Book Review: Life with a Porn Queen – Maurice Suckling
(Ink Monkey Books) eBook £2.99
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
In mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean, en route to New York from London, 28 year old Zach Periton meets Mopsa Welch who might be the titular porn queen, a prophet, a physicist, a professor of English Literature, or a combination of all four. Equally given the severity of her painted nails, the tight scantiness of her clothing, the largeness of her fake breasts, alongside her geekyness (their initial conversation involves matching each other in roller-coaster G-force facts), and privately educated English accent, she might purely be a fantasy that in-flight dehydration has lead Zach’s mind to conjure. Or, since Zach is, or was until he walked out of his job, a computer games designer, she could also be his avatar.
Whichever or whatever she might be she has a name that sounds as though it must be an anagram until one puts it into an online anagram solver and is repaid with hundreds more phrases which are both instantly nonsensical but which one could immediately make some sort of case for them being completely relevant to Maurice Suckling’s début novel, such are its twists and turns, possible clues and potential red herrings.
Feeling that his life has become too predictable, Zach has walked out of his job, given away his possessions, and boarded the flight to the USA with the intention that when he arrives he will embark on a coast-to-coast road trip, before settling in California where he will surf, work in a bar, “living one day and one wave at a time”, and end up living with a porn queen. But Mopsa points out to him that that narrative would be clichéd, that it’s a story already written countless times, and that it would be just as predictable as what he’s leaving behind. She tells him that he’s suffering from “Story Over-Exposure”, from only living stories that he already knows the endings too, and then wondering why he feels unfulfilled.
As a cure she tells him a story, but leaves it to him to decide whether it’s a course of action he should follow: “So this man gets on a plane to another new country, he lands, and he feels just the same as always. It’s different, but any arrivals lounge is much like any other. This place doesn’t surprise him either. So, he walks through arrivals and he sees people holding up boards with names. Then he chooses a name at random, and goes up to the person holding the board – and he says, that’s me”.
Suckling is both a writer of fiction – he holds a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Newcastle, and his very well received short story anthology, Photocopies of Heaven, was long-listed for a British Fantasy Society award – and also of computer games, including the critically acclaimed, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. He also co-authored the book, Video Game Writing: From Macro to Micro. For me both sides of his work and studies intertwine in the multi-layered Life with a Porn Queen.
Zach and Mopsa discuss narrative predictability and unpredictability within a narrative frame that is equally unpredictable. Although Zach does follow through with Mopsa’s advice to choose a random name in the arrivals lounge, it’s a narrative thread that is discontinued after only a few pages, although long enough for one to both want to know more and to feel at first a little cheated/disconcerted that one isn’t going to.
But then there’s not much time to get stuck on that before Zach has re-met Mopsa in a bar and agreed to go and stay with her in her house in California, the outcome of which will at least finally begin to make sense of the confusing and bizarre parables that intersperse the text (The Parable of The Three Live Web-Cam Sex Workers, The Parable of The Man Who Was a Watermelon)… or does it… as Mopsa seems to be the leader of a religious cult, but there again that could just be one’s own projection.
And besides by this stage one has so fully entered into the themes/intent of the novel that one is already thinking, well if Suckling isn’t going to elucidate on what might happen when one says, that’s me, to a name-sign carrying person in an arrivals lounge, I am just going to have to go and try it for real, myself!
Reading Life with a Porn Queen, very much as Zach does in and around Mopsa’s house when he’s there alone, one does find oneself looking for clues, wondering whether there are fragments that one should put to one side that will help one later in the book – very much as one might with a computer game. Equally there is a sense, particular with the unexplored arrivals’ lounge narrative, that perhaps that narrative is there, if only one could find the right ‘key’ to enter that level of the ‘game’ – one finds oneself scrolling back through the book to see if one missed a way in.
After all of which, as one would fully imagine that it would, Life with a Porn Queen ends not only with a twist to the narrative but also to the narration, meaning that it remains a roller coaster read from beginning to end: innovative and unpredictable, engaging and insightful, fun and disconcerting.