Two Quite Different Looks at Love
Susan Minot's novella Rapture boasts one of the most arresting opening passages of this new year. She begins: "He lay back like the ambushed dead, arms flung down at his sides, legs splayed out and feet sticking up, naked." And Minot spends the remainder of the book describing off and on what he is doing--or rather what is being done to him. For 119 pages, this character, Benjamin, is getting a blow job.
Just wanted to get that on the table in case you thought this was going to be a candy-heart, paper-cutout kind of Valentine's Day Books column. Kay, the woman ministering to Benjamin, is his ex-lover, whom he hasn't seen in a year. And although sex provides the narrative framework for the story, the book is not about the act but about the events and emotions that have led up to it, and about where the two protagonists will be after their afternoon liaison is over.
Even though Kay and Benjamin are physically in the same place, mentally and emotionally they are galaxies apart. Minot weaves the story of their love affair from the diverging spools of Kay and Benjamin's thoughts. As he revisits their past, he realizes that's all it can be--their past. Musing over the same history, she is coming to a very different conclusion.
Apart from the clever conceit, Rapture is the rejoinder to anyone who has ever thought, My love life would make great a great novel. I really ought to write it down. Don't bother; Minot has written it for you. Though ostensibly fiction, Rapture is as stickily personal as it gets. Reading it, you get the sense that Minot has lived every moment, spoken every syllable, felt every emotion. The weird thing is: So have you.
That may be her point--that all broken-heart stories are really the same. Two people meet cute--Kay's the production designer on the no-budget film Benjamin is directing in Mexico. Their stars are crossed: He's engaged, to a rich girl in New York. But after one long night of talking and minibar-fueled confessions in her hotel room, they fall headlong into something neither of them counted on: lust. Or is it love? They spend several romantic weeks together, and then the production wraps and it's back to their regular lives in New York--he to his fiancée and she to her lonely apartment.
It's a classic setup. It's so classic that Rosemary Sullivan uses it as the template for Labyrinth of Desire, her dissection of why women fall into obsessive love affair. Her book, best categorized as popular cultural criticism, opens with a fictitious account of a love affair gone bad.
"Like all love stories, it is half-truth, half-invention," she says of the story, being a little more honest, perhaps, than Minot. The plot? Two wrong-for-each-other people meet in Mexico, fall into an unexpected romance, and then one casually rejects the other, who is, of course, devastated. Labyrinth of Desire being a book about women and romantic obsession, I'll leave it to you to guess which party is the devastator, which the devastated.
At first glance, it might seem that Sullivan thinks women are better off not falling in love with men, what with all this devastation. But as she writes in her introduction, "I have come to believe that falling obsessively in love is one of life's necessary assignments. It cracks us open." In this brief study, she attempts to make a case for this necessary assignment. She relies on personal anecdote, literature, film, and the most well-known obsessive relationships of the 20th century.
From Goethe to Frida Kahlo, Sullivan examines how people (particularly creative people) seek out, lose, and seek again parts of themselves in their lovers. Why? Because "Romantic obsession is a cataclysm breaking up the empty landscape." For people trapped in lonely or frustrating situations--whether Benjamin stuck in his interminable engagement or Kahlo searching for her own artistic voice--a nothing-left-to-caution love affair is a way out.
Competently written, occasionally hilarious, and compulsively readable--it's already a bestseller in Sullivan's native Canada--Labyrinth of Desire is neither great literature nor great scholarship. Despite all her solid points of reference and an ambitiously free-ranging approach, Sullivan sometimes rides her subject into the ground. Meant to be pithy, her short chapters often allow her to do little more than raise provocative ideas about why people do what they do. She doesn't give herself time to get any deeper into those ideas.
Sullivan does lend something important to dialogues being played out right now in bedrooms and psychiatrists' offices all over the country. She maintains that part of why broken love affairs are so difficult is that our frame of reference is very often not based on real life, but on life as portrayed in books and films. We look to these things for clues on how we ought to act with each other and how we ought to deal with the end of love, but these stories are overblown and unreal. What's more, she points out, "The person writing it was having a good time." At the end of a relationship, no one is having a good time. These stories can't guide our next steps, Sullivan says; only we can.
Rapture is no masterpiece of world literature either, but it also has something important to say, and it says it well. Minot's brand of love story, unlike those that Sullivan writes about, is neither overblown nor unreal. If anything, it's too real, revealing how over and over again people fall into the muddy gray areas between "together" and "apart," never learning a lesson that no one is in a position to teach anyway. Minot has a gift for images ("Out the window the quiet afternoon moved away as if on a ramp.") and interior monologue (even though she relies heavily on "sort of" as a descriptor). She ably portrays the icy disconnect between two people who are presumably as close to one another as they can be.
If Sullivan's book ends on a warm, "I am strong; I am woman" note, Minot's ends on a much darker, much colder one. On this most subjective of subjects, which author got it right? In all likelihood, both.