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My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up Paperback – Aug 23 2006
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As a reviewer, I am faced with the challenge of communicating how powerful Elliott's narrative is, without just cutting and pasting an entire short story right here. My personal proclivities do not include the S&M lifestyle, but Elliott was able take me inside the mind of a lost, painfully confused, desperate man seeking sexual release and affirmation via domination by beautiful, powerful women. The sexual escapades, Elliott has stated in interviews, are all true, and they are recounted in intense, fervent detail. Elliott seeks sex in Amsterdam, Berlin, and ultimately San Francisco. He strips for money, exchanges sex for money and drugs, engages in long-term relationships with a woman who has a husband and a slave on the side in addition to our author, has weekly appointments for domination, and again, and again, desperately seeks submission to the next level of pain and helplessness. Along the way, he gives the reader a glimpse of the sexual and emotional abuse from his childhood, but always in a straightforward manner with nary a trace of pity.
Elliott is not writing for shock value, but for truth and beauty in his quest for pleasure and love. Beauty, in this case, is bittersweet, but still poetic and sincerely moving. Trust me--the best introduction to Elliot is to dive in to the first chapter. You won't be able to put this story collection down, though, so buy his book before you try out the first chapter. I finished it in one evening. I was reviewing an advance copy, and I usually pass those along to friends or the library, but in the case of this book, it is becoming a treasured part of my library. I'll also be purchasing a few copies for friends.
Looking forward to the next collection, Mr. Elliott!
"She was straddling me in her blue jeans when she said, "I'm not your father." She was still angry about something I had suggested, or that I had hurried her out of the bar and she hadn't finished her drink. It was all made up. A game. But I started to feel sad when she mentioned my father. I have such an awful relationship with my father. Aren't you supposed to forgive and forget stuff? I was thirteen when I left home. It's been seventeen years since he caught me and beat me and shaved my head and the state took custody and I became a ward of the court. We try to mend things but I get these letters from him and it's just too much. He thinks he's the victim. Like I have victimized him by making him out to be such a horrible father. But he was a horrible father and I spent a year, a full year, sleeping on rooftops and in hallways and eating out of garbage cans and all he remembers are the times I came home to shower, proof that I didn't have it so bad. I was only thirteen, then fourteen..."
Many of Elliott's stories revolve around this same basic relationship: a man and a woman who don't have sex (at least in the traditional sense) but instead reenact cycles of hurting and being hurt, or as Elliott puts it, "The idea of two people finding each other. A person who wants to be hurt and another who wants to hurt someone." At the same time, there is a progression throughout the book as he moves from the random dangers of his early, uninformed experiences through the highly ritualistic S&M scene found online and finally to his healthiest relationships, which are still different from social norms but also contains elements of love and happiness not found in his earlier experiences.
There's a great sadness to many of these stories, but there's also a sexy swagger and a hopeful soul that stylishly carries the reader through those darkest moments. Equal parts erotica, memoir, and fiction, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up is easily one of the finest collections I've read this year.
First off, great title! Truly great. Secondly, alas, it's also a bad book on which to hang that great title. In fact, although I know I'll take heat for saying this--boy oh boy I just know I will---this collection of pseudo-autobiographical short stories about the author's self-congratulatorily deviant sex life is barely readable. The stories here are unevenly laid out, way too egocentric, and they rapidly become tiring with their progression of one set of buttocks after another beaten in pursuit of erotic gratification. In fact I'll wager that if you were awestruck by these stories, then odds are you're probably under twenty-five and haven't been exposed to a lot of truly good writing in this particular field.
Page thirty-one: "She wanted to hit me across the back with a chain. But still, even as I'm missing her, and knowing that I will see her again, the question stays with me. The idea of two people finding each other. A person who wants to be hurt and another who wants to hurt someone. We've never had sex. We won't have sex. I've never seen her naked. I just don't understand where it comes from that someone could say such a thing."
Now imagine a couple hundred pages of this sort of prose and subject material and you'll see why I didn't think this short story collection was all it was hyped to be. I mean, come on, couldn't you write better than that? Couldn't most English majors you know?
Yeah, I know, it's rude to rip up on someone's memoir-esque prose but it's also annoyingly apparent to me that Elliot deliberately tried too hard to be shocking (don't try to tell me he didn't) and completely failed to be, and there's no excuse for the sort of intentional heavy-handedness he put out there. Also the author's much-expressed father issues bleed through so often they simply sound whiny. Honestly, just because a book deals with a subject outside the mainstream, stands to joyfully offend some uptight people, uses a lot of profanity, and has a slightly artsy, albeit pretentious, attempt at an edge, that doesn't necessarily mean it's any good.
Before anyone starts in with the "you didn't get it/you must be repressed" rebuttals, let me say I don't condemn any sexual viewpoint this side of child molestation, and judging by the wide ranging books I read, books on just about every conceivable subject, fiction non-fiction, you name it, I think I can humbly suggest I am open-minded enough to grasp diverging points of view. That said, I couldn't see anything redeeming here. It's a lot of anachronistic retro-Gen-X-style complaining of the "poor me, I am so misunderstood and life my is hard" stripe, with graphic, badly-penned S&M montages tossed in. And while on that subject, what makes Stephen Elliot truly think anyone wants to read second-by-second accounts of his (apparently thinly fictionalized) forays into bondage, discipline, abject physical humiliation, prostitution, and the repeated insertion of foreign objects into his body cavities? Like literary junk food, enough was soon enough.
There was no art here in this book, scant talent, and the whole mess read like middling first-year creative writing "I'm gonna try and shock you" fare. Save yourself a waste of time and money and go read something else. Odds are whatever it is, it's going to be better than this.
Sigh. Okay, I've laid it on thick, so I'm ready, let the negative comments flow...
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.