Akashic Books’ initial 2002 publication of High Life was not much of a cause célèbre in the larger literary world. But the ultraviolent novel of sex, murder, and scatology in mid-1990s Los Angeles was a definitive moment in the development of the so-called "torture porn" subgenre. As the debut author for Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery imprint, Matthew Stokoe became both a disciple of glorious S-M writers like Cooper, Bret Easton Ellis, and Samuel R. Delany and a centurial groundbreaker. Now a reprint edition of High Life (Akashic Books, 330 pages, $15.95) is belatedly securing Stokoe’s rank as either a literary assassin or putrid gore hound.
Set in the seamy pasteboard backlots of Hollywood, High Life centers around doughnut worker Jack and his prostitute girlfriend, Karen, who goes missing after a sordid organ donation. When Jack discovers Karen’s mutilated body some days later, he sets out on a sociopathic journey through the city’s back alleys and fetish clubs. Along the way he meets a twisted vice cop, Ryan a psychological foil who elicits unspeakable fantasies from Jack and Bella, a femme fatale whose character seems to have sprung from the pen of Georges Bataille rather than the typewriter of James M. Cain. While most of High Life obsessively centers on themes that are requisite to the noir genre, the graphic detail and repetition with which scenes of necrophilia, rape, mutilation, and coprophagy are recounted seems mechanized, if not completely militarized.
Written on the cusp of 2001’s radical political, cultural, and social turn in the wake of 9/11, High Life is a strikingly prescient view of a celebrity death culture that teeters between antebellum fantasia and post-Lapsarian horror. Stokoe’s novel arrived at the very cusp of a post9/11 glut of torture porn, or, as David Edelstein of New York magazine described it (in a portmanteau of gore and porno), "gorno."
As characterized by Edelstein, gorno is a cross-generic exploration of graphic violence and sex alongside themes of terrorism, collective anxiety, and xenophobia. Commercial films like the Hostel series (2005; 2007) and Saw series (2004-2007), as well as Wolf Creek (2005) and Grindhouse (2007) introduced the movement’s adrenalinized visual tropes to the largest audiences, but the art and literary worlds have their controversial contributors, such as the Chapman brothers and the writer known as J.T. LeRoy. When asked to defend their creations, most of these artists use a common refrain of confrontation that they are out to challenge the last remaining taboos, the increasingly militarized capital of the West, and a society where fear has literally mutated the body.
As if anticipating the shield behind which they would slice and dice their work, in 2000 the postmodern theorist Paul Virilio wrote of artists out to break "the taboos of suffocating bourgeois culture … the unicity of mankind, through the impending explosion of a genetic bomb that will be to biology what the atomic bomb was to physics…. Without limits, there is no value; without value, there is no esteem, no respect, and especially no pity: death to the referee!"
Yet such analysis leaves gorno artists like Stokoe in a critical limbo. Are they heroes of a new kind of anatomical avant-culture emancipated from capital and the military strictures of biopolitics? Or are they fetishists whose claims of degeneracy-as-art are a camouflage for something far more sinister? High Life hardly solves the conundrum, as Stokoe’s professed role is not as satirist or philosopher but pugilist; he refuses to ponder the possibilities of answers, only the certainty of bloodletting.