THE BRAIN PLANT TETRALOGY
This unjustly forgotten product of the late-1960s porno underground, consisting of the novels LOVELY, HEALER, OUT and GLUE FACTORY (all from 1969), is among the most complex and ambitious examples of pornographic literature--or, if you prefer, fuckbooks--ever written. The publisher was the late Essex House, which during its brief reign (1968-70) specialized in quality adult literature, of which the BRAIN PLANT tetralogy may well be the crowning jewel. Each of its four books are self-contained, but all must be perused to get the full effect of a saga that reads like an unholy mash-up of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, NAKED LUNCH and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL.
The pornographic designation, for the record, was specified by the novels’ author David Meltzer, who has stated “I was conscious of the profound differences between pornography and eroticism,” and that “I stressed the pornographic because it embodied notions culturally expressed in colonialism, racism and other uses and misuses of human potential.”
Meltzer was and is a San Francisco-based poet of great renown who during the years 1968-69 published nine novels under the Essex House imprint (and a tenth via Brandon House in 1970). Meltzer described those publications as “anti-erotic,” which is evident in the fact that he chose the notorious Sylvia Likens murder case as the inspiration for his 1969 novel THE MARTYR, certainly one of the darkest and least erotic fuckbooks of all time. Of more immediate concern is Meltzer’s 1968 AGENCY trilogy, consisting of THE AGENCY, THE AGENT and HOW MANY BLOCKS IN THE PILE?, which prefigured the BRAIN PLANT quartet. Self-proclaimed “Fierce moral tracts” about a shadowy organization that controls America’s sexual mores via products that include, presumably, the very books under discussion here, the AGENCY trilogy is a notably angry and provocative work whose depiction of sexuality as an agent of personal and societal control rings disturbingly true. The science fiction tinged BRAIN PLANT novels furthered those concerns in a far more wide-ranging and intellectually vigorous saga that is to its predecessor what FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS was to THE RUM DIARY.
The BRIAN PLANT books are by no means easy reads. The narratives, in keeping with their author’s signature profession, utilize poetic rather than dramatic principles, with a quasi-satiric tone that falls somewhere between 1984 and Zap Comix. The characterizations tend to be quite dense, enigmatic and (where authority figures are concerned) stereotypical; one pivotal character spends a great deal of time offstage, another turns out to be numerous people who only appear to be a single entity, while another--whose import is indicated by the fact that he’s identified as God--isn’t introduced until the final book of the series.
The books are also quintessential products of their time, partaking of nearly every aspect of the late-sixties counterculture scene. Druggy psychedelia? Very much evident. Carlos Castaneda-inspired mysticism? That too. Anti-capitalist rhetoric? Ditto. Even the overtly psychedelic cover art is representative of the era (a prime reason for the termination of Essex House, it’s been claimed, was its “hippie-oriented” covers). According to author Michael Perkins, “future historians may turn to the erotic novels of the sixties for the most accurate literary reflection of the youth mood of those years,” and those prospective historians could certainly do worse than to explore the BRAIN PLANT novels, which adroitly illuminate the sixties’ darker corners.
Yet the sexual content of these books is just as essential to their overall effect as the social commentary. Indeed, in David Meltzer’s fiction sex is social commentary, both factually and metaphorically speaking. In keeping with the rest of his “anti-erotic” output, the sex is depicted in a manner that’s quite brutal and exploitive in nature, with domination and sadism being the dominant emotions--the term lovemaking, you’ll find, is never utilized.
Such an uncompromising approach to sexuality ensured these books could only have been published by Essex House, whose commitment to intelligent XXX-rated fiction remains virtually unprecedented in American publishing circles. It’s an unfortunate but hardly surprising fact that the BRAIN PLANT tetralogy has never been reprinted (although THE AGENCY TRILOGY, puzzlingly enough, was, in both print and ebook formats), and nor is it at all surprising that Meltzer’s subsequent fictional output has been quite sparse (with 1995’s UNDER, published by the late Masquerade Books, was his one and only post-1970 novel). As Meltzer told author Maxim Jakubowski, “I could have continued writing the books indefinitely. In fact I still consider doing it again but, alas, there are no available outlets for the work.”
