The Prominent Penis

Jessica Zafra, my very good, true and trusted amiga (!!!), published my book review of The Virgin of Flames in Jessica Rules the Universe and I’m here right now to immortalize the moment because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside:

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You may not be familiar with the people in Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, but they are the sort of personalities you would love to gossip about. Instead of figuring what this novel is all about, you may be better off marveling at the oddities of the characters.

The novel follows its protagonist, Black, around Los Angeles as he tries to come to terms with his hauntingly ugly childhood through his art. He is a 30-something muralist on a quest to find himself in the vibrant city. He is introduced to the reader while trying on face paint, doing things with his face and basically being odd because he is An Artiste and a true weirdo. And nothing validates a weirdo more than a set of equally strange friends. He is surrounded by so much weirdness, sometimes you wish this were about them instead.

Black, to some readers, may seem too weird and foreign. He is a multiracial artist who likes a transsexual stripper, likes his Johnny Walker, and in his spare time dresses like the Virgin Mary. Is he gay? Is he a conventional weirdo? Two-hundred odd pages on and you still may not have figured him out. He keeps building the mystery. Towards the end of the novel, he even tries to learn how to tuck his penis in his butt the way a transvestite does—a real treat for guy readers. But if this were about his quest to discover his true sexuality, it may have been over in the first hundred pages. Besides, those who are not in the habit of wearing tanga to make a living would attest that dick-tucking is something you do exclusively for fun. Clearly, Black should make for an interesting read. But maybe you’d rather hang out with his penis or the sidekicks.

Bomboy Dickens is the primary sidekick. He spouts the novel’s most interesting bits of dialogue, but he’s sadly relegated to the role of comic relief. If it crosses your mind that The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is getting a worthy successor, it is due to the snappy retorts of Bomboy and his conversations with Black. Alas, Abani’s aim is not to appeal to your funny bones.

Also there is Iggy, Black’s landlady. She’s bald and she keeps a tattoo parlor and bar called The Ugly Store that has a mural filled with racist, politically-incorrect inscriptions. She keeps a midget servant who loves to quote Raymond Chandler. Iggy, she is also not like you and me.

Black’s penis, on the other hand, does not speak; nor does it have idiosyncrasies like Bomboy and Iggy. Its appearance is infrequent but its presence is major. It’s also sort of a plot-mover. Sometimes it alone drives him forward and mostly towards Sweet Girl, the immigrant Thai transsexual he’s inexplicably drawn to. Inexplicably because Black, who gives off a strong heterosexual vibe, is aware that the person he finds hopelessly alluring is also a man. Yet he persists. He is mightily attracted to Sweet Girl the lap-dancer, and that’s going to be the way it is. The intensity of Black junior’s erections dictates where this attraction is supposed to go. But this is not a love story, and Abani is resolute about not having any resolution.

Our hero obviously has Big Issues That Need Addressing rooted in his childhood traumas. If he hasn’t tired you out yet, maybe the flashbacks to his childhood will spring you back to life. His AIDS-afflicted mother is vicious—she makes the young Black perform self-flagellation in front of an altar, while his father is a confounding, ghostly presence—there, not quite there and finally, not there at all. Suddenly you think you know what this freak’s real issue is. You think you can finally feel satisfied with Black’s coming to terms with his misfortunes because he’s dealing with his feelings at last and working toward straightening out his life! But no.

If you’re exactly the kind of person who enjoys sneering at artist types, being unable to relate to them, this book may serve as an eye-opener or an entertainment featuring a gallery of freaks. You may not find anything to relate to, but its strangeness is a thing to behold. I don’t think I could trust anyone else to describe for me the rituals of strip-dancing and the art of tucking balls and shaft in one’s butt other than the seemingly demented Chris Abani.

The Virgin of Flames is a different kind of tale of self-discovery, one that doesn’t care much about reaching any discernible discovery. If you’re tired of tales of ditzy young girls and boys trying to find their luck in Hollywood, New York, or some other glamorous city, try this and have a balls-clutching experience. If you’re exasperated with small-town persons finding their way in the big, mean city, you may find a trip to Black’s lap-dance and alcohol-addled junction wildly entertaining. If anything, you’ll learn how to tuck your balls in your butt should the need for that ever arise in your boring life.

