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My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up Paperback – October 2, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Elliott's previous episodic novel, Happy Baby, was about a masochistic man, Theo, who was coming to terms with being an abused juvenile. The narrator of these 11 linked tales, usually called Theo, practices "consensual sadomasochism." Over the course of the book, he goes from being down and out in Amsterdam to eventual success as a West Coast writer whose "current friends went to Ivy League schools." In "Other Desires," Theo gets a black eye from Ambellina, who also smothers him by sitting on his face and puts a ball gag in his mouth while they watch Casablanca. In "I'll Love You Back," Theo's writes with the butt plug that girlfriend Eden has ordered him to wear firmly in place. Between Theo's granular descriptions of being hurt and the generic, robo-dom quality of the gals who hurt him (distinguished mostly by thickness of thigh and color of hair), the stories all tend to blur together in a sexual vacuum, with funny descriptions of Theo's improving quotidian in between—which is the point: torture, repetition and teasing are the focus of Theo's life and his work. As Theo explains in "Other Desires": "We've never had sex. We won't have sex." (Oct.)
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"An amazing and beautiful and powerful book.... I can't think of a more courageous writer than Stephen Elliott. At the center of these stories of his degradations is, I think, a rare kind of love. He is beaten until he weeps so that he can be held while he cries. But this book isn't all pathos and blood and sex -- it's also very funny. So Stephen Elliott can do it all -- he can freak you out and he can make you laugh. What more could you want from a writer?" -- Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!
"Stephen Elliott describes the sexual and emotional terrain in a voice that is at once feral and sweet, straightforward and complicated, devastating and funny as hell." -- San Francisco Bay Guardian
"Stephen Elliott knocks my fishnet stockings off." -- Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife
"There's an emotional courage to these stories, and a sense of urgency, that are thrilling to encounter. Elliott writes as if his life depended on each sentence." -- The Believer
"[A] profound, distilled work of art drink it and be transformed." -- Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
"[Elliott is] a master of muted prose.... He conveys unmet yearning with a poignancy that is universal." -- San Francisco Chronicle
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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.
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!