Friday, 14 December 2007
Wardog reviews Colette Gale's Unmasked
For the love of God, why did I read this? Why?!
Unmasqued: An Erotic Novel of The Phantom of the Opera (which I shall refer to as Unmasqued from here on out or risk carpal tunnel) is, as the cunning reader may intuit from the title, an erotic re-telling of the Phantom of the Opera story. However, what it is very clearly not is a re-telling of Leroux's novel. It's a re-telling of the recent movie version of Lloyd Webber's musical, and not a very good one. Leroux's book is a peculiar (and not entirely functional) combination of romance, horror and detective story that, nevertheless, manages to haunt and intrigue despite its many flaws (Erik was the first man I read who knelt, wept and grovelled - no wonder I grew up strange). Lloyd Webber's is basically gothic romance with songs. Unmasqued is Lloyd Webber with sex instead of songs. The reason I'm banging on about this to such an extent is that I found Unmasqued a miserable let down. Obviously I didn't expect it to be faithful to the original text (Leroux's phantom is comprised of dead flesh from head to foot and I don't think the necrophiliac market is particularly extensive) but I certainly didn't expect this tepid, badly researched, badly thought-through excuse for fanfic.
Unmasqued stays reasonably close to the best known features of the tale: Christine Daae is a chorus girl at the Paris Opera House, secretly being tutored in singing by a Mysterious dude she calls her Angel of Music. When a convenient accident temporarily takes out the leading soprano, Christine gets to fill in, becoming an overnight singing sensation or the 19th century equivalent. Following her success, the Angel whisks her away to his fantastical madman's lair beneath the opera house, in the original book to teach her further and confess his obsessive love, in Unmasqued to fuck her silly. Since Erik is the hero of Unmasqued rather than the (tragic?) villain, Gale introduces Raoul's sadistic older brother Philippe to take the antagonist role. It's a sensible idea, given the changes that have been made to the story, but Philippe is an uninspiring, sadist-by-numbers who never really feels like a genuine threat. There are a few sexual subplots involving (separately) the dominatrix soprano diva Carlotta (yes please) and the abundantly-breastifed nympho Madam Giry (bored now). The depiction of the secondary characters is actually one of the book's more successful endeavours - I think we're all probably happy enough to imagine that Carlotta is a crazyhotdomme (especially if she looks like Minnie Driver), although personally I struggled a bit (figuratively speaking) with Mme Giry's enormous tits because isn't she supposed to be a ex-ballet dancer? Or did they just pop out when she stopped?
"Maude loved sex, and she did not confine her lustful appetites to one partner, or even many. She had slept with legions over the years, and prided herself on hiding her great appetites behind a rigid, proper persona.
There's little point harping on about the differences between the original novel and Unmasqued because I genuinely wonder if Gale has read it, but I do find the re-imagining of the Phantom as a hottie a little bit difficult to take since it seems to have missed the fundamental point of the original to such a wild extent that it barely merits the title "re-telling." For example, any sexuality to be found in the story is certainly the product of the musical, not the book. In the novel, Erik tends to fall pathetically at Christine's feet in tears if she so much as touches him but Lloyd Webber's Phantom is a much more passionate and sensual creation, as the lyrics of 'Past of the Point of No Return' will confirm. But, even in the musical, although he looks like Gerard Butler, sounds like sex on a stick and is entirely driven by his love for Christine (and we know from JK Rowling that being in love with someone makes every immoral and inappropriate act you commit okay again), we still have to confront the fact that the Phantom is a bit dodgy. All that killing people, for example. Bit of a flaw really. But the point is that although some secret part of you may think Christine made the wrong choice and that she should have stayed with the Phantom instead of running off with namby-pamby Raoul, this is in no way whatsoever supported by the text. In both book and musical, no matter how cool and tragic he may seem, Erik is still a horrifically deformed, half-mad murderer and Raoul is a pretty, well-brought up Vicomte. In Unmasqued, however, Erik is the young, genius, bastard son of a nobleman with some minor facial scarring and an enormous, beautiful cock. Also, any murders he happens to commit along the way, are purely accidental and entirely deserved. It's a completely different story with completely different values and some character names in common.
But that wouldn't matter a damn if it was actually a hot read.
