The Power of the Gaze
At the opening of Juan Eduardo de Casa´s intimate and erotic debut novel Camera Erotica, the author begins by a description of San Francisco, where the action will unfold. His details signal not only that the scope of his narrative canvas is vast geographically, that this story is written by one who knows the differences and distinctions between the city´s different neighborhoods; de Casa also shares how the city has changed over the years. Like the characters we will meet during the course of this exceptional story, time and memory alter how we perceive the city as well as ourselves, particularly when it comes to sex and intimacy.
How we frame what we see, both in the past and the present, is a recurring theme within this book, refracting throughout each of the chapters. After beginning with a kind of wide-angle shot of the city, taking in the rich diversity of SF (which this reader, who grew up in the Bay Area, appreciates in particular), de Casa then zooms the focus of his prose into the world of the darkroom, where protagonist Jack develops film for clients. Patiently, he describes the process of developing these prints, the different chemicals used, the protocols and magic that makes a roll of negatives into "paintings made of light". It´s a modest job, but that´s how Jack likes it: the familiarity of his routines, the repetition of his work day after day provide a balm for his emotions, staving off his own memories of broken relationships from the past. Working in the near darkness of his room, developing images made by others, is enough.
Or at least, until Jack gets a new order to develop: a series of highly erotic photographs all featuring a young woman, depicted in various acts with one, two, or more different men.
The sexual charge Jack experiences from gazing upon these images is intense, disrupting his routines by also sharpening his focus; a former artist, he is suddenly inspired to pour more of himself into developing these photographs, to make sure they crystallize into tangible prints with perfection. Later, when Jack discovers that the photographer, Samantha, is also the young woman who appears in each of the pictures, he is both intrigued and unnerved. While younger by more than a decade, she exudes far more confidence and vibrancy than he does, a quality which both intimidates and attracts him. The interest is mutual, and when Samantha invites Jack to accompany her next photoshoot, he immediately says yes.
The unfolding of this couple´s affair develops like a photograph in a darkroom, a process which begins to erode the calcification that had formed around Jack´s heart and emotions, preventing him from experiencing intimacy for many years. Camera Erotica is filled with a variety of sensual and sexual episodes, as Samantha takes her lover on a journey through various parts of Northern California on a variety of erotic experiences. Some of the chapters in de Casa´s novel include voyeurism, groupsex, going to nude beaches, exhibitionism and light BDSM, and more.
Refreshingly, de Casa chooses to give his primary and supporting characters a level of depth and complexity often absent from contemporary erotic literature. When Jack first joins Samantha for her photoshoot, for example, he is initially intrigued by the beauty and sexual charge of seeing her with various naked men in poses that she directs. However, once the shoot is done and she chooses to have the evening turn into an orgy, Jack flees, feeling uncomfortable and uneasy. In Camera Erotica, the path to emotional and erotic intimacy is not a straight line, nor is it a constant; it zig-zags and shifts. This is a mature novel of sex, as it recognizes that real intimacy includes fear and jealousy as well as desire, arousal, and willingness.
Towards the second half of Camera Erotica, de Casa includes more information about why Jack´s feelings about Samantha are so complicated, providing readers with greater insight into his back-story. He has a history, one that includes pain and heartache, and so of course this influences how he responses to his present-day love affair, how he feels about her polyamorous invitations, and his ability to be as enthusiastic about them as she is. It´s a delicate dance, and one that the author addresses with sensitivity, insight, and understanding. The episode detailing Jack´s latent bisexuality was dealt with tenderness and grace, and I think many bi male readers will find it particularly resonant.
Camera Erotica is more than an erotic novel. It is an unflinching gaze into the nature of desire itself, in all of its textures of shadow and light. I highly recommend this powerful debut, and look forward to reading more work by Juan Eduardo de Casa in the future.