Ranalli, Gina. Mother Puncher. Seattle: Afterbirth Books, 2008. 120 pp. $8.95. ISBN 1933929170.
Just a bit of harmless fun. Let’s face it—when has violence against women ever hurt anyone? Mother Puncher is a succinct, moderately violent farce, set in a dystopian near-future America. It is written in that chilled out and relaxed, that chillaxed, that almost chaxed style by now familiar to most Bizarro readers, chocked full of nutritious colloquialisms and happy to go with exposition like “he kinda looks like that chick outta Ghostbusters” (I’m exaggerating).
It isn’t just laziness, though—the style is rooted in the regrettable consciousness of the book’s star, “Ed.” Cuz Ed Means is your regular long-suffering, Nice Guy blue collar worker. The kind of guy who wonders how sincere the folks on TV are, then experiences a twinge of sadness going to fix himself a ham sandwich (I’m not exaggerating).
He’s also an old-fashioned brawling hero, the kind of protagonist who is half-reluctant, but two-thirds satisfied, as he thumps yet another furtive, twitchy aggressor into yet more lumpy, unsavory batter.
That’s in his spare time. Ed’s job is to visit maternity wards and punch the new mothers. Part of a government programme designed to dishearten and dispirit those who, as the planet groans at its seams, still insist on procreating. Better to open a can of whupass ‘gainst the night than curse the darkness.
Unquestionably, Mother Puncher would make a great game. I’d go with formidable 80s German progressive rock, mainly synths, as you (The Mother Puncher) chase exhausted and often injured and drugged women through hospital corridors, deal summarily with invading pro-birth activists, tip cowering fathers from laundry bins, and so on. Mothers in the later levels would be smarter and better-armed, plus dwarf assassin disclosed by caesarean, downloadable patches to nix the blur and observe those third degree vaginal tears, etc. Accidentally paste one of the frail, elfin bundles and it’s Game Over, “Champ.” Game. Over.
Now, I rely on my blind prejudices to structure my frivolous twaddle, but some authors use social commentary, and I think Ranalli’s one of them. Some of the more minor thematic debris in the great Class U postpartum haemorrhage of Mother Puncher’s social commentary include celebrity, religion, civil disobedience and direct action (“Maybe this will teach you that violence only begets violence!”), and the role of the media in shaping public will. It also certainly raises questions about where to draw the line —or where to rip the perineum—between public and private. Sympathizing with Ed had a weird side effect. I came to experience the maternity ward’s explicit slapstick skirmishes as less sinister than the ways in which governments and experts really do primp and coerce our bodies. (You know, all that snarky, passive-aggressive gris-gris shizzle associated with the buzzwords biopower and healthism). It felt good to get that stuff in the open.
Mother Puncher also tackles misogyny. The last time I let a man cum on my face, it was only so I could then strip off his and stick it on top, and go around going “blah blah blah,” and possess his puny stupid life. Shouldn’t have bothered! Mother Puncher makes the point better—just as with real patriarchy, the unequal treatment of men and women hides behind a flimsy pretence of equality. Technically, Ed is hired to smack fathers as well as mothers, just as, technically, women and men get the same breaks nowadays when it comes to their careers, political representation, etc. But the fathers of Mother Puncher “more often than not got the hell out of there and let their wives and girlfriends take the heat alone. Little weasels.” Ed inadvertently sums up the system’s unfairness when he tells one unruly assignment, “You know the rules lady ... You got knocked up, not me.”
Finally, Mother Puncher asks some questions about personal responsibility for systemic violence. There’s no real defensible utilitarian logic to what Ed does. Fines and tax breaks would have done just fine. Perhaps Ed knew “exactly how it felt when the bones beneath someone’s skin shifted”, but were his knuckles as super-sensitive to the reality shifting underneath the symbol he zotzed? His role is group fantasy sublimated as policy—by assaulting Mother at the very moment She buds off a new life, Ed becomes a conduit for collectivised id-wrath at a neglectful, dying Mother Earth.
Taking [a] a frosty view, you could say that the book’s social commentary is incoherent. Wanting to absolve itself of conformism, it dabbles in a taboo (violence against women) which happens to offer little more than a lackluster pretext for a hick wank. And it peddles legitimation which—though it never quite coalesces (a whiff of core political speech à la First Amendment, contra utilitarianism, totalitarianism, groupthink, from the perspective of some kinda odd post-post-post-post-feminism, which may also be post-post-post-post-good, and dodgily close to plain short-sighted selfishness)—serves to take the edge off the edginess. So it starts to sound a bit like those clammy, ill-at-ease boys who hang around with feminists because they enjoy the frisson of arguing animatedly about prostitution, rape and pornography, especially with women who are better than them. At least it’s fun, you could say. But only for them.
Or taking [b] a rosy view, you could say Mother Puncher is a deft little satire about (in Bernard William’s words) “moral luck.” Ed isn’t just complicit with this vast, violent, governmentalized tantrum because of his job. He’s complicit because he never bothers to get any real political view on what’s happening around him. He’s complicit because of his dreary jaded chivalric shtick. “He deserved a punch in the face just as much as she did. Hell, probably more so since it was him who wanted to do the nasty that cold night last January.” What, like women can’t want sex as much as men, Ed? Please. All Ed’s doing is gallantly holding up manhole covers into the sewers of Lady Hell—“after you, babe.” Behaving like a stereotype prevents Ed from forming rich and complex relationships with his natural allies (Ash, Tea and maybe Sandy) and gets him stuck with that slithering Drizzle.
But above all, Ed’s complicit because he’s unlucky. Never mind that he’s nice. Never mind that he’s trapped in a system which gives him few choices (“But if you don’t want the deal, I know he will”). Never mind that Ed’s foes are often after him for the wrong reasons, and are bamboozled and riled up by scum. Ed’s roll of the dice, if you will, makes him a bad person. He’s like a Death Camp guard, or an affable, Bud-swigging poker-buddy Eichmann. He deserves our sympathy, but never our mercy. We’re with the mobs that would drink his blood.
I think the truth lies between the two, but closer to the rose lattices of the latter than the hoarfrosts of the former. Comedy often finds itself nudged by its audience into equivocal language. You know what it’s like—you think you’ve spent a week fine-tuning the irony of your latest gag, using the stand-up equivalent of a jeweller’s micro-lathe, then, after the gig, all your redneck fans congregate and congratulate you for taking a pop at the fucking Muslims. It’s something most Bizarro authors have to deal with. One important knack, I guess, is knowing just when to take a clear and tough satirical stance, and just when to crank up the phantasmagoria or the frenzy to avoid saying something.
Anyway, in case it’s not clear, I like this book. It scooches along on romp nitros. I read it in 7½ seconds and shut it so fast it ate my fingertips. “Mother puncher! Bone cruncher! Baby eater! Woman beater!” It’s informal but agitated, a shooting star gilding a twilight sky as it glides. It gave me some shnicks and yuks. It gives me the strength I need to be a brat. It suppurates moral microstructures like quantum foam. I want to say “thought-provoking” but I wouldn’t really know; I’ve a history of totally unprovoked thoughts. Mother Puncher comes into the world wriggling and crying, a breech probably, full of perversity and possibility. Somebody probably ought to punch Gina Ranalli. Clock her a good one, one she won’t forget.