It is a rare thing for a novel to repulse and charm its readers in equal measure, but Davey Davis’ X does so flawlessly. A noir-tinged tale of the S&M dungeons and darkrooms of Brooklyn, Davis’ novel offers us a glimpse at a dystopia that is far too close for comfort. It is a time where “undesirable” members of society can easily find themselves “exported”.
“During the first wave,” Davis writes, those exported included “non-white immigrants, those on the no-fly list, known commies and Antifa, Jews and Muslims, Black and brown leftist organisers.” Now it’s the second wave and the turn of BLM supporters, drug users, trans folk and “lots and lots of poor people”. Our protagonist Lee hears that X, a mysterious fetishist and object of their obsessions, may be getting exported soon. Thus sets off Lee’s debauched odyssey through the alleys and oubliettes of New York’s underground kink scene.
Davis, a California native based in New York, is something of a kink theoretician. They speak of the world of kink, fetish, and S&M with such ease and eloquence that it feels as if they are simply discussing the weather. AnOther caught up with them over Zoom to discuss X – the story of how it came to be, its inspirations and what they hope it will achieve.
Barry Pierce: When did X start forming itself in your head? Do you recall when the seed was planted?
Davey Davis: I was really taken with Old Hollywood cinema, with noir, as a way of connecting with an older gay sensibility; the queer subtexts of those films. Because so much of the information about queerness back then is often oral, doesn’t exist, or you have to know certain people – those films are like a direct route. That was where everything [for X] started cooking.
But a friend of mine and I have this running joke about this thing we call the “top box”. Top/bottom phenomenology is always a funny thing, but we were really interested by that assumption that if you’re masculine you’re a top and if you’re not then you’re a bottom. It’s a funny heteronormative trap of “the way you look is the way you fuck”. So then I was like, it would be cool to write a book about somebody in the “top box” who gets topped and see what happens.
BP: And the protagonist, Lee, what was the inspiration behind them? Are they autobiographical?
DD: It’s funny because that question comes up, and it’s not like I hide my own personal life, but my protagonist is a sadist and I’m not very sadistic. I was a pro dom [professional dominant] in my twenties for a little bit. [Laughs,]. But Lee is like a hard-boiled detective chasing a femme fatale, that kind of familiar trope, but they’re also a pastiche of this intolerable but sexy and charismatic top. It’s like what you want out of a top but when you get everything you want out of a top, it sucks, and they’re a bad person.
”Fetish is a normal, healthy human expression of sexuality and interest, it creates opportunities for intimacy and pleasure” – Davey Davis
BP: When I was reading X the first thing that came to my mind was Dennis Cooper. And then, there’s a point in the novel where Lee takes out Frisk and starts masturbating to it. That felt like such a nice wink to Dennis and the writers that came before X. Who do you look at as inspiration for your writing and to X?
DD: I love when people see that connection [to Cooper] because I think he’s a great American novelist – a genius. The other authors that were very much in mind for me were Sarah Schulman, [her 1988 novel] After Dolores with its lesbian gumshoe has the same kind of hard-boiled kind of thing going on, and Sam Delany, because you can’t not. He’s similar to Cooper because he’s able to write something that’s literally stomach-turning but also some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. I’m reading about a completely morally indefensible man who is raping people and smells like vomit and he’s killing children and you’re so moved.
BP: The crazy thing about Cooper’s stuff, to me, is that it’s all so unimaginably transgressive and disgusting, and yet he had a mainstream publisher. I just cannot imagine any major publishing house going near it today. Do you feel that, in recent times, transgressive literature has had to become underground again?
DD: I’m on the fence about that. I do think that, at least in America, we are more conservative now. But I also think it’s also a function of the literary business, trends have changed but there are fewer smaller, middle independent publishers and therefore less places and opportunities for writers. We are also moving into this thing where writers are more like brands and personalities in a way that I don’t think they once were, and I think that can have a bearing on what is and what isn’t perceived as transgressive.
”Most people’s understanding of consent could stand with being a little more sophisticated” – Davey Davis
BP: There’s a John Waters quote that goes “without obsession, life is nothing” and I thought about that a lot while reading X. To me, it is a novel of obsession, about one person being so obsessed with someone that they alter their life around them. Do you agree with that?
DD: Yeah, like I think that one of my projects, something that is a factor in my artistic life but it’s also very political, is there needs to be separation between desire and action. I think there is this gut reflex to decide that a fantasy is the same as something that has been done. It’s very easy to take that and replace reality with something that is not actually real. That’s how you get censorship in art.
But the other thing is fetish is really interesting to me. I think it’s a normal, healthy human expression of sexuality and interest, it creates opportunities for intimacy and pleasure that are otherwise not available to people. And I think that Lee’s obsession is searching for a thing that’s not just exciting or sexy but a real connection. But you cannot have a real connection with an object and you cannot have a real connection with a person who is an object.
BP: I have a final question, what are your hopes for the novel? What do you hope it achieves?
DD: I hope if people read it they will have a nice sexy time. I also wrote it because I’m very interested in why we hurt people we love and how that manifests and things like intimate partner violence. To me, it’s a book about intimate partner violence with dykes. I think there’s this notion with leather that there is no consent, or there are no boundaries, or it’s automatically violent or abusive, but I think that most people’s understanding of consent could stand with being a little more sophisticated. I guess if it makes people actually think about what they mean when they’re talking about consent or what it means to be safe or what it means to be violent, then that would be nice.
X by Davey Davis is published by Cipher Press, and is out now.