who is this book written for? Who did the author have in mind as they made the book?” Frankly, the answer is none of your business, and it’s not your job as a reviewer to read the author’s mind. The only thing a reviewer can really assess is how the book worked for them. Everything else is just speculation.
But I couldn’t shake the question as I read Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus; I couldn’t help but wonder for whom Chester Brown wrote the book. By creating a work of religious scholarship on prostitution in the Bible, is he seriously trying to win over religious experts? Does Brown believe this book will settle an argument, or that it will change dogma within the church about prostitution? Because that seems like an improbable scenario to me.
This is not to say that an interpretation of the Bible is a worthless endeavor. Lots of cartoonists, from Robert Crumb to Joe Kubert, have set out to interpret the Bible in comics form. And there’s a lot to enjoy about Brown’s Bible in Mary. For one thing, his art encourages a distance between the reader and creator, which imbues his figures with a creepy sterility that makes it hard to look away. The detail in Brown’s tiny panels is so finely wrought that it feels almost honed on a microscopic level. His perspective is almost always far away from the figures in the stories, giving the book an aloof and unsettling tenor. It almost feels like a religious satire, except Brown seems to embrace the artifice and the authority of the stories he’s interpreting. He comes across as a seeker, not a scoffer.
Given that Brown’s last comic was Paying for It, a kind of autobiographical manifesto in favor of legalizing prostitution, it seems that his goal with Mary is a sincere continuation of his previously published work. He wants to change opinions about sex workers by any means necessary. There is no need, really, to doubt Brown’s earnestness on the topic. He’s trying to exonerate some of the most famous prostitutes in literary history, and he’s doing so by using the Bible’s own notoriety against itself. As a reading experience, it’s kind of interesting, but it feels sort of hollow, as many agenda-based books do.
MARTIN: I’m reluctant to write about this book, but it’s not so much about audience — on some level every writer is writing for themselves, and I can see how Brown meticulously builds his logic in this comic and may have done it simply for himself, to prove he could make the argument. It's an argument I don’t want to give away, but I’m not sure how I can avoid giving it away in a review, since the big reveal of the book, which he builds to with a surgeon’s precision, is its fundamental thesis. The journalist in me says that avoiding it would be burying the lede, but the reader in me appreciated the progression of his logic.
I’m reminded of this book I read many years ago, when I was interested in religious texts (or, more accurately, works about religious texts, because religious texts themselves are weird, and boring, and loaded) called “The Christ Trial” (yes, there were quotes in the title on the book cover), by Roger Dixon, where an enterprising television producer stages a show trial to put the divinity of Jesus up before a jury. The biggest question before the court boiled down to the immaculate conception. What is easier to believe: that Mary truly did become impregnated by God magically, or that she lied to Joseph about it her virginity, knowing that the penalty at that time for such a sin was being stoned to death? Or perhaps that Joseph loved her and wanted to protect her, and after forgiving her for her lover helped her cock up this story?
It's not hard to imagine, unless your faith is hanging on not imagining it, that Mary had a lover. But what Brown asks us to consider is even a step beyond that.
PAUL: Okay, so Brown is using Biblical scholarship to draw Jesus’s conception into question. That’s fine, I guess, but I don’t know what the point is. Brown is not going to conclusively prove anything having to do with the Bible — he’s just doing literary criticism. And I’m a fan of literary criticism, but the whole tone of this book feels off. It feels like a factual argument based on shifting fictions, like he’s chasing a point that doesn’t exist.
And then you have the form that the argument takes. To me, Mary feels like a jumble of Biblical anecdotes sort of smushed together. It’s not a real, successful argument. As beautiful and interesting as the art is, the content of the book is just someone with a very clearly defined special interest making a case that feels more pedantic than substantial.
Which is fine! There’s an audience for pedantry, especially of the religious sort. But unlike pretty much everything else that Brown has done in his career, Mary feels highly inessential. The distance that Brown has been putting in between himself and his reader over the course of his career has finally become a chasm. All the warmth has been stripped from his art, and I get the impression that Mary might as well have been produced by a robot. (Er, a robot with a strong interest in Biblical references to prostitution.) Not everything has to be warm and likable, of course, but Brown’s comics are starting to drift into this airy realm where a reader can barely recognize the human hand behind the page.
