Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Premar Experiments

The Premar Experiments, by Robert H. Rimmer
February, 1976  Signet Books

The victory novel of the sexual revolution! -- from the back cover

Robert Rimmer gained fame in the mid-‘60s with the publication of The Harrad Experiment, a novel about an initiative at Harvard University in which male and female co-eds roomed together; there was even a film version (starring a young Don Johnson!), followed by an unrelated sequel. (I’ve never seen either film, but I do have the LP soundtracks, for some reason…)

The Premar Experiments was Rimmer’s mid-‘70s followup to Harrad. Once again taking place in Boston, this novel documents a new Harvard experiment in which the “Harrad method” is applied to lower-class, multicultural students. They will live in communes, males and females sharing a new roommate every several months, both white and black (other ethnicities apparently don’t factor in). “Premar” stands for “premarital,” and through some reasoning I didn’t quite catch, Rimmer has it that if these kids live in an open sexual relationship with a new mate every semester, it will lead them into becoming better, more understanding adults.

I’ve never read The Harrad Experiment, but it’s my understanding it’s written in a simliar format, as the transcripts of the various students and “Comprars” (ie “commune parents,” the older leaders of each commune), only in Harrad it was journal entries. Which is to say, the entirety of The Premar Experiments is relayed like dialog, spoken onto audio cassette and later transcribed. In this way the novel almost comes off like James Robert Baker’s magesterial Boy Wonder – only a whole hell of a lot less funny.

You see my friends, Robert Rimmer is a True Believer. He’s also a True Socialist, and this novel could almost be subtitled “The Sensuous Socialist” or the like, to tie in with that whole ‘70s “Sensuous” paperback fad. The societal engineering perpetrated upon the naïve students who attend Premar is disgusting, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve lived in Texas for the past several years. No, the goal of Premar is to basically brainwash these kids into a sort of group mentality that shuns independent thought – indeed, at one point one of the creators of the program states that thinking for one’s self will not be one of Premar’s tenets! 

Anyway, getting away from the “elitist” confines of Harvard and Boston proper, the Premar communes are set up in Topham’s Corner, a fictional section of Boston’s Dorchester district, a lower-income area of the city mostly comprised of poor Irish-Americans. The spearhead of this experiment is Dr. Philip Tenhausen, who also was the creator of the Harrad program (and appeared in that novel as well). Tenhausen however is only a peripheral character this time, appearing here and there in other characters’s sections. The novel itself belongs solely to the students and their slightly-older Comprars.

There are a lot of characters, and they talk a lot. Again, the novel is made up their dialog only, but this is a pretty expressive and descriptive cast, so in effect the novel comes off like a series of first-person narratives by a variety of characters. One failing however is that most of these characters sound alike, all of them spouting the same rhetoric. And one of the major problems with The Premar Experiments is that it’s too damn long – 426 pages of densely-packed, incredibly tiny print in this mass market paperback edition. The early pages especially can be rough going, documenting how the program was initiated and the Comprars were hired; these pages are also very thick in the whole late ‘60s radical ethic, making the novel seem even more dated.

This is very true for one of the major characters: Bren Gattman, a “Hindu Jew firebrand” who is Abbie Hoffman in all but name. A 28 year-old know-nothing know-it-all (as Homer Simpson would call him), Bren is one of those characters you just can’t help but hate. But the thing is, Rimmer is obviously enamored of him, as Bren can do no wrong and knows everything there is to know about everything. A famous countercultural icon who bucks authority and fights the man, Bren is nonetheless a doctorate student and conjoins his own similar ideas for an inner-city commune with the Premar ideas of Dr. Tenhausen. Bren is asked to become a Comprar in the Topham’s Corner commune, but in order to become one, he has to be married; for reasons never properly explained, Comprars are required to be married couples.

Bren sets his sights on Ellen O’Day, weak-hearted daughter of famous Boston conservative Republican councilman Dancer O’Day. Rimmer shows his left-wing roots in the (thankfully few) sequences with Dancer, who blusters reactionary rhetoric like a straight-up cliché. Anyway Ellen truly does have a weak heart, such that at 25 she’s never left Boston, has never had sex, and is bed-ridden most of the time due to medical concerns that her heart might rupture. Despite this she is interested in the revolution movement and ends up meeting Bren after arguing with him during a lecture he gives at Harvard. A bizarre romance ensues, in which Bren successfully gets Ellen away from her domineering (and of course, wrong about everything) father and into the Premar program.

