Reviewed by Michelle LeDonne
Strip. Nightwood Editions, 2013
Andrew Binks’s second novel, Strip, is a bildungsroman set in the early 1980s that follows the cross-country journey of a young gay ballet dancer both on and off the stage. The reader meets the protagonist, John Rottam, as he is lying at the bottom of a stairwell, bloodied, after being attacked during a private stripping engagement. John’s subsequent narration is a series of flashbacks, outlining his path from dancing as second soloist in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to his desperate decision to turn his back on classical ballet and start stripping. While much of the plot feels predictable and seems entrapped in the same aimlessness that plagues John as a character, Strip delivers a detailed portrait of the physical and emotional perils facing a performing artist.
Through glimpses of his parents and his conservative prairie upbringing, John’s reasons for choosing the perilous life of a dancer become clear. While on a company tour stop in Montreal, he is devastated by an ill-fated love affair with an arrogant choreographer, who nonetheless inspires John to leave the restrictions of the Winnipeg troupe behind and to dance with a small, independent ensemble in Quebec City. Soon after, however, the start-up company meets its demise under the thumb of a stereotypically cruel ballet mistress and John loses his livelihood. To survive, John takes a job exotic dancing and stripping at a side-of-the-road club in rural Quebec called Chez Moritz.
At the centre of each of the novel’s many plot points is John’s conflicted relationship with control – of himself, of his body, of his emotions, and of his career. The tension between John’s body in performance and his inner insecurities places him continually at odds with himself: “It’s funny how cruel we can be toward our own selves in split seconds... My life was an angry dance that was frantically whipping about this terrestrial stage, crashing into the edge of the proscenium, pulling on the flies...putting other dances on edge, at risk” (194). Binks creates many awkward scenarios where John is slow to learn that for both the ballet dancer and the stripper, control is essential for success and begins with the mastery of one’s own body in space and in relation to others.
Binks mirrors this tension formally by beginning each chapter with a decontextualized meditation on a specific part of the dancer’s body, describing both its capabilities and limitations. These passages are the highlights of the novel and readers with a background in dance or theatre will find them particularly relatable: “The thigh, the calf, each joint, each tendon, each tissue rallies to elevate the privileged being to a place of otherworldly experience and expression, before becoming earthbound once more” (94). Dance functions as a metaphor throughout the novel for the personal freedom John strives to achieve. The controlled virtuosity of the dancer’s body is contrasted against John’s doubt-filled inner monologue, a tortured conversation between pain, delusion, and deep loneliness. It is also worth noting the additional gravity that Binks places on the gay body by setting the novel in 1982. Though the clinical name is never given to the “gay cancer,” as John and his friends call it, AIDS looms in the background of every casual tryst and strip club exploit.
In his sophomore effort, Binks shows a talent for creating rich sensory experiences for the reader, especially in the Chez Moritz passages, where “everything got a little messier on those stairs: twisted ankles, broken glass, spilled booze running down bloody legs, over caesareans scars, stretch marks, and bruises” (162). These graphic sections provide a welcome counterbalance to John’s idealistic, and sometimes forced, insights and reflections: “First it was love I sought, then I settled for admiration, then some attention and as a result, soon I wanted anyone. Some are fulfilled on stage, even in the wings, but I carried my needs, kicking and screaming, out the stage door. I was dying for something” (174). Throughout too much of the novel, Binks characterizes John as vapid and hapless. Although the reader wants to sympathize, Binks depicts a character who is more victim and voyeur than struggling protagonist. As a result, the reader is often searching for a reason to remain invested in John’s many undertakings.
While Strip’s denouement is also too neat and too obvious, the thoughtful resolution of John’s internal conflicts heightens the final pages above the banal. John’s eventual sense of peace within his body and within his artistic community is palpable and the novel’s emotional pay-off is satisfying and surprising. With a clearer focus throughout and a trimmed-down plot, Strip would stand apart from many other less creative and less heartfelt works in this genre.
Michelle LeDonne holds an MA in English Literature from McGill University, where she wrote a research paper on Lady Gaga and self-reflexive representations of celebrity.
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