DISCLAIMER: This book and my review will offend almost everyone.
Tool. is a hard go. That’s the short of it. In a culture where books are already often marginalized as entertainments or, when not entertainments, as “literature” (a term Sotos hates)—here meaning a kind of artful comment on or discourse with the world—where, at best, the book offers polite critique through lenses that are prescribed by the systems these books claim they challenge—in this culture Peter Sotos will be dismissed outright, both as a writer and as a person, a distinction that’s probably pointless because Sotos has been endlessly vigilant about claiming that, for him, there is no distinction.
That honesty also works to assure he has little footing to stand on in the larger literary conversation. And maybe it should stay that way. I won’t claim it shouldn’t. But all of this leads me to conclude that Sotos may be one of the only writers I can point to, perhaps the only one with so immediate a method, who has made a lifelong project of problematizing the existence of monstrous selves in relation to larger groups: societies, neighborhoods, families. He refuses to deny these selves, refuses to box them up, refuses to refuse access to the components of these selves that exist within his self. And this seriously pisses people off (check out this conversation on the Electrical Audio Message board for tangible evidence)
This reaction, though small, interests me in a number of ways. I’m always curious to encounter ideologies we’ve erected that seem to be beyond taboo. Sex with children, let alone cruel and fatal sex, is a supposedly clear line in the sand, one you do not cross under any circumstances. That Sotos seems interested in using his foot to not only smear that line, but to tunnel into the sand beneath it out onto the other end, elicits active hostility. But, more than this, I’m also curious about why no one seems interested in pointing out the empathy that exists at the bottom, and not just, haters would assume, for the perverts, pedophiles, child murderers, and monsters that populate his work. Certainly, at least in Tool. anyway, there exists a strong, obsessive desire to understand the victim, the impossible other that makes existence excruciating.
Tool. is several chapters made up of first-person accounts of sexual violence, testimonies more than vignettes, which, given the kind of project Sotos has engaged (an easy, though perhaps lazy, parallel would be Sade), makes perfect sense. To have to justify or explain seems more important than the interrogative act. Interrogation exists to be able to explain, to be able to justify, ultimately adding up to what must be an ethical pursuit. For Sade, if the external world’s ethics wouldn’t have him, then he would simply have to construct his own. Sotos does something similar, and, like Sade I suppose, his writing works to underline the inconsistencies that no-one else seems willing to point to. In one particularly amazing chapter, a convicted killer writes a letter to the mother of his victim, asking that she be honest with herself about the fact that her son was not the saint the media made him out to be—that he was in fact a selfish, whoring addict, that he had little love for her and her husband. Though this seems cruel, and it certainly is cruel, Sotos also does something amazing here; he rescues the victim from a narrative that makes both more and less of what he was, that makes him into a sketch to service a particularly embarrassing cultural trend: the canonization of children through frenzied and irrational fear. The victim was no angel. He was a shit. And in being a shit he was also more.
Of course this works both ways; Sotos, in reducing the victim to his most base and human data, also attempts to rescue the monster from the inverse narrative, to rescue the pervert from his status as devil, which, much like canonization for the victim, makes him much less than human, makes him an impossible character in a broken story perpetuated at large.
And what are we to make of this project? How are we to deal with it as Sotos gives it to us? Because he certainly doesn’t give it to us through the polite tropes and trends of literary (again, a word he hates) fiction. Consider the opening chapter:
Do you like making your mommy cry? Do you like that? Huh? The poor fucking woman. You selfish little brat; you cunt. How do you think she feels, huh? Huh, cunt? How terrible you are. How mean. How mean and cruel to your mother you are. Don’t you feel horrible? Making her cry. Making her hurt so badly.
I think you’re absolutely terrible. A fucking brat.
Fucking horrible cunt. Shame on you.
Now there, there. Crying won’t help. You already made your mommy cry. Nothing can help your mom now. She feels very, very bad, and you did it. You can’t change that…cunt. You’re a cunt, and mama’s gonna cry for-fucking-ever. Your mama’s gonna miss you something awful. She will never get over you leaving her and never coming back. You’re killing her.
It’s all your fault.
There’s so much going on here that most readers would refuse, would walk away from. It’s like looking at climbing a fence with rusty wire. And the novella continues much the same way for its duration until the final chapter. As I see it, the final chapter is crucial, the key to Sotos’ project, the window to an empathy that most who assess his work would ignore. Here we have, again, a letter written to the grieving family of a young girl. Ostensibly an expression of condolence, the letter veers into uncomfortable, obsessive particulars that suggest the writer’s interest beyond simple sympathy. Here the writer demonstrates, through the obsession with intimate minutiae, a deep desire to understand, to know a self outside his self. And, at bottom, this seems to be the primary goal of Tool.—to understand how we are broken, and if we share any of the pieces.
Joel Kopplin‘s fictions have been in or are forthcoming from places like Metazen, JMWW, apt, Sleepingfish, and Literary Orphans. He’s from Minnesota.