In Shiv Kotecha’s ‘The Switch’, Boundaries Don’t Matter
Hanging out at the Brooklyn Public Library pre-psychiatrist appointment, I was drunk, having secretly consumed three nips of vodka, bottom shelf, those tiny bottles you can get from the liquor store as everyone around you buys lottery tickets. I was reading a pdf of The Switch by Shiv Kotecha on my phone, I was drunk at the library, I went to charge my phone. The man across from me was eating Tootsie Rolls out of a Ziploc bag.
My next visit to the Brooklyn Public Library, I picked up a copy of The Brooklyn Rail and read “Autobiography of Fatness,” a poem by Diana Hamilton, in which she defines a bisexual person as someone “whose traits have not risen to the dignity of a self and so require other evidence.” She describes bisexuality as abject and apologetic. Why am I talking about Diana Hamilton’s conception of bisexuality in a review of a Shiv Kotecha book? Because Hamilton and Kotecha are best friends, and the first section of The Switch is about what happens when these two poets, both queer, start fucking. “Gay,” “man,” “bisexual,” “woman.” Are labels necessary here?
Kotecha’s last publication was EXTRIGUE (Make Now Press, 2015), a bizarre book of poetry in which “familiar objects appear bathed in ink or dusted with charcoal or ashy with matt light or hi-lit and glossy,” according to Divya Victor, writing for the Poetry Foundation blog Harriet. He’s also written criticism for Frieze and Art in America. The Switch, already a hit in the world of small-press poetry, blends these two voices, poet and critic, while adding a strain of fiction as well: it consists of an easy-to-read novel, essayistic in tone, titled Obedience Residency Manual, sandwiched by two strange, difficult, poems, “I’m Sorry Shiv. I’m Sorry Diana.” and “The Unlovable.” Obedience Residency Manual provides evidence of Kotecha’s critical voice. Lasciviously epigraphic, it references Viktor Shklovsky, Anne Garétta, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.
Throughout The Switch, Kotecha presents friendship as endlessly erotic. A passage in the first section, the one about what happens when best friends start fucking, reads, “she didn’t know/when exactly sex/with him ever began/or when it was ever/supposed to/end.” Friends connect through sex: in the middle section of the book, the novel entitled Obedience Residency Manual, the two characters, Jai and Andrew, spend evenings looking at Grindr side by side, refreshing their phones over and over and comparing matches.
Sex points to the fallacy of the discrete body: when a finger or cock enters an orifice, the ability to draw neat boundaries between bodies is called into question. The cover of The Switch features a cartoon reinterpretation of Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, in which the saint penetrates a wound on Jesus’ stomach with his finger. Again, he calls into questions boundaries between bodies, between wound and finger. Kotecha describes the painting as “an exercise in perforation.”
My review copy of The Switch came in the mail and I started taking notes in the margins in pencil. I was drunk or I was sober, doing this note taking. This is my private shame, my abjection, my apology. I noted that the eroticism of The Switch is, of course, religious in nature. In the first section, a postcard is sent, “on which one unfucked saint, Peter/kissed another unfucked saint, Paul.” Religious eroticism courses through the book, beginning with this Christian example and ending with the third section, “The Unlovable,” in which the Hindu god Shiva forces the you of the poem to touch himself. In this world, gods swear. “Go ahead,” says Shiva, “and bow the fuck down.”
Fom the first to the second section of the book, the dynamic between Shiv and Diana shifts to a kind of solo eroticism. Towards the beginning of Obedience Residency Manual, we encounter a description of “jerking off one hundred times to the same scene until the video itself begins to shudder, its contents suddenly rendered unfamiliar and disfigured inside the screen you have propped on your chest like an iron curtain, between your face, where your eyes are, and your legs, where your dick is.” Kotecha mirrors the shuddering porn video later in the book, quoting Viktor Shklovsky, who describes film as “gray and black shadow flashing on the screen.” The image shudders. Pornography shudders. After this solo jerkoff, Obedience Residency Manual then pivots back into interpersonal dynamics, as the plot becomes more concerned with Andrew and Jai and their side-by-side Grindr scrolling.
In this part of the novel, Kotecha depicts topping and bottoming as not merely roles in sex, but ways of moving through the world. “I can only bottom when I’m in love,” says Andrew, pointing to the relationship between submission, vulnerability, and eroticism. To bottom is, in this case, to make your rectum, a universal orifice, vulnerable. The Switch takes the image—both photographic and cinematic—from behind. In the middle section, Kotecha intersperses images with the units of text: in one photograph, a man sits shirtless in bed, looking at his phone. In another, a puppy paddles through ocean waves. These photographs are cheaply printed in black and white on standard paper, making them dark and shadowy, hard to make out. The images are rectal. They are shitty, little shits. They take the image from behind.
Much of The Switch consists of often shot-for-shot transcriptions of moving image—Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina, Vivien Leigh as Myra in Waterloo Bridge, pornography, YouTube videos—which are also rectal in nature. To transcribe a moving image is to take it from behind, to reverse it, to allow the script to result from the picture rather than the other way around. To bottom is to make oneself vulnerable enough to receive, hoping that at least one of the things received will be pleasure. To top is to take control, and in doing so hope to give pleasure to the bottom. To switch is to drift: The Switch drifts between these two registers, sliding around in the muck of identificatory slippage. It doesn’t hold back from chasing love, a kind of love, that, ideally, transcends fucking and friendship.