A Review of Typerotica by Lee Siegel

Typerotica is not as erotic as you might guess, but one of the erogenous zones it hits with exceptional force is that of the metafictional. The book is composed of two novellas connected by a frame tale that’s ostensibly nonfiction. As Siegel’s introduction explains, the first novella was discovered by his nonagenarian mother, a curious piece of juvenilia written when the author yearned to be like and write like Henry Miller (isn’t that the same thing?) whose Tropic of Cancer was a milestone piece of contraband for his impressionable mind. He also chased the potent ghosts of other authors, such as Hemmingway and Joyce, by going to Paris, which is where he wrote the novella, titled QWERTYUIOP, at the age of 20 in 1965.

In this early work, young Siegel cuntflates the tactile and emotional experience of cumposing on the now antiquated typewriter with making love to a woman. The protagonist, who is Siegel himself, is taking a typing class because he believes that a true writer must learn how to type before learning how to write. The beautiful teacher, Miss Hammond, whom the hormonal Siegel almost instantly falls in love with, explains during class, “‘…the word ‘typewriter’ referred [in the past] not to a machine, but to a woman typing on that machine. So think of your typewriter as a woman who needs to be taken care of. Keep her clean and well lubricated, and cover her up when you’re finished using her. Be good to her and she’ll serve you well.’” Such sexual innuendo is encountered throughout the story, the most overtly sexual moment, if not simply and cleverly anatomical, is the page 19 diagram of female genitalia which explains the corresponding keys, those that relate to the clitoris, labia, etc., the anus of course being the asterisk key, as Kurt Vonnegut would probably appreciate.

The character Siegel is the odd-man-out in class by being the only man, a perfect atmosphere for sexual tension. After all, at that time most people, that is, young women, learned to type to become secretaries. We learn about some of Siegel’s classmates, such as Francine Underwood, who tells him a secretarial joke every time he encounters her on the bus, her bust enlarging each time: “‘Do you know the difference between a good secretary and a great one?” […]

‘A good secretary says, ‘Good morning, sir,’ to her boss. A great one says, ‘It’s morning, sir.’”

A large portion of the stuff that Mad Men was made of. And yes, the older and wiser Siegel is aware of the immaturities to be found in this juvenilia, yet it’s not as bad as all that. For instance, the love interest Miss Hammond is prim and proper and her sexuality is quite obviously a projection of the Siegel in heat. Plus, she isn’t a one-dimensional character composed only of “boobs and butts and hair” as Siegel’s disapproving friend put it after reading the manuscript, according to a quote in the introduction. Rather, she hopes to gain a prestigious typing job that will also come with a hefty pay raise. In some ways, her love of typing is greater than little Siegel’s, who is more passionate about what typing facilitates: writing.

What heightens the reading experience is large scanned pages of the actual typewritten manuscript, corrections included, evoking the raw and inky feeling of being in-between such ‘unpublished’ pages, almost virginal. In addition, there are annotations by the author, which is like a behind-the-scenes commentary and at times becomes the scene itself, such as when he explains ideas he had had for expanding the manuscript and possibly even turning it into a mystery story with a murder at its center. To remember the possibilities of such an early work is impressive, almost too impressive. It wasn’t until I tried to look up a book that Siegel mentions and provides the cover for, Dictated by Love by Adele Adler, that I really started doubting the veracity of things. Siegel, you tricky seal! I should have known games were afoot seeing how Love in a Dead Language is one of the most playful and clever novels I’ve ever read, and this work certainly uses a portion of that prestidigitation. Some of it’s true, perhaps most of it, but definitely not all of it (I was able to confirm the authenticity of the photo featuring Henry Miller with his cradle-robbed wife on their wedding day, the young and smiling Siegel in the background). There’s even a moment in which Siegel swears a particular coincidence is indeed true and not just the convenient machinations of the writer’s hand, which increases trust even as it decreases it, for he admits that “there are other things in my story in which the boundaries between truth and fiction are blurred….” And if all that wasn’t enough, a clearly photoshopped gravestone on page 80 becomes a, well, dead giveaway. Before I get too paranoid and suggest that the early novella was written later and not earlier, let’s talk about the second, longer novella.

This one, according to ‘real’ Siegel’s story, was inspired by the first and is its mirror, in a way, titled AZERTYUIOP, after the top row of letters on a French typewriter. Set in that love-tongue land, it’s a continuation of Siegel’s journey as amorous amanuensis to the muse. Having finished his typing class, he goes to Paris to write QWERTYUIOP, just as the Siegel who is writing it did. The love interest is now an avant-garde actress named Seraphine who has many lovers and an old theater director husband. She offers to teach Siegel French, not to mention French kiss too. Her spirit is as free as her body and she has a love for poetry, among other things. At one point, she ponders: “‘If it’s really true that an orgasm is une petite mort, might it not also be conversely true that death is un grand orgasm?” Naturally, Siegel becomes even more obsessed with her than his typing teacher, but he doesn’t even learn about her marital status until after the first couple of sexual sessions cum French lessons. Alas, they were not meant to be, at least not permanently, and before he returns to America, she asks him to write a story in which she is “very, very beautiful,” a promise that took Siegel only half a century to fulfill.

Written on the same model of typewriter that the younger Siegel used, eBay-obtained, the older Siegel writes about how speaking French is like making love, its first sentence echoing the earlier novella. Here they are together: “Every time I type, I think about sex.” “Every time I speak French or hear its luscious phonemes flow from the lips of a woman, I think about sex.” Rather than stop at the typewriter, satyromaniac Siegel is like a method actor and gets the same wine and cigarettes he enjoyed during that long-ago time, evoking memories that help him to compose a story that doesn’t seem too far from the technicalities of its source material, though more fleshed out (in both meanings of the phrase).

The act of revisiting a work over 50 years later to recreate it or expand upon it in some way gives one second-hand nostalgia at the very least (similar to the nonagenarian Joseph McElroy who is finishing a novel he started at the age of 18), but there’s more than that. Siegel has elevated his younger self to create a wonderful time-defying diptych guided by the dick-tip and fingertip both. After all, “a penis needed to write,” as illustrated by the tradition of giving a fountain pen as a sign of the coming of age, yes, a pen is needed to write just as it’s needed to make corrections if not erections.

If you’re interested in literary erotica, the metafictional/postmodern, the romance of an obsolete writer’s tool, the work of Henry Miller, and the bildungsroman of a talented author in his own right, whether embellished or not, then I’d encourage you to buy a copy.

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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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