Review: An Orc in Antwerp

by Tim HARDING
 

Philip Roth showcases a tender side in an oblique but grimy exploration of tough love in human-pigman relations.

Philip Roth’s An Orc in Antwerp details, with remarkable delicacy, three days in the life of Jazabaal, Antwerp’s only licensed sex orc. In a clear homage to the structure of Spanish brothel mysteries of the 1700s, each of her customers has their allotted two hours tenderly but systematically chronicled, as they come and go seemingly without impact on the warty, brutish body and psyche of the professional. These faceless, upstanding characters pay handsomely to be introduced to the sexual habits of the orc, that monstrous race which has evolved, side-by-aide with humans, not ever so far from their origins as wild pigs of the forest.

The clients for their part are subjected to degradations more intense and depraved than anything that could reasonably be imagined from their fellow man, revealing in Roth a previously unseen flair for the juicier elements of fantasy. The implication here, expressed in an early scene by a pervert’s disappointing encounter with a “frigid tapir,” is that bestiality is fine as long as you don’t mind your partner having little to no creative input into your intercourse, but with the arrival of the orc in Europe these characters find an animal that can fuck them back in ways that express not just the body but the red mind of the beast. From Jazabaal’s perspective, what she practices on her customers is very different from the densely ritualistic ecstasy of lovemaking with other orcs, the extended scenes of which Roth fills with patterned, deeply felt vulgarities and backbreaking thirty minute orgasms. As a protagonist, she’s a tough nut to crack, but it is these passages that show her at her best, briefly escaping from a world in which we have irrevocably confused love and violence.

With her clients she purveys what she thinks of as a kind of sexual butchery; an artisanal but passionless treatment of meat. Johns and Janes, summoned to appointments by an insouciant phone call to the family house, come away having been partially cooked, beaten with a bag of Jazabaal’s own toenails (“heavy as walnuts and sharp as thorns”), choked in pus, urethrally gored and occasionally missing digits, if that’s what it takes. Roth portrays it as a mark both of shame and of gentlemanly refinement to have your wife or husband be informed in this manner that you have been illicitly visiting the sex orc, but the glimpses that he allows us into the public lives of the families are just enough to tantalize before he returns to his preferred sphere — the claustrophobia of the boudoir. Peripheral characters will occasionally comment on how the unspeakable horror of their situation is inevitably tempered by the pride that one’s spouse is a virile, vital, and physically powerful enough to take on this kind of experience; an optimistic outlook that one senses only Roth could pull off with a straight face. His pity instead lies with the rich men and women who, having been ejected from their homes, appear in Jazabaal’s parlor and break down in front of the orc who ruined their lives, unable to break down in front of anyone else. But pity is ultimately short lived and in short supply in Roth’s Antwerp, and Jazabaal responds in the only way appropriate: by kicking them in the head, retrieving the jagged yet pliable cartilage dildo from the velvet-lined case (swiftly becoming a familiar trope for late-period Roth) and dragging them to the bedroom by whichever wretched body part first comes to hand. Often accused by his critics of having no feel for women or orcs, Roth, like his titular dominatrix, seems determined to beat out these notions in the kindest way possible.

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