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Out of the Factory, Into the Fire

Review of “Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story,” by Mark Matousek

Sex Death Enlightenment, by Mark Matousek

Most grand autobiography travels from innocence to experience, then from experience to wisdom. Mark Matousek’s upsetting memoir is singular in that it never touches on innocence. His divorced mother had sex on the cold tile floor with the hunky fix-it man who was repairing her bath pipes, and so he was conceived. As a small child he was sexually abused by his father, who hit the road and disappeared from his life forever when he was 4. Later, he was sexually abused by his mother, who was alcoholic, depressive and hard. His pretty sister was mauled by a tiger; his nice one committed suicide; and his fat one lost her only child and hid herself away in a gay male subculture. Matousek’s involvement with drugs and crime started early, but not until the age of 14 did he first try his luck as a hustler.

It is hardly surprising that he ended up working as a senior editor at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Perhaps it was there that this absolutely fantastic catalog of misery first took on the aura of “Leaving Las Vegas”-style glamour with which he has imbued it in his memoir. Neither St. Sebastian nor Princess Diana have more fully relished their own travails.

Matousek is actually not without accomplishment, and that can make the starry enthusiasm with which he narrates his addictions seem off-putting. The unspeakable events are stripped of much of their agony by hyped-up magazine-speak; and this emotionally mitigating rhetoric of extremity also compromises our experience of his voyage toward enlightenment. You don’t disbelieve him, exactly, but you feel he got quite a lot of pleasure before he was enlightened and has been really quite unhappy since his enlightenment: If he would only acknowledge these feelings more honestly, this book could be the moving document of a self stripped bare to which Matousek claims to aspire.

That might be less of an irresistible read, though, and Matousek wouldn’t like that. He is, by his own admission, a consummate seducer, and this book leaves you aching with desire: It balances vulnerability and strength, masculinity and softness, despair and redemption in just the right formula to hold you to the page. He makes you feel that if you haven’t been in these incredible chasms of degradation and anguish, you haven’t really lived, and that if you haven’t had a life-changing experience such as his own, you can’t yet die.

Just as all his friends were developing AIDS, but before he found out for sure that he was HIV-positive (there are no bad things that haven’t happened to Mark Matousek, except the onset of disease), he was saved by someone he was supposed to interview, whom he calls Alexander Maxwell, who took him off to visit Mother Meera, the Indian faith healer who works in Germany, and then on to India. Though Matousek’s sleek, sexy prose seems to be selling Mother Meera and India and Hinduism as if he had stock in the joint company that produced them, the revelations to which they led him appear not to have interrupted his solipsism, and his passage to India is by turns theatrical and touristic.

Alexander is the fullest character, exposed as pompous, self-indulgent and physically not quite attractive enough for our Mark, but brilliant and exciting and mad about the boy. You can feel Matousek getting ready to break his heart about a hundred pages before it happens, and the lead up to this apotheosis is probably more heartbreaking than Matousek intends. We are also much drawn to Carole, an ex-New Jersey homemaker who became Matousek’s closest friend and died of complications of AIDS, apparently contracted during her only one-night stand. Her final days are recounted with something approaching real poignancy.

The most truly convincing sign of enlightenment in Sex Death Enlightenment is that Matousek seems to have become nicer by the end of his story.

Many of the revelations in the book are hackneyed, but they are revelations nonetheless, and they are more palatable here than in “The Road Less Traveled,” if expressed somewhat less eloquently than in Walden and with somewhat less of a sense of humor than in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The prose is quick and lively and restless, and the force of a real intelligence can be felt behind it. Matousek’s writing does not feel searingly honest, but it is searingly direct. The quotations from Indian sages are well chosen, though they are all explicated for dummies, as though the very notion of spiritual enlightenment were likely to be alien to readers.

This book sounds unsettlingly like something that would get excerpted in Interview today. The voice that narrates doesn’t seem all that different from the person described; enlightenment may have altered Matousek’s behavior, but it hasn’t altered his paradigm much. It’s now the ’90s and the world has changed and Matousek seems to have changed with it; we’re all (so the glossies tell us) less materialistic, more in touch with the spirit, awakened by AIDS.

Matousek’s participation in this social progress is fine, however–even admirable. He clearly has reasons for having constructed a self so well-defended that it is impenetrable even in autobiography. Though the manner of his descriptions leaves you feeling that “enlightenment” could be Calvin’s newest perfume, there seems to be someone peeking out from behind all the fab slickness who is striving against terrible odds for a reality to hold and call his own, and this effort is fascinating, unsettling, and occasionally moving to watch. There is a struggle here that required courage to undertake and more courage to write about, even like this.

Mark Matousek has, bravely, lived and kept living despite an enormous amount of painful experience. In our talk-show era, packaging pain in these shiny ribbons may be a way of facing death, may even be part of a successful strategy for enlightenment. If this has worked for Matousek, perhaps it will work for some of his readers as well.