*Reading from Behind

19 May 2016

*Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus
by Jonathan A. Allan
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95 ISBN 9-780889-773844

I’m going to take a leap here and suggest that the asterisk that appears on the cover and in the title of writer and academic Jonathan A. Allan’s provocative new book – the first in a series of books about the body by University of Regina Press – is not by chance. *Reading from Behind pokes fun and slings puns at that most base of body parts, the anus, while also situating it – in all seriousness – within a cultural and literary context. In his ballsy, er, assiduous text, Allan laments how society’s historically been phallic-centric, and he attempts to get to the bottom (it’s impossible to help myself) of why the anus gets short shrift.

True to his scholarly quest, Allan addresses the anus “head on”: there are sixty pages of comprehensive notes and references here – plus an index – following the eight chapters (with delightful names, ie: “Topping from the Bottom: Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy” and “Spanking Colonialism”). Clearly, this book was not written without significant research.

So why the in-depth study? Allan – the Research Chair in Queer Theory and Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and English and Creative Writing at Brandon University explains that “It truly is everywhere, the ass,” and it “captivates us”. He asks us to consider it beyond popular cultural references, ie: Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez’s “iconic behinds,” and question what is both said and unsaid about this “governing symbol”. What, for example, might an “anal theory” look like re: discussions about literature, film, and visual texts? What’s brought to light when it’s disassociated from its most prevalent sexual association: male homosexuality? Allan looks at myth, masculinity, and much more as he probes (see?) his subject, and he “works to relieve the burden of [anal] paranoia”.

This impassioned text gives readers much to consider, whether it’s the “innocent homosexuality” in books including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick, male-male romance novels (“The ass, like the romance novel, is not nearly as simple as we might imagine …”), the shame suffered by male virgins past late-adolescence, or how Brokeback Mountain “swung the closet doors wide open” to expose the “radical queerness of American literature. In the chapter titled “Spanking Colonialism” he analyzes the power-inverting paintings of Cree artist Kent Monkman.

Non-academic readers might well find this a particularly dense book, but the author’s frequent tongue-in-cheekness (ie: “We shall come to see, by the book’s end, that [the anus] is a remarkably complex organ, sign, and symbol that appears repeatedly in literature and culture”) helps lighten the critical load, and aids accessibility and enjoyment.

Allan is currently working on another body-part book – Uncut: The Foreskin Archive (“a cultural study of the foreskin that brings together literary criticism, religious studies, the biomedical sciences, and critical theory”) – and he is both contributing to and editing Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)Significance of the Hymen. Clearly, this is not a writer who shies away from “taboo” subjects, and bottom’s up to that.


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