Book Review: A Pornography of Grief

A Pornography of Grief
by Philip Huang

Philip Huang is a character. A performance artist in Berkeley, the Oakland Local called his performances "loud, brazen and full of sarcasm..." Across the internet, you can videos of him making a scene in public, masturbating to a bible, among other things.. In 2010, he started the Home Theater Festival, which he founded based on the principle of eliminating art administrators from the work, distrupting hiearchy in the art world, empowering artists. Huang is also known for this:

One would naturally expect an exuberant first book filled with experimentation. While this is present in many of the stories in A Pornography of Grief, Huang is at his best depicting the quiet complexities of death for those who must live on--the stories after the death. To Huang these are the stories worth telling for death has always been the problem of the living.

In "Pineola Inn," the first story of the collection, family members of accident victims wait as their love ones are in comas in a nearby hospital: "I've read up on people in comas," says one character. "Do you know what they do? They have wonderful dreams...they dream and dream." Death and dying, it seems, is easy. It's living that's hard. Living is surviving. His characters are survivors though oddities and eccentrics. They're parents and lovers, men and women. Widowhood is a common theme for it is the widow who must cope with the loss of bonds of intense intimacy. Huang depicts perfectly, devastation. From "The Widow Season":

I once saw a picture in one of Paul's books of two children clinging to each other on a bare floor, like two little monkeys. "That so sad," I'd said. "What wrongs with them?"Paul told me those children were in an abuse shelter. They were comforting each other. I took his face into my hands and kissed him. A month later, he came down with a cold that took him out for two weeks.
I never gave it a thought. It was just a cold. No big deal.
This morning I made a pile of Paul's shirts and curled into it like a little monkey.
When Elizabeth knocked at noon, I pretended I wasn't there , wasn't there at all.

It isn't just the grieivng of loss bodies, but the grieving of brief moments of anticipation, of innocence, of identity--for what are you after the death of someone you've been attached to? Your identity, Huang cites, is muddled. Without children, one is no longer a mother, one can't become a child again once one's innocence is taken away, one will always be the widow without one's husband. His characters are not only grieving--they're bored and they're angry and they're afraid. They lash out, they run away. Yet surprisingly, many of them overcome (to a certain extent). The mother lets go, the betrayed forgives both themselves and their wrongdoer.

Huang writes in fragments and his stories work as miraculous puzzles. He offers glimpses of what has happened, and once put together, the whole is greater than its oarts. Huang can be skillful--he's funny, sacrastic, observant of very human moments. Despite some experimentation (some of which fail on the whole), Huang proves to be a writer in the tradition of loss and human resilience. Instead of reworking themes, he expands them, looks at them closer and head-on. This is why when his stories hit you--with their elegant terseness and sense of loss told so frankly and intimately--they hit.

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