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Brightest Shining Moment of 2012

Jessica Zafra published a book review I wrote and it’s one of my year’s brightest moments.

Since I’m predictable and constantly shifting between shallow and paranoid, a condition that saddles the bearer with the thought of having to consider the ick factor of talking about things such as this, I will tell all about it because as I’ve said it’s one of my year’s brightest moments and sometimes I just can not be stopped.

It was just like the time Mariah found my joke funny. What happened with Mariah was she was asking the fans to guess the name of her newborn twin to which the entire Twitter universe went into a frenzy coming up with names. I offered ‘Regina’ and ‘George’ after Rachel McAdams’ iconic character in one of the greatest movies of our time, Mean Girls, a movie really close to Mariah’s heart and mine. After tweeting that, she said to me: ‘LOL! C’mon guys!’ I was so delirious I almost ditched work to distribute printed copies of Mariah’s direct tweet to me along Ayala Avenue Regina George in the hallway distributing photocopies of the burnbook-style. That was one of 2011’s brightest shining moments.

It was a euphoria unmatched until the morning of September 5.

In an uneventful Sunday afternoon, September 4, I convulsed with joy upon reading her email which basically intimated that she was pleased with my review. I jumped and victory danced when I read her two-sentence glowing (my impression) assessment. I was jumping high because Jessica mother*****g Zafra gave the distinct impression of having found my book review acceptable and worthy of a Jessica Rules the Universe publication.

I could not ask for more in this life. Or this year only. Except for maybe more book review assignments from her, eternal friendship, more chances of associations, of get-togethers with the person responsible for putting The Catcher in the Rye in to my life. And of course, more. And of having any of your ‘major work’ edited by her, what a feeling!

Achieved

There’s a gag in 100 where Eugene Dominggo and the dying Mylene Dizon was having an Ate Vi movie marathon, being one of the 100-something things the best friends would do before Mylene dies. Someday, there would be a film, a comedy maybe, that would have the same gag, a remake of 100 why not, that would have the characters do a Eugene Dominggo movie marathon which will definitely include her latest, the Chris Martinez-written and directed Here Comes the Bride. Bride will be special and memorable because in one of those surprising and pleasant instances of scene stealership, somebody in the same film as Eugene D gets to steal the show and this one time, it’s Angelica Panganiban, who does one of the funniest, most convincing babaeng bakla roles ever.

In the 90s a daring acting career move would involve shedding a starlet’s clothes off for major Seiko Films/OctoArts film project. Seiko Films don’t do films now, sadly, which meant that starlets now only have FHM as a means to announce their Daring Career Move. It’s much different though for smarter artistas, Angelica Panganiban being one of those smart ones. In the film, she’s daring alright but not in the way that Abby Viduya was when she did major vaginal flashing in Sutla. Angelica Panganiban did a lighter version of that sort of role in Santa Santita where she did a much ballyhooed, major torrid smoochfest with Jericho Rosales. And that was mostly it. In Here, she’s still ‘daring’ and so game, she uses her assets to great comedic effect, unafraid to make fun of herself as as she should. Her gayspeak is so flawless and so natural. What makes her so special  I think is that she’s always been a careful articulator of words, something the likes of Kim Chiu would maybe want to learn. She’s not too mannered a performer that when she says spluk, epek, wit and aura, immortal entries in the gay webster, it’s never hindered by self-consciousness, that they might come off too exaggerated because aren’t gays who speak these always exaggerated. And if her TV show Rubi is any indication, Angelica has an all natural fag hag aura. Not that that’s effortless (maybe it is) but she’s always been the type of performer who examines her roles that certain tics and mannerisms never seem phoned in.

