TO READ Petra Hůlová’s Three Plastic Rooms is to enter the disquieting mind of a 30-year-old prostitute as she muses on the state of her business and relentlessly battles the specter of aging. It is a journey through a person’s soul in search of something resembling happiness and humanity in the gloating world of capitalism. Three Plastic Rooms is a frighteningly honest novel — not easy to like, but impossible not to appreciate.
Hůlová made her literary debut in 2002, at the age of 23, with All This Belongs to Me (translated into English by Alex Zucker), which was awarded the Magnesia Litera Award. This story about five Mongolian women from three generations at once established Hůlová as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Czech literature. Three Plastic Rooms, her fourth novel, was published in Czech in 2006 and was awarded the Jiří Orten Prize. It is now available in English, also in Alex Zucker’s translation.
In each of her seven subsequent novels, Hůlová ventured into new, if slightly less exotic, territory: a love story between a Czech photographer and an émigré from Asia set in New York; the fate of a Danish prisoner in the gulag; a picture of divorce; and the confession of a reluctant mother. But Three Plastic Rooms may be her most original work, partly because it is a spectacular linguistic achievement, delivered in a pitch-perfect monologue. To research the book Hůlová visited brothels in Czech Republic and China; her male friends, some of whom are frequent patrons of these establishments, became a rich source of material as well.
The novel is divided into eight chapters, or “TV episodes” in “[a] series illuminating the little mysteries of life that we otherwise dismiss.” The titles give the reader insight into the narrator’s concerns, for instance “The Fatness of Old Ladies” and “Who Made a Mess of the e-World?” Episode Six, titled “Which the Audience Will Never See,” also reminds us that we’re only getting some of the story.
Still, the narrator is brutally upfront about her profession: “I’m a tarty cunt who thinks being a high-class indoor whore instead of a curbside tramp somehow makes her more interesting or less deserving of public disgrace.” She owns a flat, “a plastic three-room suite,” or, as she puts it more crudely, “a fuckshop,” where she conducts her business. It is not entirely obvious to the neighbors what is really going on in the three rooms, or perhaps they choose to ignore it. The discovery of the true nature of her trade could potentially cause the narrator some trouble, but she does not dwell on that possibility for too long. What she does focus on, among other ailments of contemporary society, is “the ruthless machinery of capitalism, which has crushed to a pulp so many people.” These ailments include obsessive consumption (to which narrator, an avid shopper, is herself not immune) and the ever present “e-world” of electronic devices and technology, which “plays to the worst of us [and] governs our affairs.” The “e-world” manifests itself by severing human contact, training people to be more comfortable in front of TV or computer screens and forcing them to run from one shopping mall to another. Despite the fact the narrator is acutely aware of the negative influence of the “e-world,” she cannot escape it:
The e-world plagues me, it makes me feel I’m not fast enough, even if I am still young and hairless and need warmth and caressing to blossom like the flower that every woman is, and nowadays men are flowers too and also need to be cared for.
Unsurprisingly, this compulsive use of technology and pervasive boredom negatively affect the narrator’s business, whose clients now prefer to seek relief in the “e-world” rather than through actual physical contact. It also gives rise to unnatural “special cases” — men who have developed fetishes for violence, sex with more than one partner, or sex with children.
One of the cruel faces of capitalism is, indeed, the explosion of online pornography, which the narrator sarcastically deconstructs in her description of what the men who do choose to book her services are looking for:
After all, the reason clients come to my molded plastic three-room suite is to get a bit of humanity, not to sit there and click through some e-recording tossed to them like frozen fish to a polar explorer’s dog.
Men are actually highly sensitive to how they’re treated, and who wouldn’t be, and I’m not talking about male vanity, which I’m not even sure what that means exactly, probably just another female slander against males.
Throughout the novel, the narrator obsesses about aging and her physical appearance, on which she relies professionally. She rides a bike to keep fit and let the wind smooth the wrinkles on her face, counts her calorie intake, and regularly shaves her private region, “feebly disguising it as a phony fourteen-year-old’s.” Other women, too, are not safe from her merciless gaze; she notes how they hide their belly fat and thick calves under loose-fitting clothes, and how they camouflage their age by carrying bulging bags of spare blouses and sports clothes, so as to blend in with the crowd.
Her obsession with youth is obviously driven by her demanding clients, who are “particular about stipulating the age range,” but it also has a deeper significance. She feels compelled to protect young girls from pedophiles — the “nasty uncle-daddykins.” “As a result of the responsibility I feel toward the young,” she says, “I have a constant need to rejuvenate myself.” Her goal is to dress up in such a way as to fool men into believing she is younger than her real age, an “Oscar-winning performance” that lures pedophiles away from more vulnerable targets:
By taking care of myself, I help protect the young gals from premature insertion, although truth be told, most of the men who throng to the child fuckshops don’t even know mine exists, and not even the most supple thirty-year-old pussy, a master actress with all the aces up her sleeve, can convincingly play a fourteen-year-old.
This dark subject matter is somewhat balanced by Hůlová’s verbal effervescence. She is a writer with a true passion for language. The playfulness and ingenuity with which she describes male and female sexual organs and their interaction is masterful, as is Alex Zucker’s equally ingenuous translation. The myriad “sticker-inners,” “hammers,” “cuckoos,” “little yellow birds,” and “muffins” become characters in their own right, switching genders when needed: “Oh, sticker-inner, sticker-inner. Ever the magician. Conjuring up a surprise for me not even two hours after I showered.” Later, when sticker-inner is in a more stoic mood, he “keeps to himself, not even complaining when he bleeds, just contentedly bouncing along, at most giving a little tickle to let me know that he’s in good spirits today.” When the narrator calls her sexual organ “a real comedian,” the reader can’t argue. But the language of genitalia is only one of the novel’s verbal pleasures; Three Plastic Rooms brims with inventive descriptions and metaphors.
In an email exchange with me, Hůlová stated that she wanted to show “the ridiculousness of desire […] I wanted to pull down the whole fluffy topic of seducing, yearning, and sex, and show it naked and banal, use it as a tool for unveiling certain behaviors the sexes employ to manipulate each other. And I wanted it to be fun!” And yet, in his informative introduction, Peter Zusi suggests that Hůlová’s word games are not all fun: “At times this fecund linguistic inventiveness itself devolves into a flat, suffocating environment — a plastic landscape of bright though artificial colour.”
Indeed, Three Plastic Rooms evokes a complicated response, an ever-shifting effect of pleasure and pain, stimulation and pity. At one point, the narrator explains, half-mockingly, “what keeps me hanging on in this work is the diversity of clients I get to hang on to and the opportunity for continuous professional growth.” The promise of diversity and growth is exactly what inspires Czech — and now Anglophone — readers to follow Hůlová’s work closely.