Rimmer plays a few tricks with continuity, jumbling up the transcripts so that they jump from “prelude to Premar” stories from Ellen, Bren, and others from three months or so before the program begins, to matching these alongside later transcripts from students who are actually in the Dorchester commune in the fall semester. At first I thought Rimmer was doing this to perhaps set up and play off little mysteries or reveals, but gradually it appeared moreso that he was doing it so that it didn’t come off as a huge info-dump early on with lots of backstory about how Ellen et al came to be involved with Premar. Of course, another (and better) option would’ve been to cut all of this backstory and just start right in with Premar already a reality, but whatever.

Anyway the Bren/Ellen storyline plays out over transcripts from later in the semester, from the kids attending the experiment. Apprently 48 kids are placed in the three Topham’s Corner communes, but Rimmer only focuses on a few of them. There’s a promiscuous girl, a corn-fed boy from the sticks who’s never even kissed a girl, an “angry black” guy (more on the black characters later), and a heavyset girl who lives with him the first semester – and indeed we learn it was her choice to start with him. Why? Because we eventually learn that her dad was friggin’ murdered by black youths in a robbery, and thus she wants to “prove” to herself that she doesn’t judge all black people for his death.

And meanwhile Bren not only gets Ellen to fall in love with him, but he also takes her virginity. Now Ellen has to cope with the fact that she’s in love with a Jewish firebrand who’s also sleeping with a black girl, Merle Blanc, the wife of Bren’s comrade-in-arms, fellow revolutionary Rais Daemon. The first few hundred pages of the novel play up on the Rais mystery; a native of fictional Caribbean island nation St. Noir, Rais is a hulking, dashiki-clad black man who has led riots in the US (where he was once jailed for attacking a police acquaintance of Dancer O’Day) and is now back in his homeland, but he’s supposed to be in Pemar, working as a Comprar with Merle.

Yes, friends, all of this Rais-on-St. Noir stuff is straight out of Island Paradise – and just as unwanted. Seriously, the Rais Daemon material has absolutely nothing to do with the novel proper, and comes off like Robert Rimmer attempting a “black radical voice” for large stretches of the narrative. We get long excerpts of Rais’s much-ballyhooed “Walk Before God,” a speech delivered behind bars and later published in various newspapers. We get long narratives from Rais’s point of view about various beliefs, political, religious, and etc, and of course how wrong they are – just like Bren, Rais Daemon knows everything there has ever been to know. Just ask him! And what’s more, writing as a black character gives Rimmer freedom to use all manner of racist epithets; he especially does this when writing from Merle’s perspective.

But when Book Two opens, about two hundred pages in, we discover that Rais has been hiding in St. Noir, where he’s fostered a revolution which inadvertently caused the crash of a 707, killing all 160+ passengers! All that is save one – Laura Stone, a white lady who was the only survivor, and who Rais came across while he was paddling his getaway boat away from St. Noir! But that’s not all – Rais has taken the girl captive, as a representative of all white society he’s against, and plans to ransom her, but meanwhile he’s caring for her (complete with disgusting description of how he’s cleaned her off, due to her menstrual period) and falling for her – oh, and Laura Stone, not that Rais yet knows it, just happens to be the sister of Bren Grattman!

Now we have the makings of a sure-fire melodrama. Too bad it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the novel. I mean, there’s even a part where Merle goes to St. Noir to find Rais, only to discover he’s sleeping with her kid sister, and when Rais informs Merle he’s heading off on his fishing boat with her sister and it’s time for Merle to go back to the US, Merle chases after him, friggin’ sticks her hand down his pants and grabs his dick, and screams “It’s mine! It’s mine!” as she slides along on her knees after him, still holding onto it as he walks away. So as you can see, Rimmer can in fact write trash when he wants to.

It’s strange, though, because the Rais/Laura storyline seems to be lifted whole-hog from one of those “Savage Desire” or whatever Romance novels that were all the rage at the time, stuff like The Savage Sands and the like, where a civilized woman is abducted from her home by some “barbarian” who eventually breaks down her ladylike and puritan values until she becomes a “fuck machine” – Laura’s words to describe herself, in fact, in a transcript of her own, which she puts onto audio tape on the island upon which Rais Daemon keeps her prisoner…though a willing prisoner. But this whole section is just so weird in that it has nothing to do with the novel and indeed could come off as a novel of its own, the snobbish and arrogant married lady in her late 30s who falls in love with a younger black man on a deserted island.

All of which is to say, there are moments of Trash Mastery here and there in the novel, but for most of it they are obscured by the societal engineering of the Premar initiative. And it truly is disgusting, as these kids are molded into perfect little socialists – football and other sports are eschewn, as the Premar board specifically wants to drum out competitiveness. The kids are ordered to record their thoughts every single day, and to listen to the recorded thoughts of the others in their specific group, so that there are no secrets and everyone knows what everyone else is thinking. They are also told what to wear, but for the most part they are ordered to show up for group events naked. They have to take baths together. Each day they have to take part in a “Human Values” class in which they go over the (Premar admin-mandated) reading list and discuss all in an open environment.

