David Leo Rice’s novella The PornME Trinity is an addictive and voyeuristic parable. And like all parables, it harbors hidden meanings that stimulate deeper reflection. On the surface, this story is about a person’s perilous encounter with sexual and homicidal fantasies. At a deeper level, it’s about the nature of reality seen through the prism of the virtual universe. Our protagonist is Gribby, a nondescript everyman, byproduct of contemporary trash culture, who lives under the ubiquitous eye of the surveillance state. Everything he does is recorded. His observed life unfolds between the office, where each person is as nondescript as he is, and his apartment, where he shuffles between his computer and an empty fridge that holds a few derelict olives (destined for his evening martinis) and a smattering of stale takeout dumplings. Gribby’s perception of work colleagues is surface deep. Everyone is “ugly,” except for Kellyanne whom he fantasizes about and his boss Mr. Veitch, a handsome “dickhead” he nevertheless admires. Isolated and deprived of any real personal relationships, Gribby’s life already mirrors the virtual space he inhabits. Both Kellyanne and Mr. Veitch appear as one-dimensional pulp characters, props projected from his mind onto reality. This is the normal humdrum state of things until one day Gribby receives an email in his spam folder from a site called PornME with a tantalizing offer: they’ll send him videos of himself and anyone else he’s caught on camera with playing out his sexual fantasies – compliments of the surveillance state – and for only $12.99 a month. Soon, when the videos begin rolling in, both Kellyanne and Mr. Veitch are reduced further to become willing and ready actors in Gribby’s porn fantasy, with himself in the leading role, until the sex scenarios take an unforeseen turn.
This scenario is not so farfetched for those familiar with the gaming world. An evening watching The Peripheral will give you an immediate sense of how this might play out cinematically. It is after all what games and pornography do: they reduce all things and all people to archetypes for cathartic pleasure or shock. Had Gribby seen Kellyanne, Mr. Veitch, and others, on a more intimate level as humans with real histories, emotions, attachments, beliefs, etcetera, perhaps their objectification would have been difficult, even impossible. But Gribby is no evil conniver, he is falling in line, doing what everyone else does. So when the mysterious people at PornME, through impeccable editing, begin sending Gribby daily videos of himself “banging” Kellyanne “live” at her desk, he is stunned: the video makes his fantasy real. In the PornME world, he can say with confidence, video killed the porn star. It’s beyond his expectations. He finds this exciting beyond even the remedy of masturbation. What he doesn’t know he paid for is what comes next, when the videos degenerate into snuff – blood, guts, and all – and much worse, his own annihilation, before the narrative turns into a curious outer-body space odyssey.
The novella posits something quite simple: fears and desires – biological or psychological – are innate to almost everyone, albeit to varying degrees. The premise being that, if they were not, the fantasy worlds of games, porn, and horror would appeal to only a marginal group. Part of the attraction in indulging them is that we can quickly find ourselves tripping headlong down a rabbit hole without a flashlight, like Gribby, into a chasm inside us we didn’t know existed or refused to explore, no less to acknowledge. Maybe this is a hackneyed paradigm already stripped naked by the likes of the Marquis de Sade, Baudelaire and friends, Genet and Pasolini, down to the unabashed early twenty-first century where we have the conceit to know ‘it’s all been done.’ True. But Rice serves that severed head on a different platter, glazed in the unmistakable veneer of the COVID-19 pandemic, where, regardless of who we are, each of us found ourselves at home, isolated, passing our days in front of the one thing we created that resembles us the most – the computer and its cunning alter-ego, the Internet.
It’s unsettling to think that PornME first appeared as a short story in the summer of 2018, almost two years before the pandemic began, and as a book in the early spring of 2020. A fact that only brings Rice’s prescience into greater relief. It shows that the fruit of annihilation was already ripe in Gribby’s loins, and the pandemic was simply fertile breeding ground for its birth into our own reality. I write this somewhat facetiously because it turns out that ‘fertility’ is a central theme of the novella. Similar to Little Red Riding Hood and the fables of Mother Goose, The PornMe Trinity seems to conceal a fertility story where toxic masculinity takes center stage. It’s easy to imagine Gribby as a modern version of the wolf whose sexual proclivities turn him into a bloodthirsty monster. But distinct from other lycanthropes, such as Dracula and Werewolves, Gribby seems to have little understanding of his true nature.