Brown is entering a kind of cartoonist’s uncanny valley, where his art is becoming so refined and so particular that it’s almost stopped being about anything at all. The closest example I can recall is in the documentary Crumb, when Charles Crumb’s comics pages become so dense that they eventually lose all sense whatsoever; his word balloons become filled with meaningless lines, which then take over the work. This is what I get from Brown’s comics now. It feels like a half-hearted attempt at communication. This is why I’m thinking about audience so much when I read this book; I can’t imagine what Brown wants to accomplish, or even who he’s talking to. I suspect he’s deep in conversation with the characters in the book, and that means he doesn’t need or even want my attention as a reader at all.
MARTIN: It is like a robot. But, just that itself has a kind of charm to it, in a way that’s different than your point. It reminds me of all of the artists who lovingly recreate 8-bit computer graphics on a perfect isometric grid. His characters have a kind of video-game acuity, a kind of thumbnail with above-their-size empathy that makes their stiff interactions kind of cute.
Which counters well with the fact that it’s all about prostitutes. In a weird way, it’s a more honest Bible story than the sweet cartoons (Davey and Goliath, anybody?) — and points out the irony of the Bible-thumpers who never actually read this strange and marvelous book. “The Bible is above reproach! What’s that? You want to sodomize the stranger who is my guest? No! I’d never let you do that. Take my daughters instead. Have fun. They’re only women.”
His little automaton prostitutes and johns are all reasonable, measured, and good to each other. They extend trust, and in the end, he’s levelled up to the greatest Bible-as-a-video-game player situation of all: saying that the writers of the bible were talking in code to clearly point out that mother Mary was a prostitute, and that Jesus was the product of such.
Which, in a weird way, is a journey of empathy. Talk about living in a patriarchy — women were literal property who belonged to their fathers or husbands. The sacred prostitute, once a community paragon of godliness, was now wicked. What could a woman with any sense of independence hope to become in that age? What could a woman do without means to support herself? Why castigate them for their horrible lack of options, especially thousands of years after their deaths? Seems like the punishment outlives the crime.
But where Brown undercuts that empathy is the feeling that his interest in prostitution might be less than chaste. There’s always a suspicion with men that you’re being drawn into their fetishes dishonestly. So you squint your eyes like a meme of Fry from Futurama: “not sure if this guy is really concerned about prostitutes, or just trying to bolster his case for wanting to sleep with them.”
But the funny thing is, the idea of Mary being a prostitute doesn’t feel that radical an idea anymore. After Dan Brown, any bible story is open for pop culture to rework at the hands of Aristotelian story-tellers who know that surprise means attention. Even the most ardent Catholic is likely to just shrug and turn away, not convinced, not believing.
PAUL: Exactly. I tend to think of book reviews as conversations with the text. I don’t feel as though Brown is necessarily interested in having a conversation with me. Or with anyone, for that matter — ardent Catholics, Bible scholars, atheists. I don’t even think he’s especially interested in having a conversation with sex workers, though his latest work is all about championing their cause.
Most books that I read, I come away with a feeling that I can’t wait to write about some aspect of the book — a character who appeals to me, a badly turned phrase, the way poems jostle into each other. With Mary, I just felt apprehension, and I felt slightly creeped out. I’m not saying this is a book with no value — let me say again that I think it’s gorgeous, and I think creepiness is certainly a value — but I am saying it is a book that does not seem interested in conversation. And that means it’s a book that doesn’t interest me on an intellectual or emotional level. (And yet, I’ve just written hundreds of words about it, so what does that say?)
MARTIN: The most interesting thing about the book to me is that he pares the comic with a lot of text at the end. In a way, it kind of felt like explaining the joke, like he didn’t trust that his comic could tell the exact story the way he wanted, or that it wouldn’t convince people enough. But, where I found the comics charming and fun to read, the text was detailed and pedantic, in the way of someone trying to lead you through their logic.
And, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that I’m up to my neck in men and their logic, lately. It seems like every conversation we have online is men throwing logic around, trying to put a perfect definable unassailable truth to their beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. But the problem is that logic is only as powerful as rhetoric, and an honest person’s rhetoric is as suspect as a liar’s rhetoric, because a liar can build their house of argument just as ably as a saint. And, of course, rhetorical battles are rarely about the subject at hand, and more about attempts to dominate a conversation.
So this logic falls flat for me. I just don’t care. It’s like Douglas Adams’ joke about the Babel Fish proving the existence of a god who claims he is nothing without faith, and so he explodes “in a puff of logic.” Maybe it doesn’t matter what Mary was after all. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the virgin birth was truly immaculate. Maybe the mystery is the point.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant
Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.
Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox