Patterned on Ulysses, crammed with an entire liberal arts education, this debut’s vast ambition goes up against Conn’s obvious and genuine talent: against all odds, talent wins.
Benjamin Seymour is in depressive stasis, not quite sleepwalking through an often wonderfully detailed New York City, as he mourns and longs for his lost dead love, Penelope, a love documented in the many pornographic films they made together, she as star, he both in front of and behind the camera. Related in a variety of formal tricks, the novel gives us the real magic of first love, set in a mythic Ithaca, where they both attended Cornell, and a loving history of American porn (inevitably reminiscent of Boogie Nights), culminating in Benjamin's mentor, friend, and Quilty figure, Milton Minegold, a heroic, pathetic, scary Al Goldstein type (Conn includes a number of recognizable satirized figures). While Benjamin's focus on the scatological and masturbatory is not for the squeamish, he's a winning character, a genuine good sort, and when he meets lawyer Katherine Welland, an erotic urge turns into chivalry and he goes on a quest to find her runaway daughter, nine-year-old Finn, as precocious as a Glass but as charming as Eloise, and herself a heroic figure, struggling with incipient adult understandings of the world. Together, Finn and Benjamin go on a transformative metaphorical journey that brings everyone home, Finn to her mother, Benjamin to her mother's bed, and the reader to the Molly Bloom climax. Despite sometimes precious, self-congratulatory prose, smart but easy puns (“The child was jung but not easily freudened”), and a brittle stylistic cleverness (the centerpiece here is a 110-page screenplay of a surreal musical fantasia starting in the Times Square Disney store and continuing through stygian subways), Conn sends us on an engaging, entertaining, funny, and moving trip.
A writer to watch.