Butterfly by Paul Loewen (St. Martin's Press: $16.95; 112 pages)
Repressive times beget the best erotica. Consider the works of such British Victorians as D. H. Lawrence and Frank Harris. The 1950s, another sexually repressive era, saw the writing of "Lolita" and the pseudonymous "Story of 'O' " as well as the landmark publication of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer." Today, in the late 1980s, we find ourselves once again the literary beneficiaries of a sexually repressive time: the benefit in question, a novel by Paul Loewen (a pseudonym, as is customary in the genre) called "Butterfly," drawn loosely from the opera of the same name.
A fascinating premise: Pinkerton, serving in Japan, is infatuated by the lovely geisha, Butterfly. In order to spend the night with her, he impulsively agrees to marry her. During the following months, the infatuation turns to love, as much to his own surprise as everyone else's, a love that is deeper and more profound than anything he has ever imagined. Learning that he must return to San Francisco alone, to stand watch by his father's deathbed, he pledges fidelity and a hasty return.
Still we have not tread far from the familiar path of Puccini's opera. But now, home again in San Francisco, Pinkerton re-encounters his jilted fiancee, the exquisite, brilliant Kate, whose "skin breathed with endless sunshine," and whose eyes were "dark and vertiginous like the deepest well," and her servant Marika, a Hungarian and a former circus acrobat. Bent on vengeance, Kate and her servant conspire to destroy Pinkerton in one of the most sexually sadistic and depraved snares ever contrived in an American novel.
By taking advantage of weaknesses in his character, a certain "turpitude knotted indissolubly in (his) heart," they make him their slave, submit him to torture, including branding, and the wearing of a male chastity belt, and force him to perform a variety of other unspeakable acts. Finally, and this is most terrible of all, they bring him back to Japan, (book and opera again join paths) and force him to confront and renounce his Butterfly. In these final scenes, the spiritually pure Butterfly and the demonic Kate battle for what remains of poor Pinkerton's soul.
If all this sounds very Victorian, melodramatic and a trifle silly, well, it is--and self-consciously so, I think. The account, supposedly compiled by Pinkerton's grandson from documents, letters, interviews and the remains of his ancestor's own attempt to novelize his experiences, is as quaint as a stereopticon, or a crank-up Victrola. But it is also, in its way, quite wonderful; by turns exciting, suspenseful, heart-breaking, and illuminating.
The characters are fascinating--if not always capable of eliciting our sympathies--and possess an inner, psychological life. Although their behavior may be bizarre in the extreme, it is only rarely unbelievable. And that is quite an accomplishment for a novel that charts the terra incognita of human behavior.
What makes "Butterfly" different from its sister story, "The Story of 'O,' " to which it will inevitably be compared, is its mortality. While O existed in a moral vacuum that gave the book a false aura of modernism, Butterfly's universe is the very opposite. One can almost hear God's mills grinding fine in the background. Even when we think that Pinkerton has sunk so low that salvation is impossible, that the novel will finally espouse the trendy nihilism of "Less Than Zero," and other New Wave works, the author manages to create an ending that is uplifting, life-affirming and humane.