The Books Interview: Emily Prager - The liberation of Lolita

Emily Prager proves that the best, and deadliest, things come in small packages.
Click to follow
Though her new novel and her collected journalism are published on Monday, Emily Prager's launch party was held last week at the Random House offices in Vauxhall Bridge Road, near Victoria Station in central London. This unpromising location turns out to hold tender memories: "I lived in this road when I was 19," she says, "with my English boyfriend and his room-mate, who were both Old Etonians. They used to go shooting and there'd be these dead pheasants hanging on every doorknob."

Emily Prager was 19 at the time, in 1968, and in the throes of sexual liberation at college. Some way after the feminist meltdown of the Millett- Greer-Steinem years, she made a considerable stir in 1984 with her first collection of stories, A Visit From the Footbinder. It announced a talent for black humour elegantly combined with gender malevolence. "The Lincoln- Pruitt Anti-Rape Device" watched the progress of the all-female, shaven- headed Foxy Fire platoon as they are dropped over Vietnam dressed as nuns and fitted internally with a penis-shredding implement; the title story was a brilliant study in subtle horror, as a Chinese girl called Pleasure Mouse waits for the arrival of the man who will crush her feet into tiny cones to accommodate the tastes of rich Chinese men.

Prager spent three years of her childhood in Taiwan, living with her Air Force father after her parents' divorce, and there's an Oriental precision about her work. She deals in clever miniatures. Her prose is clipped. Her descriptions of people come encased in pithy details ("I met Bob Guccione once and I've been to the Hefner mansion. What intrigued me was the amount of Tudor furnishing they had - the Tudor aspect of rich men").

Her happiest medium is the 800-word essay. Some of her clever three-page pieces about daily life in Manhattan for the New York Observer she describes as "little novels". And she is a decidedly mignonne figure herself, sitting in a leather chair at the Gore Hotel, Kensington, a slight, feline, pale- blue-eyed doll in spotty tights, with a very determined chin.

"In a way China is my motherland," she says. "The people really cared for me when I was separated from my mother. It was beautiful, although I lived in a street with open sewers and at the end of it were little children in terrible poverty and distress. But I understood the place. When I went back in 1979, I knew what everyone was talking about, without understanding the language. It's no accident that my child is Chinese." Lulu Prager is also a miniature, a late arrival in the author's life, now four and a half and at school in Chinatown.

Chinese designs, children, toys and a tiny gun feature in her new work, Roger Fishbite (Chatto & Windus, pounds 10), which tells a Lolita-like tale of child abuse and abduction, but from a positive, wised-up 12-year-old's point of view. In this recasting of Nabokov's study of forbidden lust, Lucky Lady Linderhof is no amoral nymphet, but a serious and thoughtful kid, quick to spot signs of dodgy adult libido; she swings between love and need for her fishy stepfather as they take to the road, and winds up demonstrating against sex tourism outside the Japanese Embassy and looking for revenge with a pearl-handled shooter.

Prager bridled at my suggestion that the first half of her book amounts to 100 pages of foreplay. "I was trying to show that children are sexy in a way, that they are sexual beings - it only took my daughter one watching of the Spice Girls before she was saying, `Would you do my hair like this?', and `Can I have my skirt tighter?', and undulating around the apartment. But it's an adult's responsibility not to act on it. There was no attempt to titillate. And I had no interest in comparing myself to Nabokov. I'm interested in what Lolita has become - the idea of The Child That Seduces. Lolita was 12. Even if a child has hormones running through its body, even if it's coming ongangbusters to someone, my contention is that they don't know what they're doing."

Running through the novel are three strands of real-life moral contention. Lucky is fascinated by moral talk shows (the kind fronted by Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer, featuring sex-change revelations, two-timing boyfriends and near-mandatory fist-fights between participants) and dreams of starring on one herself. "They started as freak shows," says Prager, "then they got kinda interesting with Oprah, and now they're vile, dark, murderous, horrible exhibitionism. I don't know where they get the people on these shows." She is, she says, surrounded by stories of child abuse and it frightens her for her child. Did she blame the climate of baby beauty contests and pubescent popsters? "I don't think you can," she said. "It goes right back to Lewis Carroll, even though he's been exonerated now - though not for me. Most Americans are terrified of strangers grabbing their children in the street one day. But the majority of child kidnappings are by parents in custody battles."

Like Lucky and the rest of America, she has watched the investigation of the murder of JonBenet Ramsay, the tiny beauty queen. In a nice moment of throwaway sophistication, Lucky reflects that none of the girls in her class thought JonBenet's father could have killed her - being familiar with the habits of billionaire stepfathers, they assumed he would have been too busy to be available for murder.

All Emily Prager's responses to questions about her book are practical, non-literary ones, grounded in the real world. Though a stylish writer, she's more interested in ideas and paradoxes than the pleasure of the text. The 700-odd pages of journalism, collected under the title In the Missionary Position (Vintage, pounds 8.99), display her talent for conceptual fireworks: they're pungent little satires on masculinity, tough love ("How to Tell If Your Girlfriend Is Dying During Rough Sex"), gung-ho politics, national paranoia, social fads like the Safe-T-Man plastic doll ("tricks people into thinking you have the protection of a male guardian") - and President Clinton, about whom she is rather sweetly protective.

"It's interesting; he's done all these things that should turn you against him, yet somehow... American women like this guy because they know he likes women. They know because he doesn't choose only beautiful women to go after. Looks aren't the only thing he's thinking about." But didn't that just mean he was sexually indiscriminate? "I don't think women think of it that way. Clinton didn't behave like a Southern gentleman, but he was no Gary Hart. He did have a real crush on Monica. He'd call her 11 times a day and leave messages on her voicemail. I mean, how naive can you be? But these are little details women pick up."

She is very funny about the idiocy of the male libido - the way, for instance, she noticed men talking directly to her breasts when pregnancy made her bosom larger - and her early days acting in an American soap opera called On the Edge of Night in which, "I was always being kidnapped - usually by the same actor."

A very charming and self-assured social commentator is Ms Prager. It's only well into the interview that you discover two key things about her. One, that her mother died only last week and that, for all their long separation, she turns up in all Emily Prager's books. Two, that everything she writes is autobiographical - that Lucky, the abducted 12-year-old, is a junior version of herself, and the dreamy, alcoholic mother is a portrait from life.

Her mother was, it seems, sent on the stage aged eight to support her family after her father died, an appropriation of childhood that Prager talks about with a snarl. Suddenly, her mother and Lucky, and JonBenet Ramsay and Lulu Prager, all seemed to become her children, wrapped together in her wary maternal embrace, warding off the marauders, the paedophiles, the TV freaks, the chilly world of abused kids. In fiction or outside it, Emily Prager has found her metier at last.

Emily Prager, a biography

Emily Prager was born in 1949 and brought up in Texas, the Far East and New York's Greenwich Village. Her columns have appeared, since 1974, in National Lampoon, Penthouse, the New York Observer and the New York Times. Her first collection of short stories, A Visit from the Footbinder, was published to critical acclaim in 1984, and was followed by Eve's Tattoo and Clea and Zeus Divorce. She currently writes humour and TV criticism for the Village Voice and lives in New York with her daughter, Lulu.