Lock Her Up

Mercy: A Novel BY Andrea Dworkin. Four Walls Eight Windows. Paperback, 352 pages. $13.

The cover of Mercy: A Novel

“Ms. Dworkin advocates nothing short of killing men,” wrote Wendy Steiner in a New York Times review of the feminist antipornography writer’s final novel, Mercy (1990). By then, Andrea Dworkin’s reputation as the obdurate intellectual leader of the sex wars’ losing side was a toxic, insurmountable liability, and the media spotlight had moved on to the fresh provocations of young third wavers. Times review aside, Dworkin’s riveting work of experimental fiction received little attention, certainly in contrast to her incendiary works of nonfiction from the previous decade.

Her polemic Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) argues that porn is fascist propaganda, a weapon as crucial to the escalating war on women as Goebbels’s vicious output was to Hitler’s rise; and Intercourse, published six years later, is an unflinching treatise on fucking under male supremacy, a seething critique of heterosexuality rendered as literary criticism. Mercy is, in contrast, devastatingly personal: The formally complex, mostly autobiographical book reads as a torrent released onto the page after years of steely, researched argumentation. Steiner’s strange review is nevertheless insightfully conflicted: She credits Dworkin with inventing “a new representational strategy,” one “risking the prurience of the pornography she deplores,” but mistakes the novel’s shocking collapse of the metaphorical and the literal, of fantasy and confession, as a sign that its plot is actually a plan.

In Mercy, Dworkin grieves for the life of her narrator, also called Andrea. Of this name, she writes, in a bitter refrain, that “it means manhood or courage.” Of Andrea’s childhood home in Camden, New Jersey, she notes that it was down the street from Walt Whitman’s house. For a lower-middle-class Jewish girl, that fact fuels dreams of Leaves of Grass greatness; for the anti-imperialist teen poet she becomes, Whitman is a symbol of an alternate, metaphysical nation. “I’m from his country, the country he wrote about in his poems, the country of freedom, the country of ecstasy, the country of joy of the body,” she insists. “Not the Amerika run by war criminals.”

Andrea’s life is sharply constrained by sexism, her rebellion and naiveté punished at every turn by stunning sexual violence. She is molested in a movie theater at age nine. At eighteen, she is left bleeding for weeks by a sadistic gynecological “exam” administered in jail after her arrest for protesting the Vietnam War. As an adult, she is destitute, often trading sex for food and shelter. And she’s very often raped. The novel’s brutal events are detailed in despairing run-on sentences or in feverish bursts of outrage. But while Mercy is indisputably a tale of tragic disillusionment, it’s also, contrary to Dworkin’s notoriety as a judgmental prude or an unimaginative demagogue, a passionate account of her life’s adventures as a sexual radical. For a writer popularly miscredited with the hackles-raising adage that “all sex is rape,” she graphically depicts sex that is not.

Andrea’s disastrous young marriage abroad to an anarchist mastermind of urban disruption mirrors the author’s own heartbreaking ordeal in Amsterdam. The relationship begins in 1969 as a profound countercultural romance, the couple’s shared drive to sow antigovernment chaos fueling a gender-transcending sexual bond, “a carnal expression of brotherhood in the revolutionary sense, a long, fraternal embrace,” Dworkin writes. Sex affirms their freedom and sustains their underground life of righteous crime: “I liked fucking after a strike, a proper climax to the real act—I liked how everything got fast and urgent; fast, hard, life or death. . . . I liked revolution as foreplay; I liked how it made you supersensitive so the hairs on your skin were standing up and hurt before you touched them.” Pleasure and pain are entangled in their story, before it begins to turn. “I liked to be on top: and I moved real slow,” she writes, “using every muscle in me, so I could feel him hurting—you know that melancholy ache inside that deepens into a frisson of pain?” But Andrea is not always on top and doesn’t mind (“there wasn’t nothing he did to me that I didn’t do to him”), until, somehow, she finds herself always on the bottom—tied to the bed and then beaten almost to death.

Their “carnal brotherhood” is gradually poisoned by straight society’s influence: both her husband’s shame in front of his real revolutionary brothers (other men) at her unwifely role and his cowardly regression to the norms of his bourgeois family, ruled by a sullen and imperious patriarch. The marriage, which she narrowly escapes, is an emblem of the Left’s empty egalitarian promises, its male leaders’ readiness to fuck and fuck over the women in its ranks.

A need to understand her harrowing experience as a battered wife spurred Dworkin to write her first book, the intoxicating, Huey Newton–inspired call to arms Woman Hating (1974), which launched her poorly paid career on the emerging women’s-lib speakers’ circuit, but Mercy’s Andrea is not so fortunate. She returns to New York, where violence, desolation, and homelessness characterize the remainder of her life. Trauma doesn’t snuff out lust, though—encounters with women provide some fleeting reprieve, serving as trapdoors to Whitman’s ecstatic country. “Your life’s telling you that if you’re between her legs, you’re free,” Dworkin writes. “There’s not many women around who have any freedom in them let alone some to spare, extravagant, on you, and it’s when they’re on you you see it best and know it’s real.”

Inequality taints all things, though, and Andrea knows even a bowl of soup can turn you into a john in the eyes of the hungry. “The room’s empty but she sits at the table next to me, black leather pants, she’s got black hair, painted black, like I always wanted,” Dworkin writes, describing a woman Andrea longs for at an all-night kosher restaurant downtown. “I can’t go with her now because she has an underlying bad motive, she wants to eat,” she wryly observes, “and what I feel for her is complete sex.” How do we reconcile this self-critical, principled, desirous Andrea with the antisex villain invoked in third-wave defenses of sexual empowerment—the feminist prerogative to squeeze pleasure from the status quo? For that matter, how can we understand this Andrea next to the ruined monster of Mercy’s end? She does indeed become a murderer. With nothing left to lose, she summons the courage and manhood suggested by her name to visit nighttime vigilante injustice on the city’s unluckiest men.

Ms. Dworkin was resigned to illegibility in her lifetime. The Times review of Mercy was not the first time she’d been accused of homicidal misandry, and her first-person depiction of an assassin was likely, in part, a dark prank to see just how stupid her critics could be. Yet her belief in feminist revolution, and its requisite project of sexual liberation, was unwavering, even if, by the time of her death in 2005 at age fifty-eight, she had abandoned hope of living beyond the backlash to second-wave gains, or to the merciless rhetoric of her own oeuvre. I can imagine her imagining a time when a new generation might recognize the nuances of her punishing fiction, the Swiftian twists in her extreme proposals, and some terrible truth in her apocalyptic warnings.

Johanna Fateman is an art critic and owner of Seagull salon in New York. She is currently coediting a collection of Andrea Dworkin’s writings for Semiotext(e).