Book Review

In Live Nude Elf: The Sexperiments of Reverend Jen, by Reverend Jen, and Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object, by Kathleen Rooney, both writers recognize the unavoidable aspects of sensationalism in their subjects; they alternately mock and embrace it. Despite the similar titles, however, no one would mistake one for the other. While Reverend Jen details her exploits while researching for a sex column, Rooney recounts and meditates on her experience as a nude model. Employing different subjects and writing styles, each author pushes the reader to reconsider taboos and preconceptions. Each book can also, depending on your sensibility, deliver a fulfilling reading experience.

Reverend Jen, writing about her “I Did It for Science” column, relates roughly two years of living on New York’s Lower East Side. She cultivates her subcultural appeal by celebrating “loserdom.” After writing something she calls “the bible of the uncool,” she sends a dollar to “a church that will ordain anyone” and gains her current Reverend moniker. She also wears elf ears, has a “troll museum,” and references obscure tidbits of popular culture. Spongebob or C-3PO might show up on one page, Lauren Bacall or Melrose Place on another. “My strange voice,” she writes, “has been described as ‘Tom Waits meets Dakota Fanning.'” Her early efforts might annoy the reader by appearing manufactured or self-serving, but they quickly become accepted, enjoyable quirks.

Her self-assigned first project—nude housecleaning—sets a precedent for other sections. First, she discusses the motivation of the people she imitates (in this case, actual nude housecleaners). The “fresh fifty-dollar bills,” she notes, made her work “a lot more worthwhile.” Next, she considers her personal motivations, wondering “just what in the hell I had gotten myself into,” a thread she will continue to examine. In nude housecleaning she also hints at an apparent subservience in female sexuality, trying to neutralize discomfort (hers and the reader’s) by reveling in undress and controlling the interactions with the customer. Here she asserts her pro-sex feminism (though not in those words), but the assertion doesn’t completely convince until later in the book, when Reverend Jen presents a more rounded, human depiction of herself. Only then do we fully witness the power and freedom in her audacity.

Many enjoyable moments surface though Reverend Jen’s straightforward, wryly offhanded remarks. At one point she echoes a customer and says, “Naked ladies are cool,” showcasing (from this perspective at least) a knack for an aphoristic aside. Similarly, she writes, “Reciprocation is humane,” in regard to oral sex, but the sentiment comes across as a maxim to live by. Chapters later, in a skillful use of burlesque, she writes, “I know it’s not a sexy adjective, but the G-spot is really neat.” On dressing up to go out to a bar, she casually mentions the absurdity of her situation: “After covering the bags under my eyes with concealer, I made fake bags using kohl eyeliner.” These sentences remind a reader—one perhaps too focused on the frank discussion of sex—that Reverend Jen casts her eye beyond the superficial and sensational.

Moments of tenderness also emerge more frequently than sex-columnist stereotypes might suggest. Late in the book, after sliding naked into a giant balloon, after quasi-orgies and Key Parties, she laments and rejoices in kissing a man on New Year’s: “It had been so long since anyone just wanted to kiss me.” That this possibly clichéd line comes across as sincere speaks to Reverend Jen’s stalwart honesty and skilled balancing of content.

Don’t mistake this praise as an open endorsement for every reader; one or two scenes disconcert even this reviewer. When Reverend Jen describes her episode of blindfolded bondage at a party, the situation and wording disturb by paralleling rape too closely. “He grabbed my ankles,” she writes, “separated them, and shackled them to the base of the X.” As when writing the original columns, she enjoys the ability to shock; she describes her scene as the “American branch of the Vienna Actionists.” Though these attempts might jar, her brazenness works. Reverend Jen might not aspire to forge her work into a timeless, classic memoir, but if you have the stomach for it, she fully realizes a fascinating world—Troma films and performance art, Diane Torr and Abby Ehmann—as it coincides with the more visible New York City.