In short, they lose the ability to think for themselves. And due to the endlessly-detailed first-person narratives each of them leave for us, we see how they grow into these perfectly-adapted kids who…do everything Bren or Rais Daemon say. Seriously, the amount of hero-worship the kids have for these two losers is saddening (and again, one could say it’s moreso an indication of Rimmer’s own hero-worship). Every “transcript” from the Premar kids is filled with “Bren thinks” or “Rais says” and etc. Also, putting myself back in my teenaged mind…I can’t imagine why any kid would want to attend Premar. Sure, sharing a dorm room with a girl would be great and all, but still – the loss of individual freedoms would greatly outweigh the chance of scoring.

But Rimmer goes on oblivious, packing his pages with inordinate detail, even reams of exposition from Bren and Rais as Premar has an open night with the locals, welcoming Topham’s Corner into the rubric – and for that, Rimmer can’t even get his theme straight; Bren and Rais had a pre-Premar idea for something called Confamiliaum, a sort of merging of a community into one entity, and the final third of the novel jettisons the Premar stuff and focuses on “Confam,” as the duo (and their drones the kids) attempt to get the people of Topham’s Corner to unite with Premar into a single community. It’s all just so lethargic and boring.

The soap opera stuff returns with the appearance of Rais, who finally shows up at Premar, bringing Laura Stone along. One has to wonder why the Premar board would allow Rais to work as a Comprar, as he’s nothing but friggin’ trouble, and indeed in reality would put the entire Premar project at risk, given the publicity he receives due to the previously-thought-dead Laura Stone returning with this man who kidnapped her, a man whose baby she is about to have – that is, after openly staying with him in a rundown commune in Boston filled with a bunch of naked kids. But regardless, this storyline takes us into the homestretch, as Bren and Rais make an unlikely ally in Rocky Stone, Laura’s husband, who – while Laura is having Rais’s baby – decides to go ahead and help Bren and Rais fund Confamilaum, which of course the Topham’s Corner people are all for!

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the part where Bren screws his own sister.  While she's pregnant with Rais's child.  While his wife Ellen is in the hospital recovering from her latest heart trauma.  And not only does she not have a problem with it, everyone just shrugs it off as Bren helping his sister to "heal!"

In a way, The Premar Experiments is just as far to the left as the works of Joseph Rosenberger or Mark Roberts are far to the right. And it’s just as fantasy-based as the novels of those two authors. Reading this book from the perspective of a generation later, the whole thing just seems so stupid, wrong-headed, and doomed to failure. And, given that I was born in 1974, I would’ve been the generation Rimmer hoped would become the first full “Premar generation” or whatever. Now, my generation has its own problems, but I’d like to think that none of us when we were teens would’ve been dumb enough to willingly enter some school that would just remove all of our freedoms and etc. And I’m not speaking from some lofty perch; I grew up in a destitute town that would make this fictional Topham’s Corner look like New York City.

Ironically, I discovered The Premar Experiments due to an ad in the back of my mass market paperback copy of Cyra McFadden’s The Serial. It’s funny because both novels cover sort of the same things, but whereas McFadden’s is a spoof of these sentiments, showing how ultimately dehumanizing they are, Rimmer actually means it, man. Looking up more info on the book (which is scant) I came across the preview to a 1999 self-published edition on Amazon, where in a 1998-dated preface Rimmer stated that he still believes that a Premar program would be beneficial.

Also it would appear that Rimmer suffered the same literary fate as my man Herbert Kastle. Graced with hardcover editions and publicity early in his career, by the time the later ‘70s came around Rimmer was relegated to mass market paperback editions only; The Premar Experiments was Rimmer’s last hardcover, after which Signet published his novels as paperback originals. I’ve picked up some of these, and despite my issues with this novel I look forward to reading them; Rimmer does dole out some good prose, if you can get past the overt socialist/communist ethic.


FreeLiverFree said...

Of course, it's only in novels that social engineering produces positive results. In real life look at North Korea or the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany for the real results.

Tim Mayer said...

I've seen the movie version of "The Harrad Experiment". You're not missing much. Hard to believe there was a sequel to this dog. Hard to believe both films played as a double feature on the "midnight movie" circuit in the 70's.
The next person who gets nostalgic for free love should be forced to watch the movie version of "The Harrad Experiment".