The Box by Mel Johnson (Barry Malzberg), Oracle Books, 1969
Stylistically, The Box is the same as the other Oracle title, A Way with All Maidens: no chapters, just one long narrative with a few scene breaks. Thematically, however — except for being marketed as a “sex book” — this is 180 degrees different than Maidens, yet it is also similar: it is set in the past, the 1900s this time, narrated by William Jenniungs, a solider in some sort of military unit that is in conflict with “the Indians.” At first we think this might be the calvalry vs. the American Indians, but a few pages further in, we realize the action takes place in India, and this is a British military unit enforcing colonial rule, fighting against rebels who want to oust Her Majesty’s reign.
So this is a historical “sex” novel, with hints of political commentary, such as discussions about British culture vs. Indian culture and worldviews:
The “colonel” is a bombastic leader who, like many Malzbergian men-in-charge, is quite possibly on the brink of insanity. The narrator is screwing his wife without the colonel’s knowledge; she seems to be cheating on him as revenge for pulling her away from civilized London and forcing her to spend time in the barbaric India.
The sex is plenty and graphic and like Maidens and Southern Comfort, doesn’t ring true to the historical dialect. Does it matter for these kinds of books? In Malzberg’s case, it winds up being funny and you wonder if he meant it that way, as if making fun of the whole form of “historical erotica’ like the many faux Victorians published…
The Box is a rare and pricey book to find, one of the many must have Mel Johnsons for Malzberg fans out there.