I recently read a crime novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and I came across the name of another writer Boris Vian in the process. I wanted to read a Vian novel, and after reading the brief synopses of a couple, I decided to give I Spit On Your Graves a go. So one thing led to another, and before long, I had a copy of Vian’s I Spit On Your Graves sitting in front of me. After all, that title alone is a hook and it echoes all the nuances of the exploitation genre.
Well….I Spit On Your Graves is a peculiar novel. Boris Vian was a Frenchman who wrote the novel as the result of a bet. The novel was supposedly written by an American black man, Vernon Sullivan , who published the book in France as “no American editor dared publish” it. In 1946, at the time of its publication, Vian claimed to be the translator, and so the charade brought translating work to his lap. I Spit On Your Graves was a sensation when it was published and its notoriety grew after a copy was found with passages marked at the scene of a murder. The role of the book in the murder rapidly became one of those AC/DC Made-Him-Do-It scenarios. The novel was banned in 1949, and of course, a banned novel gains even more attention.
The introduction, from James Sallis explains that in 1959 while watching the screening of the film version of the film, Boris Vian became so enraged that he had a heart attack and died. It’s the stuff of legends, and as the old saying goes, you couldn’t make this stuff up. But now to the book….
The novel begins with the protagonist, 26-year-old Lee Anderson travelling to the North as the result of some sort of trouble. As the novel develops, exactly what that trouble was becomes clear. Anderson is a blond, blue-eyed black man who passes for white. Anderson’s brother has been murdered–lynched by a mob of white men, and now Anderson is driven only by one thing–revenge, and his goal is to seduce and murder white women. Anderson arrives in the small Northern town of Buckton to run a bookshop and within a matter of days, and with the help of a few bottles of whiskey, he’s hanging out with a group of local teenagers.
According to the novel, this peculiar corner of America is full of uninhibited teenage nymphos so before you get out your maps to plan a trip, I have to dampen any enthusiasm and say that I Spit on Your Graves is not a bit realistic in its setting or in its characterisations and instead seems more of a curiosity than anything else.
In terms of sadistic content, I Spit On Your Graves could very well be the prototype for the equally distasteful Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. But the problem is that Vian’s portrayal of American society is just off, and the result is a rather bizarre novel in which Vian imagines that every American female is sex-starved, ready to rip her knickers off, cavort on the grass, throw herself on the back seat of the car, and embark on an endless succession of orgies with whichever male is handy. Well you get the idea. And then to add to the madness, Anderson has a thing for young girls:
“Girls of fifteen, with little pointed breasts under their tight sweaters–they do it on purpose, the little witches. And their socks, bright yellow and red and green sox, sticking out of their flat-heeled shoes. And flared skirts, and round knees. And always sitting on the ground with their legs spread so you could see their fresh undies. Yes, I liked their looks, the bobby-soxers.”
Anderson seems to think that females have been placed on the planet to drive him insane. Wait…I take that back. He’s already insane. When he’s not having sex with 12 year-old prostitutes, Anderson is obsessed with girls’ “boxes” and attracted to their sweaty armpits.
I don’t usually write reviews of novels I didn’t enjoy, but I certainly didn’t enjoy I Spit On Your Graves. Great title but apart from that…more than a little odd. Did Vian really imagine America this way? With a teenage nympho ready to leap out at any passing man? Or didn’t it matter?