As you might expect from a novel with the word "erotic" in the title, there's a lot of sex to be found within, most of it with a vaguely BDSMish slant. That doesn't bother me. Even the changes wrought upon the story don't bother me. What does bother me, however, is that it's really really bad. The sex scenes, to be fair, are moderately imaginative - although I'm still not convinced you could successfully play a harp with someone's nipples on it - but the writing is just so bland, occasionally reaching heights of awful. I clearly don't read enough erotica (although, if this is anything to go by I read precisely enough, which is none at all) but is "pip" really the current term for clitoris? Really? There isn't anything better out there? Like, for example, clitoris? Perhaps I am over-educated by Pip is a character in a Dickens' novel. Or something on Radio 4 that tells you when it's midnight. It's certainly not part of my anatomy. And while we're on the subject of vocabulary, let me present Exhibit B to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
"Yes, you dirty bitch," he muttered as she worked beneath him. "You're going to drown in my spooge."
Spooge. Spooge? Spooge! Spooge?! I think I speak for all us when I say come back, gentle poetry of manjuice, all is forgiven. Also, given that Unmasqued is set in a very specific time and place, I think the least it owes its readership is a vague semblance of linguistic authenticity. And spooge sounds like something Eminem would say.
This sort of snags and snarls extend into the rest of the text as well. I know it's an erotic novel and so its primary focus is getting your rocks off for you but almost no attempt has been make to the setting (19th century Parisian opera house) feel convincing. Also, Mme Giry constantly refers to one of the theatre managers as her "teddy bear" (the one who is played by Simon Callow in the movie and therefore looks like Simon Callow in the book) - now, as far as I know, that term specifically came into being following President Theodore Roosevelt's reluctance to kill a bear on a hunting trip in 1902 and, although Leroux's novel was translated into English in 1911, it was set in the late 19th century. That's just the sort of sheer clumsiness for which there's absolute no excuse. The rest of the narrative is competent but not scintillating and the dialogue is tedious beyond description, somehow contriving to be both yawn-inducingly bland and gratingly melodramatic at the same time.
Erik shrugged, taking another bite of cheese. "I have not seen it, of course, but who would believe the innocence of a hideous monster over the wealth and power of a Chagny?" he said, angrily. "I've wondered every day whether I should step out into the world and take my chances, try to take back even the mean life that I had and at least be able to call it my own, instead of cowering in the darkness because of my wicked half brother. I think of these years I've lost because of my fear of him and his wealth and power and I berate myself for my weakness."
Perhaps I've missed the point but in describing itself as an "erotic novel" Unmasqued owes the "novel" bit as much attention as the "erotic." And there's no getting away from the fact that it's a terrible novel. The erotic scenes are, I suppose, tolerably well done, again without any marked or particular brilliance. It was rather hard to relax into them though when one went in perpetual fear of the next ill-chosen word or linguistic goof.
I understand it's causing a bit of a hoo-hah out there on the internet. Some, I understand (and I'm moderately sympathetic to their viewpoint), seem to feel that someone has spooged all over a beloved text. Others are up in arms about the BDSM content, to which I am less sympathetic. Although Christine and Erik's interactions tend to be based on powerplay, Erik's love (which the text insists upon, rather than demonstrates) for Christine renders him as helpless as his games and sexual manipulations do her. Also there's no doubting they're a couple of well-matched tedium. Unlike pornographic material, the novel is not devoid of a moral compass, it's just so happens that the exploration of its moral values occurs entirely within the framework of mild BDSM. Thus evil Philippe seeks to control and hurt people to satisfy the appetites of his cruel, selfish nature. But Erik is always motivated by his love and his disproportional insecurity about his incredibly minor scarring. Although he occasionally hurts Christine and he seems to be enjoy tying her to things, he never harms or degrades her in the way that Philippe seeks to. And it's never in doubt that she's totally up for it.
It's by no means an amoral book, nor is it particularly shocking. I don't even mind that it takes horrendous and spurious liberties with the story and is based entirely on the movie of a musical. Of course people are entitled to get offended about whatever they like and I imagine the BDSM focus will be distasteful to people who aren't into that. But as far as I'm concerned, it sucks and that is what is truly offensive.