LOVELY, BRAIN PLANT’S inaugural entry, is a bewildering, kaleidoscopic work comprised of several disparate narrative voices and at least a dozen protagonists. They include Dr. Feelgood, a disgraced M.D. whose amoral nature has elevated him to a leadership position in a nightmarish future America; hapless sewage workers who are afforded a worm’s-eye view of just how debased this future world truly is; assorted “Rads” (radical anarchists), “Rebs” (white trash folk) and “Snarks” (perverts); and Arthur Goldwheel, a naïve poet in search of his missing fiancée Lydia, who may or may not be real. This society is marked by virtual reality sex emporiums called Fun Zones that are designed to keep the populace distracted from the rampant poverty, marauding snipers and overseas wars that are afflicting the country. Truly, the world of these novels, exotic though it may be, wasn’t too removed from the realities of late 1960s America--or those of today for that matter, which explains why LOVELY and its follow-ups remain so affecting.
HEALER, BRAIN PLANT’S second book, is a more focused and (for its first half at least) accessible book than LOVELY. HEALER centers on Walker, a government-appointed “Healer” tasked with carrying out the first of a three-step healthcare program. Walker is attempting to use hypnosis to plumb the sexual hang-ups of a mysterious Native American seductress named Laura Golden Eyes. So far so straightforward, complete with a pleasantly pulpy plot device involving a search for a priceless amulet known as the Golden Eye, but as we delve into Laura’s past, involving a mystical cult ruled by a powerful sorcerer with an enormous cock, Walker’s reality begins to fragment--as does that of the novel overall, which illuminates Walker’s troubled psyche in a riot of sorcery and psychosis.
OUT, a.k.a. BRAIN PLANT BOOK 3, takes a more streetwise approach, relating its story from the point of view of an unnamed dope dealer. After brutalizing a cop the dealer is forcibly inducted, very CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like, into the corrupt Ormond Industries, a government-sponsored organization that specializes in scamming people out of their money. This naturally involves a fair amount of perverted sex in addition to the amoral con games taught by Ormond Industries’ associates, with the protagonist coming to despise his profession, and inevitably meeting a horrendous fate. Related in terse, hardboiled prose, OUT is the most readable and user-friendly of the BRAIN PLANT novels, and also (the CLOCKWORK ORANGE allusions aside) the least science fictionish. Indeed, its depiction of the mechanics of scamming is extremely contemporary, as anyone who’s ever been accosted by door-to-door salesmen, telemarketers or online spammers can readily attest.
The final entry in the BRAIN PLANT quartet is the outrageous GLUE FACTORY. Replicating the kaleidoscopic multi-character format of LOVELY, and bringing back many of its characters, GLUE FACTORY closes the saga out on an apocalyptic note, with the futuristic society detailed in the earlier books destroying itself in a collective orgy of sexualized violence (with decapitation and castration being constants, along with a depiction of death by shit that foreshadows a famous scene in BRAZIL). The mayhem is covertly masterminded by Power, a corrupt military-industrial outfit that is apparently ready to cut its losses and start anew. Running Power is the aforementioned God, a megalomaniacal media star who in the final pages takes himself out in a most memorable manner that gives new meaning to the term self-abuse.
To be sure, the BRAIN PLANT saga is not without its share of overt flaws. It’s dense, frequently incoherent and often agonizingly self-indulgent, with satire that might charitably be called broad and obvious (as naming the central authority figure God unquestionably is). Yet it must be classified as a monumental work nonetheless, with a range, imagination and confounding intelligence that are without parallel in the fuckbook realm.
I can only imagine how readers in search of typical stroke fodder might have reacted to these novels. That query may be answered, at least partially, by the fact that the BRAIN PLANT books have grown so obscure. It doesn’t always pay to go against the grain, especially in the field of pornography, certainly one of the most tightly regimented and expectation-heavy of all formats. Yet these books conclusively prove that quality literature can be spun from stroke fodder, and are fully deserving of the effort required to search them out.