Everything Happened to Susan by Barry Malzberg (Belmont Tower, 1972)

Like A Way with All Maidens, this one is about the dream of acting — sort of.  A young lady named Susan goes to New York to chase the acting dream, “but, the fact is, she has very little talent and no luck” (p. 13).  So she gets into porn — she answers an ad for actors and actresses needed, $100 a day, not knowing it’s for an adult film.  Needing money, and naive enough to believe porn can lead to legit and mainstream work, she falls into it.  A common story told a million times in the lives of porn actresses, and in sleaze books — but this is Barry N. Malzberg, for Pete’s sake, and no one tells a common tale like Malzberg! Things get meta:

In the script, Susan is playing a young girl who has come to New York to look for a legitimate break in show business but instead has been forced into the making of pornographic films to support herself […] she suffers from a deep sense of shame and seeks to degrade herself. All the characters in the film are seeking degradation. In the course of the role, then, she is to have intercourse three or four times, as well as much petting, and one incident of sado-masochism with a tall man holding a whip. (p. 11)

Susan also came to New York several months ago to look for legitmiate work in show business […] she gas been forced into making pornographic films to support herself. Presently she is living with an unpublished writer named Timothy West who feels he is on the verge of a major breakthrough in style and technique but, at the present time, is an assistant supervisor for the New York City of the Department of Welfare […] “You have no idea how doomed the welfare system in this country is,” he told her. (p. 13)

As we know, Malzberg also worked for the NY Dept. of Welfare, resulting in books like The Day of the Burning and The Social Worker.

This was also reprinted as The Masochist, that edition harder and far more pricey to locate than Everything Happened to Susan.

Everything does indeed happen to Susan, in life and in porn — she does every possible type of porn, even beastiality…

They are told the final scene will now be filmed. Susan was [sic] not sure; she has lost some fundamental sense of time. A large, sullen German Shepherd is brought into the working area and Susan is told she will have to copulate with him, preferably in a rear-entry position as this is where he is most experienced. The point of the last scene, the director explains to give her motivation, is to illustrate the utter degradation of the character’s life and the depths to which indiscriminate sex can lead even a respectable person.

The dog is half-dragged on a long chain […] and eyes Susan with suspicion […] She sighs and says that she will do her best. She will try to go through with the performance.  Then she allows herself to be placed in the appropriate position and closes her eyes trying to imagine how the character she is playing would react to the situation.  Remembering her theatrical training, she forces herself deep into the role, thinking of herself as a rather inexperienced, stupid girl who, in search of humiliation, gravitates toward German Shepherds […] In less than than she might have thought, it is over and decides that it has not been that bad. (pp. 23-25)

Some readers may not be able to look beyond the taboo nature of this scene and see just how utterly hilarious it is — in that dark humor way that Malzberg always excels at. C’mon — “remembering her theatrical training”!  A dirctor explaining character motivation in a porn flick?  I hope Malzberg was giggling while he typed away, as I imagined he would have been in 1972.

This book was published the same year Random House put out his masterpeice, Beyond Apollo.  What a contrast!  But as he says in his intro to The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, who truly knows the diffrent roads between Midwood Books and Random House? One day he’s penning a Mel Johnson for Midwood at $900 (note: Belmont Tower was the merger of Belmont Books and Tower Publications, which put out Midwood) and the next he’s writing an SF masterwork for $5,000.

This is a breezy read, with 46 short capters, most 2-3 pages, some even one page, with lots of blank space — essentially a 40,000-word manuscript strecthed out to a 186-page paperback. (In Herovit’s World, Malzberg explains how his hero, a writer, manipulates margins on the typewriter to get a difficult manuscript to come out looking longer tha it is, along with short chapters and paragraphs and lots of dialogue.)  1971-3 was the year of Malzbergian short chapters, as many of his books at the time reveal (Beyond Appollo has 63 chapters, and is 42,000 words).

Pleased with her work, the casting director — bedding her after she’s had all that sex on film with men and a dog — enlists her “talents” for an “epic” film:

…he explains to her, is a massive documentary; the most important pornographic film to date, not that it is dirty at all but rather it will merely use poprnography to involve an audience into some very serious insights into the quality of their lives. The film, he tells her, will be a sexual history of the world from the time of the Garden of Eden to the present […] startling insights will be gained into the preset condition of the world through this view […] it will encompess some seven thousand years of recorded history within a period of eleven or twelve playing hours. The overall theme of the movie is that sexuality is the driving force of mankind and that all diseasters and cataclysms of modernday Americans can be seen as the outcome of sexual frustration. (p. 53)

Malzberg is making fun of pretentious art, or smut that claims to be more than smut but art, with social redeeming value; i.e., bullshit. Susan falls for it, though; she is naive and possibly crazy.

In the first scene, she plays the widow of President Warren Harding in 1924.  She is informed of her husband’s death by a middle aged, fat naked government man who proceeds to have sex with her, to soothe the pain of loss. In one day of shooting, she plays Marie Antoniette, Beethoven’s beloved, and the “dark mistress” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

All the scenes are very short, averaging no more than two to three minutes playing time, and all of them involve sexual activity of some sort. (p. 89)

Everyone seems so damn serious about the movie.  The casting director tells her:

“The industry is at a turning point […] Pornography will either become an art form within the next year or it will collapse […] it is being reduced, again, to its natural audience which, as we all know, is composed of freaks.” (p. 93)

This certainly does reflect the nature of porn films in the early 70s, with Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas playing openly in theaters across the country, and the making of such “art porn” films like Caligula and The Devil in Miss Jones.

So it appears that Malzberg wrote a critique of 1970s porn vs. art attitudes, just as A Way with All Maidens critiqued Shakepeare’s The Tempest. Again, an example of a sex book being more than just a sex book — along with Timothy the writer’s diatribes on the welfare system and the government’s meddling in people’s private lives.

One Response to “Everything Happened to Susan by Barry Malzberg (Belmont Tower, 1972)”

  1. THE DAY OF THE BURNING is one of the funniest books I’ve read.

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