At the heart of the Alina is the titular character, a Romanian teenager who does webcam porn in order to pay off her father’s debts. He’s been hospitalized, and Alina’s instituted The Policy, where she cuts costs whenever possible while working as much as possible in order to try and break even. The novel begins with this poignant scene:
Alina took the tube of lipstick and began drawing on her stomach. She knew it might look ridiculous but it was worth a try. Besides, it would rub off easily. As she drew a careful corner, smiling brightly like everything was just fine, she remembered The Policy. It made her hand stop….She had thought, a moment ago, how she would soon reach the dead head of the lipstick tube, and remembered that she must use as little of everything as possible… (1, 2) [i]
What struck me hard about this moment is that as Alina’s writing the price of a private chat on her body (1.99 a minute), the reader also gets a sense of Alina’s understanding of her own worth. Everything in her world is cheap and rationed; she begrudges herself the time she spends sleeping and not performing on cam, and barely eats. This frugality does not mean she’s value-less or views herself as value-less. The contrast between her eloquent thoughts and her fractured English, the references to her pre-owned sex-toy, her thin frame are all components of a surprising idealism and a surprising faith in her own abilities. She believes The Policy will save her, and that the webcam work is just for right now. The debt is scary — but she can handle it.
Henry, a Londoner presently living in Ireland, owns the website Alina performs on. He’s a foster-care child, bounced from home to home, but, thankfully, has found a balance between his wandering childhood and his frenetic brain chemistry.[ii] He strikes up an e-relationship with Alina, but when she stops logging on, he decides to trek to Romania from Ireland in order to check on her. Henry’s got some issues with social anxiety and depression, so he brings along a friend of a friend to sort of… ease things for him. Shuff’s the muscle for Henry’s sojourn into the dangerous world of Eastern Europe. Oh, hijinks.
Turns out Shuff is completely freakin’ nuts. He’s a sociopath who’s found the perfect philosophy, one that justifies his vicious tendencies as a component of his uber-mensch nature. He’s a very scary man — he’s left someone tied up in an oil can in the back of his house, he might’ve feed his infant grandchild to a very angry dog, and he’s for sure got a violent criminal past.
These storylines converge as Johnson introduces a vital supporting cast, including Shuff’s two daughters, a kidnapped professor emeritus, and Alina’s creepy chorus of online viewers. While the novel is ultimately tragic, its exploration of a variety of escape routes, the role of death as an escape route, and the power of the disparate financial networks connecting individuals make for a quirky read.
However, Johnson’s website (http://www.woundlicker.com/) just creeps me the freak out. This novel features a series of young female characters in the form of Alina and Shuff’s two daughters. The book’s cover is a close up of a girl’s midriff, with the title written in what looks like red lipstick, a foreshadowing of that first scene. It’s similar to a ton of other book covers, you know? Where it’s an extreme close-up of a random chunk of girl? Yeah. The website’s the same way… except to enter you have to click on link whose phrasing is deliberately reminiscent of Alina’s. Since, uh, she dies, that was really, really weird. It made me feel surprisingly voyeuristic… and surprisingly triggered, as though I was the perpetrator of her exploitation. What made me even more uncomfortable was the location of the link to a sample chapter from the novel – you have to click the button of the dead girl’s jeans, as though you’re trying to open them. Ugh.
I know the webcam work is something she’s participating in willingly, and that compared to her factory job she’s making bank, but ugh. While reading Alina I’d been identifying with Alina, partly because I’m drawn to female characters, but also because I’m broke as frak, have had to institute The Policy, and know exactly how deceptive things like that can be. To suddenly be all clicking on her body as though I was one of the men[iii] watching her really just made me acutely uncomfortable.
Now, I’m trying to use this as an impetus for a learning moment – I do watch porn, and I know I’m not the only person on the internet who does so. Is this a moment where I need to interrogate my “I’m not like that” knee-jerk response? Where I go, “Oh hey! Those creepy internet dudes who wanted Alina to play a character, who wanted to control her body and watch her insert things? Well! There’s a bit of the ‘net perv in me, too! What can I do to guarantee that the porn I consume is fair-trade and consensual?” Despite this pull, I keep feeling like the site’s also a reminder that I’m not a member of the club. I look at the site, at her poor working body, and keep thinking, “Oh, wait, even though women make up like 80% of fiction’s readership, I’m actually not the anticipated audience. This is supposed to be titillating. This is supposed to be edgy. BUT ACTUALLY it really just made me feel dirty.”
[i] You can read the first chapter here [not anymore].
[ii] Interesting moment of contrasts: Alina’s childhood, while poor, featured parents who loved her, while Henry, the Westerner and the capitalist benefiting from her sexual exploitation, is an individual divorced from society. Other people make him twitch. Alina’s very much a member of a community, whereas Henry is an individual and unhappy about it.
[iii] In this heterosexist construction of voyeurism they’re always presumed to be men, men viewing women, or men viewing women viewing women, as Alina demonstrates the few times she goes in the chat room as part of researching marketing strategies for her online business.