Obscenity at its Finest: Dirty books you can find at the U of L Library
By: Shawn Funk
“What is obvious is that the words in these cases have been dirtied by the mind, by unclean mental associations.”
D.H. Lawrence, Introduction to Pansies
Language is constantly evolving, meanings change, new words are created, old words fall out of use. We classify our words too, and we give them different values. Some words are “good” while other words are “bad”. Some bad words are also called dirty words, and dirty words get lots of attention; the others not so much. For example, there are many four-letter words beginning in the letter “f” that provoke little to no response in the casual reader: fish, fall, fair, file. But, when the word “fuck” is written down, magic happens. Aha! Now I have your attention.
The title of this article is Obscenity at its Finest which suggests that there is an apparent sophistication to the obscenity. I have selected works by D.H. Lawrence, Angela Carter, Ryu Murakami, and Kurt Vonnegut, all of which show a high level of literary skill. However, these authors do not balk at sexuality, profanity, or violence. Obscenity adds a level of realism to these works that couldn’t be accomplished in any other way. The graphic content is not gratuitous but a necessary part of each piece without which the story or poem fails or at least comes up short. Therefore, these works cannot be reduced to the smutty stories you find buried in your step-dad’s armchair. Lawrence, Carter, Murakami, and Vonnegut all make poignant statements about the conditions of life that we face as a species while fundamentally challenging the conventions that constrain artistic freedom.
D.H. Lawrence 1885-1930, Pansies——-Call No. PR 6023 A93 A17 1971
This call number is for Lawrence’s Complete Poems which includes the collection Pansies.
In the foreword to Pansies, Lawrence defines his collection of poems as “casual thoughts that are true while they are true and irrelevant when the mood and circumstance changes” (Lawrence, p. 423). Such a soft definition saves Lawrence from being perceived as dogmatic, angry, and stubborn as he delivers fierce attacks against capitalism, religion, aristocrats, conventional wisdom, government, and anything else that he sees as a threat to his personal freedom. Each thought “comes as much from the heart and the genitals as from the head” (Lawrence, 417), suggesting that these poems represent the passionate outflowing of an unbridled mind. The poems are written in plain English, no fancy metaphors, no straining for meaning. They are provocative, sensual, passionate, funny, ironic, and of course, obscene.
Angela Carter 1940-1992, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces——-Call No. PR 6053 A73 F5 1987
Okay, so poetry is not your thing. This might be for you. Carter’s short story collection is by far the most evocative of the four works on this list. The stories in this volume are set in Japan where themes of loneliness, boredom, death, authority, simulation, and sex are explored through the lens of an English expatriate. Angela Carter’s genius is revealed in her richly ordered prose. She has the ability to draw the reader into her stories with vivid intimations of deeply seated emotions and observations. Her stories linger long after they have been read, owing to her powers of description, lengthy vocabulary, and her captivating, sometimes very disturbing themes.
Ryu Murakami 1952-Present, Coin Locker Babies——-Call No. PL 856 U696 K613 1998
If shorts aren’t your thing, that is okay. Murakami’s book is close to 400 pages and is well worthy of every page it is printed on, but I must warn you, this book is not for the faint of heart. Coin Locker Babies exposes the rot that festers beneath the pristine images that represent our reality. The story follows the life of two boys, Hashi and Kiku, who were both abandoned by their mothers in coin-operated foot lockers shortly after they were born in Yokohama, Japan. Hashi and Kiku meet as children in an orphanage and are later adopted by the same foster parents. As young adults, they struggle to shake off their childhood trauma while navigating through very different paths, Hashi a famous singer, and Kiku a convict.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five——-Call No. PN 6071 S33 V65 S6
This novel has a bit of everything for everyone. It is obscene, serious, weird, hilarious, and quite literally out of this world. It is also a very important book for its criticisms against war narratives that glorify the horrors that have ruined countless lives. Follow Billy Pilgrim as he survives the bombing of Dresden, gets kidnapped by aliens from Tralmafadore, and befriends a mysterious science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout. Slaughterhouse-Five is a genre-bender which makes it very hard to classify. The novel has elements of the war story, science fiction, tragedy, comedy, and pulp. Vonnegut’s tone is one of a sarcastic smart-ass snubbing his nose at the party line. It is, thus, very satisfying.
I hope my shallow appeal to sexuality and four-letter words will encourage you to go to the U of L Library and read some of these books. What can I say? Sex sells. Yes, it’s cheap, but don’t kid yourself. Who doesn’t love a good “fuck”?
Carter, Angela. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Lawrence, D.H. Complete Poems. New York: Penguin Group, 1964.
Murakami, Ryu. Coin Locker Babies. Trans. Stephen Snyder. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969.