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The Putrid Voyeurisms of Peter Sotos

It’s not exactly easy to get your hands on the work of Peter Sotos. Most people probably wouldn’t even want to. His work traffics in a range of subjects that most average readers—even those who fancy themselves to have transgressive tastes—would find...

It’s not exactly easy to get your hands on the work of Peter Sotos. Most people probably wouldn’t even want to. His work traffics in a range of subjects that most average readers—even those who fancy themselves to have transgressive tastes—would find viscerally repellent: a meeting-ground of violence and pornography so limitless it becomes difficult to tell what we’re actually reading. The narrative voice takes on the personas of serial murderers, rapists, child molesters, hate mongers, and others who inhabit space far outside the range of what even the most edgy thinkers would consider tractable terrain, mostly rendered in a first person that strands the reader in a mindset that he probably doesn’t want to be in. That Sotos also frequently takes for his subject real-life criminals and victims—exploring, for instance, the violent murders of Lesley Ann Downey in his nonfiction work, Selfish, Little—there exists a line between the most grotesque extensions of fantasy and reality that challenges the presumptions of free speech and exploration of horror in such a way that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to name for sure the sort of ground on which Sotos forces us to walk.

Some more direct context about Sotos: He was a member of the seminal noise band, Whitehouse. He is 62 years old and lives in Chicago, where he has been arrested for possession of child porn, after publishing on the cover of his zine, Pure, a picture from a photocopy of an underage boy involved in sex. His books are printed mostly in severely limited runs, making obtaining them rather pricey. Sotos makes no bones about his infatuation with objects that push him beyond the limits of experience. He is open about his interest in snuff film and bestiality porn, and talks about them freely in a way that glorifies their ability to depict “how you look when ugly.” He is not heartless, although he does get pleasure pleasure from viewing these things, and he isn’t afraid to make himself complicit in the acts that he describes. All of this makes reading him, or even just thinking about reading him, one of those experiences that allow a window into a place much of our culture seems interested in playing footsie with—think of Dexter, or films like Seven and Silence of the Lambs but that when considered more directly take obscenity to a level of actually feeling—as a reader, you feel somehow ashamed, complicit just for holding the book.

While Sotos’s most recent work, Pure Filth, seems tame compared to his earlier work, it offers a glimpse into his universe without the extremities of the illegal and grotesque. Pure Filth takes as its subject the gonzo films of porn star Jamie Gillis, whose enterprise was adapted into the scenes in Boogie Nights where Burt Reynolds takes Heather Graham out on the town in a limo to have real sex with strangers on tape. As it turns out, P.T. Anderson’s version of Gillis’s series “On The Prowl” is well beyond tamed down. The actual videos feature Gilis leading a series of hired escorts into backseats and dirty bookstores and hotel rooms to take part in whatever kind of debauchery the men they encountered wish to subject them to. Gillis would direct the scene via a constant stream of taunts, slurs, jeers, and encouragements, which frequently ended with Gillis joining in himself. The films feature golden showers, analingus, physical violence, and a general sense of degradation of the females even as they willingly, and in seeming pleasure, take their part.

Pure Filth is, simply, Sotos’s transcriptions of the dialogue that occurred in selected bits from Gillis’s films. The text provides little-to-no actual dictation of what is happening in the video; at most, we receive minimal parenthetical notations such as: (ass to back) or (piss). As readers, then, we are left without visuals that might have given some kind of context to the scene, which somehow builds an even more relentless, blank-faced wall of hell. By stripping the ongoings down to only language, the reader’s mind is forced to bear the brunt of the images itself, filling in the white feed of the paper with a kind of what I can only describe as sick ambient sound. Early on in the series this equates to a ridiculous and well-known skronk, such as “Oh. Yes. Yes. Oh honey, where’d you get those panties? Where’d you get those panties? Oh. Oh. Let me see more panties—those panties, where’d you get those, Jesus. Beautiful.” As the book goes on though, and as Gillis’s enterprises continue to knock down their own walls, it turns to something more unsettling: “Is that dog shit? Dog shit? Is that dog shit? Look at yourself. Come on, you know what you are. Who’s a fucking whore? Huh?” The book becomes more and more inductive to a neutered kind of violence, which somehow in its 2D hold sticks even more, if in a way that holds fully still.

Each scene also contains introductions penned by Gillis that Sotos uses to give private context to the brain of the man from which the language peels. These introductions allow Gillis to reveal himself in ways even the scenes of him masturbating and barking at the women don’t. He speaks by turns in quips of a businessman, a director, a bigot, an abuser, and a louse who’s aware he’s a louse, with a kind of dumbass honesty that spins the whole thing with such a strange layer you almost forget that this is real. The further and deeper the dialogue extends, wholly unblinking, the more the reader feels as if the beginning of the book is wired to its end, a machine forced to eat itself. I don’t quite know how to say this, but by the end of the book you feel not quite densensitzed to the ideas, but covered in them.

I feel sure that a majority of you are now asking, “Why would anybody want to hear about this stuff? How could anyone but child pornographers be interested in or even open to reading the work of someone who is OK with child porn?” I’m not the sort who rubbernecks at the scenes of accidents, but I can say that reading Peter Sotos stills my body. There are very many other people in the world. I have a mother and a father and friends and loved ones, and they exist in the same world as these things. There is something about the feeling of opening a window into a space that you would never touch with your own hands that can make you feel like you are being pressed down on by something very heavy and very black. I believe that thinking about these ideas makes one not less human, but more: careful and considered in a way that ignites awareness of something that is, if not in us all, certainly around us.

Also by Blake Butler:

The Juggalo Summer Reading List

Diane Williams's Sticky Secrets

Famous Authors' Thoughts While Being Photographed

@blakebutler