George & Martha

Karen Finley


In mid-March, Karen Finley had a date to talk with a reporter from the Nation about her new book, George & Martha. When the reporter abruptly canceled, Finley’s publisher, Amy Scholder, called the Nation to find out why. According to various sources, including Finley herself, Scholder was told that the freelancer “was offended by the anal sex” in the book and “didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Interestingly enough, there isn’t any anal sex in George & Martha–although an asshole does come up for close inspection, as does his actual orifice.

This isn’t the first time someone’s wrongfully accused Finley of promoting buggery. As she recalled in a recent Gay City News article, journalist Pete Hamill once fantasized in the Village Voice that Finley had crammed a tuber up her butt during a performance piece called Yams and My Granny’s Ass.

One way or another, it appears that people have come to expect a reaming from Finley. And with good reason. In her most notorious public incarnation, during the early 1980s, she was a banshee straight out of the collective unconscious: famous for covering her naked body with gooey substances like chocolate, but also scary as hell for the way she seemed to channel the deep and abiding and mostly female anger that contaminates our culture like so much tritium from a nuclear plant. As Jesse Helms may have understood when he made her the poster child for his campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts, Finley was more than obscene. She was an ombudsman for the tormented, ready to rip the power structure a new one. Finley took a step back from this sort of psychic savagery in the last half of the 90s, even publishing satirical books that cast her in the role of domestic diva. But the Bush presidency has clearly got her pumped, as it were.

Modeled on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which a middle-aged American couple named George and Martha while away the night playing vicious psychological games with each other, Finley’s tale posits an illicit–and rather torrid–affair between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart. It’s summer 2004. Dubya’s in New York City awaiting the Republican nod for his second term; Martha’s about to report for her prison term. They meet at a seedy motel–where the thread count in the pillowcases, Martha observes with distaste, is under 200–and, yes, while away the night playing vicious psychological games.

Finley’s Bush, in particular, is the stuff of dirty leftist dreams. He drinks, snorts, and smokes anything he can find. When he can’t get it up his first impulse is to call Condi, and when he finally comes it’s while stuttering Bill Clinton’s name. He’s just plain terrified of Dick Cheney. Fixated on his parents, he loves to play baby to Martha’s mommy–a gambit requiring a formula bottle filled with beer and rubber sheets. He wakes up screaming with night terrors, certain that Osama bin Laden’s crawled up his ass.

And he’s mean, too. He belittles Martha with verve and uncharacteristic creativity. He twits her for her quaint values, telling her, “Guilt and conscience are lower-class phenomena. I lie. I lie all the time. We lie. It isn’t about money anymore, Martha. It’s about lying.” He never loses a chance to denigrate competence or celebrate his globe-straddling fucked-up-ness.

All of which obviously infuriates Martha–and, just as obviously, arouses her. The Goody Two-shoes in her thrills to George’s perversity. The compulsive in her delights at his recklessness. The overachiever in her is humbled by his inadequacy. Her brain goes to mush when he asks if Edward Albee was the guy on Green Acres. His self-pity makes her hot, and she gets wet when he’s abusive. “When are you going to enter my country, Mr. President?” she purrs, with no irony but loads of self-consciousness. “I am ready to be invaded and hand over the oil.”

Cliched? Maybe. I choose to think of it as unsurprising. And that’s not at all a bad thing. There’s a powerful political value in saying the unsurprising–saying it as coarsely, as undigestibly as possible–at a moment when subtler messages of dissent can be inverted with Orwellian efficiency in the course of a single news cycle. Sure, George & Martha is crude and adolescent–that’s what makes it a service to America.

And makes it a hoot as well. Writing in Martha’s voice, Finley describes her lovers’ unhinged ministrations with a weird sort of clinical lyricism–explaining, for instance, how George makes his penis “speak” to his collection of toy stuffed animals. Or how to talk him down from the willies. Then she draws us a picture. George & Martha is illustrated on practically every page with lovingly rendered ink drawings of anything from oral sex to a collection of wildflowers to a recipe for stuffed cabbage.

Perhaps the only real surprise about this supposed tirade is the air of empathy that pervades it. Getting into their minds, Finley can’t help but find the pathos in her awful characters. Martha, certainly. But at odd moments, even George. He comes out seeming not so much criminal as pitiful, self-loathing, cosmically empty. Proving that Karen Finley really is afraid of nothing, not even tenderness.

When: Tue 4/18, 7:30 PM

Where: Barbara’s Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted

Info: 312-413-2665

When: Wed 4/19, 7 PM

Where: University of Chicago Reynolds Club, 5706 S. University

Info 773-782-4318