The PornME Trinity is about porn, and its potential addiction, true, but it’s also about the endless cycle of death and birth and reincarnation, the essence of a universal energy, and our inability to name it, whatever it may be. Science has failed to plumb its depths. Unlike other representations of these lofty ideas, The PornME Trinity doesn’t give us philosophy or theology but rather a parable that veers into a fable with a creation story’s undertow – all at once. It has the parable’s moral dilemma, the fable’s magic and fantasy, the creation story’s matter-of-factness that says: this is how it all came to be and will be forever. But Rice is no moralizer; if anything, this novella leaves morality to drift in the endless waters of cyberspace while it embraces something of much greater import. Do you surrender and accept the endless cycle of life (its agonies and ecstasies) or do you fight against it and in doing so, “die…end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”, as Hamlet put it? But Gribby doesn’t know whether to surrender or fight and it matters little because in the end, fate – and the universe – know that there is no end, but a perpetual recurrence. Why? Because it’s Gribby’s greatest desire.
Gribby possesses little of the characteristics of traditional antiheros such as say, Hamlet or Crusoe, whose characters emerge in response to an external challenge. Gribby falls more in line with Camus’s Meursault or Kafka’s Samsa. An indecisive character, he drifts through life (as he drifts through the universe in chapter two). And when suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” he is incapable of managing them except through acquiescence. But even here, Gribby experiences no real ennui or alienation, as Meursault and Samsa do. This seems to be because for the most part he inhabits a virtual space where the possibilities for distraction are endless and tantalizingly seductive. It’s no wonder in the post-pandemic world many prefer to work at home vegetating behind a computer where it’s easy to switch from reality to fantasy (or to the next reality) at the click of a mouse.
Rice, like Kundera, takes a meta perspective, as he pulls outward to show us how the apparent laws of the universe (aka, cyberspace) fiddle with Gribby’s life (and ours) like a puppeteer. One gets the sense that this process is inexorable – as if invisible forces are at work – as Gribby’s destiny is determined by energies he cannot control. These invisible forces are the theater for Rice’s meta perspective in which the karmic and the virtual blend to such an extent that it’s never clear what is real. Do we inhabit a karmic or a virtual space, or both simultaneously? There’s a strange almost counterintuitive spirituality to Rice’s novella and something ritualistic about Gribby’s foray into the perpetual cycle of life. It calls to mind Bataille’s understanding of the central purpose of all ritual: to demonstrate the “continuity” of life beyond death. This notion of continuity appears to be the underlying intention for the novella’s triad division into Son, Ghost, and Father. It contains a Neo-Platonist view of the inevitable and relentless unfolding of the universe as described by Plotinus, not to mention the obvious allusion to emanation at the heart of Christian trinity. The difference being that in Rice’s story this unfolding is not organic but cybernetic. So after a brutal earthly exit, Gribby finds himself in orbit navigating his own space odyssey. And while floating in the emptiness, he discovers his sperm is still quite fertile; through a series of millennia he uses that fertility – or rather it uses him – to create worlds and universes ad infinitum. Truth is, Gribby does not die at all but returns in a new form in a new operating system: PornMe2, PornMe3, and so on. This too he has no control over, because death, fertility, and birth just keep on going, and it seems, to no end.
The PornME Trinity
by David Leo Rice
Opiate Books; 138 p
John P. Apruzzese writes fiction, poetry, and book and art reviews. His writing has appeared in the Adirondack Review, Brooklyn Magazine, Burning House Press, Piwodoki (Polish), Public Seminar, and PANK Magazine. He is the Translator Editor at The New School’s LIT literary and arts review.