Like erotic hand grenades lobbed via keypad, sexts have a power disproportionate to the design of their delivery mechanism. The cellphone is convenience and connectivity; in using it to send a sexually explicit or inviting text message, we aim to inconvenience the recipient, however delightfully, with the mental image of a connection we cannot actually make at that moment. In Don't Tell Mom, Molly Colleen O'Connell successfully realigns form and function: She grants the poetically absurd sexts featured on each of this zine's drawings of cellphones the power to derange not only the physical objects that convey them, but logic and language themselves. The message, about the distorting influence of sexual desire, is received loud and clear.
That, in fact, is the danger of Don't Tell Mom. The sexts O'Connell concocts are so strong they may be all you notice. Certainly on a first pass-through you're likely to simply read each one and move on—and don't get me wrong, that's plenty satisfying. Some of them seem eerily plausible, like bad sexts drawn from real people's bitter experience: "SEND ONE OF A HAND HOLD'N IT THAT'Z MY FAVE KINDA DICK PIC"; "YOU'RE LIKE A TENDER LITTLE CHICKEN & I'M GOING 2 DEBONE YOU." Others exaggerate just enough to be silly: they ratchet up the randomness of the kink in question ("SQUEEZE BACK INTO THE E.T. SUIT, HON! WORK GOT OUT EARLY & I'M FEELIN' FRISKY"), they take a sudden left turn into the prosaic ("IN YOUR PUSSY, I'M WRITHING—BABE—ARE MY TEETH CLEAN—NOW?"), or they defy the book's title and tell mom after all ("MOM SAYS THE NIPPLE RING HAS GOT 2 GO :( :( :(").
The most effective sexts here, though, aren't funny ha-ha at all, though the unexpected, intimate insights they have may produce a laugh out of surprise. "YOU HAVE A TRUCKER'S DAUGHTER'S MOUTH—AN OILY POUT & A STUBBLY TONGUE" reads one, enumerating unpleasant traits transformed by love or lust into endearing ones. "Donot deny me the heft of ur alien breast as it always weighs ways on my mind—" reads another, its internal slant rhymes, alliteration, and the doubling of "weighs" and "ways" suggesting a mind returning to fetishized features over and over. A third, "Ive preserved your sweat + starched your Body's impression on the couch - sighing at your Beastly odor," combines the tactics of the other two: the idée-fixe nature of sexual desire and the alchemical process by which it can make a lover's least attractive qualities irresistible.
So yes, the writing -- its stupid-clever two-step emphasized by the book's pseudo-subtitle, "Poety [sic] Unlimited" -- neatly demonstrates the strength of the "sext" format as a locus for art. O'Connell and her contemporaries, like poet Patricia Lockwood and her fellow Twitter luminary @dril, recognize that if you try to squeeze deeply personal desires into a medium of communication designed for brevity, spontaneity, and abbreviation, all kinds of interesting stuff will leak out of the sides. What O'Connell collects from the runoff is fictional, but only barely.
What separates O'Connell from Weird Twitter, of course, is that she has more tools than just writing at her disposal, and she knows how to use them. Don't Tell Mom takes the emotionally (and biologically) transformative power of sexts and applies it to the cellphones themselves. In O'Connell's wavering line -- sometimes clean and wiggly, sometimes thick and smudged -- the phones appear to warp, twist, and melt. In some cases they seem deliberately cast into these shapes, like the "erotic pottery" that featured in O'Connell's book Difficult Loves. In others they seem to be bending in the grip of the recipient, or coming unglued from the vibrations that signal the sexts' successful transmission.
And since none of the phones shown here are smartphones -- as if the more advanced models' robust features and smooth, featureless touchscreens would prohibitively dilute the project at hand -- O'Connell has the keypads to play with, too. The keys are shaped like swirls, squiggles, long wavy parallel lines, donuts, crescents, hearts, question marks. Instead of just alphanumeric characters, they often contain clusters of them, or a handful picked at random, or indecipherable scribbles, or undifferentiated grid patterns, or entire words: "TRUTH" "DARE" "WITH-HOLED"; "NAY" "SOOTHE" "MY" "TEMPERAMENT" "BORN" "NONSENSE"; "LATEX" "PLEATHER" "RUBBER" "MACE" "SLE" "EK"; "help" "yelp" "ALL" "ONE" "infinity infinity." One keypad simply spells out "BUT WHY MA?" one key at a time. O'Connell sets up a scenario in which language, like the devices used to transmit it, is shaped by the intent that forms it, not the other way around.
Formed by whom, though? We're only ever given glimpses of the authors and recipients of these texts, their role only occasionally decipherable from the "SEND?" or "REPLY?" visible on their phones' screens. The glimpses are primarily of their hands: long, thin fingers that bend like crab legs, each bulge, wrinkle, and knuckle emphasized by the sudden accumulation of O'Connell's linework, terminating in elaborate, almost weaponized manicured fingernails. Nail art factors into Difficult Loves, soon to receive a sequel of sorts in O'Connell's forthcoming Stripp Mall. Its use as a recurring leitmotif parallels the work of Heather Benjamin, whose work O'Connell's serpentine fingers and sharp nails superficially resembles; O'Connell's line and composition alike, though, are less obsessive, more rough-and-tumble. In this specific context, O'Connell's fingernails emphasize not just the constructed femininity of the sexters, but the physical effort used to produce the sexts themselves: manicured fingers punching tiny keys to produce text that is both emotionally ineffable and physically urgent. In much the same way, O'Connell has made a comic that's both a pleasure to look at and a multifaceted challenge to contemplate.