Review - The Brig
In spite of recent events, the Vietnam War remains one of America's most controversial foreign entanglements. It was the first 'television' war, in which the brutalities of conflict were brought right into people's living rooms every night. The result was perhaps the first time any war was openly debated in American society, and that included the rank and file of the armed forces.
Against this background, the unnamed narrator of “The Brig”, a seminary dropout, joins the navy. However, while he largely enjoys military life, as he is exposed to more and more of the debate about America's involvement in Vietnam, he concludes that the war is wrong and decides to get out as a conscientious objector. The navy can't refuse to let him go, but they can make the eight weeks it takes to process the paperwork as uncomfortable as possible. The young man is transferred to the brig, where his three marine guards subject him to a regime of pain and sexual torture that breaks him down and remakes the 'straight' man into something new.
“The Brig” is a very disturbing story in many respects. Foremost among these is the idea that this book is based on what really happened to the author's long time partner. While the erotic aspects of the story are fiction, given recent accounts of how common rape is in the military, and what may have been done to Bradley Manning during his long incarceration without trial, it's easy to believe that something very much like “The Brig” still goes on routinely in America's military.
Another disturbing aspect of the book is the idea of “conversion.” With conversion therapy, promising to turn gay people straight, in the news the idea of forcibly turning someone gay makes me just as uneasy. The young man of the story is turned from a vanilla straight guy into a quivering pain slut who wants nothing more that to be used as a cum-bucket by his guards while they whip him. The blurb describes this as the narrator “discovering things about himself” and that he does. I happen to support the theory espoused by Kinsey that the bulk of the world's population is neither exclusively heterosexual or homosexual, but somewhere in between. So, it's not unreasonable that the straight-identified protagonist of “The Brig” has a gay side, which is something he ponders towards the end of the story. Perhaps it's just the force that is used to make him see it that makes me uncomfortable.
I also found myself taking issue, a little, with the general description of this book as a “BDSM classic” since I regard non-consensual bondage, whipping and sex as something that definitely isn't BDSM. Perhaps I'm being overly-sensitive on this issue since a few recent reads have led me to believe that some contemporary authors (and I should probably emphasize some) are hiding what comes across as rather deep seated misandry behind a veneer of BDSM. They seem to delight a bit too much in putting their male characters through what are sometimes apparently pointless sexual abuse. Certainly, if the publisher of “The Brig” described this as a book about torture and rape, it would probably attract far fewer readers, and of course all the hot buttons of many gay fantasies are here: military, gang-bangs, S & M and, yes, rape, but maybe it's the basis of the story in reality that has me a little irked by the BDSM label. I fear that such depictions reinforce the view in the 'vanilla' world that BDSM relationships are abusive.
Perhaps what is most disturbing of all about this book, and why labels matter, is that beneath all the issues that this book raises about sexuality, the military, etc. is that it is a deeply erotic work. The author takes us into the mind of the young sailor as he is broken and learns to submit to his jailers. As feelings he didn't think he was capable of are awakened, it's hard not to get aroused. Anyone who dismisses erotica as simply porn with no redeeming value probably needs to read this book. It really is disturbing, thought-provoking and erotic, all at the same time. Those feelings feed each other and make the messages of the story all the more powerful.
Although originally published around 30 years ago, and recounting events that are almost 50 years in the past, “The Brig” is amazing relevant to issues still faced in contemporary society. What's more amazing is that the prescient messages of the book are delivered within some of the steamiest sex scenes I have read recently. This is definitely a book that will stick with me for a while.
Posted in Book Reviews on April 9, 2013