The real question in Stephen Elliott's short story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up is not whether these tales are autobiographical or not (though Elliott admits that many are true, or mostly true, in his introduction), but whether Elliott, as narrator, consents to, and likes or does not like, the kinky acts described herein. In powerful, waste-no-words prose, Elliott takes readers on a guided tour through the underbelly of San Francisco and into his narrator's sex life, mental state, and troubled childhood. The city of the book's title plays a major role in these stories, but Elliott is clear to distinguish his version of BDSM from the "safe, sane and consensual" model best embodied by the City by the Bay's kinksters. This distinction is explicitly stated several times throughout My Girlfriend Comes... and the power dynamics behind his interest in kink are what make this an emotionally compelling, disturbing and vital read. Each tenet of "safe, sane and consensual" is revisited again and again until it's anyone's guess which side the stories fall on.
During the scenes Elliott describes, he often asks questions for which there is no answer. In the title story, his girlfriend comes to visit and duly beats him up, but it;s her words that leave the harshest blows. When she says "I'm not your mother reincarnate," his immediate reaction is: "And I'm thinking why would she say that? Who would say such a god-awful thing," then later, "I didn't check the box that says 24/7. I didn't sign up for this kind of lifestyle. I didn't want this. But I don't know what I want, I never have. And she's always been honest with me, and I've done nothing but lie to her. Then I'm crying more, and soon I can't stop crying." He pushes himself into unfamiliar situations, constantly questioning them and what he wants from these scenes. Through outthe book, it's clear that BDSM is both a physical act and a pathway to some emotional salve. He looks to strong, dominant women to steer him toward where he should go. In the opening story, "First Things First," set in Amsterdam, he writes, "She didn't ask what I liked, which was good because I had no idea what I liked or what I was into or what I wanted to do or wanted done to me." This theme reappears even as he gains knowledge about why he craves submission and what he prefers, much of which involves offering himself to women to take, test, and hurt him.
Elliott throws traditional erotica to the wind and complicates matters, mixing emotional pain and physical pleasure, and vice versa, until it's often unclear where one ends and the other begins. He doesn't seek to separate sex and kink from Real Life, so in the middle of a story about wearing a gas mask, he jumbles together his suffocation wth what's happening beyond their limited play space: "We don't know that her husband has been leaving messages on my phone. Her mother is OK. Her mother doesn't have cancer. It's just scar tissue. The phone is turned off. I can't breathe and I'm shaking my head, no no no no." The words rush at the page until finally she praises him with "Good boy," and for the narrator, "It's the only thing in the world worth hearing." It's these absolute statements of pure, raw need, the kind that we so often cover up but here Elliott thrusts forward, as if opening a Band-aid to reveal red, tender skin, an act he's compelled to do again and again, that make this slim volume a keeper. In the same story, he moves seamlessly from his lover, Eden, hitting him so hard that "[t]he animal I sound like doesn't exist yet" to being hit by his father, the two permanently entwined, one consensual, one not. It's this admission'that there is no unraveling his abusive childhood from his chosen masochism'that is both startling, brave, and often uncomfortable (in the best way possible) to read.
In his introduction, Elliott writes of the political necessity for sharing our sexuality, especially of the BDSM variety, with the world: "It is in everyone's best interest for more people to be open about their sexual desires." While I happen to agree with him on that score, these interconnected stories lack the over-the-top blaring messages of propaganda, and offer a different motive: to make sense of, and simply declare, that he exists, that he is not succumbing to any forces other than his own will. Even as he writhes in pain, he points out that it's pain he wants, and will struggle and fight for.
Elliott's writing is straightforward and direct, but no less powerful for its simplicity. The themes repeated throughout the stories, of searching, connection, disappointment, desire, and love, echo strongly by the end. He doesn't apologize for the desires that drive his protagonist, even when they get him in over his head. Perhaps the political message here is that even if what we want and need sexually is not truly safe, sane or consensual, it's our right to pursue it, to pursue pain that may not necessarily bring clarity, pleasure, or wisdom, that may in fact simply invite more pain; in Elliott's world, that pain is a prism through which to see himself anew. These stories will likely make you flinch, recoil, and marvel not just as Elliott's ability to transform his past into an aggressively kinky present, but also his remarkably simple yet ruthlessly honest way of bringing sex onto the page, not as simple titillation or sensationalism, but as part and parcel of the drama, pain, and work of life itself. By pushing readers, and himself, into the darkest places he can go, he shines light on the often-hidden lives of submissive men and forces us to confront all the ugliness and beauty contained therein.