Kathleen Rooney, a poet and author of Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America, writes in Live Nude Girl about one fringe persona—the nude model—giving a rich, lovely meditation on the profession, nudity, and art. In the introduction she poses familiar questions asked of a nude female model. For example, she handles the question “What was it like the first time you did it?” by situating the reader at her first modeling session. Rooney tells the story with evocative detail and direct dialogue, though taking an occasional diversion: “My skinny is what I have always been. My skinny is how I always want to be. My skinny is me. But sometimes I distrust it.” This tangent enriches the topic at hand and our grasp of Rooney’s mind. Similarly, after describing the first posing, she digresses briefly on adolescence and the Judaic and Greek traditions’ differing views of nudity.

Mixing art history, personal narrative, and philosophical discussions, the book moves at a deliberate but luxurious pace. Rooney forms the first chapter around a Renaissance method of memory recall in which a person associates memory with location. Rooney leads us through her “Memory Palace,” stopping to explain parts of rooms, musing on definitions of nudity and nakedness. While examining the childhood bedroom of her Memory Palace, she discusses her mother’s opposition to revealing clothing; simultaneously she remembers an older, “so-called slutty girl” from her adolescence. She eventually quotes John Berger: “Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise.” The older girl, an early example for Rooney of body confidence, was the “kind of girl” her mother wanted to keep her from becoming. Rooney adds, “I haven’t turned into that kind of girl, running around half-naked; rather I am nude.”

Rooney also addresses obvious taboos of her profession. “[T]hat the two careers—modeling and prostitution—can be conflated,” she notes, “is sort of understandable.” Quoting Peter Steinhart’s The Undressed Art, she informs us that many nude models historically worked as courtesans, mistresses, or prostitutes. As to the exchange of money for service as a model, she reminds the reader continually (and sensibly) that she will only work for money; in doing so, she reaffirms modeling as a profession, as something legitimate.

Much of Live Nude Girl focuses on Rooney’s motivations to model. Though she cannot always define the impetus (indeed much of the book centers on clarifying it), she approaches modeling as a means of self-discovery. She writes: “I felt compelled, like I was my own cognitive behavioral therapist making me face my fears again and again.” From these nebulous beginnings, she begins to describe the positive aspects. “There is technically no touching,” she writes, but “[I] feel as though I am being touched . . . being added to.” Modeling also allows her to consider other timeless issues, such as the role of art. She observes six life-size sculptures of herself and ponders art’s relation to mortality. She asserts that “artists transform us through their efforts, making us into objects that, though they will age, can never really die.” She takes pleasure in this ability to “exist, albeit in a not-quite-human-form, forever.”

Rooney, while displaying a vast and erudite knowledge of the nude modeling profession and its history, also inculcates humor and accessibility through phrasing and content. Whereas Reverend Jen takes low-brow or “deviant” subjects and elevates them for comedic effect, Rooney does the opposite. She builds on her knowledge of philosophy and art while also playing with levels of language. On posing for a hack-ish photographer, Rooney, despite her gathering reluctance during the shoot, relishes retelling it. She mocks everything about his studio: “The décor was half Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni and half dicey dot-com startup, the spawn of a one-night stand between Swinging London and a white collar home office.” Later she adds, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was sort of becoming a part of some dilettante’s collections of glorified spank material.” Here Rooney shows where she draws the line in balancing money, safety, and personal exploration. The passage reminds us that she exists beyond the artist’s muse or lofty scholar. Here we glimpse a more human side, one that complains and takes pleasure in that grumbling.

The two authors admirably immerse readers in their respective worlds. Some people may unfortunately dismiss either book based on concept or preconception. Some may find Reverend Jen’s “debauched spirit” unappealing; others may find Rooney’s explorations too dry or slow moving. These traits, however, make each book worth reading. Whereas Rooney ruminates on her experiences, merging them delicately with art history, literary theory, and Greek philosophy, Reverend Jen editorializes her experiences, mixing pop culture references with a brisk bluntness.

Don’t read Live Nude Elf just because Reverend Jen describes sexy or bizarre behavior; read it because she levies legitimate emotion and humor amid a playful outrageousness. Similarly, don’t read Live Nude Girl just because Rooney mixes Kant, Rembrandt, and nudity; read it because she blends them masterfully and comments on the wider roles of art and body. Only one book might suit your tastes, but do try one, and in the spirit of their authors, read it openly, read it unabashedly.

About the Reviewer

Aaron Kimmel is completing his MFA in nonfiction at The Pennsylvania State University.