But it’s not just The Angelica Panganiban Show. Eugene is stellar as usual. Her spastic attorney is too broad to be really funny but that’s never been a detriment to what she can do to make any role laugh out loud funny. The bonggang-bonggang bougainvillea and scramble is yummy scenes are enough to meet her funny quota but her top billage in this assures she gets to do more, the major one being those parts where she does the pa-girl bride to be whose softiness fits well with her as usual unmatched comedic gift, one that lets her pull off any character, that lets her switch seamlessly from being a spaz to a softy. In a thankfully restrained role, John Lapus is able to throw in a performance that never for a moment seemed cartoonish, having to do a dirty old man role, something that is a stretch for his usually shrill gay roles. The veteran Jaime Fabregas, who you always see as a weak, rich old man, puts a twist on the sickly DOM role and so funnily pulls of all the other personas, all 4 of them. The underrated Tuesday Vargas gets to shine too, and with this cast at that, equally impressive as a yaya-turned-feisty lawyer. Her reciting the  labor laws to her erstwhile bosses is one of the film’s funniest scenes and it is for roles like this that stars are sometimes made of.

Chris Martinez does it again with this film which will rank among his best, all 3 of them, what with his cutely executed character introductions in the beginning, Angelica as the pa-tweetums bride to be, John Lapus as the just heartbroken ‘image-stylist’, Jaime Fabregas as the horny-frail wedding financier, Tuesday Vargas as the oppressed and bullied Bisaya yaya, and Eugene Dominggo as the Miriam Defensor Santiago-like, old maid attorney, an impeccably assembled ensemble cast who worked off of each others’ roles, as the story demanded, a body-switch tale that will go down in history as one of the best body-switch movies ever made. Bride will be known as one of the best comedies ever made period. But isn’t it a little too obvious already to pronounce Chris Martinez films, Chris Martinez things as one of the best ever whatever when they’re made available for public consumption? He’s only made 3, all of which I personally consider masterpieces and that’s certainly not enough.

Don’t you just love how Martinez treats his audience as a thinking audience, one that shouldn’t have to be pounded over the head with a gag and be made to understand that that was joke, now laugh, such as in the scene where a beautician sees his fellow beautician having sex with a girl, runs away from the horrific scene and pukes real looking puke. No fancy sped-up effect and no goofy soundtrack to cue us in on the funny thing that just happened. He trusts that we will get it. And how can we not.

Haunted by Patrick

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Bret Easton Ellis warns readers of Lunar Park that the events in the book really, truly happened to him. And since American Psycho was amazing, I was all set to believe everything I was about to read, bullshit or no bullshit.

Patrick Bateman, the character that started it all happens to have a huge fan. It’s a fandom so huge, it’s scary. Generally abhorred and excoriated by critics, publishers, women and gay groups, American Psycho (a book I truly like) has become the finest example of how not to develop attachment with a Bret Easton Ellis character. As a group, his characters are bad, soulless people and Patrick Bateman is their poster boy. What’s mildly surprising is how bent Ellis seems on making us believe that Bateman is the work of something else, and in his attempt to prove this he aspired to become a boring, suburban house dad, with minor dalliances with college hotties and coke-sniffing on the side. He was hoping that he, unlike his character, has too much of a soul and humanity in him that creating the monster that is Bateman was not entirely his idea. He should not have bothered because as murderous as he is, Patrick Bateman, as are most Patricks are, is a wonderful character.

He recounts his brief but scary encounter with the ghosts of his past and with the almost concrete and literal ghosts of the present: the ugly relationship with the dad with whom he mostly based his most famous creation, Patrick Bateman, the bomb of a marriage with actress Jayne Dennis, and the struggle with the embittered son Robby. It’s always amusing to wonder what these people that he ruthlessly used as characters in his fiction, might think of the whole charade.

As with most established authors, Ellis’ most recent work is sure to attract certain ghosts of its own, one of which would certainly be its incapacity to equal its predecessor’s greatness, most of which will be taken up by that great American novel, American Psycho. But Ellis, like most of his fiction, has a way of hinting that he’s not all about that shit. Just when you thought it was about something, it turns out that it isn’t (i.e. Psycho isn’t just about a psycho, Glamorama isn’t about fashion, etc).