Here at Bedside Stacks, I aim not just to be your faithful book reviewer; I want
to be your friend. And I don’t know about you, but my friends are constantly asking me things like, “Hey, I don’t get enough dirty looks when I’m out in public. How can I feel more like a perv?” “I really want to experience the uncomfortable urge to desperately justify myself
to strangers. Can you suggest a book to inspire this feverish feeling of shame?”
Well, my darlings, as a matter of fact, I do have a book for you! It’s called Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love from Tin House, and if you can proudly display its clever, suggestive cover in public without
cringing, I give you a great deal of credit.
The bad news first: this is not a collection of high-brow erotica. There is a
smattering of graphic sex throughout the twenty-two stories, but in most of the
pieces, the focus is on what happens before and after the act of love. And so
we discover the complex ways sex can interact and inform travel, death, power,
relationships with family members, sports, disease, education, and subcultures.
The best stories point out the way sex and love often confound our
expectations. In “Touch and Go,” Carol Anshaw points out that neither sex nor death necessarily offer the
profound revelations we might hope for. The difference between first lust and
first love crops up in Victor D. LaValle’s “Class Trip,” in which the young protagonist joins his friends in a quest to hook up with a
prostitute. His tough façade crumbles when he recounts his nervousness at first holding hands with his
teen-aged girlfriend. Sex as a purely intellectual exercise is given equal
coverage as the tactile sensations of sexual experiences, particularly in “Eros 101,” which is constructed as a series of open-ended exam questions. One such
question reads, “
The absurd and the erotic are mutually exclusive modes of perception. That is,
no love object can be both ridiculous and beautiful. True or false?” “True or false” suggests an easy conclusion, but as each story in Do Me illustrates, when it comes to the questions raised by sex and love, there are
no easy answers.
Often, in the stories and in life, people simply make do with one another. When
their true desires are unknown even to themselves, it can be illuminating to
experiment with different kinds of people. Thirteen-year-old Rainey finds
herself involved in a relationship with Richard, her father’s best friend, in Dylan Landis’s “Jazz.” Whether this affair is consensual or not seems clear (hint: it’s not), but Rainey is confused by her own reactions to the man’s advances. Richard promises to take her to a jazz concert in a park, where he
molests her, but as he presses down on her, she moans, and “it is true that it sounds like desire, and it is true that she likes hearing
herself make the sound.” Landis correctly refrains from injecting any judgment into the narrative;
Rainey cannot fully process her experience, and Land refuses to process it for
us. Elsewhere, characters break their marriage vows and try out same-sex
relationships, testing the waters to see if maybe
this type of desire is the one that fits.
Rarely do the stories leave you with a positive opinion of romance. But where
romance is founded on playful deceit, real love and meaningful sex depend on
authenticity. Not one of these stories could be accused of feeling inauthentic.
In fact, even as they delve into the darker side of relationships, each of
them contains that spark of promise, of hope, generated by sex and love.
If one book of short stories from Tin House Books just isn’t enough for you, I suggest you check out Lucy Corin’s captivating debut collection The Entire Predicament. It’s a slim little volume, just sixty three pages, but the five stories contained
within are sharp, witty, and psychologically intense. In a few of them, big
things happen (a plane crashes, a city is paralyzed by a sniper) but the small
spaces of the characters’ minds are the settings for the biggest emotional reverberations.
“My Favorite Dentist” unspools in the “in-between times” we all experience; these moments can be as simple as waiting at a dentist’s office, or as profound as the agonizingly slow way time progresses during a
crisis. Here, as in all of the stories, the narrator is an unnamed, neurotic,
middle-aged woman who is both repulsed by and fascinated with intimacy. She
muses about prostitution: “what a clean way to do something so variously messy,” and it is the stripping away of all the messy parts of human interaction that
she longs for. Small wonder then that even as she’s making out with her neighbor, she calms herself by thinking of an earlier
visit to her dentist, whose latex gloves, gauze mask, and shiny metal
instruments seem perfectly suited to do just that.
“Airplane” and “Wizened” find their heroines trapped in compact, hermetically sealed worlds. They are
literally obsessed with observing the details of the people around them, and
the more they notice, the more they recede into the concentric circles of their
own minds. Corin excels in drawing us into the protagonists’ solipsism; as they begin to panic – and they all panic eventually – we are treated to the vertigo-inducing rush and throb of their pettiness and
justification. That might sound torturous, but Corin is brave and crafty enough
to make us enjoy being spectators in the disintegration of their worldviews.
So there you go – love and sex, terror and isolation, and all the fun ways they interact. And
because all of this plays out in a short story, you’re given a reprieve just when the brutal reality of it all starts to get to you.
If only real life were that convenient.